Recently I was reminded, thanks to the excellent blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books by Alan Stewart, of the very underrated work of comic book artist George Klein.
One of the main reasons why Klein is not much better known among comic book fandom is that he tragically passed away at a young age. He died 50 years ago this month, on May 10, 1969.
There is a bit of uncertainty over the year Klein was born. According to the website Field Guide To Wild American Pulp Artists his date of birth was June 14, 1915. If correct, that would mean that when Klein died he was only 53 years old.
Klein’s earliest published work appears to be a painted cover for the December 1939 edition of National Sportsman. Between 1941 and 1943 Klein was employed by Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel. Creator credits in the Golden Age were often missing or inaccurate, but it is generally believed he worked on such titles as All-Winners Comics, Captain America Comics, USA Comics and Young Allies Comics at Timely.
In 1943 Klein was drafted to serve in World War II, and served as a private in the Army Infantry. Honorably discharged in 1946, Klein returned to his career as an artist, working in both comic books and as a magazine illustrator.
Several of the periodicals that Klein worked for, both before and after the war, were pulp magazines published by Timely’s owner Martin Goodman, specifically Best Love, Complete Sports, Complete War and Detective Short Stories. Klein was also a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife, the award-winning magazine published by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. His work in Wyoming Wildlife and other publications apparently gained Klein some renown as a landscape and wildlife artist.
Klein once again did work for Timely, or Atlas Comics as it came to be known in the 1950s. Among the various titles Klein worked on at Timely / Atlas in the late 40s and early 50s were the romance series Girl Comics and the well-regarded fantasy / romance series Venus, although (again due to the lack of credits) the exact details of his involvement are a matter of deduction and guesswork.
During this time Klein also branched out to work for other publishers such as ACG, Ace Comics and Prize Publications. By the early 1950s much of Klein’s work was for National Periodical Publications, aka DC Comics.
Beginning in 1955 Klein, working as an inker, was regularly paired up with penciler Curt Swan on DC’s various Superman titles. Looking at the Grand Comic Database, the first story drawn by the Swan & Klein team seems to be the Superboy story “The Wizard City” written by the legendary Bill Finger in Adventure Comics #216, cover-dated September 1955.
Swan and Klein continued to work together for the next 12 years, with their art appearing in various issues of Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman, Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.
Truthfully, Swan is a penciler who at times leaves me a bit cold. He’s one of those artists who I recognize as technically proficient, someone who is a good, solid storyteller. However often his work just does not connect with me personally. That said, there is something about the teaming of Swan and Klein that really appeals to me.
Having been born in 1976, obviously I did not read the stories they drew when they first came out. About 20 years ago I really got into the Legion of Super-Heroes and began picking up the various Legion Archives. I was immediately taken with the work that Swan & Klein on those Superboy and the Legion stories from Adventure Comics in the 1960s. I regard Klein as one of the best inkers Swan ever got during his lengthy career.
As per writer & editor Mark Waid’s bio of George Klein written for the Legion Archives:
“Klein set new standards for his craft with his razor-crisp brushline, which brought new dimensions to the art of Curt Swan, the penciler with whom Klein was most frequently paired. Together, Swan and Klein defined for years to come the look of Superman and his cast of characters; to this day , most Legion of Super-Heroes aficionados consider Swan and Klein to be the all-time finest Legion art team.”
Klein’s work over Swan’s pencils is an excellent demonstration of just how significant a role the inker can have on the look of the finished artwork in comic books.
Probably the stand-out stories of this era were written by the then-teenage Jim Shooter, who introduced Karate Kid, Princess Projecta and Ferro Lad to the Legion, as well as the villainous Fatal Five. Swan & Klein did a superb job illustrating these now-classic stories.
One cannot discuss Klein’s work in the Silver Age without mentioning Fantastic Four. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, that title was the birth of what came to be known as the Marvel Universe. For many decades the specific details concerning the creation of the early FF stories have been shrouded in mystery.
One of the most frequently-pondered questions was who exactly inked Kirby’s pencils on the first two issues. After much debate & analysis, the conclusion reached by Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, one of the foremost authorities on Timely / Atlas / early Marvel artwork, is that it was George Klein. It is known that Klein worked on several stories for Atlas in the late 1950s and early 60s, which would put him in exactly the right place when the first two issues of FF were being created in 1961.
