MESSAGES IN A BOTTLE: COMIC BOOK STORIES BY B. KRIGSTEIN (Comic Review)
FANTAGRAPHICS BOOKS’ latest in classic cartoonist anthologies celebrates the groundbreaking work of BERNIE KRIGSTEIN (1919-1990). Starting with some whimsical westerns, swashbuckling adventure yarns, and rather rote noire thrillers that he broke into the biz with and managed to elevate above the hack writing he was assigned, MESSAGES IN A BOTTLE winds down with quirkier fare he tried to infuse his innovative flare into before dropping out of the field entirely, to pursue fine art, weary of the restrictions put upon him by the industry. But the in-between stuff is where everything really clicks, particularly during his mid-century years at EC COMICS.
EC’s unusually ultra-violent morality plays would eventually have an immeasurable influence on the horror genre, from STEPHEN KING and GEORGE ROMERO to the underground cartoonists of the 60’s and 70’s who burst onto the scene with a vengeance, attributing their taboo-obliterating proclivities, in part, to the fact that their cherished 50’s funnybooks got run out of business after being scapegoated for spawning juvenile delinquency. But EC was also an aberration in that they gave artists like KRIGSTEIN the freedom to experiment.
According to various interview excerpts reprinted in the addendum (accompanied by rare breathtaking preliminary sketches), KRIGSTEIN pushed the envelope to the point of being difficult. Frustrated by limited page count, even at EC he often took it upon himself to break his allotted panels down, dividing them smaller and smaller, in the unprecedented belief that every frame should stand on its own as a work of art regardless of pesky expository text, and to better control the pacing of his storytelling. When that wasn’t enough, he’d simply hand in his assignments pages longer than anticipated, such as his masterwork, MASTER RACE, “the antithesis of standard comics storytelling,” according to ART SPIEGELMAN, about a terrified Nazi ex-commandant in hiding after WW2, chased by the emaciated ghosts of Belsen’s Concentration Camp in a NYC subway. Unsure what to make of it, EC shelved it for months before it finally saw print. And they dodged the censors just in time, because the stringent guidelines they were soon enforced with would’ve certainly had it axed.
Other exquisitely rendered standouts include the savage nightmares brought on by opium addiction in the morbidly melancholic PIPE-DREAM, bloodstained double-crossings in the claustrophobic caverns of CATACOMBS, the disorienting quasi-psychedelic dementia of MURDER DREAM, dark humor in decapitation with IN THE BAG, and an adaptation of THE FLYING MACHINE that RAY BRADBURY himself so enjoyed he wrote a letter expressing how “touched and pleased” he was with KRIGSTEIN’S interpretation of his work.
What’s great about chronologically cataloguing careers this way is being given the opportunity to ingest an artist’s painstaking progress all in one sitting, a luxury that was unavailable to the original public exposed to this work spread out over the many years contemporary to each story’s actual release through disparate publications. Though every story has its moments of inimitable flourish, following KRIGSTEIN evolve the medium in increments makes it that much more explosive when we reach the game-changing works he’s most renowned for.