Monday, March 27, 2017

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS FOR MARCH 28th: BERNIE WRIGHTSON 1948-2017


"When asked to give names of artists whom they think of as examples to follow, Jeffrey Jones will mention Whistler; Barry Windsor-Smith will speak of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lord Leighton; Michael Kaluta will talk of Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha and Frantisek Kupka...and Berni Wrightson, if he can be persuaded to speak, will mention Gustav Doré as well as the writers who inspired Dore's vision, Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge..."


The above quote comes from a real treasure of comics paraphernalia, The Studio, an LP-sized art book from 1979 featuring the work of the four legendary artists listed above, Jones, Windsor-Smith, Kaluta and last but certainly not least, Wrightson, named here as he often was as "Berni."
Together, these brilliant fantasists look like some lost Prog Rock group, a fact the LP-sized format of The Studio does nothing to dissuade. That the four actually once inhabited the same creative space, modelled on a 19th Century artist's studio, is a remarkable but fitting thing. Jones, Windsor-Smith, Kaluta and Wrightson were cornerstones of late 20th century fantasy art, each inhabiting a different imaginative space within their literal shared working space - Jones the more whimsical and arguably the most romantic; Windsor-Smith, the most heroically-minded, unsurprisingly listing Pre-Raphaelite influences; Kaluta with his faeries gone all Art Nouveau probably the biggest stickler for ornate detail and Wrightson, well, Wrightson does tend to stick out a bit with his clear, unapologetic love of schlocky horror, dismembered bodies, and Gothic shadows mixing them all with the fine detail of the namedropped Doré. He's far left in the above photo, clean-shaven, almost dapper in his gloriously retro military pea coat and Doctor Who scarf, standing next to his fellows, dreamy stoners with scraggly beards, Bernie probably looking up for the grey clouds while the others peek for glimpses of the blue sky hidden behind.


Wrightson co-created Swamp Thing, he painstakingly drew one of the most iconic depictions of Frankenstein's monster ever, he illustrated the nasty bad-trip Batman adventure The Cult, he worked on Creepshow with Stephen King and George Romero, his romp Captain Sternn became part of the cult classic Heavy Metal animated film, he adapted Poe and Lovecraft stories with as much aplomb as fellow horror comics legend Richard Corben, he provided alternately grim, evocative and bloody illustrations for Stephen King's novella Cycle of The Werewolf. His work was unmistakably his own, as unique as his fingerprint. He passed away last week.


Where to begin with such a body of work? I decided, for once, to keep it simple and look at one short, sure-fire classic. A Bernie mic-drop if you will. For more Wrightson, I highly recommend visiting The Comics Journal, which reposted this lengthy and informative 1982 interview with the artist from its archives conducted by Gary Groth. It includes this great little revealing moment:

GROTH: It’s probably not wise to psychoanalyze yourself and your work.

WRIGHTSON: No, I have a real fear of that. I’ve got a feeling that maybe the reason I’m doing what I’m doing as well as I’m doing it is because I got bent very badly somewhere back there and if I went to a doctor and got myself straightened out I would lose just my whole motivation for working. It’s like, “Well, shit, thanks, Doc, I just don’t feel like doing this any more. I’m going to sell shoes now. Thanks.”

In the section of The Studio devoted to his work, Wrightson says, "I was still very young when I realised that life and death are the only realities there are...Anything you can do can go in hundreds of possible directions, but the one inevitable fact at the end of it all is death-- the one certain thing in an uncertain universe."

And here we are, arrived at the one inevitable fact.
Goodbye Bernie Wrightson.


COMIC OF THE WEEK : "JENIFER" from CREEPY PRESENTS BERNIE WRIGHTSON
By Bruce Jones & Bernie Wrightson
Published By Dark Horse

In 2005, the fourth episode of a short-lived anthology series called Masters of Horror aired on Showtime. It had the misfortune to contain possibly the worst music ever attached to a television project and some of the laziest direction of the legendary Italian Giallo filmmaker, Dario Argento's career. The episode was titled "Jenifer" and unless you knew the source material, you could not have guessed that it was based on one of the great short horror comics not created by anyone named Mignola or Umezu or affiliated with 1950's EC Comics. "Jenifer," is so good that it's, I believe, the only comic of ten pages or less to make it into 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, a book which accurately describes it as being "among the best" work in the legendary career of artist Bernie Wrightson.


