In 1929, Luis Buñuel, the Spanish auteur filmmaker, who’d become a naturalized Mexican twenty years later, shot his first film. That year, the novice director also posed for his portrait picture in Paris. He was twenty-nine and strikingly handsome with his black hair, olive skin, round eyes and full lips when he sat down in front of the lens of a camera. The resulting frame, which captured a moment in time and of its time, was so intense and potent that this one picture did not only immortalize his visage via this portrait of himself as a young man, but it enabled Buñuel to transcend many decades with ease. It’s a testament to the veracity that rests within this headshot, his face captured in stark black and white as if this was not so much a mere photography but an X-ray taken by an esteemed, trusted physician, that Luis Buñuel would choose this single image for the dust jacket of his autobiography “My Last Sigh” many years later. But as with his debut feature, a sixteen-minute short titled “Un Chien Adalou”, the people who can be seen in the image created by the camera are as intriguing as the people who are behind the camera. In the movie, we see Salvador Dali, Buñuel’s friend who was on the cusp of making it as a world-renowned painter and artist. He had come up with the film’s most shocking, most memorable scene, a scene which had come to him in a dream Dali claimed. Though Salvador Dali is still well remembered today and many of his paintings fetch astronomical prices at auctions, only very few people outside the eclectic circle of the most enthusiastic aficionados of old European films are aware of his connection and contributions to “Un Chien Adalou”, or that Dali was involved in the script writing process with Buñuel as collaborator. The script itself and the subsequent film present a loose sequence of seemingly unrelated events which nevertheless are united for the fact that they were specifically chosen to serve as an affront against the artistic elite and their belief that there had to be an explanation and a deeper meaning to art. And thus, despite their best efforts, Buñuel and Dali, by designing this structure for this purpose, enter the reason behind their attempt by imprinting it onto each strand of their disruptive and disjointed narrative which in itself follows the pattern defined by their intentions and overall objective. Only over time would the by then much more experienced filmmaker find ways how to best escape the cycle of meaning and easy interpretations. Moviegoers who’ve watched Buñuel’s directorial debut, though, especially those who are willing to enter into the world the experimental film builds without any prior knowledge, usually do recall one particular scene for better or worse. This scene, allegedly from Dali’s dream, appears without warning early in the film. We see a woman who is being held captive by a man. She calmly stares ahead while the camera zooms in on her face, closer and closer, until we only see one of her eyes, and her eye is a mirror image of the dark, round lens of Buñuel’s camera. Maybe the filmmaker wanted to show us what he’d glimpsed when his portrait picture was taken. His big, dark eyes looking directly into the lens of the camera of his photographer with the youthful swagger you only seem to possess at that particular time in your life, near the end of your twenties, when you can still fail without consequences. Then we become aware of the instrument her captor is holding: a straight razor. In a wide shot, we see that the woman is still staring calmly ahead as the man is now very close and so is his right hand with the razor. The camera zooms in again as he brings the straight razor ever closer to her eye. Then, Buñuel thankfully cuts to a different shot. A cloud formation is moving horizontally across the full moon in the night sky. We were made uncomfortable by what we were witnessing, to the point of nervousness. But now we breathe a sigh of relief. We get what the director is doing. We understand what the cloud and the moon represent, and we appreciate that this filmmaker is withholding the most shocking details from us, that this will be left to our imagination. But before we can shake the thought from our mind, there’s another quick cut. We are back with the woman’s eye and the long, shiny razor too close to it. Or so we believe. There simply just isn’t enough time. The man lets the razor slide across the eye. The blade slits the eye right across with the vitreous humour, the clear gel that fills the space between the lens and the retina, spilling out. We gasp for air. We are certain that we’ve just watched a man mutilating a woman. When the camera moves back, we realize that what we were shown was just another entirely unrelated shot. A man, and maybe not the same man who has taken the young woman prisoner, has cut the eye of an animal, a farm animal, which is bad enough in and of itself, but this is clearly not as shocking to us as if we had made been made to view a man cutting the eye of a beautiful woman with a straight razor. But then, with relief there comes anger. The filmmaker, Buñuel, has tricked us. What we are left with is still our imagination, the image in our mind of the man cutting the woman’s eye. Buñuel’s just given us the right tools to feed our imagination, to make it impossible for us to block this image from our mind since we’ve just witnessed an eye getting slit right across in a close-up shot right after we had been deceived into thinking that there wouldn’t be such a shot, that it got replaced by the shot of the cloud formation and the moon. But in that unguarded moment, after the moment of realization and calmness, and with both eyes wide open, we were made to stumble into the trap the director so deftly laid for us. We saw it all, in gory, naturalistic detail. What we’re left with is disgust and repulsion. We ask what it all means.
There must be some dark, Freudian meaning to all of this. The injury to the eye motif is so striking and so familiar at the same time. And in this case, it’s also rife with outright misogyny. What did Buñuel see at the moment when he faced the dark lens which was to immortalize his handsome face? Did he see his own future like Buñuel was in the presence of some gypsy fortune teller who had her crystal ball in front of her, this circular object with its pool of deep blacks like the camera lens? Photos, his portrait as well, exist in the valley between light and shadows and so would his career as he soon found out. Was this glance into his own future so uncomfortable to him that he needed to recreate the moment when he looked into the lens of his photographer’s camera? Maybe, there’s a simple answer. We can follow the Freudian train of thought. “Un Chien Adalou” was financed by Buñuel’s mother, and though he was still young enough to claim that these were the years of his impetuous youth, as he was getting closer to his thirtieth birthday and being steeped in the machismo culture of his native Spain, he had to assert himself. Luckily, his short brought him the attention of a wealthy French couple who commissioned yet another short from him. However, now bolstered by his early success, Buñuel delivered a film that had a run time of nearly an hour, “L’Age d’Or”. This was when Buñuel’s troubles with women began, yet not in a romantic sense. Hollywood had heard of this new talented director who resided in Paris and Irving Thalberg, head of production and the wunderkind in residence at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, asked Buñuel if he wanted to work for the studio. Buñuel made the trip across the pond, but to his dismay he quickly found out that he was to learn “the American method” of filmmaking. Invited on the set of a film being shot, the film’s star had him unceremoniously thrown out since she, Greta Garbo, didn’t take too kindly to any intruders on the sets of one of her films. Annoyed by this insult, Buñuel only left the house MGM had rented for him, to collect his monthly paycheck. When Thalberg invited him to give him notes on a project already in production, with Buñuel asked to view the dailies of the film to gauge the fake Spanish accent of French actress Lili Damita, Buñuel responded by sending Thalberg a seething note stating that he considered himself a Frenchman, not a Spaniard and he “didn’t have time to waste listening to one of the whores.” Quickly thereafter, Buñuel was escorted off the lot. Properly chastised, still exuberant and still full of himself, he nevertheless followed an invitation to Spain to work as a documentarian. He did decline the offer, though, since he still wanted to make features. With Buñuel politically leaning left, despite the fact that he almost exclusively relied on the cushion his wealthy mother regularly provided, or because being somewhat bitter that he still needed her money, he soon joined the Communist Party of Spain. This led to a falling out with Salvador Dali since Buñuel was dismayed that his friend supported General Francisco Franco, the fascist who would soon topple the Spanish leftist government. As for Dali, the artist had other reasons why he refused to see the filmmaker, and his reasons were much closer to home and were tied to Buñuel’s trouble with women. Luis Buñuel subsequently directed one film in his native country, a communist manifesto which was promptly banned when Franco came into power. He did stay in Spain where he got married and began working for the Spanish dubbing outfits of American Hollywood studios, first in Paris and then in Spain. This eventually led to another invitation to come to Los Angeles, but the director still lacked the skills to play that kind of political game. He and his wife left for New York City thereafter where Buñuel took on projects for the Museum of Modern Art. As one of those weird coincidences that frequently occur in one’s life would have it, for one of his projects Buñuel was tasked with editing a shortened version of director Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” (1935) as a meditation on the power and influence of propaganda. Though at the museum, his boss, the chief curator of the film unit, was a woman, esteemed film critic Iris Barry, a mellowed Buñuel didn’t run into any troubles with her, and he even applied for American citizenship because he knew that the museum would be soon under government control. But two things were happening at the same time. Hollywood had begun a campaign against the museum’s film unit through the industry trade paper they controlled, with them lobbying for a reduction in the public funding the unit received. And the unresolved matter with Dali came back to haunt him. Though Buñuel had truthfully answered the question during his job interview with the MoMA if he was a Communist by stating that he was “a Republican”, the interviewer had not realized that he was referring to Spain’s socialist coalition government which preceded Franco, and not to the American political party, now there was Dali’s autobiography in which the artist, a major star by now, used the right kind of weapon to hurt his former friend, albeit withholding the real motive behind their split, at least where Dali was concerned. In his book, he stated that Buñuel was not only a Communist, which was true, but that he was an atheist as well, which was also true. This led to calls for Buñuel’s resignation with even Barry feeling the heat. When the film unit lost two thirds of their funding and sensing that he’d become a liability, Buñuel resigned. Buñuel and his wife went back to Hollywood with him working in dubbing departments again. After he’d renewed his friendship with the widow of his leading man in “Un Chien Adalou”, Denise Tual, the two soon worked on a project that offered some commercial appeal. At that time, Mexico had a huge film industry and through some wealthy backers, they made a musical period piece for which they cast one of Mexico’s most popular entertainers, singer Libertad Lamarque who originally hailed from Argentina. Though she would appear in sixty-five movies over her long career, “Gran Casino” (1947) turned into a huge flop with Buñuel claiming that it was the wrong kind of project Tual had gotten him involved in and that he had foolishly acquiesced to Libertad’s demands that she needed to sing more in the film. After the flop, Buñuel needed to live on his mother’s money once more and for the next two years. As a foreigner and having lost his backers a lot of money, he was effectively sidelined though Mexico was at the height of a Golden Age of Cinema, with the movie industry having become the country’s third largest source of income and employment. Eventually, two years later, Buñuel got the chance to escape from “directors’ hell” when actor-director Fernando Solar had to take on a second unit director for the movie he was working on, “El Gran Calavera”. Buñuel had to concede that he knew little about the technical aspects of shooting a movie and rose to the challenge. The commercial and critical success of Solar’s latest film opened many doors to Buñuel who finally had all his ducks in a row. He was able to realize a huge number of films over the next three decades, mostly in Mexico, and seven of his film were voted among the two hundred fifty best movies of all time by film critics during a poll conducted by the British Film Institute via their publication “Sight & Sound” in 2012.
