It’s always tough writing about the passing of a legend. Last year, we lost one of the greatest modern cartoonists – in the most traditional sense – when Darwyn Cooke left us. And just a few days ago it’s someone who elevated comic book to a whole new level of visual sophistication the likes of which has never been seen before or ever since. I’m talking about none other than Bernie Wrightson, whose artwork is partly responsible for introducing elements to the medium that went above and beyond the usual “muscled men beating on things” trope. And that is warrant enough to place him among the greats.
Mr. Wrightson, along with luminaries like the always magnificent Michael Kaluta, the fantastic Barry Windsor-Smith, and the amazing Jeffrey Catherine Jones are just a few of these individuals who approached the comic book medium with a taste for the majestic and the macabre, and an eye for stunning yet subtle detail in their work. So, for fear of neglecting to mention this later, let me just say that Bernie Wrightson is truly a big loss, less so for the industry (which frankly will survive nonetheless with their stories of supermen and wolverines) than it is for comics as a legitimate art medium. In other words, we’ve lost a true visionary with his passing: a huge blow that leaves this world with fewer individuals whose respect for the medium is reflected in their artworks.
Yeah, yeah, most will probably remember Bernie as the man who, along with Len Wein, created Swamp Thing for DC Comics. And though that is a humongous understatement, not to mention it does a disservice to the man, we can’t blame fans for doing so. After all, Alec Holland is one of those more well-known mainstream characters out there. Plus, Swamp Thing isn’t even technically a superhero; we have today’s current trends to blame for turning him into that. Regardless of what you or I think of the state of the mainstream comic book industry, there’s no denying that Bernie left an indelible mark on it.
For all intents and purposes, Mr. Wrightson is what you’d call an artist’s artist. Sure, fanboys drool and wet themselves all over the idea of that copy of Swamp Thing, but that thankfully isn’t what he’ll be best remembered for. The thing is that those who have a deeper appreciation for the man’s work well past the serialized adventures of the “protector of the Green” almost always refer to his work on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And if you’re familiar with it, you’ll understand why his contemporaries and the other artists that followed him hold him in such high regard. Those illustrations he did for one of literature’s most tragic and fearsome figures (Frankenstein’s monster) are far and away from his work on the funny books. These were works that screamed sophisticated horror, the kind that we can legitimately say belongs not to museums, but to schools and studios so that others can learn from it.
The long and short of it is, Bernie Wrightson’s art was, is, and will continue to be a source of inspiration for future generations of artists out there, Swamp Thing or not.