Kelley Jones is a hard artist to pin down. In the eyes of many, he’s one of the great horror artists in comics. Some of us will always remember him for the vision of hell he drew in Sandman: Season of Mists, and the Batman and Dracula trilogy of graphic novels. He's drawn Aliens and Conan, redesigned Deadman, and penciled a lengthy run of Batman. He drew and co-created the hard to describe but amazing The Crusades from Vertigo. He also wrote and drew the series The Hammer and The 13th Son.
In 2016, he drew Swamp Thing: The Dead Don’t Sleep, which was written by Len Wein. The recently published Swamp Thing Winter Special was a tribute to Wein, who passed away last year, and includes the first issue of what would have been a new miniseries.
RELATED: Remembering Bernie Wrightson
After finishing that project, Jones turned to completing the fourth issue of IDW Publishing's Frankenstein, Alive, Alive! The miniseries by Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson -- calling back to Bernie Wrightson's 1983 Frankenstein adaptation -- was unfinished at the time of Wrightson’s death last year, but before he passed, he asked his friend Jones to finish it. The issue is available now, and Jones was kind enough to share his memories and thoughts about Len Wein, plus his friend and “art dad” Bernie Wrightson.
CBR: How did you end up finishing Frankenstein Alive, Alive?
Kelley Jones: When Bernie retired and said he just couldn’t do it anymore, he let Steve Niles know and he let Scott Dunbier and Chris Ryall at IDW know that he would like it if I would finish it. He was very kind. He came to me. The times I’d sat with him and talked, we had a lot in common beyond comics or horror. Things as seemingly odd as the fact that we both like watching old Julia Child cooking shows while we work. I had mentioned that and he almost fell out of his chair, because he was doing the same thing. There was a lot of that.
I had really one of those great moments you don’t expect where he broke down my run on Batman for me. He had seen them, he had read them, and he was telling me how much he liked it. All these little details in them that he noticed. I put all these things that I figure no one else will notice, but he did and that shocked me. I simply didn’t expect anyone to, and I didn’t expect that level of affection from him. I remember sitting next to him at a show once and he was telling me how he could see I was spotting blacks as a way to convey where the eye goes, textural stuff, and he was saying that no one does that anymore.
I could see that he had already put me in a position where he felt I could do it. He once said to me that maybe we could do something together. I had told him I would love to ink him, and he had said that’s funny because I’d love for you to pencil something and I could ink part of it. It made me sad because for an artist to retire, there’s got to be reasons other than they just don’t want to do it anymore. At the same time, I said, of course I’ll do it.
It was a terrible year last year to lose both he and Len [Wein]. At that time I was working with Len on Swamp Thing, of all things. When [Bernie] asked, I wanted to see up close what original work he had gotten done on it. Just to see, does he push a line does he pull a line, where does he build out from? I wanted to imitate that. He had done thumbnails, so all the layouts are there. Some are pretty well drawn, others are just breakdowns, but Bernie was all and is massively about composition. He is all about finding that one perfect moment to convey whatever that is, so I didn’t want to lose any of that. Guys at that level make it effortless. I know they took years to get to that point and he may not say it was effortless for him, but it looks effortless to me.
He had thumbnailed the entire fourth issue and drew a few pages of the book.
He had a couple pages that were penciled, one that he had inked. He had thumbnailed them all so you knew exactly where something was, you knew exactly what you had to do. It’s all there. The thing that amazed me was the amount of detail that went into his preliminary work. Not a lot of sketches -- the guy just sat down and drew. It was so in his head. That can be intimidating, because he clearly had very defined ideas as to what he wanted. Every step was building towards that. From his pencil work to his line work to his placing of blacks to his placing of tones were all part of this thinking process. He wasn’t just winging it.
Then he would have moments of inspiration where he would just go off and get into some part of one of these pieces. Especially with toning, because that you can’t really lay that out; you just have to know something’s going to be there in the wash. He nailed all these things so strong that it took me about a week to dive into it. I went through his career and found things that were similar. I wanted to stay within his style, to stay within his way of thinking. Thankfully he left enough where it is him, and even if it was a fully realized drawings or a small layout, it’s all there because he was so good at knowing how to set himself up. All I did was say, I know the surface qualities but what I really want to do is get to know all these aesthetic choices he would make that made him different from every other horror artist. Again, it’s always quiet. There’s not a lot of violence in his work.
