Spotlight on Bernie Wrightson

CBR News attended the Big Apple Con in New York City earlier this month, where comics historian Peter Sanderson interviewed legendary horror illustrator Bernie Wrightson. The artist's career in comics has spanned 40 years, from co-creating "Swamp Thing" for DC to artwork on "City of Others" for Dark Horse," as well as producing concept designs for feature films.

Sanderson started out by asking Wrightson about upcoming projects, which included the third issue of "Dead, She Said" from IDW Publishing. When asked what the series was about, Wrightson replied, "It's about a dead detective and, um, giant ants. That's all your going to get out of me. You're going to have to read it."

Wrightson is also working on Vertigo's new "House of Mystery" series, which he said was "like going home for me," as Wrightson's first published work was of course an issue of the original "House of Mystery" for DC.

Just relased is the trade paperback for Dark Horse's "City of Others," another series Wrightson worked on with "Dead, She Said" writer Steve Niles. Wrightson described the series as "about a guy who's a professional assassin, a cold-blooded conscienceless killer, who becomes a vampire and discovers his humanity by becoming a monster."

Sanderson said he read on Wrightson's website that he was planning a re-issue of his illustrated "Frankenstein," a book originally released 25 years ago with over 40 illustrations to accompany the prose of Mary Shelley. "We're doing the finishing touches on it now," confirmed Wrightson. "It'll come out at the end of October, published by Dark Horse. It's very exciting because it's the first time it will be in bookstores. It's going to be a beautiful new hardcover edition, with everything from the previous incarnations, but turned up to 11. A lot of the reproductions are from scans of the original artwork, as much of it as we could get." Released on the comic's 25th anniversary, "Bernie Rightson's Frankenstein" will be priced at "about 30 bucks."

Sanderson questioned Wrightson about his infatuation with Frankenstein and the influence for his illustrations in the book. "I've always had a thing for Frankenstein, and it was a labor of love," the artist said. "It was not an assignment, it was not a job. I would do the drawings in between paying gigs, when I had enough to be caught up with bills and groceries and what-not. I would take three days here, a week there, to work on the Frankenstein volume. It took about seven years."

As Sanderson pointed out, Wrightson was influenced by the pen and ink masters of the early 20th and late 19th centurie,s and Wrightson named artists like Franklin Booth, Jason Cole and Edwin Abbey."I wanted the book to look like an antique; to have the feeling of woodcuts or steel engravings, something of that era," said Wrightson.

Sanderson expressed doubt of whether the comic book artists of today were influenced by those early illustrators and asked Wrightson whether he thought they should. "They don't seem to anymore," he answered. "I came from a generation of artists who admired Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, guys whose heroes did not come from comic books or comic strips, because there was no such thing. They were coming from the tradition of Howard Pyle, great ghost writers. It's a shame to me to see that young comic book artists seem to draw upon more from only other comic book artists, because there's so much more out there."

Sanderson wondered whether Wrightson had any affinity for other archetypal monsters like Dracula. "I've never been able to get through 'Dracula,' from sheer boredom," Wrightson confessed. "It just never appealed to me. I'm not making a judgment of Bram Stoker or Dracula or anything. Of all the archetypal monsters, Frankenstein was at the top of the list for me, followed by Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Mummy . . Dracula's pretty much at the bottom. I think it's just a personal preference. Frankenstein looks more interesting than Dracula. In terms of art, he's more fun to draw."

Wrightson was then questioned by Sanderson about his work producing concept designs for films and asked him how he got involved in the motion picture business. "The first film I worked on was 'Ghostbusters,'" the artist said. "That came about because the associate producer, a man named Michael Gross, who before he was a movie producer was an art director at the National Lampoon. I had done some work with him at the Lampoon, and he kept a file of every artist that he ever worked with. When he became a producer and was put in charge of putting together a conceptual artist team, he went through his file and pulled my name out and remembered that I could do stuff that was scary and funny at the same time. We always had a good working relationship,"

Among Wrightson's "Ghosbusters" designs were the librarian ghost in the beginning, the cab driver, and certain elements of the terror dogs.

Though he illustrated designs for the Green Goblin in "Spider-Man" along with other artists, none of Wrightson's work was used in the film. "Our Goblin was more like the guy in the comic book. Very agile and slinky; basically a guy in a skin-tight outfit, kind of like Spiderman himself. I don't think any of us were too impressed with the final Robocop look," said Wrightson.

