Bernie Krigstein is an unknown figure, even to most comic art devotees. I’ve been reading comics and books about comic history for most of my life, and sadly have only the most cursory knowledge of the man’s work. Most of what I do know comes from mentions made by Frank Miller acknowledging the mammoth influence Krigstein had on him. He was only in comics for less than a decade but during that time, and especially during his tenure with E.C. Comics, he experimented with a style based in gritty noir that was decades ahead of its time in how comics could be created, in its subject matter and pacing.
Even though his time at E.C. led to his most acclaimed work, he was still under the strict confines of his editors, who routinely changed his artwork and wouldn’t let his stories go over eight pages. The only time Krigstein was allowed to do a story exactly as he envisioned it was in the pages of “Impact”, a short-lived anthology title mostly made up of twist-ending shockers. Tucked away at the very back of the first issue of “Impact!” was “Master Race”, which, admittedly, could also be classified as a twist-ending shocker, with a major difference: It dealt explicitly with The Holocaust, something that was barely seen in mainstream media at the time, let alone in a comic book.
Taken from Wikipedia:
“When EC published “Master Race” in 1955, there was little in the mass media about the murder by the Nazis of millions of Jews, Gypsies, political oppositionists and homosexuals. The images of crowded gas chambers, mountains of corpses piled like cordwood, and smoke from the burning bodies continuously spewing out of tall chimneys had not yet established themselves in the public consciousness. The material was there, however. You just had to look for it. Margaret Bourke-White‘s Life magazine photograph of almost-dead staring faces behind barbed wire — shot at the evacuation of a concentration camp) at the end of World War II — was sometimes reprinted. This now-familiar photo is echoed in page four, panel five of “Master Race,” as well as in Art Spiegelman‘s 1972 version of Maus (in his book Breakdowns). Five Chimneys: The Story of Auschwitz, a harrowing account by Olga Lenyel, a death camp survivor, was published in 1947. Eugen Kogon’s Theory and Practice of Hell, detailing the horrible workings of the German death camps, was published in 1950. The facts began to surface about the incredible numbers murdered and the cold-blooded, single-minded efficiency with which it was done. Many Americans began to discuss the unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust, but most just found it all too hard to believe. Krigstein’s “Master Race” was therefore an exceptional undertaking. As their contribution to the anti-German propaganda effort, wartime movies and comic books had shown concentration camps and Nazi brutality. But never had they shown the death camps (as distinct from concentration camps) and the unique atrocities such as “medical” experimentation on living people… Krigstein’s piece didn’t spare the sensibility and complacency of the postwar reader. On page four, panel seven, ordinary citizens cover their noses with handkerchiefs against “the stinking odor of human flesh burning in the ovens… men’s… women’s… children’s…” Book burnings, mass live burials, a quiet clinical scene of an operation on a human guinea pig — “Master Race” starkly depicts the madness of the Nazi period in Germany as well as the burning vengeance inspired by these unspeakable crimes.”
It’s really a shame that Krigstein wasn’t given more control over his work, because if “Master Race” is anything to go by, the results would have been absolutely phenomenal. I’m excited to read the art book of his work published by Fantagraphics, in conjuction with a volume of his selected comics work. As for “Master Race”: