There are mysteries, big and small, haunting comic book history.
Who inked Jack Kirby’s pencils on Fantastic Four #1? That qualifies as a big one.*
Somewhat smaller: Who is William Ekgren?
William Ekgren? His career, if it can even be called a career, in comic books was apparently comprised of only three covers rendered for St. John Publishing in a span of several months in 1952-53.The content, the media and the thought process involved in these covers defy easy explanation.
STRANGE TERRORS #4 (Nov. 1952) is a fever dream of disparate images. A headless, limbless torso; several candles and an abstract Mona Lisa head atop a suggestively phallic neck. All are delineated by swirling, obsessively drawn, maze-like lines. The effect is dizzying. The color scheme is unlike any other contemporary comic book cover with varying hues of red and pale yellow. As a comic book cover its value is questionable. As a work of art it is unforgettable.
STRANGE TERRORS #4 (Nov. 1952)
WEIRD HORRORS #6 (Feb. 1953)
WEIRD HORRORS #s 6 and 7 (February and April 1953 respectively) made up the last two parts of the Ekgren trinity. Thematically, the cover for issue #6 seems to relate somewhat remotely to the blurb, “Monsters from Outer Space”, since the creature pictured definitely looks alien. An Aztec sacrifice of a chicken appears to be the subject of #7, but only in the most abstract way. Each cover looking as if drawn with multicolored spaghetti. Each similarly, well, weird.
WEIRD HORRORS #7 (April 1953)
Who was this guy? Finding the answer to that question became something of an obsession for me. There is no revealing interview with the rediscovered artist; no fan who had made his acquaintance at some long ago convention; no website featuring his biography.
One comic historian I contacted called Ekgren, “The most obscure of obscure artists,“ and could offer nothing more. Joe Kubert was both an editor at St. John and a frequent artist on STRANGE TERRORS and WEIRD HORRORS, surely he would know something about Ekgren, so I sent him an inquisitive letter.
“Sorry, Ken,” his written reply began, “but I never met Mr. Ekgren, nor do I know anything about his work or methods. I remember the covers, of course, but that‘s about it.” And that was about it, until I discovered the archives of the NEW YORK TIMES.
My searches led to a solitary result in a dusty corner of the September 16,1947 edition. Deep within resided Edward Alden Jewell‘s short review of an inconsequential art exhibition opening, “...to the public today at the Riverside Museum,“ which featured work, “by members of the Norwegian Art and Craft Club (and) brings into prominence...canvases, largely expressionist in handling by...William Ekgren (who has evolved a plangently dizzy technique)…“
He existed, this phantom, this cipher, this man nobody knew!
(I looked up plangently so you don’t have to: it usually refers to a sound and it either means loud and reverberating or plaintive and sad. Take your pick; I guess either applies to Ekgren’s work.)
Reassembling comic book history is very much like archeology. Digging through dirt and finding shards that you hope fit together to form something. Then the tiniest shard can be the key to everything. This barest mention of the elusive Mr. Ekgren, a crumb of information, became my Rosetta Stone.
Logic dictated that if he was exhibiting at the Norwegian Art and Craft Club, he was most likely…Norwegian. For the next year and a half, I checked with any art source I thought may have a lead on this (apparently) Norwegian abstract artist. One dead end after another as too many of my Googled searches led to indecipherable Scandinavian sites with nary a William Ekgren.
Eventually, however, perseverance paid off.
On July 6, 1918, William Ekgren was born in Oslo, Norway. Although his mother was Norwegian, his father was Swedish and they moved to Sweden when William was two years old. He attended school there until he was 15, at which time he became an itinerant artist, studying and exhibiting in South America as well as Europe. Eventually, Ekgren made his way to the U. S., where he became an art instructor.
Two sources provided the majority of the biographical details. First, the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, which not only supplied much of the background information, but also houses 11 pieces of Ekgren artwork in their collection. The head archivist was kind enough to provide me with copies of the 11 works from their catalog. Even though the small size of the photographs makes it difficult to see details within the artwork, the frenzied style of his work comes through.
