A Tribute to the of

When I reviewed House of Secrets #92 awhile back, we learned in the story that the Swamp Thing was incapable of speech. Throughout the entire short story that contained his introduction he serves more or less as narrator in a first person manner in the caption boxes. When he was given his own title, things changed a little and while he still wasn’t able to utter a sound, we got to see his thoughts in balloons. Being mute, especially for a muck monster who essentially means no harm to the average citizen, would be a burden, of course. How much more of a burden would it be when you encounter a hero, as the creature does in Swamp Thing #7 (+ the Spanish language cover) from November/December of 1973 when we find the tragic character in Gotham City? Len Wein and Berni[e] Wrightson, the writer/artist team who first gave the world the Swamp Thing produced this story under the editorial guidance of Joe Orlando, and “Night of the Bat!” was lettered by none other than the great Gaspar Saladino. Don’t miss that moody Bernie Wrightson cover with the incredibly detailed city in the background, too.

The Swamp Thing is roaming Gotham at night and is accompanied by a dog, of all things. When he spots a citizen it occurs to him that perhaps some clothing would help him with his clandestine operation, so he tears his way into a thrift shop for a trench coat and fedora, thinking that it’s a good look for Alec Holland, but is spotted by the police, who try to apprehend the man-monster, to no avail.

Note: When I heard Swampy refer to himself as “Alec Holland” I got confused. Wasn’t the Swamp Thing Alex Olsen in the origin story? I did some quick research and Wikipedia helped fill in some gaping holes in my knowledge of the character, as follows:

The Swamp Thing character first appeared in House of Secrets #92 (June-July 1971), with the name Alex Olsen. The comic is set in the early 20th century, when scientist Alex Olsen is caught in a lab explosion caused by his co-worker, Damian Ridge, who intended to kill him to gain the hand of Olsen's wife Linda. Olsen is physically altered by chemicals and the forces within the swamp. He morphs into a monstrous creature who kills Ridge before the latter can murder Linda. Unable to make Linda realize his true identity, the Swamp Thing sadly ambles to his boggy home.

After the success of the short story in the House of Secrets comic, the original creators were asked to write an ongoing series, depicting a more heroic, more contemporary creature. In Swamp Thing #1 (October-November 1972) Wein and Wrightson updated the time frame to the 1970s and featured a new version character: Alec Holland, a scientist working in the Louisiana swamps on a secret bio-restorative formula "that can make forests out of deserts". Holland is killed by a bomb planted by agents of the mysterious Mr. E (Nathan Ellery), who wants the formula. Splashed with burning chemicals in the massive fire, Holland runs from the lab and falls into the muck-filled swamp, after which a creature resembling a humanoid plant appears some time later. The creature, called Swamp Thing, was originally conceived as Alec Holland mutating into a vegetable-like creature, a "muck-encrusted mockery of a man".”

Now that that’s cleared up, elsewhere in the city, a late night meeting is taking place in the boardroom of the Wayne Foundation. As things wrap up, Bruce thanks Nathan Ellery for all his help with their charitable work. Soon Wayne is back at his penthouse apartment and makes his transformation into the dread creature of the night, the Batman. It isn’t long until our hero is at the docks, rousting some smugglers. As he systematically takes them down with the consummate skill of the ultimate combatant and the graceful moves of a dancer, he manages a critical clue. The World’s Greatest Detective’s thoughts reveal that he’s pursuing the identity of “Mr. E,” (get it?) the leader of The Conclave, an underworld organization that counts smuggling as just one tiny part of its network. At that moment, the Bat-signal illuminates the night sky.

Another shift in scenery reveals Nathan Ellery’s exit from the meeting where he meets his limousine on the street. He instructs his chauffeur to drive to the Potter’s Street warehouse. Also within the confines of the vehicle is a bizarre looking pet with a human-like head.

At the destination, we find one Dr. Hammerschmidt with a man named Cable and a woman called Arcane strapped into chairs with equipment hooked into them. The electron chair is designed to extract information, but Cable valiantly refuses.

We now join Batman in Commissioner Gordon’s office where he learns of the existence of Swamp Thing. Gordon asks Batman to apprehend the creature before a city-wide panic ensues.

