Bernie Wrightson, Master of Comic Book Macabre


It's always been amazing to me that, as good as he is, Bernie Wrightson was able to make a go out of a career as a horror artist, a tenuous genre in comics at best. And in the worst of times, as viable in the comics field as chipped beef on toast at a gourmets' convention. But almost from the start Wrightson has been recognized as one of the giants in this field, and has gone on to work on an impressive range of projects.

Bernie Wrightson was born in Baltimore Maryland on October 27 (just a few days before Halloween!), 1948. As a child he discovered E.C. Comics and became a fan. To anyone familiar with Wrightson’s work, it’s obvious that one of his big influences surely must've surely been Haunt of Fear artist "Ghastly" Graham Ingels, a maestro of horror who excelled in creating mood, specializing in moldy, swampy scenes.

Although super heroes dominated the field in the late sixties (as they do now) Wrightson was able to find work at DC Comics and moved to New York in late 1968. Bernie had started his professional career working as a cartoonist for The Baltimore Sun in 1967 but quit soon after becoming so disgusted by office politics and petty jealousies ("God, it was depressing.") that he simply got up and walked away (I myself lasted only four months as a Sun cartoonist for similar reasons). His first comic book work was published in DC's supernatural title, House of Mystery #179, a series which featured a classy array of covers --Wrightson would do fifteen of them (one less than the number of his stories) starting with #193.

There was another "House" at DC, The House of Secrets, which began its mystery format when it gained a "host," Abel, with the 81st issue. It was here that Wrightson would really become known to comics fandom with Swamp Thing. The muck-monster first appeared in House of Secrets #92 (July 1971) in a mere eight page story written by Len (Wolverine) Wein and penciled and inked by Bernie Wrightson.

The fan response was enthusiastic and in November 1972 Swamp Thing arouse again in the pages of his own title. Wein and Wrightson, working with editor Joe Orlando, reworked the creature's origin, christening the walking clump of vegetation Alex Holland, a scientist who had really gone through some changes when his laboratory, hidden deep in the Louisiana swamps, was destroyed by those good old comic book regulars, Foreign Agents.

After being submerged in the marshes for days, soaked with his own chemicals, Holland somehow survives, transformed into a creature half vegetal, half human, unable to speak but still sentient, a creature (like Frankenstein's monster) more to be pitied than feared.

Swamp Thing, it must be mentioned, certainly had a precedent in comics and can trace his ancestry back to The Heap, a mossy character written by Harry Stein and illustrated by Mort Leav for Air Fighters #3 (Hillman Publishing, December 1942). The Heap also had a human origin, once the World War I German flying ace Baron Eric von Emmelman. After his Fokker is shot down to crash in a local swamp, the badly burned Baron undergoes an uncanny transformation, somehow surviving to evolve into a mindless greenish-brown muck creature, feared and shunned wherever he/it goes.

Since Swamp Thing wasn't mindless, Wein (who would eventually become Marvel's editor-in-chief) had more to work with, crafting sensitive and well thought out plotlines as Swamp Thing/Holland tries to discover the reasons behind his assassination while eluding the government agent Matt Cable and a sadistic genius, Arcane.

When Wrightson dropped off the book in 1974 after his all too brief ten issue run, David Michelinie became the new Swamp Thing writer. Despite the impressive artistic talents of Nestor (Rima) Redondo and Alfredo Alcala, without Wrightson and Wein the unique flavor of the book seemed to evaporate until, after a run of 24 issues, the first series was finally canceled in 1976.

Prior to his work on Swamp Thing, Wrightson had a brief three issue stab at doing E.C. style horror stories for a Warren magazine rip-off, Web of Horror, which debuted in December 1969. Wrightson had good company on the magazine, which also ran work by Ralph Reese, Bruce Jones, Mike Kaluta, Jeff Jones, and John Brunner, but wound up being badly burned. He and Bruce Jones were assigned to produce the forth issue.

It seemed like a sweet deal to the two young men, who didn’t even bother to inquire about their salaries ("Wow! We got our own magazine! We're gonna take this in an all-new direction!"). Unfortunately after expending a great deal of time and energy on the forth issue, the two made a long subway and bus ride to the publisher's office only to discover that the place was empty-- all the desks, filing cabinets, office supplies, and phones were gone. So was any chance of getting paid, or getting back any originals that had already been turned in.

Web of Horror, at least, was good practice for some of the superb work he would turn out for Jim Warren's Creepy and Eerie after leaving Swamp Thing. Working in a larger size in a black and white format without the impediment of cheap comic book coloring, gave Wrightson the opportunity to really stretch his artistic wings with beautifully crafted stories rendered in lush washes or with zip or duotone. It also must’ve been a charge working for E.C.-like magazines that published artists like John Severin, Reed Crandall, Johnny Craig, and Al Williamson. There was an additional bonus to Warren's generous page rates: the artists got their artwork back, a generous innovation neither Marvel or DC was willing to try at that time.

In 1975 the artist joined with Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta and Barry Windsor-Smith to set up a loft studio in Manhattan's West 26th street. For three years the foursome stuck it out in what would become known as "The Studio." It was hard going at times. "The heat went off at 5 o'clock," Wrightson recalls, "They shut it off at night and on weekends. During the wintertime we were always working with coats and gloves on."

Despite the arctic atmosphere, the Studio was a good place for creativity in that the four artists could inspire and share information without the restrictions of comic book commercialism. There were ego clashes - artists without strong egos wither up in the face of the business world's impositions far too easily, but the company and mutual inspiration seemed to pay off creatively.

During this period, Wrightson began working on a project that had been festering in his head for a least twenty years, an illustrated edition of Mary Shelley's 1816 classic, Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. The black and white illustrations are exquisite, rendered in a technique reminiscent of 19th century steel point engravings. The book would finally be published in 1983 and was reissued in 1995.

This collaborative era would last only three years, ironically torpedoed by the very book that celebrated its existence. The Studio,published in 1979 by Dragon's Dreams Ltd., was a handsomely packaged showcase of the four artists' talents. It also was the source of, in Wrightson’s words,"constant arguments about the layout of the book and how it was to be written and whose work was going to be on the cover."The book was published but the Studio itself was abandoned.

Wrightson continued to work and thrive in the horror medium even when doing super hero material, working on a dark-noire Batman graphic novel with Jim Starlin (The Cult), or depicting hideous mutations in Marvel's Punisher: P.O.V. (also with Starlin, 1991). Earlier, in 1982, he would get once more into an E.C.-like arena as Stephen King's chosen artist on the comic book adaptation of George Romero's Creepshow. King would also pick Wrightson to illustrate his Cycle of the Werewolf the following year. And in 1997 Bernie would return to the Dark Knight with a DC/Darkhorse crossover, Batman/Aliens.

Not all of Wrightson's work has been restricted to comics; in addition to several fine portfolio collections and posters, the artist has worked on concept designs for a number of films, including the two Ghostbuster movies (gad, what a great demon-dog!), My Demon Lover, and The Faculty. In 1999 he illustrated a diskette, Coven, the story of a woman's struggle to save her child against witchcraft, available in both PC and MAC formats. More recently he’s teamed up with his old Web of Horror co-editor Bruce Jones for a story for Flinch, the Vertigo horror anthology. If you’d like to learn more about Bernie Wrightson, or just look at some of his artwork, be sure to drop by his new web site at http://www.berniewrightson.com/ and enter a world of horror. Whoa, that guy's scary!
 

--Steve Stiles