In a single black and white photography, the truth is told in the valley between light and shadows. There is a second picture of Luis Buñuel, taken nearly thirty years after he had his portrait photo made in Paris. Instead of the face of a young man with slicked back hair, a swarthy complexion and a sultry, confident look in his dark eyes, we see a visage that makes us think of a horse. This face with its prominent nose seems too lean and far too long. Though still jet-ink black, meanwhile most of his once very thick, shiny hair has given way to an unflatteringly high forehead. His attempt at a pencil mustache doesn’t pan out, but gives him a creepy, sleazy look. His eyes, that once conveyed a sense of manly swagger, a promise of romance and adventure even, are still big, but now they make you uncomfortable. And so, does their stare, especially if you happen to be a woman. And for good reason. Even if you don’t know about the scene in “Un Chien Adalou” and the cutting of a woman’s eye with a straight razor or that of an animal in reality, or you argue that artists are supposed to work through their personal issues with the art they create, there is more. According to his autobiography, during his time in Hollywood, Buñuel submitted a draft for a scene to director Robert Florey which featured a disembodied hand. Without giving Buñuel credit, according to him, this scene was later included in the film “The Beast with Five Fingers” (1946). Buñuel’s actual involvement is disputed, at least by film scholar Brian Taves, an archivist for the Library of Congress, who has challenged Buñuel’s claim. It is still strange, that the filmmaker should choose this idea among the input he must have had during his brief Hollywood period to give it mention in his own recollections. But what about Dali’s autobiography with which the famous artist found a way to dampen Buñuel’s career opportunities in America and his attempt at gaining citizenship? Buñuel’s response was that he wanted to meet up with Dali to shoot him in his knees. The men did later meet up, but Buñuel didn’t follow through with his fantasy of violence. Perhaps he knew that it was violence in the first place that had brought about the rift between him and Dali. While Dali was helping his erstwhile friend Buñuel with his second film, “L’Age d’Or”, the young director was a guest at one of Dali’s frequent parties. Dali had meanwhile found his true muse. He was dating a young woman named Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, the daughter of Russian intellectuals. Elena was still married to French poet Paul Éluard whom she had met when she was eighteen years old and Éluard was nineteen. Though she was four years older than Buñuel and eight years older than Dali, Elena, who was better known by her nickname Gala, had a huge influence on any man who met her. In Dali’s case, he managed to woo her away from her husband, and in Buñuel’s case, a very different reaction altogether. During that night, at Dali’s house, something must have snapped in his mind, because without prior warning he attempted to strangle the young woman. Dali subsequently kicked him out of the house but fast and stopped working on their film. As far as the film was concerned, “L’Age d’Or” caused a huge scandal during the screenings in Paris after Buñuel had made the decision to use the film as a platform to attack Catholicism. During one of the screenings, the Anti-Jewish Youth Group and the fascist League of Patriots started a joined attack by hurling purple ink at the screen and vandalizing the adjacent art gallery that housed a number of surrealist paintings. Not to justify these heinous acts, but Buñuel had done his part to provoke some kind of reaction when he’d inserted a scene in the film in which he visually linked Jesus Christ to the writing of the Marquis de Sade. The couple who had financially backed the movie, the de Noailles, both Catholics, were threatened with excommunication by The Vatican because of that blasphemous scene. Since the film was banned by the Parisian police anyway by now, “in the name of public order”, the Noailles withdrew all prints of “L’Age d’Or” from circulation over Buñuel’s objections. The furor still did not die down and the couple had to delay the premier of a film by poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, a project they had also backed, for the next two years. In another strange coincidence, in “My Last Sigh”, Buñuel states that during his time in Hollywood, several producers from America and Europe asked if he wanted to realize a movie based on Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano”, a novel about alcoholism, published in 1947. Buñuel goes on to explain, that even after he wrote eight screenplays, he still hadn’t figured out a way to make it work for the screen. A film version of the novel was finally made in 1984, not directed by Buñuel but by a legend, Hollywood director John Huston. Though Luis Buñuel and Huston never met, and Buñuel also never met Huston’s childhood friend, these men had a mutual acquaintance. This man had two things in common with Huston’s friend, who was also his friend and neighbor at one time, and Buñuel. They all had a love for art, surrealist art to be specific, and the works of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, who was also known as the Comte de Sade or more commonly, as the Marquis de Sade. When Buñuel had his picture taken in Paris in 1929 and he looked at the lens and beyond the lens, the face behind the cameras was that of the man who shared his love for de Sade’s musings and who was not only his photographer but the family photographer of the man he considered his friend, a man who lived right across from him, a man who today stands revealed as the rapist of his own daughter and, very likely, as one the two killers behind one of the most famous murder cases in Los Angeles in the 1940s, the killing of Elizabeth Short.
Born as Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia ten years earlier than Luis Buñuel, the man whose face the young director saw behind the camera in 1929, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His parents arrived at Ellis Island with little means and like so many Jews from Eastern Europe, his father started to work in the clothing industry which was booming during those years. Though not without aspirations of his own, his father ran a small tailoring business out of the family home for which he enlisted his wife and his children, including the boy who soon received the nickname “Manny” and who began to tinker with the item used for making and altering clothes. Once he was old enough to attend school, he spent hours in museums as well, studying the works of classical trained artists which he began to disassemble in his mind. After graduation, he was offered a scholarship to study architecture. Instead, very much to the disappointment of his parents, “Manny” chose to pursue a career in art. Still, his parents supported him, and they even accommodated him by changing their living quarters so he could have a bigger room he would subsequently convert into his first studio. From his parents’ home, “Manny” ran a successful business as a freelance commercial artist and technical illustrator while building up his art portfolio over the course of the next four years. After spending one year at an art school, he began to make rapid and intense progress as an artist. He then moved to New York where he met Belgian poet Adon Lacroix who he married a year later. In the year after, he had his first solo show. By now, he’d shortened his former nickname to simply “Man” and since his art included technical aspects and he used modern technology, he gave himself the name Man Ray. Once fully ensconced in the art scene of the Big Apple, he worked with notable artists like Marcel Duchamp with whom Ray created the “Rotary Glass Plates”, an example of what would soon become known as kinetic art. Also, in collaboration with Duchamp, Ray created the first issue of New York Dada, a manifesto of Dadaist art which was all the rage among his peers. Because he concluded since “All New York is dada, Dada cannot live in New York”, Ray embarked for Paris sans his wife from whom he had separated. With Paris now in the midst of the surrealist movement, he tried a new thing: photography. Man Ray would either shoot female models, one of which became his lover for the next couple of years, or create installations of seemingly disparate elements he would juxtapose and sometimes use in photo shoots. One of the most famous pieces of art Ray produced during his days in Paris was created in the “readymade” style his friend Duchamp had established. This meant taking a common, industrial manufactured object, and with only little modification, you could turn it into object of art. In this case, a metronome. Ray attached a cut-out of one of his photographies to the pendulum, but in a way that at first glance it seemed that the swinging metal arm had impaled the image right in the middle, from the bottom to the top. The artist named the installation, which Man Ray had designed six years before the first frame of “Un Chien Adalou” was shot, “Object to be Destroyed”. The picture, the one Man Ray attached to the metronome’s metal arm, was a close-up of a woman’s eye. During his time in Paris, the artist struck up love affairs, one with surrealist photographer June Miller who became his assistant. After June had left him, and he’d mourned their intense romance for three years, he began seeing a dancer and model with whom Ray parted ways when she stayed in France to take care of her family and he fled the Nazis. Once back in the United States, he met a new love, another dancer, yet on the serious side since Juliet Browner studied with legendary expressionistic dancer and dance instructor Martha Graham. Browner and he, and his friends, surrealist painter Max Ernst and his fiancée Dorothea Tanning, got married in a double ceremony in 1946. While Max Ernst and Tanning moved to Arizona for a new life in the desert, Man Ray and Browner had moved into a Hollywood residence where they lived across from an extremely handsome and charismatic medical doctor who was an art collector as well. And he was well-versed in the who’s-who of the surrealist art movement. Whereas the doctor was the head of the unit of the Los Angeles health department that handled venereal diseases, Man Ray found that he was not a household name in America yet. While he put together a new solo show, his neighbor, who was well-connected to the Hollywood elite and power players of Tinseltown due to his profession, helped Man Ray to become a celebrity photographer, something which suited his and Man Ray’s egos. And the doctor lived in a house that suited his own ego just fine. A year earlier, he had bought the so-called John Sowden House in Los Feliz, also known as the Franklin House, since it is located on Franklin Avenue. Built in ‘26 by Lloyd Wright, the oldest son of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the house was designed to look like a modernized version of a Mayan temple. Its sharp ridges give the façade the look of a gaping mouth. Based on a rectangular plan, and with every room on the ground floor opening into a hidden, central courtyard, fitted with a long swimming pool of course, the exterior appears to be entirely without windows except for an array of connected glass panels which rests above the doorway and which due to its nearly round geometry creates the impression that you are looking into a dark eye once you find yourself standing right in front of the residence and you glance up from its cave-like main entrance. It’s a foreboding, ominous building, and if there ever was a house to serve as the perfect lair for a super-villain, and right in the heart of major metropolis, this is it, and this was the place to which the doctor had brought most of his clan. His first and third wife and their four children, all boys, and an artist friend who lived in one of the guest rooms. With other artist friends close by, including Man Ray, this was the perfect location to hold court over folks who were either influential or interesting or both. The man who lived there, until he hastily left the country to build a new life for himself by becoming a pioneer in the field of market research and who founded his own consulting company in the Philippines first and then with branch offices around the world, but safely away from American soil for some time, was the kind of man you normally find in comic books or if you are into true crime located in and around Los Angeles, perhaps in a James Ellroy novel. Had Dr. George Hodel not lived, and a comic book writer had just made him up out of thin air, his editor might have told him to rein it in, that all of this was too unbelievable, even for a world in which heroes wore tights and could fly and shot deadly rays from their eyes. But then again, George Hill Hodel, who was seven years younger than Luis Buñuel and who loved to pose for Man Ray’s camera, lived in broad daylight, and for his beauty, Hodel was the invisible man.
George Hill Hodel was the cultivate, cultured super-villain you ordinarily only meet in the colorful pages of a superhero comic or maybe in a Bond film or an over-the-top spy thriller. But whereas such men are often afflicted with a tell-tale sign that gives them away, a scar, an accent or even a body armor with a cape attached, Hodel was as attractive as he was smart. In fact, he was the smartest man in the room, in almost every room he found himself in. While there was some obvious aggression towards women with those men, born out of some perceived slight and frustrations, because they were unable to score or they still felt their mother’s boot-straps in financial matters despite their vast underground lairs and their aspirations to rule the world, Hodel never had any problems with getting laid. At a young age, he took part in an early version of the IQ test which placed him near Einstein. At six, he was a prodigy on the piano, with even Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff making the trip to the Hodel residence to listen to the boy play. By now, the boy also performed solo concerts at the Shrine Auditorium. George was hailed as a new master pianist by many critics. At just fifteen, he entered college at Caltech. Still it is difficult to reconcile the fact that despite all his talent, his smarts and good looks he was what we call a sexual predator these days. In the same year he entered college, he was expelled as well. He got found out, not for any crime he had committed. He was having an affair with the wife of one of his professors and not only this, but he’d fathered a child with her. Before he enrolled at another college, he decided to give art a try and he put out a literary magazine for which he wrote most of the articles himself. This was also the time when he met a bunch of would-be artists. Fred Sexton was one of them, a man whose claim to fame solely rests on the fact that he created the bird sculpture for the film “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), a film directed by John Huston who was Hodel’s childhood friend. But Hodel and Huston were additionally united by their personal biographies. The friends used to double date and they were seeing two women. To make things more interesting, the couples swapped partners and Huston was going out with Hodel’s former girlfriend Dorothy Harvey while George now showed John’s former flame what he considered a good time. The fact that she also had the name Dorothy made it even stranger. Eventually, Huston and Harvey married and Hodel, who had already been married once and had fathered a second child, married the other Dorothy with whom he had one daughter, Tamar. Meanwhile, not to skip out on his education after his stint at the prestigious California Institute of Technology had ended so swiftly, he enrolled at U.C. Berkeley from which he graduated as a pre-med student. He then went to medical school at the University of California in San Francisco where obtained his medical degree in 1936. Four years later he married Dorothy Harvey whose marriage to Huston had fallen apart while Hodel was also divorced from the other Dorothy, though they remained in a friendly relationship. To avoid confusion, Hodel nicknamed his third wife “Torero”. He and Dorothy Harvey had three boys and they and Duncan, his son from his first marriage, and at times, even his first wife Emilia lived in the house on Franklin. Dr. Hodel and Man Ray and Ray’s new bride Juliet Browner became fast friends even though Dr. Hodel soon embarked to war-torn China near the end of the Second World War. He served with the medical corps and was awarded the rank of general for show since he was in an exalted role. Once he returned home, Hodel remained in the military for some time. He loved to pose for Ray’s camera in his general’s uniform and his long Army coat. Even after his discharge he enjoyed driving a jeep when he was on house calls once these vehicles became available to civilians. Hodel had several affairs during this time and he often had parties at the Sowden House where he celebrated a lifestyle that rock musicians were to claim as theirs during the late 1960s and the 1970s, and Ray was in the midst of it, having a great time. But Man Ray was not getting any younger. Hodel, who was quite wealthy and an avid collector of art and a huge fan of Man Ray’s work, was seventeen years younger, and where most women saw a sad, old man when they looked at Man Ray, who was in his mid-fifties, they all loved George. But this was not a good thing either, as he soon discovered. For one, his secretary Ruth Spaulding was madly in love with him, but he soon cast her aside. When Ruth threatened to reveal all she knew about the prominent doctor in a tell-all-book, she mysteriously died of an overdose, which was ruled a suicide. There was some suspicion by the police, but since it was not known at that time that the doctor was wont to play fast and loose with the bills he submitted to patients, nothing came of it. Then, on January 1947, the body of a twenty-two-year-old woman was discovered on a lot in a residential area of Los Angeles. The victim was identified via her fingerprints as Elizabeth Short, a would-be actress who bounced from job to job and who wanted to find Mr. Right. As we know today, Dr. Hodel was among the men Short was dating, most certainly no Mr. Right at all. After her death, the press played up the nickname some of the men at the Army PX she worked at for some time had given her. Short who had come to Hollywood to find fame, would forever be known as “The Black Dahlia”, while the shocking crime itself became notorious for what the killer or killers had done to her. What had been done to her superseded the horrors you saw in a horror comic.
