Remembering The Master of Comics Horror
♦This morning it was announced that veteran horror comics artist Bernie Wrightson lost his fight with cancer and so Tripwire’s Senior Editor ANDREW COLMAN, a fan of the artist since he was ten years old, put together this tribute to the artist…
BERNIE WRIGHTSON 1948-2017
In many respects, the much-loved and universally admired Berni Wrightson was at the very heart of what became the post-Silver Age revolution in comics – like his contemporaries in the collective that was The Studio (Jeff Jones, Mike Kaluta and Barry Windsor-Smith) his work was suffused with the language of his predecessors in pop culture and sequential art, and demanded to be taken seriously. And, keeping with the changes occurring in the offbeat decade that was the 1970s, very little of it had anything to do with long underwear characters.
His career in comics was no accident, nor did he drift into it. Clearly a fan of E.C. Comics from an early age, Wrightson developed his artistic ability without attending art colleges, something that had been quite common in comics’ golden age, but was decidedly unusual in the 1960s. While attending some of the early comic art conventions in that decade, meetings with his hero, the legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, and DC editor Dick Giordano led to freelance work at National. Working on revamped “mystery” titles such as House Of Mystery and House Of Secrets under the purview of E.C. stalwart Joe Orlando, Wrightson had arrived at the exact moment when DC publisher Carmine Infantino was overseeing an artistic renaissance at the company. He, Neal Adams and Jeff Jones quickly became the key artists for a new wave of gothic horror titles, a genre that had been all but dormant with the introduction of the comics code over a decade earlier.
In one of those comics, House Of Secrets 92, Wrightson drew a story set in the Victorian era, detailing the betrayal of scientist Alex and his wife Linda Olsen by their friend, Damien Ridge, which led to Alex, in the shape of a muck monster, wreaking revenge on his would-be murderer. Essentially a tale that was more in the gothic romance mode (which ironically was already being phased out by DC) the premise was nothing new, with pre-code antecedents such as Hillman’s The Heap amongst others being an example. However fan response to this heartbreaking yet restrained story was particularly strong, which led to the much-hallowed series Swamp Thing arriving the following year.
Len Wein and Wrightson’s ten issues of Swamp Thing were rightfully praised at the time, and to this day, as a tour de force, with some of the best art and storytelling in the industry. His artwork here transcended his main influences (Frazetta, E.C. horror maven Graham Ingels and innovator Bernie Krigstein), as most of the three artists’ work at E.C. was very much genrebound. In this ambitious series his art, dynamic and cinematic as it was, was also highly emotive, while still retaining his shadowy, dark tone. For many readers this was the series that brought so much more to the medium. And, for what it’s worth, it was very much my entrée to the wonders of American four color comics.
After his departure from the series Wrightson moved to Warren Magazines (very much a publisher in the E.C. tradition), where he experimented with various styles of illustration, yet still focusing on horror. His adaptations of gothic classics such as The Black Cat, Nightfall and Cool Air showed how he could work with different art techniques yet retain his signature feel. A year after joining Warren, Wrightson helped to set up The Studio, allowing him to move into other areas of illustration. Nevertheless he would often return to comics for projects such as Batman: The Cult and The Weird.
In the end losing such a significant artist as Bernie Wrightson is a bitter pill for fandom, as his works are still feted as not just ground-breaking but classicist and virtuoso. He may not have done much in the way of comics’ bread and butter (super-heroes) with the notable exception of his portrayal of Batman in Swamp Thing 7 (Night Of The Bat, still one of the best ever Bat-tales) and The Cult, but for aficionados, he is very much one of the great exponents of comic art. And his art lives on in those he has influenced – notable artists such as Kelly Jones, Sam Kieth and Frazer Irving. This, as well as his warm and enthusiastic presence at comic conventions over the decades, will mean that he will be sorely missed by all.