|Edited by Jon B. Cooke||Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.|
Above is Bernie's frontispiece to Creepy #64.
Wrightson's Warren Days
Bernie Wrightson talks about his great b-&-w work
Conducted by & © Jon B. Cooke
From Comic Book Artist #4
Bernie Wrightson is the penultimate comic book horror artist (after Graham "Ghastly" Ingels) and one of the first superstars of the field to emerge in the 1970s, acclaimed primarily for his work on DC's Swamp Thing comic series—but his best work for comics could very well be his handful of black-&-white horror tales done for Warren Publishing during that same decade, including the renowned tale of murder and obsession (written by Bruce Jones) "Jenifer." (The artist's recollections of his '70s work for DC will be covered in the next issue of CBA.) Recently relocated to the Los Angeles area, Bernie gave this interview via telephone on January 24, 1999, and subsequently provided the final copyedit.
Comic Book Artist: You grew up in Baltimore and were obviously a fan of EC Comics. When did you first realize that Warren was publishing horror comics?
Bernie Wrightson: I was actually there for the first issue of Creepy in 1965. I was buying Famous Monsters and they were advertising Creepy so I was keeping an eye out for it—and, oh God, I loved it! I thought it was great. I read ECs as a kid in the '50s and they disappeared. Then in the mid-'60s Ballantine Books came out with the paperback-sized reprints of ECs and that was around the same time as the first Creepy. It was just a thrill to read Creepy. Frazetta's story in the first issue (which was the last comic book story he did) was incredible as was just everybody in the magazine. There was Frazetta, Al Williamson, Reed Crandall, Angelo Torres, Gene Colan—all of those guys. Frazetta was absolutely my favorite. I had been following his work for a few years with the Ace Edgar Rice Burroughs paperback covers.
CBA: So you became an avid reader of the Warrens?
Bernie: Absolutely. In 1966, I had my first published work on a Creepy fan page. When I saw it printed, you could have knocked me over with a feather! I couldn't afford to buy more than one issue—those things were expensive at 35¢!—but I showed it around to everybody. I stayed reading Warrens until they started with the reprints and then all the Spanish work—which didn't appeal to me and kind of all looked the same. When the American comic book veterans started to disappear I lost interest.
CBA: You didn't even consider submitting work to Warren when you started your professional career?
Bernie: No because by that time it didn't seem as though he was hiring American guys. It was just full of the Spanish work and DC was doing the House of Mystery back then and that was what Ireally wanted to break into. DC was as close to EC as I thought I was ever going to come with full-color horror stories.
CBA: Did you want to work in black-&-white?
Bernie: I guess I always did. Color was never completely satisfying. Ialways felt that the color would obscure the linework and it was hard to see my work. That was always a problem. When I finally started to work for Warren, it was great. I knew that every line I drew was going to be reproduced.
CBA: You did work in b-&-w in the early '70s with a magazine called Web of Horror?
Bernie: Yeah, that was the Warren rip-off. That was done by a guy named Richard Sproul out in Long Island. His company, Major Magazines, put out Cracked magazine, obviously a rip-off of Mad magazine, and his whole line of magazines were rip-offs of other established, successful books. They had romances and the last few men's magazines. The sweat stuff like Stag, For Men Only, and that kind of stuff.
CBA: "Real Balls Adventure."
Bernie: [laughs] "Real Hairy Scrotum Adventure." [laughter] A fellow named Terry Bisson tracked down me, Mike Kaluta, and Jeff Jones, and presented us with a proposal to do this b-&-w horror magazine in competition with Creepy. At the time, Creepy was doing a lot of reprints and—y'know I wasn't looking at it as I already had all the stuff first edition—and Terry said, "Now's the right time. We can do original material and really stand to compete well with Warren. We'll give you total freedom." That's how it got started.
CBA: Did you look to try different techniques with the b-&-white medium?
Bernie: Yeah, it was a great opportunity to play around without strictly using hard line and being able to use tone. The first couple of things I did for him were wash jobs. A lot of the other guys played around too—Ralph Reese did some beautiful things with duotone board. Terry Bisson (who was writing blurb copy for romance magazines when I first met him) left after the third issue under very mysterious circumstances—and the running of the whole magazine, for some reason, fell into Bruce Jones' and my laps (and I can't remember if Terry said, "Here, you guys take over the editorial," or if we volunteered). Bruce and I put together the whole fourth issue which had already been assigned.