Originally published in Warren Publishing's Creepy #62 from 1974, "Jenifer" concerns a man named Jim who, whilst on a back woods hunting trip, stumbles upon a madman about to murder a young woman with an axe. Jim shouts a warning for the crazed man to drop the axe, a warning that is summarily ignored. Jim shoots the man, who weeps as he dies in Jim's arms and utters a mournful final word, "J-Jenifer..." Jim unties the young woman and discovers that she is hideously disfigured. Overcoming his shock, he decides to bury the woman's attacker in a shallow bush grave for fear of his business being ruined if this grisly incident went to trial. Jim takes pity on poor deformed Jenifer, finding something hypnotic and "hideously compelling" in her bug eyes and saves her from being sent to some presumably hellish institution by actually adopting her...without informing his family first.

Oops.

Thus begins Jim's rapid downward spiral into a murderous, insane life with Jenifer. She kills his cat, attacks his wife and it is very strongly implied that she repeatedly rapes him. Jim's attempts to rid himself of this mysterious, monstrous figure leeching her way into his life end terribly, gruesomely. Descending into alcoholism, Jim soon realises that in her "full devastating potential" Jenifer is a problem that he must solve personally, in a climax that takes us full circle right back to the tragic beginning of the tale.


A very strong little script by veteran Bruce Jones is given extraordinary life by Bernie Wrightson. All of the artist's classic visual tricks are on display in "Jenifer," the odd angles, the shadows, the wide-eyed terror on his characters faces, the horrific monsters, the shocking violence (nobody has ever drawn axe-murderers quite like Wrightson), the Gothic shadows, the gnarled trees, the veiny, knobbly-knuckled hands and the figures hunched and shuffling, ruined and doomed by their own actions. It's possibly the perfect Wrightson primer - lacking the finesse and painstaking detail of his work illustrating Frankenstein, in which he gores full Gustav Doré, but providing literally everything else that made him not just a comics icon, but a legendary figure in Horror in total. It's dark and heady stuff too, like an EC Tales From The Crypt tale stripped of anything remotely close to a moral lesson and let off the chain to run screaming down the asylum halls.

Being genuinely scary is a thing comics finds difficult to do, but what the medium excels at in tales of this nature is creating a growing unease in a reader, a sense that reality is slipping sideways. There are few comics that can do this effectively and with such a short page count as "Jenifer," something that its television adaptors neglected to translate into their bloated, cheesy, effort. Collected in Dark Horse's Creepy Presents Bernie Wrightson, which compiles all the artist's work for Warren's Creepy and Eerie titles, "Jenifer" stands head and shoulders above the rest of the material included - amongst which readers can also find excellent adaptations of Lovecraft and Poe, stunning frontispiece illustrations, further collaborations with Jones and a story co-illustrated with Howard Chaykin - and reinforces itself as a true horror comics classic.


WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : ORIGINAL WRIGHTSON SWAMP THING ART

The excellent Bristol Board Tumblr has a wealth of Wrightson art for you to peruse at your leisure with this absolute nugget of horror comics gold chief amongst it. The entire eight pages of original art for the very first Swamp Thing story ever, from 1971's House of Secrets #92, are yours to enjoy. The precursor to the now classic Swamp Thing character of Alec Holland, this short comic was drawn several years before the above classic "Jenifer". All the hallmarks of the artist's work are here - the shadows, the angles, the veins, but even at this stage, Wrightson was still very much developing his style. There's the near photorealism of preceding legends like Alex Raymond. There's also a finer, scratchier line. 

"If tears could come, they would!" reads writer and Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein's script, but the real reader sympathy for comics' best-loved creature comes not from Wein's words but from Wrightson's depiction of his muck-monster as a living, loving soul trapped in a shambling body that will not speak and with the unmistakably sad, wide eyes of something obviously human. A true classic that became a springboard to something even greater.




COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : BERNIE WRIGHTSON SEGMENT FROM 1987 DOCUMENTARY THE MASTERS OF COMIC BOOK ART

"I always see it exactly the way I draw it," says Bernie Wrightson, "and the finished product is almost always like I had an opaque projector that was in my head projecting out through my eyes onto the paper. And all I do is trace the picture that I see." 

From 1987 comes this little slice of Wrightson in his studio (sadly not THE Studio...). Topics of discussion include bringing Batman into his Swamp Thing series, his remarkable Frankenstein work, how he creates, and what he conceives of as the very nature of horror itself - which is surprisingly subtle considering the shockingly violent nature of much of his horror images. This is a must-watch for not just Wrightson fans but for anyone looking for a window into the mind of a singular talent as a way to enhance their own creative output. A fitting way to say goodbye.



See you next week. Love your comics.



Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.


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