|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and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.|
Eureka! An issue late but we finally discovered the legendary unpublished cover by Berni Wrightson for The Spirit. Well, most of it, anyway. Contributor Ronn Sutton explains: "In 1973, Bernie was staying with me for a visit in Toronto and I photocopied the original art in nine sections at a local library. When I later tried to piece it together, I found that one section was missing." Thanks, Ronn! [Ye editor did major reconstructive work because of the photocopy's poor quality.]
The Spirit © 1999 Will Eisner.
Like a Bat Out of Hell
Chatting with Bernie Wrightson, DC's Monster Maker
Conducted by Jon B. CookeFrom Comic Book Artist #5
Bernie Wrightson epitomizes the "New Blood" that arrived at DC in the late '60s and then-editorial director Carmine Infantino's ability to recognize extraordinary talent. Along with Mike Kaluta, Bernie began as a somewhat crude (if obviously talented) artist empowered with an intense enthusiasm for the art form, and he flowered at DC to become an exceptional world-class artist of enormous capability. Before moving on to Warren to create some of his finest achievements (which were explored in his interview in our last issue), Bernie left a lasting impact on Joe Orlando's mystery books, most notably on the Orlando-Wein-Wrightson-Saladino masterpiece, Swamp Thing. This interview was conducted by telephone on 15 March 1998 and it was approved by the artist. Special thanks are owed to the aforementioned Michael Wm. Kaluta.
Comic Book Artist: Did you always have an interest in comics?
Bernie Wrightson: When I was a kid of six or seven, I read the EC horror comics off the stands. My mother didn't know about them or she would have ripped 'em up and thrown them out! There was a candy and cigar store down the street that had a big display window with little window seats. A whole wall of this place was covered with comic books, and I went there with friends. Of course, the first thing I gravitated to was the horror comics, and it didn't take long to realize that the EC comics were the best. They also rented comics for 2¢ each and you could sit in the window and read them, so it was a babysitting service for the neighborhood. If I found one that was particularly disturbing, I'd buy it. Haunt of Fear #27 was under the mattress of my bed for about a year before my mother found it. I read that thing to tatters like it was pornography! It was a forbidden fruit and that issue with the classic Ingels cover and the lead story, "About Face" really grabbed me. It was so f*cking twisted! I loved it! It was almost like a drug; I had to have more and more of it because it would last long.
CBA: So you started drawing?
Bernie: I've been drawing for as long as I remember. I went to Catholic school and have vivid memories of getting into trouble for drawing in my textbook-always, always pictures of monsters. It wasn't just the comics because in 1952 they re-released the old Universal monster movies to television. We had the horror host, Dr. Lucifer, who was played by this old B-western actor, Richard Dix, who was on his last legs doing this Shock Theatre thing.
CBA: When did you see comic books as a possibility for a job?
Bernie: Probably in the mid-'60s when they reprinted some of the ECs in those Ballantine paperbacks with the great Frazetta covers and I remembered that this was the stuff that really creeped me out as a kid. By then, I was old enough to realize that someone actually drew these and then I became interested in finding out who these people were. I could recognize the styles and differentiate. What really got me into it was seeing the stuff in black-&-white as drawings instead of this totally finished, fully colored thing in a comic book. I could see that these pictures were made of lines which had never really occurred to me previously.
CBA: You were self-taught?
Bernie: I never went to art school but I took that artists correspondence course and it really was a good course. I took the illustration course which was founded by Albert Dorne, Robert Fawcett, Norman Rockwell-really the top guys-and the instruction books were filled with drawings by these guys. You could see the process how they worked.
CBA: Drawing is a terribly solitary act; did you reach a point when you had to decide whether you'd choose a social life or just sit alone and draw?
Bernie: My friends were out dating, having fun, hanging out and learning how to be real, regular people and I stayed home and drew. Because drawing was my passion and my total focus, it was all that I wanted to do. To this day, 50 years old, I'm still an emotional retard. I have the hardest time relating to people and still have a hard time getting a date! I literally played hooky the day they gave this information out at school. I was a complete willing outcast.
CBA: When I first saw your work, I thought that you were a Golden Age artist.