CBA: Were you a de facto art director?
Bernie: We were working at home! We were calling the artists and we put together a monster drawing contest. We went out to the office in Long Island and would pick up all these packages of this artwork these kids sent in for the contest. It was just piles of stuff we put in Bruce's living room, and we looked at every single drawing, trying to decide and pick the best one. There was so much good stuff there that we changed the prize to include first, second and third place, and honorable mention. I don't know whatever happened to all this stuff because Major Magazines just literally packed up and left overnight. We had to take this incredibly long trip to get there—Bruce lived in Flushing at the time and from there we took a train to the end of the line and from there we had to take two buses and then walk about 10 blocks to get to the office! It was an all-day thing and we finally get out to the office. It was on the second floor, and we went upstairs, open the door, and the place was empty. All the desks, all filing cabinets, everything, was gone! There were only scraps of paper blowing across the floor—it was like the Twilight Zone—and we never learned where the guy went and what happened to him. We had all this stuff for the fourth issue and we were planning issues five and six—Bruce and I were going to take over the magazine and make it like Creepy or EC Comics—but they just left! Mysteriously, in the middle of the night.
CBA: They took the fourth issue's content?
Bernie: Whatever had been turned in already, they took with them. I don't think anybody got paid for anything—and Bruce and I took a bath on it.
CBA: Did it look like a sweet deal for you guys to do the editorial work?
Bernie: Y'know, it was never discussed! [laughter] Bruce and I were doing this because we were all excited! "Wow! We got our own magazine! We're gonna take this is an all-new direction!" At some point we were planning to talk to somebody about getting paid for it but, at the time, I was just expecting to be paid for the work I was doing.
CBA: So you went to DC and weren't interested in the stuff going on over at Warren at the time. Did you take any heat from Warren later because you had worked for the competition?
Bernie: I didn't hear a word. I couldn't tell you, even at this point, if Jim was even involved on a day-to-day basis with the magazine. I seem to recall that he took a leave-of-absence from publishing and the whole thing was pretty much turned over to somebody else.
CBA: Did you hear stories about Warren from other freelancers?
Bernie: I heard that Jim was a loose cannon. I heard, for instance, that he really wanted Jack Davis to work, if not on stories, then spot illustrations or advertising work—but Jack at the time was not interested in doing anything associated with a horror comic because apparently his whole experience with EC Comics really left a bad taste in his mouth. With the congressional hearings and his work being singled out (with the baseball story), horror really left a bad taste in his mouth and he was embarrassed. He had moved on to being very successful in advertising and commercial work and the funny stuff. So this is how I heard it (and it ain't gospel): His position was, "No, I don't want to be associated with some crummy magazine," but Jim kept calling and writing letters. Finally, Jim sent him one of these little Sony TVs with a three-inch screen which at the time were expensive—you could stick one on your drawing table and watch TV while you worked. Basically he blackmailed Jack Davis into doing the first cover and a few interior things.
So I heard that and a couple of other stories about Jim, so when I went in to work for him and, yeah, the man's reputation did precede him, but he was paying real well—especially compared to what I was making at DC. I think when I left DC I was making $65 a page, pencil and ink—pretty good money at the time—and when I went to Warren, he was offering me $110 a page, pencil and ink; and he was returning originals and that was another big thing—this was about a year or two before Marvel and DC started to return originals. So that was one of the things that pulled me in. I can't remember who I was talking to but a friend of mine was working for Warren and he said, "Hey, Warren will give you back your originals." At the time it was—and it still is—a big deal for me. There was never a question at DC. They owned the artwork, period. If you wanted to work for DC, you gave up the work.
CBA: They had a policy to actually destroy work. Did you know that at the time?
Bernie: I had heard rumors and it was really heartbreaking but at the time, what could I do? I was brand-new in the field and, yeah, I wanted my originals back but I couldn't work and keep my originals, so I had to make a choice.
CBA: You've mentioned in previous interviews that Warren had approached you a few times before you finally went over; do you recall those instances?
