BERNIE WRIGHTSON: An Appreciation, by Kelley Jones

A master salutes a legend.

UPDATED 10/27/17: Bernie Wrightson would have been 69 today. This first ran earlier this year when Wrightson died and I’m deeply proud to present it again in honor of his birthday. — Dan

When I heard last weekend that Bernie Wrightson died, I thought not just of his considerable body of work (some of which you can enjoy here and here) but also his considerable impact, his influence. And when I thought of his spiritual descendants, the artists who carry his torch highest and brightest, I immediately thought of Kelley Jones. For my money, there’s no artist working today whose work unsettles in the same way as Wrightson’s, who can make a printed page come alive with the creeps in such an evocative way. I contacted Kelley and he graciously agreed to write this moving tribute to his hero, an artist for all time: Bernie Wrightson. — Dan

By KELLEY JONES

My life changed when I was 12 years old.

I can remember it like it was yesterday. That’s because it’s still influencing me to this day… to this very hour. Pretty dramatic to say, you think, then consider: I read Swamp Thing #2 when I was 12.

To be fair, at first I hated it. The Un-Men, creepy Arcane, the strange architecture of the castle and deep-shadowed forests, and Swamp Thing himself. It scared me, I’ll admit.

Swamp Thing #2 bothered me, so two hours or so later I went back and reread it.

My whole opinion changed and that’s when it happened. Bam. It was over.

I flipped to the credits page, something I’d never done before. There was this strange name… Wrightson.

And Bernie Wrightson was my hero from that instant.

Other kids it was Wille Mays or an astronaut. Me, it was Bernie, no doubt.

Bernie taught me a lot.

First, to do my chores without being told to. This to guarantee my allowance to afford his comics. Bernie also taught me to not take no for an answer when asking my brother to drive me to all the local convenience stores and used book shops to get Bernie’s books. All the important stuff to feed my obsession with him — my parents owed Wrightson a lot and never knew it.

I’m not going to go on about Wrightson’s great skill, his draftsmanship and technical brilliance. Others better that me can do that.

OK, I know that’s a dodge, so I’ll be quick and digress for a moment on Bernie’s great courage as an artist, at least in my opinion.

Bernie’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air in Eerie #62 should have been a disaster in lesser hands, or at least a tough slog to get through when reading it.

As a script, it’s boring and would be the least interesting thing ever to draw. Nothing happens. No action. The characters simply listen or read!  The action all takes place in an apartment! This has failure all over it.

Yet in Wrightson’s hands, wonders occur.

Each page and panel begins the building of tension. Of dread. Through the outstanding use of light and shadows, textures and angles, Wrightson walks us to the incredible payoff panel. Bernie even ups the potential for failure by making the pay-off  panel a splash page!

I gasped when I first read it. I really did .I did again when rereading it for this article.

You don’t get lucky on this folks, you gotta have singular talent to do it. You have to have the same energy and enthusiasm at the beginning of the job to the last stoke of the brush. You have to know that’s the objective. Anything less and this is a failure. And Cool Air is anything but. To this day it is simply remarkable.

* * *

OK, back to the good stuff.

When going to college I had a terrific argument with my art instructor that comics were art and not a lesser craft. I brought in tons of Wrightson’s stuff to make my point. Bernie’s great covers for DC’s horror line, his stunning Warren stories. I finished with his Frankenstein portfolio. The instructor still vehemently disagreed with me.

But other students watching this happen wanted to see who I was gushing on about. They were immediately enthralled with Wrightson. They were entranced by his skill and my reputation went up because of my introducing them to Bernie’s art. One gal said stop showing her his stuff, it was terrifying her (she read the great story Jenifer, of course). I swore I wanted a reaction like that one day… and I still do!

From 2016’s Swamp Thing #6, by Swampy’s co-creator Len Wein and Kelley Jones. Colors by Michelle Madsen.

That my professor didn’t agree that Wrightson was a legitimate artist didn’t bother me. I knew I was right and she was wrong. I soon quit her class to begin my career in comics anyway. My real teacher was Professor Wrightson. His course got me hired. A Look Back, the tome of Bernie’s art, was my textbook. Every answer about being an artist is in that grimoire. Not just the art either.

