Editor’s Note: with the recent passing of the great Al Feldstein, we thought this was a good time to revisit a review of a terrific collection of some of Feldsetin’s finest comic book art.
Welcome to the sixth part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists!
In previous columns we discussed the comics of;
And this week we discuss the comics of the astonishing Al Feldstein
Al Feldstein has never been held in as high regard for the comics he drew for E.C. Comics as many of his peers. That might be because Feldstein is generally seen as a writer and editor more than as a writer, or it may be because his art took a more standard and traditional approach to the page than many of his fellow artists. Feldstein was more a professional than an innovator.
But as his Fantagraphics E.C. collection, Child of Tomorrow and Other Stories, demonstrates, Feldstein was a master cartoonist. His sci-fi yarns reprinted in this wonderful collection have a beauty, flair and panache that becomes evident when viewing them all together. Feldstein is a master at conveying open spaces and frightened faces, at drawing bizarre alien creatures as well as normal human beings. Feldstein’s art has a delightful amount of expressiveness to it and a remarkable amount of subtle beauty – if a word like beauty can be applied to comics that feature strange blob aliens from outer space.
Al Feldstein began working for E.C. Comics in 1948, and was publisher Bill Gaines’s right-hand man during E.C.’s golden years, writing and editing for Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, Crime SuspenStories, Panic and (later) Piracy. For several years, he was one of comics’ most productive writers, producing a script a day in collaboration with Gaines. In fact, Feldstein was the longest-tenured member of Gaines’s staff, since he edited MAD magazine from 1956 to 1985. Though he was a talented artist (as we’ll see below), Feldstein was more valuable to Gaines as a writer.
This book collects two dozen tales by Feldstein from Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, with all but seven of those stories illustrated by him.
One of Feldstein’s favorite motifs to explore is large spaces in his comic art. For instance, the very first reprint in this book, “‘Things’ from Outer Space”, opens with a meteor strike in the desert – a lonely, remote location that could be on Mars as easily as it could be on Earth.
A later tale, “Destruction of the Earth”, contains this harrowing scene of waves lapping the Golden Gate Bridge and the Rocky Mountains.
“Space Warp” begins with this gorgeous scene that could come from any of the better-recognized E.C. masters. There’s a clean elegance to this splash page that almost anticipates the work of Wally Wood.
One of the most goofily wonderful aspects of Feldstein’s comic art is the monsters that he creates. These aren’t the wacky monsters that Jack Kirby created for the Atlas Comics monster line; instead, as in “Seeds of Jupiter”, these monsters are bizarre and legitimately scary. (In fact, the monster in “Seeds of Jupiter” is a precursor and possible influence on the famous “chest-burster” creature in the first Alien movie.)
These creatures from “The Origin of the Species” live on the moon but really live in an area of the human heart where fear lives. Look at those intense faces that resemble dreamlike horror masks.
I adore this sequence from “The Last City”, with its leisurely reveal of the Saturnites in the flying saucer and the heavily ironic 1950s sentiment at the end.
One of the most unique elements in these early stories is a strange kind of continuity. Though we never meet the President in any of these tales, we frequently meet the Secretary of Defense, who looks the same throughout the book (and he looks completely unlike President Truman’s Secretaries of Defense during this period, Louis Johnson or the legendary General George Marshall.
Here’s the Secretary of Defense in “The Flying Saucer Invasion”:
And in “Cosmic Ray Bomb Explosion&q
And in “Destruction of the Earth”:
And in again in “The Last City”:
Over and over this cigar-smoking overweight man with the odd haircut appears as the Secretary of Defense, which is a charming concept for comics of that time. You have to wonder if this character is based on someone in Feldstein’s life, and frankly why it was so important to have a character like this recur through so many stories. These tales obviously aren’t in any actual continuity considering the horrible things that happen in each eight-pager (including the Secretary being eaten by Venusian blobs in “Spawn of Venus”), so this is a strange trope for Feldstein.
It’s an intriguing little quirk – but no less fascinating than the number of times that Gaines and Feldstein appear in Feldstein’s tales as characters.
Here are Gaines and Feldstein in “7 Year Old Genius” (note that the boy is reading an issue of Weird Fantasy, too – a charmingly postmodern touch):
Or in a scene with the Secretary of Defense, with another character reading Weird Science in the wacky “Cosmic Ray Bomb Explosion”:
Fun as those stories are, though, what’s most memorable about Feldstein’s science fiction yarns is the gorgeously noir feel that he brings to some ridiculous narratives. Many of these splash pages and individual images are wonderfully striking and powerful.
The splash page to “Spawn of Venus” with the horrified astronauts next to the classic pointed space ship is gorgeous.
While the splash to “Seeds of Jupiter” is astonishingly detailed and astoundingly scary for a giant monster account:
Other images from the middle of stories are showstopping. This moment from “Panic!” is simple in design but stunning in execution. The deep blacks convey an intensity and power that transcends the subject matter.
But the most iconic image in this book for me, the most gorgeously simply and tremendously potent image that Feldstein presents, is this stunner from “The Last City” that just seethes with raw power:
Child of Tomorrow makes a potent case that Al Feldstein deserves to be considered alongside the better known E.C. artist as a great cartoonist who could deliver unique and potent stories. His gorgeous inkline and sometimes overwhelming intensity make Feldstein’s comics intense and wonderful.
In the previous instances of this column we’ve praised the beautifully elegant linework of Al Williamson, the bold intensity of Wally Wood, the primal intensity of Harvey Kurtzman and the brilliantly innovative storytelling of Bernard Krigstein. Much of the long lasting legend of the E.C. line comes from the memorable art created by these masters of comics. In future columns we’ll see the cool noir elegance of Johnny Craig and the visceral intensity of Graham “Ghastly” Ingels, among many others.
When placed next to these masters of comics art, it’s easy to forget the work of an artist like Al Feldstein. But as this wonderfully assembled book makes clear, it’s wrong to place Feldstein half a level behind his peers. Child of Tomorrow delivers many spectacular images and memorable moments. Feldstein was yet another star amongst stars.