Bernie: He called a couple of times—he might have sent a telegram. Apparently, after these years of reprints and the Spanish work, Creepy and Eerie started using American comic book artists again. He was attracting people like Richard Corben, Alex Toth, John Severin, and a young guy named Billy Graham. I think Billy was art director when I first went up there and then Bill DuBay took over.
CBA: Did you see that it was Bill Dubay's editorial shift that was bringing back the essence of what Warren was in its heyday?
Bernie: That never really occurred to me. All I did was look at the artwork and say, "Wow, the artwork's getting better and it's not something I have seen before!"
CBA: Your peers must have told you about the improved page rates at Warren.
Bernie: When I finally went up to the office and talked to Jim, one of the first things he brought up was what he was going to pay me. My God, it was $40 more than what I was getting at DC! I thought, "Well, the money's better; he's going to print it in b-&-w and not muddy it all with color; the format was bigger; and hopefully he's going to leave me pretty much alone." Another appeal was that it was going to be a different story each time; I wasn't going to be married to a character—that was pretty important because I was burned-out by Swamp Thing.
CBA: Was it the character per se, or the endless Universal monster riffs?
Bernie: It was all of that but mostly I was tired of the grind of doing a whole book bi-monthly. I really started feeling stale; I felt like it was time to stretch and time to grow a little bit—and I was not able to do it at DC.
CBA: Was the transition that you went immediately over to Warren from DC?
Bernie: Yeah. I got my first job at Warren and I stayed with him for the next couple of years.
CBA: In preparing this interview, I took out all of your Warren material and I'm surprised that it's not a big body of work—though the quality is superb—maybe nine stories and a lot of frontispieces.
Bernie: The frontispieces were my idea. Back then it was possible to not do a lot of work and survive. Rent was cheaper—the cost of living was just cheaper.
CBA: Let's say a story like "Night of the Bat" [Swamp Thing #7] and "The Pepperlake Monster," discounting the page-size difference, would you say that you spent the same amount of time per page on each story?
Bernie: It's hard to say. For one thing, Warren's pages were bigger and that was one of the real pleasures working there. You could do stuff any size you wanted. At DC, you were locked into that 10" x 15" size. Like I said, I wanted to stretch—physically stretch by working in a larger format. The Warren work probably took a little longer. For one thing, I was putting a lot more work into the Warren stuff because it was going to be reproduced in b-&-w so it was only going to look as good as I do it, y'know? I can't count on the color to save it, or for the color to make it so murky that it doesn't matter. [chuckles]
CBA: When I look at The Studio book, I marvel at the incredible amount of time-consuming, detailed work you guys did. Do you think that if it got down to an hourly rate, that it panned out? You guys put a lot of time into your work. Was there ultimately a practical frustration in that you were spending so much time on (albeit ultimately beautiful) work for what, at an hourly rate, amounted to peanuts?
Bernie: I don't think any of us were all that concerned about the money. We wouldn't be doing it for free but it was the work and it was the opportunity to draw. It was the attempt to try and outdo one another —outdo yourself and outdo your last piece.
CBA: You were just totally into it?
Bernie: Absolutely. Again, it didn't cost that much to live in New York at the time. Those frontispieces for Warren were my idea because I had been doing them in House of Mystery for a while and I could do a couple of those and pretty much cover the rent for the month. It was the same thing at Warren. That was basically all I cared about.
CBA: So you could do the frontispieces, cover your living costs, and then you could really afford to spend the time on the work?
Bernie: Exactly—and everything else was just gravy.
CBA: How did your initial meeting go with Jim Warren?
Bernie: It was very pleasant. I was a little apprehensive because I had heard these stories about him. So I went into his office and I'm talking with him—he said that he was following my work and obviously wanted me. He said, "Okay, I'm going to pay you the best money you ever made in comics." (And he was right.) He told me, "Yeah, I'll return your original artwork. However, I don't own the originals but I do own the rights. That means everything. Every printing right imaginable. Do what you want with the originals—put 'em in your closet, hang 'em on your wall, give 'em away, sell 'em, but, if you sell your work and the guy you sell it to sells it to the next guy and he sells it to the next guy and he sells it to the next guy—all the way down the line—and if the 17th guy who buys it, prints it somewhere without my permission, I'm going to hold you responsible." I said, "Okay. Fair enough," and that was pretty much it.
