Bernie Wrightson: 1948 to 2017

Comic book, horror and fantasy artist Bernie Wrightson passed away on March 18th at the age of 68. Wrightson received well-deserved acclaim for his atmospheric artwork in a career that spanned four and a half decades.

Swamp Thing 9 cover

Wrightson is probably best-known as the co-creator of the Swamp Thing character with writer Len Wein. The initial incarnation of the character debuted in a stand-alone story in the DC Comics horror anthology House of Secrets #92 (June/July 1971).  The “Swamp Thing” story was an unexpected hit, and it led to Wein & Wrightson introducing a revamped incarnation of the character a year later.  This ongoing Swamp Thing series was set in the DC universe.  Wrightson drew the first ten issues.  Issue #7 featured a guest appearance by Batman, and Wrightson rendered a stunning, moody depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He would have several more opportunities to draw Batman over the course of his career.

Wrightson was friends with fellow artist Michael Kaluta. In 1974 the two of them had an opportunity to work together on the third and fourth issues of The Shadow, which adapted the pulp vigilante created by Walter Gibson.  A year later Wrightson and Kaluta, along with Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith, began sharing studio space in Lower Manhattan loft, an arrangement that lasted until 1979.  Known as “The Studio,” the four artists influenced one another, each of them creating some of the best works of their careers.

Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein

One of Wrightson most stunning efforts was his illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Wrightson worked on this project for seven years years, and it was finally published in 1983.  The breathtaking, intricately detailed artwork Wrightson created for Frankenstein is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of his career.

(Honestly, I don’t think you can overdo the superlatives when it comes to describing Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations.)

Wrightson collaborated with horror novelist Stephen King on several occasions. In 1983 Wrightson drew the graphic novel adaptation of the movie Creepshow and provided illustrations for King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. The extended edition of King’s mammoth novel The Stand released in 1990 featured illustrations by Wrightson.  He also provided illustrations for Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in King’s Dark Tower series, published in 2003.

Wrightson remained involved in the comic book biz over the years, drawing numerous covers, pin-ups, miniseries, graphic novels and short stories in anthologies. In the second half of the 1970s he illustrated a number of stories for Warren Publishing’s line of black & white horror magazines.  Wrightson also worked on a handful of projects for Marvel Comics, among them the graphic novels Spider-Man: Hooky (1986) and The Hulk and The Thing: The Big Change (1987), and the four issue miniseries Punisher P.O.V. (1991).  The Big Change and P.O.V. were both written by Jim Starlin.  The two of them also collaborated on the DC Comics miniseries Batman: The Cult (1988).

Batman Aliens 1 pg 41

Among the later comic book work that Wrightson did, I especially enjoyed the two issue Batman/Aliens miniseries published in 1997. Written by Ron Marz, this was one of the more effective of the crossovers released by DC and Dark Horse in the 1990s.  Batman is a superhero who is grounded enough in reality that the Xenomorphs posed a legitimate threat to him without having to ridiculously amp up their powers.  Wrightson’s artwork provided the story with a genuinely moody, intense tone.  As always he drew a striking Batman, and his Xenomorphs were effectively menacing.

I also enjoyed the beautifully grotesque painted covers that Wrightson created for the four issue horror anthology Nightmare Theater published by Chaos! Comics in 1997. They were an excellent showcase for his talents and sensibilities.  Wrightson also penciled a werewolf story for the first issue, which was inked by Jimmy Palmiotti.

Wrightson’s last major project was Frankenstein Alive, Alive! published by IDW between 2012 and 2014.  Written by Steve Niles, the three issue series served as a sequel to Wrightson’s illustrated edition of the Mary Shelley novel.

Nightmare Theater 1 cover signed

I was fortunate enough to meet Wrightson on a few occasions, at a couple of comic book conventions and at a store signing in White Plains NY. He struck me as a very friendly individual.  Others had similar experiences meeting him.  When the news broke that he has died, it was clear that not only had we lost an immensely talented artist but also a genuinely nice person.  Wrightson will definitely be missed by friends, colleagues, and fans.

