Bernie Wrightson: A Terrifying Original (1948-2017)

One of many memorable Bernie Wrightson covers for DC’s famed House Of Mystery anthology series that was popular in the 1970s.

I was tremendously saddened to learn that famed comic book artist Bernie Wrightson passed away this weekend after battling brain cancer. His wife Liz made the sad announcement through his official website.

For me, the man who co-created Swamp Thing, became forever linked with Frankenstein, and illustrated so many great, original terror tales for comics will always be synonymous with horror. His distinctively flowing and highly detailed line work vividly brought to life his original monster creations and interpretations of famous characters, and it popped both in color and black and white formats. When you saw his work, you always knew it was him.

Wrightson began his career as an illustrator for the Baltimore Sun in 1966, and within three years he began to work for DC Comics on their original anthology series House Of Mystery. This quickly lead to working on a variety of titles for both DC and its competitor Marvel Comics in the 1970s including House Of Secrets, Chamber Of Darkness, and The Unexpected, not to mention the famed Warren Publishing titles Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. He co-created Swamp Thing with writer Len Wein in 1971, and the character would later appear in two films and a TV series during the 1980s, which was when he delved into the superhero realm (often through cover art) with his own renditions of Spider-Man, The Hulk, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Doctor Strange.

Wrightson signing an issue of The Treehouse Of Horror at the 2006 Dallas Comic Con.
(Photo by Corey Bond.)

Wrightson’s work extended beyond comics. He got into the movie business, contributing original art for the “Captain Sternn” segment of Heavy Metal (1981); providing uncredited art for the horror anthology Creepshow (1982), for which he illustrated the comic book adaptation; serving as a creature design consultant on Ghostbusters (1984); and in a similar role for Riding The Bullet (2004), among other movie gigs. His illustrations graced books by L. Sprague de Camp and Stephen King, and of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1983. This latter work has been praised by many within and outside of the comic book industry for its stunning artwork. He reportedly worked on the 47 detailed illustrations for the project over a seven-year period without pay simply because he felt compelled to do it.

I could gush on and on about the various achievements from Wrightson’s career. But I think the key point to make is that, among a cadre of talented comic book artists who have also delved into the dark regions of human existence, Wrightson’s work stood out because he always managed to truly invoke the terror and fear experienced by the characters he portrayed. In turn, he creeped us out; his sense of the gruesome and macabre translated well to the page. (One of his trademarks was a trail or trails of saliva bridging people’s upper and lower jaw, particularly with people who were experiencing fear or stress.) This is a man who lived and breathed horror, and you could feel it in his work. Yet looking at the various photos of him from over the years, he exuded happiness and contentment.

With his passing, I hope that longtime fans will revisit his work while younger artists who might not know much of the man or his influence will take a closer look at his extensive oeuvre. There is so much wonderful work to absorb. The iconic illustrator kept working into the current decade, most recently on a three-issue series with fellow comics vet, writer Steve Niles, called Frankenstein Alive, Alive! The dark duo collaborated on projects for nearly a decade.

There is a reason why Wrightson kept active artistically throughout his adult life: His work was timeless and always relevant. It shall remain so.