SPOTLIGHT ON… Bernie Wrightson, Master of Gothic Horror Comic Book Art!

I was perhaps eleven or twelve years old when I discovered the Gothic Horror comic book artwork of Bernie Wrightson.

And, several times, at that tender age, I made the severe, dire mistake of reading Bernie Wrightson’s horrific (to me, then) horror comic books, in bed, before trying (and failing), to nod off to sleep-!

From Wrightson’s Swamp Thing, House of Mystery, Secrets of Haunted House, Secrets of Sinister House, the Frankenstein black and white Gothic Horror graphic art and text novel (with Mary Shelley) ‘FRANKENSTEIN’, ‘The Weird’ comics mini-series, Tomb of Dracula, The Shadow #  4, a couple of issues of Marvel’s Werewolf By Night issues, NUMEROUS issues of House of Mystery, Atlas/- Seaboard’s (circa 1975) Morlock: 2001 (or, rather, the creature that the human – looking Morlock TURNED INTO) — all scared the pants off of me-!

What the heck did Bernie Wrightson have against me, anyway-? Smile.

It, of course, goes without saying that fans of Gothic Horror comic books like myself (and movies, for that matter), LOVE to be scared by what they read and see, in fiction – illustrated horror genre comic books and movies! Face it, pilgrim – that’s what it’s all about!

Mr. Wrightson’s Marvel Comics’ ‘The Incredible Hulk and The Thing’ (Ben Grimm, from ‘Fantastic Four’) graphic novel re-defined how we LOOK at those characters, (and at death), something that comics illustrator Jim Starlin has done the same thing with, including Marvel’s very first ‘The Death of Captain Marvel’ Graphic Novel!

Bernie Wrightson was the type of ‘Master of Gothic Horror Comics’ illustrator, on the scale of Mike Kaluta, Tom Sutton, and numerous 1950’s E.C. (which stood for ‘Entertaining Comics’) comics titles, among so many others, that, these days, seem to be a vanishing breed, in the genre. And, more’s the pity.

Credit where credit is due Department: Jeremy Fuster put together a pretty comprehensive list of published comic books published during Bernie Wrightson’s career that is pretty comprehensive. And, on the world – wide net, (for completists), this list is right here: Bernie Wrightson comics checklist

As Jeremy Fuster himself reported as well, at this (above) link, “Wrightson began his career at the age of 18 as an illustrator for The Baltimore Sun. Two years later, he became a freelance artist with DC Comics.

The Bernie Wrightson – illustrated  Batman mini-series, ‘The Cult’, was yet another four-issue comics mini – series that you did NOT want to read, just before bedtime! Interestingly, it was written by comics’ macabre artist Jim Starlin, who we all know is one of the Masters of comics art that frequently deals, (writings and art – wise), with death issues, also!

Batman: The Cult, which came out in 1988, really made readers of this seminal work, re-examine The Batman character.

Myself, and, I bet, many others, never really thought about The Batman the same way again, following our reading of Starlin’s and Wrightson’s horrific tale, therein!

In that sense, Batman: The Cult was a very worthy follow – up mini-series to the Frank Miller written and illustrated 1986 ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’ title, coloured by the also celebrating and award – winning Lynn Varley! Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns came out two years prior to Wrightson’s and Starlin’s Batman: The Cult.

While other artists did the pencils and ink chores on the interiors of the DC Comics’ Elseworlds five issue mini-series entitled ‘Batman: Nevermore’, Bernie Wrightson did all five covers for the series; and, in my opinion, they are among Mr. Wrightson’s best works!

But then again, everything Wrightson did was top – notch, and loaded with incredible detail! I never ceased to be amazed at the caliber of skill and incredible detail in pretty – well everything Wrightson worked on!

One element in Bernie Wrightson’s incredibly detailed, at times, horrific in nature illustrations, that I’ve NEVER seen discussed anywhere, but that I’ve noticed numerous times, is Mr. Wrightson’s incredible sense of humour, prevalent in a fair degree of his work – including (for example), the prints entitled ‘You’re New Here, Aren’t You?’ and ‘Teddy Bear,’ which I include here, with the text of this article.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you really think about it, Bernie Wrightson himself, was inspired, to a large extent by another Master of illustration and painting – none other than Frank Frazetta-!

In 1968, Mr. Wrightson had a meeting with another, already long – familiar artist to comic book fare, Dick Giordano! Mr. Giordano very much liked what he saw in the then – young Bernie Wrightson.  He, in fact, gave Wrightson his very first comics’ assignment, at DC Comics.