Bernie: A lot of people come up to me at conventions and say, "Oh my God! You're a lot younger than I expected!" They expect me to be in my 70s.
CBA: Your work seems to have a singular reverence to the work of premier EC artist Graham Ingels.
Bernie: It wasn't just Ghastly; it was Frazetta and Jack Davis. I was lucky. I got attracted to these old school, top of the line guys. My drawing background comes more out of illustration than out of comic books. Myself, Kaluta, Jeff Jones-basically the whole Studio-came out of an older tradition like storytelling pictures. I was just always attracted to the art.
CBA: How did you find out that there were people like you out there?
Bernie: I was in an art show in Baltimore, an outdoor thing, and anybody who could lift a brush could enter work in this thing. It was around a big reservoir and you hung your pictures on this metal fence. I had these huge paintings I did after getting into the Frazetta paperback covers and it was barbarians, vampires, blood and gore, and really creepy sh*t. This 13-year-old kid came up and started talking about horror comics. I was 17 and I'm thinking that he was awful young to remember the horror comics and he said, "Oh, I have a complete set of EC Comics." So he invited me over-he was the son of a rich doctor-and sure enough, he had a complete run. Needless to say, we became best friends and I was up there every weekend. That's when I realized that I had just scratched the surface of EC-I hadn't seen nearly any of them! Anyway, he told me about this convention in New York where Frazetta was going to be guest of honor and I scraped together train fare. That's were I met Kaluta, Jeff, and a whole bunch of people.
CBA: Did you have comic art with you?
Bernie: I had a big envelope full of drawings. No comic book stuff but little single pictures. Some were very oddly shaped because I would cut the best part of the picture out. It was werewolves, monsters, barbarians, wizards-Universal meets Frank Frazetta. I started showing this stuff and meeting other artists. I had seen Jeff Jones' work in Creepy so I was a fan of his. People are starting to crowd around and they're starting to buy this stuff! I'm there selling drawings for $2, $3, and $5! I didn't have a table-I'm just sitting in the middle of the convention floor and there's money flying at me! I made something like $70 and this was incredible to me! There I was with an empty envelope and people were just fawning all over me, saying, "This is great stuff! Why aren't you working professionally?" I'm just an 18-year-old kid, thinking, "Jesus, what is this?"
CBA: Al Williamson got you into comics?
Bernie: Yeah, he was very instrumental. The following year, I attended a comic book convention and he was one of the guys who saw my work. By that time, I had done an eight-page comic book story called "Uncle Bill's Barrel" for a fanzine for these guys that I met the year before. It was the only real comic book work that I had and I was showing it around. Al saw it and he thought that it was good enough to get Dick Giordano to come over and look at it. Dick thought it was good enough to show Carmine. Carmine took one look at it and says, "This kid is good. We oughta give him work." And he punches me in the arm, puts his arm around me, and says, "You f*cking kid!" I didn't know what to make of this because these guys were like Mafia, fast-talking Italian guys. I had never met people like this before! So I was a little intimidated and there was Carmine who looked like a really big Edward G. Robinson with the cigar and everything. These guys looked like gangsters!
CBA: You obviously left an impression. How did they follow-up?
Bernie: I didn't take any of this very seriously, so I went back to my newspaper job at the Baltimore Sun. A couple of weeks go by, Kaluta calls and he says, "Al Williamson is looking for you because Dick Giordano is looking for you because Carmine Infantino is looking for you! They want to give you a sword-&-sorcery comic book!" So I called Carmine and he said that they had this book called "Nightmaster" and they wanted me to draw it. As I recall, I left the newspaper later that same week, packed up all of my stuff, got a U-Haul trailer, and moved to New York.
CBA: Just like that? On the promise of a comic book job?
Bernie: Just like that. It was $30 a page pencil and inks. The really amazing thing was that I was able to live on that rate in New York City! This was 1968 and I had a third-floor walk-up apartment in a neighborhood I later learned was called "Needle Row," on 77th St., real close to the American Museum of Natural History. The first week that I was there, I was robbed! I didn't know anything! I was just this green kid from the South. But it only cost $23 a week.