We got through the business part of it pretty quickly and he made me some kind of a bet—and I can't for the life of me remember what the bet was, but it was some kind of trick thing that he loved doing and I couldn't possibly win. He said, "I'll bet you a dollar," and I said, "Okay, fine." He said, "Let me see your money." So I put my dollar on the desk and he put his dollar on the desk. He proves me wrong, takes my dollar, and opens the drawer to put my dollar in and then says, "Wait a minute. Here: Sign this" So he slides the dollar back to me, I sign it and, from his desk drawer, he takes out this wad of dollar bills in a rubber band, all with signatures by Frank Frazetta, Jack Davis, Reed Crandall—anybody who has ever worked for him! He was fun. He was a character. He never screwed me. Jim was always fair with me and there was very little bullsh*t—very little of that annoying, exasperating bullsh*t that I heard he gave other people. With me, it was more playful. If there was any bullsh*t involved, it was more in fun and we both knew it. He would give me some sh*t about some pages I brought in but it was always in a real lighthearted way—it was always a joke. If he put me down then I would just come back and put him down. We'd go back and forth, and we'd have this little slamfest, laugh about it, and it would be done. I know from talking to other people that he wasn't like that with everybody.
CBA: Did you frequent the Warren offices?
Bernie: I came in whenever I had a job done and sometimes just to come in and hang out. We did that a lot in those days—just go up in the office and hang out with Bill DuBay and Louise Jones (who ultimately became story editor). My ex-wife was coloring up there for a little while before we were married—Michele Robinson Brand. She was doing the color separations for the interior stuff. I had actually met her a few years before.
CBA: And you knew Louise Jones from earlier, too?
Bernie: Right. She was Jeff Jones' ex-wife.
CBA: What was Bill DuBay like?
Bernie: He seemed just fine. I don't really have much of an impression of Bill but we always got along. I liked him. God, he just worked all the time.
CBA: Somebody mentioned that you did an unpublished cover to The Spirit magazine. Is that true?
Bernie: Yeah, and it wasn't really good. I was trying to make it look like Eisner and trying to make it look like me, and it was a bad mix. I just had to fight it every inch of the way. I don't remember it that well but I remember really not liking it at the time I did it. As I recall, I never finished it.
CBA: How were you given assignments? Did you say, for instance, that you wanted to do a Poe adaptation or...?
Bernie: No, I would go to the office, delivering the first job, and they would have scripts there which I would look through. I'd find something to do for the next job. Sometimes I would come in and Bill or Weezie would say, "Hey, we got something in that we think you'll really like." And they'd show me the script and I would decide whether or not I wanted to do it.
CBA: According to a Comics Journal [#75] interview, you said you abandoned your first job for Warren, an adaptation of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," after penciling three pages and deciding that it wasn't working.
Bernie: No, that wasn't the first job. The first thing for Warren was "The Black Cat." I did abandon "The Pit," but that was somewhere down the line a little bit. I had been working for Warren for a while when I took that on. Basically, I just didn't know what the hell to do with the story. There was not much happening in the whole story and I got three pages along and said, "My God! This isn't going anywhere!" I had three pages of this guy lying on the slab and what could I do with it?
CBA: You did the writing on the adaptation of "The Black Cat," your first published piece for Warren. Was one of your requests to do your own writing?
Bernie: It was probably something I had in mind to do for a while and the gig for Warren came along and here was the perfect place to do it. Jim had said in our first meeting together that he had wanted to do classic adaptations—and he had already had Reed Crandall do some Poe adaptations—and they had to be stories in the public domain. I mentioned to him that I wanted to do "Cool Air" by H.P. Lovecraft, and he had to get the rights for me from August Derleth.
CBA: "The Black Cat" features unbelievable linework—were you looking to break new ground in comics?
Bernie: I was having a lot of fun. I was playing and experimenting. I had gotten really tired of using a brush working on Swamp Thing, and the last issue of Swamp Thing was all done in pen. That was one of the things that really killed it for me: When that issue finally came out—and I had put a lot of work into that last issue—the colors were very dark, the linework could have been pen or brush or marker or finger paint; you just couldn't tell. I thought it looked just awful—and I thought, "Damn! If I'm going to put all that work into something, I want it to show!" That was one of the driving forces behind going to Warren in the first place. So I just went crazy with the linework on my first job. I said, "Here's my opportunity to really go crazy, put a lot of work into this, and just basically show off."
