Saturday, February 12, 2011

A new series for lovers of the high watermarks of comic art storytelling...

"Classics from the Comic Art Archives"

Coming next: The complete version of Charlton's fabled post-nuclear holocaust tale "Children of Doom" by Dennis O'Neil (as Sergius O'Shaugnessy) and Pat Boyette...for free online.

Pioneering comics critic Dwight R. Decker quotes Gary Brown in The Comics Journal number 44, January 1978, "The Best and Worst of Comics" issue:

In Gary's words, "This has to go down in the annals of comic book history as one of the most daring and successful experiments ever. Under the editorship of Dick Giordano, Charlton had been making strides in the superhero field with unknown and young talent. The key was trying to fit into the DC and Marvel world, yet try something different whenever possible. Charlton Premiere was started as a 'showcase' title and one of the first issues was this futuristic tale of war, atomic waste, and horror. Magnificently told by Denny O'Neil and stunningly illustrated by Pat Boyette, this is one comic I'll never tire of reading." I might add that in a color comic, the black and white illustrations had an uncommonly powerful effect."

See also:

Fredric Wertham - Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate - Dwight Decker's fascinating account of his encounters with Dr. Fredric Wertham, notorious author of the witch-hunting classic "Seduction of the Innocent," and his journey from scourge of the comic book industry to author of the pro-comic fandom and pro-fanzine study "The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication."

Early praise pours in off the wires for Comic Art Connoisseur:

"Checked it out today... great stuff there, dude. Keep it comin'."

 - Mark Zepezauer - Illustrator, founder and publisher of "Tucson Comic News", author of "Take the Rich off Welfare" and "Boomerang: How our covert wars have created enemies across the Middle East and brought terror to America."

Selected, edited and written by

Examples of my own work are featured below.

(C) T.S. Minton and Interfusion Publishing. All rights reserved.

I'm kicking off this blog as a 42 year old man (middle-aged? How the hell did that happen to an 80s teenager?) whose boyish enthusiasm for the Black Sheep of American art forms has been tempered by life's many vississitudes and trials not related to the pulpy pages of funny books. As a kid in New England I lived and breathed this art form, not so much for its escapist stories and adolescent power fantasies, but my fascination was rooted in an awestruck love for the astonishingly versatile and staggeringly proficient artists who were the giants and inspirations of my youth: George Herriman, Burne Hogarth, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Berni Wrightson, Gilbert Shelton, and so many more. Before senescence approaches, I still have lots of vigor for many of life's pursuits (personal and professional), but it's seldom that I dig into my treasured archives of comics (which includes comic books, comic strip collections, undergrounds, Love & Rockets and many of their alternative spawn, European graphic novels, anomalies like RAW and Phantasmagoria, etc. etc.) and escape back into those arcane worlds of imagination. When the skull-splitting demands of real life beckon, not often do I find the time to crawl back into the private antechamber that leads to this strange mesmerizing place of vicarious but socially isolating thrills.

Nevertheless, I'll post here from time to time in the hopes of recovering some of the adrenalized sense of wonder and fascination with well-crafted art (sometimes comparable with the best work produced by modernism and the draftmanship expected of fine art) and thought-provoking or wildly entertaining stories which characterize the medium at its best.

Underlying my approach to future postings will be an emphasis not on promoting fetishism for fictional superhero characters or an interest in new commercial trends in this very tangential medium. Rather, I'll be promoting the concept of the canon, which elsewhere I've argued is a useful concept in appreciating music, literature and other forms of the arts: because adhering to it provides exposure to that body of work which intelligent and well-informed critics have generally agreed upon as being essential high watermarks in comic art. This is not to downplay the subjective preferences which will play a role in any serious collector's appraisal of what belongs in this so-called comic art canon. However, I will not ignore the work whose historical and cultural impact, and depth and range of artistic expression, has elevated an often debased artform. A few examples which come to mind:

- The surrealist abstract desert dream landscapes and poetical whimsy of George Herriman's incomparable Krazy Kat, recognized by figures from Picasso and poet e.e. cummings and publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst to legendary comics history encyclopedist Maurice Horn as the finest comic artwork ever produced.