A painting thought to be a depiction of the Titanic sinking (1949), is described in the catalog’s notes as, “…reds, oranges and yellows, descending into blue and grey water…(the) entire piece is of deep watercolor patches delineated by black painted outlines.” This description could be applied almost verbatim to the cover of STRANGE TERRORS #4.
"The Grotto at Rainbow’s End"
Of another oil entitled "The Grotto at Rainbow’s End" (1958), it’s noted that the, “entire canvas is overlaid with close, black concentric circles…,” yet another form of patterning that recalls his comic covers.
Ekgren work has a somber quality, with isolated figures and dreamlike landscapes. It’s not a huge stretch to assume that Ekgren was influenced by the work of his legendary countryman, Edvard Munch, painter of the iconic, "The Scream". Munch passed away in 1944 and was a pioneer in the Expressionistic style that Ekgren obviously embraced.
My second source was the Norwegian American Historical Association (NAHA), which filled provided even more detail about Ekgren’s career. Within their archives were Art Journal entries for the years 1950-52, which revealed that Ekgren worked at the Norheim Studio at 6007 18th Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. A brief summary of his career notes the various galleries at which he had presented work and that he was, “a constant exhibitor at the Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Exhibition.“
Nestled next to his write-up was a photograph of the artist, with a jaunty bowtie and pencil thin mustache, looking vaguely like Vincent Price. Included in the NAHA archives were several postcards in Ekgren’s handwriting to friends in the United States. In one, dated December 6, 1983, he thanks a friend for forwarding him a copy of the Vesterheim catalog containing his paintings. An intriguing postscript informs his friend that a book of his poetry was being published by Vantage Press, “…around New Year.” Indeed, it was.
In 1984, Vantage Press released a book of Ekgren’s, “…whirling, almost psychedelic poetry…” No surprise, I suppose, given his artwork. The press release for the book, OUT OF SIX ATTITUDES, goes on to breathlessly credit him with, “Virtually reinventing language.” Without comment, here is an excerpt from one of his poems:
As long as a clear ex-gladness
of precise anti-self-madness
derived from the lineage twin-string,
is powerfully directing
our course with obstructing sadness,
and subsight range, with worse badness,
seems worth issuing.
Esoteric poetry aside, one interesting piece of information also appearing in this press release is that Ekgren returned to Sweden in 1959, where he married and fathered two boys. Nothing though about his comic book work. How did this Scandinavian Expressionist painter come to draw comic books covers?
Serendipity is finding something unexpected. Sometimes, though, something unexpected finds you. Over the years, I’ve littered several online discussion groups with email posts casting about for any William Ekgren information. One day an email appeared in my In Box with the promising subject line, “Ekgren original”.
It came from an Eric Larsen and his words floored me, “I have an original William Ekgren color drawing that he did in 1953 as a design for a comic book cover. I also know some biographical information about him. He was a friend of the family's.” I quickly emailed him back and Eric informed me that Ekgren had been a close friend of his late grandfather. He personally had little information about the artist, but his father, who also had known Ekgren, would be able to provide more.
Elated, I emailed Eric’s father, Karl R. Larsen, and his response was a gold mine.
“I knew Bill through my parents when we lived in Brooklyn NY in the 1950's,” he began, “He met my parents through an Art Club called the Norwegian Art & Craft Club that my father (Karl L. Larsen) started in Brooklyn in the 1940s. My dad was an artist who attended art school in Oslo, Norway. Ekgren was an active member of the club and was considered a very good artist. He also had a difficult time holding jobs and got into comic book covers to earn money.” That made sense, an art instructor at a small studio couldn’t have been very profitable employment. Karl also noted though, “… he did not like this type of work (comic book covers), considered it beneath him, and only did it to put food on the table.”
