In the world of comics, Bernie Wrightson was one of the greats.
He was the Master of the Macabre, an artist’s artist, and by all accounts, a very nice guy. If you’re not familiar with his work, this interview with him from the 1987 documentary Masters of Comic Book Art is a good primer:
When I think of Wrightson’s stuff, the word that leaps to mind is Bulk. Because of his mastery of form and shadow, Wrightson’s characters had a solidity and a weight to them that you didn’t typically find in comics. You’d look at a Wrightson panel and feel like you could reach out and touch the characters inside of it.
I think that’s part of what made his run on Swamp Thing so memorable. Wrightson made the incredible look utterly believable but no less spectacular. Even in their twisted, misshapen forms, Swamp Thing, the Patchwork Man, Anton Arcane and his Un-Men still looked like real beings, and they were all the more horrifying because of it.
And man oh man, the cool things that Wrightson did with Batman when he showed up in the Swamp Thing book. Wrightson pushed Batman into the realm of surreal, elongating the ears on his cowl until they were a foot off his head, and lengthening his cape 20 feet just because of how cool it looked billowing out between his legs while he straddled across the ledges of two rooftops.
Here’s a sample page that Wrightson did when he was trying to get the assignment for DC’s comic book version of The Shadow. It was later used as a teaser ad for the eventual book by Denny O’Neil and Mike Kaluta.
Although Wrightson didn’t end up doing the Shadow book due to his Swamp Thing commitments, he did end up collaborating on issue #3 with his pal and studio-mate Michael Kaluta. The two alternated art chores on the issue, with Wrightson inking Kaluta’s pencils on some pages and Kaluta inking Wrightson’s on others, and it’s utterly gorgeous. Page 19 has, for my money, one of the iconic shots of The Shadow (according to the Bernie Wrightson retrospective book A Look Back, this page features Wrightson pencils and inks on the main figures, and Kaluta pencils and inks on the backgrounds).
One of my stronger childhood memories is flipping through Wrightson’s comic adaptation of the 1982 George Romero/Stephen King horror anthology movie Creepshow. I never saw the movie, but that comic spooked the bejesus out of 10-year-old me. Hell, the ending of the cockroach story still makes me squirm whenever I think about it. I could never bring myself to actually buy the damn book, but I would always flip through it whenever I saw it at the local bookstore. Even at that young age, I recognized that there was something there that I was responding to that kept me coming back to it.
Wrightson also worked as a conceptual artist for movies. Here he is talking about his contributions to 1984’s Ghostbusters:
He also did some designs of the Green Goblin for the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie. They didn’t end up using any of Wrightson’s ideas, but suffice it to say that they all looked better than the Power Rangers-esque armor they ended up going with.
And then there’s Wrightson’s magnum opus: his illustrated edition of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein.
A true labor of love, Wrightson spent a staggering seven years working on 47 full-page illustrations to Shelley’s original novel. He’d work on it during his own time, between other assignments, emulating the look of the artistic mediums of the era — steel engravings and woodcuts. Wrightson came up with a new visualization for the Monster, breaking away from the iconic Jack Pierce / Boris Karloff makeup and creating a version based on Shelley’s original description.
Wrightson’s work on this book is utterly stupefying. I really came to appreciate all the effort that Wrightson put into the book when Kim DeMulder, one of my teachers at the Kubert School, showed our class the initial, self-rejected version of one of the book’s illustrations:
Most artists would be proud to produce a single piece as good as this over the course of a career, but Wrightson realized that it wasn’t as strong as it could be. So he threw it out, started over from scratch, and came up with this:
The second piece is undeniably better. The composition is stronger, the contrast is better, the staging is more tense and claustrophobic, and the Creature’s figure is more monstrous. And oooh, the rage and anguish in that eye peeking out from behind his arm…
It was one of the best lessons in art that I got during my three years at the Kubert School: No matter how good a piece is, it can always be better. And if you realize a better way to do it even after you’ve already put a ton of time and effort into a piece… well, by God, that’s what you’ve gotta do.
Really, if you consider yourself any kind of fan of illustration and you don’t own Wrightson’s Frankenstein… well, get off your ass.
The passing of a great writer or artist is always sad because of all the stories they could’ve done that we’ll never get to see. Back in the mid-80s, Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson planned to reunite on a three-issue Swamp Thing series called Déjà Vu. It would’ve involved Swamp Thing using the Green to travel back in time to save Alec and Linda Holland from dying in an lab explosion, thus preventing the creation of the Swamp Thing. But as the Hollands’ bio-restorative formula eventually menaces the world in this new timeline, the Swamp Thing must go back again to restore the past to what it once was. Wein said it was one of the best stories he’s ever written.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Wrightson penciled most of the 48-page first issue and then hit a wall. He just couldn’t go back again. Since DC didn’t have any interest in doing the story without Wein & Wrightson reuniting, that was that. It’s a shame that it never came to pass, but I’d like to think that a copy of Déjà Vu exists somewhere in Lucien’s library of books that were dreamed of but never written, right next to the never completed 1983 version of JLA-Avengers and Dave Stevens’ proposed Superman/Rocketeer crossover that took place during the 1938 War of the Worlds invasion from Mars.
Speaking of The Sandman, did you know that Bernie Wrightson co-created one of the Endless? Marv Wolfman conceived of a mysterious host named Destiny for a new DC horror book called Weird Mystery Tales. Destiny would carry a book around from which he’d read the stories that formed the content of the anthology. Wrightson added the detail of the book being chained to Destiny’s wrist, so it was his destiny and curse to read these stories for all eternity. Neil Gaiman later took the character and retconned him as a sibling of Death and Dream.
I’m rambling now, so I’ll wrap this up with some of my favorite Wrightson covers and a few recommendations.
A few years back there was a great collection of Wrightson’s Creepy and Eerie stories, Creepy Presents Bernie Wrightson. It’s still available for a very reasonable price.
The Swamp Thing stories that Wrightson did with Len Wein are collected in a volume from DC called Roots of the Swamp Thing. There’s also an earlier collection of the same stories under the title Dark Genesis.
Berni Wrightson: A Look Back, the 1979 Wrightson retrospective I mentioned earlier, is out of print now, but there are still copies available on Amazon.
If you’re interested in Swamp Thing and the history of swamp monsters in general, I highly recommend Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers, a special issue of Jon B. Cooke’s Comic Book Creator magazine that covers Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, and every muck-encrusted mockery of a man in between. This is where I got the information on Déjà Vu I featured in this column. The 7th issue of CBC also contains a great career-spanning interview with Wrightson, probably his last major one.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Wrightson, and condolences to your family, friends, and fans. Thanks for all the thrills and chills.