So I went down to DC and they gave me the first issue of "Nightmaster" in Showcase. I did the first seven pages in pencil and it was so bad because I froze up because I felt that my life depended on it-this was my career! I just sweated over every line and the result was just completely overworked and over-thought. It was very stiff and lifeless. I took it in and I could see immediately that everyone's face fell. I thought that this was it, the shortest career on record, I'm finished. Carmine, very gently and sweetly, took me aside and said, "Look, I've seen this before and I know exactly what's going on. We shouldn't have given you a book right off the bat. You're intimidated and we're going to take you off of this. We'll give the first issue to someone else and we'll put you on the fillers for the mystery books to break you in." And so they gave me to Joe Orlando over in the House of Mystery where I started getting these little two and three-page scripts by Marv Wolfman and Len Wein.
They shelved "Nightmaster" and then, after I was there maybe five months, they gave it to Jerry Grandenetti and he did the first issue. Then, for whatever reason, they decided to continue the series, came to me and said that I had loosened up enough to be able to handle a book. By that time, I said, "Yes, I can." And, of course, I couldn't handle the assignment so Kaluta, Jeff, Hickman and Steve Harper all helped on that because it was an awful lot of work. I wasn't really intimidated by it and thought that the script was silly. We read it and said, "Man, this really sucks." None of us was really into it except to get the job done.
CBA: Did you enjoy doing the short stories for Orlando?
Bernie: I still enjoy the short stuff! Gimme a good story that's just a few pages long and I can really pour on the steam and do a real bang-up job. Then I can just get it done and move on to the next thing. To this day, I'm not good with an on-going series. I'm just too slow and I lose interest.
CBA: Your work matured in very short order in those short stories.
Bernie: I had an awful lot of help from Joe Orlando. He was the best guy for me and any young artist. I learned so much from him in my first couple of years in comics. I would bring stuff in and Joe, in his very kind, non-judgmental, gentle way would find a panel on the page and take out his pad of tracing paper that he kept in his desk. He'd take a sheet out and lay it over, and he'd say, "Y'know, you might want to think about this," and he would redraw the panel very quickly, with stick figures. He would teach composition and short-cuts that enhance the work. He had a way of thinking pictorially that I had never before been exposed to or would have considered. He was there, pointing me very gently in the right direction. He was very much a mentor who really cared about me. I really valued his opinion and I really treasure the experience of having worked with him.
CBA: What makes Joe such a good storyteller?
Bernie: I think it's instinctual. I think that if Joe hadn't gone into comics and his career had taken a different path, he might have been a filmmaker. Joe is just a natural storyteller and understands the process of telling a story through pictures. I always ended up coming back to Joe at DC.
CBA: You were obviously very well-suited to doing short stories. Did you ever aspire to doing a series?
Bernie: Just Swamp Thing which I took on because I had never done a series before. Before that, I had the short stories in the House of Mystery, a couple of horror stories for Marvel, the covers, and introduction pages-little jobs like that. I could do a cover in a day or two, get paid, I could make my share of the rent, and not have to work for another week or two. All of us were like that and it gave us a lot of time to play.
CBA: Did you go in with your own cover ideas or did Joe come up with them?
Bernie: It was half and half. The one with the bat on the guy's back was totally my idea; just me farting around and thinking that it would be a cool picture. I did it, took it in and they used it for a cover. To be absolutely honest, I never looked inside the book to see if they had somebody write a story about it. Sometimes it would be the other way around where they would have a story and ask me to do a cover for it. So I would do a riff on that. Somebody would sometimes come up to me with a cover idea. I remember a few occasions getting into it with Carmine about covers. I would want to do something fairly stark and simple and Carmine would come in and keep adding elements to it, saying, "Oh no, you gotta put a haunted house back here... Put a cat in the foreground... It still needs something-you got a big blank space over here...." That was just once in a while. Generally, I got an incredible amount of freedom on those things and I got spoiled very early on. They seemed happy.
CBA: I noticed looking at the cover to House of Secrets #92, that it was part of this company-wide trend with gothic romance.
Bernie: They hired Jeff Jones for a really short time because he had done these paperback book covers and he was really unhappy with that. They wanted something very specific but for some reason they couldn't communicate exactly what it was they wanted to any of the artists. They really didn't know what they wanted. You would bring something in and they would look at it with a puzzled look on their faces. "No! It needs something here..." Well, if they told me what they wanted to begin with, I would have given them that!