What I got from it was that Bernie didn’t care if his stuff was published. Not at all. That alone gave me great courage, which I finally displayed on Deadman, and it was a career-changing event for me much as Swamp Thing was for him. I made that decision to do Deadman my way after reading Bernie’s words in A Look Back.

Not Kelley’s copy. This one’s for sale on eBay.

I know, I can see you rolling your eyes, and tsk-tsking me. I can hear you saying, “Then why’d he pursue being published? Why did he have all these books out?”

I can answer that I think.

If Bernie wanted to simply be a comic artist, he could have chosen a much easier route. He could have just drawn in the same sensibilities as current artists of his day did. Chosen superheroes as his motif like everyone else. And I mean everyone.

Not Bernie.

Bernie approached DC by drawing monsters! He drew monsters and horror when there was no market for the books about bumps in the night.

DC, looking at Wrightson’s work, made a comic book just for his talent. Just to have Bernie.

Wrightson didn’t change what he did to suit his publishers, his editors, his writers or even us, his fans. He doubled down. He drew more monsters. More acts of terror. Ax murderers never looked so good!

I give total credit to Bernie Wrightson for the horror comics market we have to this day. He created the genre of horror in the modern age. By himself.

Now this is a pretty silly way to get published. And so I see this as a deal he made with himself.

Working on comics and such, drawing monsters and graveyards and haunted houses, I see was a way to cheat the world. Cheat it from having to do some mundane job to pay his bills.

Another day of walking in all those lonely places where the bad things live. Living like a 12-year-old again, with all the magic and mystery that comes with it, only with heaps of talent!

I feel this is also why Wrightson hadn’t a shred of arrogance considering his considerable ability. No pretentiousness.

Wrightson’s Frankenstein

I think he probably felt a bit apprehensive when showing his work, when it was published, because these were his secret places, his private thoughts. And so when published, the world would invade it. I will concede I could be wrong… but I don’t think so.

Wrightson was free. Free to walk in a world of his own making.

Bernie was his own Victor Frankenstein, who in turn stitched himself as his own Monster. The Bernie Wrightson we all know. He created himself, you see.

So it is that when I’m asked what my favorite Wrightson piece is, I have an easy answer.

Bernie Wrightson himself.

For 13 COVERS: A Bernie Wrightson Horror Comics Celebration, click here.

For 13 COVERS: A Bernie Wrightson Superhero Comics Celebration, click here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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8 Comments

  1. “Living like a 12-year-old again, with all the magic and mystery that comes with it, only with heaps of talent!” What a great phrase to describe Bernie– and to some extent, maybe all of us who draw comics. At the core of it, It’s certainlyis what I strive to do when I draw.

    Kelley, I knew that you, as the most prominent heir to Bernie’s legacy, would write a beautifully insightful eulogy. Thank you for this.

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    • Stirring , Lush, Delicious…Bernie, Bernie, Man you spoiled us rotten!! Bravo Kelly!! The Lights and Darks are in good hands with you! Carry On!!

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  2. A very fine tribute to one of the greatest horror artists it has been my privilege to know. Nobody could come near to BERNIE when it came to rendering scenes of sheer terror. There will never be another like him. He was also a genuinely nice guy. Best, Nicola Cuti

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  3. Being a writer of horror, I can only imagine what it was like to have someone like Bernie illustrate your story especially when he was at his peak during the Warren years. I can imagine that Lovecraft would have loved to rise from his grave to see the sight.

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  4. I remember discovering his Swamp Thing in 80’s. I saw the cover to issue 9 & I was hooked. I crawled around the in the comic shop looking through every box trying to find more Bernie Wrightson work. I studied his art & tried to apply his technique to my own amateur art. I never became more than an amateur artist but I sure enjoyed pouring over his art. I still do.

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  5. Bernie Wrightson’s work gave me direction. It showed me that the dark moody feel I wanted in my work could be achieved and find a market. I will forever be thankful to his skill and bravery as an artist, and for his kindness as a person when we were able to meet.

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  6. I first discovered Wrightson when I was twelve, too — when The Cult was published in ’88. It was a more mature Batman, just as my own tastes were maturing themselves. So Wrightson occupies a special place in my formative comic-collecting experiences.

    Lovely tribute, Mr. Jones. You’ve done Bernie proud.

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