Strange Comic Books: Doctor Strange #37

Yipes, I’ve been so busy with my temp job and other stuff the past week, I haven’t had an opportunity to write anything for this blog.  I also ended up going to visit my parents in Connecticut, since they were pretty insistent that I begin clearing out some of the boxes of comic books I had stored in their basement.  A few of the things that I took back to Queens I’m going to keep, but most of it I’ll try to sell or give away.  Hey, anyone interested in any Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man stuff from the 1990s?  Let me know!

Anyway, coincidentally I recently finished re-reading the Essential Doctor Strange Volume 1 collection featuring the original stories of Marvel’s master of the mystic arts by Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and friends that were originally presented in the pages of Strange Tales back in the mid-1960s.  Having re-experienced those early adventures of Stephen Strange, I decided to take home with me the various more recent issues of Doctor Strange from my collection, and read those.  Having just experienced those early Ditko/Lee tales certainly gave me a different perspective on the later material by such writers as Peter Gillis, Roy Thomas, David Quinn, and J.M. DeMatteis.  In any case, one of those Thomas-penned issues, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #37, was a book I wanted to spotlight in Strange Comic Books for a while now.

Doctor Strange 37 cover

With a cover date of January 1992, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #37 is from the writing team of Roy & Dann Thomas and J.M. Lofficier, with artwork by Geof Isherwood.  The issue has the memorable story title of “Frankensurfer,” which might bring to mind images of Boris Karloff in full monster make-up catching a wave off the coast of Hawaii.  But it is actually a sequel to the classic Silver Surfer #7, by Stan Lee & John Buscema, which saw Ludwig von Frankenstein, a descendent of the infamous mad scientist, created a duplicate of Galactus’ herald.

On his way home after the comic events of the Infinity Gauntlet crossover, Doctor Strange is seemingly attacked over the skies of Manhattan by the Silver Surfer.  Driving off his foe, the Sorcerer Supreme is extremely surprised to hear the fleeing Sentinel of the Spaceways declare his intention to return to Castle Frankenstein.  Perplexed, Strange decides, instead of pursuing, to engage in a bit of research.  He returns to his Sanctum Sanctorum and consults the Book of the Vishanti.  The mystic tome provides Strange with a detailed recounting of the long, twisted, and bloody histories of the Frankenstein families.  Along the centuries, we learn the history of the notorious creature constructed and brought to life by Victor Frankenstein.  The family’s run-ins with Dracula, Solomon Kane, the Invaders (a story which I covered in a previous blog post), Iron Man, and, of course, the Silver Surfer are related to Strange.

Finishing his research, Strange finally heads off to Castle Frankenstein.  There he encounters Victoria von Frankenstein, Ludwig’s daughter who has dedicated her life to making amends for her family’s terrible past.  Victoria and “the Children,” the deformed results of her father and grandfather’s terrible experiments, have been imprisoned in the castle dungeons by the “Frankensurfer.”  Victorian reveals this ersatz Surfer is actually Borgo, her father’s former assistant, who was horribly crippled during the events of the Lee & Buscema tale.  Managing to replicate Ludwig’s experiments, Borgo became a new duplicate Surfer, and has sworn vengeance on a world he feels has scorned him.  The Frankensurfer reappears, battling Strange anew.  During the fight, an innocent bystander is slain.  Borgo immediately recognizes her as the woman who cared for him after he almost died, one of the few people to ever show him kindness.  Horrified, the repentant Borgo uses his stolen powers to fly at full speed straight into the face of a nearby mountain, killing himself.

Doctor Strange 37 pg 5

As was later explained in a subsequent issue’s letter column, “Frankensurfer” had an interesting genesis.  It began life as a two part “Book of the Vishanti” back-up tale written by Roy Thomas and Jean-Marc Lofficier.  Afterwards, Roy and his wife Dann then wrote the twelve page story of Borgo the Frankensurfer to frame it, making the entire story an issue-long tale.  I think it works very well indeed.  Roy Thomas and J.M. Lofficier do an excellent job of taking material from a variety of comic books published by Marvel over the previous quarter century and weave it into a coherent, informative, intriguing faux-history for the notorious Frankenstein family.  And then Roy & Dann tie that in with an entertaining, haunting, tragic tale set in the present day, as Strange deals with the still-lingering legacies of the Frankenstein dynasty.

