“Berni Wrightson”. Just seeing his signature on a comic book cover would thrill me with excitement!!
Berni Wrightson: Master of The Macabre.
My first comic books I got, when I was 4 or 5 in the early 70s, were of the horror variety: ‘House Of Mystery’, ‘House of Secrets’, ‘The Unknown Soldier’, ‘Hekyll & Jekyll’, and ‘Mad’. I was an odd one. I think the first time that his name really stuck with me was the early 80s in Pacific Comics ‘Berni Wrightson: Master of The Macabre’, which were reprints of some of his stories from ‘Creepy’ and other one-offs from other comics. PC released several issues and he also contributed to covers for some of their other titles like ‘Twisted Tales’. His cover for ‘Twisted Tales’ #2 disturbed me when I first saw it and I loved him for it! Two Spielbergian kids are being chased by an ax-welding maniac with severed human heads attached to a rope going through eyes, nose, and mouths of these heads forming a grotesque bandolier all rendered in his traditional pen and ink style.
Born in 1948 in Dundalk, Maryland and like most people his age, Berni loved the EC Comics of the 50s and their artists were all influences: Ghastly Graham Ingalls, Jack Davis and in particular Frank Frazetta, in fact after meeting Frazetta at a comic convention he started creating his own stories and landed a gig with DC comics. His first story for them was ‘The Man Who Murdered Himself’ for the horror comic ‘House of Mystery’ #179, but it was as co-creator, along with Len Wein of The Swamp Thing, that he would create an iconic but strange superhero.
Swamp Thing had his roots planted in a one-off in DC’s House of Secrets #92. A Victorian-era melancholy tale of love, loss, and revenge that resonated with readers so much that DC wanted to add him to their main universe along with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the gang.
They re-set the character to modern times:
Botanist Dr. Alec Holland is working on a top-secret bio-restorative formula when his lab is mysteriously blown up turning him into The Swamp Thing.
Wrightson would exhaustively draw and ink the first 10 issues. Always wanting to make each issue better art wise. Wrightson was starting fall behind, DC also wanted him to draw an update to The Shadow (which he did some work on then passed it on to his equally gifted friend Michael Wm. Kaluta). His inking got more and more meticulous and his art started to transcend comic work, in fact, he was part of a group of artists that I feel were some of the greatest in the history of comics: Michael Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Jeffery Jones.
After his tenure at DC, he went over to Warren Publishing, the publishers of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Eerie and Creepy magazines. Creepy and Eerie were magazine sized black and white comics and since they were magazines they didn’t have to adhere to the restrictive comic code like DC and Marvel do. This freed up Berni’s imagination and he would produce some classic comic art.
“There is something at work in my soul that I do not understand.”
–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s Frankenstein
For several years Wrightson would devote most of his time drawing and inking plates for his magnum opus an illustrated edition of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein produced for Marvel Comics. These illustrations are far and above any comic book illustrations and are right up there with Gustov Doré’s brilliant wood engravings for Illustrations For The Bible. His illustrations are both meticulous and sublime. When I say meticulous just look at the image of Victor Frankenstein at a window seat with writing quill in hand. He took a simple image and made it awe-inspiring, from the rain running down the window panes and the accompanying shadows all done in pen and ink using cross-hatching and lines. This type of work is all done with a brush, no technical pens or brush pens.
The raison d’etre for this work is his masterpiece “I shall be with you!” Which was printed in a two page spread in the Marvel book but prints were 24x 36. I used to stare at this when I was a teenager with a magnifying glass! It’s an amazing piece of work I can’t imagine how many hours it must’ve taken. He must’ve just gotten lost and absorbed in it and just sat quietly inking lines as time slipped away into the darkest abyss’ of his imagination. That’s the place where genius lives and it only comes out when it’s provoked by the creature from the id. That’s what Bernie did, he poked that sucker until it spewed out his pen and onto the board! His caricature of Frankenstein’s monster is a gaunt and harrowing visage of sinewy flesh and fetid muscle. He made plate after plate after plate with the same intensity. There is no mediocre image to be found in this set of images. These illustrations were not just in the Marvel book but were also sold as a set of plates which are highly collectible and rare. Even the mighty Guillermo Del Toro doesn’t have a full set!
Berni Wrightson would eventually return to comic book work, standouts include the ‘Creepshow’ graphic novel; a loving tribute to not only Wrightson’s but also Stephen King’s and George A. Romero’s love for the old EC Comics of the 50s that played a hugely influential role in their childhoods. He would also illustrate King’s ‘Cycle of The Werewolf’, the hardback reissue of ‘The Stand’ as well as ‘The Dark Tower IV: The Wolves of The Calla’. He also returned to DC with a four-issue graphic novel ‘Batman: The Cult’. He also created the comedic Captain Stern a character that would also be in the animated film ‘Heavy Metal’.
Berni Wrightson passed away March 18, 2017 after struggling with brain cancer but like Mary Shelly’s creation he will live on forever through his art.
-Phillip López Jiménez
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