Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Art of Dick Briefer, Pt. II: Romance, Crime and Jughead... A Wildly Varied Slate (1950-52)

The remarkable career of Richard Briefer continues to compel me. His line, and sense of contour, is as seductive as those of Harvey Kurtzman, Roy Crane, Garrett Price, John Stanley or Jimmy Thompson. Yet his work is among the least-explored of the major artists who emerged in comics' alleged Golden Age.

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.

This dense melodrama of a matchmaker who is confounded by her own meddlesome actions reads like a late 1950s Douglas Sirk Technicolor melodrama on cheap newsprint. The figure of artist Diane Tucker seems to bring Briefer's interest to life, and invests this story with an unexpected edge. The "off" ending is a nice touch--and something never otherwise seen in the romance comics genre.

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

The war of gender roles, though somewhat naive, has a frankness that distinguishes this piece from dozens of similar romance episodes in mid-century American comics. Briefer's intuitive, highly focused brings out levels of subtle emotion from what is essentially a melodrama. Kit's stubbornness and willfulness exist, in these 11 pages, with an intensity unusual for the comics page.

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 is one of, apparently, several Briefer-created "Jughead" stories from the early 1950s. So far, this is the only one that anyone's bothered to scan and share on the Internet. I hope more of these Briefer "Jughead"s surface. If they're on par with this story, we have some delightful, expressive hidden gems to anticipate--from one of the least likely sources in the artform.

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

8 comments:

  1. hey, Frank— Thanks for this post and for this heads-up to this virtually unseen corner of Briefer's career, Seeing that his Funny Frankenstein scrawls (drawn sometimes, it seems, without penciling) are informed by such solid drawing chops (Sense of design, gesture and expressiveness still intact) is a happy revelation. Thanx for the, as always, well-informed archeological digging.

    I hope somebody eventually digs up a run of the Pinky Rankin strips Briefer did under an assumed name for the Daily Worker....

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    1. Thanks, Art! I'm glad I can excavate some interesting tidbits.
      I, too, would love to see a run of "Pinky Rankin." Please let the wartime "Daily Worker"s get digitized soon!

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  2. Nice finds, Frank! I enjoyed your writing on this, too -- love the way you manage to capture the feel of Briefer's art in words. Even when he's drawing 'straight" stories, his cartoonist bent shows. I was struck by the funny expression on the woman's face in the panel you singled out for the visual lead-in to this essay. Just as Jack Cole hadda magical mixture of big-foot and heroic comics, Briefer in these examples presents a bubbly chemistry between loose-scrawl and representational comics. Briefer's work deserves more attention -- thanks for leading the charge.

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  3. Dick Briefer is one of my favorite cartoonists, but is also very difficult to find reprints of. Why has no publisher done a comprehensive reprint of his humorous Frankenstien comics -- surely some of the best comics ever made? Or have they, and I have just not seen it yet (in this golden age of comics reprints)?

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  4. Fantagraphics was preparing a comprehensive reprint series that was sabotaged when Craig Yoe rushed a so-so anthology to market first, causing them to postpone their edition indefinitely. Eventually, PS Artbooks started their own set, starting initially with the first issue of the solo series (they're apparently having trouble sourcing some of the Prize Comics issues), and the first volume came out last Fall. http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/roy-thomas-presents-frankenstein--the-classic-series-written--drawn-by-dick-briefer-1873-p.asp

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    1. And it's a travesty, with all due respect to the parties involved. The horribly butchered scans are a dis-service to the material.

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  5. This is my dearly beloved Uncle Dick you are so rightfully appreciating, and I enjoy your appreciation immensely. I'm sure I'm his oldest living relative, and in fact was very close to him as his oldest nephew when he was working in NY and later in Florida. He was an enormous influence on me as I was growing up. He was a wonderfully accomplished musician (played piano and his treasured Hammond Electric Organ), and amazing magician, entertaining family gatherings, an actor (one of the founders of the Hollywood, FL Little Theatre) and just a surpassingly talented performer and artist in everything he did (and I could cite several other accomplishments). When he said "hello" it was a piece of work, no kidding. I was very lucky, indeed, to have him as a "model" growing up. I've tried to celebrate some other dimensions of his work by posting some YouTube videos of his collaborative work with my father creating Playette Theatre story books. Please see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bosc8F_UgO4 for starters! Many thanks for your work in this blog. - Ben Wise

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  6. Hi Ben! I'd love to interview you about your uncle Dick. There's almost nothing known about him, and you've told me many things about him I never knew! Please get in touch me with at eubiecat@gmail.com. Thanks so much for your comments!

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