Of course, Roy Thomas is a veteran writer at Marvel, having written classic runs on numerous titles, among them Avengers, Conan, Fantastic Four, and X-Men.  So I always expect top-notch work from his pen.  As for J.M. Lofficier, with his wife Randy he wrote The Doctor Who Programme Guide.  Back in the early 1980s, when I was first getting into Doctor Who, in those pre-Internet, pre-DVD days, that two volume tome was invaluable in gleaming in-depth information about the early years of the series.  So when Thomas and Lofficier got together, you were pretty much guaranteed a tale that was both entertaining and extremely well researched.

The artwork by Geof Isherwood on “Frankensurfer” is just superb.  He has an illustrative style a bit reminiscent of the Filipino comic book artists.  I recall that when he came onboard as the artist on Doctor Strange in the early 1990s, it was a breath of fresh air.  When seemingly every other new artist wanted to do their riff on Liefeld, Lee, or McFarlane, here was someone with a much more classically influenced look to his work.  Although he had drawn a handful of the “Book of the Vishanti” back-ups, Doctor Strange #37 was actually Isherwood’s first regular issue on the title, and he stayed with the series until #59.  After that he moved over to Namor the Sub-Mariner, where he also did excellent work.

Doctor Strange 37 pg 21

If you can find a copy of Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #37, it’s definitely worth picking up.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t ever been reprinted, but I’m sure it can be located pretty easily on Ebay or at a comic book convention.  While you are at it, I’d recommend checking out some of the other issues of Roy & Dann’s run.  They did some good stories, both with Isherwood and, before him, the super-talented Jackson “Butch” Guice.

Strange Comic Books: The Invaders #31

Welcome to the latest installment of Strange Comic Books.  This entry features an issue I had intended to write up at some point in the near future.  But I moved it up to today as February 19th is the birthday of its writer, Donald F. Glut.

(If the name Don Glut sounds familiar to any sci-fi fans out there, it is probably because, among his numerous credits, he wrote the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back.)

Today’s comic book is The Invaders #31, written by Don Glut, penciled by Chic Stone, inked by Bill Black, and edited by Roy Thomas, with a cover by Joe Sinnott.  The cover date for this one is August 1978.  Set during World War II, issue #31 of The Invaders sees Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch facing off against a most macabre foe: Frankenstein’s Monster!

Invaders 31 cover

The Invaders was Roy Thomas’ love letter to the Marvel Comics superhero comic books of the Golden Age.  Thomas often wondered why, unlike DC Comics with their Justice Society stories, the major heroes of Timely Comics (Marvel’s precursor) had never teamed up.  When he was writing at Marvel in the 1970s, Thomas co-created The Invaders title, which he set in the early 1940s, and which featured Cap, Namor, the Torch, teenage sidekicks Bucky and Toro, plus a number of other heroes, join forces to fight against the Axis Powers and their superhuman agents.  The team was called “The Invaders” because they were “invading” Hitler’s Fortress Europa.  The series ran a respectable 41 issues, plus its inaugural Giant-Size special and an Annual.

During most of the final year of The Invaders, Thomas handed over the writing duties to his friend Don Glut, although he remained on as the series’ editor.  One of Glut’s first issues was #31, “Heil Frankenstein!”  As we know, the Nazis, among their myriad crimes, conducted terrible medical experiments on their prisoners.  This has resulted in innumerable subsequent stories in genre fiction that have depicted the Third Reich as churning out a legion of zombies, mutants, and cyborgs to bedevil the Free World.  In his story, Glut takes this trend to its logical conclusion, having the Nazis recruit a descendent of the original mad scientist himself, Doctor Frankenstein.