Another segue brings us back to the Swamp Thing, who has set his canine companion alongside the street so he can enter a seedy bar. His search is for a lead to the whereabouts of Cable. The creature waits in a corner and soon hears someone mention The Conclave. The monster helps himself to the paper the man is wielding that contains the address of his contact, but his hat falls off in the process and soon it’s a melee until the Swamp Thing emerges, collects the dog and proceeds in his search for Matt Cable, extracting information however and wherever he can among the lowlifes of Gotham City.

We then again join Ellery and his strange pet. He comments to the odd beast that Cable and the girl are theirs and the Swamp Thing has disappeared, but he is activating a radio frequency designed to react with a transmitter in the dog’s head that is hanging out with the mossy man. The reaction is swift as the small orange dog begins to yip and run away from the Swamp Thing.

Batman, meanwhile, has not been idle and eventually stumbles across the same dog that Commissioner Gordon mentioned as being with the monster. He follows it in hopes that it will lead to the Swamp Thing.

That same muck-covered creature has found his way to the Potter’s Street warehouse and after peeking through the window, he bursts through the wall and begins to free the captives as the incredulous Matt Cable remarks that first the Swamp Thing helped murder his two best friends, but keeps showing up to save his life. Dr. Hammerschmidt hurriedly calls Mr. E to alert him that the creature who killed Ferrett is there. When Swampy hears the name Ferrett, he is immediately transported back in his mind to a time when Ferrett, representing a mysterious combine tried to purchase Dr. Alec Holland’s bio-restorative formula and when that failed, he blew up the good doctor’s lab, inadvertently creating the Swamp Thing, who has been on the trail ever since.

Right about now, the Batman has trailed the yipping dog until he and the Swamp Thing come face to face and the Dark Knight immediately begins to try and beat the creature into submission. The monster tries to resist, but soon realizes the only way to stop the Batman is to knock him out. Swampy then tries to retrieve the agitated dog, but the Dark Knight is stirring into recovery, so he beats a hasty retreat while Batman follows the dog into the building, hoping it will lead to the Swamp Thing, but the creature, meanwhile is scaling the outside of the building and soon Batman finds himself at the door of Nathan Ellery. When the Batman bursts in, the dog makes a beeline for Ellery, who draws a pistol and begins to fire at it. Just then, the monster clears the balcony and in his rage begins to slap Nathan around, but before he completely loses control, he shoves Ellery away. Mr. E stumbles into his weird pet who responds by biting into his leg and soon both figures tumble over the balcony, plunging several stories to their doom as a helpless Batman looks on. When he turns around he realizes the Swamp Thing has disappeared. The detective’s thoughts bring the story to a close: “Hmmmm—the Swamp Thing is gone, too! I suppose I should hunt him down again—but I’m betting his work is finished in this town—just as I’m betting there’s a lot more to him, as well! Maybe someday I’ll take the time out to find out what it is!

And there you have the first meeting of the Swamp Thing and Batman in a pretty nifty crossover story. As usual, I don’t rate outside my beloved Silver Age, but this story was pretty well done, though I wish I’d known more of the back-story so that it made more sense to me.

Now it is with great pleasure that I present my interview with our tale’s artist, the wonderfully personable and talented Bernie Wrightson:

Prof:  What first triggered your interest in art?

Bernie Wrightson:  It was actually a T.V. show.  When I was a kid it was a Saturday morning T.V. show called "Draw with John Nagy," and it was a half hour show that was just a drawing lesson.  He would start with a circle and a triangle and a square and he would show you how to make the triangle into a cone; how to make the square into a cube; how to make the circle into a ball with shading and casting of shadows and so forth, and he said that if you can learn to draw these basic shapes, you'll be able to draw anything, and he was right.  A lot of my artist friends who are my age remember him, too and they watched the show also, and it was what got them started as well.

Prof:  Just a good lesson in fundamentals.

BW:  Yeah, it was just very simple and very easy for a kid to understand.  It was great.  It gave me something to do on a Saturday morning.  (Chuckle.)

Prof:  Great.  I understand that other than a correspondence course that you're pretty much self-taught?

