This quote often makes me wonder if ‘great artists’ isn’t a Spanish euphemism for ‘talentless c***s’ (maybe something got lost in the translation). George Bernard Shaw, the long winded playwright and rent-a-quote once said something similar about writers. It’s possible that Shaw got away with a lot of plagiarism because few people ever stay awake through any of his plays.
It’s also possible that both Shaw and Picasso were also alluding to a former career in crime. Let’s face it, great art rarely pays the bills, so maybe great artists have to fall back on a bit of theft to pay off the bookies before they sell out. If this is the case, then the above quote would be one of the most famous and misunderstood confessions in art history.
If Picasso and Shaw are right, then it probably stands to reason that when writers and artists come together to tell stories in comic form they’ll probably stoop to a bit of plagiarism too. In the comics world this sort of thieving is known as a ‘swipe’. In the days before Google Image, most professional artists would keep filing cabinets full of reference material to draw on. This would usually be photographic but occasionally they would pinch an image, a panel or even a whole page layout from another artist and make just enough changes to avoid being sued. Comic fans take great delight in spotting these swipes and taunting the overworked and underpaid hacks who, skirting a deadline, have borrowed an image or a story from someone else. To the best of my knowledge neither Shaw nor Picasso (to paraphrase Wilde) have ever been flattered by such imitation though.
For much of his career the artist Howard Nostrand was often written off as the ‘King of the Swipes’. A reputation that under recent scrutiny turns out to be both unfair and untrue. It has also meant that Nostrand is perhaps the most underrated horror comic artist of the 50s.
Wally Wood who is one of the most celebrated sci-fi and horror artists of the same period (and with good reason) used to keep tearsheets of Nostrand’s work in his files to show people how Nostrand had appropriated his layouts while drawing every pose in every panel quite differently. As noted comic historian Pappy has observed over at his excellent blogzine:
Expressing originality while appropriating another’s style is still a concept most comic book artists haven’t mastered.
This is the real genius of Howard Nostrand, and I don’t use the word genius lightly. He wore his influences very close to the surface of his work but he didn’t swipe, he synthesised. The other artist to whom Nostrand owes the biggest stylistic debt is Jack Davis another EC comics stalwart who was as lauded as Wood, and also with good reason. Davis and Wood never worked together on a comic strip but much of Nostrand’s work in the 50s looks like an amalgamation of the two, which is quite a feat. Davis’s work was kinetic and exaggerated, full of fluid panels and heavy inks. Wood on the other hand produces panels like staged tableaus, full of anatomically perfect characters all delineated with feather-light inks. It would be hard to imagine two more contrasting artists, they would probably have had a hard time collaborating to blend their styles seamlessly, yet that is exactly what Nostrand did.
There is a lot more to Nostrand than simply replicating Jack Davis and Wally Wood though. Nostrand was a master stylist who began his career working as an assistant to Bob Powell, an artist who is just beginning to receive the attention his work from the 40s, 50s and 60s deserves. Powell in his turn began his career working for Will Eisner, an artist whose importance to the world of comics and graphic novels it’s impossible to overstate. Nostrand not only learned to seamlessly replicate Powell’s style, he could also do a perfect facsimile of Powell’s former boss Eisner.
One of the most influential aspects of Eisner’s work was his panel composition. Everything in Eisner’s panels contributes to the storytelling and the illumination of his characters’ interior worlds. Buildings, billboards, shadows, even old newspapers blowing down empty streets all act as hieroglyphs in a meta-narrative that takes us further into the story than any conventional story telling ever could. Eisner’s innovative panel composition was so influential that it has become so embedded in many artist’s styles that it is practically part of modern comics DNA.
No artist learned more from Eisner, or could better utilise what they learned, than Howard Nostrand. Some of his panels show composition that is every bit the equal of anything Eisner ever drew. Once again however, Eisner is not the only influence that Nostrand included in his story telling. Nostrand’s page layouts owe a huge debt to Harvey Kurtzman, another of EC’s stars who was responsible for creating Mad Magazine and is one of perhaps only two artist who have had as much of an impact on comics as Eisner (the other being Jack Kirby, more of him later).
