Before Maus there was Master Race

by Bob Schwartz

By 1955, publisher William M. (Bill) Gaines was already revolutionizing the comic book industry. His line of EC (Entertaining Comics) books took on all sorts of mature themes and genres. So much so that he had been called before the U.S. Senate, which was on a high-profile crusade to control a medium that it believed was corrupting American youth, in fact, Americans of any age.

(Speaking of corruption, Gaines went on to publish Mad Magazine for forty years, which influenced a generation to believe that American culture was basically absurd, stupid and funny. What me worry?)

Among the talents that Gaines featured was an artist named Bernard Krigstein. In 1955, as the cover story for the first issue of EC’s new publication Impact, Krigstein illustrated the eight-page story Master Race. It is a stark tale of a former concentration camp prisoner who sees a former Nazi camp commandant on a New York subway—and who pushes that tormentor to his death.

There is deserved attention recently to Art Spiegelman’s celebrated Holocaust graphic novel Maus. After the benighted school board of McMinn County Tennessee banned the book, it once again became a bestseller. Though it was not noted in any of the news, more than twenty years before Maus, Master Race had taken on the Holocaust in comic form.

Spiegelman is no stranger to Krigstein or Master Race. In a 2002 New Yorker article, he writes about Krigstein’s being one of his teachers and about the artist’s complex life and career:

Anyone interested in crossing the ever-narrowing divide between High and Low culture ought to contemplate the work and troubled career of Bernard Krigstein (1919-90), a postwar comic-book illustrator who had the privilege and the misfortune of being an Artist with a capital “A” working in an Art Form that considered itself only a Business. Krigstein was never associated with a specific character (the most sure ticket to comics success), and he never wrote his own stories (a handicap in a narrative medium). He wasn’t beloved by publishers, editors, or readers. What reputation he has rests on a handful of short stories he illustrated in 1954 and 1955 for EC comics (the folks who brought you Tales from the Crypt and Mad), but one of those stories, “Master Race,” was an accomplishment of the highest order—a masterpiece.
Art Spiegelman

Read Master Race online or find one of the many books featuring this and other EC comics.