BW:  Yeah.  I really had no formal education in drawing.  There are a lot of places you can go now that teach how to draw commercially.  There's the Joe Kubert School for drawing comics, for example, but there was nothing like that in the 50's and 60's.

Prof:  Sure, and Joe's school filled a vast chasm that was there for a very long time.  

BW:  A lot of really good artists have come out of there.  

Prof:  I got the chance to speak to him briefly a couple of weeks ago when I was getting his impressions of working with Jack Adler and he was commenting that Jack was instrumental in helping him set up the curriculum and so forth and he said, "We're awfully proud of the string of alumni we've managed to produce.  It's been very gratifying."

BW:  Great.  You were speaking of Jack Adler in the past tense, is he…?

Prof:  No.  He's still with us.  90 years old, for goodness sake.

BW:  Wow!  That's great.

Prof:  I had the privilege of giving him an interview a few weeks ago and he was very gracious.  He's still quite a pistol at this stage of his life.  

BW:  He's terrific.  I last spoke to him a couple of years ago.  I had a nice long phone conversation with him and I remember him very fondly from the old days at DC.  He was a great guy to work with.

Prof:  He was telling me, "I know where all the bodies are buried."  He said everyone sooner or later ended up in the production department, so he knew what was going on from every angle.  (Chuckle.)  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  In fact he's busy copy editing the transcript as we speak, I hope.  Murphy Anderson was telling me he thought you were probably a little bit of a student of some of the old masters like Hogarth and Foster and Caniff.  Would that be an accurate statement?

BW:  Yeah, but again just coming out of being a fan of those guys.  I never even met Foster and I only met Burne Hogarth once, but I got his book.  As far as Hal Foster I used to just pore over the Prince Valiant strips in the Sunday paper when I was a kid.

Prof:  It's an excellent guide for certain.  He was incredibly talented and the overall design was unequaled at the time.  It spawned a whole generation of aspiring artists.

BW:  Oh, yeah.  Frazetta got a lot from Foster.

Prof:  Did you have a goal to get into comic book work or was it one of those circuitous routes that just kind of happened?

BW:  All I ever really wanted to do was draw, and when I got old enough; 11, 12, 13, I began to think about drawing for a living, but I really didn't know what.  Comic books?  Comic books kind of presented the opportunity to just do an awful lot of drawing.

Prof:  A good place to get your feet wet and some people enjoy the pool and just stay.

BW:  Absolutely.  It was great.  I started to learn about story telling and page composition and all this other stuff that you need to know and I just kind of picked that up as I went along.  Comic books are a great school if you can actually work in comics when you're young and kind of use them for a training ground.  

Prof:  Exactly.  More than one creator has made that same comment to me.  It's a great training ground despite the headaches of deadlines and other inherent difficulties, but they couldn't think of another place they could learn so much so quickly.  

BW:  It's absolutely true.  With the absence of any formal drawing course at the time, this was great.  I got to meet and hang out with the other comic artists and get a lot of tips from them and watch them work.

Prof:  Who do you cite as some of your biggest helps at that point in time?

BW:  All of my contemporaries at the time, like Jeff Jones and Mike Kaluta, and up at DC Joe Orlando was my editor for a long time up there.  He was the editor on Swamp Thing and the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets and Joe was especially helpful.  He kept a pad of tracing paper in his desk and he would take that out and lay it over a page that I had done and kind of quickly re-draw panels that I had done and point out things to me about composition and story telling.  It was very valuable.  

Prof:  You can't put a price on that.  I'm reminded of what Tony DeZuniga said.  He adored Joe and said that he took the time to mentor and coach and help along with things.

BW:  Yeah, yeah.  He was like that with everybody.  Joe was just a total sweetheart of a man.  I miss him very much.

Prof:  I can well imagine.  I've heard nothing but wonderful stories about him.  I take it perhaps he was the first one to hire you at DC?

BW:  No, I was actually hired by Carmine Infantino, who at the time wasn't drawing; he was the president at DC at the time.  He was the head guy, and he hired me and kind of handed me over to Joe.  He introduced me to Joe and said, "You're going to be working with him now." 

