Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bernie Wrightson, and the issue is The Weird #3, which was published by DC and is cover dated June 1988. Enjoy!
The Weird is a … weird comic, as Jim Starlin introduced us to an alien creature that he obviously dug (despite killing him off at the end of this mini-series) because he brought him back 20 years later. Wrightson has never drawn a ton of comics, but he drew this, which, in retrospect, is kind of odd – why did he pick this project? Considering that he probably knew Starlin for years, maybe it was just to work with him. Anyway, he drew it, and we’re going to look at it!
This is the splash page at the beginning of the issue, and it’s really beautiful. We’ve seen over the past two days that Wrightson drew in a more cartoony style, but by 1988, he had shifted slightly, as he used more lush brush strokes, which makes his art a bit more impressionistic. We see that in the dog, Ptang (really?) – it’s a beautiful drawing, and Wrightson uses both thick and delicate brush strokes and nice spot blacks (which might be inker Dan Green’s handiwork) to create it. The use of hatching for the wood grain is well done, too, as there’s none up where the light is, but it slowly becomes clearer as the light fades farther down. Wrightson’s moths are almost smudges of lines and colors – there’s no reason to draw them so clearly, because they’re flitting around so quickly. He’s still excellent at figure drawing, but Billy’s face is a bit more square and angular than the figures in Swamp Thing, for instance, and Wrightson’s/Green’s use of blacks to shadow Billy introduces a darker tone to the book even though this is a relatively innocent scene (Billy is about to recap the story so far, because that’s what they did in comics back then). Wrightson’s (or Green’s, or even Michele Wrightson, the colorist’s) contrast between light and dark in this panel is both a harbinger of the darkness and redemption to come and an evocation of a more innocent time when Billy’s life wasn’t so topsy-turvy and an alien life form wasn’t inhabiting his dad’s body. That always sucks, doesn’t it?
The Jason, who is the bad guy in this issue, tells the Weird his origin story, and Starlin goes pretty dark with it (it’s clichéd, sure, but still very dark). The entire thing is seven pages of depressing exposition (the end of it is below), but Wrightson draws the heck out of it. This looks more like old-school horror Wrightson, even though his faces are still a bit less rounded than we saw in the 1970s. Jason’s face in Panel 2 is horrifying as he stares up at his dead father (with the requisite missing shoe; why do people who hang themselves always seem to lose one shoe?) – Wrightson makes his eyes abnormally big to convey his despair and terror, while part of his face and much of his body is pitch black, implying the darkness into which his world is sinking. Shading the mom’s face in Panel 4 is a cliché, but that’s because it works. Wrightson juxtaposes the panel with Jason’s mother tousling his hair with the one of her striking him wonderfully, with the alcohol jammed in between it to make it much more clear why she acts this way (not subtle, of course, but effective). Jason’s face in those panels isn’t as important as the mom’s, as we see the softness in Panel 5 turn to ugliness in Panels 6 and 7. Wrightson’s use of the extreme close-up in Panels 3 and 8 draws us in and forces us to sympathize with Jason, even though he’s the bad guy. This is a well designed sequence despite the clichés.
At the end of the Jason’s tale of woe, we get these two cool panels. Wrightson is still using nice brush strokes, which turns his dream demons into shifting, ethereal creatures, but the hatching doesn’t obscure their shapes completely, so their horror is still present. Notice that Jason is more solid, just enough so that he’s at the center of a shadowy maelstrom. The brush strokes imply movement, so that it feels like the demons are rushing toward Jason and sweeping him along. In Panel 2, Wrightson draws him looking upward, so that it feels that he’s staring back at the panel in which the dream demons attack him. Once again, the use of black in the panel adds to the horror – Jason’s eye contains all the fear and despair that the panel needs.
The Weird’s only recourse, according to him, is to kill the Jason (Batman doesn’t look kindly on this, as you might expect), so we get this tremendous panel as he snaps the bad guy’s neck. It’s a “Kid Miracleman” moment, as the Weird doesn’t think the Jason will be strong enough to resist the real bad guys (don’t worry about them) who have inhabited his body. Wrightson and Green drench this panel in black, and it’s interesting that Jason’s upturned face is lit while the Weird’s face is in black. The moment he draws is awful, too, because it’s frozen at the instant before the neck snap, so we’re always anticipating it. Once again, Wrightson uses brush strokes masterfully – the thin lines of Jason’s hair is linked to the shadow on the Weird’s left hand, which is linked to the thicker strokes of the Weird’s eyebrows (which are a bit crazy throughout the series). Even though he’s using a lot of black, we can imagine the sadness in the Weird’s eyes as he does what he has to do. I hate to compare and contrast 1988 DC with 2014 DC, but 25 years ago, we simply get a “snik” sound effect in the next panel to imply the Jason’s death. Today you can bet we’d get a panel showing it, even if the artist used restraint.
This is a nice example of Wrightson slowly becoming less precise with his art and more impressionistic. His artwork became less cartoony, but the quality remained high, of course. Tomorrow, Wrightson will team up with Starlin again to bring us one of the more ridiculous Batman comics of the 1980s. At least it was pretty! Meanwhile, the archives are always there for your edification!