Having announced retirement at the beginning of this year, the 68-year-young Wrightson succumbed to brain cancer on Saturday, March 18, 2017, and it was devastating news to many in the industry. His artistic style was easily recognizable among the comic book titles on the shelves over the years, and he was an inspiration to many aspiring artists interested in taking a more classical approach to their illustrations.
Looking at the breadth of work that spans the past five decades, it is rather inconceivable given Wrightson’s initial training: learning drawing basics of composition, texturing, and lighting techniques from watching Jon Gnagy on television, a Famous Artists School’s correspondence course, and from the comics he was reading. In his biography, he stated that meeting Frank Frazetta in 1967 was an inspiration; however, art enthusiasts will definitely see an affinity of artistic style with the classic woodcut or relief printing of 16th century artist Albrecht Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or Knight, Death and the Devil and 19th century artist Gustave Doré’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and his most famous illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. As a contemporary equivalent to two masters, Wrightson’s expert inking skills coupled with his line work emphasized his knowledge of muscular composition and movement of his characters. Yet, it was also his ability to evoke the emotional journey – so often the torment and tortured soul – that truly made Wrightson’s illustrations breathtaking and memorable.
Not yet twenty, Wrightson found work as an illustrator at The Baltimore Sun, and he secured a freelance assignment with DC Comics after showing his portfolio to editor Dick Giordano. His first work appeared in the horror/fantasy series House of Mystery’s story “The Man Who Murdered Himself” in early 1969. He worked on two other horror-oriented series in the early 1970s for Marvel Comics, Chamber of Darkness and Tower of Shadows. One could see that early in his career, he had refined his style, simplifying his ink strokes that yielded emotional impact from the characters’ expressions and movement across each panel. His art displayed controlled focus and maturity: a defining moment for Wrightson’s enduring legacy.
Collaborations with others solidified Wrightson’s career. His first was with writer Len Wein, and, together, they created Swamp Thing (DC Comics) in 1971 as a standalone horror story set in the Victorian era, but then later in a more contemporary setting. Wrightson’s work was incredible: his ink work hearkened back to the work of masters before him, and his compositions were reminiscent of epic religious moments that one experienced from paintings hanging in museums of fine art around the world. Wrightson breathed new life into the monster, glorifying the power, yet conveying a depth that went beyond a two-dimensional scary character. Visually speaking, Wrightson gave the monster a heart and soul.
In 1975, Wrightson and three fellow artists formed The Studio, and the four artists became known as the Fab Four. Setting up an artist commune in New York City, the group explored projects outside of the comic book industry. Together, they published an art book, The Studio (Dragon’s Dream), in 1979 which collected their work into one book, but it also marked each artist moving on to other projects and work spaces. For Wrightson, he created posters, prints, as well as illustrations for National Lampoon, for example; however, it was during this time that he made the collaboration of a lifetime: Mary Shelley and her classic gothic horror story, Frankenstein.
It was the perfect match of beauty and the beast: Wrightson’s Frankenstein was published in 1983 by Marvel Comics. In the introduction, Wrightson wrote, “I’ve always had a thing for Frankenstein, and it was a labor of love. It was not an assignment, it was not a job. I would do the drawings in between paying gigs, when I had enough to be caught up with bills and groceries and what-not. I would take three days here, a week there, to work on the Frankenstein volume. It took about seven years.” A passion project and the exquisite familiarity Wrightson had for the source material captured Shelley’s text in vivid detail on each page. Wrightson conveyed the tragic monster with such compassion, resulting in a visual experience is heart wrenching. Fortunately, Dark Horse released an oversized hardcover edition to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the original book.
Over the intervening years, Wrightson has worked with many within and outside of the comic book industry. Collaborations continued with pillars of the horror genre that included Stephen King, leading Wrightson to illustrate Creepshow, “Cycle of the Werewolf,” The Stand, The Shining, and Wolves of the Calla from the Dark Tower series. He created work for benefit projects such as Heroes Against Hunger and Heroes for Hope. He branched out and created album cover art, and for Joss Whedon fans, remember those Reavers in Serenity? Wrightson did the production designs.
The last significant collaboration was without a doubt with horror writer Steve Niles. In 2007, they created the Dark Horse miniseries City of Others. Their expansive understanding of the intricacies of the genre led to a number of comics together – Dead, She Said (2008, IDW Publishing), The Ghoul (2009, IDW Publishing), and Doc Macabre (2010, IDW Publishing) – which were collected into The Monstrous Collection (2011, IDW Publishing). The crème de la crème was the revisit of Victor Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein Alive, Alive! (2012 – 2014, IDW Publishing), a three-part series that was a sequel to Wrightson’s 1983 Frankenstein. Each page was scanned from Wrightson’s original artwork according to IDW’s original announcement of issue one, so readers could experience Wrightson’s illustrations as close to the original as possible. The extra effort on the part of the publisher has been much appreciated by aficionados for Wrightson’s illustrations.
Wrightson’s art has been officially recognized with awards throughout his career that included the Shazam Award for Swamp Thing; co-recipient with Jim Starlin, he received the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award for Heroes for Hope; an Inkpot Award for lifetime achievement presented during the Comic-Con International San Diego in 2012; the National Cartoonists Society Award for Frankenstein Alive, Alive!; and the Inkwell Award recognizing his work on Swamp Thing and Frankenstein. Additionally, Wrightson’s art has been featured at Comic-Con International San Diego in 2016 with an artist alley gallery, the Bernie Wrightson Art Tribute Exhibit in Los Angeles in October 2016, as well as being represented in Guillermo del Toro: His Creepy at Home with Monsters Exhibit. His art is legendary and will inspire others for many decades to come.
For those unfamiliar with Wrightson’s work, personal recommendations include Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein (1983) and honestly all of the collaborations between Wrightson and Niles. Also, definitely look for the various books that Wrightson put out over the years and/or has illustrated that showcase his brilliant talent.