(Note:  I decided to give Carmine a call and ask about Bernie's debut.  He remarked that, "He's a terrific artist.  When he came in, they showed me his work, and I called the editors in and I said, "Any editor that doesn't hire him is fired."  And of course Joe Orlando took him on immediately.  He's an amazing artist.  Very talented.") 

Of course I knew Joe's work from EC comics and was a huge fan, so it was a great thrill to be working with him, and at the time; this would have been the late 60's, Neal Adams was working in the office.

Prof:  Right, right, so you were part of that wave of new blood that was coming in.

BW:  Yeah, and I was familiar with Neal's work from the comic strip Ben Casey.  He did that as a daily strip for a few years, so I had seen his work in the comic strips, and again, it was a big thrill to meet him and there he was actually working, and we'd all crowd into his tiny little office.  He had this room that was the size of a closet and it was practically filled with this big overhead projector and he'd sit in there with the lights off and just the light from the projector shining down and he would do little breakdowns, like maybe three inches high.  Just very sketchy little things on typing paper.  He would sketch out his pages and then he'd put them on the projector and use those as the guide for his finished pages.  So we'd just go in there and crowd around and he was great.  He could talk and joke and still work at the same time.  It was great hanging out with Neal.  He was always terrific.  It was like some separate part of him was able to draw while the other part of him could socialize.

Prof:  (Chuckle.)  The original multi-tasker.  In fact, I seem to have stumbled across something somewhere where you were considered one of the Crusty Bunkers at some point.  Is that accurate?

BW:  Not on a full time basis.  Neal eventually got his own studio in New York and we'd go up to his studio to hang out because Neal was there all the time, day and night and any time we were in mid-town doing business or something we'd stop by the studio and he always had work.  There was always something going on.  There was a lot of comic book work, there was a lot of advertising work, and Neal was usually doing that.  Sometimes we'd just pitch in and help with something.  I remember doing a little bit of drawing and inking when I went up there, but I can't remember any more exactly what.  There were guys up there who were a lot more full time than me.

Prof:  Well and we're talking several years ago.  I'm sure a lot of it just runs together.

BW:  Oh, God, yeah.  I have trouble keeping last week in my head.

Prof:  (Laughter.)  It's disturbing.  I'm 46 and I thought, "Man, the things my father didn't warn me about middle age."

BW:  I know.  It's all lost.  I just turned 60 a few weeks ago.  It's strange.  I still feel like a kid.

Prof:  Oh, exactly.  That was something I was telling Len Wein when we were discussing something similar.  I said, "Somehow I'm still 23 in my head," and he said, "Oh, you're older than me."  (Mutual laughter.)  Do you remember what it was like making the transition from doing the fanzines to working for DC?

BW:  I got paid.

Prof:  (Laughter.)  A big plus.

BW:  (Chuckle.)  That was a great big plus.  I'm the kind of person, and I think a lot of my friends would say the same thing, we'd be doing this all on our own and maybe working in an office somewhere doing something to make a living and then come home and draw.  We all grew up drawing.  We spent our teenage years sitting in the basement in our parent's houses, or a back bedroom or something with a drawing table and drawing instead of going out on dates; really kind of socially retarded.

Prof:  (Chuckle.)  I can certainly relate.  I was not much on sports as a kid, let's put it that way.

BW:  I loved doing physical stuff, but I never got into sports.

Prof:  And the world is richer for your decision.  When your full page drawings were first used for the 100-page Super Spectaculars on Weird Mystery Tales did it feel like you'd arrived?

BW:  You know there is something thrilling about seeing your work in print for the first time.  I never had the feeling that I'd arrived.  My friends would say, "Hey, you've arrived," and I would say, "Yeah, okay, whatever."  

Prof:  (Chuckle.)  Missed the memo.

BW:  Yeah, another moment that I missed.  It's always exciting to see something that I've done in print.

Prof:  When you and Len struck gold with Swamp Thing was there any kind of an inkling that you were onto something special?

BW:  I think we knew.  We knew we had something special.  There was just nothing else around at the time that looked like that, and that was really the whole point.  I remember starting Swamp Thing with my eyes completely open and thinking, "I think this is going to be a hit."  It just seemed like the time was right for something like that.  It did very well for…I think I did the first two years.  I remember that it sold really, really well.  I remember someone telling me that there were a couple of months where it outsold Superman, but I don't know if that's true.  But it certainly did make a splash.