CBA: What was the page size you were working on?
Bernie: It was probably twice-up.
CBA: There was an extraordinary writer at Warren while you were there, Bruce Jones. You mentioned an earlier association with Bruce working on Web of Horror. Where did Bruce come from and who was he?
Bernie: He came from Kansas City and I met him at Jeff Jones' house (no relation). Bruce came in and he was this young guy with a pile of artwork which really looked like EC Comics. We became friends immediately with our love for EC Comics, both growing up in the '50s and having seen the same movies. We're still friends—he lives out here in California now, just 20 minutes away.
CBA: Were you hoping to write more at Warren?
Bernie: I wrote "The Pepperlake Monster." I still have some stories I'd like to tell.
CBA: How do you approach doing a story? Do you do thumbnails and break it down?
Bernie: Oh God, it varies. Sometimes I'll start writing something out longhand; sometimes I'll start with a bunch of doodles; sometimes all it is is a scene in my head and I would build the story around that. I don't know where it comes from.
CBA: Do you do a lot of research? That "Cool Air" adaptation feels like Providence and was dead-on.
Bernie: No, I did no research at all. It was all made up. It was my impression of the 1920s.
CBA: The second story that you did was "Jenifer."
Bernie: Yeah, I did that with Bruce. It's one of my favorites and I really like it. That was done in grey markers.
CBA: Alex Toth discusses the learning curve of getting tonal work down right. Was the tonal work difficult to perfect?
Bernie: I never had a system. Sometimes I would go from light to dark, sometimes from dark to light. I never seemed to do it the same way twice.
CBA: You really approached each job unto itself?
Bernie: Yeah. I never really got locked into working any one particular way. I just never knew any better. [laughs]
CBA: Was that a lack of discipline or was it actually an intense discipline of approaching each job in its own unique way?
Bernie: It was probably a combination of both. I was really into experimenting and trying out new things. I got into markers and used them for the longest time—that was partly because I liked the smell. [laughter]
CBA: Did you resent the pressures of deadlines?
Bernie: I don't think it ever got to the point of resentment, y'know. I was young and had a lot of free time—I wanted to play—but I could focus a lot better back then. When the time came to work, I could just stay with it for hours and hours and hours, not worrying about eating or sleeping or anything else.
CBA: Are you a late night guy?
Bernie: No, I'm an early morning guy. I get up at about as early as I can—sometimes 5:00 in the morning. I work every day until about noon or 1:00, when I get too hungry to keep going. Then I stop, get lunch, and the rest of the day is for doing whatever, running errands or hanging out. Sometimes I'll come back and work again in the evening.
CBA: That's been the way you've always worked?
Bernie: No, that's how I'm working now. Back then, when I was I doing the Warren stuff, I was pretty much a night owl. I started working for Warren when I lived in New York and the whole time in New York City, I worked during the night. It was quieter at night—the city quiets down, the phone stops ringing, and there are fewer distractions. Most everybody I knew was up all night. Kaluta wouldn't go to bed until 10 or 11 in the morning. I knew that if I was feeling restless or just wanted to hang out, I could just go over to his place at midnight or 3 in the morning or whenever and he'd be up.
CBA: It seemed to me that the fan response to the Warren material was different compared to their response to the DC stuff. Did you get fans asking, "Why don't you go back to color comics?"
Bernie: An awful lot of people seemed almost angry that I had quit Swamp Thing. I just blew them off because, well, it was my life and my decision—"Feel bad if you want to but DC is not what I want to do."
CBA: And yet you were coming out with the best work of your career up to that moment.
Bernie: Yeah, I thought so. I felt a lot more freedom at Warren than I did at DC.
CBA: Then you did a Little Nemo pastiche called "Nightfall." Did Bill DuBay write that for you? Did you want to do your take on Nemo?
Bernie: I can't really remember. I wanted to do the cover for that issue but they didn't like the painting—it's not a very good painting—but they were nice enough to put it on the back cover. I thought that was kind of cool.
CBA: Then you did "The Muck Monster." I was surprised to see it colored.
