Magazine article The New Yorker

Ballbuster

Magazine article The New Yorker

Ballbuster

Article excerpt

The current "Spider-Man" movie will sell more Spider-Man toothbrushes, action figures, and frosted Spidey-berry-filled Pop-Tarts in its wake than actual Spider-man comic books: comics are simply not the popular form of popular culture that they were in their mid-twentieth-century heyday, though what the bastard form has lost in popularity it has been gaining in legitimacy. Barely an eyebrow now raises when cartoonists receive serious academic and critical attention, museum exhibitions, MacArthur grants, and Guggenheim fellowships.

Anyone interested in crossing the ever-narrowing divide between High and Low culture ought to contemplate the work and troubled career of Bernard Krigstein (1919-90), a postwar comic-book illustrator who had the privilege and the misfortune of being an Artist with a capital "A" working in an Art Form that considered itself only a Business. Krigstein was never associated with a specific character (the most sure ticket to comics success), and he never wrote his own stories (a handicap in a narrative medium). He wasn't beloved by publishers, editors, or readers. What reputation he has rests on a handful of short stories he illustrated in 1954 and 1955 for EC comics (the folks who brought you Tales from the Crypt and Mad), but one of those stories, "Master Race," was an accomplishment of the highest order--a masterpiece.

All eight pages of "Master Race" are exquisitely reproduced in Greg Sadowski's new coffee-table biography, "B. Krigstein" (Fantagraphics; $49.95), as are a few other key stories and some sample pages, but the entire project is as quixotic as the career it describes. Ominously subtitled "Volume One (1919-1955)," the book offers a profusion of the artist's juvenilia, paintings (including student copies of Renaissance works in the Met), minor illustrations, sheaves of wartime sketches, and letters to his wife, Natalie (who wrote the foreword), and even a reproduction of his college transcripts. This detailed sifting of the remains wouldn't seem like folly if the subject were, say, Jackson Pollock or some other fabled hero anointed by the Gods of Art History. The book is probably the one Bernard Krigstein would have wished for himself, but it is not the book he needs: a well-selected anthology culled from the couple of hundred comic-book stories he illustrated, mostly in the nineteen-forties and fifties. As it stands, the current book is best read as a poignant bildungsroman about a disappeared type: the mid-century lower-middle-class New York Jewish intellectual, drunk on art and culture, struggling to survive morally and aesthetically in the commercial wilderness.

"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," Michael Chabon's 2000 novel, reminds us that the early comic-book industry was a specifically Jewish milieu, virtually an extension of the rag trade. It was invented by a Jewish printing salesman and popularized with stories created by two Jewish kids from Cleveland about an immigrant from the planet Krypton. Many of the first generation of creators--like Will Eisner, Bob Kane (Kahn), Stan Lee (Lieber), and Jack Kirby (Kurtzberg)--were first- and second-generation New York Jews. And, while many of them were intelligent, very few were educated, and only Krigstein was a true intellectual. He would have had more in common with the staff of Partisan Review or Commentary than he did with his colleagues on Nyoka the Jungle Girl, Space Patrol, and Strange Tales of the Unusual.

Krigstein first heard what he later called "the sound of art" in junior high school. He opened a book on art appreciation and got bitten by one of Cezanne's apples. At Brooklyn College, his future wife persuaded him to switch his major from accounting and commit himself to becoming a "fine" artist. Economic need made Krigstein, like many other aspiring painters, stumble into comic-book work. Unlike the others, he began to sense the form's potential and, without condescension, put all his skill and insight into testing its limits. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.