Prof:  Absolutely.  I was kind of curious, I've managed to get acquainted with Gaspar, and of course the Swamp Thing logo is one of the most distinctive ever created.  What was your impression the first time you saw that?

BW:  Oh, I thought it was great.  Gaspar was just always one of the best.  We were just so lucky to get him.      

Prof:  In fact I think he was the letterer on the run there for the longest time, wasn't he?

BW:  He was.  If I'm not mistaken he lettered all the ones that I did.  The first ten issues.

Prof:  Magnificent.  When I talked to Len I was asking him about the characters in that debut story and he said, "Bernie himself I think is sort of Alex Olsen.  All of the people in it…it was one of those sorts of things where Bernie was trying something and basically had many of the shots posed and took photos and worked from that."

BW:  Yeah, was that in the short story?

Prof:  Yeah.  Is that how it went?

BW:  Yeah.  I remember that came along and the deadline was really short.  And again, don't trust me and my memory, but my impression is that I had something like a week or maybe a weekend to do that story and it was 8 pages and I just thought, "Maybe the quickest way to do this would be to photograph everything first."  So we just had a big picture taking party.  All of us got dressed up in kind of facsimile period clothing, and I was the hero, of course.

Prof:  (Chuckle.)  Of course.

BW:  Mike Kaluta was the bad guy in that one and there were a couple of shots where you can really recognize him.  He had this great, full mustache at the time and I remember kind of waxing it and turning it into this Snidely Whiplash kind of thing.

Mike did some drawing on that; Jeff Jones did some drawing on it; Al Weiss did some work on it; just about everyone who was around at the time had a hand in it.

Prof:  Cool.

BW:  Well, it was one of these things where we all got a chance to pitch in for everyone else when they were up against a deadline.

Prof:  Nice.  A real collaborative effort.  Was that a one-shot or was photo reference a standard technique for you at the time?

BW:  Oh, no, no this was very unusual for me. I hardly ever work from reference.  

Prof:  Okay.  When Len first told me that I thought, "Oh, I wonder if that's where Alex Ross came up with it?"

BW:  No, no, no.  Jeff used to do that.  Jeff would use a lot of photo reference for his paintings and he was actually a very skilled photographer.  He had his own darkroom setup in his apartment and he would develop and enlarge prints like black and white photos to work from.  I was fascinated by this.  I used to love to watch him do it, but I just never got into the habit of doing that.  It all seemed to take too long.

Prof:  And perhaps the medium of paint is a more logical approach from that standpoint.  

BW:  I think so.  You take a few reference photos and you spend a week or two on a painting, but with comics you really have to crank this stuff out.  There was an old saying (chuckle) up at DC:  "Don't do it good, do it Thursday."

Prof:  (Laughter.)  

BW:  Meet your deadline, no matter what.  And sometimes there was just no choice.

Prof:  Sure.  When you've got them breathing down your neck, that's just the way it goes.  Do you paint at all, Bernie?  Is that something you've dabbled with?

BW:  I've dabbled, but I don't think of myself as a painter.  I'm not real happy with my painting, so I don't do it that much.  I dabble from time to time, but my first love is drawing.  I love working in black and white.

Prof:  Yeah, and since your particular genre works best in those stark shades…

BW:  Well, I grew up in a black and white world.  In the 1950's and even pretty much about halfway through the 60's, we only had a black and white T.V. and a lot of my early influences were black and white movies.  Tarzan movies and such, those were all in black and white.

Prof:  It makes sense.  By nature of what you typically draw and drew back in the day, was the Comics Code ever difficult to navigate?

BW:  No.  The Comics Code was never really a problem.  I can't remember what happened when we did the Werewolf story in Swamp Thing.  I think maybe around then the Code was beginning to loosen up a little bit.  I can't remember any problems with the Werewolf, but I do remember at some point when we were pretty well along; we were about a year into the Swamp Thing series at the time and I remember going up to the office and Joe was sitting at his desk laughing.  I said, "What's so funny?"  He said, "I just got a call from the Comics Code Authority about Swamp Thing."  I said, "What was the problem?"  He said, "They just saw (I'll say) issue #6, and they're just noticing for the first time that he's not wearing anything."