Bernie: It wasn't supposed to be colored. Something happened that issue and whoever was supposed to be doing the color insert didn't deliver the work so they needed something at the last minute. They said, "Hey, can we use 'The Muck Monster'?" I said, "Well, it really wasn't meant to be colored." Then it was, "Please, please, please!" So I said, "Yeah."
CBA: Did you supervise the coloring at all?
CBA: Were you happy with the results?
Bernie: No. [laughs]
CBA: Up to that time, this story was your definitive take on the Frankenstein monster.
Bernie: It was almost like a dry run for me. I had Frankenstein in mind and I wanted to do it. I had an idea what I wanted the drawings to look like; and "The Muck Monster"—and a few other things I did for Warren—were the embryonic version of the penwork that finally showed up in Frankenstein.
CBA: Setting the stage.
CBA: Then you did "Clarise." You had an interesting approach with the static panels.
Bernie: That was definitely set up to be that way, a grid, very standard and cookie-cutter.
CBA: Bruce also wrote this one and it's a very Poesque, romantic tragedy. Are you attracted to that kind of material as a person?
Bernie: I'm attracted to it when I'm attracted to it—but then there are times when I like to do something goofy.
CBA: Can the material get you down?
Bernie: No, because so much of it is funny. I'm not saying that real-life tragedy is funny; I'm talking about horror movies and comic books that are supposed to be serious and trying to scare you—but they just fall flat on their asses and it's just funny stuff, y'know? It's all pretend in horror movies—sure, there's lots of real-life horror in the world and I don't really address that. I draw zombies, werewolves, and vampires, all this fantasy stuff, and you can go either way being really scary or just play it for laughs. I think the line between horror and humor is very thin and very vague and it's very easy to cross the line (whether intentionally or not).
CBA: Then you inked a job by Carmine Infantino.
Bernie: I did a couple of those and they were fun. Carmine was chief editorial poobah at DC when I first started working up there and he took me under his wing. I always liked Carmine and when I met him he wasn't drawing any more and just doing all the editorial stuff. He left DC and he showed up at Warren and was drawing again. I got a look at his pencils and they were just beautiful. It was just great stuff and you could tell he was just having a great job doing it. I thought, "Man, the guy was just wasted editorially; this is what he should be doing! He should be drawing because he does it so well!" I just got all caught up in that and got so excited at how beautiful these pencils were. I said, "Wow! Who's inking this?" They said, "Do you want it?" I said, "Hell, yes!"
CBA: While you were doing all this work for Warren, were you going back and looking at the great old illustrators like Franklin Booth and Kinstler?
Bernie: Oh, yeah! I was seeking the stuff out. Kaluta had a lot of that stuff, old books with illustrations, and I'd go over there, spend a lot of time just looking at them, marveling at this incredible penwork. It was stuff that I'd look at and go, "Wow! I could never touch that!" It was gorgeous work.
CBA: And yet you seemed to assimilate some of the linework.
Bernie: I think that if you look at something hard enough, your eyes almost lift it off the paper. It sinks in. When it finally came to doing Frankenstein, I wasn't actually copying Booth—I never had a piece of Booth's artwork in front of me—but I spent so much time looking at his work, that that was the only way that I could see using a pen. Yeah, I was doing my Booth imitation as best I could.
CBA: Did you lament the fact that there wasn't any commercial outlets anymore for illustration? Did you wistfully wish that you, Mike and Jeff could just do illustrations?
Bernie: I didn't lament it or long for the old days. From the standpoint of keeping myself busy, I would (and I do this to this day; I have a pattern) work in comics for a few years and get really burned-out and then I'd want to move on to something else, doing illustrations or paintings—and I'll do that for a year or two and get burned-out on that. Then I'd go back to comics because it would be exciting again.
CBA: Why did you leave Warren? Were you getting burned-out?
Bernie: Yeah, I was getting burned-out on comics. When I left Warren, I started doing posters and prints. I made a living (though I've never been rich) [laughs] and I've managed all this time. After a while I got burned-out on the prints and posters and I got back into comics again.
CBA: How long did you spend working on Frankenstein?