This very first Wrightson – illustrated work came out In 1968, was entitled “The Man Who Murdered Himself” This story appeared in House of Mystery # 179, dated inside as March–April 1969. DC Comics, for several decades, seemed to be just about the only comics’ publishing house which dated comics issues, in the inside indicia (usually at the bottom of page one), with hyphenated month(s) dates.

Moving to New York City, to be closer to where most all of the comics’ publishing houses were situated, for quite awhile, Bernie found himself living in the very same Queens apartment building as artists Al Milgrom, Howard Chaykin, and Walt Simonson!

With Len Wein (writer), Bernie Wrightson co-created DC’s Swamp Thing character, his very first appearance of which appeared in House of Secrets # 92. Later, of course, Swamp Thing would graduate to his own title, becoming, in a short time, one of DC Comics’ most important gothic – inspired characters, (which he remains to this day, all these decades later); right up there with The Phantom Stranger, Denny O’Neil’s and Neal Adams’ Boston (Deadman) BrandThe Spectre, Zatanna, and Jack Kirby’s The Demon, to name just some!

Along with Marv Wolfman, Wrightson jointly co-created the character of ‘Destiny’, for the DC title Weird Mystery Tales # 1, dated in the inside indicia July – August 1972. The well – known novelist Neil Gaiman, the well – known prose novelist and comic book writer, quite sometime later, would use Wolfman and Wrightson’s Destiny character in a series of DC Comics, to come!

In 1974, Mr. Wrightson left the employ of DC Comics, to go to work for Jim Warren’s Warren Publishing line of magazines – sized, black and white illustrated horror titles Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. These titles, of course, seemed almost tailor – made, with Bernie Wrightson in mind, for the reason that his gothic/-horror style of illustrated art was PERFECT for them!

Interestingly, Mr. Wrightson was employed as a concept artist for the ground – breaking first ‘Ghostbusters’ movie, which starred Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, and the hilarious Rick Moranis, among others.

In 1985, Wrightson teamed up with Jim Starlin for the 1985 one – shot entitled ‘Heroes For Hope’, the proceeds of which went to famine relief in Africa. Both Jim Starlin and Wrightson produced Marvel Comics’ 1985 one – shot Heroes For Hope, which was directly conceived and designed to raise money for African famine relief and recovery.

Jim Starlin (perhaps known for his work on Marvel’s Adam Warlock various series, as well as the Kree Captain Marvel (Mar-vel) series and ‘The Death of Captain Marvel’ graphic novel), also worked with Bernie Wrightson on DC’s ‘The Weird’ mini-series.

Meanwhile, DC Comics, to their credit, ALSO put out a one – shot comic book, the proceeds of which would ALSO go towards African famine relief.

The title of this particular comic book was entitled ‘Heroes Against Hunger’ # 1. Bernie Wrightson also did the design of the scary ‘The Reavers’ characters – an assignment, of course, that he was eminently qualified for; you might say ‘right up his alley’, so to speak – for the movie ‘Serenity.’ This film was, of course, a sequel to the short – lived cult fan favourite television series, ‘Firefly.’

Bernie Wrightson won a ‘National Cartoonists Society’ award for the ‘IDW’ (comic book company) 2012 mini – series ‘Frankenstein Alive, Alive!’ 5 issues epic!

Now, that’s impressive! For the reason that there are a lot of comic books (and) newspaper comic strips annual awards out there, including The (Will) Eisner Comic Industry Awards, The Ink Pot Awards, Canada’s The Shuster Awards, and others. However, The National Cartoonists’ Society Awards are more often won by newspaper comic strip awards, not comic book artist.
Very sadly, in January of 2017, Mr. Wrightson announced he was retiring from comics, due to the completely understandable fact that he was engaged in a very serious battle with cancer. He passed away on the 18th of March, 2017 – just a little more than two months ago, aged 68. The very next day, his second wife, Liz, announced that he had, in fact, passed away from a diagnosis of brain cancer.

 The cult favourite TV series ‘The Walking Dead’, at the very beginning of the final episode of its’ seventh season, entitled “The First Day of The Rest of Your Life,” was dedicated to the memory of Bernie Wrightson. Which was indeed fitting.

Note: some details for this article are derived from the Wikipedia online entry for horror comics master illustrator Bernie Wrightson.

Bernie Albert Wrightson, October 27th – March 18th, 2017

I’m  a sentimental guy at heart. To be perfectly honest, more than two solid months following Bernie Wrightson passing away, I’m typing this with tears rolling down my face. We miss you, Bernie. Thank you for a lifetime of entertainment. 

— Phil Latter


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