Only horror comics didn’t exist when Elizabeth Short’s gruesomely mutilated body was discovered by a woman who was walking her little children to school. At least technically, they didn’t exist. There were two earlier adaptations based on the same gothic tale, but as far as new material was concerned, there was only just one horror comic in circulation, Eerie No. 1 from Avon, cover dated January ‘47, the same month and year of Short’s murder. Incidentally, this comic featured a raven-haired woman on its cover. The cover artist Bob Fujitani (he was half-Japanese, half-Irish) had been in the business for some years already and like so many other comic book artists, he worked for many publishers via one of the shops that had several artists working on a complete book to be handed to their clients. Fujitani, who become famous (albeit in the shadows at first, since he’d been hired as a “ghost artist”) when he inked the daily Flash Gordon newspaper strip in the 1960s. As for the cover: we see a gorgeous woman with long, black hair who is clad in a strapless and seemingly backless evening dress. Her shoulders are bare. Her hands are tied behind her back. She’s bound with ropes around her wrists and around the ankles of her bare feet. The way she’s positioned, her long dress has slit over her long thighs. The color of her hair and her exposed flesh in combination with her red dress are striking and attract attention. We see her face only in profile, but her expression is one of sheer terror. We can almost hear her breathing as she gasps for air. Such an image exists for one reason only: to titillate young male readers, and maybe girl readers as well. The setting is an old mansion with long stairs and columns in a style that mimics the architecture of Ancient Rome. The house has long since fallen to ruin, even the roof is missing, so we can see the full moon in the background. There is a man in a long, green rope that reaches down to the floor and nearly covers his naked feet. He is old and nearly bald, and he has red eyes and his bared teeth might be fangs. Then we see the long, pointy knife he holds in his right hand. The knife looks make-shift, but it isn’t less menacing for it. With her face in profile, her lipstick red lips parted, we see only one of the lovely young woman’s eyes. There is the injury to the eye motif you can instinctively sense even if you’ve never seen “Un Chien Adalou”. Though nothing happens and there is no violence, apart from the fact that there is a young woman who is depicted in bonds and in a submissive position at the feet of this fiend, we have our imagination. Even though we see the full moon in all its yellow glory in the background, there’s no cloud formation that is moving horizontally across this ominously glowing orb. In our mind, we can see where the knife is going once the man lifts his arm. The horror needn’t happen on the cover, we saw it in the valley of light and shadows that exists in the realm of our ingenuity. Not one pretty sight for sure. In regard to the before mentioned adaptations that came before Eerie No. 1 hit the newsstands in 1947, the same publisher put out not one, but two comic versions of “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, by and large, faithful adaptations of the seminal gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. The first version appeared as a serial in the comics section of the Twin Circles National Catholic Press of all places, where it ran for six weeks. This publication, which the National Catholic Press circulated through publisher Gilberton, was intended as a giveaway. When Gilberton saw the positive response, they made the decision to create their own comic adaptation of the classical tale, but with the violence and scares cranked up to eleven, at least comparatively speaking. Their version, adapted by writer Evelyn Goldman and with sufficiently creepy art by Arnold L. Hicks, was added to Gilberton’s Classic Comics series. It ran eleven pages longer and came with a page that introduced you to “The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson”. Hicks’ art was less clean, but that only made it more frightening. The cover the artist came up with was also perfectly suited to invoke all kinds of nightmares, so much so that once Gilberton decided to reprint the issue in ‘49, they commissioned a brand-new, much safer cover from artist Henry Kiefer. Apparently, things had changed in those years in-between. Though the interior artwork was still Hicks’, this was one heavily edited version with pages re-arranged and combined and many panels cut, and the new version coming up six pages short when compared to the first edition. As far as Eerie was concerned, apart from the fact that it was the first American comic book that presented pure horror content not based on pre-existing material (albeit in the case of the Stevenson novella, material that was widely recognized as a work of classic literature), this issue made use of the short-story format which had been popularized in comics books across many different genres, including superhero books. Likewise, this anthology format would eventually become the norm for horror titles once horror-themed comic books became a trend. Eerie No. 1, which feels a bit directionless, actually contains seven stories which range from two pages to a total of eleven pages. Though Bob Fujitani was also responsible for the art in the lead-in story, the true standouts are “Dead Man’s Tale”, an atmospheric ghost story with excellent art by Jon Small, inked by George Roussos, and “The Strange Case of Henpecked Harry” with art by Fred Kida about a marriage gone wrong, which opened with a shocking panel that depicted a raven-haired women getting pushed right in front of an approaching subway train. What makes the panel even more shocking and the panels which depict her murder once the story itself catches up to this scene, with her stockings and even her garters exposed, the artwork highly sexualizes the woman right up to the moment of her death. Once Eerie had hit the shelves, something strange happened. It remained the only issue. Eerie did eventually resurface as a series four years later. A year after Eerie No.1, EC Comics artist Sheldon Moldoff who had noticed the lack of horror comics in the market, approached his publisher William Gaines who’d taken over the reins at EC Comics after his father had died in an accident. Gaines initially allowed Moldoff to create a horror title for EC, Tales of the Supernatural, but then he shelved the project. American Comics Group did start a horror comic in 1948, though. But after Adventures Into The Unknown had presented all kinds of frightening horror tropes like werewolves and zombies in its first few issues, by issue No. 8, things began to look much brighter. Issue No. 10 featured characters smiling throughout every tale. The same thing happened with horror movies. Universal Pictures had seen huge profits with “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” in the early 1930s, and by the early 1940s, they combined the characters, who now also featured “The Wolf Man”, into the first shared cinematic universe. Meanwhile, rival studio RKO had put out a string of psychological horror thrillers which for the most part were loosely connected since these films were under the purview of producer Val Lewton. Then they, and Universal’s monster films, quickly went away near the end of the 1940s. In Paris, the notorious Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, the theater that had presented pretty bizarre, highly naturalistic scares on stage to its excited patrons in the 1920s and 1930s, went out of style when the real terrors of fascism took hold across the European continent. Near the end of the war, the SS even co-opted the name “Werewolf” when naming the squadron tasked with counter-intelligence. While the atrocities of war seemed far away in America, except for the men in combat and their loved ones, “Werewolf” suddenly became a catch-all phrase for a series of murders that rocked Los Angeles. Almost as if the killing and subsequent horrific mutilation of “The Black Dahlia” had opened the gates to a new kind of hell, more murdered women were discovered during a relatively short period of time. Since the term “serial killer” had not been coined, though the police of Los Angeles tried their best to deflect any notion that these killings had been committed by the same perpetrator, the media soon dubbed any new murder as another “Werewolf Killing”, while some newspaper played up the fact that these were all very attractive women and surely, there had to be a motive in this. Gaines might have been on to something when he stopped Moldoff in his tracks. Western comics and romance comics were proven sellers, and crime comics that featured gangsters who robbed banks. Eerie with its rope-bound, scantily dressed, long-legged cover girl, who was another voluptuous, raven-haired beauty in the presence of knife-wielding, weird-eyed madman, was perhaps too real for a world of real horrors. Though other genres were popular with readers, they didn’t seem to have an appetite for horror comics just yet. Especially not once you’d read in the papers that Elizabeth Short’s naked body had been found cut in half right at the waist and her face had been slit ear to ear to create an eerie grin. Or maybe you’d seen the news pictures and you’d read about the cigarette burns and the other mutilations done to her.
Though detectives, due to the nature of the crime, looked at medical doctors specifically and at Hodel particularly, since both his practice and his residence were fairly close to the site where the victim had been found, obviously not the scene of the crime, nothing came of it. Detectives didn’t know that Hodel had been a romantic relationship with Short, though eye-witnesses had come forward who’d described a man in her presence who fit his description, nor did the L.A. Homicide Squad make any connection to him based on the way the victim had been mutilated and subsequently posed. His friend Man Ray might have, though. All of this bore an uncanny resemblance to his surrealist art works, almost as if the killer or killers had very deliberately emulated, if not downright copied, two of his most famous pieces of art, a photography and a painting, even with the way Short’s arms were positioned. The artist had to have seen the pictures of her body in the newspapers. Man Ray also knew Fred Sexton who was frequently mistaken for a Spaniard or a Mexican due to his olive complexion and his jet-black hair, and who also fit the description of the other man seen with Short right before her murder. In fact, a man who looked a lot like Hodel and a “swarthy man” were seen with several of the victims of the killing spree which did also include crime writer James Ellroy’s mother who was murdered just eleven years later while he was a little child. No attempt was made to hide the bodies of the victims, quite the opposite, and no arrests were filed that stuck. But then, nearly three years after the discovery of Short’s body, Dr. Hodel, Sexton and by implication, Man Ray, were nearly found out when the darkness of one man’s soul was laid bare. In 1949, Tamar, Dr. Hodel’s daughter from his second marriage, moved into the Franklin House. Though only fourteen at that time, the precocious girl did not look her age, but rather was a look alike for actress Marilyn Monroe who at that time had appeared in some utterly forgettable movies. Tamar’s presence at the house added a new unpredictability and Dr. Hodel’s frequent male and female guests took notice. There was Man Ray for one. Once right at the center of the hip surrealist movement, by now the aging artist faced his own midlife crisis. The close proximity to the desirable blonde girl shook him to his core. Where Hodel saw a great artist, who shared his fondness for the works of de Sade, Tamar saw a creepy, old dude who wanted to fuck her like every other guy she met. Man Ray was not even born in the same century. But he was not the only older man in her father’s circle who desired her. One night, a drunken man sexually assaulted her while she was in one of the bathrooms. He grabbed her forcefully with both hands from behind and tried to pull down the pajama shorts she was wearing. In no small thanks to her stepmother “Torero”, who was checking up on Tamar, disaster was averted. What made this occurrence even more sordid: the man who’d tried to rape her was Hollywood director John Huston who had been married to her savior Dorothy Harvey at one point. Things got out of control when George Hodel got it into his head to personally advance his daughter’s love making skills. During one of his frequent parties, with all sorts of narcotics freely available to his guests and Tamar, he, Fred Sexton and several women had their way with Tamar. Shortly thereafter, Tamar realized that her own father had impregnated her. On her insistence, Hodel arranged for an abortion for his fourteen-year-old daughter, which during this time, beyond the moral implications that her pregnancy had been brought about by incest, was illegal in more ways than one. Tamar, who feared the wrath of her father, also because he had told her things, ran away from home, with some of Tamar’s classmates either covering for her or hiding her. After she’d been missing for days, Hodel had to call the police who quickly located her. Once Tamar was asked why she’d run away, she was more than ready to unleash havoc on her father’s life and his lifestyle. Hodel, Sexton and the women involved in the sex crime got arrested. Sexton and the women pleaded guilty to avoid a much harsher sentencing, but George Hodel, who denied any involvement or wrongdoing, hired Jerry Geisler, the attorney to the stars. Though he had to sell many of his beloved pieces of art to make bail and to raise the funds for his defense, Geisler, who had saved several of Hollywood’s top stars from jail, including silver screen heartthrob Errol Flynn, who faced Statutory Rape charges in 1943 after he’d invited two underage girls onto his yacht, came through for Hodel. Geisler’s defense strategy was simple enough. She had made it all up to get back at her father. Having been branded a compulsive liar by the high-powered attorney during the trial, Tamar became a pariah in her own family. Meanwhile, Man Ray quickly left for Europe, and Hodel, once the trial was behind him, soon embarked for Hawaii and finally to the Philippines where he married a wealthy widow with ties to dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Dr. Hodel had become aware, that in connection with the charges brought against him by his own daughter, the district attorney of Los Angeles showed renewed interest in him as a suspect in the murder case of “The Black Dahlia” and other unsolved murders of women around the same time. According to Tamar, he’d alluded to her that he and a second man had killed Elizabeth Short at the Franklin House. While he was getting his affairs in order to leave the country, he had to assume that police had wiretapped the house, which was true, though no charges were filed against him. Hodel returned to the States a few times for business. By now, Hodel had established himself as a leading expert in market research. He had fathered four children with his fourth wife who he’d divorce in the 1960s. With her father gone, Tamar bounced through the next two decades, first among beatniks and then as child of the folk and peace movements. Michelle Phillips, who was a stunning beauty herself, met Tamar at college. Though she was in the midst of forming the band The Mamas and the Papas with her husband and two friends, Tamar became her role model as she was navigating the times that were a-changin’. On one occasion, while Michelle was getting ready to go out on stage to perform with her bandmates, Phillips even met Tamar’s father who had snuck back into his daughter’s life. She would later describe the man who had some hashish ready for consumption in his bag, as the most magnetic man she’d ever met. In 1974, John Huston portrayed a man who was abusing his daughter and who had fathered a daughter with her in the film “Chinatown”. Two years later, Man Ray died. Roman Polanski, the director of “Chinatown”, whose pregnant wife had been brutally slain by members of the Manson Family, was arrested in 1977 after he’d had intercourse with a thirteen-year-old girl in the Hollywood home of actor Jack Nicholson, a girl Polanski had drugged. The director fled to Europe to escape prosecution after his probation, which had resulted from his trial, was rescinded by the judge. Clearly, there is a certain irony to be had that when comics became a target of public scrutiny for their depiction of horror and violence, and comic book publishers were forced to create a governing body for censorship in 1954, the real monsters, the real predators, were still at large.
