It is with great sorrow I report the death of my friend, colleague and hero, Bernie Wrightson. Without going into Wrightson’s entire biography, please allow me to express some random bits about our relationship and why he and his work meant so much to me.
Bernie was one year older than me — which doesn’t seem like much now. A one-year difference seemed enormous in my youth, however. I followed his early fan and fanzine work (which included an formative piece of his that ran in the Creepy magazine letters section one issue), then celebrated when he finally trail-blazed into the Big League of DC comics. Bernie showed me it was possible to have that dream of being a young man and making a living drawing comics to be a distinct possibility.
Bernie will forever be linked with his impressive and groundbreaking DC Comics run of Swamp Thing (a character he co-created with writer Len Wein) and his celebrated Franklin Booth-ish Frankenstein illustrations, that brought him even more acclaim, as well as great notice from some heavy-hitting art collectors. I loved what Wrightson brought to Batman and Spiderman as well. Bernie just seemed to “get” things on every level — he recognized the “essence”. He understood that certain key elements of genres that inspired him just might inspire others, too — and he was right.
Bernie was a co-founder of The Studio, an east coast phenomenon that included Michael Kaluta, Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor Smith. This powerhouse of talent inspired me to help form a west coast version at my own spacious studio on La Brea Avenue that at times included Richard Hescox, Dave Stevens and Paul Chadwick.
Bernie picked up the brush-inking torch from Frank Frazetta. I looked at both of these great artists for inspiration and analyzed their remarkable technique with their weapon of choice, a Winsor-Newton brush. Frank and Bernie inspired other brush-men, including Dave Stevens, Mark Schultz and Frank Cho. I dubbed our loose group “The Last Brush-men of the Kalahari” (an artistic take on the Lost Bushmen of the Kalahari). I’m happy to report that a few up-and-coming young lads (and a couple of older guys) have since taken up the torch of brush inking, seemingly inspired by our endeavors.
If I had to describe Wrightson’s basic style at its very essence, I’d call it Frank Frazetta’s solid drawing and ability with a brush combined with the truly disturbing and demented visions of EC’s Graham Ingels. I looked at Bernie’s inking when I wanted to figure out how to depict veins on well-muscled arms. His take on dinosaurs — while not the last word in scientific accuracy — nevertheless seeded my imagination with his dramatic portrayals of these great beasts, helping me to see them anew with fresh, unblinking eyes.
I was the go-to creature designer for the movie biz until Wrightson came to town. My offers immediately shriveled and shifted (rightfully so) to Bernie. Bernie was THE master monster artist. His imagination in that arena seemed breathtakingly endless. I didn’t mind losing the work because it meant that I got to see more of Bernie’s amazing creations up on the movie screen — and I’d much rather gaze upon his fascinating creatures than my own.
Through moving in the same comic book convention circles I finally got to meet Bernie. He was as gracious in person as his art was solid and we became fast friends, especially connecting with our shared love of monsters, dinosaurs and EC comics.
I initially passed on seeing the movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre until I read in an interview that Chainsaw was so scary it had made Bernie pee his pants. On that high recommendation I dashed to the World Theater to catch a three-movies-for-99¢ screening of this grindhouse wonder. I was not disappointed.
In 1984 the job of production designer for Return of the Living Dead came down to being between Bernie and me — with Bernie the director’s first choice. The producer gave me the gig because I had more experience in film than Bernie at the time — but I did manage to slip some Bernie-isms into some of my designs so that he might be there in spirit.
I tried to work with my pal whenever I could, but our work paths seldom crossed. When possible, we’d send each other jobs in The Biz. We mostly saw each other and hung out at conventions, though. I was delighted when he finally met the love of his life, Liz — a real sweetheart, as Al Williamson would say. Bernie’s other friends agreed with me that Liz was one of the best things that ever happened to Wrightson. I’ve watched Bernie’s talented sons grow and mature into fine young men. I feel very much like an uncle to them and share the pain of their dad’s passing.
I’ve lost a dear, dear friend — but the world at large has lost a truly great artist. Though his mortal form has passed into the land beyond beyond, his magnificent body of work will live on forever.