Bernie Wrightson: an appreciation

by Paul Chadwick

If one can assign such a title as “dean of horror illustrators,” Bernie Wrightson certainly is it.  In the 30-or-so years his work has been appearing in print, a cryptful of fine comics, books, prints, portfolios, cards and film designs has earned him this distinction.

Wrightson’s work is full of voluptuous curving forms; a sharp awareness of directional light; and a knack for exaggeration which makes the monstrous elements more writhing and weird and the people just a bit arch.  A fair amount of his output could be classified as humorous as well as horrific.  And unlike the truly disturbing darkness of Giger or Arisman, there’s a quality to Wrightson’s work that suggests he’s chuckling as he’s drawing that pile of severed heads.

heads

Wrightson was born in Baltimore in 1948 to a hardworking blue-collar family of Polish and Russian stock.  Perhaps significantly, their house was beside a cemetary. He credits the horrors of a Catholic school education for fueling his work, but a muse of another sort may have had a role.

When he was four, a woman visited his bedroom on three occasions.  Each night she methodically searched through his dresser drawers and his toy box.  Little Bernie was paralyzed with fear; the woman was headless.  The object of her search was obvious.  On the third night she approached Bernie and leaned down to check under his mattress.  He got a clear view of her cleanly-sliced neck.  It showed the cross-section of veins, throat, muscle and vertebra in perfect anatomical detail, of which no four-year-old would likely know or imagine.

Whether dream (and Wrightson has never otherwise had recurring dreams) or ghost, the experience clearly got Wrightson off on the right foot.

Remarkably, Wrightson never went to art school.  He drew along with TV art instructor John Nagy as a child.  EC comics and monster movies on TV fed his imagination.  A broken arm at eleven created some enforced sitting time when he drew to fight boredom.  Eventually he became determined to be an artist and draw comics.

As a teen he plowed through the Famous Artists correspondence course.  Shortly after high school, a job at Baltimore Sun gave him experience doing art for reproduction.  And before too long he made the trek to New York, was deemed “Best New Talent” at a convention, and was offered work by Dick Giordano at DC comics.

The comics field was emerging from a long slump. The lean years had shaken out the artistic community, leaving a group of older men who had, because of low pay rates, focused their skills on quickly turning out fairly simplified artwork in a “house style.”  Penciling and inking were almost always divided among two artists. 

Wrightson was among a number of fans-turned-pro who entered the field at this time, about 1968.  Young, living cheaply, without families to support, they labored on their pages (and often inked their own work), producing prodigies of detail and rendering.  Their passion showed.

Though not the best draughtsman (Neal Adams deserves that title), Wrightson outshone his peers with his stunning brushwork and lighting effects.  He’d learned much from EC greats Ingels, Wood and especially Frazetta, and a Wrightson page had an unmistakable panache.  Almost immediately he was a fan favorite.

But there were bumps in the road.  He froze up and was fired off his first book, Nightmaster. He was rehired after Jerry Grandenetti did the first issue, but his enthusiasm was understandably diminished.  Silly compromises had been made with the character; evidently distrusting the sword & sorcery genre, they gave Nightmaster a superhero costume and made him a displaced rock star.  It lasted only three issues.

Learning Conan was to be adapted to comics at Marvel, Wrightson drew up samples but was told they weren’t superheroic enough.  However, they gave him another job: a Kull story called “The Skull of Silence.”  He threw himself into it, loading on detail, craftint and letratone effects.  He colored it himself, symbolizing the apocalyptic silence the skull unleashes with the color leaching out of the latter pages.  It was the best thing he’d done.  But the printed version was atrocious; coloring had been added to the final pages, for fear readers might feel cheated.  And, apparently reproduced from bad photostats, the detail dropped out of the artwork.  Heartsick over the debacle, for years thereafter Wrightson did only the occasional cover for Marvel.

The magazine Web of Horror appeared around this time, with Wrightson stories and cover paintings prominent.  But the publisher departed leaving a cleaned-out office and unpaid fees (though taking the artwork he was supposed to return) before the fourth issue ever went to press.  Abyss, an artist-financed magazine Wrightson did with Jeff Jones, Bruce Jones and Mike Kaluta, died after one issue because the printer mistakenly printed only half the number of copies ordered!

Where Wrightson shone during this period of the early seventies was DC’s Mystery books, for which he supplied a wealth of covers, intro pages and occasional stories.  Editor (and EC alum) Joe Orlando loved the weird quality of Wrightson’s work and gave him latitude to express his gifts fully.  In one such story in The House of Secrets #92 (1971), the Swamp Thing was introduced.

Swamp Thing

The next year the landmark Swamp Thing series debuted.  With writer Len Wein, Wrightson produced ten classic issues (1972-74) that sealed his reputation.  An amalgam of a murdered scientist, his “bio-restorative” formula, and the seething biota of a swamp, this hulking vegetable encountered a werewolf, mutant freaks, Lovecraftian god-creatures, an alien, even the Batman.  Speaking two words was a wrenching effort for him.  His burned-off arm would regenerate like a tree limb.  Deliciously strange and gorgeously rendered, the original Swamp Thing series is still treasured.

In 1974 Wrightson began to work for Jim Warren’s magazines, Creepy and Eerie (where, years before, his first published drawing had appeared on a letters page).  Here he produced the weird classics “Jenifer,” “The Pepper Lake Monster,” “Nightfall,” and adaptations of Lovecraft’s “Cool Air” and Poe’s “The Black Cat.”  There was also a parade of spectacular inside front cover drawings.  These works were the apogee of Wrightson’s early brush-feathering dominated style.

