Posts Tagged ‘Bernie Wrightson’

This has been a rough week indeed for comics fans. Already reeling from the too-soon departures of underground legends Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, just hours ago news broke of the death of Bernie Wrightson, whose lavishly creepy illustrations haunted the imaginations — and found their way into the nightmares — of generations of readers. Arguably (hell, maybe even inarguably) the premier horror artist of our times, the esteemed Mr. Wrightson was a pre-eminent innovator and consummate craftsman whose painstaking attention to even the smallest of details made all the difference in the world and elevated his work from being “merely” great to being both great and memorable. But don’t just take my word for it, feast your eyes on some of his grimly lush renderings and decide for yourself :

As you can clearly see, Wrightson (who for many years omitted the “e” at the end of his first name and signed his work “Berni”) was a master of all mediums, from the brush to gray markers to pen-and-ink to washes to duotone paper to painting — you name it, he tried it, and always with resounding success. He really was just that good.

Wrightson began his professional career in 1966 working as an illustrator for his hometown Baltimore Sun newspaper, but after meeting legendary comics and fantasy artist Frank Frazetta at a convention he felt sufficiently inspired to give comics a try, and in 1968 was hired on by DC, where his work began appearing regularly in the House Of Mystery and House Of Secrets horror anthology series. Similar work for Marvel followed on “of-a-piece” titles such as Chamber Of Darkness and Tower Of Shadows, but his “big break” came in 1971 when he and writer Len Wein created the most famous “muck monster” character of them all, Swamp Thing, for a one-off Victorian-era story in House Of Secrets #92.  The strip proved to be so popular that Swampy was given his own series, complete with a revamped, then-modern origin, and Wrightson illustrated the first ten issues of Swamp Thing before signing on with Warren Publishing in 1974, where he put his then-positively-exploding talents to use on both original stories and adapted works (most notably of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft) for legendary black-and-white mags such as Creepy and Eerie.

The mid-’70s ushered in a new chapter, with Wrightson and studio-mates Jeff Jones, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Michael W. Kaluta expanding their reach beyond comics and into commercial art, but he never left the funnybooks behind completely, and his 1983 graphic novel adaptation of George A. Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow led to a sustained and productive working relationship with King that saw him produce original illustrations for the books Cycle Of The WerewolfWolves Of Calla, and the restored edition of the classic The Stand. 1983 also saw the publication, via Dodd, Mead, and Company, of a deluxe edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein complete with nearly 50 pen-and-ink illustrations that Wrightson had spent seven years producing and that many consider to be the pinnacle of his masterful use of line and shadow. Here’s just a sample :

In 1985, Wrightson and writer Jim Starlin oversaw Marvel’s Heroes For Hope, an all-star “jam” benefit comic for African famine relief, and in 1986 they did the same for DC with Heroes Against Hunger, beginning a long and fruitful collaborative partnership that saw them team up on the highly-regarded mini-series The Weird and Batman : The Cult for DC and The Punisher : P.O.V. for Marvel in ensuing years. A wide range of card game, film design, and commercial work followed on from there, as well and continued comics work for publishers such as Heavy Metal (the character of Captain Sternn in the Heavy Metal film was a Wrightson creation), Dark Horse, IDW, and Bongo until his retirement this past January due to health issues following brain surgery.

Bernie Wrightson — incomparable talent, winner of too many industry awards to mention, and delineator of gorgeous grotesqueries for  a half-century — lost his long battle with brain cancer on March 18, 2017, aged 68. He is preceded in death by his first wife, undergound comix cartoonist and “Big Two” colorist Michele Wrightson, and is survived by wife Liz, sons John and Jeffrey, and stepson Thomas. He cast a long and darkly beautiful shadow over the lives of comics and horror fans around the globe, and his untimely passing casts the longest one of all. Thank you, good sir — may you rest in peace as surely as your work will continue to cause sleepless nights for years to come.

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I could start this with a cheesy pun, I suppose, and say that when I  heard that DC Comics was planning on bringing back Swamp Thing yet again — this time in a six-part mini-series written by the character’s co-creator, Len Wein, and illustrated by Kelley Jones, who probably does the closest stylistic approximation of anyone out there to the work of Swampy’s other co-creator, Bernie Wrightson — that it sounded to me like the big green muck monster was “going back to his roots,” but I dunno — is it still a pun if it’s absolutely true?

