Year of the Artist, Day 31: Bernie Wrightson, Part 1 – Swamp Thing #1
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bernie Wrightson, and the issue is Swamp Thing #1, which was published by DC and is cover dated October/November 1972. This scan is from the trade paperback Roots of the Swamp Thing, part of DC Comics Classic Library, which was published in 2009. Enjoy!
To my eternal shame, I don’t own a ton of Bernie Wrightson comics, but I do find his evolution over 40 years interesting, so I figured I owned enough to do some decent posts on his work. This trade collects House of Secrets #92, which is the earliest example of his work that I own, but Swamp Thing #1 is a bit more visually interesting, so I thought I’d look at some of what he does in this issue, which introduced our shambling green friend (well, the modern version, not the late Victorian one in HoS #92) to the comics world and changed Mike Sterling’s life forever.
Wrightson was 23 when he drew this, which makes his command over the page more impressive, as he uses several clever techniques in this issue that heighten the mood Len Wein is going for. This big panel is a good example of that. Alec and Linda Holland enter their new laboratory, and while it’s supposed to be a happy occasion, we already know it’s not going to be for long (Swamp Thing has already shown up to explain that men killed him, and this panel takes place in a flashback). Even though we know it’s not going to end well, Wrightson takes the cues of Wein’s script and makes this, visually, an eerie harbinger. Wein has Alec mention Frankenstein, which Swamp Thing can easily be (and has been) compared to, and Wrightson gives us a lab full of the kind of glass tubes and repositories that we’d see in a 1930s horror movie. It’s a cliché, certainly, but Wrightson is trying to subvert that a bit because Alec and Linda are working on something that will benefit humanity (yes, so was Victor Frankenstein, but reanimating the dead doesn’t seem to have much of an upside, while helping plants grow in the desert obviously does), so the fact that we know Alec and Linda are “good” people, the lab equipment evokes the mad scientist trope, and that clash of tones suffuses the entire issue. Meanwhile, Wrightson places Alec and Linda at the back of the panel, douses them with a lot of spot blacks, and therefore both shrinks them in importance relative to the lab equipment and darkens their purpose, foreshadowing all the bad things that are about to happen. This is a common technique, but it’s still a good one. Wrightson also shows the two of them walking, which bends them just a bit so they’re even more insignificant than if they had stood in the threshold, triumphantly surveying their domain. It’s a nice touch.
This is another nicely designed series of panels. Obviously, in Panel 1 Wrightson leads our eyes from Alec to the two thugs standing on the right side of the panel, and he also does a good job with the body language, which links the three men. Alec points an accusatory finger at Ferrett, who holds his hands up submissively but tells Bruno to “convince” Alec to take his offer for the bio-restorative formula, and we see Bruno immediately begin to curl his hands to grab Alec, which leads us back to the main character. As much as Wrightson pushes our eyes from left to right, the panel is a closed circuit, too, which is neat. Bruno doesn’t get to do anything, though, because the hippie thug sees someone coming toward the barn – it’s Matt Cable, by the way – and the bad guys need to hot foot it. Wrightson uses spot blacks in this panel to darken the hippie thug’s face, because he’s eeeevil. The tilted window seems like nothing more than a stylistic choice. In Panel 3, Wrightson again puts Alec and Linda in the back of the panel, in semi-darkness, again foreshadowing a bit. The placement of the three thugs (they’re like Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar!) simulates movement, so that our eyes flow quickly over the three as they become bigger, with Ferrett in front because he’s the most “important” bad guy. It’s another interesting trick by Wrightson.
I put these two sequences together because they’re both famous but also because Wrightson mirrors them, and I have to think it’s deliberate. These occur with one page in between them, but the echo of the first one hangs in the air when we turn the page and see its reverse. It’s pretty clever. In the first sequence, Wrightson shows Alec running from the destroyed barn, and you’ll notice he shows the house, the symbol of domesticity and safety, in the background of Panel 2, and Alec is, of course, running away from it. He goes into the swamp with a horrifying “hssss” as the fire goes out. It’s interesting that you could easily skip from the end of Panel 3 and the words “… then disappears soundlessly beneath its bubbling surface …” and go right to Panel 1 of the next sequence with “… and into the light once more!” Wein couldn’t have planned it that way too carefully, but it’s neat. Alec goes into the bog from the left to the right, and he emerges from the left to the right, which is natural as that’s the way we read but also nicely reverses the “death” of Alec Holland with his resurrection. Wrightson, naturally, changes the background from the “normal” house to the murky swamp, and he also changes the posture of his main character – in the first sequence, Alec is running, so he’s bent a bit, but still upright, while in the second sequence, Swamp Thing is hunched and shambling. It’s a really nice way to contrast the way Alec went into the swamp and the way he came out of it.
This final sequence is another nice “cinematic” technique similar to what we saw in the first panel above. Wrightson keeps the “camera” relatively stable, right over Ferrett’s left shoulder, as he looks at Swamp Thing, who’s dispatching a bad guy. He creates a diagonal line that draws us “upward” toward Ferrett in the final panel, when he’s out of bullets and out of time. This is a simple trick, but it’s very effective. Placing Swamp Thing so far away in Panel 1 means that every step he takes toward Ferrett creates tension, as we hold our breath and clench our fists as the monster comes toward the bad guy. The way Wrightson designed Swampy – with those hooded eyes and mouth – means that he can shadow most of his face until he arrives at Ferrett, at which point he draws in the red eyes and the grim mouth. It’s very nicely done.
If Sam Kieth didn’t read this book when he was young and take a lot of his early style from it, I’ll eat my hat. Wrightson was obviously very influential on this comic, but he didn’t last very long on it. He moved on, and so will we in tomorrow’s installment! Be here! Or be in the archives, which are always fun to check out!