“Heil Frankenstein” opens with Cap, Bucky, and Namor arriving in the Swiss Alps.  The Human Torch and Toro had previously gone ahead to investigate rumors of Nazi activity in the neutral country, but have since gone missing.  Arriving in a small town, the three superheroes are greeted by a horde of pitchfork-wielding villagers, who inform them that a monster from nearby Castle Frankenstein has been stalking the countryside.  The skeptical Cap and Bucky think the villagers have been watching too many movies, and the pair go on ahead to investigate the castle, leaving Sub-Mariner behind.

Invaders 31 pg 7The patriotic duo is quickly discovered by a horde of goose-steppers who unleash Frankenstein’s Monster, clad in a Nazi uniform, on the disbelieving pair.  The Creature subdues Cap and Bucky.  Imprisoned in a dungeon with Toro, they are introduced to Basil Frankenstein who, with the assistance of Kitty Kitagowa, Imperial Japan’s top surgeon, has recreated his ancestor’s work.  In addition to his plans to build an army of undead patchwork soldiers for the Nazis, the clearly nutty Basil now wants to transplant his brain out of his crippled body into Cap’s physically perfect form.  First, though, he uses the android energies of the Human Torch to super-charge his Monster.

By now, the impatient Namor has come to investigate the castle, and he frees his captive teammates.  During a battle with the Creature, its head smashes against a bank of electrical equipment.  This shorts out the implant that Frankenstein had placed in its brain.  Now free to think and act, the Monster, outraged at its unholy existence, grabs Frankenstein and Kitagowa and leaps from the castle tower, killing them all.

The Invaders #31 is a pretty crazy issue.  Yes, it’s a bit on the silly side, but it is still fun.  I did like how Glut drew parallels between the android Human Torch and the Monster, causing the former to once again realize that, despite his name, he is an artificial being.  Long-time Thor inker Chic Stone draws one of his rare penciling jobs, and turns in solid work.  So, too, does Bill Black, who a few years later would go on to create the long-running Femforce series at AC Comics.  Veteran artist Joe Sinnott does an amazing job illustrating the cover.

Invaders 31 pg 28

I am quite a fan of The Invaders.  It took me several years, but eventually I was able to assemble a complete collection of the entire series run.  Roy Thomas and Don Glut both did some nice work with an interesting, colorful cast of heroes and villains.  Over three decades later, current Marvel writers are still building new stories on the comic books that Thomas and Glut penned.  As for the artwork by regular pencilers Frank Robbins and Alan Kupperberg, plus such talented fill-in artists as Stone & Black, it was all very impressive.  In the last few years, Marvel finally collected the entire run of the series into four trade paperback collections, Invaders Classic, which I highly recommend picking up.

Comic book reviews: Neal Adams Monsters

With the hurricane having shut down a lot of NYC, and the subways out of service for the next few days, it looks like my Halloween is pretty much going to be confined to watching horror movies and reading graphic novels at home.  So here’s another good spooky read:

Neal Adams Monsters is, of course, the work of legendary comic book artist Neal Adams.  Here he also takes on the role of writer.  Originally serialized in the Echo of Future Past anthology published in the mid-1980s by Continuity, the material in Neal Adams Monsters was collected together in English for the first time in 1993 by Vanguard Productions.

In his introduction to the volume, Adams writes of his childhood fondness for monsters, stemming back to the old Universal Studios films.  One of the things Adams speaks of is his disappointment that there never was a genuine all-out battle between Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Werewolf in any of these movies.  He cites Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man as a half-hearted attempt that ultimately failed to deliver.  I have to admit I agree with him on that point.  I watched that movie on television years ago.  I don’t remember very much about it, but I do recall the promised grudge match between the two creatures did not materialize until the very end of the movie, when the pair sort of grappled around for about two minutes, only to be interrupted when the villagers blew up the local dam, flooding them away.  It was quite disappointing.  So I can certainly understand how a young Neal Adams, watching this, thought to himself that he could do better.

