In a segment from Ken Viola’s 1987 documentary The Masters of Comic Book Art, artist Bernie Wrightson sits in his studio. There’s an easel to his left and a picture window behind him. It must be late autumn. The trees outside the window are bare except for a solitary one in the foreground that still has its leaves. Beneath the white birch trees the earth looks brown and barren. In fact, it looks like a landscape from one of Wrightson’s drawings or paintings, filled with intricate details that announce their presence slowly and only to those who look carefully. At the end of the interview, Wrightson, the much beloved comics artist who passed away this weekend at the age of 68, describes an image of true and complete terror.
By the time of this interview, Wrightson had co-created Swamp Thing with writer Len Wein, collaborated on projects with Stephen King, and illustrated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this conversation with Viola, he offered this explanation of his grotesque but always illuminating work:
Horror is different things to different people, I think. To me–in spite of my drawings of monsters and the creeping dead crawling out of their graves and vampires and Frankenstein’s monster and whatnot–horror to me is an image of a well-dressed man standing on a corner waiting for a bus. And everything about him is absolutely perfect except there’s a spot of blood on his shoe.
Here, Wrightson speaks with the same meticulousness you’ll find in his drawings. Every line is just right, filled not simply with horror or dread but also with humor and with the honesty his friend and colleague Bruce Jones describes in the introduction to the first issue of Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre, published by Pacific Comics in June 1983 (early on, Wrightson signed his name Berni, without the e at the end): “. . . in the best of Berni’s work, there is something hideously missing in the art of most others: sincerity.”
The first story that appears in the issue is “The Muck Monster,” first published in Eerie #68 in September 1975 and recently reprinted as an Artist’s Edition by IDW Publishing. In the story, a mad doctor tries to create a Frankenstein-like being, but the monster resists. Although he is now awake, the creature, in a caption on the story’s second page, explains, “I resented his presumption upon a higher power. I resisted his attempts on my being!” In fact, he continues, he “did not want life!” Only at the end of the story, after a confrontation with his creator, does Wrightson’s monster embrace what he is. But what is he, anyway? That’s what he’s been trying to figure out since the first page of the story.
At times, the Muck Monster (you’ll have the read the story yourself to find out why Wrightson calls him by that name) distantly echoes the voice of poet John Clare, or of just about any kid, I think, first coming to terms with the world’s cruelty and indifference: “I am!” he insists in the first line of the story. After a journey that takes him from the doctor’s lab to a graveyard and then back to his birthplace, the monster assures the reader, “No. I was not . . . am not mad!” What is he then? The answer he provides isn’t much comfort. For now, like some high school kid hearing Black Sabbath for the first time, all the creature can say is, “I just . . . am . . . !” He has fewer words at his disposal than Clare, a nineteenth-century British poet who, in “Sonnet: ‘I Am,’” defines himself as
. . . a being created in the race
Of men disdaining bounds of place and time–
A spirit that could travel o’er the space
Of earth and heaven like a thought sublime [ . . . ] (Clare 114)
But Clare’s speaker–no doubt Clare himself–concludes his poem certain only of his existence, of his body and its small place in the universe: “But now I only know I am–that’s all.”
Wrightson’s Muck Monster, of course, is the hero of a comic book story, so he gets a second chance. Remove the creature itself from each scene and this final page could be an illustration for one of Emerson’s essays or, for that matter, a book of Clare’s nature poems. In the first panel, a sunrise, then mountains, trees, a river, a rocky ledge. It’s an image of transcendence, of wholeness, as each line works in tandem with the one next to it in order to create a unified image. Unable to find any completeness in himself, or in the arms of his creator, the monster finds peace in nature which, like him, just is. Look carefully, in fact, and you’ll have a difficult time telling the difference between the Muck Monster and the tree to his right in the first panel: “My thoughts are lost in the vastness that surrounds me . . . .” he explains (you can click on the page below to enlarge it):
Three images later, in another rectangular panel that echoes the first one, he understands: “I belong here . . . I am accepted!” Time passes. Leaves fall, then snow. Has one day passed? Two? A decade or more? I lose myself in these last four panels, as day turns to night and stars fill a black sky. In a career filled with terrifying and sublime images, this one, I think, is Wrightson’s most beautiful, as lyrical and strange as that “image” of the “well-dressed” man with the “spot of blood on his shoe.”
I suggested earlier that Wrightson is a master of the grotesque, but the monsters in his world are descendants not just of Poe and of the stories in EC Comics but also of Sherwood Anderson’s characters in his 1919 collection Winesburg, Ohio. You won’t find Anderson’s short stories–which had a tremendous impact on a young Ernest Hemingway–in the reading list for a course on horror fiction. Nonetheless, Anderson opens his collection with a framing device in which an elderly writer offers a definition of the grotesque that might apply to Wrightson’s work. At the dawn of myth and history, the writer suggests, “were the truths and they were all beautiful.” But humanity didn’t quite know what to do with all of that beauty. The old man, after years of carefully observing his friends and neighbors, developed a “notion that the moment one of the people took one of these truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (Anderson 23-24). Wrightson’s vision of the world is closer to Anderson’s or to Mary Shelley’s than, say, to Stephen King’s. Only in surrender is it possible to find that original truth and the beauty that defined it. Wrightson understood that a grotesque must always remind us of the wonder of just living in the world, of asking questions, of being. “Does that which is go on forever?” asks the Muck Monster before he surrenders to time and nature. Maybe. Or, as he asserts, “Perhaps!” I’d like to think that it does. And, when I revisit Wrightson’s comics, and read them with the same delight I did the first time, I get a sense that the “celebration” the monster longs for is never too far away.
For more about Bernie Wrightson’s work, and his passing, visit his website at http://berniewrightson.com/
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. Print.
Clare, John. John Clare: Poems Selected by Paul Farley. London: Faber & Faber, 2007. Print.
Viola, Ken. The Masters of Comic Book Art. Ken Viola Productions, 1987. Video.
Wrightson, Bernie. Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre no. 1 (June 1983). San Diego, CA: Pacific Comics. Print.