Two artists who helped illustrate our pop culture

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One helped turn a gap-toothed mascot for a 1950s humor magazine into a symbol for everything irreverent, impertinent and just plain silly. The other brought a moody, film-noir sensibility to comic books that revolutionized the art form.

Both Frank Kelly Freas and Will Eisner were beloved comic artists whose popularity spanned decades. But more than that, they were innovators who refused to treat the comics pages as a child's toy. Freas, who died Sunday at his Los Angeles home at age 82, was a key member of the "usual gang of idiots" at MAD magazine, an illustrator whose covers, always featuring the cheerfully vacuous Alfred E. Newman, set the tone for the Golden Age of American satire.

"Especially back in the 1950s and '60s, MAD represented the finest humorist illustrators in America, and Frank was certainly one of them," says cartoonist Scott Shaw. "In many cases, his illustrations were far more imaginative than the stories he was illustrating."

Eisner, who died Monday in Florida at age 87 from complications following heart surgery, may have been the most influential comic-book storyteller ever; artists like Jack Kirby may have been more imitated, and writers like Stan Lee may have been more prolific, but no one combined the two talents better than Eisner. His fellow comic artists almost universally claim him as an inspiration - in fact, the industry's annual awards are known as the Eisners - and refer to him as the father of the graphic novel, an adult-oriented marriage of comic art and traditional storytelling that has become one of the fastest-growing genres in American book publishing.

"He invented the graphic novel, which is certainly the biggest effect he had on the industry," says Denis Kitchen, who first met Eisner in 1971 and published his work for nearly three decades. Eisner's semi-autobiographical 1978 work, A Contract With God, gave birth to a new form of storytelling, Kitchen says.

"Cartoonists saw that when it came out and scratched their heads, saying, 'Wow, we don't have to do comic books, we can do real books.' It's not just a fat comic book - a graphic novel is a novel by someone who knows how to draw."

Eisner, who grew up living in a poor Brooklyn tenement, earned his first measure of comics fame with The Spirit, a character he created in 1940 and published in weekly newspaper supplements distributed in 20 Sunday newspapers (including The Sun). The title character was a coroner named Danny Colt who was believed murdered by a mad scientist's potion and had been buried alive. He escaped, donned a black eye mask and, going by the alias The Spirit, patrolled the streets of Central City, a thinly disguised New York.

With a circulation of some 5 million weekly, The Spirit reached far more readers than his 1940s comic-book rivals, including Superman, Batman and Captain America. And Eisner always intended his character for older audiences; in a 1998 interview, he told the Associated Press that, for years, he had been "producing comic books for 15-year-old cretins from Kansas." But The Spirit was aimed at "a 55-year-old who had his wallet stolen on the subway. You can't talk about heartbreak to a kid."

Eisner brought an increased level of sophistication to his visuals as well, breaking down his stories into panels that betrayed a distinctly cinematic influence, filled with shadows and odd angles and betraying a fondness for rain as emblematic of the city and its continuing troubles.

"I was very aware of The Spirit," says Lee, creator of Spider-Man, The X-Men and dozens of other classic comic-book characters. "I was a big fan of Will's, mainly of the artwork - those title pages were so beautifully designed, they were such great artwork. The originals of those title pages should have been framed and should have been displayed in a museum."

Throughout his career, Eisner was known as a champion of the comics industry and a mentor always willing to lend advice to an aspiring storyteller. "I think a lot of guys learned from Will," says Steve Geppi, president of Baltimore-based Diamond Comic Distributors. "He never stopped being a champion of comics as an art form. He was one of the founding fathers."

Unlike Eisner, Freas was not a storyteller; most of his best work consisted of a single image, such as the MAD covers or the thousands of illustrations he did for science-fiction stories (including one he later adapted for the cover of the rock band Queen's News of the World album). He didn't even create Alfred E. Newman; that distinction fell to artist Norman Mingo, working off an image that had been around since the turn of the century.

But Freas, who spent World War II painting voluptuous women on the noses of bombers, fleshed out Mingo's creation, supplying the freckle-faced, gap-toothed Newman with a Peck's Bad-Boy image that defined the early MAD.

"The main difference between Kelly's version of Alfred E, Newman and Norman's," says Scott Shaw, "was that, under Kelly's brush, Alfred had a sense of mischievousness that augmented that look of just being a complete idiot that everybody else gave him. He gave Alfred a kind of intelligence that was somehow missing from everybody else's version."

Freas' fellow MAD artists frequently took their cues from his covers.

"One of the artists that impressed me the most was Kelly Freas," says Sergio Aragones, who's spent 42 years drawing for the magazine. "His technique, the humorous approach. When it came to humorous illustration, he was unmatchable."

"Kelly Freas created the future in his paintings, sleekly delineating a style that has influenced two generations of designers," says Paul Levitz, president of DC Comics, which publishes MAD. "And with the impish grin he gave Alfred, he winked and warned us not to take it all too seriously."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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