Master Race, by Bernie Krigstein
'Master Race' (Impact #1).

Bernard Krigstein was an American painter and illustrator who is nowadays better known as a comic artist. A large chunk of his work can be categorized as plain juvenile entertainment, but several stories stand out for their experimental nature. Krigstein felt comics had the same possibilities for personal expression as any other art form. He worked in an unusual style which set him apart from most of his contemporaries. His sketchy pen and ink work looked more like an expressionistic painting. The way he toyed with lay-out, panels and particularly readers' rhythm came closer to a cinematic experience than most average comics. Throughout his career Krigstein worked for various companies in several different genres. Most of his comics were serious, but he also drew four stories for the satirical publication Mad Magazine. His best work was done for EC Comics, where he livened up various thriller, fantasy and horror tales. His magnum opus and most daring experimental comic strip, 'Master Race' (1955), was also created here. The comic is notable for its inventive lay-out and use of panels. It's furthermore one of the earliest comics to visualize the Holocaust. Sadly enough, Krigstein was too ahead of his time. He rarely had the chance to tell and visualize stories the way he wanted. The man also goes down in history as the first comic artist to establish his own labor union, which unfortunately nearly cost him his career. He eventually retired from the comic industry and devoted the rest of his life to painting. But he left a powerful body of work behind which still inspires other comic artists about what the medium can be...

Nyoka the Jungle Girl - 'The Hidden Fear' (Master Comics #8).

Early years and career
Bernard Krigstein was born in 1919 in Brooklyn, New York City. His father was a Jewish immigrant of Belarussian descent. Krigstein studied art at Brooklyn College and ranked artists like Edvard Munch, Paul Cézanne, George Segal and George Grosz among his main graphic influences. Despite his formal art training he considered himself to be largely self-taught. After leaving school he created some illustration work for MLJ, while freelancing for some pulp publishers and devoting his time to painting. Since fine art was not very lucrative he therefore became a comic artist, initially working through Bernard Baily's shop. In April 1943 he drew and inked his first comic strip, a war story in the 'Liberty Lads' series. It appeared in the 25th issue of Champ Comics, published by Harvey Comics. He did two more stories for Harvey and then drew the feature 'Buck Sanders and his Pals' for Crestwood's Prize Comics.

The same year his career was briefly interrupted to serve his country during World War II. In 1946 Krigstein returned to the United States where he returned to comics art through Baily's agency and later through Lloyd Jacquet's Funnies, Inc. For Fawcett Comics he drew features like 'Golden Arrow' and 'Nyoka the Jungle Girl' (in Whiz Comics and Master Comics, respectively), in 1947-1948. He then created several comic stories in different genres (sports, mystery, romance, science fiction...) for various publishers, such as Timely, Novelty Press ('Bull's-Eye Bill'), Ziff-Davis ('Space Busters'), Hillman, Rae Herman's Orbit-Wanted, National Periodicals and St. John Publishing, well into the 1950s. His earliest stories are often signed with the pseudonym "B.B. Krig", of which the initials refer to his military nickname "ballbuster." Yet he refused to sign the majority because he considered it "hackwork of the purest distillation."

Now I Can Die Easy... (Hillman's Crime Detectives v2#4)
'Now I Can Die Easy...' (Hillman's Crime Detectives v2#4)

But Krigstein didn't look down on comics. Unlike most art school students he realized that the medium had artistic potential. He distinguished himself by drawing in a quite eccentric style. His drawings are more stylized than most other realistic comic artists of the time. He suggested atmosphere and emotion with just a few well chosen lines. Krigstein's artwork has a grim look hardened by his own life events. As a soldier he had experienced the horrors of World War II firsthand. His first daughter died being only six months old. His artistic and professional ambitions were thwarted several times. In 1952, for instance, Krigstein did something that no other comic artist had tried before: establish his own labor union. He named it The Society of Comic Book Illustrators. Krigstein became president, Arthur Peddy vice president, Harry Harrison secretary, Larry Woromay treasurer and Ross Andru, Ernie Bache, John Celardo, Morrie Marcus and Bernard Sachs also became members. They managed to publish three news letters, but in June 1953 the union still went bankrupt. Even worse: few publishers were willing to work with such a troublemaker again...

EC Comics
Luckily enough there was one comics company who signed Krigstein up: William M. Gaines' EC Comics. EC was still a young company at the time but they already had a rebellious reputation. Their satirical magazine Mad ridiculed everything American society held dear, while their horror and fantasy comics frequently pushed the boundaries of what people considered to be acceptable for young audiences. Since EC challenged the establishment they had a mutual admiration for Krigstein. Krigstein was one of the last of EC's core artists to join the company, his first contribution appearing in 'Tales from the Crypt' issue #40 of February/March 1954.

'Bringing Back Father' (Mad #17).

