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Year of the Artist, Day 31: Bernie Wrightson, Part 1 – Swamp Thing #1

12-10-2013 05;08;21PM (2)

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.

12-10-2013 05;04;25PM

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.

12-10-2013 05;06;10PM

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.

12-10-2013 05;08;21PM

12-10-2013 05;09;36PM

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.

12-10-2013 05;11;22PM

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!

19 Comments

In reference to your final paragraph, I remember reading an interview in the early days of the internet where Sam Kieth said his direct influences were Bernie Wrightson and Frank Frazetta. I think he was saying that it put his work at a disadvantage due to the styles that were more popular at the time or in comparison to other Image creators or something like that.

I am so glad you are focusing on Wrightson. He is one my my favorite artists, and has been since I first saw his Swamp Thing work in 1980-ish on Nickelodeon’s Video Comics show.

I can’t wait to see what examples you go to next. There is so much good stuff from him over the next 10 years before his first hiatus from comics. I’d also be interested to hear your thoughts on his late 80s/early 90s works like The Cult and the Punisher book with Starlin.

Anyway, keep up the great series! With Ditko, Davis and Wrightson all touched on, it looks like you’re on track to hit my top 5 artists all in one go. Corben next?

Wrightson was a master even at the young age at which he drew this. Great craft and artistic styling that really propels the story and enhances the mood.

Bernie Wrightson’s artwork on Swamp Thing was the greatest artwork on a horror comic of all time and arguably one of the greatest runs by an illustrator in comics history. As excellent as Len Wein’s writing was on the series, Wrightson was the real star of that run.

Also a huge shame that the pre-Moore Swampy gets overlooked by nearly everyone nowadays. The Wrightson era was genuinely every bit as great as Moore’s run on the series.

Yep, I’m with Fred: Wrightson was a master pretty much from the get-go.

Someone that I wouldn’t mind seeing featured on the site at some point would be Nestor Redondo, aka The Guy Who Took Over For Bernie Wrightson After He Left Swamp Thing. In terms of raw technique he might have been Wrightson’s better, though his hyper-realistic work lacked the atmosphere that made Wrightson such a perfect fit on Swamp Thing. His pencils would prove to be even better suited to some of his other (unfortunately even more obscure) work, like Rima the Jungle Girl or various miscellania from the now little known publisher Pendulum. He also may or may not have done some non-English language comics, though the internet seems to lack concrete info on this so I can’t say for sure. Why this guy never became a superstar (unless he was just a huge pain in the ass to work with, which I suppose is always a possibility) is one of the most inexplicable mysteries in the history of the comics industry because he was one of its top masters.

I love Wrightson’s art. I don’t want to jump any guns here, as it may or may not show up on this feature, but my favorite work of Wrightson’s is his illustrated Frankenstein. He drew a bunch of pen & ink pieces to go along with the novel, and they’re beautiful. It’s not comics, but it’s worth checking out.

LouReedRichards

February 1, 2014 at 9:54 am

Another favorite of mine, at least his 70’s work.

I got a bunch of Swamp-Things at the first mini-con I went to in the late 80’s and they’ve been a favorite of mine ever since.

His brushwork is so good it’s almost inhuman.

This should be an interesting entry for you Burgas, much like Aparo, his 70’s work is awesome, but the later stuff… not so much. He really seemed to go down hill later in his career – to my eyes at least.

@Mike Loughlin – I got a copy of the Dark Horse reprinting of Frankenstein a couple of years ago. I’d seen bits and pieces of it over the years, but WOW! what a stunning piece of work.
It’s one of those books that you just love to hold, from the nice exterior fabric to the stitching, to say nothing of the fabulous artwork. It makes me feel a little like Gollum, it’s “My Precious”.

I’m not a big fan of overly detailed rendering, usually go for the simplified Toth/Mignola school of art, but when it’s this beautiful it’s hard to resist.

Man, I can’t wait to see Wrightson’s Batman & the Outsiders work later this week.

Mike: I don’t own his Frankenstein, but I do have a comic in which he draws the monster. And yes, I will be checking that out!

LouReedRichards: We’ll see if you disagree later in the week. I’m saying I agree or disagree with you, but I do think he’s uneven, but not awful. We shall see!

buttler: If he drew it, you know I’d show it! :)

I heard a market stall owner who sold comics once sold an issue of Swamp Thing cheap because someone had scrawled on the cover.
…It had been signed by Bernie Wrightson

@ Mr. Burgas: You should be MOST ashamed of yourself for not having more Wrightson stuff in your collection!

@ Anonymous: That is not only most shockingly appalling, but it has to be very insulting to sell a copy of Swamp Thing that’s been signed by Wrightson. One has to shake his/her head in shame.

I have enjoyed his work on THE WEIRD, and BATMAN: THE CULT.

tom: Well, I will say that Wrightson hasn’t been the most prolific of artists, so I do have a decent amount of his work, just not as much as I could, given that he’s a fine artist. And I’ll bet that today’s entry is something that a lot of people don’t own, so there! :)

We will see both The Weird and The Cult, so there is that!

Hey, just a thought on the window being tilted in the 2nd panel of your second page. It seems to me that it is tilted so that the reader’s eye goes down to the third wide panel. If it was tilted the other way it would be an awkward transition. Also, having a dutch angle [to use a film term] always signifies that something is off, or not right.

Thansk for doing these articles. It has made me more aware of the importance of all sorts of these details!

Swamp Thing’s origin is very Marvel-like. It’s pretty good, too.

danjack: Hey, that’s a good point. I’ve been looking at the way pages are laid out, and I must have just missed that.

I’m glad you’re liking these. They’re time-consuming, but very fun!

sorry – I hadn’t noticed my name had disappeared from the “your name” bit – now corrected

The most disturbing thing about that market stall dealer is the suggestion that he had acquired some of his stock through his other profession as a dustman (I believe the American equivalent profession would be trash collector)
…had someone thrown away a swamp thing signed by Bernie Wrightson?

@greg and the others interested in Wrightson’s art.

i would suggest you to find “The reaper of love and other stories” published by Fantagraphics in ’88, wich reprints early Wrightsons (’68 to ’72)

Maybe the signed Swamp Thing comic had been thrown away by someone’s mother.

@ LouReedRichards,

I agree that his post-’70s work is (mostly) weaker than his earlier stuff. I think The Cult is an ugly comic, and there are works in which his style seems more generic (e.g. Batman vs. Aliens). There are, however, a few horror comics he’s done that look great.

I have a ’90s edition of the Frankenstein trade, which isn’t as well-bound. I got it signed by Wrightson a number of years ago. Unfortunately, there’a a little water damage but it’s still readable/ intact. I’d replace it if not for the signature.

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