On offer over on Heritage Auctions right now is the original art for the eight page story “Master Race” by Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and Bernie Krigstein, a story first published in Impact #1 by US publisher EC in 1955… a story sadly as pertinent today as it was back then.
The story, published in colour, was the cover feature for Impact, one of EC’s “New Direction” wave of books. It was also singled out as hugely important when EC’s original artwork was initially being sold by Bill Gaines in the 1980s. It was the only artwork sold directly rather than at auction, as an astute collector made Gaines “an offer he couldn’t refuse”… well over market-based value on what other EC art had been selling for at the time.
The auction site notes that not only is this perhaps the most famous EC story of all time, it is by any definition one of the most influential, analyzed, and critically acclaimed stories ever to appear in a comic book.
Frequently called the Citizen Kane of comic books, the hard-hitting, poignant story “Master Race” was co-plotted by Bill Gaines with writer Al Feldstein. It is a powerful look at the effects of Nazi concentration camp atrocities upon those who survived them. And it still manages to have that traditional “EC twist” to it.
But the astounding artwork is the main claim to fame, with Krigstein’s absolutely jaw-dropping formal invention serving as a template for both mainstream and underground cartoonists for many decades to come. It’s not hard at all to see how it could have influenced later comic storytelling: for instance, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen in 1986.
Gibbon’s page layout often used a technique of mirroring previous panels and layouts from one page to another. In this story, Krigstein was using the technique a full 30 years earlier, delivering brilliant layouts with wonderful pacing, combined with the powerful story for a high-water mark for EC comics.
On Sequart, Greg Carpenter notes that the themes of “Master Race” are remarkable subject matter for a mainstream comic in 1955.
“Even though all the camps had been liberated more than a decade earlier, you could count on one hand the number of films that gave any kind of depiction of the Holocaust,” he comments. “Yet, here was a Holocaust story in a comic book by the company that published the Cryptkeeper.”
In a feature on Krigstein for his site, comics historian Paul Gravett noted in an article for Comics International back in 2007 that Bernard (Bernie) Krigstein, who began working in comics in 1943 at the age of 24, was “a thinker, a questioner, a radical, a man of culture with a love of art in all its forms, including the lowly comic.
“To many after World War Two, drawing comicbooks was the very bottom of the ladder, a temporary job to pay the bills,” he continues, “while touting for something, anything, better. Coming from a fine art background to start working in comics full time from October 1945, Krigstein soon viewed them differently. As his colleague and friend Gil Kane put it, ‘Once he saw comics, he thought it was such an extraordinary area of expression that he wanted to be a part of it.'”
Best known for his EC short stories, sadly editorial differences and other factors meant his hugely-admired attempts to stretch the medium ended in 1962, with a story based on the TV cop show of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, and then never drew published comics again.
He died in 1990, after a lifetime focusing on drawing art he wanted to, also working at for 22 years at the New York’s High School of Art and Design.
(Post-EC, from the mid-to-late 1950s, Krigstein had tried to persuade major literary publishers to let him adapt War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Red Badge Of Courage by Stephen Crane, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and other books. Rather than squeeze them down to their bare-bones synopses, Paul Gravett notes he laid out storyboards for opening them out into a hundred, or a thousand, pages and unlocking all their visual and verbal possibilities. No publisher would touch them).
A virtuoso Krigstein’s tour-de-force, “Master Race” demonstrates everything he dreamed the comic language capable of as an art form, and it’s been the subject of numerous studies in books on the history of comics as well as a hugely influential analysis by John Benson, David Kasakove, and Art Spiegelman in famed fanzine Squa Tront #6, which was devoted to the artist (Spiegelman also wrote a later appreciation of Krigstein in 2002, specifically highlighting this story, for the New Yorker).
As an important cultural touchstone, the story was included in the 2018 book We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust, published by IDW and in Master Race and Other Stories, also published earlier this year. Neil Gaiman recently referred to it as “One of the most important stories in the history of comics and the history of the art of comics…”
• Krigstein’s comic art has been collected in a two-volume biography by Greg Sadowski’s, published by Fantagraphics: B. Krigstein Volume 1 and B. Krigstein: A Life in Art, both available from book shops
With thanks to Ernesto Guevara and WPW
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