During these years comics fandom was coming into its own.  Conventions and slick, semiprofessional fanzines came into being.  Wrightson was a favorite of older, more sophisticated fans, and was tapped to do fanzine covers, prints and interviews.  His following in this arena made possible such books as Badtime Stories (1971), an all-Wrightson anthology, and The Monsters (1974), an oversized gallery of creatures ostensibly designed for coloring.

This upscale market welcomed Wrightson’s color posters and prints, which had more of the look of turn-of-the-century book illustrations than of comic art.  The 1979 book The Studio suggests these and illustrations for Frankenstein (published 1983, but preceded by several portfolios of the artwork) occupied Wrightson throughout the late seventies.

Frankenstein

Documented in The Studio, this time has taken on the aura of a short golden age to admirers of the the four studiomates, Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith and Bernie Wrightson.  All these artists went through spectacular growth.  Escaping from the restrictive environment of comics at that time, and united in regard for great illustrators and painters of the past, each member of the group drew new and spectacular imagery from within himself.    Wrightson’s Frankenstein is a perfect example.

For Frankenstein Wrightson laid down his brush and picked up a pen, to magnificent effect.  He studied the work of golden age illustrator Franklin Booth and applied some of his techniques to sometimes elegantly spacious, sometimes magnificently cluttered compositions.  An enormous Glimmer Graphics print of one of these, Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory, was produced years later with great success.  The result of years of painstaking effort, Frankenstein remains a highlight of Wrightson’s career and horror illustration in general.

During the Frankenstein years Wrightson created his roguish Captain Sternn character (which he later realized was an echo of James Garner’s con man in a movie that deeply influenced the young Wrightson, The Great Escape).  The first Sternn story appeared in Heavy Metal the magazine in time for it to be adapted for Heavy Metal the movie in 1981. 

The movies have often drawn on Wrightson’s skills.  The indispensable Wrightson omnibus, A Look Back (1979, reissued 1991) contains early production art for an unproduced film, TravelerGhostbusters (1984) benefited from Wrightson’s designs.  In 1988 he visualized elements from Lovecraft’s Shadow over Innsmouth for director Stuart Gordon, though the film remains unproduced.  Recently, he’s designed creatures that have a better chance at coming to the screen: for Chuck (The Mask, Eraser) Russell’s This Present Darkness and an as-yet-untitled Robert (Desperado, From Dusk Til Dawn) Rodriguez film.

It was a comics adaptation of the Stephen King/George Romero film Creepshow (1981) that first brought Wrightson and King together.  Soon thereafter, King’s first illustrated book, The Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), appeared, brimming with Wrightson drawings.  King also had Wrightson illustrate his “uncut” reissue of The Stand (1990).  Last year, though King did not instigate it, Wrightson painted a cover for TV Guide featuring King’s miniseries The Shining, and illustrated a King short story therein.  Given the magazine’s circulation, this might be the most widely disseminated horror story and illustration in history.

Wrightson frequently returns to comics.  Batman: The Cult (1988; with Jim Starlin) was a tremendous success.  For Punisher: P.O.V. (1991; also with Starlin) Wrightson toughened up his artwork with less feathering and more graphic shapes.  Interestingly, Starlin originally wrote this as a Batman story to follow up The Cult.  When that didn’t work out, replacing longtime DC Characters with longtime Marvel characters was a snap, underlining just how much comics deal in archetypes.  Captain Sternn: Running Out of Time (1993; inked by Shepherd Hendrix) was a refreshing SF romp, perhaps an outgrowth of Wrightson’s being a father of young children; there are certainly plenty of Wrightson comics I won’t show my four-year-old!  Perhaps he wanted one he could read to them at bedtime.  Batman/Aliens (1997; with Ron Marz) pitted the Dark Knight against the hardy cinematic menace.  Recently Wrightson did a Hulk story for Marvel’s Shadows & Light, and a new Batman story for DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight.  For Eleven Eleven, he provided a penciled illustration for each facing page of Joy Mosier-Dubinski’s text.

Wrightson is always in demand for covers.  Dark Horse engaged him to do covers for Tarzan: Le Monstre and for Dark Horse Presents #100 (of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy).  This year five painted covers for Chaos’ Nightmare Theatre appear (as well as one story, written by Joy Mosier-Dubinski and inked by Jimmy Palmiotti). 

Another venue for Wrightson’s work is collector cards.  Two series have appeared, Master of the Macabre (1993) and More Macabre (1994).  These are well worth seeking out, each with 89 painted images not seen anywhere else.  Thanks to the unfortunate bankruptcy of the publisher, FPG (not due to Wrightson!), they can be picked up at bargain prices.

And what of the future?  Wrightson seems to be entering a new phase of his career this year, heralded by a move from New York to Los Angeles.  We can expect fewer Wrightson comics and more Wrightson art appearing in “making of” books; and, of course, his designs in the finished films.

That may seem bad news for Wrightson collectors; more than the ideation, it’s the art itself, every little feathered stroke and gnarled tree limb, that is special about his work.  The intensity and dedication apparent in it give it its transcendent appeal.  But judging from Wrightson’s past career, he won’t be out of sight for long; he’s held in such esteem in his field, and so many want him to work for them, that some persistent souls will pull more prints, covers, perhaps even comics out of him.  In the meantime, we can expect some strange and interesting visions on our movie screens.

 

 



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