Scary Monsters and Super Creeps: Dundalk comics legend Bernie Wrightson retires

Late last month, Dundalk boy and ghoulish comics hero Bernie Wrightson announced his retirement via Facebook. The message, written by his wife Liz Wrightson, reads in part: "Last November Bernie began falling again, and having obvious problems with perception. He had to undergo yet another brain surgery to relieve bleeding, and then spend several weeks undergoing in-patient rehabilitation. Unfortunately, it appears that he has lasting damage: he has extremely limited function on his left side, and is unable to walk or reliably use his left hand, among other limitations." Accompanying the message, a photo of Wrightson, gaunt though smiling wide in a hospital bed.

And like that, the pen of a comics great stops darting all around the page.

Best known for his work on DC Comics' "Swamp Thing" in the early '70s, Wrightson drew just the first 10 issues, but he suffused writer Len Wein's strange conceit with a gloried grotesque (in a body horror-like, E.C. Comics-esque style that looks like it was drawn by Rubens with stark Gregg Toland-esque lighting) and made the character last. Wrightson took Wein's idea seriously—not too seriously—but with just enough po-faced, loopy sincerity. One example, a striking panel from "Swamp Thing" #2, shows Swamp Thing with a terrified-Rottweiler look on his face, surrounded by the Un-Men, a bunch of mutated freaks, one of them, pretty much a brain sitting on top of a hand, declaring, "Swiftly, my Un-Men capture him swiftly! The master will not tolerate your failure!"

The story goes that "Swamp Thing" came together after Wrightson endured a rough break-up. "You know, I just wrote a story that actually kind of feels like the way you feel now," Wein told Wrightson, who then read the script and got to work constructing the mossy, muscleman look of the character stuck in his own mind and body unable to communicate. Wrightson's horror always has a touch of knowingness to it, with superheroism and loads of incongruity, while the sci-fi has a cloying kind of revisionist camp. Consider the jacked-up, dissociative dread of his story, 'The Laughing Man,' from "Creepy" #95; or "The Hulk Vs. The Thing," where Wrightson finds a vehicle for big, bulky, colorful bodies beating each other up—visceral panel-to-panel action distilled. And recall his character Captain Sternn, an egomaniacal and amoral space adventurer best known for his appearance in the 1981 "Heavy Metal" movie where he faces "12 counts of first–degree murder, 14 counts of armed theft, 22 counts of piracy, 18 counts of fraud, 37 counts of rape, and one moving violation"—Buck Rogers meets Donald Trump basically.

He is most respected for "Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein," a book from 1983 of baroque black and white illustrations—"all pen," he notes—to accompany Mary Shelley's 1818 novel. It stuck him with a reputation as an illustrator more than a plain old comics artist, which gave his work an air of respectability that even he never seemed much interested in indulging. But "Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein" really is something else: Six years in the making, obsessive and ornate—slashes of ink, bursts of white inspired by woodcuts and engravings—all operating as if Boris Karloff's iconic Universal horror version was never even shot. There is a moment in "Frankenstein" where Shelley describes the monster as having "watery eyes" and Wrightson seemingly built out his sketch from there, designing a wistful, irksome creature. The result is a horror book that also offers up the ecstasy of fine detail and the accumulation of lines.

The image shown above, which was published in the Baltimore Sun in 1968, during Wrightson's tenure as a contributing artist, is an early examples of bendy realism: A busy image of a summer night crab feast with some very Baltimore characters, and perhaps even some distinctly Dundalk details, including someone's barrel-chested dad with a sixer on one shoulder and a cooler on the other. Another Sun illustration, below, accompanies a story about absentee fathers shows a family left behind as a man struts away, a blast of brightness ahead—we see everybody's backs, suggesting universality and the sense that the sight of the family's faces would just be too much.

Wrightson is a rogue pragmatist who treats drawing like a craft, which means you do your best always and find a few ways to express yourself along the way. As a result, his career is full of weird deep cuts, back-up stories, and one-offs that might grab you as much as his "Swamp Thing" run or illustrations for Stephen King. In "Epic Illustrated" #25 (Epic was Marvel's dumber version of "Heavy Metal," the cheap beer to its schwag weed), Wrightson contributed "The Potty's Over," an O. Henry-esque, wife-hates-her-shitheel-hubby tale where a woman accidentally kills her husband, feels elated, and then dismembers him, flushing his innards down the sink and toilet only to be attacked by those innards as they bubble back up the drain months later. There are certain things this 11-pager does because it has to do them—lots of nudity, gregarious gore, a winking twist ending—and then there are the things Wrightson does because he wants to do them. He stretches out with exploratory pacing (hang-out time offered via the quieter panels both build dread and gets us closer to our protagonist) and includes some tricky details (the vicious attack is a nod to "Psycho" but with a unflinching post-'Nam approach to blood and guts). And it's colored in eerily inviting suburban pastels by Wrightson's then-wife Michelle, of "Wimmen's Comix" fame and a significant comix cult figure in her own right.

In 2008, Wrightson was the guest of honor at the Baltimore Comic-Con. On stage with José Villarrubia, a comics colorist and chair of the Illustration Department at MICA, Wrightson came off as incredibly aww-shucks—a hard-working autodidact of an illustrator who more than once was basically all like, "Hey, I just like to draw scary monsters—nothing more." This is not true exactly—he'd follow up a statement like that with some profoundly informed pontification on drawing history or the importance of atmosphere—but still, it seems that's how he'd like to see his legacy. A modest (maybe too modest) craftsman with an eye for the ugly, arcane, melancholy, and absurd.

Copyright © 2019, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy