Bernie Wrightson: Beauty in the Grotesque

“His eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me.”                                            FRANKENSTEIN, Chapter V. Words by Mary Shelly, art by Bernie Wrightson

When I was in high school I spent seven months convincing the librarian to let me buy a book from the school library. There were two copies on the shelf, and according to the cards inside the covers, I was the only person to check either out in over 20 years, and I had done so many times. It was a copy of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and it contained the most beautiful, moving, and upsetting illustrations I had ever seen, by an artist named Bernie Wrightson. It was long out of print at the time, and I desperately had to have it. It’s sitting in my lap right now, as I write this.dcss1As a little kid, I was obsessed with Swamp Thing. I had the toys, I loved the movies, I loved the cartoon, and I read all the beat up copies of the comics I could find in my Dad’s collection. In Middleschool, I rediscovered the comics, and got a collection of the whole original run by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, and that was when I realized just how God damned great the art was. That was when I learned his name. Bernie’s Swamp Thing was dripping with so much mood and atmosphere you could almost smell it. I didn’t read the more famous Alan Moore run until college, and as much as I loved it, it was always missing Bernie Wrightson.frankensteinBut high school was when I stumbled on that illustrated  Frankenstein, having never heard of it before. And not only was it Bernie Wrightson, but it was Bernie Wrightson like I’d never seen him before. This wasn’t a horror comic, this were gorgeous, achingly beautiful, lovingly rendered works of art. Legitimate art. They were like magnificent woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer, images rendered in brilliant spectrums of light and shadow, composed of millions of fine, sharp microcuts of crisp black lines. They captured movement, and life, moments of immense triumph and melancholy frozen in time. I borrowed that book from the library and renewed it over and over, pouring over those pages in awe of the beauty of those images.

Bernie Wrightson (in the green shirt on the left) as drawn by his friend Neal Adams in Batman #237

We lost Bernie Wrightson earlier this week. After a long fight with brain cancer, he’s finally gone on to his reward. I like to think that somewhere right now Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood, and Jack Kirby are asking him “How’ja do that?”

He is survived by his wife and three sons, as well as a body of work overflowing with iconic images from his work in Creepy and Eerie, to Swampthing. From his Dark Tower, Creepshow, and Cycle of the Werewolf work for Stephen King, to his movie posters and album covers. And of course my favorite, the fifty some illustrations he spent seven years perfecting for Frankenstein. There are precious few artists as prolific, and yet consistently good as he was. You don’t get two artists like that in a life time, the world will never see his like again.

bernifrank2Nobody could beautify the grotesque quite like he did. He had a unique ability, particularly in Frankenstein and Cycle of the Werewolf, to depict weather like no one else, you could feel the sting of the wind and rain coming off those images. His artwork has a rare tangibility to it, you can feel the texture of the trees, smell the autumn air, taste the acrid, sweet, rotting of the leaves on the back of your tongue. The cover of Frankenstein is staring up at me right now. Cold light spilling across the shelves and tables of a lab, refracted in a thousand glass instruments, as an enormous creation of dead tissue brought to life confronts it’s fearless, defiant creator.

I wonder how much he saw of himself in that.


How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can the eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word.”

-Stan Brakhage, Metephors on Vision





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