With the advent of CGI animation being used so much in modern films, especially superhero movies, Sanderson asked whether CGI affected Wrightson's designs. "Not really. It all starts on paper," the artist explained. "If you look at the old stop-motion stuff, like 'King Kong,' there's that kind of slight jerkiness to it. It has the signature of that particular technique, which has its own charm. CGI has its own signature also and I think most people can spot it. CGI really has no weight or depth. And the CGI artists have to be very, very good at their job to give it weight and dimension, so that it seems to be part of the real world. A really good example of CGI work would be 'Jurassic Park,' the first one. Those dinosaurs looked absolutely real. Stan Winston built some life-like dinosaurs and they used some pieces of that in the film, but they found that CGI just worked better and that it could cover a lot of the mistakes. CGI can enhance or augment what is done in the physical world."

Wrightson was also attached to "Ghost Rider" at one point. "It went through several different incarnations and I was working with a director called Steve Norrington, who did 'Blade.' He was also an effects technician on 'Aliens.' And his take on 'Ghost Rider' was a very different take than what the movie ended up being. The Ghost Rider was really demonic and he would actually change into a monster, a demon. And his motorcycle would change into a demonic motorcycle. We really had fun designing these almost Geigeresque kind of concepts. And he left the project not long after that. His views were maybe too extreme for what Marvel wanted."

Sanderson then asked Wrightson about the challenges of working on the adaptation of Stephen King's "The Mist." The artist explained, "The film had been in the works for at least ten years. Frank Darabont, who's a friend of mine, had the rights from Stephen King locked up for about 10 or 12 years. Other people have come along wanting to make it and he's said, 'oh, no, no, this other guy has the rights.' It's very sweet, very nice of the man to wait that long for it to be made. This was a very exciting project for me because it's one of my favorite horror stories."

"What were you trying to get at?" asked Sanderson.

"First, the monsters should be scary and second, they should be somehow different than every other giant tentacle that you've ever seen, or every other giant bug that you've ever seen," Wrightson said. "It involves more fine tuning than a radical rethinking. You reach a point in designing a bug in which it no longer looks like a bug and more like an alien thing. The audience won't accept it, they don't know what they're seeing. It has to look enough like a bug to be recognizable, but it also has to be a monster, it has to be scary. It's a fine line. We went through many versions of all the designs, of all the creatures."

After asking him about his occasional foray into superheroes, drawing Batman and The Punisher, Sanderson asked inquired about Captain Sternn, a character Wrightson created in the late '70s for Heavy Metal magazine. "Captain Sternn is currently being developed into something; a TV series or feature film," said Wrightson. Sanderson asked if this would mean a re-release of the Captain Sternn comics. "I hope so. The problem is there doesn't seem to be any original film for the comics, it doesn't seem to exist anymore. I don't have all the originals. I don't know what we're going to do for reprinting these."

Sanderson asked Wrightson if EC Comics was an influence early on and referenced the furor over the horror books detailed in "Ten Cent Plague" by David Hajdu. "Those were immensely attractive, because it was a guilty pleasure," said the artist. "My mom would find them and throw them out, because they were serious trash. Superhero comics were okay. My dad was a WWII vet and he loved the war comics, my mother liked the romance comics. There was a place for comics in my house, except for the EC Comics and it wasn't so much reading them, it was just looking at the pictures. I was like anybody else, I was impatient and I would flip to the last page to see what that horrible last panel was in all those EC stories, the horrible twist-ending . . what horrible, twisted unspeakable thing have they done this time."

Sanderson asked why Wrightson was drawn to "these horrible, unspeakable things" and not "the power fantasies" of superhero books. "It seemed a lot more real to me than a superhero," Wrightson said. "I loved Superman comics as a kid, but at the same time, I knew I could never be Superman because I didn't come from Krypton and lived under Earth's yellow sun which gave me powers. That just doesn't happen. Batman was different, you know. He was a real guy who turned himself into Batman and has no special powers. He just had this great physical conditioning and was very intelligent. It was like, yeah, you could grow up and be Batman.

"Yeah, the characters in EC Comics didn't have super powers. They were just average people who just happened to, after being murdered and laying in the ground and rotting would rise up and come back. That was a lot more believable to me than Superman. Maybe this could happen!" he said with a grin, as laughter erupted from the audience.

After Sanderson asked him whether he liked any current artists, Wrightson admitted he didn't have the time to keep up with all of them and didn't know their names. Sanderson said, "you could argue that most of the Vertigo line at DC descends from your Swamp Thing."

"I'm a direct descendant of Frank Frazetta and Jack Davis, most of the EC guys, and I think there is a progression and a chain of influence," Wrightson explained. "I'm always very flattered when someone comes up and says, 'you'd like so and so, he's a Bernie Wrightson clone.' That's how you learn, you know, you learn how to draw from copying your favorite artist. And if you're serious and you continue drawing, you begin to lose that, it becomes less and less apparent over time. This happened with my generation of artists. You know, Jeff Jones, myself, we're all the bastard stepchildren of Frank Frazetta. And if you look back, our stuff was a lot more Frazetta-ish when we were younger."