- The endless font of unbridled creative energy and innovation in storytelling and mind-boggling science fiction and fantasy concepts that was that Brooklyn-born street fighting whirlwind Jack Kirby. His New Gods series which formed part of the template for the quintessential modern mythmaking of George Lucas's Star Wars was just a tip of the giant iceburg of Kirby's seminal influence. His reach extends into the daily lives of most artists who work in comic books, graphic novels, animation, and storyboard illustration to name a few, because the storehouse of ideas and storytelling techniques he pioneered from his intuitive kinetic genius is inexhaustible. What artist in the aforementioned fields has not on at least one occasion solved a vexing  graphic narrative problem by asking, "What would Kirby do?"

- Kirby's greatest disciple, the mysterioso Steranko and his panoply of dazzling graphic inventiveness.

 - Love and Rockets by Jaime and Gilbert hilarious, engaging, complexly interwoven world of parallel verisimilitude that rose from the Los Angeles barrio, to become an opus of modern graphic fiction which blows away most of the self-absorbed prattle called contemporary fiction.

- And fat chance even most art professors in our universities, or gallery artists delighting the wine and cheese crowd, can compare to the superhuman feats of draftsmanship performed by that anatomical whiz and dynamic figure drawing maven Burne Hogarth, co-founder of the School of Visual Arts in New York City. And to surpass the supple sensuality and God-given explosive frenetic virtuosity of Frank Frazetta, the greatest comic renderer and commercial fantasy artist who ever lived? Fuggedaboutit.

The more urbane readers among us, who resonant with the following books and insightful comic critics of past decades, should find many reasons to return to this blog in the upcoming months:

- The Penguin Book of Comics by George Perry and Alan Aldridge.

- Maurice Horn's The World History of Comics, Vol. 1, especially its punchy entries by New York journalist Joe Brancatelli.

-  The lovingly attentive "Fit to Print" columns by Cat Yronwode in The Comic Buyers Guide in the early 80s.

- The columns in the early editions of The Comics Journal by Dwight Decker, Carter Scholz, Kenneth Smith (when he focused on his appreciations of skillful comics creators rather than his wildy discursive philosophical jags, which serve their densely worded purpose but are not germane here), Gary Groth and  R.C. Harvey - a critic as acutely insightful to the skillful use of comics as a unique and artful combination of words as pictures,  as Roger Ebert at his best was so trenchant regarding the conventions of his beloved cinema.

In my childhood I burned with the fiery desire to grow up to become a comic book artist, inspired by eye-popping encounters at conventions with the gracious Berni Wrightson, Jeff Jones and other greats. In my early 20s I had astonishing meetings with Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko, and for all my knowledge of art history and its many luminaries, I feel the impact of these these great popular artists every time I work on new artistic pieces. Some of my works are very indirectly related to my original love of comic art, some not all all...but the unrestrained inventiveness, dynamism, and vibrant sense of color of Kirby and Steranko has been an abiding influence.

In addition to having had the once in a lifetime opportunity to meet these great artistic spirits, my appreciation of comics as a potentially unlimited artform - not a rigidly restricted genre based solely on commercial expectations - was shaped by some formative influences:

- My parents were freewheeling hippies in the late 60s and early 70s, so I was exposed to the unexpurgated effusions of R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and the other iconoclastic, salacious and mind-altered practitioners of the underground comix movement.

- My grandfather's friend in northwestern Connecticut, a uniquely generous motorsport enthusiast and entrepreneur named Jim Haynes, allowed me the unparalleled opportunity at around age 10 to have personal perusals of his golden age comic by Lou Fine...Reed Crandall...Will Eisner...Simon and Kirby's early 40s Captain America...framed original art on his walls by Murphy Anderson, Lou Fine and Mac Raboy. This ole boy was in wild ecstasies. Mr. Haynes also kindly bestowed to me his two volumes of Steranko's tour de force giant-sized survey of early comics history, The Steranko History of Comics.