Prof:  (Laughter.)

BW:  Their term for it…I think he had a letter, and in the letter, their term for it was, "This character is undraped, and we can't have this."  So Joe had to talk with them and I think he had to go through every issue, panel by panel and show them that we weren't up to something, and point out to them that this is a non-human character.  This guy is a monster, and every time you see him, that whole part of him, his whole mid-section is always in shadow.  It's always black, and there's nothing going on.  I think they grudgingly let him alone after that, but I just thought that was very funny.  

Prof:  Oh, yeah and what a pretentious way to put it:  "Undraped."  That's hysterical.  Did you think it was inevitable that you'd eventually end up doing some work for Warren?

BW:  I don't know if it was inevitable, but I was always a huge fan of Creepy.  I was a big fan when I was a kid of the EC comics and of course when they disappeared, when they stopped publishing the horror comics I was really too young to understand.  I guess I just noticed that, "Gee, the horror comics aren't around any more."  Then Creepy started coming out in the mid-60's and that was wonderful, because I remember buying the first issue of Creepy, and they'd advertised it in Famous Monsters, which I bought every issue of Famous Monsters, so I was ready.  I bought the first issue of Creepy and it was great.  I recognized all these artists from the EC days like Frazetta and Williamson and Jack Davis, Reed Crandall, and it was great to see them again, and it was especially great to see their stuff in black and white.

Prof:  It's the perfect medium for that.

BW:  Yeah, and again for me it was like a free art lesson.

Prof:  How did working between the big two compare?  Did the full script versus Marvel method work any differently or better for you?

BW:  I don't really have a preference.  It was just a different way to work.  Len and I did Swamp Thing using the so-called Marvel Method.  What we did was we'd get together in Joe's office, just the three of us, and close the door and we'd plot out the issue in an afternoon, and it was mostly Len.  I'd say it was all Len.  He had the story in his head, and he'd just kind of walk around the office acting out the different parts and tell the story, one page at a time.  And I would take visual notes.  I would sit there with a pad of paper and just kind of sketch the pages out, and make notes as we went along.  Then I'd take that home and draw up the pages, and when I got the pages all penciled, they would go to Len and he'd do the dialogue and then he would send the pages to Gaspar for lettering.

Prof:  It sounds like it worked out very well.  

BW:  Yeah.  That's how we did all the Swamp Thing books.

Prof:  In fact, Len had divulged to me that he started out as an artist, so he still retained that artistic sensibility when he was telling a story and so it made it a little easier because he could speak the language a little better.

BW:  Absolutely.  And don't let him fool you.  I don't know what he told you about his drawing, but he's really a remarkably good artist.  I've seen some of his drawing and he's terrific.  He could do that for a living if he wanted to.  

Prof:  It seems like you gravitated or maybe the assignments were such that you didn't do a lot of actual true blue superheroes over the years.  Was that by choice?

BW:  Oh, I hate superheroes.  I don't mind reading superhero comics, but the thing is, I can't get into it.  I can't believe superheroes.  Batman is different, because he doesn't have any super powers.  He's just a guy.  He dresses up in the costume, but he's a human being.  Superman I could just never relate to, and I think it comes from being a kid, and reading comics.  I read Superman comics when I was a kid, and I guess little boys always fantasize about being Superman.  How fun would that be?  But at the same time you know you could never be Superman because you didn't come from Krypton.  You're not a strange visitor from another planet.  

Prof:  Kind of hard to overcome that obstacle.

BW:  Yeah, you're kind of screwed from the get go.  But when you're a kid and you're reading Batman you think, "Well, yeah, I could be Batman."  It's conceivable.

Prof:  Absolutely.  You're in good company, for what it's worth because Denny O'Neil told me he never felt comfortable with characters that weren't human scaled and Russ Heath was a little more blunt about it, saying something to the effect that, "I always thought the whole concept of superheroes was ridiculous."  (Mutual laughter.)  He'd do a western or a war comic or Batman in a heartbeat, but no thanks on the rest.  Did you ever catch any static at DC for sometimes implying an outline without actually drawing one?