Back in the seventies, Wrightson had a studio with fellow artists Jeffrey Jones, Barry-Windsor Smith and Michael William Kaluta. Sanderson asked whether they considered themselves "the Frazetta movement." "Yeah, we were cocky as hell. We thought of ourselves as the Beatles of Fantasy art," Wrightson laughed. "And it sounds great, but if you're the Beatles of anything, then you realize somebody has to be Ringo. That's how I thought of myself. Everybody else was drawing this very romantic stuff and I was there drawing heads on a fence and just giggling because I thought it was the funniest thing."

Wrightson discussed the legendary Halloween parties he held while working on the East Coast. "I was fortunate that I had a big studio, a big room twenty by fourty feet. And of course, it was already decorated. I had skeletons and things in jars, and you know, things that I liked. All I really had to do was move the furniture out of the way so people could dance, and buy some beer. And it was great. The party was really all the people who came and all the time they spent on their costumes and the fun that they had. I really had nothing to do with it. I just had to give them a place to do it.

One year, we actually had two Jesuses and one of them actually had a cross. He made a cross out of foam rubber and this stuff that you line your kitchen cupboards with, and he just dragged it around all night. There were too many to describe in detail."

The floor was then opened up to audience questions and the first was about "Ghost Rider" and whether Wrightson derived the same satisfaction from work that was "only seen by a few people" as opposed to "a published or finished product."

"It depends on the project itself," Wrightson answered. "Specifically, with 'Ghost Rider,' I didn't care if the movie got made or not, because 'Ghost Rider' has no resonance for me. I never read the comic book. I thought it was this silly, stupid idea; you know, this flaming skull. It was basically a job.

"There was one movie that Stuart Gordon, director of 'Re-animator,' was going to make, of another Lovecraft story, 'Shadow over Innsmouth,' which is one of my favorite all-time horror stories. I did a lot of designs for that, a lot of work, and the movie never got made and that was a big disappointment."

Sanderson then asked Wrightson about his long history of working on Stephen King projects and whether he'd worked with the novelist personally. "No. I don't call him, he doesn't call me," said the artist. "We had a few conversations. But, he's great to work with. It stared with 'Creepshow.' Someone made a mistake when making 'Creepshow.' There was always supposed to be a comic book, an actual comic book to tie-in to the movie. The artist they thought was going to be doing that misunderstood and thought he was only doing the comic book work that appeared in the movie. So Stephen King called me just out of the clear blue sky and said, 'Hey, I'm in Pittsburgh and we're doing this movie, comic book, etc. Can you draw and letter and color a comic book in three months?' And I said, 'Aw, hell yeah.' This is Stephen King. Of course I can do it. And I pretty much did.

"King didn't write a comic book script for 'Creepshow.' What I had was a screenplay that the filmmakers were using. It was like a phonebook, it was really, really thick. I think it was his first screenplay and he didn't know and was writing it more like a novel. So, I adapted that page by page and I would send him the pages as I was doing them, very rough pencils, you know, lines of dialogue scribbled in. And out of the whole comic book, he made maybe one change. Basically, I was adapting him, he had nothing wrong with it, and had nothing further to add. So, we had a really good working relationship. He described it to me: 'I like working with you because you don't tell me how to write and I won't tell you how to draw.'"

Another audience question concerned the ending of "The Mist," which was described as "crushingly depressing." "I couldn't think of another way to end the movie," Wrightson said. "Obviously, the way any story in a movie ends is just unsatisfying to an audience. When Frank told me what he wanted to do with the ending, I had to catch my breath. 'You can't be serious.' And I thought about it and it's what the story needs. I love it myself. Here is a horror movie that just really delivers. This is a horror movie in all the best sense of the word. You're kicked in the stomach. And, yeah, of course, it's not going to do well at the box office. 'Night of the Living Dead.' John Carpenter's 'The Thing.' And now "The Mist" are three great downbeat endings in horror movies. It's going to have a great afterlife on video and DVD."

The last question asked whether Wrightson was interviewed for the "Land of the Dead" DVD. Wrightson answered, "I don't remember. Somebody told me they me they saw me in the background the day a camera crew came into the KNB studio and I remember that day trying to stay away from the camera and some weasley, little guy looking for me. And I wanted to be in the movie. As a zombie or something. And in "The Mist." But, you know, they're making the movies away from Hollywood now and I can't really travel, not to be in a movie and stand around and be a dollar-a -ay zombie, as much as fun as that would be."

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