Mad Magazine
MAD's chief editor Harvey Kurtzman asked Krigstein to contribute four comics for his title. First in line was Kurtzman's parody 'From Eternity Back to Here!', which appeared in issue 12 (June 1954) and spoofed the film 'From Here to Eternity' (1953). He also contributed to Kurtzman's vicious but hilarious parody of George McManus' 'Bringing Up Father' in the 17th issue (November 1954). The corny slapstick of the original was ridiculed without mercy, particularly the running gag that Daddy Warbucks was always beaten up by his wife. Most of the parody was drawn by Will Elder who mimicked McManus' style perfectly. At one point in the story the mood suddenly changes and the characters find themselves in a bleak and brutally realistic world where all violence is painful and depressing. To make the contrast more clear Krigstein drew the realistic portions in his familiar style, while Elder illustrated the happy cartoon universe. Krigstein made two other graphic contributions for Mad afterwards, namely the story 'Out of the Frying Pan and into the Soup' by Ira Wallach, which appeared in issue 24 (July 1955) and 'Tense Tycoons and Lucky Bucks – Mad's Own Business Novel "Crash McCool" reaffirms spiritual values of 'Cool Cash'', written by Bernard Shir-Cliff (issue 26, November 1955).

from Tales from the Crypt, by Berni Krigstein
'Murder Dream' (Tales from the Crypt #45)

EC horror, fantasy, SF and war comics
While Krigstein's work for Mad was remarkable compared with the more cartoony look of other comics there, comedy wasn't really his thing. The 47 stories he drew for EC's horror, fantasy, science fiction and war comics give a much better example of his talent. His work appeared in nearly every one of EC's "New Trend" magazines, such as Tales from the Crypt The Vault of Horror, Crime SupenStories, Shock SuspenStories, Weird Science-Fantasy and Two-Fisted Tales. Among his classic tales were 'Derelict Ship' (1953), 'Prairie Schooner' (1954), 'The Monster From The Fourth Dimension' (originally drawn by Feldstein in 1951, redrawn in 3D by Krigstein in 1954), 'Monotony' (1954), 'The Pioneer' (1954) and 'Bellyful' (1954) written by William M. Gaines and Al Feldstein. 'The Flying Machine' (1954) was based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, 'Pipe-Dream' (1954) was written by Johnny Craig, 'You, Murderer' (1954) by Otto Binder and 'The Bath', 'More Blessed To Give...' (1954) and 'Key Chain' (1954) by Jack Oleck. 'The Catacombs' (1954), 'The Purge' (1954), 'Murder Dream' (1954), 'The Pit!' (1954) and 'In The Bag' (1954) by Carl Wessler.

Key Chain, by Bernie Krigstein (1954)
'Key Chain' (Crime SuspenStories #25, 1954), a story of 6 pages which Krigstein managed to break down into 63 separate panels.

EC was perfect for Krigstein since all episodes were one-shot tales. He really couldn't be bothered with drawing comics about one specific cast of characters. He was content with merely illustrating other's people scripts, since he cared more about the visual execution. While he never wrote his own stories, Krigstein was still interested in narration. He felt panels and lay-out could be constructed in such a way that they created a certain reader's tempo. To him speech balloons and captions were unnecessary. Since comics are a visual medium certain things could be conveyed by just drawing them, rather than spell every action or thought out. It frustrated him that most scripts he received were pure pulp: "My futile idea was that action in comics, as in any art, doesn't end with one person pounding another person in the jaw. There's also the action of emotion, psychology, character and idea. I yearned to have stories which dealt with more reality and people's feelings and thoughts... a kind of literary form, let's say even a Chekhovian form, where one could delve into real people and real feelings." This naturally didn't sit well with his editors, who just wanted him to illustrate their scripts without too much deviation.

'The Pit' (The Vault of Horror #40).

Master Race
After much discussion Krigstein was finally allowed to illustrate one story with complete creative freedom. This became his most celebrated comic, 'Master Race', which appeared in the first issue of Impact in April 1955. The plot was rather controversial, even for EC. Feldstein had written a story about a man who takes the subway at night. As he enters the train he feels he's being watched. Playing with audience's expectations it takes until page three before the reader eventually finds out that the protagonist he identified with so far is an escaped Nazi camp guard! 'Master Race' appeared only a decade after the end of World War II. At the time most people weren't fond of talking about such a gruesome page in human history. Especially not in a comic book. The only comic artist before Krigstein to create a comic book about the Holocaust was Horst Rosenthal, who created a peculiar text comic named 'Mickey au camp de Gurs' (1940) starring Disney's famous mouse. But this work didn't receive mainstream attention until the 2000s.

'Master Race" (Impact #1).