As many comic fans know, there’s a time in your life when you were embarrassed to show your love for comic books. Perhaps you were even a little afraid to be seen with them. Your parents might scold you for reading such trash, or the other kids might make fun of you, or worse, bullies picked you as a person who was weak, with a soft underbelly, an ideal target for fists and kicks. Where the artist is concerned who is best described as a “comic book artist’s artist”, it would seem weird that he was embarrassed by comic books as well, as a reader, once he was too old to sit on his father’s knees, and especially later in his life when he relied on these cheap thrills as his main source of income. But this is not a contraction once we take a closer at look at the life of this man and the career of this artist. Like we’ve already seen with Luis Buñuel, the truth is captured in two portrait pictures taken some years apart from each other. And though, Buñuel tried to escape the assignment of simple meaning and reasoning throughout many of his films, there’s meaning all around us. There’s a reason why the man who was arguably the greatest innovator in the field of comic book art and sequential storytelling during the early days of the medium, considered comics and comic book tales as something which was beneath his attention. Whereas most other artists wanted to work in the comic book industry and these men honed their styles and thus very often advanced the medium itself for their love of it and for their raw talent, he just saw their restrictive formalities and limitations. Where a man as talented as Jack Kirby loved the action and adventure and Jack leaned into every genre with exuberance, creativity and imagination, as a youth, Bernard Krigstein considered this silly and even revulsive. And yet, stylistically, his art has not only stood the test of time, Krigstein and his body of work tower above many of his contemporaries and many artists that followed. Just by looking at those four photos, the two pictures that captured the face of the filmmaker, divorced by thirty years from one another, and two black and white photographies of the artist Krigstein, we can tell, just by looking at these sets of images, that the course these two men charted for themselves, took each man on a completely reversed paths from the other. The first picture of Krigstein is indeed on the polar opposite side of the image that fixes Luis Buñuel in his late twenties. Krigstein is around the same age in this first shot taken at the end of the 40s. There is no swagger in his pose nor in his face. Krigstein looks at the camera and the observers, us, like Buñuel does in the pic by Man Ray. His expression is one of defiance, though. With his round face he comes across as very nebbish and geeky. Krigstein lacks the suaveness that comes with an upbringing in the Spanish upper class, and though Buñuel meets the stare of the lens of the camera with one eye nervously tilted to one side, his posture speaks of unchallenged confidence and the arrogance that comes with real or imagined intelligence. Both men have their arms folded, but whereas the young director leans forward and he appears comfortable doing so, the artist has his arms tightly wrapped around his upper body, not to comfort himself, but to focus his body mass in one spot and to better roll with the punches. For Buñuel, this was the year he shot his first real film, albeit a sixteen-minute long short, but time enough to set the world of the artistic elite on fire or so he thought. For Krigstein this was the year in which he was to win his first major victory for artistic freedom. This was when he was working for Hillman Periodicals and he clashed with his editor Ed Cronin over the inks other artists provided for his pencils. But then, alas, at the end of 1949, he gained Ed’s permission to serve as his own inker, his goal finally achieved after a struggle which lasted one year at Hillman, but in reality had existed from the moment he’d worked on his first comic book pencils in late 1943. But he was still fighting, as he was still expecting more punches to be thrown. In the photo, you can see it right in his eyes. Though there is apparent discomfort – this man does not want to be in the shot and clearly, he also does not want to be in this industry – his stare tells you that here is a man who knows what he’s doing, every step of the way. Buñuel poses, Krigstein just is. The second picture of the director tells you about his defeats and artistic triumphs. His demeanor and appearance are that of an accountant. In his later years, near the nadir of his long career, Buñuel is less of passion but more of mind and ratio. Now his films are meticulously prepped, his shot list is defined in advance, well before the first frame is ever banned on filmstrip. Buñuel is in control as much as he’s controlling, of the sets, the cameras, the actors. This is the image of a man who is only satisfied once everything is in its right place. Bernard Krigstein’s transformation between the two pictures is as staggering as Buñuel’s. In fact, in his second portrait pic, taken fifteen years later, we see a man who is very comfortable in his own skin, and thus, his face and his stance have become much looser, but not less intense. Krigstein’s black, wavy hair is cropped shorter which makes his forehead standout more, which actually suits him. The chubby checks of his erstwhile pudgy visage have melted away during the in-between years. Krigstein’s features are very lean now, as is his prominent nose, a nose you might see in a painting of senators in Ancient Rome, and his profile is adorned by an overgrown goatee. Had you shown this picture to people who were in the know around the time it was taken, without much hesitation, they’d identify this man as a beatnik poet or as an artist who was a master of his craft and very modern. By that time, Krigstein was both, and he not only looked the part, he delivered. But perhaps one of the reasons why he seems so relaxed comes from his personal history, namely that by 1962, he’d left comics behind. Finally, at forty-five, ten years away from the age when Man Ray had befriended George Hodel, and the man’s underage daughter had painfully reminded the artist that his best years lay well behind him, Bernie Krigstein had achieved his dream. Not only was he producing fully painted book and magazine covers and record jackets, some of his fine art paintings were exhibited in art galleries. He even garnered a significant number of prizes and awards for his work. Still, perhaps strangely so, the man who died exactly one hundred years after Man Ray was born, shares striking similarities in his biography and approach to art with the famous surrealist. Like Man Ray, Bernie Krigstein, who was born on March 22, 1919, was the son of Eastern European immigrants, and his father worked in the textile industry. Krigstein’s father also had higher aspirations, but instead of setting up a shop in his own home, he earned a degree as a civil engineer and he later managed a clothing factory. Though his father read the funnies to him, and the boy spent many hours in the company of Tonerville Trolley or The Katzenjammer Kids or Mutt and Jeff while his father educated him about those strips and what these stories were about, young Krigstein also showed a fondness for the drawings and blueprints from his dad’s studies and work. Early on, he began to draw, and when he discovered an art book about the life of painter Cézanne, he was hooked. His parents saw matters a bit more pragmatic and when it was time for him to go to college, at their behest, Krigstein chose his major in accounting. But like with the book about Cézanne, another chance encounter changed the direction of his life in more ways than one. At Brooklyn College he met Natalie Horovitz, an English major who recognized how skillful he was whenever he made sketches in his notebook. Horowitz, whom he would marry soon, suggested that he might be better suited for a life as an artist, and Krigstein switched his major to fine art. His parents did not agree with his decision, but they also recognized his talent and supported him, nevertheless. Bernie worked in several blue-collar jobs during the summers while he also worked on paintings he wanted to sell, but to no avail. However, when he graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1940, the school gave him his own solo show and he was granted a scholarship to the Cummington School of Art where he spent the summer of that year, also the year he proposed to Natalie. Upon his return, the newlyweds moved into a small apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Since he still couldn’t sell any work, and clearly, he was not cut out for factory work, he applied to the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. He created copies of the works of the Old Masters to be distributed to high schools. He also worked as an art teacher. With the war, the WPA project ended. He briefly worked for a magazine, but it soon ceased publication. Though he managed to sell some paintings for greeting cards, the couple was in a tough spot financially. Like when Man Ray had worked from home to create technical drawings, he stumbled into a new gig that would help him and Natalie make ends meet. The husband of his cousin Esther worked as a writer for Bernard Baily, who’d co-created The Spectre for All-American Comics with Jerry Siegel of Superman fame. In 1942, the artist had started his own shop. Like other entrepreneurially minded artists, Baily hired his own gang of comic creators to provide publishers with complete books.