What Adams has set out to do in Monsters is to deliver a story in the tradition of the Universal and Hammer Studios films, yet one that is unencumbered by budgetary and special effects limitations.  One of the extraordinary strengths of the medium of sequential illustration is its potential to depict literally anything, no matter how fantastical or ambitious.  The only limits are the imagination & the abilities of the artist.  Adams clearly recognized that when he originally wrote & illustrated the Monsters story.

Neal Adams Monsters
Neal Adams Monsters

The writing on Monsters is, admittedly, not nearly up to par with the art.  I have always felt that Adams was a much stronger artist than writer.  That is not to say his writing on Monsters was bad, though.  It was just that I felt certain elements did not come together nearly as well as they might have.  Nevertheless, Adams’ plotting on Monsters achieves the requisite task of putting all of the characters & elements into place for a huge, cataclysmic confrontation.

Whatever any weaknesses of his writing might be, Adams artwork is absolutely magnificent.  He is such an amazing storyteller, utilizing dramatic layouts & panel designs.  His eye for detail is superb.  There are a number of intricately illustrated sequences that are simply breathtaking.

The aforementioned climax is spectacular.  There is perhaps the problem of the Werewolf being sidelined for most of this sequence, but I can forgive Adams this oversight, as the struggle between Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature is incredibly dramatic, a brutally stunning action sequence.  As Adams no doubt intended, he very much achieved his childhood goal of having the classic monsters of gothic literature and horror movies meet up in an unforgettable battle to end all battles.

I would be remiss if I did not cite the vivid coloring by Louis Douzepis, Cory Adams & Zeea Adams.  The colorists’ work is extremely effective & vibrant.  It really helps to bring Neal Adams’ line work to full, dynamic life.

There are several extra pages to the Monsters collection, featuring concept designs that Adams produced for several movies, as well as his work as a cover illustrator on Marvel Comics’ horror magazines in the 1970s.  I would have liked to have seen more of this bonus material.  What I found most fascinating were Adams’ designs for an unrealized film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End.  Viewing these, this is one project that I’m sorry never materialized.

Neal Adams is almost exclusively thought of for his work on such superhero titles as Batman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Avengers, and X-Men.  What is often forgotten is just what a great horror artist he is.  He did a superb job in the early 1990s for an issue of Now Comics’ Twilight Zone series, illustrating the Harlan Ellison story “Crazy as a Soup Sandwich.”  That was a great issue.  And, of course, with Monsters now collected and available from Vanguard, one can see another fantastic example of Adams’ work in this genre.  It’s a fun, brilliantly illustrated read, and I highly recommend it.

Comic book reviews: Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. # 1-8

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a fan of Italian artist Alberto Ponticelli, who drew the Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths miniseries last year.  As it turns out, Ponticelli is also the artist on one of DC Comics’ New 52 titles.  But I did not find this out until recently.  With that many new series coming out, it fell through the cracks that he was drawing Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.  I happened to come across a few of the recent issues on the shelves at the comic shop and saw his name on them.  Fortunately, a trade paperback, War of the Monsters, had been published, collecting the first seven issues.  I purchased that, as well as a copy of issue #8.

Agent Frankenstein is, of course, the immortal creature created by Mary Shelley in the classic gothic horror novel Frankenstein.  For the past century, Agent Frankenstein has been working with S.H.A.D.E., the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive, a government agency that combines science and the supernatural to develop operatives & technologies to combat unearthly menaces.  As the first issue opens, Frankenstein has been on vacation, and returning to work finds that a number of dramatic changes have taken place at S.H.A.D.E.  This is a very clever way for writer Jeff Lemire to introduce the series’ cast, concepts, and settings through the protagonist’s eyes, by having him discover these new developments along with the reader.

The idea for S.H.A.D.E.’s new headquarters is an amazing conceit by Lemire.  The Ant Farm is an entire high-tech city miniaturized to fit within a three inch flying metal globe utilizing the technology of scientist Ray Palmer (who in the old DC continuity was the size-changing Atom), accessible only by teleportation.

