As with my ongoing examination of the work of John Stanley (which you can explore, for several days, at www.stanleystories.blogspot.com), I find that very little was documented of Briefer's life and work. To find his comics material, I have to search through every online scan of a likely title, by a likely publisher.
A rich resource for Briefer's work was Hillman Comics. I've written about Briefer's crime comics for Hillman elsewhere on this blog. At the same time, the artist produced romance stories for the publisher's often-melancholy Romantic Confessions magazine.
As with the crime stories, and perhaps moreso, the romance pieces represent the tightest, most thoughtful and controlled work of Briefer's career. Those who know only his freewheeling/slapdash "Frankenstein" stories (which are prime examples of what Art Spiegelman has named "loose scrawl comics") may look on these pieces with surprise and disbelief.
Exacting artwork does not have to be lifeless, as these three romance pieces demonstrate. The soul of Briefer's loose, spontaneous way of drawing are here. They are reined in, but they never surrender their sense of animation and genuine cartooniness. This makes them stand out, even when the pages are seen at thumbnail size.
Hillman had other talented and conscientious artists--among them Bernard Krigstein, Bill Ely and Bill Draut--among a pool of cartoonists whose work was competent but dull (John Prentice, soon to abandon comic books for the syndicated Rip Kirby newspaper strip, is a prime example).
Briefer's work on these stories has a still-modern sensibility--an unaccountable freshness and verve that only Krigstein could equal (or better). In the interest of making these obscure, overlooked pieces more visible, I present three selections from Romantic Confessions--plus a coda that... well, wait 'til we get there.
Briefer often wrote his own stories. I don't know if he authored any of these pieces. He owns the visual and storytelling elements of every panel.
We'll begin with the piece from Romantic Confessions 10:
"What ONE Man Meant To Me..." is a hybrid of romance and crime--a compelling blend that makes the story more absorbing and fulfulling than most romance pieces. In the hands of a John Prentice, this piece might not draw much interest.
Briefer's soulful, breathing contours, so thoughtfully designed for the addition of color, and so assured in their placement of line, volume and figure, make each panel worthy of study. His sense of flow as a storyteller brings the most out of a clever-but-standard pulp fiction plotline.
"Because My Own Heart Sang..." from issue 7, is the most standard of these three pieces, but even tighter draftsmanship again heightens what, in other hands, would have just filled seven pages with commercial product.
The best of the three is "Why did I have to win?," from Romantic Confessions 9. This is a genuinely affecting, melancholy piece, with an unhappy ending that rings surprisingly true
Touches of humor in the characters' body language, in all three stories, reminds us that Dick Briefer is, at heart, a cartoonist, rather than the quasi-illustrator most other romance comics artists tried to be. We impatiently leaf past the other stories in these comic magazines, but Briefer's work invites us to linger, and rewards us for our trouble.
Briefer pushed himself to excel in these stories. He may have HAD to, given the competition, and the uncertainty of the comics market in America, as the call for censorship and "clean comics" was already well underway, and attacks on the entire comics industry more common in the mainstream press.
Around the same time of these elegant, measured Hillman pieces, Briefer still found a place to let his loose scrawl roots be rubbed. In a series of "Jughead" stories for the Archie comics line, Briefer returned to the inventiveness and gentle-yet-macabre humor of his best "Frankenstein" work. This piece, from Laugh Comics 51, cover-dated June 1952, is obviously of Briefer's hand as a writer.
This could have easily been a "Frankenstein" story, circa 1948. As with the romance stories you just read, Briefer approaches the Archie characters with more control, but the quirks of his hand are still clearly seen. He's not too interested in staying "on-model"-- and bravo to him for staying true to his comics vision.
As I find more Dick Briefer stories, I'll share them here. In the meantime, scour online scans of Hillman Comics titles from 1949 to 1952--many which are available on Digital Comics Museum. If anyone has more scans of Briefer Archie material, please step forward and identify yourself... thanks!
-- Frank M. Young, March 2014