last week Dirk Deppey drew our attention to a set of Bernie Wrightson prints from 1978 posted my Mr. Door Tree. Something that happened occasionally in the artist's better work is that he would have a perfectly lovely figure drawing standing out in the middle of his overwrought detail.
The arrival of Wrightson circa 1970 is the exact point, I can see in retrospect, at which I lost all interest in American comic books (allowing for the occasional curiosity of one who must still make his living from drawing, and also the enduring fondness for the foolish nonsense of my childhood). He was the first artist that I recognised (though not at first sight) as a 'fan,' whose style was sewn together Frankenstein-like from bits and pieces of earlier artists. Of course all art must build upon earlier visions to a greater or lesser extent, but the case here was one where the sources were so ignoble and ordinary (in contrast for instance to Infantino's fascination with the design ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright) that even a teenage bozo like me could find them, specifically the artists of the EC horror comics. There was a touch of the soiled flair of Frazetta's street-corner toughs, the shambling gait of a Jack Davis graverobber, the viscous saliva from the mouths of Ingels' fiendish plotters, and any suggestion of conventional pleasantness always cast a shadow of sarcastic insincerity.
Coincidentally Deppey, in his next day's posting, links to an article in the New Yorker by Louis Menand that puts the problem in perspective.
THE HORROR: Congress investigates the comics.I still believed in the idea of comic books as art, but from then on it was entirely in the abstract, existing in the realm of possibility only. After Wrightson in fact things got worse; the Wein-Wrightson Swamp Thing was a tedious compendium of horror movie cliches, and much as I was happy to see Alan Moore make a living from his writing, the later revival of the character confirmed my certainty that everything had gone completely wrong. It was a monster eating and regurgitating itself.
It’s true that respect for the comic book as an art form can be a little overdone. George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” has a kind of artistic genius; “The Vault of Horror” is just dumb. It’s supposed to be dumb: it’s for eleven-year-olds.
The Menand article is about Fred Wertham and his attack on the comic books in the ealy 1950s that brought about the formation of an official censor (being a review of Hajdu's recent book on the subject). Wertham is another of those indviduals, like Vince Colletta, that the mindless herd of comic book fans like to loathe. Anyone prepared to stop and think clearly is to be applauded:
Bart Beaty’s “Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” ($22, paper; University Press of Mississippi) makes a strong case for the revisionist position. As Beaty points out, Wertham was not a philistine; he was a progressive intellectual. His Harlem clinic was named for Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law. He collected modern art, helped produce an anthology of modernist writers, and opposed censorship. He believed that people’s behavior was partly determined by their environment, in this respect dissenting from orthodox Freudianism, and some of his work, on the psychological effects of segregation on African-Americans, was used in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Beaty is unimpressed by the claim that the horror comics were somehow part of a popular-culture avant-garde, and he thinks Gaines’s attempt to portray himself and his company as subversive artists oppressed by the establishment has fooled many people. “Ultimately,” he writes, “Fredric Wertham aligned himself with the most defenseless portion of postwar American society, children. His critics have aligned themselves with an industry that targeted racist, sexist, and imperialist propaganda at minors. He was one man, operating out of a free clinic in Harlem, facing a multimillion dollar per year industry organization that hired private detectives to tail him and intimidate his staff.”
late update. To the fellow in comments who perhaps thinks I'm critcizing an artist of being 'derivative,' note that this is not a term I would ever use in this way. All art must be derivative. But the artist must choose whether his work is to be derivative of worthy ideas or of facile mannerisms. There is a philosophy of the practice of art that works upon the principle that all habits and mannerisms impede the reaching for truthfulness, and should be excised from the work as soon as the artist becomes aware that he is exercising them. I wasn't finding this kind of exacting discipline in comic books is all I'm saying. Don't let me stop YOU from reading them.