Frank Miller, Bernie Krigstein, and “The Master Race”

As many of you probably know, last Friday DC Comics announced plans to publish a new sequel to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  While details were sketchy, it was clear that Miller would be working in collaboration with Brian Azzarello as well as other writers and artists.

Somehow, I’ve managed to write this weekly column for 16 months now without talking much about Frank Miller.  I’d like to say that’s just a strange coincidence, but I know it’s not.  In addition to being one of the most important figures in comics history, Miller is one of primary reasons I fell in love with comics in the first place.

But these days thinking about Frank Miller just makes me sad.  His most recent book, Holy Terror, may have been masterfully drawn, but it was indefensibly written—both infantile and racist.  And shortly after its release, Miller posted on his blog a now infamous rant against the Occupy Movement.  The blog entry came out of thin air—Miller rarely posts anything online—and it was full of enough non-sequiturs, gaps in logic, and ad homonym attacks to make an angry drunk in a bar sound like Alan Dershowitz.

As a one-two punch, Holy Terror and that blog post managed to sink much of the respect I still had for Miller.  I’m usually able to appreciate work by people I disagree with (I’m a liberal who loves John Wayne movies, after all), but the mind that produced Holy Terror and that blog post was so juvenile that it no longer seemed possible to give Miller the benefit of the doubt.

But then last year I saw shocking new photographs of Miller in an article for Wired If you haven’t seen any recent images, Miller looks like he has aged 30 years during the last 5.  I have no idea what is happening to him—such information is personal anyway—but after staring at his picture for a long while, it seemed both callous and pointless to continue mocking or attacking him.  That’s why I decided to just keep quiet and move on.

But it’s hard to just move on.

So this week, instead of going through some narcissistically artificial posture of either standing against Miller or defending him—as if anyone really cares about my stance—I decided I’d rather just talk about comics.  Fortunately, Miller’s controversial subtitle to the new series—“The Master Race”—gives me the perfect excuse.  Given the legacy of Holy Terror and the combative relationship Miller’s developed with many comics readers, the subtitle, with its close connection to Nazi propaganda, seems deliberately provocative.  And that may be what he had in mind.

But it’s not his only reason.  Despite all his flaws, Miller has remained a serious advocate for comics, and he has demonstrated a great awareness of comics history. So while most of the world knows “The Master Race” as Nazi rhetoric, Miller and many comics readers know it as something far, far different.

“The Master Race” is the title of an 8-page story created in 1955 by Bernie Krigstein and published by EC Comics in a short-lived series called Impact.  It’s also one of the most important comics ever published.

Krigstein, a formally educated painter, is my favorite comic book artist of the 1950s.  He eventually gave up on comics in favor of other work—including painting the cover for Richard Condon’s novel, The Manchurian Candidate—but the work he did at EC—especially in “The Master Race”—would go on to inspire generations of artists including Jim Steranko and, most significantly, Frank Miller.

The story offers a hint of where mainstream comics could’ve gone had they not succumbed to the Wertham witch-hunts of the ‘50s.  It opens with that miserable phrase, “The Master Race,” scrawled across the top of the page, the two words divided by a Nazi swastika.  Below the title, the narrator begins a psychological assault on the story’s protagonist, Carl Reismann:  “You can never forget, can you, Carl Reissman?  Even here … in America … ten years and thousands of miles away from your native Germany.”  The narrator goes on to talk about how Reissman has learned to fit into American culture after escaping Belsen Concentration Camp.  Throughout the opening panels, Reissman seems an ambiguous figure—is he a victim of the camps, scarred by the experience, or was he one of the Nazis, hiding now in America, paranoid about being discovered?

As he introduces us to Reissman, Krigstein elects not to reveal too much.  The brim of a fedora blackens out Reissman’s face in each panel on the first page, keeping him mysteriously enigmatic.

We finally see Reissman’s face on the second page as he “sighs into a seat,” as the narrator puts it.  He is worn out, nervous, and the narrator reminds him that he will never be free of the fear.  Krigstein remains committed to showing us only bits and pieces of Reissman, implying that it will take some time and some work to eventually figure him out.  In the meantime, Krigstein gives us Reissman from the left side, from the back, from the right side, from below, from above, and from over the shoulder.

When a figure in black enters the train car, Reissman peers over the top of his newspaper, studying the man with his own white, vacant eyes.  Finally, through a series of flashback panels, Krigstein reveals that Reissman was, indeed, a Nazi, and the man in black was a prisoner at Belsen who had sworn revenge.

This is remarkable subject matter for a mainstream comic in 1955.  Even though all the camps had been liberated more than a decade earlier, you could count on one hand the number of films that gave any kind of depiction of the Holocaust.  Yet, here was a Holocaust story in a comic book by the company that published the Cryptkeeper.

As Reissman gets off the train, he tries to run away from the man who follows him.  The climax occurs when he loses his footing and, in one of the most famous sequences in comics history, Krigstein matches the fastest-occurring event in the story with the slowest visual movement in the story, a series of four images of Reissman slipping and falling, each separated by moment-to-moment transitions.

The weakest element of the story is the implausibility of this single prisoner appearing on the same subway as Reissman chasing him to his death.  When he first recognizes Reissman, he expresses surprise, so clearly hadn’t hunted him down to this spot.  So the scenario seems particularly far-fetched.  That’s why when I first read this story in college, I glibly dismissed it:  Cool art; stupid story.

But reading it again this weekend, the story seems far more ambiguous.  On one level, we have everything we see at surface value.  A Nazi war criminal, tormented by fear, is confronted on a subway by one of his victims, tries to run, and falls to his death.  But it also works quite well as a psychological adventure.  The narrator, who keeps addressing Reissman directly in second person, establishes his strong sense of guilt and paranoia.

Thus, when the man in black stands up and confronts him, Krigstein juxtaposes two matching images of the man—only in the second, his eyes appear red and his mouth open, almost like a vampire or monstrous fiend of some sort.  Is this supposed to be what Reissman sees when he looks at him?

In the same way, Krigstein makes sure that no other characters witness the two men’s interactions, despite the fact that up until then, almost every panel in the story conveyed the sense of lots of people coming and going.  Yet, when Reissman runs off the train and races across the subway platform with the man trailing behind him, no one else is present.  Where did everyone go?  It’s as if we’re suddenly seeing a melodrama of Reissman’s own imaginings, where he and the former camp prisoner are the only people in the universe.

In the final panels, when the man in black is questioned, he says he didn’t know him:  “He was a perfect stranger.”  Why keep Reissman’s past a secret?  In the surface level reading of the story, the man in black comes across as a vengeance-wreaking angel of death, and his lie at the end leaves everything in the story feeling tainted.  But if what we’ve really seen is the psychological unraveling of a man, a variation on Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, then the final lines become much more ironic.

Regardless, the story really is a visual tour-de-force and should be read by everyone.  That’s why, if someone asks me what I think of Frank Miller writing a new Batman series, I shrug.  It just means that in my imaginary world, Bernie Krigstein is trending.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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