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Best Of EC Volume One
posted October 7, 2013
Edited By Scott Dunbier From Original Works by Harvey Kurtzman, Roy Krenkel, Bernard Krigstein, Al Feldstein Frank Frazetta, Johnny Craig, Will Elder, Jack Davis and Others
IDW, Hardcover, 160 pages, June 2013, $170 or so.
The Best Of EC, Volume One
is a book that features work by cartoonists such as Harvey Kurtzman, Al Williamson, Johnny Craig, Bernie Krigstein and Frank Frazetta and not a single one of my friends has talked to me about it or, as far as I can tell, enthused over it in public. It could be that people just expect these books to be awesome now. It could be that EC is a fading taste with a lot of emerging comics readers. It could also be demographics. It could be a lack of available funds. Still, I thought I'd have heard something
by now. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. The Scott Dunbier-edited Artists Editions, which by virtue of price point are aimed squarely at an audience of employed older men that remember specific books from their 1980s youth, seem to have done better in terms of buzz with fondly-remembered superhero titles and work that's just obscure enough that seeing it again in this format allows for automatic reconsideration. The EC work, by virtue of its constant presence through the years, has a different curiosity arc. It is the favorite uncle that never left the apartment over your parents' garage, the celebrated actor that seems to have fifth billing or better in every third film. I am one of many comics readers that finds himself reconsidering that work after years of circling around it, trying to find enough distance to do so. And I don't mean "reconsider" in a negative way. I'm not defensive about this work in any way. I am in fact sympathetic to the argument made that the EC Comics were a victory of comics craft and either a tie or slight loss in terms of sensibility and story sophistication. Some folks still, I think, clutch to their various resentments over how an entire generation conceived of the ability to do work more squarely aimed at adult readers through these publications, which themselves had more populist, pulpy aims when they conceived of themselves that way at all. Older art-comics readers and EC Comics: it's complicated.
So yes, I'm openly confused how I feel about this work generally, and about some of the contributing artists specifically. I respond strongly
to the craft elements such as those displayed in this latest IDW volume. It's hard not to stop and stare at everything most of these artists do, particularly -- for me -- Harvey Kurtzman, Bernard Krigstein and Johnny Craig. As I get older, I think less of making a hard distinction between the execution of a page or story element and some sort of independent artistic value a work may hold better theorized than directly experienced. At the same time, reading the new Fantagraphics collections, which I love, isn't always a favor to each individual cartoonist featured for putting on display their proclivity to create through specific, repeated tropes and for providing the reader more than a few encounters with work that stands out against the rest for simply being odd. This IDW volume sidesteps these completist potholes by choosing an array of artists' work. The end result is a tasting menu served up with grand style, where maybe not enough of the taste from any one bit lingers to facilitate summary judgment. Surface impressions rule. I think Kurtzman in particular is flattered by how handsome the individual drawings are in his works selected here. To take it back to acting and actors, enjoying Kurtzman's bold line as close to the original art as I'll ever see is like watching a cerebral character actor do a star turn where you realize that they're super good-looking in addition to hitting their marks and interpreting their characters in humane, intellectually satisfying way. I'm not done staring at this material yet, and may never get all the way where I need to be to sort these things out. This is a lovely-looking book, that's for sure, one that has a sense of humor about its nips and tucks and encouragements. One story re-imagined by Krigstein for a 3-D issue that never came off feels like an indication of a comics page rather than something well on its way to being a complete one. It's a pleasure to make its acquaintance.