Ice Cream For Bedwetters #2

Bernie Wrightson

Bernie Wrightson died last week. He was 68.

Wrightson drew comic books like he was drafting the floorplan for a haunted house. Fastidious with detail — a critical eye might even say fussy. Wrightson’s art — especially the later Wrightson — is very consciously illustration, ornate and mannered. Baroque.

It’s not a style that carries a lot of currency today. This is partly because his approach didn’t lend itself to extended runs that can be easily reprinted. He did work for Warren’s black & white magazines in the 1970s, and National Lampoon. He filled his career with magazine work like that, one-off projects and brief runs, alternating with the occasional Hollywood and commercial projects. There were also a number of collaborations with Stephen King. Wrightson and King were a perfect match: born within a year of each other (King in ’47, Wrightson in ’48) both men shared the same formative interests — beginning with the pulpy horror and sci-fi of EC Comics and reaching backwards to the genres’ gothic roots.

Wrightson was throughout his career pulled back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, most famously in his 1983 illustrated edition of Shelley’s novel, but also in his most famous creation (along with Len Wein), Swamp Thing. Wrightson’s vision of Frankenstein’s monster is an amplification of his earlier work with DC’s swamp monster — both inherently noble souls trapped in monstrous bodies, forced into conflict with their surroundings as a result of the violent circumstances of their creation. Wrightson used his portrayal of these characters to communicate a very specific kind of horror — not the horror of running from the monster, but the horror of being the monster. In both cases the misbegotten product of human science is a victim of malicious intent, cast away from civilization and left alone to fight for survival.

The success of his early career enabled Wrightson to focus squarely on doing more fulfilling work outside of the constraints of monthly comics. The work of his middle period is far more detailed and elaborate than his early comics pages. It is also claustrophobic and hermetic: his Frankenstein illustrations are famous for their detail and craft, but also overwhelming. He was consciously trying to replicate the style of fin de siècle illustrators like Franklin Booth and J. C. Coil. After Frankenstein there’s a stiffness to his work, as if he were unable to shake the influence of Booth and Coil’s precise and deliberate linework. These techniques, adopted to replicate the woodcuts and engravings that were already falling out of use by the turn of the century, stuck around and gave his later comics work an stagy quality.

Take for example the 1998 Batman / Aliens crossover. Wrightson surely had his pick of projects, and if there absolutely had to be a comic book called Batman / Aliens, it’s difficult to imagine a better choice than Wrightson to draw it. He loved the assignment and it showed, with some of the strongest work of his later career. The stiffness of his later period is present, but his storytelling instincts are still strong.

Take a look at this page. The first thing that jumps out at the reader is that every panel on the page takes the eye from left-to-right, which has the effect of channeling the reader’s attention directly through the action. Only the center panel breaks the pattern, pulling the reader around roughly 145° from over the alien’s right shoulder to the POV of the poor sap about to get eaten. It seems like it should be a jarring effect, but somehow it works because the center panel grounds the composition.

For contrast, look at this page from 1972’s Swamp Thing #2. Here’s Wrightson — inking himself, as he usually did — very different from the Batman / Aliens page from 25 years later, but still recognizably himself. Behold, Swamp Thing chained to a crucifix and being carried to a mysterious castle by a group of hideous Un-Men:

Certainly a lot less detail than either of the previous examples, but still quite evocative. He’s more comfortable using spotted blacks to guide the eye through the composition. He also uses color better here than in the later Batman story — the later work holds the color uneasily. (Matt Hollingsworth’s early computer coloring has not aged well.) Batman / Aliens would look a lot better in black & white.

But we need to see Swamp Thing in glorious color, so we can pick out his benign earth tones set against both the cool blues of the mountain landscape and the satanic hues of the Un-Men. More filigree would subtract from the effectiveness of the image as an element of the story, especially given the limitations of printing technology in 1972.

The next page, featuring Swamp Thing freeing himself from his chains and throttling back a horde of monsters, is a model of storytelling economy. The page communicates both the urgent desperation of Swamp Thing’s predicament as well as the macabre, moldering details of the gothic castle. It’s claustrophobic, a choice that accentuates Swamp Thing’s discomfort at being indoors — he’s a creature of the bayou, after all. Wrightson uses the figure of Swamp Thing as a way of focusing the reader’s attention down and through the page. Again, most of the action proceeds left to right, and when the scene switches — as with the 180° turn between the penultimate and final panels — it doesn’t feel jarring because you’re going directly along Swampy’s line of sight. That’s an excellent trick — using your character’s eyes to telegraph to the reader the direction of the action.

As is often the case, the early Wrightson proved the most influential. Certainly, every artist to draw Swamp Thing after his creator left the book has had to reckon with his immense shadow. Sam Keith’s art on the first five issues of The Sandman in 1989 is similarly indebted to Wrightson, and between Keith and Steve Bissette’s work on Swamp Thing’s 1980s series, the “house style” of DC’s early pre-Vertigo horror books was set firmly in the mold of Wrightson’s early 1970s work.

The detail-intensive illustration of his mid-career, while highly regarded, produced fewer imitators, for much the same reason that it took Wrightson himself seven years to produce the 47 images of his Frankenstein adaptation. At a certain point too much detail bogs down a comics page, and it’s a lot easier to appreciate detail in a static image than when you’re trying to pull the reader’s eye down the page in as efficient a manner as possible. Wrightson could do that well. You want to read that Swamp Thing page. You want to find out what happens next in the story, because Wrightson takes great care to ensure that each panel leads inexorably into the next. Horror is a lot more than static images of the grotesque. Suspense relies on tension, and Wrightson’s later illustrative work — while far more interesting to admire — lacks tension.

Anyone wishing to understand how to successfully pace and block a comics page could do worse than to study the early Wrightson. There’s not much to be gleaned from studying his Frankenstein drawings other than the sensation of marveling at a craftsman at the top of his powers. They’re perfect in a way that leaves no room for doubt, but similarly inimitable in a way that leaves no room for interpretation.

This is supposed to be a weekly-ish column. I know the first was two weeks ago. I wanted to write about Wrightson but needed a few days to think of something to say. We should be back on schedule next week with a run-down of “The Clone Conspiracy.”

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