'Master Race' wasn't just notable for its story, it was also remarkable in its execution. Most artists at EC were only allowed to create a story of six pages in length, but Krigstein insisted that he needed at least twelve to tell his narrative. His editors met him halfway and gave him eight, even though it meant that the issue needed to be expanded with two extra pages. 'Master Race' has a more realistic atmosphere than most comics. There are hardly any clichés like onomatopeia, extra lines, overexaggerated emotions to get the story across. Krigstein keeps all action distant and uses abstract imagery in some backgrounds. He stretched certain sequences out in a various successive panels to create the effect of slow-motion or fast-motion. To achieve the effect of a train passing by, for instance, he put three identical images of a woman sitting behind a train window behind one another. The scene where the criminal falls down is one of the most iconic moments in comic history. In a carefully selected series of small, vertical panels with no dialogue or motion lines it actually appears as if time stands still for one brief moment. In a 1963 interview with John Benson and Bhob Stewart Krigstein explained his approach: "It's what happens between these panels that's so fascinating. Look at all that dramatic action that one never gets a chance to see. It's between these panels that the fascinating stuff takes place. And unless the artist would be permitted to delve into that, the form must remain infantile."

They Wait Below (Uncanny Tales #42, 1956)
Krigstein's record: in the story 'They Wait Below' (Uncanny Tales #42, 1956), Krigstein used 75 panels for a four-page story.

Later career
Sadly, EC Comics collapsed in 1956. Krigstein had by then already left the company after a falling out over a story in the Picto-Fiction title 'Crime Illustrated', which he refused to draw according to editor Al Feldstein's script. Krigstein kept active in the industry for a while, creating comics for Stan Lee's Atlas line, including stories for 'Bible Tales', 'Marvel Tales', 'War Action', etc. He had the ambition to adapt Leo Tolstoy's epic novel 'War and Peace' in comic book form, but no publisher was interested and thus the project remained unfinished. At the turn of the decade Krigstein started a new career as an illustrator. Among his most notable work during this period were the book covers of Evelyn Sibley Lampman's novels 'Rusty's Space Ship' (1957), Lloyd Alexander's 'Border Hawk: August Bondi' (1958) and Richard Condon's 'The Manchurian Candidate' (1959). He also illustrated M.G. Bonner's practical guide 'How To Play Baseball' (1955), where he visualized several playing techniques, moves, poses, swings and grips. Krigstein designed the album covers of various classical music recordings such as 'Songs of the North and South, 1861-1865' (1961) by Richard P. Condie and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, 'Darius Milhaud's Les Choéphores' (1962) by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, 'Szell Conducts Wagner' (1962) by George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra, 'Schubert's String Quintet in C. Major, Opus 163' (1963) by The Budapest Quartet under direction of Benar Heifetz, 'Schubert's Trout Quintet/ Beethoven's Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major' (1963)) by Joseph Roisman e.a. and the Budapest String Quartet, 'A Christmas Festival' (1963) by the University of Redlands Choir., 'Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa Di Santa Cecilia' by the Utah Symphony Orchestra. He also illustrated the cover of the spoken word album 'Oscar Wilde Fairy Tales' (1961).

Illustration for 'Messer Benyamin', a serial published in World Over magazine in 1957.

In 1962 Krigstein left the world of comics for good and became a teacher at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. He would work there for the next two decades. Most of his spare time was devoted to painting. In old age he felt embittered about his former career as a comic artist. He despised his former bosses and colleagues, even at E.C. Krigstein was particularly sarcastic about people who put commerce in front of art. He once described Stan Lee as follows: "I was delighted to learn that Lee has attained the status of an authority in the comics field. Twenty years of unrelenting editorial effort to suppress the artistic effort, encourage miserable taste, flood the field with degraded imitations and polluted non-stories, treating artists and writers like cattle, and failure on his part to make an independent success as a cartoonist have certainly qualified him for this respected position." But Krigstein was mostly angry at the industry, not comics themselves. In a 1978 interview with John Benson he felt that "comics actually broadened his experience."Bernard Krigstein passed away in 1990. 

One of Krigstein's early fans was Art Spiegelman. In 1967 he wrote a paper about 'Master Race' for his art teacher and received good grades. A decade later, in 1975, Spiegelman joined ranks with John Benson and David Kasakove to write a full essay about Krigstein's masterpiece for the fanzine Squa Tront. They managed to track down the artist himself and had him comment upon his work and the essay. In 1992 he was posthumously inducted in the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame. A decade later, in 2003, he was also entered in the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.

His wife, Natalie Krigstein, was also active in the comic industry as a writer of romance comics.

Books about Bernard Krigstein
For those interested in his early work Fantagraphics' 'Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein' (2013) is highly recommended, just like 'Master Race and Other Stories, Illustrated by Bernard Krigstein' (2018) by the same publisher.

Comic for EC, by Bernie Krigstein
'The Bath' (Tales from the Crypt #42).

The Bernie Krigstein Illustration Archive on

Series and books by Bernie Krigstein you can order today:


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