Bernie Wrightson: The North Dark Star of Youth Goes Dim

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By Allen Callaci

I didn’t pass high school freshman pre-algebra because of Bernie Wrightson.  Instead of studying logarithms I turned my adolescent attentions to the dark lines and inky shadows of Wrightson’s drawings contained in a crinkled, reprinted collection of his legendary1970s run on The Swamp Thing that was just the right size inside a Pee-Chee folder covered in crooked, hand-scratched Sharpie renditions of Iron Maiden and Krokus logos.

The cover of that discreetly hidden comic promised it all: The Original Swamp Thing Saga! 68 chilling pages the world will never forget! The image that ran beneath those words featured a stoic-looking swamp monster battling a bloodthirsty mob bearing pitchforks, axes and torches while a young, suspected witch chained to a tree looked on. And somehow, against all odds it delivered on what its hyperbolic cover promised in a way that horror movies, comic books and certainly horror comic books seldom delivered.

How many will ever know how much this world lost when it lost Bernie Wrightson?

If you were never a misfit boy in the late 70s who devoted an oversized portion of his weekends to comic books and monsters, the name Bernie Wrightson might not mean anything to you. His passing at age 68 from brain cancer did not make the front page of The New York Times or the top of the CNN broadcast. No television or music marathons ran in his honor. When I mentioned the news that Bernie Wrightson had passed to a co-worker, the response was: “Bernie who?”

And how could I explain?

Nothing in my universe has ever gone together better than the way that Wrightson’s Swamp Thing and Cherry Slurpees did during my teenage summers. As a teen whose body was in a constant state of transition as it entered the murky, twisted forest of puberty, it was easy to identify with Alec Holland, the ill-fated scientist who was transformed after a lab accident into a “muck-encrusted mockery of a man” – a half-man/half plant monstrosity that would be forever known as the Swamp Thing.

Swamp Thing was Wrighton’s primary introduction to his adolescent fans. Frankenstein was his perfect distillation of them. In the melancholic, droopy eyes of Wrightson’s Frankenstein monster the tense cries of “I wish I’d never been born,” can be heard echoing over the slamming of a pubescent’s bedroom door. It is only fitting that Wrightson’s greatest artistic achievement is his stunningly detailed black-and-white illustrations of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. In those illustrations Wrightson perfectly captured the anguish and confusion of a misunderstood creature lashing out at his creator.

He captured the anguish and confusion of a misunderstood adolescent: not understanding a transforming body, the inability to voice what it is that is going on inside, and aiming anger and frustration at the ones who brought him/her into being (whether that be in the cold, cobwebbed confines of a mad scientist’s lab or over a heated dinner table conversation in a lower-middle-class suburb.)

I did not even know what Bernie Wrightson looked like until I was 19. I met him at a local comic convention. He did not look how imagined he would look. He was not horribly scarred. He was not sitting on a throne made of human skulls drinking blood from a chalice. He was a tall, bespectacled man in a folding chair sitting at a six-foot table with an oversized portfolio of his original work that had been priced to sell. I was not disappointed by any of this. He was one of us.

I could not come close to affording any of the original artwork that he laid out before him, which was as obvious to him as it was to me. He picked up a marker, took the battered comic from my hand and kindly asked if I spelled my first name with one “l” or two. And then he graciously signed the Original Saga of the Swamp Thing reprint that unbeknownst to him had helped pave the way for my being transferred to basic math courses for the rest of my unremarkable high school run.

Director Guillermo Del Toro hit it on the swamp-encrusted head when he eulogized Wrightson as the “North dark star of youth.”

That’s it.

Thirty years later I still cannot do a logarithm even if someone pointed a flame to the left side of my skull.

. . . But the beautifully horrific nightmares conjured up by Bernie Wrightson? Those remain tattooed forever in permanent ink in an upper-cobwebbed corner of my soul.