by Jesse Marinoff Reyes:
The Eternal Savage
Illustration: Roy G. Krenkel (1918-1983)
Happy Birthday RGK!
Not a household name. Pity. Not for him mind you, nor amongst his peers (among whom he was legend). Nor his admirers—be they fans or professionals, and I include myself in this latter group, straddling both categories in a manner of speaking. But to the rest of you to whom his name is unfamiliar I say it should not be, and perhaps, just perhaps, if you are even casually interested in the so-called fantasy art of the post-war years, or are keen on the work of Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs—then you may have run across his work even if you didn’t know the work’s creator or find his credit. But even if you are not terribly familiar with his work, though you should be, then you may be familiar with his contemporaries over whom he was an important influence—names like Al Williamson, Wally Wood, and Frank Frazetta.
The Bronx-born Krenkel first studied at the Art Student’s League of New York under George Bridgman (before WWII), then after the war he attended (famed Tarzan newspaper comic strip artist) Burne Hogarth’s classes at the Cartoonists and Illustrator’s School (which would eventually become the School of Visual Arts). It was there that he met a group of young cartoonists, Joe Orlando, and the aforementioned Williamson and Frazetta—with whom he would later collaborate with at EC Comics in the early-1950s, as well as inking Williamson for Atlas (Marvel) and the American Comics Group. Krenkel would also share studio space with another important EC artist, Wally Wood, and you thusly have something of a “genius cluster,” or group of immensely talented individuals working in and around one another, competing or collaborating and sharing ideas (the extant roster of creatives coming in and out of Bill Gaines’s EC offices can also be tied into this, whether John Severin and Reed Crandall, or Bernard Krigstein and Johnny Craig, not to mention Jack Davis, Al Feldstein, and Harvey Kurtzman!). One piece that is often cited in the history books is a splash page done with Williamson in an issue of EC’s Incredible Science Fiction (September-October 1955, issue #32) for a story, “Food for Thought,” in which Krenkel rendered an eerie alien landscape. Lush, detailed and strange, it was a high water mark for illustration in comics up to that time (EC did more than nearly any other publisher up to that point in raising the bar artistically), and had the level of professionalism and technical accomplishment that was more the province of fine, illustrated book art than comics.
However, Krenkel wasn’t the force in comics as one would have thought. He was never assigned a regular title—with regular credit—and aside from shadowing his pals it is difficult to nail down his work if you don’t know where to look. But it is no surprise that Krenkel would contribute to the science fiction pulp magazines and digests of the era and begin to find his own identity there rather than in comics. Notably, it was his 23 cover paintings and pen-and-ink frontispieces to Donald Wolheim’s Ace paperback books beginning in 1962 for (primarily) the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (and others), that stand out. Wolheim mistakenly believed Burroughs’s work had gone into the public domain—the ERB estate eventually caught up with Wolheim which was a pity, as Ace’s covers for the ERB stories were as much a high bar for pulp paperbacks as EC was in comic publishing, and could have endured as a standard for much longer than they did. However, for the early-to-middle 1960s, Ace made an indelible mark on the look of ERB’s works, due in no small part to Krenkel—a life-long fan of the author—and his influence.
Krenkel remains a transitional figure in so-called fantasy art, an artist who was something of a classicist and craftsman—drawing from illustration influences like James Allen St. John and Franklin Booth (artists whom publisher Wolheim at Ace pushed as a look to emulate), and Joseph Clement Coll and Norman Lindsay—and whose work could be seen as an extension of those classic influences. His pen-and-ink work would not be out of place a half-century earlier and should be sought out by those who appreciate that form at its best. His paintings and illustrations feature lithe warriors with a kinetic athleticism, more akin to figures represented in historical fiction and not the massive, steroidal behemoths more common to the cliché of fantasy art today, much of which is (to me) a tawdry imitation of Frazetta’s muscular dynamism taken too far in a clumsy attempt to top Frazetta’s singular characters. But Frazetta was old school, with old school, classic tendencies. How could he not? It was Krenkel who had brought Frazetta in to assist him on his Ace deadlines, and who eventually talked Wolheim into assigning him some of the ERB titles. This bit of collegial generosity would change Frazetta’s career significantly and change the world of fantasy painting forever (for better and for worse). When you look at Frazetta’s early Ace work, Krenkel’s influence is significant. Looking at Tarzan and the City of Gold I had to doubletake. “Wait a sec… That isn’t Krenkel!”
Krenkel’s long shadow endures. You can still see him in the best of today’s fantasy artists (the ones who don’t get carried away with trying to out-muscle Frazetta), especially in the work of Michael Wm Kaluta.