When Krigstein started with Baily, his erstwhile love affair with comics was a thing of his childhood, as he later explained: “I adored comic strips – the wacky humorous kind. The advent of adventure strips, on the other hand, only excited a feeling of revulsion on my part.” After he’d been hired, once Krigstein had showed Baily his portfolio and Bernie graduated from doing clean-ups to penciling pages, there was no uncertainty behind Krigstein’s motivation. He was strictly in it for the money. His work for Baily came to a halt quickly, though, since Krigstein soon received his draft notice. When he went through training, he also seized the opportunity to attend the army’s engineering school, where he studied mapmaking. Once he’d completed basic training and his education, he was shipped to Great Britain and thereafter, during the Battle of the Bulge, to Belgium where Will Elder and Jack Kirby were stationed as well, though the men never met during the war years. He did send his wife beautifully adorned letters while abroad and she had one of his watercolors framed and submitted it to an art show at the Brooklyn Museum in February 1945. After the defeat of Germany in the same year, Krigstein found himself on leave in Paris. He tried to set up a meeting with his favorite painter, Pablo Picasso, but to no avail. Once back in New York, he immediately went back to working for Baily, which lasted only for eight months. He and Baily got into a heated argument. But with comics still doing fine in the immediate post-war days, he quickly found work with another comics packager. Then tragedy struck. In May 1946, Natalie gave birth to their son Paul, but the baby died at sixteen months. Since it had been a difficult birth to begin with, followed by the traumatic experience of losing their son, Natalie was kept bedridden well into the next year. To cover for the mounting medical bills and their life expanses, Krigstein increased his workload at his new shop by producing many pages for customers such as Fawcett Comics. By early 1948, Krigstein was well aware of his price as a comic book artist and he decided to work for publishers directly as a freelancer. He soon found work with National Comics, part of the publishing empire of DC Comics Harry Donenfeld. Now Krigstein was paying closer attention to the work created by other artists like Jack Kirby and Jerry Robinson, and he spurred himself on to create a great product which he felt he could only achieve if he was allowed to ink his own material. This also brought about a new awareness about the medium itself: “I shed all criticism of the form as I worked in it.” However, once he’d come to realize that comic books and comic art were in fact a legitimate form of artistic expression, Bernie was eager to develop his voice as an artist in sequential storytelling. And what he had perceived as the limitations inherent to the way comic books worked, were rules that could just as easily be broken. Slowly, like Man Ray before him in the art world, Krigstein began to deconstruct the established approach to creating comic book art. He’d spend many hours on end discussing comic art with one of his friends, fellow comic book artist Gil Kane, thought at the same time he and Natalie adopted Cora, a two-month-old baby girl. With his home life going in a new direction, his work life in the comic industry remained difficult. Shortly after he’d started to work for Hillman Periodicals, he began pestering Hillman’s editor with his expressed desire to do inks for his pencils as well. Ed Cronin eventually relented, but Krigstein didn’t stop there. Bernie and an artist named Pierce Rice were talking to other artists about the formation of a union, and not only at Hillman, but since Krigstein was freelancing for DC and Timely Comics as well, he also approached artists working for these publishers. While Luis Buñuel was literally a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Spain, though he stayed on the sidelines, he and Pierce set out to define the rules for their artist’s union. As artist John Severin, who’d soon become his colleague at EC Comics, remembers, the plan was to put artists into different groups according to their talent, and for each category, there’d be a defined page rate. Whereas Timely’s publisher Martin Goodman was certain nothing would come of it and thus paid little attention to Krigstein’s efforts, Severin let Krigstein know how he felt about his union idea and this set of guidelines: “I declared war immediately on it. No, it was insane.” Unlike Buñuel, who could afford to espouse leftist ideals while he lived quite handsomely on the hand-outs he received from his wealthy mother, Krigstein, despite his attempt to get his fellow artists to agree to a scale-based payment model, had little patience for editors who wanted to hire him, but could not match the page rate he was getting paid by now. Case in point: in 1951, Krigstein received a phone call from Harvey Kurtzman. Though he’d been working for Hillman exclusively for some months, he was still a freelancer and he was aware that Kurtzman was not only an artist, but that he was writing his own material now and that he was editing a line of books for an outfit called EC Comics. Kurtzman inquired if he was interested in working for EC Comics, but Krigstein wasn’t, since the page rate they offered him was a dollar or two short of what his going rate was. Krigstein explained later: “But I think if I knew more at that time about what EC meant, I simply would have accepted Harvey’s invitation.” Shortly thereafter, Bernie’s relationship with Hillman turned sour. Since he already knew EC could not or would not offer what Hillman had paid him, instead of phoning up Kurtzman, Krigstein went back to working for DC Comics and the comics division of Martin Goodman’s Magazine Management, which by now had re-branded itself as Atlas Comics. The publisher was currently putting out plenty of books within in the horror genre, like Astonishing and Suspense, but little did Krigstein suspect that this new trend, horror comics, had started with EC Comics. He also had no idea that the reason why the time for horror comics had finally arrived rested on the fact that all the headlines about “Werewolf Killings” that had appeared regularly, had simply vanished. Once Dr. Hodel went on trial for the things done to his daughter at the Franklin House, the streak of slayings most likely committed by a mysterious dark-haired, well-mannered, well-dressed man had ended. After the trial, he quickly left the States. He knew that the district attorney’s office was prepping a murder case against him. The murders didn’t completely stop, though. What had been a macabre pearl necklace of murder, had its string broken, but still, from time to time, one of those loose pearls would surface whenever he visited America, or the other man, the man whose appearance fit the description of the man seen with some of the victims and often in the company of the elusive, mustachioed murder suspect, Fred Sexton, had been to an area of Los Angeles where another body was found. With these recent killings of women occurring so very infrequently, homicide detectives and the press either did not see a connection to the original series of murders or they simply played it close to the vest for their own reasons. But the series had stopped as far as the public was concerned. And right around that time, at EC Comics, publisher Bill Gaines and his writer-editor Al Feldstein had decided to give horror tales a try in their title Crime Patrol. Though Feldstein’s yarn “Return from the Grave!” didn’t exactly set the world on fire, still with the next issue, they began to feature more horror tales than crime stories. These tales were decidedly way more gruesome than what the fairly safe Adventures Into The Unknown offered at that time. Soon, the team re-branded Crime Patrol as The Crypt of Terror, and once the title changed its name again, this time to Tales from the Crypt, Atlas’ editor took note and he began to churn out terror tales a plenty. Meanwhile, Krigstein had reached such a level of artistic craftsmanship and ingenuity, that it was impossible for him to quickly create the simple schlock his editor and the scripts he and his writers penned demanded. His work was as well-crafted as the material produced by the best artists, but like Man Ray with surreal art, Krigstein re-arranged the building blocks of sequential storytelling single-handedly, much to the dismay of his editor as it would turn out. “Roll Call” from Astonishing No. 19 (1952) for instance, shows how his innovative storytelling elevates a perfectly dull script. Even looking at it today, this story feels modern.
In “Roll Call”, we are introduced John Masters, a regular, middle class fellow in his late thirties. With his wife May out for the evening to attend some show in town, he gets ready to watch a boxing match on television. He settles down in front of the set with a cold beer in one hand like millions of other guys at the same moment across the States. While we don’t really see the match, there are only short glimpses when the huge black and white TV set is in the frame, we see John’s reactions. With every minute that passes, he gets more excited. An establishing shot gives us a good feel for his comfortable surroundings, but the camera of the artist is very tight on his face which is as tense as the fight. One contestant is on the ground, but he gets saved by the bell. Then we go to the second round. John’s arms are raised, and his hands are fists as he mimics the action that plays on the round screen which seems like a semi-dark eye in the otherwise dark living room. Sweat is dripping from his forehead. But then, unexpectedly, the set grows black. Clearly, John is annoyed, furious even, and he gets up from his nice armchair and tinkers with the knobs. The screen stays black, but he can clearly hear three names get called out. His name is the name in the middle. At first his thoughts are with the fight. He’ll have to wait till the next morning to learn who the winner is. But John is getting curious about the names he’s heard, with his own name among those three names. He knows the other names as well. One belongs to one of his neighbors. He decides to put on his jacket and walk the short distance to find out if she’s caught what this is all about. Maybe they’ve won in some contest from the local station. If there’s a prize to be claimed, John doesn’t want to miss out. As he approaches his neighbor’s residence, a woman, he sees a car and some people, one of which is fastening something to the woman’s door. It’s a wreath, a black wreath. From the talk of the men and women at her house he gathers that his neighbor has just died. John Masters is puzzled. What the chances! John walks into town to the neighborhood where the third guys lives. As luck would have it, Felix Archer, whose name got called last, is out for a little stroll. John sees Felix as he’s about to cross a street. Unfortunately, Felix is busy with the paper he’s reading, and he doesn’t see the car which is racing towards him from one direction. He screams a terse warning, but it’s too late. Felix gets hit by the vehicle. As a group of onlookers gathers around him, Felix Archer dies on the spot. John is now very worried. There’s something strange going on. John rushes home as fast as he can. His thoughts are with his wife May who should be home by now, hopefully. When he enters his residence through the front door, she is there, and thankfully she is alright. She’s sitting in their living room, which is now illuminated by a single lamp. But then he realizes that she’s in tears. May isn’t alone. His doctor is talking to her. Dr. Burrows talks to his wife about his heart condition, and that in his conclusion, the excitement from the boxing match had to have been too much for John. It is then, while John stands very straight and right between his wife May and Dr. Burrows who both seem unable to see him, that he realizes that he must have died as well. The three names that he’d heard called out from the dead television set, these were on the roll call of death. This was a nice little tale, but what makes it so effective is Krigstein’s art. While the issue featured artwork by veterans of this still relatively young industry, like Joe Maneely and Fed Kida, Krigstein’s pencils and inks are striking by themselves and his clean approach to the artwork clearly makes his story a standout. But there is more. Krigstein pulls us closer into John’s mind with his perfectly composed panels and we not only feel for John Masters, we share his feelings. First his joy, while he’s watching the boxing match, then his puzzlement, and his worries about the well-being of his wife. Then finally, his dire realization and his acceptance. Oddly enough, the story’s twist is highly reminiscent of the movie “The Sixth Sense” (1999), but it is we who can see “dead people”, and with the way Krigstein sets the twist up, it is really shocking. As far as his own career was going, there was no surprising twist. Krigstein had a really low opinion of the editor at Atlas, Stan Lee, and he and Lee had a blow-out. The same thing happened at DC Comics. Many editors in the industry considered him difficult to work with.
Now, Krigstein phoned Kurtzman to see if EC still had a spot available on their dance card. They had, the artist turned editor assured him. In fact, when Krigstein made the trip to EC’s offices at 225 Lafayette Street in May 1953, he was surprised to see, that unlike with most artists and even editors, Kurtzman’s recommendation actually carried a lot of force with the publisher who hired him immediately. Krigstein was the last regular artist to join EC Comics. That Harvey had this much pull with the publisher was most impressive to Krigstein who later said that “it was strictly on that basis that I came to EC”, though Bernie was decidedly less enthusiastic about Kurtzman’s artistic approach and the boundaries he set for artists who worked on the books he wrote and edited for EC Comics. But that came later. First, Feldstein, who was Bill Gaines right-hand man, called him into his office. There was no fanfare to welcome him, just a couple of pages that needed inking, for a sci-fi story he had written, ironically called “A New Beginning”. Doing inks over somebody else’s pencils surely felt like working for Bernard Baily all over again. Had he now achieved so much artistic growth while pushing the medium itself forward? Krigstein stuck with it. He knew he’d burnt a bridge too many in the industry. But when he saw the finished product, the artist who’d penciled the yarn, threw a hissy fit. Al Williamson, who was temperamental and tightly wound anyway, as Krigstein discovered right away, even went so far to say that his inks had ruined his artwork. Al and his buddy Frazetta re-inked the linework quickly, but since the artwork was running late anyway, Williamson was also slow as Krigstein learned, some of his inked panels stayed in the finished product, only nobody at EC called it that. As Krigstein quickly noticed as well, the stories that were created at EC were more sophisticated than the material he’d received in the past, better than at Hillman Periodicals, still the gold standard as far as he was concerned, and most certainly much better than DC’s output or the detritus that Stan Lee over at Atlas rushed out of the door while he treated artists like cattle. Gaines on the other hand viewed his staff more like members of his own family, maybe even better. As Harvey had told him, at EC, artists received stories that fit their strength and sensibilities, and Bill encouraged his artists to go the extra mile by allowing them to experiment. However, Krigstein would quickly learn, that there was a limit to this, and that all experimentation was tightly controlled by Bill and his editors. It must have irked the combative, highly competitive Krigstein somewhat that at EC Comics there were three artists, Kurtzman, Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig, who enjoyed the kind of autonomy he could only dream of. While he fought hard and gained very few concessions from his editors, Bill Gaines let these guys pencil, ink, write and edit their own material as well as write and edit stories from the other artists who in turn were also allowed to ink their pencils. Amazingly, Feldstein who was one of the best good-girl artists in the industry, had withdrawn from doing any interior art due to his workload and Craig, the slowest artist around, was soon to become EC’s third editor in addition to writing and doing interior art and cover artwork. But there was a catch, at least where he was concerned. Even though the men were fine artists in their own right, or maybe because of it, they also wanted to define the overall look of the stories they wrote. Feldstein, for example, pre-lettered all pages, in fact, he wrote the story directly on the artboard. Lettering the pages beforehand and thus dictating the layout, limited the artistic choices you could make as an artist. After the debacle with “A New Beginning”, Krigstein decided to stick to the rules, at least for his own “new beginning”. He produced very slick looking artwork for the tale Feldstein gave him, another sci-fi yarn, this one was called “Derelict Ship”, which appeared in Weird Fantasy No. 22 (1953), ostensibly their final issue, since this title and Weird Science were merged into one magazine due to low sales. This issue also included an adaptation of a story by Ray Bradbury. Thankfully he hadn’t been given this story to illustrate since it was one of Bradbury’s rare misfires in how misogynistic it was. Another Bradbury tale would prove a boon to Krigstein, though, in fact, the second script Feldstein, his new editor, handed him, was his adaptation of a Bradbury story. “The Flying Machine”, which appeared in the next issue of the merged Weird Fantasy and Weird Science, namely in Weird Science Fantasy No. 23 (1954), not only became one of Krigstein’s most famous comic book stories, but he could experiment in the ways that hadn’t been possible before. For “Derelict Ship”, he’d used a clean, technical approach, for this story, which was set in China, Krigstein emulated the ink-brush techniques used by the masters of the scroll in Ancient China. Henceforth, he adapted his method to each new story. As for the Bradbury tale and Krigstein’s handling of the art, the author had this to say in a letter: “… ‘The Flying Machine’ is the finest single piece of art-drawing I’ve seen in years. Beautiful work; I was so touched and pleased by the concern for detail.” Only a few months later, Krigstein, with his artwork, revisited China for a tale penned by Johnny Craig for The Vault of Horror No. 36. The magazine was now under Craig’s purview, who’d taken over for Feldstein as editor, and it shows. The last couple of issues are among the best of the entire run, and his and Krigstein’s story “Pipe Dream” is arguably among the best tales EC published. Instead of repeating what he’d done so effectively on “The Flying Machine”, Krigstein once again adopts a unique approach. The way he illustrated this story about a Chinese father who is an opium addict and who sees that his drug induced dreams become reality, feels as if the artist was trying (and succeeding) to create beautiful visuals that had the same poetic lyricism to them that author Ray Bradbury achieved with his very carefully chosen words. This beautiful, sad tale begins with a man dreaming that he’s lost wife. Then she died. When his only son is drafted, in his opium dream, he foresees his death as well. He doesn’t approve of his only daughter’s choice for a mate, he even warns her about the man she’s chosen to marry. Later, as she comes to him to show him her bruises and tells him that her husband is beating her, all he can tell her is that there is nothing they can do about. They are honor bound. No shame may come upon their family. But secretly, he knows a way to save his daughter, or so he tells himself. In yet another dream born from his opium pipe and dreamt on a straw mat in a dark opium den, he sees how he confronts his son-in-law, and, in his dream, he kills the man who’s abusing his only living child. As he has dreamt it, things come to pass, and he tells his daughter, who surprisingly sheds many tears for her husband who has been killed by an unknow assailant, that she should be joyful and welcome his passing. But Chen Chu Yang is not allowed to redeem himself. There is no happy ending for him or his daughter. In the penultimate panel, Craig and Krigstein tell us about his final tragedy. “I know that it was a dream that caused my daughter’s man to die… yet the police would not believe her innocent. She was put to death for his murder!” And then, with the final panel, for which Krigstein tilted a rectangular panel into the upright position, placing Chu Yang’s feet at the top of the page, and his face and his hands holding his long opium pipe at the bottom and directly into the eyeline of the reader, we learn that in the end, none of this really matters to Yang, since he can always find solace in another opium dream. While in a very different life Salvador Dali had dreamt about a straight razor sliding across the eye of a women, in Craig’s story and in Krigstein’s illustrations, Yang keeps having nightmares. His first dream had already cost him dearly, but still, and knowing full well that his only son was about to be sent away to fight in a war, he could not stop, he would not stop, and herein lay the tragedy of his life. Krigstein, without Craig stopping him, was able to depict all of this in hauntingly beautiful visuals, as if you were reading a story by Bradbury, or a sad poem that was given visual representation far better than your mind ever could.
