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Building a Better Monster

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From Houses to a City, the legendary Bernie Wrightson is the architect for modern horror comic books.

Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, it seems eerily appropriate that Bernie Wrightson was born mere days before Halloween – October 27th, 1948.  The future architect of comic book horror was a fan of EC Comics in his youth, honing his cartooning skills through correspondence school.  As a young man, Wrightson put his talents to use working as an editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Sun, but found the job to be terrifyingly depressing.  Inspired by a meeting with Frank Frazetta in New York City, Wrightson began to focus his creative energies in the direction of comic books.

Originally working under the name “Berni” (the “e” was dropped by the artist to avoid confusion with an up-and-coming Olympic diver, but later restored), Wrightson’s work was soon published professionally by both DC (House of Mystery #179, March/April 1969) and Marvel (Chamber of Darkness #7, October 1970).  In addition to these and other anthology titles for the two major comic publishers, Wrightson was also recruited by Major Magazines.  Borrowing liberally from the formats developed by Warren Publishing, Web of Horror featured work by Wrightson and Mike Kaluta among others.  Unfortunately for Wrightson and the magazine that was planning to out-creep Creepy, folded overnight.  Major Magazines literally disappeared overnight, along with monies and original art owed to Web of Horror creators.

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Fortunately, Wrightson was beginning to land regular work at DC.  In addition to being the cover artist for House of Mystery (beginning with July/August 1971’s issue #193), Wrightson was also assigned to work on House of Secrets.  It would be here that Wrightson would contribute to his signature creation.  In issue #92 (June/July 1971), writer Len Wein and Wrightson offered a short 8-page story that introduced the Swamp Thing.  The muck-encrusted monster proved to be popular with readers – enough so that the character was given his own series.  Swamp Thing debuted the next year (October/November 1972) featuring a revised origin by Wein, Wrightson and editor Joe Orlando.  The next year, Wrightson was honored with the Shazam Award for best penciller and shared the Best individual Story award with Wein.  Although Wrightson’s run on the titles was brief – a mere 10 issues (the final one appearing in May/June 1974), Wrightson firmly set the look and tone for Swamp Thing, Anton Archane, the Patchwork Man, Abby Arcane and others.

Wrightson had discovered that the pressures of the regular bi-monthly art duties, coupled with the inability to experiment with his work at DC, had sapped his enthusiasm for Swamp Thing.  When Warren Publishing approached the artist with the offer of an increased page-rate and the opportunity to work in black-and-white, Wrightson was quick to accept the proposal.  Contributing to Creepy and Eerie, Wrightson was finally fully able to channel the spirit of his beloved EC comics, adapting Lovecraft and Poe stories for the magazines, in addition to his own original work.

By the mid-1970s, Wrightson was beginning to explore art outside of the comic medium once again.  Teaming with Jeff Jones, Kaluta (both from Wrightson’s Web of Horror days) and Barry Windsor-Smith, “The Studio” was a collaboration from 3 years, ending in 1978 following disputes over their showcase book of the same name.  Having exhausted himself on comics, Wrightson shifted his focus to different mediums, including album covers (most notably, the 1981 Meat Loaf record, Dead Ringer).  He also spent several years crafting close to 50 illustrations for a dream project – an illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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Stephen King’s Creepshow (1982) opened up several new doors for Wrightson.  The artist not only produced the theatrical poster for the film, but also drew a comic book adaptation, published by Signet Books.  The first of several collaborations with King, Wrightson also provided illustrations for various editions of Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), The Stand (revised, 1990) and The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla (2003).  Wrightson also spent time working in motion picture art design, contributing character and creature designs for films such as Ghostbusters (1984) and later, Spider-Man (2002), Serenity (2005) and Land of the Dead (2005).

Throughout the 1990s Wrightson maintained a presence in the comic industry, working on shorter projects, including Batman: The Cult (1991, DC Comics) and Batman/Aliens (1997, Dark Horse/DC Comics).  This past week, Wrightson made a full-fledged return to comics, with the release of City of Others, a new ongoing bi-monthly mini-series written by Steve Niles.  Focusing on a story of monsters – both human and supernatural – City of Others and Wrightson’s return has been one of the most anticipated moments this year for horror comics. 

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