Frankenstein makes for a compelling protagonist.  He is an interesting combination of introspective philosopher and violent brawler, a study in contrasts.  One minute he’ll be quoting John Milton’s poetry, the next he’ll be hacking through a horde of demons with a honking big sword.

I liked the new Creature Commandos team designed by Lemire & Ponticelli as Frankenstein’s field team.  They are a truly bizarre lot: a gung-ho werewolf soldier, a vampiric smart-ass, an enigmatic Egyptian mummy, and a fish-woman, the last of whom was the scientist who created the Commandos for S.H.A.D.E.  And there’s also Lady Frankenstein, the gun-toting, four-armed green femme fatale who is the estranged wife of Agent Frankenstein.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. trade paperback

If I had to describe Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. in one sentence, it might be “H.P. Lovecraft meets Arnold Schwarzenegger.”  A succession of disturbing, unnatural menaces is fought off by Agent Frankenstein & the Commandos with a combination of brains and brawn, with plenty of action & violence resulting.

At the same time, Lemire remembers one of the central conceits of Mary Shelley’s original novel.  Frankenstein and his fellow S.H.A.D.E. operatives may appear hideous, but beneath their grotesque exteriors they often are tormented beings with tragic pasts.  In the end, it is often the “normal” human beings who are the real monsters.  This is seen throughout the first eight issues.  Lemire drives home this point quite effectively on a number of occasions.

Ponticelli’s artwork is amazing, gloriously spectacular with its over-the-top monster action sequences.  I really loved the mass-carnage battle sequences on the “monster planet” in issue #4, featuring literally a cast of thousands.  Yet at the same Ponticelli’s work also contains very quiet moments when needed.  Issues #s 6 and 8, in particular, feature some magnificent storytelling that really communicates the emotional, tragic moments.

One of the things about comic book artwork that is often neglected is the contribution of the inker.  I believe this is because for the casual reader, it can be difficult to discern where the penciler’s work ends and the inker’s begins.  Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. provides an excellent opportunity to witness the importance of the inker to the creative process.  On the first six issues, Ponticelli inks his own pencils.  For the next two issues, Walden Wong provides the inks, and you can really see the difference.  In both instances, the penciling is clearly Ponticelli’s, but Wong’s inking gives the art a more polished, less rough finish.  I would not say I prefer one over the other, because both look really good.  I only point it out because it’s a perfect example if you wish to demonstrate just how much of an impact the inker has on the finished artwork.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #8 page 15

The cover artwork for the first seven issues is provided by the magnificently talented J.G. Jones.  He does such amazing work.  I believe he works in ink wash.  It’s always a pleasure to see his art gracing the covers of a series, and his seven cover illustrations for Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. are all winners.

(On a side note, Jones is also a writer.  In addition to drawing covers, he penned an exciting story for DC’s Doc Savage series entitled “Raise the Khan.”  Well, that is to say, the first five chapters were great, but I cannot make any judgment about part six, because DC abruptly canceled the book, leaving the final installment unpublished.  I really hope that one of these days it finally makes it into print.  Does DC still have the publishing rights to Doc Savage?  If so, they should release a “Raise the Khan” trade paperback containing the missing chapter.)

With issue #8, Ponticelli & Wong take over as cover artists.  It’s a really striking piece and, as much as I missed Jones, they are such a great art team, so I cannot complain.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the contributions of colorist Jose Villarrubia.  He has to be one of the best colorists currently working in the comic book industry.  His coloring on Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is a perfect match for Ponticelli’s illustrations.  It was especially effective on the emotionally charged issue #8, really contributing to the somber, tragic atmosphere of the story.

It was definitely a pleasant surprise to discover Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.  It is without a doubt one of the strongest titles to come out of the New 52 reboot.  I’m really looking forward to picking up the remaining issues that are already out, and then seeing what comes next.  Lemire, Ponticelli, and their collaborators have created such an amazing blending of superheroes and horror with strong characterization.  I highly recommend picking this up.