When teamed-up with Craig, and to a degree, when working from a script written by Al Feldstein, with Feldstein doing the editing, Krigstein was finally allowed to innovate sequential storytelling in ways that hadn’t been tried. The medium itself surely needed further exploring, and for that, you had to break it. While lesser artists or artists who were less bold or less sure of their talent, accepted every restriction they encountered, as unchangeable, or artists who viewed every assignment as just another job, so why bother, really, Krigstein was never willing to compromise. Not because he wanted to be difficult, but he believed in the integrity of the medium, and for the basic reason, that he had to follow the way he knew was the right one, the only one. When he was given a readymade product, a page already ruled or even completely laid out, he could not accept it when it seemed wrong. He had to break it to pieces, first to deconstruct it and then to reconstruct it, not unlike Man Ray who took a metronome and fixed a picture of a single eye to it, “Object to be Destroyed”. To Krigstein, panels were objects to be destroyed and so were stories. When Feldstein dictated the size, position and number of the panels on a given page, this didn’t stop the innovative artist from breaking the panels the writer-editor had envisioned for this page into smaller panels if he felt that the tale and the way it needed to be told demanded it. Of course, this was easier when Feldstein only served as his editor, like when Krigstein designed the visual storytelling for “Key Chain”. This story, published in Crime SuspenStories No. 25 (1954), was written by Jack Oleck, and Krigstein seized the opportunity to test Feldstein’s and the medium’s boundaries even further. He created sixty-three panels for this six-pager, with a final page on which he presented seventeen panels. With Feldstein ever decreasing input as a writer, Krigstein was only going forward and never back. This goes to explain one of the reasons why Krigstein and the man who had brought him to EC hardly worked together. In fact, Krigstein only finished one story for Kurtzman, oddly enough a story for MAD, and on another story, also for MAD, he alternated with Will Elder on art. He did do a few illustrations for Harvey on top of that, but that was the extent of their collaboration. Kurtzman and Krigstein discovered quickly that they didn’t mesh, or as Krigstein put it, who did regret that they couldn’t find more opportunities: “We didn’t work very smoothly together.” For one, Kurtzman didn’t grant his artists much freedom, or definitely less room than Feldstein was willing to give to an artist. As Greg Sadowski, who literally wrote the book on Bernard Krigstein, put it in his excellent introduction to Fantagraphics Books’ collection of the Krigstein tales for EC Comics (presented in black and white), “Master Race and other Stories” (2018), a book that is outstanding and is highly recommended: “Like Feldstein (and fellow editor Johnny Craig), Harvey Kurtzman took it a critical step further. He gave his artist detailed tissue overlays for each page, roughing out the scene in each panel, which he expected to be followed faithfully.” Though Krigstein didn’t mind this per se, he felt that Kurtzman’s layouts “did not go deeply enough into the psychological feeling of the story.” He also had less kind words to say about Kurtzman’s art. Whereas Kurtzman would often use techniques that came from cinema, for instance by repeating well-nigh the same image within several panels, which were arranged into one tier, the difference being that “the camera” ever moved tighter, thereby indicating the passing of time and simultaneously ratcheting up the excitement felt by the protagonist and to be enlisted from the readers, Krigstein considered this “superficial… I didn’t want a picture version of time, where the camera is going closer… That is not comics, and that is not pictures, because pictures do not relate to one another in that way,… and I wanted each panel to be a separate picture, and I didn’t want the repeating panels to blend together like a film, because comics are not a motion picture. They’re closer to a single painting than they are to a motion picture.” Clearly, Krigstein didn’t believe in transferring the abilities a movie camera had into comics. Each image needed to stand on its own and by its own: “I needed the silence of repetition to bring out the truly interesting thing to me – the character.” A story in which he perfectly conveyed his approach to sequential storytelling, and in which he even made it into a stylistic tool to clue reader in on what was going on, is “More Blessed to Give…” from Crime SuspenStories No. 24 (1954). Though it is unclear who wrote this story, maybe it was Jack Oleck, maybe Johnny Craig or Al Feldstein himself, this is one of those scenes from a marriage tales that Feldstein was very fond of telling. As it stands, due to Krigstein’s art and his approach, it might very well be one of the best stories by EC in the sub-genre of domestic murders. We are presented with a series of static, hyper-modern shots, like from a storyboard done by an ad agency on Madison Avenue in the 1960s for a TV commercial that never got made or as in this case, two lives in a marriage that had never come together. Whereas Feldstein had Jack Kamen depict what he perceived as the horror of the new life of suburbia in beautiful technicolor nightmares that would have done Douglas Sirk proud, with the way Krigstein composes each shot of each spouse separately, with him juxtaposing parallel actions, we immediately understand that we are presented with a couple that has grown apart, with very little affection left, if such a notion had ever existed. We know that this is the case long before we even read the opening narration that kicks off this tale: “Molly and Stanley Talbot had been married a long time, when they’d stood before the preacher eleven miserable years ago, they’d promised to ‘love, honor and obey each other till death.’ Well, the ‘loving’ each other went first, then the ‘honoring’… and finally the ‘obeying.’ This is the story of the ‘death portion’ of their mutual promise. This is the story of planned murder. This is the story of two individuals. And the best way to tell their story is individually, so…” On its surface, and this was where Krigstein tricked you, this was a nice, attractive, middle class couple who wore nice clothes and looked prim and proper, this was as long they stayed separate. Once they were trapped in a series of panels together, panels that felt equally static and repetitive like the dull routine their life together had become, the knives came out. Together, these two people hated each other. But separated, their minds were still occupied by thoughts of their respective spouse. They knew each other inside out and they knew where to best hide the grim instrument of death each of them had bought to hasten the demise of the other. Molly had gotten a bottle of fine whiskey and a bottle of rat poison. He had seen some shady character who had put a bomb together for him. Afterwards, Stanley had bought a cake for his wife. The next day brought their anniversary. With it, finally there’d be freedom from an endless string of fights followed by hours of aggressive silence. However, while they’re getting the items ready each of them has bought to murder the other, Molly putting the poison into the whiskey bottle, Stanley hiding the bomb in the cake, they are thinking about each other, and while she is in the house, and he is in the garage, their eyes find each other across the distance. They are wise to the other’s plan. Quickly, each of them comes up with an alternative scheme. Thus, once again, Krigstein shows each of them in parallel actions, and once again apart from each other. They exchange their gifts, but they know what’s up. They separate, with Stanley getting rid of the whiskey from the bottle, and the poison, Molly carefully removing the bomb from the cake. Then, there’s an explosion that can be heard in the house. Molly smiles. She knows it’s coming from the garage. She’s wired the whiskey bottle with a booby trap. With an expression of relief, she starts munching the cake. She doesn’t know that Stanley has poisoned it… “but good!” Though there’s a biting sense of humor and hyperbole to this story, and less bitterness than to be expected from a story by Feldstein that tackled such themes, if we consider that couples like the Talbots exist in real life, there is a realness to the wit and the exaggerations. There is this feeling of cold loneliness and isolation. Molly and Stanley seem to exist in a limbo state. They are never together when they are together, and they are never alone when they are alone. We understand this, less from the script, though, but through the way the story is told visually. And from what we learned about one Dr. George Hodel and his third wife Dorothy Harvey, the wife he nicknamed “Torero”, and the life they lived at the cold, foreboding Franklin House during the end of the 1940s, this tale feels almost too real.