Karl continued, “Ekgren did not have a positive outlook on the institution (of marriage) and I believe was divorced and had a son in Sweden. (note: he eventually remarried upon his return to Sweden) He did like the company of women and I remember pictures of him with some very good-looking ladies…He also gave art lessons (to which I was sent) to earn money. Ekgren was (is) a vegetarian, an intellectual, preferred a "bohemian lifestyle"(smoked pot before it was fashionable), and lived in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan.”
“I also remember a Sunday morning finding him asleep in our bathtub. There had been a costume party at the "club" with an after party in our apartment for some close friends of my parents. He was dressed as a pirate or Sinbad the Sailor (I think) and scared the hell out of me when I saw him there.”
The image of Ekgren as a prototypical avant-garde artist fixed in my mind, I wasn’t surprised to find out he was apparently an stubborn iconoclast.
“My remembrance of him (I was 10 when I took the art lessons) is that he was somewhat strange, very liberal in his thinking…and very headstrong. I heard a story from my parents and others that he took a strong dislike to an elderly man whom commissioned him to do a portrait. He delivered the finished work of the gentleman lying in his coffin. Ekgren, of course, did not receive payment and did not care.”
There was a greater depth to Ekgren’s ideals that Karl revealed in a follow-up email.
“…I remembered a conversation with Bill about his participation on the side of Finland in the "Winter War" (1939-1940) against Russia. I don't remember much else except that he said he fought on skis and it was very cold. He was a volunteer and that in his opinion, Finland won.”
Karl was referring to the invasion of Finland soon after the outbreak of World War II. The vastly outnumbered Finns fought the Soviets, then one of the Axis powers, to a standstill over the course of a brutal winter. The resulting armistice gave the Stalinist empire a portion of Finland, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Finns had exacted a terrible toll, killing 5 Soviets for every man they lost. While acknowledging Ekgren’s obvious bravery, it’s also a reasonable assumption that he was the only combatant on either side of this terrible conflict to end up working in American comic books.
The Larsens have several Ekgren originals scattered among various family members. Most intriguing from my point of view, was the one Eric mentioned when he first contacted me: the unpublished comic book cover.
“Its quite creepy, and done in Ekgren's trippy, swirlly style,” Eric wrote,“It used to hang in my Grandfather's basement where, for some strange reason, his only bathroom was located. I remember being freaked out by it whenever I had to descend the stairs late at night to use the john. After seeing Ekgren's published covers, I am surprised that this drawing was never used since it is quite a bit darker and more sinister than the ones that actually appeared in public“.
Eric’s evaluation of the painting is dead on. The unrelated images of a candle, bloody knife and a monstrous face, are disturbingly creepy. Why this never became a comic cover is unknown and unfortunate. Dated 1953 and very Munch-like in execution, this watercolor painting, without the obsessive linework of his previous covers, suggests that this may be a preliminary cover proposal. Did Ekgren submit this to an editor only to have it rejected? Or had he had enough of the comic book industry and never submitted it at all? The reasons, I suppose, are lost to posterity.
The only persons who might know were Karl L. Larsen and Ekgren himself. The elder Larsen, sadly, passed away in November 2004, just short of his 97th birthday. Meanwhile, I could find no mention of William Ekgren since 1985, soon after the release of his book. If he is alive, he would be in his late eighties now.**
That’s the way this should end. I like to think that William Ekgren is still alive, still feisty, still painting and still writing incomprehensible poetry. His life intersected with comic books long ago and his flirtation was brief. If only he had drawn more covers, maybe a few interiors, he may have inspired some disciples and taken comics in a different direction…then again, maybe not. I am satisfied, though. My curiosity is finally sated. William Ekgren is still mysterious, but he is no longer a mystery.
* While it can't be certain, many now agree that George Klein was Kirby's inker on FANTASTIC FOUR #1.
** This is several years old and Ekgren would consequently be older if still alive.