In 1955, artist Bernie Krigstein was commissioned to draw a six-page comic strip written by Al Feldstein for the first issue of Impact, one of EC Comics' New Direction titles developed in response to the efforts of Dr. Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code Authority. The story in question was Master Race, and Krigstein was set to create a milestone in sequential art.
Krigstein, by training a fine artist, was frequently frustrated in his comic illustration work. He enjoyed experimenting with panel layout and its effect on the pace and timing of the story, often placing himself in conflict with writers more concerned with their words. For Master Race, he drew the pages as required and then persuaded Feldstein and publisher William M. Gaines to allow him to reassemble the panels and captions to enhance the narrative. Gaines' agreement gave Krigstein the opportunity to indulge his experimental tendencies, and he turned in an eight-page version of Master Race (he wanted twelve pages) that remains dynamic and visually fresh to this day.
Master Race is the story of Carl Reissman, who is riding the subway while haunted by memories of his time in the concentration camp Belsen during World War II. This alone set the story apart at the time it was published; Americans were still struggling to fully comprehend the full horror of the Nazi death camps, and the subject was rarely tackled in the mass media, let alone in comic books. Reissman's memories of the camps, while somewhat lurid - for Impact was at heart a pulp comic with a pulp demographic - still retain their shock value today; their impact in the 1950s would have been far greater. As Jukovsky (1988) notes, Gaines, Feldstein and Krigstein were all American Jews, a fact that might go some way toward explaining the dedication and intensity evident in Master Race.
Reissman's already nervous recollections of the war are compounded by a new passenger boarding the train; a gaunt, black-clad figure whose face he recognizes from Belsen. Filled with fear, Reissman recalls ever more horrific scenes of Nazi hysteria, camp ovens, medical experiments and mass graves. He recalls the new passenger as one who swore to track him down, and sure enough, Reissman is recognized and pursued. As he flees, Reissman's memories reveal Master Race's core twist: that the vulnerable, haunted Reissman was commandant of Belsen, and his black-coated pursuer one of his prisoners. Consumed by panic, Reissman stumbles and falls beneath a passing train. The prisoner walks away and the story ends.
Modern readers, their cynicism sharply honed, may well guess the twist by the second page, but this is not important. Left in its original form, Master Race may have been remembered as a well-crafted story that approached a very brave subject for its time. But it's Krigstein's visual reworking that earns the strip a reputation as a classic of the medium; to use a cliché that is utterly appropriate, Master Race is a visual tour de force.
Like all of Krigstein's EC work, it is visually striking. The crisp artwork carries the story with confidence; there's very little shading in evidence, for example - Krigstein's crags of ink carve through the page with claustrophobic intent, and faces twisted in hatred leer out like savage woodcuts, defined solely by their shadows.
Krigstein also experiments with the passage of time in his storytelling. At the start and end of Master Race, as trains pass by, their passengers are viewed as flickering strobe profiles through the carriage windows - passing by, but frozen in discrete moments, like Zeno's arrow, rather than blurred in the traditional comic book fashion. The train scenes are reminiscent of Malevich's The Knife Grinder and similar Futurist works, but they also serve to distort the flow of time; in the sixth panel of page one, Reissman stares into the passing carriage of a slowing train. Krigstein draws the same passengers through several windows to convey the sense of motion, and in so doing creates a series of panels within the panel - but in these panels, nothing changes. The effect 'slows' the reader at the end of the page, just as the train slows.
At the climax of the story, Krigstein again uses the train window technique as Reissman falls onto the tracks - but this time, the passenger profiles are jarred and broken as they pass by, perfectly conveying the violence of the scene without resorting to a (far less powerful) graphic depiction. Although time is frozen in the individual windows of the carriage, the panel itself stretches over several seconds as Reissman is crushed. This stunning temporal double-play is a great example of the potential of the comic form in the hands of a creator prepared to approach it as a valid and unique medium.
The sequence of panels on the eighth page - in which Reissman loses his balance and falls onto the tracks - are the most celebrated in the strip, and indeed are among the most celebrated panels in comic history. In four tall, thin panels, Reissman stumbles and buckles, as time is once again manipulated to complement the narrative. Prior to the fall, we see the subway train steadily approaching; it's all too clear what's going to happen, but Krigstein plays it out like Sam Peckinpah, forcing us to dwell on Reissman's final seconds (perhaps second would be more accurate) and contemplate his absurd and accidental death - a death that affords his pursuing victim closure without complicity.
However, the camp victim is a highly ambiguous figure. At the end of the story, he tells the assembling onlookers that Reissman jumped in front of the train, and comments that he had never seen him before in his life. Taken at face value, this seems untrue; we have just seen him chasing Reissman, calling him by name, and issuing various threats. We also know from the timestretched death sequence that Reissman did not jump under the train. The simplest reaction is to assume the victim is finally satisfied by his tormentor's death and requires no further involvement. But the pursuit and threats only happen when Reissman and his victim are alone together, and after several pages of Reissman's escalating guilt and paranoia; it's possible that Reissman simply cracks under the weight of his own conscience and flees a total stranger, as Krigstein illustrates his crazed hallucinations. By the time of the final pursuit, Krigstein has already deceived us once, into reversing the roles of Nazi and captive; there's no particular reason for us to trust what we see in the final two pages.
Either way (and either explanation would be classic EC fare), Master Race is something special; as one of the first pop culture artifacts to address the Holocaust; as a searing post-Wertham demonstration of mature comic work; and as a textbook example of how words and images together can do more than complement each other; they can achieve synergy.
References and further reading:
- Kurtzman, Harvey. From Aargh! to Zap! Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics. Princeton: Kitchen Sink Press, 1991.
- Jukovsky, Martin. "Master Race" and the Holocaust. http://www.channel1.com/users/martyj/masterrace.html. 1988; accessed 19/8/03.
- Spiegelman, Art. Bernard Krigstein's Life Between the Panels. The New Yorker, 22/7/02: http://www.newyorker.com/critics/books/?020722crbo_books. Accessed 19/8/03.
- Two-Handed Man. 27 Years With An Aardvark: Two-Handed Man Interviews Dave Sim. http://www.twohandedman.com/interview.html. 2000: accessed 19/8/03.
- Nolan, Michelle. Bernie Krigstein. http://www.budplant.com/bio.itml/icOid/11474. Accessed 19/8/03.
- Vadeboncoeur Jr., Jim. Bernie Krigstein Biography
http://www.bpib.com/illustrat/krigstei.htm. 1998: accessed 19/8/03
- Brooklyn College Magazine. Turning Comics into Art. http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/bc/text/pubs/bcmag/bcm-fall01/remark.htm. 2001: acccessed 19/8/03.