The theme of dreams and nightmares, of fantasy and of murder fantasy, can be found throughout the stories Krigstein illustrated while working at EC. Tales, that interestingly either already came with a very unnerving, surreal vibe inherent to the scripts, and subsequently made more unnerving through Bernie Krigstein’s assured hand, or rather simple stories he elevated into a realm where people and their petty lives were objects to be destroyed. A run-of-the-mill story, like Carl Wessler’s “Murder Dream”, from Tales from the Crypt No. 45 (1955), became a nocturnal bête noir, designed to take you off balance as Krigstein granted you “perchance to dream”. Or in “You, Murder”, from a script by legendary pulp writer Otto Binder, first published in Shock SuspenStories No. 14 (1954), for which he paid homage to one of the most seminal films of the silent area, the expressionistic masterpiece “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, with Krigstein using hands as a leitmotif and as visual cues to readers that now they were entering into a world in which the voice and gestures of a wicked mastermind could launch you into a state not awake but also not asleep, like Dr. Hodel was able to, with his charm and narcotics if need be. Then there were the stories that were set in the here and now, but quickly, once you had missed a crucial signpost that showed the right way, you found yourself trapped on either an ethereal plane of non-existence or many feet underground and buried before your time, your death less deferred, but a most assured certainty, like the fate that befell the unlucky protagonists in “The Catacombs”, from The Vault of Horror No. 38 (1954), a tale written by Carl Wessler as well, but with the writer much better adapted to what Krigstein liked to do. And indeed, with Wessler finely attuned to Krigstein’s strengths as a visual storyteller, they create a memorable tale that kicks off with a burst of youth and freedom, but then quickly and steadily conveys a sense of dread and claustrophobia, a tale that at its resolution yields its two main characters nothing, but death, or entrapment followed by certain death. The setting for this story is Italy, the time is unspecified. We are introduced to two small-time crooks, the young Pietro Miuta and his much older friend Gino Alcari. With the younger man leading the charge and holding a bag with silver figurines, we see them running from a store. There’s a tier of four smaller panels, uneven in size to echo unsure steps as the thieves run and half-stumble out the door. Once they’re free, there’s a wide, rectangular shot in which we just see the pair’s feet and the bag with the loot. Then another smaller panel that shows the store owner as he’s shouting for help, his fists raised ineffectually. This is a masterclass in composition and a killer first page. Though editor Craig was a great artist, this wasn’t how he’d laid out the opening page. As was tradition at EC, Craig had designed a large splash panel to take readers into the story with a wide establishing shot that presented an expansive vista. Krigstein felt this needed to be changed and he petitioned Craig with his idea and showed him the sketches he’d prepared. The editor was reluctant. Craig did masterful work at EC, but he’d been working in the EC mold for too long. He took the matter up with Gaines, nevertheless. They got his approval. There’d be only a handful of further exceptions to the splash panel opening layout, though. As for the tale itself, Johnny Craig tried to get out of Krigstein’s way as much as possible. He placed some of Wessler’s dialogue right into the narration boxes, a method used by newspaper strips. This gives the art room to breathe, however, Krigstein once again uses many small, uneven-sized panels to create a sense of claustrophobia early on. Though they’ve cleared a very handsome haul with their brazen heist at the antique store, and Gino wants to celebrate with drinking some wine at their shabby little apartment, Pietro tells his friend that they must be careful. The police must be suspecting them already, since they’ve been to prison for similar crimes. He proposes that they hide their loot in the catacombs, the ancient burial chambers which are located deep beneath the city. Gino doesn’t like the idea at all, but Pietro convinces him that it’s the only way. They’ll come back at a later point in time to fetch the silver figurines once things have cooled down somewhat. They take some of the wine and a makeshift lantern and walk to the mouth of the man-made cave. They have heard of the labyrinthine tunnels and the underground chambers that house the dead. A man will get lost down there in the dark if he’s not careful. The way Krigstein depicts the opening to this maze, with showing a round portal with jagged edges that seems like an eye looking straight at us the readers, and with Gino and Pietro very small against this wide, open space, we do not only feel that they are watched, and we are watched, by some detached, uncaring deity, but that they, and we, are about to be judged for our transgressions. Carrying the bag with the figurines, the men enter the catacombs, careful to mark their trail with drops from the wine bottle. First, there are the dead who bear witness in silence. But then, as Pietro stabs Gino numerous times in the back with the long knife he’s brought and hidden in his jacket, and a surprised Gino staggers to the ground, it is also Gino who judges his friend for his greed and this vile betrayal, Pietro who looks at him with an ice-cold stare and who tells him what a fool he has been. But Gino is not dead, yet. He stumbles into one of the tunnels, blindly and in pain, while Pietro picks up the bag with the silver figurines. He had no intention of leaving the loot from their heist down there in the all-encompassing darkness. With the lantern illuminating the ground, he tries to find the wine trail. The light also dances along the walls of the chambers he passes and there are the images of some saints who also pass their judgment. It is under an image of Jesus Christ that he discovers the red trail they’ve left in the dirt, the one that marks his path to freedom and salvation. Pietro pays little attention to the icon that is behind and above him, painted onto these walls by religious worshippers centuries ago, the image of the man who gave his body and his blood to save mankind, to redeem all of us, but instead he is elated to be on his way to safety, to be able to breathe fresh air again. But the red trail does not yield the way to freedom but to the body of the murdered Gino. Pietro has followed the wrong trail. Now he talks to Gino, now he begs for forgiveness, now he seeks Gino’s help in finding the right path. But Gino is dead. “… and then… the light went out!”, and what he and we are left with, is one pitch-black panel. For what was to be the final issue of The Vault of Horror (No. 40, cover dated December 1954, January 1955), Krigstein completely reversed his approach to the opening page from two issues earlier. Working once again from a script by Carl Wessler, albeit another less successful one as critics argue, he presents his only full-page splash page, and what he does rivals the most vicious, realistic tableaux the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol ever put on the Parisian stages. We see two cocks, suspended in mid-air and fighting each other to the death while a crowd of leering spectators cheers them on. In “The Pit!” we encounter two couples. The Johnsons who operate an illegal cock fighting ring, and the Scotts who make their cash with dog fights. While the men, Felix and Aaron think this cruel and they wish to quit their business, it’s the two women who want more, more customers and more money, and if this means to be more cruel, that is fine by them. The couples are not only aware of each other, but the two wives, Lila and Beatrice, are highly competitive. When the Johnsons’ business begins to slow down, Lila sends Felix into the other camp to learn why. To outdo Lila, Beatrice has tasked her husband with letting four attack dogs into the ring at the same time, to savage results. Once Felix returns, Lila knows exactly the thing to outdo their competition and her rival Beatrice. Shortly thereafter the spectators of their act see six gamecocks going at each other in the pit. Money starts pouring in again, with the women never getting tired of reminding their husbands that it was they who created their business while the men slaved away at some menial job like pumping gas at a two-bit filling station. Naturally, Beatrice must up the ante, and soon there’re a dozen dogs attacking each other in the fight ring operated by the Scotts. Longtime EC Comics readers of course knew that all of this wouldn’t end well. Especially with the way these women were portrayed.
On its surface, “The Pit!” very much feels like a yarn Feldstein could have come up with during the mid-point in EC’s run. Despite the nasty business of animal cruelty, there’s definitely a fun wickedness to be had from these proceedings. The two couples are fighting constantly, but not in a clean, well-structured manner like what we’ve seen with the Talbots in “More Blessed to Give…” The Johnsons and the Scotts come from a working-class background and they are mean and coarse, but in many ways, they are much smarter than the elegant middle class couple in the other story. There is some fun in the way they chafe against the poor hand life has dealt them. But this is not what Wessler is going for, and this is not a tale illustrated by Jack Davis who had this type of ironic story down pad. “The Pit!” is not a humorous story, nor does the artwork, despite some visual exaggerations by Krigstein, allow for any humor. As a matter of fact, the two couple are criminals. There’s no difference between them and Pietro or Gino. And thus, with doing illustrations for stories written by Wessler, since he’d joined EC Comics this late in the game, instead of stories penned by Al Feldstein, and with Wessler lacking the lyrical panache of a Johnny Craig, the highly artistic Krigstein was thrown into world that was grimy and mean, a literal dog-eat-dog world, a vulgar world which stood in sharp contrast to his beautiful delineations, a world mostly inhabited by petty thieves and other small-time criminals, less in the mold of hardboiled detective fiction, but more in the vein of the fringe characters you encountered in a naturalistic novel this side of Theodor Dreiser or Frank Norris. Characters that could turn on a dime to either allow their better nature to come out on top, sometimes even in an act of self-sacrifice, or who lost it completely and who descended into mania and madness. And in this world, there was only one resolution to a story like “The Pit!”, and in this case, it was a highly misogynistic one to boot. In the penultimate shot, Krigstein shows us that Felix and Aaron have come together in a moment of bromance, both men with a wide grin on their unshaven faces. In the pit, down below and in a panel that seems most surreal in a manner that would have done Man Ray and his ilk proud, we see Lila and Beatrice going at each other in the most vicious way with the corpses of the spent dogs scattered around them. There’s not only some mild hair-pulling going on, but Lila and Beatrice are biting each other, with their flared teeth deeply buried into the flesh of their rival. This was Wessler’s world, depicted by Krigstein. And it was also Luis Buñuel’s and Dr. Hodel’s world, a world that viewed and treated a woman as a mere “Object to be Destroyed”. A world in which the innocent never stood a chance, as was the case in Wessler’s and Krigstein’s next collaboration. With “In the Bag” from Shock SuspenStories No. 18 (1954), Krigstein shows us how fragile and fragmented this world was. Once again breaking with storytelling tradition as defined by the medium and in this case, EC’s editors, Bernie Krigstein sub-divides six pages into a staggering number of panels, seventy-seven panels to be precise. And though he was well-aware that his penciled and inked pages would get colored by Marie Severin, this story is also a study in contrasts as expressed by his reliance on strong whites and deep blacks. “In the Bag” is as much a story about an obsession as it is a story that shows us the criminal underworld of a major city, all seen through the eyes of McLeod, a plain-clothes cop patrolling the streets of what he describes as “the toughest section in town.” It is the dead of night and the streets are “black and shiny”. On his nightly patrol, McLeod crosses a lone pedestrian who carries a round canvas bag. In the moment they met under a streetlamp, the policeman notices a stain at the bottom of the man’s bag. This stain does look a bit like dried blood. McLeod, who knows his badge number in his sleep, calls out to the man to stop him. Krigstein once again uses a number of smaller panels, six in total in two horizontal tiers, to convey a sense of movement and rhythm, like footsteps on the black pavement. On the next page, the action picks up and we get six rectangular panels in one tier as the man does not stop but runs instead. McLeod, who’s getting really suspicious of the individual, tells him to stop. He races after him and as he tracks him to a parked car, the man jumps out of the vehicle and quickly ducks into a dark alley on foot. While the plain-clothes cop hunts the suspect, his mind goes through various scenarios. There might an innocent explanation to the man’s reaction, it might not be murder after all. But McLeod has seen it all, and he has heard it all, and Krigstein visualizes the movie that plays in the private theater of McLeod’s mind. There are images of knife-wielding madmen like the one seen on the cover to Eerie No. 1, and of course, with such a monster, the victims must be innocent women. And, after all, this was “the toughest section in town.” Then McLeod has cornered his prey in the narrow alley, which is a dead end. The cop pulls his .45 and holds up his flashlight which he shines right in the man’s face. Indeed, with the way his eyes stare back at the policeman and with the way he clutches the round back and holds it tightly to his upper body, the man might very well be a maniac. The story this man, Mr. Dominick, relates to the cop seems to bear this out. There is a strong likelihood that he’s a killer. Dominick tells McLeod about this other guy at work who kept needling him. Now, despite being a later hire, his colleague has been made his supervisor, and this only made matters worse. In fact, because “he was young… ambitious… he had a good head on his shoulders, he became head bookkeeper… my boss!” There was more abuse, at least according to Dominick, who just couldn’t take it anymore. “So I bought an axe… and tonight I waited…!” McLeod expected this revelation when on instinct he’d called out to him. The cop knew this world, and Wessler knew it, too, a world in which a regular guy, any guy, was only one bad day away from turning into a murderer or from becoming a victim. Bernie translates this into a well-crafted sequence. He uses two tiers, one with three panels vertically divided into six panels, but connected by the word balloons. Then a tier with seven panels. These thirteen panels offer headshots of Mr. Dominick. But it is the lower tier with its seven, small, rectangular panels which concludes the first act of the story at the mid-point. The first and the last panel remind us of the headshots of Luis Buñuel. Like the director, in the pic taken by Man Ray in 1929, in the first panel, Dominick looks young and attractive, though his eyes express an immense sadness. Like Buñuel in his second portrait picture taken some thirty years later, Dominick is an entirely changed man in the last panel. Whereas Buñuel looks like controlling bookkeeper at old age, Dominick, who is a bookkeeper, looks raving mad, exactly what the filmmaker must have looked like in the eyes of his friend Salvador Dali during the moment when his hands were closing around Gala’s neck.