As to why Klein in particular was chosen to ink these two issues, longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort offers up this theory:
“I would also conjecture that perhaps the choice of George Klein to ink these early issues–if indeed he was the inker as is generally believed today–was to try to give them more of a super hero feel than Kirby’s monster or romance or western work. Klein at the time was inking Curt Swan on Superman, and you really can’t get a more classic super hero finish than that.”
Absent the original artwork for those first two FF issues resurfacing, or some previous-unknown documentation being discovered, we will probably never be 100% certain; nevertheless, the general consensus is that Klein very likely inked those two issues, placing him right at the birth of the Marvel Age of Comics.
Klein’s work for DC on the Superman family of titles took place during the regime of editor Mort Weisinger. The late 1960s saw an editorial shake-up at DC. Although Weisinger remained in control of the Superman books until 1970, this behind-the-scenes instability is reportedly what led to Klein departing the company. He quickly found work at Marvel Comics which, eight years after the introduction of the Fantastic Four, was achieving both commercial success and critical acclaim.
Klein’s first assignment at Marvel was inking John Buscema’s pencils on Avengers. After inking a couple of covers, Klein became the regular inker with issue #55, cover-dated August 1968. Klein remained on Avengers for nearly a year.
The late 1960s is now considered one of the series’ most important and influential periods. Writer Roy Thomas, working with John Buscema, introduced the Avengers’ arch-nemesis Ultron, new member the Vision, and Hank Pym’s new costumed identity Yellowjacket, among other key developments. Klein did a superb job inking Buscema on many of these key stories. In 2001 Thomas spoke with Buscema about their work on Avengers, a conversation that saw print in Alter Ego #13. In it they briefly touched upon Klein:
Roy Thomas: So how did you feel about George Klein’s inking compared to some of the others?
John Buscema: From what I’ve seen, a very credible job, not bad.
Considering that Buscema was notoriously critical of most of the artists who inked his work, I suppose by his exacting standards this was high praise indeed!
Klein also inked Gene Colan on Avengers #63-64, Sub-Mariner #11, and on several issues of Daredevil. Klein was probably one of the best embellishers to ever work over Colan, who could often be a bit challenging to ink.
Additionally, in early 1969 Klein inked two very early jobs by a very young Barry Windsor-Smith, in Daredevil #51 and Avengers #67. Klein’s finishes gave some much-needed support to BWS who, although he was already showing quite a bit of promise, was still honing his craft.
Last, but certainly not least, Klein inked Jack Kirby on Thor #168-169, which were cover-dated Sept and Oct 1969. It has been opined that Vince Colletta’s inking of Kirby was a good match on Thor, as the feathery line work provided a specific tone that was well-suited to the mythological characters & settings. It was much less appropriate to Kirby’s sci-fi concepts, which is why Colletta was a poor fit on Fantastic Four.
Similarly, when Kirby took Thor in a more cosmic direction in the late 1960s, Colletta’s inking felt out of place. So it was definitely nice to have Klein’s more polished inking on these two issues, which saw the god of thunder learning the origin of one of Kirby’s most cosmic creations, Galactus. These Thor issues were very likely the last work that Klein did before his untimely death.
According to the Field Guide To Wild American Pulp Artists, Klein was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver in May 1969, less than a month before he died. If this is correct, then it would seem to indicate that Klein was an alcoholic, and that his drinking led to his early demise.
I’m going to add a few words from Alan Stewart here summing up this unfortunate situation:
“It’s tragic that Klein passed away as young as he did — and the fact that he’d gotten married just a few months before makes it even more so. Unfortunately, his work over Curt Swan on the Superman books all those years was uncredited, and his subsequent stint at Marvel was too short for him to have made the impact of a Joe Sinnott or Tom Palmer. I agree he’s underrated.”
I really believe that Klein would probably be much better remembered as an artist if he had not died so young. He did very well-regarded work on comic books in a career that lasted nearly three decades.
The reissuing of so much of DC and Marvel’s material from the Silver Age does mean that younger fans such as myself have now been able to rediscover Klein’s work. Additionally, all these decades later Klein, as well as everyone else who worked on those early DC stories, are at long last receiving proper credit for their work in those reprint volumes.
There are so many creators from the Golden Age and early Silver Age who helped to make the comic book industry what it is today, creators who in the past were unfortunately uncredited and overlooked. I hope this short profile on one of those creators, George Klein, will inspire readers to seek out some of these classic stories, and to develop more of an appreciation for the people who crafted those imaginative tales.
Thank you to all of the websites from which I gleamed information about and artwork by George Klein. I believe I’ve included links to all of them, but if I did miss anyone please let me know!