- A libertine dad who allowed me to buy copies of Heavy Metal magazine in the late 70s, even when I was an elementary school kid. Its European eccentricities and exotic worlds by the likes of Moebius and Druillet formed another rabbit hole for me to immerse myself in.

- And an early awareness of the avant garde innovations of Raw magazine and Love and Rockets, whose creators Los Bros. Hernandez placed their richly characterized graphic novels on a par with the finest contemporary fiction and film.

So in sum: Holy shit was I lucky to have realized at an early age that this medium consists of more than moronic superhero and toy-based action stories or mediocre Sunday newspaper strips. This blog is designed to share some of that lucky exposure, and re-ignite in my readership an awareness of the incredible range of this indigenous American artform...from Cliff Sterrett's kinetically abstract Polly and Her Pals at the turn of the century, to the urbane, snarky and snide characters populating truly subtle character studies like Ghost World by Daniel Clowes.

Happy reading, and you hoity toity folks go get some wine and cheese. (Bring me some though please, although much of your gallery art sucks ass in comparison to what I'll post here.) 

Featuring "The Flying Machine"  by Al Feldstein (writer) and Bernard Krigstein (artist), adapted from the short story by Ray Bradbury

Originally published by William M. Gaines of EC Comics in Weird Science-Fantasy #23, 1954. Bradbury's story was first published in 1953, and in the same year he also adapted it into a play. See here for "Ray Bradbury's The Flying Machine" play.

In reading this tautly written and crisply illustrated adaptation of Bradbury's clever allegory of a dictatorial emperor's paranoid and fearful crushing of a wondrous innovation, I'm left to wonder how the garish and often deservedly disdained medium of comic book storytelling could have gone down an entirely different trajectory of excellence and mature expression. If more comics creators had aspired to the heights this short piece displayed, would comic art aficionados still have to cringe in embarassment when caught in public by hoity toity society? The subtle control of Krigstein's storytelling was refreshingly free of gratuitous violence (note how the emperor's command of "Off with his head!" is implied not depicted) and filled with the exquisite draftsmanship to be expected of an artist who went on to myriad accomplishments as a commercial illustrator and fine art painter. Just as the control-mongering emperor crushed the dream that man could soar like the birds as he preferred to live in the virtual reality escapism of his delicate diorama machine, so too did the mass market forces of commercial comics militate against this kind of rare craftsmanship and thought-provoking hints of what could have been. The name of the game was to meet deadlines at any cost and pump out pap for the kids...not to reach for the storytelling heavens.

(C) Russ Cochran. All rights reserved.

"The Flying Machine" as written by Al Feldstein (adapted from the 1953 classic short story of the same name by Ray Bradbury) and illustrated by Bernard Krigstein is contained in B. Krigstein, Vol. 1, an edition of high quality reprints available below from Fantagraphics Books. Therein lies more proof positive that although Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth has on occasion been noted as a hyper-articulate hothead and provocateur who earns the undying contempt of his even more apoplectic arch-enemy Harlan Ellison, he also deserves unstinting credit for his preservation of these comic history landmarks in readily available and affordable packages.

Also included in the Fantagraphics anthology is "Master Race" (first published in Impact #1, 1955), the thematically and graphically groundbreaking  masterpiece of sequential panel storytelling depicting a haunting tale of twist ending revenge. This psychologically suspenseful narrative was the first comic to focus on the harrowing and still fresh memory of the then decade old Holocaust,  and it was also the most dazzling display of cinematically-influenced  virtuosity seen in comics until editor Stan Lee presented Jim Steranko's daring pop surrealist and film noire-influenced graphic experiments with Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Tower of Shadows in the late 60s. Produced by the same team of Feldstein and Krigstein, "Master Race" is perhaps the most maturely ambitious and innovative dramatic comic book story of the 1950s. They managed to craft a story appropriately serious but not ponderous or overly melodramatic in tone. This despite the pulp limitations of the commercialized genre in which they toiled, and in the face of the forces of McCarthyite blue-nose repression unleashed by Dr. Fredric Wertham's blame-crime-comics-for-juvenile-delinquency book, the notoriously lurid and speciously argued Seduction of the Innocent (1954), and the ensuing  Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency conducted by Senator Estes Kefauver and the establishment of the creativity-crushing Comics Code Authority.