The final issue opens and closes with these full page images, and they are both these quiet, atmospheric moments.
Bernie had always said, that’s where the emotion lies. Shock is brief but the emotion, the attention, the sadness of something, he was always very attracted to that. We had talked about the first time we saw Frankenstein. I said the first time it scared the hell out of me because I was a little kid, and the second time I felt so sorry for him and it quit being scary. He said that was exactly it. The first time he kicks the door open and is grunting, that’s pretty scary, but the second time you realize they’re mean to him. Then you start rooting for him. He said, that’s because you and I think the same. He said that several times to me and I always thought he was just being really kind. After the Julia Child thing, I went, maybe he’s right. [Laughs]
He once told me that there’s nothing that really scares him anymore. He gets startled, but nothing that puts terror into you. I said, I bet you I can find something. I sent him a movie and wouldn’t tell him anything about it, I just said to watch it at night. If it doesn’t scare you, then OK, but I bet that this will terrify you. And it will shock you that it’s not modern. I had a copy of the 1989 British television version of The Woman in Black. It’s not the movie at all. It’s completely different. I sent it to him and a few days later, it did. He said it was invigorating for him to see that. It was to me too. It’s available on YouTube now.
The scary stuff scared him too; that’s why he did it. That’s all the stuff I was thinking when I was doing Frankenstein. He was thinking, "This is really sad, this is really lonely. This is very tragic." That’s how he went about doing it. That’s his career.
He’s always been known as a great horror artist, but I would say that sadness and loneliness are at heart of all his work.
A lot of people who do horror go for blood and guts. That’s a car accident. That’s not what horror is. Do those elements happen? Certainly they do. Bernie was the best ax murderer artist that will ever be. But it’s not about what’s happening then as it is about the horror just after and leading up to it. That’s what made him unique and wonderful and special. To this day the greatest comic I’ve ever read was Swamp Thing #2. It’s everything that Bernie was about.
I wanted to ask about Swamp Thing, because you drew one miniseries and then you and Len Wein were going to start another when he got sick and passed away.
Len had said to me early on, what do you think of Swamp Thing? I didn’t know what that meant. I said, well you’ll probably disagree but I still think it’s Alec Holland. [Laughs] I think it’s him and he was turned into a monster. That’s how I was introduced to it.
Len loved that. He said, "That’s how I’m doing it. I want to go back to horror. I want it to be him in the swamp. I want it to be that kind of a book." I did those Convergence issues and then we did the first miniseries. Len was so funny, he was always saying to DC, "These things are selling. Just make it a monthly." He’d always tell them, "It’s found money! Nobody expects anything from it but we’re in the top 50, just let us do it." One of the last times I spoke with him he said, "I want you to know over the past 25 years, this is the most fun I’ve had." That was the last time I spoke to him. A few weeks later he passed away. It was sad. He just physically couldn’t work anymore. He just got wore out by illness.
Len told me that he honestly felt that every day in comics he had a good day -- except the day he found out Bernie had passed. All of that was in my head when I was doing the Swamp Thing Winter Special. Rebecca Taylor, the editor of the book, had called me up and we were trying to figure out ways to do it. I said, I could talk to Len on the phone, because that was how we generally did it anyway. I said, I can talk to him about what’s going to happen and work out a plot and then he can dialogue it. I’ll try to make it as easy as possible, but even that was too hard for him. When he passed, I had penciled those pages. Len was so excited writing, I don’t think people noticed it, but you’ll see that there are two page 12s. During production I asked, should I edit one, but they said, "Just draw it." God bless DC, because it was just beautiful.
They were wonderful, genuine people. That was a long rough year, but to be lucky enough to be friends with them -- much less for them to choose you. This past fall and winter my wife said, you seem very sad. I went from doing the Swamp Thing Winter Special to Bernie’s Frankenstein, so that was a long stretch. It was all to honor them as much as you can. I don’t mean to be sad about it because Swamp Thing was a delight, and the love of Bernie’s life was Frankenstein. I just want those things to come out and not be screw-ups. One half of it’s over because the Winter Special did very well, and it went back to press. I’m just hoping that when people see Frankenstein similarly, they’ll see that every effort was done to make it Bernie.