Bernie: It was probably six years all together. That's not constant work. It sounds worse than it was. I never had a publisher lined up for it and it was a labor of love. I would do the Frankenstein drawings between paying jobs; I'd do some comics or poster work, make enough money to keep me going a few weeks, and then I'd do another couple of Frankenstein pieces.
CBA: That didn't create an anxiety of not knowing where your next meal was coming from?
Bernie: It never really got to the point where I was hurting financially or starving because I was doing Frankenstein. I just spread it out because Frankenstein was a very personal thing to me; it was, "I want to do this exactly the way I want to do it." If I tried to work with a publisher on that, then I would have had to do it the way he wants it. That's why I did it on my own because I had been in the field long enough by then and had had enough experience to know the way it works. I knew I would run up into this editorial wall and I was sure I was not going to find somebody who was going to be willing to go with a completely b-&-w book. When I finally signed the contract with Marvel for the first edition of Frankenstein, the first question they asked me was, "Gee, could we do some of these in color?" [laughs] I said, "No!" And they said, "But..." "NO!" [laughter]
CBA: And the work maintained its integrity.
Bernie: I wouldn't let them touch it.
CBA: If I can be frank here: One of the perceptions I had was that you pored your heart and soul into Frankenstein—you almost sweat blood—and you made it drop-dead, gorgeous. It was the best work you had done up until that time. Subsequently....
Bernie: Nothing's been as good?
CBA: Nothing's been as good.
Bernie: That's one of the old clichés: "God, why is your old stuff better?" All I can really say is I was younger and, I don't know, maybe purer back then. I just had a kind of love for the work that I just don't have any more. I'm not saying that I hate it but it's just that that impetus (or whatever it is) just isn't there any more.
CBA: Would you attribute that to the response that Frankenstein received? Did you think that it was going to be bigger than it was?
Bernie: No. I was always disappointed that it didn't make it into bookstores because Jim Shooter made a point that it was going to get into bookstores—and it never did. It became a fan item. Not that it would have become a bestseller in the bookstores but it always seemed a shame to me that you can't go into B. Dalton and Waldenbooks and find it.
CBA: You know that's where I've seen it?
Bernie: Have you really?
CBA: I've recently seen it in Borders.
Bernie: Wow. I've got nothing to complain about then!
CBA: Sorry. [laughter]
Bernie: Now I have no excuse! [laughter]
CBA: I also heard a rumor that you had either contracted tendonitis or an aversion to some chemical because of drawing Frankenstein?
Bernie: What happened was that I developed a sensitivity to the metal nickel and that's what the little metal part on a brush that holds the bristles is made of—it's called the ferule—and it's 90% nickel. It made my fingertips sore and inflamed—and they hurt and were really tender all the time. That's all it was but, of course, I was worried about it because I didn't know what it was. I saw several doctors who couldn't identify it and I finally saw a skin specialist who diagnosed it and she gave me an ointment to put on. That cleared it up but the biggest problem I had was what am I going to do about holding a brush now? My fingers had to come in contact with the metal and I tried everything: I tried wrapping it in masking tape and that was no good because you lose the grip; I tried holding the brush further up on the stem so my fingers were on the wood but that was just ridiculous. So after trying all this stuff, my ex-wife suggested, "Why don't you just paint that thing with nail polish?" Well, duh! [laughs] So I've been doing that ever since and it's no problem.
About 1991 or '92, I broke my wrist and I've literally not been the same since. I slipped on the ice—stupidest thing in the world—and I felt like a real ass; but that's all that happened. Instead of wrapping my arms around me and falling on my butt, I had to put my arm out. I put all my weight down on my arm and broke my wrist. It hasn't been the same since.
I'm trying to get movie work now but I still do some comic work. I'm working on a story for Vertigo's Flinch comic which is a 10-page story which Bruce wrote and I'll eventually get around to finishing that.
CBA: How would you characterize your time at Warren?
Bernie: Like in one word? [laughter] Happy? I had a really good time working at Warren. I can't remember any problems or any real unpleasantness—certainly not from Jim or anybody working for him.
CBA: Do you view those days as a transitional time in your life?
Bernie: I felt that it was a growth period and I felt excited and challenged by the work I was doing there. It was a moment, y'know? And not just for me but for all of us who did some incredible work at Warren. Corben and Bruce were doing great stuff.
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