Bernie Wrightson was one of the best artists of horror comics, with a career spanning from the mid 1960s through the mid 2010s. Nicknamed the "Master of the Macabre", he is at his best when drawing grotesque monsters, vampires, werewolves, cyclopses, mummy's and other eerie creatures. He is praised for his visual storytelling, absurd humor and for his complex and detailed drawing technique, which makes use of a lot of shadow work and shading. Where his artwork is clearly inspired by other horror staples like Frank Frazetta and Graham Ingels, his moody pages also breathe the atmosphere of writers like Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe. He has worked extensively for the horror and mystery titles of DC Comics, for which he created 'The Swamp Thing' with writer Len Wein. He is also known for his comic adaptations of classic horror stories and his collaborations with Stephen King. Later in his career, he has done design work for the movie industry.
He was born as Bernard Albert Wrightson in Dundalk, Maryland. His first name was shortened to Bernie, which he initially wrote as Berni to avoid confusion with the Olympic diver Bernie Wrightson (1944). He got interested in art at the age of 12, but has claimed that he wasn't an avid comic book reader as a child. It won't surprise anybody that the comic books he did enjoy were those filled with horror and sci-fi stories by EC Comics. At age 15 he discovered the work of Frank Frazetta, who remained a major influence throughout his career. Other artists he admires are Graham Ingels, Al Williamson, Al Dorne, Jeff Jones and Jack Davis.
Wrightson got his artistic education from a correspondence course of the Famous Artists School. He began his career as a staff illustrator with the Baltimore Sun in 1966. He started attending comics conventions and was introduced to the world of fanzines. By 1968 he was contributing artwork to the EC fan publications Spa-Fon (edited by Rich Hauser) and Squa-Tront (edited by Jerry Weist). He eventually settled in New York City, where he was introduced to the editors of DC Comics by Frank Frazetta, whom he had met at one of the conventions. His first professional work for DC Comics was creating the sword and sorcery hero 'Nightmaster' with writer Denny O'Neil for the DC Showcase series in 1969. His initial effort didn't work out, and Jerry Grandenetti was brought in to draw the first issue. Wrightson came back for issues #2 and #3 however, but didn't feel at ease with the character, and got a helping hand from artists like Jeff Jones, Mike Kaluta and Steve Harper.
In the meantime, he had contributed his first stories to DC's horror anthology titles 'House of Mystery' and 'The Witching Hour'. He also drew stories for the three issues of 'Web of Horror', which he edited with Bruce Jones for Major Publications in 1969 and 1970, and two stories of 'Limpstrel' for the underground comic book Witzend. Wrightson, Jeff Jones, Bruce Jones and Kaluta then embarked upon the ambitious project of a creator-owned magazine called Abyss, but only one issue was published in November 1970.
It was in Stan Lee's 'Chamber of Darkness' and 'Tower of Shadows' at Marvel Comics that Wrightson's pen-and-ink work made place for more heavy brushwork, and his trademark drawing style first came to bloom. He continued to do interior and cover artwork for Marvel Comics, including some 'King Kull' stories for 'Creatures on the Loose' (1971) and 'Savage Tales' (1973). He was however deeply disappointed with the way his stories were printed. The fact that Lee refused his graphic solutions was another blow. Wrightson remained with DC Comics instead, where he especially did story and cover art for the horror titles 'House of Mystery' and 'House of Secrets' for most of the early 1970s.
In 1971 Wrightson got the assigment to draw one of Len Wein's stories about a Victorian-era scientist turning into a muck creature for the July issue of 'House of Secrets'. It was the first appearance of 'The Swamp Thing', which became the character Wrightson is most associated with. The humanoid mass of vegetable matter returned in its own title in October 1972, although now in a contemporary setting. Wrightston drew the first ten issues from stories by Len Wein, after which Nestor Redondo took over in 1974. 'Swamp Thing' was later adapted into a 1982 film by Wes Craven, which received moderate reviews at the time but gained a cult following since. It also spawned a 1990-1991 animated TV series and a 1990-1992 live-action TV series. In addition, Wrightson and writer Marv Wolfman co-created the character of 'Destiny' for the first issue of 'Weird Mystery Tales' in July 1972. This character would be used in Neil Gaiman's epic 'The Sandman' series in the 1990s.
Besides DC Comics, Wrightson worked with Vaughn Bodé on 'Purple Pictography', a series of sexy fantasy stories for the men's magazine Swank in 1971. These stories have later been collected in book format by Fantagraphics (1988) and Eros Comix (1991). Wrightson also self-published his own anthology book 'Badtime Stories' in the Summer of 1972. The book features several stories written and drawn by him in the period 1970-1971, which are a good showcase of his ability to work with different materials and techniques. In a more comical style, he provided occasional comic stories and cartoons to National Lampoon magazine between 1973 and 1983.
In 1974 Wrightson left DC Comics and began an association with James Warren, who published the black-and-white horror magazines Eerie and Creepy. His contributions to these magazines were also characterized by a wide variety of techniques. Besides original stories, he made notable comic adaptations of classic horror stories like 'The Black Cat' by Edgar Allan Poe and 'Cool Air' by H.P. Lovecraft in the period 1974-1976. By then he was sharing a studio in Manhattan with Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta and Barry Windsor-Smith, aptly titled "The Studio". The artists started to focus on artistic endeavours outside of the comic book industry, such as paintings and artwork for posters, prints and calendars. Wrightson released a highly detailed coloring book called 'Monstrous Creatures', and designed the album cover for Meat Loaf's 1981 album 'Dead Ringer'. A compilation book of the work created by the "Fab Four" at The Studio was released by Dragon's Dream in 1979. A five-issue comic book series with reprints of Bernie Wrightson's Warren work called 'Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre' was published by Pacific Comics and Eclipse Comics in 1983-1984.
