An Actor Prepares:
Dr. Frederic Wertham reads "Shock!"
Strange things happened to comic books in 1954. EC Comics chief Bill Gaines tore up two of his publications at a press conference in September and said, "I have now discontinued all horror and crime comics". Two days later, the Comics Magazine Association of America held its own press conference, at which they announced the now-infamous Comics Code.
"A staff of five censors was working full-time, screening comic-book layouts after the inking stage", writes David Hadju in The Ten-Cent Plague. "The Code was an unprecedented (and never surpassed) monument of self-imposed repression and prudery".
In April that same year, the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings on comic books and juvenile delinquency began, and the first person to give testimony was Dr. Frederick Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, which had pretty much kicked off the brouhaha. Among the comics he cited were issues of Crime SuspenStories from EC Comics and The Thing by Charlton Comics.
The year also saw the publication of two particularly strange comics by two iconic artists: Bernard Krigstein and Steve Ditko. The strangeness comes not so much from the individual stories, but from the way each comic and artist appears to be a sort of mirror image of the other.
Krigstein's "More Blessed to Give" appeared in Crime SuspenStories number 24, the August-September issue of 1954, and was reprinted in volume two of Fantagraphics' B. Krigstein biography/collection. "Family Mix-up" appeared in The Thing number 15, the July-August issue of 1954, recently reprinted in Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Volume 1, also published by Fantagraphics.
Each story subverts the hoary O. Henry story, "The Gift of the Magi". In these funhouse-mirror versions of the story, the central characters are married couples who plot to murder each other. As in O. Henry there are twist endings, but these are cold-blooded and ruthless: classics of a pulpier kind.
The characters and key plot elements in the two stories are oddly inverted versions of each other, too. In Krigstein's tale, the husband and wife are elegant and wealthy city-dwellers. Their plans involve rat poison for one and a cleverly altered landmine for the other. In Ditko's, the couple are country-bumpkin grotesques, and their deaths are considerably more gruesome.
Both stories also make use of similar structural elements. In each, we see one panel that describes one character's point of view, followed by a mirroring panel that shows the other character's perspective.
Krigstein's seven-page story follows this pattern with masterful, practically mathematical precision. Ditko utilizes the alternating p.o.v. panel technique in two key stages of his five-page tale: for the opening page, and for the nightmare sequence (itself reminiscent of Krigstein's surreal "Murder Dream") that acts as the story's centerpiece.
Additionally, the stories open avenues of thought about each artist's philosophy of storytelling, which reveal further mirroring between them.
For example, even though Jack Oleck wrote "More Blessed", Krigstein exerted his influence on the script from the start. It was Krigstein's twelfth assignment for EC Comics.
'In one important respect, working at EC was limiting for Krigstein', writes Fantagraphics editor Greg Sadowski in the notes for this comic. 'He had always done his own panel breakdowns, but was disappointed to find that at EC this was the editor's job'.
In "More Blessed" Krigstein went ahead with his own breakdowns anyway: "[He] subdivided the area designated for one panel into two or three slender panels, 'to get more movement and richer dramatic feeling'", Sadowski writes.
An often-repeated quote from Krigstein, included in the notes for this comic, seems to encapsulate the artist's view of comic book art:
'I wanted panels. I was desperate for panels...I began to see people doing all sorts of things, and it became just ridiculous to have them doing all this stuff in six panels...Because it's what happens between these panels that's so fascinating. Look at all the dramatic action that one never gets a chance to see. Unless the artist would be permitted to delve into that, the form must remain infantile'.
Blake Bell's Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko includes an excerpt from a 1965 essay Ditko wrote on veteran artist Mort Meskin, which 'reads like a manifesto of Ditko's own artistic philosophy'. It also reads like a puzzling mirror-version of Krigstein's philosophy:
'Not only does Meskin tell a story extremely well, but he does it in the most difficult way. He does not take the easy way out or use impressive eye-catching gimmicks that only confuse the story's continuity', Ditko wrote, which raises the question: would he have considered Krigstein's panel innovations to be gimmicky?
'Sure there are comic artists who can draw automobiles that look like they could drive off the page, artists who use 500 lines to form an eyebrow," Ditko wrote. "But if the story is not told properly, what good is a lot of detailed objects or fine lines? There is a vast difference between a comic artist who tells a story and a comic 'Technician' who draws detailed items or objects'.
Of course, Ditko was an artist who did draw perfect details and utilize impressive eye-catching techniques. As an example, artist Jim Starlin recalls Ditko's excellence with drawing the folds in articles of clothing, and notes Ditko's perfectionism. 'He had notebooks that he could go to. If he needed to draw an arm in a sleeve at any position, he had a notebook just for sleeves', he says in Strange and Stranger.
In another bit of funhouse-mirroring, Krigstein battled his editor for artistic freedom at EC Comics, while Ditko had free rein at Charlton. But this also involved an odd "dichotomy" for him, as Bell describes:
'Ditko's association with Charlton reveals the greatest dichotomy, the most severe juxtaposition, of his career. Upon becoming a comic-book artist, Ditko showed immediate intent to push the boundaries of the medium, whereas Charlton produced material of the lowest artistic quality...[However,] editorial interference at Charlton was virtually non-existent. To offset the pittance he was paid, Ditko enjoyed the greatest artistic freedom in the industry'.
Despite their individual passions for expanding the possibilities of comic book storytelling, Ditko and Krigstein each eventually left the industry (or vice-versa) over their storytelling philosophies. Ditko developed an infamous fondness for Ayn Rand and Objectivism, which distanced him from audiences and publishers, while Krigstein's insistence on pursuing his vision for a comic, in spite of the script, led to his exit from EC Comics. Each artist left behind a tantalizing sense of 'what if'.
From Strange and Stranger: 'Had Ditko been able to maintain the same approach to graphic narrative that informs his best work, his status as a true visionary in the art of visual storytelling would be afforded its due'.
In B. Krigstein, Greg Sadowski describes a related conversation the artist had later in life:
'If only they would have let me continue on this track, where I could have expanded the material. I felt I could have done very new and good things. And all these years, frankly, I've been nurturing that frustration; this feeling that something tremendous could have been done if they'd let me do it'.
Borderland Speakeasy appears every alternate Monday and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.