In a discussion at ProCon years ago Gil Kane expostulated that from the time of their inception in the mid 1930s the comic book ascetic moved forward at a steady progression, perhaps reaching it’s peak in the early 50’s with EC comics. While Gil felt that DC comics tried to maintain those standards with the Silver Age superhero phase, things definitely started going downhill with the advent of Marvel. While Stan Lee’s productions were never short on entertainment, the quality of the artwork and stories were designed for instant gratification rather than any lasting impression. No doubt that point could be argued ad infinatum without reaching any satisfactory conclusion, and I’m certainly not up for the battle.
Let’s look instead at two of the greatest stories published by EC, Squeeze Play (Shock Suspense Stories #13 1954) and Thunder Jet (Frontline Combat #8 1952). The company had it’s own stable of magnificent free-lancers like Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, and Al Williamson to mention the most prominent. They also managed to occasionally sneak in a small piece of brilliance by some of the best in the business at the time: Joe Kubert, Bernie Krigstein, and the artists on the two stories presented today, Alex Toth and Frank Frazetta .
Alex Toth remains a bit of an enigma to fandom. He was established early in his career as an enfant terrible with his remarkable drawing and storytelling ability and fiery personality. Often one to burn bridges, Alex left the New York comics scene and moved to LA, where he became a force in animation, while still doing the occasional comic job. Artists appreciated the magnificence of his work, but his minimalistic approach was never popular for the most part with fans.
In Thunder Jet you can see Alex abandon completely the rather busy rendering style he had used at DC comics in the mid to late 40’s and use simple black and white shapes to define the images. In part it was an homage to one of his heroes that he often raved about, Noel Sickles. Alex simply updated Noel’s bi-planes of Scorchy Smith to the modern jet. The job is a design tour de force. And the cinematic style he uses in his storytelling, he would perfect lated in his animation boards. This job was written by Harvey Kurtzman, who was usually a bit more anti-war in his point of view. Instead, the tone is definitely more John Wayne, gung-ho…certainly an approach Alex was more comfortable with. I wonder if Alex did his own editorial changes before he turned the job in?
Frank Frazetta is best known for his gut level adventure and fantasy paintings, as well as he work in film with Ralph Bakshi. He also put in a stint working for the infamous Al Capp on Little Ablner. His paintings for book covers and movie posters have never been matched for their sheer energy. While Frazetta had been honing his painting skills since his childhood, comics were still his main source of income at this time.
In earlier stories, continuity had not been Frank’s strength, but in Squeeze Play that all disappears. While Toth had opted for simplicity, Frazetta instead offers us the ultimate in the use of line for rendering in a style reminiscent of Charles Dana Gibson, Joesph Clement Coll and Frank Godwin. He draws a wonderful likeness of Jimmy Cagney as the protagonist, and the girls in the story have a sense of realism that was rarely seen in the medium. Most importantly, the mood captures the post-war cinema verities style presenting us with a crime story unlike any seen before.
A side note on this job is that it was originally slated for Al Williamson, who turned it down when he realized he would have to draw all those roller coasters…and thus it was passed on to Frazetta. Of course, the night before the story was due, Frank called Al for help in meeting the deadline. And like any good friend, he gave Williamson the task of finishing all the backgrounds that included roller coasters.
My introduction to both the stories was in a volume of EC artwork produced by Russ Cochran (EC Portfolio #2 1972). I was highly influenced by the jobs. At the time, Kubert, Wood, Kirby and Williamson were my main focus, but after this I started looking at more of what both Toth and Frazetta did in comics and it certainly changed my work a good bit. It also moved me a bit further away from traditional superhero comics, and into cinematic storytelling, all of which was very helpful when I moved to LA myself and started my career in animation and film. Enjoy. Mike