• Michael Dooley

Bernie Wrightson: Horror Comics Master & Father of ‘Swamp Thing’

Like most 1950s EC comic book “Fan Addicts,” as we were known back then, I needed my monthly eyeball fix of this publisher’s humor, war, and sci-fi titles. However, I “just said no” to Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and the rest of the horror line. Mind you, I’m hardly a junior Dr. Wertham. I didn’t actually mind all the depictions of death, dismemberment, and decay. I could even appreciate artist “Ghastly” Graham Ingels, EC’s unrivaled master at the time. His stories were pure form-follows-function: simultaneously engrossing and gross, practically emitting sensory stench. Still, I was never hooked on horror. That is, until I came across the superb brush renderings of Ingels’s rightful heir and today’s master of the genre, Bernie Wrightson.

Wrightson catapulted to comics superstardom in the early 1970s, when he and writer Len Wein gave form and substance to a now-famous primordial muck-monster. In addition to establishing the creature’s look, Swamp Thing’s first ten issues also gave birth to legions of Bernie W. fan-addicts. Uh, not to be confused with Bernie-Bots.

Wrightson’s professional career had begun a few years earlier, when Ingels’s fellow EC illustrator Joe Orlando, now editor of DC’s House of Mystery, hired him at the tender age of 20. As a kid, he’d studied Ingels’s techniques and mannerisms: his moody, light-and-shadow cross-hatchings, his characters’ gestures and screaming mouth slobbers. Beyond that, Wrightson’s only other art education came from instructor Jon Gnagy’s You Are an Artist TV show and the Norman Rockwell-fronted Famous Artists Correspondence Course, which recruited students through comic book ads. But his work soon grew in richness and dimension, acquired a grace and a humanity, with strong echoes of such classic illustrators as Gustave Doré, Heinrich Kley, and Franklin Booth. Although the quality of his artistic output could be inconsistent, the 1970s became his Golden Age.

1980 saw the start of Captain Sternn, Wrightson’s satirical sci-fi adventure series. It was a witty updating of, and homage to, Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s “Superduperman” from the mid-1950s EC Comic, Mad. It was adapted as one of the five stories in Heavy Metal’s animated feature the following year. His series of lush, atmospheric illustrations based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, clearly a labor of love, was first published by Marvel in 1983. With updated editions in 1994 and 2008, it’s become practically canonical. Among his other notable career accomplishments are comics for National Lampoon and Warren Publishing’s Creepy and Eerie and collaborations with Stephen King.

Wrightson’s wife Elizabeth recently announced his retirement from comics due to complications following brain surgery, and reported that he’s “otherwise pretty healthy and has good cognition.” His ever-devoted fan-addicts have turned to Facebook and other social media to express their deep sorrow, full support and warm wishes for improved health. And this fan would like to offer some samples of the range and depth of Bernie Wrightson’s talents. Watch it, though: you might get hooked.