R.I.P. Bernie Wrightson, legendary horror illustrator & master of the macabre for more than a half-century

By on March 29, 2017

Night Flight were saddened to learn about the passing of Bernie “Berni” Wrightson, the legendary horror illustrator and master of the macabre for more than a half-century, who passed away on March 18, 2017, at the age of 68.

Wrightson — who cheerfully greeted visitors to his Facebook page with a warm “Welcome, and stay eerie!” — died at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center in Austin, Texas, after a long battle with brain cancer (he’d been diagnosed in 2014 and had recently undergone brain surgery).

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Wrightson said that his most personal work was the approximately fifty detailed pen-and-ink illustrations he did to accompany an edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which he talks about in this clip from a BBC documentary we’ve found.

Wrightson has said that it was an unpaid project:

“I’ve always had a thing for Frankenstein, and it was a labor of love. 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.”

He is also well known as one of the creators of the popular DC Comics character Swamp Thing, which was made into an 1982 action-comedy of the same name, directed by Wes Craven, starring Ray Wise (of Twin Peaks fame), Louis Jourdan, and Adrienne Barbeau. Check out the trailer above.

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An excerpt of the cover of Swamp Thing No. 9, (1972), featuring the DC Comics character created by Berni Wrightson and Len Wein. (DC Comics)

His 1983 graphic novel adaptation of George A. Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow led to a long and productive working relationship with King that saw him produce original illustrations for the books Cycle Of The Werewolf, Wolves Of Calla, and the restored edition of the King classic The Stand.

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Creepshow (1982, George Romero)

Wrightson’s first published comic book work was in DC’s House of Mystery #179 published in 1968, although he also worked for Marvel Comics and Warren Publishing, where his work, including original material and adaptations of stories by Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, appeared in Creepy and Eerie magazines.

Wrightson and co-creator Len Wein’s Swamp Thing — whose features were deformed by a chemical explosion — first appeared in an issue of House of Secrets in 1971.

Swamp Thing has since then starred in feature films, in 1982 (directed by Wes Craven) and The Return of Swamp Thing (1989), and Swamp Thing also had his own USA Network television series, airing from 1990 to 1993.

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Wrightson — who was born as Albert Wrightson, in Dundalk, Maryland, on Oct. 27, 1948 — also provided the illustrations for numerous horror magazines and novels, including Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein, and several more by Stephen King.

He also contributed character designs for films, including creatures, aliens and ghouls for The Mist, Galaxy Quest and the original Ghostbusters.

Wrightson continued to do interior backup stories for DC and a few covers for some magazines/indies, but it wasn’t until late 1970 when Marvel Comics stepped in and let Bernie do his first comic cover for Chamber of Darkness #7.

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His second Marvel cover would turn out to be Creatures on the Loose #10 was a collaboration with Jack Kirby.

Wrightson also did the cover for many comic book heroes, including Batman #241 (1972), Incredible Hulk #56 (1976) and Incredible Hulk #197 (1976), Superman #272 (1974), Doctor Strange/Silver Dagger Special Edition #1 (1983) and Spider-Man (1986) among many others.

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1983 Doctor Strange comic book cover art by Bernie Wrightson (Marvel Entertainment)

His death was announced by his wife, Liz Wrightson, who provided this wonderful overview of his career on Bernie Wrightson’s website:

Bernie “Berni” Wrightson (born October 27, 1948, Baltimore, Maryland, USA) was an American artist known for his horror illustrations and comic books.

He received training in art from reading comics, particularly those of EC, as well as through a correspondence course from the Famous Artists School. In 1966, Wrightson began working for The Baltimore Sun newspaper as an illustrator.

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Bernie Wrightson in 1971

The following year, after meeting artist Frank Frazetta at a comic-book convention in New York City, he was inspired to produce his own stories.

In 1968, he showed copies of his sequential art to DC Comics editor Dick Giordano and was given a freelance assignment.

Wrightson began spelling his name “Berni” in his professional work to distinguish himself from an Olympic diver named Bernie Wrightson, but later restored the final E to his name.

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His first professional comic work appeared in House of Mystery #179 in 1968. He continued to work on a variety of mystery and anthology titles for both DC and its principal rival, Marvel Comics.

In 1971, with writer Len Wein, Wrightson co-created the muck creature Swamp Thing for DC. He also co-created Destiny, later to become famous in the work of Neil Gaiman.

By 1974 he had left DC to work at Warren Publishing who were publishing black-and-white horror-comics magazines. There he produced a series of original work as well as adaptations of stories by H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.

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In 1975, Wrightson joined with fellow artists Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta, and Barry Windsor-Smith to form “The Studio,” a shared loft in Manhattan where the group would pursue creative products outside the constraints of comic book commercialism.

Though he continued to produce sequential art, Wrightson at this time began producing artwork for numerous posters, prints, calendars, and coloring books.

Wrightson spent seven years drawing approximately fifty detailed pen-and-ink illustrations to accompany an edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which the artist considers among his most personal work.

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Bernie Wrightson’s cover for Frankenstein, first edition cover, 1983

Wrightson drew the poster for the Stephen King-penned horror film Creepshow, as well as illustrating the comic book adaptation of the film.

This led to several other collaborations with King, including illustrations for the novella Cycle of the Werewolf, the restored edition of King’s apocalyptic horror epic, The Stand, and art for the hardcover editions of From a Buick 8 and Dark Tower V.

Wrightson has contributed album covers for a number of bands, including Meat Loaf.

The “Captain Sternn” segment of the animated film Heavy Metal is based on the character created by Wrightson for his award-winning short comic series of the same name.

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Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer cover art by Bernie Wrightson

Characters he worked on included Spiderman, Batman and The Punisher, and he provided painted covers for the DC comics Nevermore and Toe Tags, among many others.

Recent works include Frankenstein Alive Alive, Dead She Said , the Ghoul and Doc Macabre (IDW Publishing) all co-created with esteemed horror author Steve Niles, and several print/poster/sketchbooks series produced by Nakatomi.

As a conceptual artist, Bernie worked on many movies, particularly in the horror genre: well-known films include Ghostbusters, The Faculty, Galaxy Quest, Spiderman, and George Romero’s Land of the Dead, and Frank Darabont’s Stephen King film The Mist.

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Bernie Wrightson’s The Ghoul #2 page 12-13

Bernie lived in Austin, Texas with his wife Liz and two corgis – Mortimer and Maximillian. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, John and Jeffrey, one stepson, Thomas Adamson, and countless friends and fans.

A celebration of his life is planned for later this year.

R.I.P. Bernie Wrightson.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.