Kurtzman used cinematic techniques in his page layouts to achieve effects that only masters like Fritz Lang, Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock could pull off on the screen. These include the comics equivalents of tracking shots, slow pans and extreme close ups, all of which conspire to heighten the tension and hold the reader’s attention until the final panel. While a talented artist himself, Kurtzman usually collaborated with the cream of contemporary comic artists. He would give each artist not just a script but detailed thumbnail sketches of every panel and page. The only artist who has ever pulled off Kurtzman’s layouts as effectively as Kurtzman, but without his thumbnails, is Howard Nostrand.
The reasons behind Nostrand’s masterful amalgam of so many great artists was mainly commercial. When he left Bob Powell’s studio he went to work for Harvey Comics, who would later become famous as publishers of such kid’s fare as Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost, but at the time were putting out the only pre-code horror comics (along with Atlas) to rival EC’s more famous line. Editor Sid Jacobsen handed Nostrand a pile of EC comics on his first day and told him to: “copy what these guys are doing!”
As I’ve already argued however, Nostrand did far more than copy, he used his substantial stylistic gifts to blend the styles of not only EC’s leading artists but those of the most influential artists of his day. The results all too often look like an instant comic classic. Reading many of Nostrand’s comics is like listening to one of those songs that has you saying: “Oh I love this” within a few bars and singing along by the time the second chorus comes around. They seem like old masterworks you grew up with, even though they’ve been out of print and unavailable to all but a handful of collectors since the 50s.
As few artists were allowed to sign their work in the 50s many comic collectors initially thought that Nostrand’s work was done by one or more of the EC artists freelancing for the competition. In fact, just before their demise, Nostrand did do a small amount of work for EC on the humour title Panic. Panic was a blatant rip off of EC’s best seller Mad. Mad was so popular that every other comics publisher had brought out its own satire comic and EC’s publisher William M. Gaines figured he should get in on that action himself. Given that Nostrand could replicate EC’s style better than any of its own roster of artists, it seems quite fitting that the only EC title he worked on should have been the only title in which EC ripped itself off.
Like many artists of the time Nostrand was forced out of comics after the Kefauver hearing killed the horror comic and put many publishers out of business in the mid 50s. He drifted into commercial illustration but made a few notable comic comebacks. One of the most prestigious of these was the syndicated newspaper strip Bat Masterson based on the popular TV series. Nostrand’s assistants on this strip were his former boss Bob Powell and soon to superstar of 60s Marvel and DC Neal Adams.
The only other artist as important to comics as Nostrand’s two main influences (Eisner and Kurtzman) is Jack Kirby and Nostrand was to have a brief Kirby period in the mid 70s when he was hired to work for Atlas. This was a line of comics launched by Marvel Comics’ original publisher Martin Goodman after he was forced out of the company. Atlas didn’t last very long and the book Nostrand worked on was symptomatic of the schizophrenic nature of the company. It was called John Targitt… Man-Stalker and lasted only three issues. In it’s first issue Targitt was a Dirty Harry rip off, by its second issue he had become a Shadow like vigilante and by it’s third and last issue he was a full blown superhero. Though all three comics are brilliantly drawn, it has to be said that as masterful a stylist as he is, Nostrand’s take on Kirby is his least successful stylistic replication.
Nostrand’s last comic work was for Cracked the only magazine to come close to rivaling the popularity and quality of Mad Magazine which, from 1957 onwards, was all that was left of the EC empire. In many ways a fitting end to the career of the only artist who could ‘out-EC’ EC itself.
These days comic artists wear their influence like a badge of honour and are applauded for them. If Nostrand had begun his career in the last 20 years he would have become the superstar he deserved to be in the 50s. He would have been lauded for the very things that drew criticism in his day. His rehabilitation is long, LONG overdue.
Howard Nostrand is probably my favourite forgotten artist from this period of horror comics and this is why I can say with great conviction that he’s the greatest horror comic artist you’ve probably never heard of. Most of his work is still out of print but a lot of it is kept alive on the blogosphere. If I’ve whetted your appetite at all then please check out the following links:
For Nostrand’s first solo horror strip ‘Man Germ’ when he was still massively influenced by Powell go here.
For one of his most critically acclaimed strips go here.
To read all three issues of John Targitt … Man-Stalker then head over to Diversion of a Groovy Kind
Trust your Uncle Jasp, you’ll be glad you did.
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