When it was first announced, however many years back now (about five, I think),  that the one-time Vertigo “supernatural characters” would be folded back into the “proper” DC Universe as part of the “New 52” initiative, I honestly thought that Swamp Thing was the only one who could potentially benefit from such a move, especially given that Scott Snyder was going to be writing the then-new book, but let’s be honest — the results have been far less than impressive on the whole, with Snyder and his successor, Charles Soule, both doing their level best to immerse the character ever-more-heavily into a shallow contemporary version of the “Parliament” mythology established back in the 1980s by Alan Moore and modified, with ever-diminishing results, by just about every writer who took a crack at the book (in any number of newly-numbered “volumes”) since. I’ve read ’em all, of course, but about the only time I think they came close to getting it right in terms of moving the character forward (by moving him back, but I’m getting ahead of myself) was during  Nancy A. Collins’ criminally-overlooked run on the Vertigo version of the series back in the early ’90s. Her approach was very much a “fundamentalist” one, if you will, essentially choosing to simply ignore the already-convoluted-by-that-time continuity that had been piled on top of her charge and to go back to just telling good old comic book horror stories with a decidedly “Southern Gothic” flair, and ya know what? It worked. But they could just never leave well enough alone, and one failed re-launch after another has left Swamp Thing well and truly bogged down at this point.

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Enter Wein, Jones, and colorist Michelle Madsen (with a nod to variant cover artist Yanick Paquette), who have again chosen to blow off, rather than blow up, what’s come before, and have given us an all-new Swamp Thing #1 that, to be perfectly blunt, feels anything but. And wouldn’t you just know it? I’m not complaining in the least. From page one on, this comic feels like stepping back to about 1976 or so, but it’s not a pale imitation or lackluster approximation of the real thing (I’m looking at you, The Force Awakens), it absolutely is the real thing — and that, my friends, makes all the difference.

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Wein’s prose it still as deliriously purple as ever, with the “show, don’t tell” school of modern comics storytelling  nowhere to be found in these parts, and while that may be frustrating for some given that Jones’ art is more than capable enough to do most of the “heavy lifting,” this is a book that knows what it wants to do from the outset and proceeds accordingly — and as your options as a reader are as immediately apparent as they are simple : go with the “old-school” flow, or put the book down. I chose the former, of course, and so far it’s proven to be a very wise decision.

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The story’s nothing complicated, of course, nor should it be : Swampy, his supporting cast completely absent, is hanging out in the bayou doing nothing more than contemplating his newly-stripped-down existence, when The Phantom Stranger shows up, warns him of some typically-ambiguous bad shit about to go down, and then we get familiarized-by-force with the goings-on at a local college where an unorthodox (to say the least) professor has decided to take it upon himself to resurrect the dead — but first he’s gotta kill one of his student “volunteers” to do it, as you’d no doubt expect. And while some among you may feel that the inclusion of a zombie in this story is indeed some sort of nod to modern horror tropes, I assure you that this typically- tragic villain would in no way be out of place in a 1970s horror comic, be it CreepyEerieTomb Of Dracula or, of course, Swamp Thing, Plus, this particular zombie seems to owe more to Herbert West, Reanimator than to The Walking Dead — thank goodness.

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Look, it’s no secret which way things are going in terms of the overall trajectory here — we’re headed for an extended confrontation between two slow, shambling, supernatural foes, with a bit of dime-store occultism and “secret college cult” shit thrown into the mix for good measure. A guest appearance or two from the likes of Deadman and/or The Spectre is certainly not out of the question. And Jones will have plenty of gooey and gory scenes to sink his still-considerably-sharp artistic teeth into. He and Wein previously teamed up, with unspectacular results, for the two-part Convergence Swamp Thing mini-series early last year, but there they were hamstrung by heavy editorial constraints related to the “one alternate reality vs. another” over-arching theme of the predictably-rancid crossover “event” of which it was a part Here, there’s a definite feeling that they’re just being allowed to do their own thing — and that “thing” hasn’t really changed much in 40 years.

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Look, I won’t kid you — there may not be a ton on offer in this first issue (entitled, awesomely, “The Dead Don’t Sleep!”) beyond pure nostalgia — and certainly as the basis for a new ongoing series, this “throwback” approach would probably get pretty old pretty fast to modern readers, but never fear — Alec Holland will be getting back to his gig as “Avatar of the Green” or whatever in due course, I’m sure. And us old dinosaurs will probably take a pass on it at that point and let you kids have your fun. I hope the next inevitable re-launch of this character will be good, sure — but given the track record of the Jim Lee/DanDiDio regime at DC, I wouldn’t bet on it.

For the next six months, though, there’s absolutely no harm in letting how things used to be play-act at being how they are again (however temporarily). Swamp Thing #1 was a blast, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the rest.