By Thomas Novak
On March 18th 2017, legendary horror-comic artist and illustrator Bernie “Berni” Wrightson lost his battle with brain cancer at the age of 68. Known not only for his work in comics, but also illustrations in novels and storyboard work for films, Wrightson brought the words ‘creepy’ and ‘scary’ to life through his intricate pen and brush work.
Bernie is most widely known for co-creating the characters of “Swamp Thing” for DC Comics (first appearing in 1971’s “House of Secrets” # 92), and “Destiny” (made famous by author Neil Gaiman in his “Sandman” comic series). Wrightson’s work in comic books began back in 1968 with DC’s “House of Mystery” # 179, in which he produced the art for the Marv Wolfman story “The Man Who Murdered Himself”. During his time at DC, Bernie’s work rivaled that of fellow artists Neal Adams and Jeff Jones.
However, Bernie’s career in comics was not limited to one company. In 1974 he left DC to work for Warren Publishing. There he produced horror-comic magazines, black-and-white adaptations of stories by H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, and he even went on to publish some original work. Then in 1975, Wrightson, Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta, and Barry Windsor-Smith banded together to form “The Studio”: a loft in Manhattan where the artists were free to pursue their creative passions beyond the world of comic books. This allowed for Wrightson to not only continue his work with sequential art, but also create posters, prints, coloring books, and even calendars. Eventually he picked back up at DC, drawing fan-favorite characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. Bernie also spent time at Marvel Comics, working on Spider-Man, Punisher, and The Incredible Hulk.
While Wrightson definitively left his mark on characters owned by the big 2, he’s also remembered for contributing nearly 50 illustrations for an edition of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. To this day that book remains one of his signature pieces, but good luck getting your hands on a copy.
Bernie got involved with films in the 80s, creating the poster for Stephen King’s Creepshow. That led to numerous other collaborations with King over the years, which ranged from illustrating the novella Cycle of the Werewolf and the restored edition of King’s The Stand, to supplying art for the hardcover editions of From a Buick 8 and Dark Tower V. Wrightson also contributed elsewhere in the film industry as a conceptual artist. He was involved in Ghostbusters, The Faculty, Galaxy Quest, Spiderman, George Romero’s Land of the Dead, and Stephen King’s The Mist. Wrightson also won acclaim for the Captain Sternn segment of the animated film Heavy Metal. ‘Captain Sternn’ ended up being featured in his own eponymous, award-winning comic series.
Bernie was an artist who loved his fans, and they loved him back. He was a guest at the 2016 Boston Comic Con, a show I was working for at the time. His wife Liz was by his side as he signed for fans with a giant smile on his face. As Bernie was signing, I had a brief conversation with Liz about whether they had any interest in donating to the show’s annual art auction (held to benefit the Mike Wieringo Memorial Scholarship Fund at the Savannah College of Art and Design). I had never met Liz before, yet she greeted me with a huge smile and the type of happiness typically reserved for long-separated friends. Sure enough, they did end up donating some signed prints from Bernie for the auction.
It goes without saying that Bernie Wrightson focused on his art as a labor of love. According to his website berniewrightson.com, the family is planning a celebration of his life later this year.