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B. Krigstein: Volume One
By Greg Sadowski
Published by Fantagraphics Books

It should be noted that this is not a depressing book. Its author has been meticulous in his creation of a lasting, vital document of the subject, a man who took life and art very seriously and suffered greatly for both. The book is, in fact, a celebration of the life and work of Bernard Krigstein, and even if you think you know who that is, I guarantee you that by the time you get to the end of the book, you're going to know the man and his work one hell of a lot better.

That said, I can't help but focus on one particular aspect of the book that stands out to me as one of the greatest shames of the comics industry. That is, the crushing effect of the work for hire system on an artist.

Anyone who doubts the destructive effect of the work-for-hire environment on an artist's ability to create art need look no further than page 187 of the massive, groundbreaking B. Krigstein, a long overdue and ultimately heartbreaking examination of one of the greatest and most influential artists ever to work in the industry.

Krigstein's comics work is now decades behind us, but his influence is easily seen in both his contemporaries, like Gil Kane, and the generation after that in Frank Miller, and even more recently in Dan Clowes, who most certainly was influenced by Krigstein's design sense and pop aesthetic. I've seen hints of Krigstein's genius as recently as SLG's My Monkey's Name is Jennifer, Ken Knudtsen's manic lines and anatomy echoing that which I loved most about Krigstein's work. The figures in motion actually move.

I had a very kind and generous mother who thought little of spending hundreds of dollars during my childhood to buy me Russ Cochran's landmark hardcover EC Comics reprint series, so I've been exposed to a great deal of Krigstein's comics work, and know and love it well. What we also get here, thanks to Sadowski's determination and exhaustive work, are many, many pages of Krigstein's unseen (to the comics community) sketches, paintings and drawings, all of which pay tribute to the man as a consummate artist who apparently spent every waking moment thinking and rethinking his approach, and never tired of reinventing himself and his chosen field. His wartime watercolours created in France are astoundingly beautiful, and speak of a poetry that was in the man's soul, and of the talent in his hands that let others see the world through his eyes.

Many convincing works are reprinted whole in the volume, including the celebrated "Master Race," the gorgeouos and previously unseen (by me, anyway) "Joseph and his Brethren," and the EC suspense classic "The Catacombs." These are historic chapters in comics history, and ones that are probably undreamed of by the vast majority of comics readers. It's mentioned at one point that Sadowski would like to put together a volume of just Krigstein's comics stories, and I'd gladly pay twice the cover price of this $50.00 book to have such a thing in my hands.

Incredibly, this is author Greg Sadowski's first book, and it paints a monumentally detailed and (although ultimately, for me, depressing) picture of how much great work Krigstein was able to accomplish, and how much almost-certainly brilliant Krigstein work was lost to us due to editorial short-sightedness and irrelevent matters of practicality like how many goddamned pages a story has to be.

For example, on page 187 we hear Krigstein lament that "I wanted to edit a book. I wanted to devote one book to a single story." This was creative mutiny at the tightly-controlled EC Comics, and even though the company turned out many, many masterpieces in their short stories, the fact that the most well-remembered of them is Krigstein's own "Master Race" (here reprinted in its entirety and beautifully recoloured by Marie Severin, as are the other stories included in the book), a story he chopped up and recreated to make it brilliant, says all that needs be said about how tragic it is that Krigstein was never given the simple freedom to do an issue-long story. Think about the artists that have since been given such opportunities, hundreds of mediocre talents, hundreds of times, while Krigstein never once got to, and one very quickly can sink into a dark depression tinged with righteous indignation, not to say rage.

I think even of perhaps the most obvious and well-documented case of corporate malfeasance toward a mistreated creator, that of Jack Kirby, and I realize that his case is considerably attenuated by the fact that, for all the injustice done him by Marvel (and least a little by DC), at least he was able to create. In B. Krigstein, we get a portrait of an artist who led a brilliant creative existence and created great works of art, but who was never allowed any real freedom in his chosen field to see just how far his skill and imagination could take him.

Despite that, Sadowski has assembled an impressive collection of images that testify to the power, grace and inventiveness of perhaps the greatest artist ever to work in comics -- think Alan Moore as an artist instead of writer -- and he's coupled it with a reverent, informative text that sets new high watermark in comics journalism. No artist has ever been remembered this well, perhaps because no artist has ever deserved it more. Grade: 5/5

-- Alan David Doane



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