Between 1980 and 1983 Wrightson was present in Heavy Metal Magazine, the US edition of the French sci-fi magazine Métal Hurlant, which was launched by Moebius, Philippe Druillet and Jean-Pierre Dionnet. He created the character of 'Captain Sternn', an amoral futuristic space hero who also had a role in the 1981 film 'Heavy Metal' by Gerald Potterton. Wrightson retured to the character in 1993 for the mini-series 'Captain Sternn: Running Out of Time' at Kitchen Sink Press. Heavy Metal also ran the graphic novel 'Freak Show' by Wrightson and Bruce Jones, which was additionally printed in the European editions of the magazine.
During the 1980s, Wrightson gained more fame for his illustration work based on other horror author's creations. He spent seven years with making about 50 highly detailed pen-and-ink drawings to accompany a re-edition of Mary Shelley's 1831 novel 'Frankenstein' (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1983). In 1983 Wrightson also illustrated the comic book adaptation of the Stephen King-penned horror film 'Creepshow'. This led to several other collaborations with King, including illustrations for the novella 'Cycle of the Werewolf' (1983), the reworked edition of King's apocalyptic horror epic 'The Stand' (1990) and 'The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla' (2003).
Wrightson returned to both DC and Marvel in the 1980s and 1990s for more comic book work. With writer Jim Starlin, Wrightson was the driving force behind the all-star comic book 'Heroes for Hope', which was published by Marvel Comics in 1985 to raise awareness about hunger in Africa. Besides many of the leading comic book artists of the time, the book also contained contributions of fantasy authors such as Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, and Edward Bryant. The project earned Wrightson and Starlin the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award in 1986. In that same year, the concept was reused by Wrightson and Starlin for the comic book 'Heroes Against Hunger' at DC Comics, starring 'Superman' and 'Batman'. He had his first try at a superhero graphic novel with 'Spider-Man: Hooky' (Marvel, 1986) in cooperation with writer Susan K. Putney. In 1987 he made another Marvel graphic novel, this time starring 'The Hulk' and 'The Thing' ('The Big Change', 1987). In the DC Universe, he worked with Starlin again on the mini-series 'The Weird' (1987) and 'Batman: The Cult' (1987). Back at Marvel, Wrightson illustrated the mini-series 'Punisher P.O.V.' (with Jim Starlin, 1991) and 'Punisher: Purgatory' (with Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski, 1998–1999).
Wrightson's actual comic book work became scarce as the years progressed. He occasionally provided cover artwork, like to 'So Dark the Rose' by Cry for Dawn Productions in 1995, 'Nightmare Theater' by Chaos! Comics in 1997 and 'Tarzan: Le Monstre' for Dark Horse (1998). He was one of several veteran comics authors to contribute to Matt Groening's 'Bart Simpson Treehouse of Horror 11' (2005), along with Angelo Torres, Al Williamson, Mark Schultz, Len Wein, John Severin, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan.Wrightston drew the 'Squid Thing', which was a parody on his early creation 'The Swamp Thing'.
His first regular comic book work in years was all four issues of the new horror title 'City of Others' by Dark Horse in 2007. It was his first collaboration with writer Steve Niles, and his pencils were inked by José Villarrubia. Wrightson and Niles' next collaboration was on the three-issue mini-series 'Dead, She Said' at IDW Publishing in 2008. The artist returned to the Frankenstein character for the comic book mini-series 'Frankenstein Alive, Alive!', which was also written by Niles and published by IDW between 2012 and 2014. Wrightson won his first National Cartoonists Society's award in the category Comic Books for this work in 2013.
Prior to this, Wrightson had received several Shazam Awards and nominations for his work on 'Swamp Thing' in 1972 and 1973, as well as the Inkpot Award during the San Diego Comic-Con International in 1987. His excellence as a horror author recognized with the H.P. Lovecraft Award in 2007, and the Ghastly Award (named after "Ghastly" Graham Ingels) in 2011. An Inkwell Special Recognition Award for his entire body of work was awarded to him in 2015.
Throughout the years, Bernie Wrightson had worked as a conceptual and production designer on a variety of movies, including 'Ghostbusters' (1984), 'The Faculty' (1998), 'Galaxy Quest' (1999), George Romero's 'Land of the Dead' (2005), 'Serenity' (2005) and Frank Darabont's Stephen King film 'The Mist' (2007). In later years, Bernie Wrightson has been plagued by health problems. After suffering from a couple of small strokes in July 2014, he underwent several treatments for a brain tumor in the years that followed. In January 2017, his wife Liz announced the artist's forced retirement from his artistic career, since his latest brain surgery had caused lasting damage. The artist passed away two months later, on 18 March 2017.
Bernie Wrightson's first wife was comic book colorist Michelle Robinson (1941-2015), who was active as an underground cartoonist under the name Michele Brand in the 1960s.