CBA: Was the Comics Code a problem for you guys?
Bernie: They sent back the original script for Swamp Thing because Alec Holland died and was resurrected. They said, "This means that he is the walking dead and we do not permit zombies." So it had to be rewritten so that Alec Holland did not die. We later got up to #5 or #6 when we received a panicked call from somebody at the Code who said, "You can't do this! This figure is undraped!" They were saying that Swamp Thing was naked! Joe said, "You want us to put purple pants on him?" And they said, "Yes!" Joe went to bat for us in the face of total boneheaded ignorance and went through, panel by panel, from #1 showing that he had always been undraped-he was a monster! It has no genitalia and if it did, you couldn't see it because it was always in shadow. You can't even see the crack of its ass if it even had an ass!
CBA: You inked an issue of GL/GA. Did you have anything to do with the "Kaloota" sound effect?
Bernie: Mike had just gotten started and he was this kid hanging around. It took him longer to get steady work because his inking style wasn't this slick, firm line like Dick Giordano or Murphy Anderson. So it took him longer to get work but his drawing was always f*cking solid. Neal got it into his head one day that Kaluta was not a name but a funny sound, and he was just going around the office going, "Ka-loo-ta! Ka-loo-ta!" It was just one of these silly things that Denny picked up on and they put it in the book.
CBA: Ever since going to the SCARP con, you were very much a part of a social scene.
Bernie: I guess so. As far as I was concerned, we were just kids who were friends. We were hanging out and we just really loved comics and drawing. There was no sense that we were participating in comic book history being made-that didn't come until years later. I don't know about Michael or any of the other guys, but I didn't realize the importance of those times until somebody told me. They showed me all these comics from that period and they said, "Look at the quality of the stuff you were doing; the work you put into it, and the love and passion that comes through. Look at what a motivating force you were in the industry." I'm looking at it and I have a tough time with this "motivating force" sh*t. The day I admit that I was a motivating force is the day I'm really going to be old-so I'm just never going to admit that.
CBA: You were going to First Fridays?
Bernie: Jeff Jones started those and they were terrific parties! We'd all get together and talk shop-comics, movies. Friendships were really forged and cemented. Some people met the loves of their lives! It was just great!
CBA: What's the story behind the Batman tale, "Night of the Reaper"?
Bernie: We were all guest characters in that. That started as a real party at Tom Fagan's in Rutland, Vermont. He used to throw these Halloween parties at the big mansion where he was caretaker. It was just hell and gone from New York, out in the country, a five hour drive way, way out in the woods. One year, Weiss, O'Neil, Hanerfeld, Wein, Wolfman and Conway all went. I remember Denny, Alan and me getting really drunk and stoned and we went out for a walk. It was freezing cold and we lost sight of the house. We start making up scary stories and, of course, we are all in this altered state of consciousness so it gets really, really creepy. For me it was just laughs-we got lost, creeped each other out, and then came back. But I guess it really affected Denny who came back and wrote the story. He made us characters because it was a "true" story.
CBA: There was another party at Marv Wolfman's house where you and Len talked in a parked car.
Bernie: I recall Len offered me the "Swamp Thing" short story to draw that night. The deadline was really tight and I remember doing most of the work on a weekend. I had help from Kaluta, Jeff, Weiss and Louise. I remember that to save time we photographed the whole thing. The bad guy is Kaluta who could make himself look really oily. I parted his hair in the middle and he had this great moustache. Of course, I was the hero because the girl was Louise Jones, Jeff's wife, who I had a crush on and I got to put my arm around her.
CBA: Did everybody have a crush on Weezie?
Bernie: Yeah, I think everybody did. She was a helluva girl who was really sweet and outgoing. She was just a doll. The kind of girl that everybody wished was their girl. She still is a very sweet woman who I just love to death.
CBA: Was House of Secrets #92 a rare example of using live models in your work?
