Bernie Wrightson, RIP.

Legendary comic book artist Bernie Wrightson (sometimes spelled Berni Wrightson) died of brain cancer over the weekend. He was 68.

Today the name most associated with the DC Comics character, Swamp Thing, is Alan Moore. He revamped and revitalized the old monster type, the “swamp monster,” in the Swamp Thing comic book in the late 1980s. This new version of the book led to the creation of other characters like John Constantine and Lucifer, and eventually resulted in DC’s horror/dark fantasy imprint, Vertigo.

However, Alan Moore didn’t create the Swamp Thing. The character got his start at the hands of writer Len Wein, with art by Wrightson, in the early 1970s.

Bernie Wrightson was an amazing artist. All the more so, since he was mainly self-taught. It’s not easy to do horror in comics, and this was especially true back then. The limitations of cheap newsprint paper and a limited color palette meant that it was much harder to get the realistic detail you’d want for convincing gore and viscera.

Wrightson made it look easy. Swamp Thing was set in the Louisiana bayous. The title character was Alec Holland, an unfortunate scientist who was beaten, thrown into the swamp, and left for dead by mobsters (after they’d also killed his wife). Because reasons, Alec survived, but changed into a powerful but horrifying creature, more plant than animal—the description usually found in the pages of each issue of the book was “a moss-encrusted mockery of a man.”

Every panel oozed with atmosphere. You could practically smell the rot; hear the gases bubbling up out of the peat moss. Wrightson’s use of shadows imbued the series with mood and texture, and he could scare the shit out of me even in scenes where nothing particularly scary was going on.

The comic’s word balloons, which Wrightson also drew, were unlike any I’d seen in a comic book before; they were yellow or green, and appeared to be dripping with muck and slime. You could practically smell it. His art was amazing. The Alan Moore era was great, but the Wein/Wrightson original flavor was also uniquely terrific.

After Swamp Thing, Bernie Wrightson is probably best known for his character, Captain Sternn. Captain Sternn appeared in several issues of the comics magazine Heavy Metal, and he also appeared in a segment of the animated Heavy Metal movie from 1981.

Here’s a page spread from an adaptation of the Frankenstein story that Wrightson did. This shows you what his work looked like, and how amazing it was. He did all this with a pencil!

If you look at Wrightson’s credits over time, there’s something you may notice. In the oldest Swamp Thing comics I’ve acquired, he was credited as “Berni Wrightson,” with only the one “e” in his first name. This is how he’s credited throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then, sometime in the 1990s, I began to see his name spelled more conventionally, as “Bernie Wrightson.”

I had the great fortune to meet Bernie when he came to Dragon*Con one year. I didn’t remember the year, but when I heard the news of his death I looked it up: 1995. It seems insane that it could have been that long ago, but I know it must have.

At the Marriott Marquis, one of Dragon*Con’s host hotels, there’s a tenth floor lounge that people, both con attendees and guests, often congregate on after hours. In 1995, wandering through that lounge one night, I met Bernie Wrightson. Kate Worley, co-creator of Omaha, The Cat Dancer, was also there, and I joined the two of them and several other comics fans in a late-night gab session.

I remember Jim Steranko had given a talk that day, and Kate and I talked about how unctuously charming we found him to be. This is how I know the year must have been 1995; it’s the only year Bernie Wrightson, Kate Worley, and Jim Steranko were all there. (In one of the strangenesses that life is woven from, Jim Steranko, the oldest of those three comics professionals (he was born in 1938; Bernie was born in 1948 and Kate in 1958), is now the only one still alive.)

Anyway, Kate and Bernie both turned out to be warm and kind, eager to engage and share ideas with the fans. From some of the horrifying pages he drew in his lifetime, you might not have expected that. The small conversation group sat up and drank and chatted until the wee hours.

When I met Wrightson and realized who he was, there was a first thing I wanted to know. I began our talk like this: “Could I ask you a question?”

He smiled at me. “You’re going to ask me about the spelling of my name, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He told me. He had always been “Bernie Wrightson,” but then in the late 1960s, shortly before he began working in comics, an American diver from Denver, also named Bernie Wrightson, began winning diving contests (meets?) at a high level. He won medals at the Pan American Games in 1967, and then took several gold medals at the 1968 Olympics.

It seemed to the comics artist at the time that the diver was going to become one of those crossover athletes who became more generally famous, like Sonja Henie or Esther Williams. So, rather than actually change his name, he just dropped the “e” from his first name.

The diver turned out not to have big crossover appeal after all. Today, when you read “Olympic diver Bernie Wrightson,” you say, “who?”, and people were already saying that in the 1980s, so eventually the comics artist reclaimed the original spelling of his name.

It’s not much of a story, but it’s charming nonetheless; it’s one of those little grace notes that crosses your mind when you think about a person.

I’ve met many creative people over the years. I’m glad Bernie Wrightson was one of them. Cancer is a terrible disease, every bit as horrible as the fictional horrors he illustrated. I wish it were similarly fictional.

Rest in peace, Berni(e).


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