Master of Horror: A Tribute to Bernie Wrightson
Horror is a notoriously difficult genre to pull off in comics. The reader controls the pace, so scares and surprises don't work the same way they do in other media, and once you've seen enough of them, shocking twist endings can feel routine. Every now and then, though, there's a creator who has the ability to pull it off, crafting unforgettable visuals and a moody setting that feels oppressive, unknown and terrifying. Bernie Wrightson, born October 27, 1948, was unquestionably one of the masters.
Over the course of a career that began in 1968, Wrightson crafted stories full of twisted figures and haunting apparitions, and he never stopped experimenting with how to do it better.
Unsurprisingly, Wrightson had deep roots in the horror genre. Growing up, he was a fan of EC's horror comics and artists like Frank Frazetta, and their influence shone through in Wrightson's intricate linework and moody detail. It was even a meeting with Frazetta at a comic book convention that inspired Wrightson to try his own hand at creating comics, submitting art to Creepy, and working for anthologies like DC's House of Secrets.
And it was there that Wrightson became a household name for comics fans, when he and Len Wein created Swamp Thing. The collaboration would become a landmark for the genre, the leading edge of a return for horror comics that blended a frightening atmosphere with the hard-hitting action of superheroes. This kind of horror --- the massive, shambling monster as the hero battling against twisted fiends like Anton Arcane and Un-Men --- would be massively influential, forming the basis of what would become DC's Vertigo imprint.
Wrightson, however, wanted to do more, and in 1974, he left DC to work with Warren Publishing, under the promise that his work would be printed in black-and-white, without the coloring that he felt muddied his work. As he said in an interview with Comic Book Artist:
I had gotten really tired of using a brush working on Swamp Thing, and the last issue of Swamp Thing was all done in pen. That was one of the things that really killed it for me: When that issue finally came out — and I had put a lot of work into that last issue—the colors were very dark, the linework could have been pen or brush or marker or finger paint; you just couldn't tell. I thought it looked just awful — and I thought, 'Damn! If I'm going to put all that work into something, I want it to show!'
And it did. In addition to his comic book work for Warren, Wrightson would spend seven years working between commercial jobs on a series of 50 illustrations based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, producing some of the best work of his career --- or anyone else's, for that matter. The detail is staggering, and the horror comes through in every line.
But it was not just his knack for horror that made Wrightson one of the greats. It was his dedication to craftsmanship, a desire to experiment and push his limits as an artist, which saw him once self-publish an anthology in which every story was told with a different technique. These are the reasons he remained so vital and influential over the course of an almost fifty-year career.
Bernie Wrightson passed away on March 18, 2017, due to brain cancer.