Bernie Wrightson, one of the greatest fantasy artists, comic-book artists, ink artists and creature creators in history (and one of my favorite artists of all time) left the world today to join the ranks of his influences like Frank Frazetta, Graham Ingels and Franklin Booth. More than just a “Master of the Macabre,” he was a master artist.
I won’t bother rehashing Bernie’s history and career—plenty of sites are doing that and have done so with thoroughness, in addition to all the wonderful printed tomes brimming with his beloved artwork. (Start with his official site.) I’ll also try my best to refrain from overdosing on superlatives, but words like “great,” “amazing,” “awesome,” “incredible,” “fantastic,” et al., still apply and at times still don’t do justice. There’s a smattering of samples here, but I encourage you to just go to Google Images or any other image search and type in “Wrightson art.” (Before you do, though, strap yourself into your chair because you’ll be blown out of it, and place a towel over your device to catch the drool.)
I found a brief interview I did in 1998 for COMIC BOOK PROfiles magazine #2 (As You Like It Publications, Matthew and Tina Poslusny, editor and publisher/art director, respectively). Pardon the questionable grammar and lack of eloquence as I think it was conducted by phone, and I tend to speak like a moron. (New comments are bolded in Parentheses.)
What was the first work of Bernie’s that you remember seeing?
SWAMP THING #7 with Batman (when the artist was still going by as “Berni” due to an Olympic diver with the same name). I got that off the stands. I was amazed at both the wonderful use of light and shadow that Bernie’s so great at, as well as the outlandish rendering of Batman. I had never seen him rendered like that before, with the two-foot long ears, and the Spawn-like cape (almost 20 years before there even was a Spawn), which was really cool, especially when you’re a little kid. I remember thinking, it kinda doesn’t look like Batman, but boy does he look cool! It was so great too because it was a self-contained story. (Still one of my favorite Bernie mainstream stories.)
Of all Bernie’s work, what is your favorite?
Asking [my] favorite Bernie Wrightson work is like asking me my favorite Kirby or Frazetta work. A few things stand out, like THE MONSTERS COLORING BOOK which came out in the ’70s, the FRANKENSTEIN book, which was probably one of the best things done in comic-book history, and his whole run on SWAMP THING. (Regarding FRANKENSTEIN: “probably?” More like definitely!)
How did his artwork influence your style?
Well, I know I discovered Bernie after Kirby, and they are two very diverse styles. Kirby was all action and power, and Bernie was mood and lighting. That’s where his biggest influence was. I would try to draw in his style, and use a lot of black and shadow. (Sadly to little use because I didn’t understand the expertise and brilliance behind it.) I would just try to figure out how all that worked. It’s a great thing to learn from. I’ve read in interviews where he’s admitted that anatomy was not his strongest point, and that he faked a lot of it, but to me he always made up for it with his knowledge of form, shadow and lighting.
Another thing he was so great at which sadly these days most people don’t know, was that he was doing the black-and-white [limited outline] style long before Frank Miller (as Miller used in SIN CITY). Twenty years ago, Bernie was using heavy black with minimal or no outline. There were illustrators before Bernie that were doing it, but Bernie was one of the first guys that brought it into comics, he and Alex Toth (and, soon after, Jim Steranko). Bernie was such a great artist, and so much better than so many before him.
I want to reiterate that last line (which for some unknown reason was written in the past tense back then), but with one crucial addition: Bernie was such a great artist, and so much better than so many before—or after—him.
That’s really the point I want to make here. I honestly cannot think of a living comic-book artist better than Bernie with a pen and brush. (With one or the other, there are equals, like Russ Heath and Brian Bolland, but Russ, and in his late 80s, obviously isn’t at the level he used to be, and Brian has inked digitally for nearly all of this century.)
One of my duties as Assistant Director (and committee member before that) of The Inkwell Awards (which promotes and educates about comic-book inking) is to nominate, and then vote for, candidates for our annual Joe Sinnott Hall Of Fame Award. Every year I’d nominate and vote for Bernie, and every year I’d either be the only one or one of only a few. He never won, often taking a back seat to guys that came later–and in my opinion, weren’t nearly as good. To me, it was an inexcusable insult to one of the medium’s and industry’s greatest inkers. (Is Michelangelo not as good an artist as Andy Warhol because he lived longer ago?)
I became so outraged and crazy over this that it led to our founder and Director, Bob Almond, and I establishing the SRA (Special Recognition Award), which is given as a Lifetime Achievement Award (minimum 25-year career). It’s “for the ‘underdog’, the elite Elder, the gone and/or neglected great; the artist whose name may not come immediately to mind or may not be considered currently popular, nor likely to win a Hall of Fame Award.”
Bernie was (of course) the first SRA recipient, back in 2015 at Heroes’ Con in Charlotte, NC. According to Bob, “It made his day. He never saw us coming (we went to his table since he was ill and he had a line, instead of having him go to the Inkwells’s award ceremony). A proud moment.”
Wrightson will always be in my Hall Of Fame. While growing up and for decades after, he was part of my Top Three (with Frank Frazetta and Jack Kirby) and I was more than thrilled to meet him for the first time many years ago, and a few more times after that. He was always friendly and gracious. The last time, at the Long Beach Comic-Con (where I was with Wednesday’s Heroes) in 2011, I was finally able to purchase a piece of original art from the Master himself, one of many of the cool creature designs he’s supplied to many blockbuster films over the years, this from THE CAVE. (Bernie’s monsters were sometimes better than the rest of the film!) It’s not Swamp Thing or Frankenstein or Batman (my Holy Grails), but it’s still done by the Master’s hand, and I’m grateful to have it.
A final treat came last year at Comic-Con San Diego, where two different auction houses had Wrightson originals up for sale, and I got to study up close some classic Wrightson work for Swampy, the Warren magazine CREEPY, and that aforementioned MONSTER COLORING BOOK. I strongly recommend browsing through the Profiles In History Frank Darabont Collection for Bernie’s masterpieces.
I don’t have anything witty or pithy to end on. I’m too sad right now. So I’ll just say “thank you and God bless,” wish him well on his new journey, and say one more time till everyone on the planet gets it:
Bernie Wrightson was such a great artist, and so much better than so many before—or after—him.
My heart goes out to Bernie’s wife Liz, his family and many friends.
Let’s just finish up with a small gallery of his legendary Frankenstein plates.