But when looking at this tier with the seven long, rectangular panels, we are also reminded of Krigstein’s two portrait pictures, one already taken, a picture of a man who clutches his arm around his upper body in attempt to better brace himself for impact, not unlike Dominick who holds on to the bag as one last vestige of normalcy. As long as the bag is unopened and McLeod has not seen what’s inside, there might exist a change for him to go back to his old life. And the last panel, the one that shows him stark-raving mad, Krigstein created it long before he knew what his own future held. With little foresight that in ten years’ time he’d be a more relaxed, leaner guy with shorter hair and an overgrown goatee, a man who was happy and content, as it were, in 1954, maybe he was a little bit afraid to show what was in his bag more than he’d already done. But this wasn’t Dominick’s story, it was McLeod’s. Consequently, Wessler and Krigstein literally kick things into high gear with the start of the second act. With McLeod distracted, Mr. Dominick kicks him to the curb and makes good on his escape. The cop reaches for his gun and he fires some shots blindly into the darkness. Out on the street, he encounters two uniformed policemen who cruise by in their black-and-white patrol car. McLeod tells these men what’s up and one of the two cops radios the other cars to be on the lookout for the suspect. McLeod continues his hunt on foot and once he makes it around one corner of a building, there is a man holding a round canvas bag. This time, he won’t take any chances. McLeod pulls his gun. He calls out to Dominick with glee. Then he fires three rounds at very close range, one of which hits the guy right in his face. This was personal now. Dominick should have stopped when he’d first called out to him. And all things considered, he was dangerous, a maniac. Alerted by the sound of gunfire, the policemen from the patrol car make it to the scene quickly. McLeod motions to the round bag on the ground as he proudly proclaims that he’s shot the killer. This is when one of the two cops informs him that this is impossible. One of the other cars has already picked up the fugitive. But it had to be this guy who’s lying at their feet, McLeod insists. There was the bag and there was something in it that looked like a human head. But when he unzips the satchel made of canvas to prove to the other cops that he’s right, a black bowling ball rolls out from the bag onto the pavement. Indeed, this was McLeod’s story and it was he who was only one bad day away from madness. And with one of the patrol officers tersely asking McLeod to surrender his gun to him, we fade out. This was Carl Wessler’s world, illustrated by Bernard Krigstein. Perhaps it was our world as well, a world in which the real monsters were at large, monsters who wore the face of a cultivated, handsome doctor, a policeman or an accountant. Had Krigstein joined EC earlier, chances are, that he’d have illustrated more tales that were penned by Al Feldstein (who usually worked from ideas Gaines provided). But then, working with Craig or from scripts by Wessler and Oleck often allowed him more room for experimentation. So, there was certainly an upside to his late arrival at EC at the last days of the New Trend books. But considering how good Feldstein was when he was into the material he was writing, like with suburban melodramas, it’s unsurprising that Krigstein’s most famous tale is based on a script by Feldstein, with input by Gaines. Published much later than any other material from the New Trend days, “Master Race” first appeared in Impact No. 1 (cover dated March-April 1955), one of the first New Direction titles and ostensibly the last regular comic book from EC Comics that didn’t feature the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval prominently displayed on its cover. According to longtime EC fan, comic book scholar and comic writer S.C. Ringgenberg, this kept the story from making much of an impact (as you were) once it did see print: “Published without the Comics Code Authority seal, many retailers refused to sell [the issue].” Krigstein, who had received the script from Feldstein in the Summer of 1954, liked the story so much, he wanted to see it expanded from a six-pager to twelve pages. Krigstein would later explain his reasoning for this: “What happened was… I received this… story and read it, and it was just the most explosive story that I had ever come across in my work in the field.” He phoned up the publisher. Reluctantly, Gaines gave Krigstein the permission to expand the story to eight pages, but he made it clear that they wouldn’t pay for the re-lettering that had to be done since Feldstein, as was his wont, had already laid out the pages by writing the captions and the dialogue onto the artboard. Bernie spent an entire month with drawing and re-pasting the lettering to fit his new layout. This included a first page re-designed from the ground up. He also had to keep Gaines calm who was getting cold feet and wasn’t so sure about the expansion he’d agree to. In the end, when Krigstein brought in the finished story, Feldstein and Gaines agreed that going with the proposed expansion was the right call. Bill Gaines was so pleased, that he paid Krigstein forty-three dollars per page, two dollars more than his regular page rate at EC, to compensate him for the additional work, though in the end, the artist had needed twice the time he usually allotted for any script from EC. At eight pages, the story no longer fit into the issue it had been commissioned for, and Feldstein sat on it for several months. As he later admitted, he was annoyed that his tight schedule had been messed with when Krigstein had de facto sidestepped the chain of command and went to Gaines.
Not only is “Master Race” widely considered Krigstein’s finest work in comic books, it is also often cited as one of the best comic book stories ever produced, and that is judging it based on its artwork. But as a story, and in combination with the art, of course, it carries a lot of weight. Krigstein would later lament that in a way, it remained a very unique thing at EC and across the industry, at least for the time being: “If only they would have allowed me to continue on this track. If I could have expanded the material… I felt that I could have done very new and good things… that something tremendous could have been done if they’d let me do it.” Though this story is written by Al Feldstein, one of his best scripts for sure, there are some striking parallels to Wessler’s “In the Bag”. Like the latter story was about a cop named McLeod, this was a story about a man with the name Carl Reissman. We see him go about his day as he buys a ticket for the subway and then waits on the platform for his train. But Feldstein lets us into Carl’s thoughts. His mind is plagued by memories, haunting memories of the Belsen Concentration Camp. But what was the past, the mass killings, is also his present. Even while he is sitting in a compartment all by himself, he sees the faces of the victims. Reissman is afraid, not of the past, but how it might affect his presence, even here in America. He recalls Hitler’s rise to power, how an entire country went insane. It was a chance for some, those who got swept up in this wave of nationalism that put men into powerful positions, but for many, it meant tyranny and death. But in the present, Reissman is not alone anymore. A man has boarded the train and Reissman can’t even look at him. Carl remembers how people, friends and neighbors, simply vanished, he remembers the torture, the ovens that were burning human flesh, the mass graves with masses of people being buried alive. Throughout it all, at the Belsen Concentration Camp, there were the officers who partied with their whores while the light of the lamps shone through shades made of human-skin, and there were the guards laughing as they were digging the mass graves, “the guards that gleefully carried out the sadistic orders of the master race… whipping, kicking, beating! The guards that eagerly dragged the women and children to the waiting, smoking ovens…!” Carl knows the face of the man sitting right across from him, and this is why he is more afraid now. This man who had curse him out, this man who made a promise to him: “Someday, I’ll get you, Reissman!” The same man who was just now looking at Carl from the aisle, who studied his face. This man remembered, too. This man recognized Carl like Carl had recognized him, and even now he was getting up from his chair, his face tense, one arm raised, fingers pointing at Reissman. Thankfully this is when the train stops. This is his chance. Carl rushes from the car and out on the platform, with the man following him like an evil spectre, all in black, his gaunt visage a mask of death. This was Carl Reissman’s story as “In the Bag” was policeman McLeod’s story, the man who knew his badge number in his sleep. And though Reissman is hunted and McLeod is the hunter, both men are not victims, they are the perpetrators. For McLeod it’s the moment when he is corrupted by the power invested in him, for Reissman it’s the moment he does not flee or stays to fight, but puts on the uniform of a Nazi, once he allows himself to become an officer and the Commander of the Belsen Concentration Camp. The man who hunts Reissman, he is a survivor “of a human hell on Earth, this survivor of a German Concentration Camp, Belsen Concentration Camp.” Now Reissman flees, he who didn’t flee before, he who put on the uniform, he flees from this one man, this one man who has all the power now: “Run down the long, empty, deserted station platform, Carl! Run from the personification of the millions of your countrymen who couldn’t ride the tide you chose to ride… who were caught in its undertow… who were persecuted and jailed… and burned in ovens and gassed and buried alive in mass graves…” Then, the man just stands there as Carl runs towards a tunnel with a train approaching. Carl slips and then he topples and falls onto the train track. Then he is under the metal wheels of the engine like a body caught in an undertow. The passengers who get off the train ask the man what just had happened. This man jumped, he says. “Ever see him before?”, asks one man. His answer, as he slowly walks away: “No! He… he was a perfect stranger…” The end. There is Feldstein’s very strong script, but then there is Krigstein’s artwork. Though the story reads very cinematic and you can probably imagine a film in stark black and white in your head, which seems like the approach Harvey Kurtzman might have taken with this powerful material, Krigstein doesn’t use any storytelling elements lifted from another medium. His medium of choice is comics. In what seems like an objective, well-nigh clinical point of view, Krigstein completely eschews the use of close-ups. Instead of using movie lighting effects, his blacks and whites are more abstract. Krigstein later explained: “I wanted the story to appear in a total light, total and beautiful and clear light… I felt that the intensity of the story was best served by total clarity – total beautiful clarity.” Even though it would take several months before Feldstein was willing to finally publish “Master Race”, all the while Bernie was petitioning him and Gaines to have the story come out, and by the time it did, the landscape of comics had radically changed, the artist stayed with EC Comics. He considered the scripts superior, and he gladly worked on most of the New Direction titles where he continued experimenting with ways how to best tell stories through a visual medium. It took till Gaines and Feldstein created the Picto-Fiction magazines and he was tasked with re-creating a story Feldstein and Craig had told before during the New Trend days. Krigstein did change the ending, though, not for artistic reason, but because he considered Feldstein’s original ending “immoral”. Gaines and Feldstein wouldn’t let his alterations stand, and consequently, the artist quit on the spot with Reed Crandall finishing the story. Krigstein would never work for EC Comics again, even though Feldstein and Bill Gaines soon had a massive hit on their hands when MAD took off, shortly after it had been converted into a magazine and Feldstein took over from Kurtzman as its editor. Krigstein went back to Atlas where he worked on titles such as Caught and some of their watered-down sci-fi and suspense series. In 1962, he began teaching at the High School of Art and Design where he stayed for the next twenty years. He also saw many of his fine art paintings win numerous prices at art exhibitions. Though Bernie Krigstein had been rather dismissive of Harvey Kurtzman, the artist had this to say about his colleague: “He had a feel for graphics second to nobody I can think of in the comics field. A sensitive, intelligent approach to comic graphics. There’s no doubt about that.” Just judging from his later pic, Bernie found happiness. Interestingly, he no longer owned his most valuable artwork. In 2018, the original art for “Master Race” sold for 600,000 dollars. It was purchased by the Boon Foundation for Narrative Graphic Art in Belgium.
The artwork created by the artists at EC has been studied closely by the next generations of comic book creators, like they themselves had been influenced by the artists who worked on the newspaper strips before. However, Bernard Krigstein’s legacy lies in how he innovated the medium itself. Perhaps author Neil Gaiman put it best: “Bernie Krigstein was an artist who understood that comics were art decades before the rest of the world caught up. His comics work stands alone”. Like with many innovators, the extent to which Krigstein shaped comic book art is evident in the work created by younger artists. While many fans admire the work of an artist du jour, they are often unfamiliar with those who influenced it. When artist Frank Miller began his much-celebrated run on Marvel’s Daredevil, much was made of the influence Will Eisner had on his storytelling. But Krigstein is and was there as well, and a bit of Wessler, too, in the way Miller portrayed a world that was populated by small-time crooks and petty hoodlums, a world in which a good man could just as easily simply snap, the innocent died, the defenseless gave their lives for others and power was a matter of perspective. One only needs to look at the opening to Daredevil No. 179 (1982) and the way Miller and his inker Klaus Janson lay out the page with six panels that run horizontally, to see the visual language Krigstein developed. Though the artists do use extreme close-ups throughout the sequence during which reporter Ben Urich is threatened by the beautiful and deadly Elektra, assassin for hire, they ultimately return to the horizontal grid on the third page, now a five panel page with a variation on the size of each panel until the larger final panel that resolves some of the tension, but leaves readers with a deeply scared Urich. This is pure Krigstein, whose art and ways of telling stories also informs Darwyn Cooke’s seminal DC Comics mini series The New Frontier (2004). Especially in the sequences during which the writer-artists re-tells the origins of the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern, he pays homage to the artists who couldn’t work well together: Krigstein and Kurtzman. It is interesting to ponder what influence Krigstein might have had on superhero comics had he stayed in the comic book industry. What this might have looked like can be seen on the cover for The Flash No. 199 (1970) on which Bernie Krigstein’s friend Gil Kane paid tribute to the artist who re-invented comics. In closing, as we envision Krigstein during the month he spent with cutting up Feldstein’s lettering and pasting it down to fit his new layout for the pages already laid-out by the writer-editor, with the artist arranging and re-arranging the panels in new, innovative ways, do we not see Buñuel and Dali as they ponder the seemingly unrelated sequences that make up “Un Chien Adalou”? And then, finally, the cut across the eye, an eye which we see as a picture cut-out and blow-up in artist-photographer Man Ray’s “Objects to be Destroyed”. Man Ray who was friends with a monster who loved to pose in front of his camera in an all-too eerie cosplay of his own making, a monster who lived in a world Krigstein depicted.