This 8 page marvel of restrained dramatic tension has been the subject of presentations at the School of Visual Arts by Art Spiegleman, that protean talent of underground comix and publisher of the post-punk avant garde 80s experimental periodical Raw, Pulitzer price winning graphic novelist, social lion of the New York cartooning scene, and famed magazine cover artist for The New Yorker. As Spiegleman wrote in that publication, with an acute awareness of how in comics storytelling the reader's perception of the pacing of time is a function of the kinetic action depicted in the vertically condensed panels occupying the space of the page:

The two tiers of wordless staccato panels that climax the story... have often been described as "cinematic,"  a phrase thoroughly inadequate to the achievement: Krigstein condenses and distends time itself... Reissman's life floats in space like the suspended matter in a lava lamp. The cumulative effect carries an impact - simultaneously visceral and intellectual - that is unique to comics.

("Ballbuster", The New Yorker, July 22, 2002)

The pioneering comic book convention organizer and fanzine publisher John Benson interviewed Krigstein at his residence in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y. in 1962, accompanied by Bhob Stewart, founder in 1953 of  The EC Fan Bulletin, the first EC fanzine. The interview by Benson and Stewart, published in August 1963 in their fanzine Bhob Stewart and John Benson Talk With B. Krigstein, has been called the most "remarkably articulate" and "surely the most extensive, penetrating and intelligent consideration of the sequential art form done up to that time - perhaps even to the present day." (Founders of Comic Fandom, Bill Schelly.)

Squa Tront #6, published in 1975 by Jerry Weist, featured a critical examination of  "Master Race" by Benson, David Kasakove and Art Spiegelman. [ The late Mr. Weist was also the founder of wonderfully stocked The Million Year Picnic comic collector's shop, which I used to frequent in Harvard Square when I was a student in Boston in the late 80s and early 90s. See this recent link from The Comics Journal's website by R.C. Harvey, Jerry Weist dies, to learn more about his enormous contributions to the development of comics fandom, not the least of which was founding the Comic Book and Comic Art auction at Sotheby's and helping some of the greatest contributors to comics history to sell their artwork and estate collectibles: Superman creator Jerry Siegel, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, William Gaines, Frank Frazetta and Robert Crumb. - ed. ]

The complete story follows...

(C) William M. Gaines Agent,  Inc. All rights reserved.

Spiegleman continues:

Krigstein began to vibrate with the inner language of comics, to understand that its essence lay in the "breakdowns," the box-to-box exposition that breaks moments of time down into spatial units. "It's what happens between these panels that's so fascinating," he said in a 1962 interview. "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."

Krigstein became ravenous for more panels than the rigidly formatted short scripts permitted; he took to subdividing the pre-lettered art boards to allow more and more—albeit smaller and narrower—boxes on his pages. Then Al Feldstein, EC's primary editor and scriptwriter, assigned him a six-page story, "Master Race." A memory-haunted concentration-camp refugee, Carl Reissman, enters a subway car and recognizes the cadaverous stranger who sits across from him. A flashback details the horrors of the Third Reich and finally reveals that Reissman had been a perpetrator—the commandant of a death camp. The stranger chases him down an empty platform, where Reissman slips and is crushed by an onrushing train. Whether the mysterious stranger was a former victim who once swore revenge or a projection of Reissman's guilt is left unresolved.

Feldstein thought of this as one more "snap-ending" story patterned after O. Henry, much like the three others he cranked out each week. It just so happened that this one was about the Nazi death camps and postwar guilt at a time when the culture was unwilling to reckon with the catastrophe in any medium. Krigstein seized on the script as a chance to demonstrate his own and the medium's possibilities. He begged for twelve pages and was begrudgingly granted eight.

Krigstein's formal qualities as a storyteller—not the story's subject matter—make "Master Race" a tour de force. He encapsulates the decade of Nazi terror powerfully but with restraint, never slipping into the Grand Guignol that made EC notorious.

Art Spiegleman, "Ballbuster" - The New Yorker, July 22, 2002

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