Bernie: I use photo reference from time to time and I blame Jeff for that. Jeff had some really good cameras, his own enlarger and dark room, and he got me interested in photography. It was just a passing interest but Jeff used a lot of photo reference. I really like the way that the story turned out and I was passionate about it. I had just broken up with a girl at the time and this story really touched that in me, so I just poured my heart and soul into it.
We did the story and I pretty much forgot about it. The issue came out and apparently it was their best-selling book that month, beating out Superman and Batman. They got a lot of fan mail on it. Anyway, I went out of town for a week, came back and people are telling me, "It's great news! We hear that you're doing a Swamp Thing book!" I'm saying, "What 'Swamp Thing' book?" It took an effort for me to remember what Swamp Thing was! So I went into the office and they said, "Yeah, we want to do a book." My immediate reaction was: "What are you crazy? You want to do a period book?" Joe said, "No, we're going to change it around, update it and retell it in modern terms." I was a little skeptical at first and I really needed Len to come and talk me into it. I needed him to say, "This isn't what you think. This is what we're going to do: we're going to do this comic book that has a monster for a hero and nobody will have ever seen anything like this. We're going to do our best to make a commercial success without sacrificing any integrity." Once I heard that, it was, "Okay, I'll sign on." The way we approached it, it was a new thing and a pretty innovative idea.
CBA: Conceptually the book seemed to become a monster movie version every issue.
Bernie: It seemed to become that after a while. We needed a conflict and he needed a different foe in every issue. It became so that we would sit around and try to come up with the new monster every issue which the Swamp Thing would fight and win the day. I just got bored.
CBA: You became a bona fide star in comics with Swamp Thing. How did that affect you?
Bernie: I got kind of cocky. I think my ego grew way out of proportion to the talent that backed it up. I had all this notoriety and celebrity, but at the same time I would tell my self that it's only f*cking comic books! It's not like politics or being a movie star. I can't go into Macy's and buy things on my face-nobody knows who I am! Kaluta and I would be doing a signing at a convention and he would lean over and point at the crowd and say, "There's your public." [laughs] It was pretty awful where we'd make fun of the fans. At the same time, we recognized the fact that we wouldn't be in this position if it weren't for them. My feeling has always been that these people have been touched by my work in some way that is singularly important to them and I know what that is like. I remember being that six-year-old kid, drooling over the Graham Ingels drawings in EC comics.
CBA: Did you plan to draw The Shadow?
Bernie: At one time, yeah. I was doing Swamp Thing which was bi-monthly, and I thought, "Yeah, I can do another book!" I said I could do The Shadow and then I kind of sat myself down and gave myself a good talking to. "Look, kid: you can barely get through an issue of Swamp Thing without the next one coming along!"
CBA: Were you involved with the genesis of Plop!?
Bernie: No. I think that was Joe's idea and I remember him coming to me with it. I said, "'Plop!' What a stupid name for a comic book!" "The Gourmet" was written specifically for Plop! I remember that Joe, Steve Skeates and I were hanging around in the DC offices and somebody had a copy of National Lampoon with a cartoon by Sam Gross which had a frog on this skateboard-thing with no legs, wheeling himself out of the kitchen into a restaurant dining room sadly looking at the diners. There was a sign up that read "Tonight's Special: Frog's Legs." We were laughing at this sick joke and that's where the story got started.
The other story I did about the artist was a straight House of Mystery story. Joe was always showing me these awful scripts that this guy was turning in and they were always so silly! Joe said that he always had to give them to someone else to rewrite. So we took this straight story and made a few minor changes to it and we did it cold as a humor thing. We had a lot of fun.
CBA: You did 10 issues of Swamp Thing and then you were pretty much gone from DC.
Bernie: After Swamp Thing, I felt burnt-out on color comics. I would look back over those 10 issues and say, "Man, you can't see linework and the color's all dark and murky!" So I started working for Warren, doing stuff in black-&-white. I was just looking for a change. I felt that I really wanted to stretch and grow. I felt that I couldn't do that at DC because everything they do is in color, and there's the Code. They weren't going to allow me to do the kind of horror stories that I wanted to do. I was really itching to do stuff in black-&-white using pen and ink, wash, and markers.
CBA: How would you characterize your five years or so at DC?
Bernie: I was pretty happy. I was absolutely in the right place at the right time. There's so much luck involved in this!
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