BW:  How do you mean?

Prof:  It seemed like in the day the production department kind of insisted on everything being outlined and in a lot of your work you don't actually put the outline in there.  It's more an implied thing than actually there.

BW:  Right.  Yeah, they would occasionally get on me about that, and I never really took it to heart.  I just pretty much did it the way I wanted to do it.  (Chuckle.)  I was influenced by guys like Frazetta and Al Williamson was great.  I loved the stuff he did where he would leave the outline off and just let the form or the motion of the character kind of carry your eye through.  I loved looking at that and just thinking, "Wow, you don't have to put an outline on it."  I understand the production department's concerns.  It's very hard to color something if you don't have an outline.

Prof:  I just didn't know if you had to endure any guff over it.

BW:  Occasionally.  Not a lot.  I remember having conversations with Jack Adler about it, and with me, he was always pretty easy about that.  I remember working with him on a couple of things; a couple of covers, I think; working with him about the color on the covers, like ideas that I had for them.  He was great.  He was always great to work with.  He was very good about telling what was possible and what was flatly impossible, and I remember a few times when he would say, "Hmmm.  I don't remember ever seeing this done before, but I think maybe we can do it."  Considering the limitations at the time, this was the days before computer color.  I guess everything is computerized now.  Back then it was all done by hand.     

Prof:  Right.  The separation processes and such.  It sounds like it was complex and very much an art.

BW:  It was, and a lot of what we wanted to do really depended on artistic ability on the part of the colorist, and most of the colorists…I'm trying to think of a diplomatic way to put it.  The people who actually worked at the plant where they did the separations, for the most part they weren't artists.  In the old days when you look at some of the old Sunday comic strips like Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant, the color is amazing.  Especially when you stop and think that this was all done by hand and the reproduction techniques were very limited at the time, but you look at some of that stuff and it's almost a water color effect.  The color just faded off to white and they managed to do these beautiful things with very crude techniques and tools.  I think in the 30's and 40's, the heyday of the Sunday full color comics, there were artists working in the production end of it and there were people there that really went the extra mile and they really put the extra effort in to make it beautiful and to make it look like a painting.  I don't think it was ever that way with comic books.  Comic books don't really pay well.

Prof:  Right and they didn't really garner any respect in the day.  If you had a syndicated strip you were somebody, and if you were in comic books, at least for quite some time, you were just kind of a hack.

BW:  Exactly.  There was a huge gulf between comic books and comic strips.  That probably doesn't exist any more.  I remember at the time if you were doing a newspaper strip that was it.  You were at the top and that was easy street.  A lot of guys in the 60's and 70's were still talking about, "Oh, geez, I wish I could sell this idea to a syndicate for a newspaper strip."

Prof:  There was a certain prestige there.

BW:  And it paid a lot better, too.  It depended on how many newspapers you had.  It was possible to get rich in cartooning.  

Prof:  You bet.  Look at Percy Crosby who ended up having an equestrian estate in Virginia and it was certainly possible.

BW:  Sure, and Hal Foster was certainly rich from Tarzan and Prince Valiant.  Well, look at Charles Schulz.

Prof:  Sure.  You were one of the first artists to use two light sources on each side of the face with that undulating patch of black dividing the head.  What inspired that technique?

BW:  I stole that from EC comics.  They used to do that all the time and I loved looking at the lighting effects that people like Graham Ingels and Wally Wood could do with the shadows and reflected light and multiple light sources.

Prof:  An extremely effective technique.  In fact I would guess that perhaps that was your major ability as far as setting the mood in a panel or would you say it was more with spotting blacks?

BW:  I think it was mostly that I was just using more black than anybody else at the time and a lot of the stuff I was doing was almost like silhouette where a figure would be mostly in shadow with just a little bit of light on his face.  It's very dramatic looking and it also saves a lot of work.  I remember Jeff Jones telling me one time…I was drawing something and the more I worked on it, the darker it became and the more in shadow it became and I remember Jeff looking at it and I was telling him, "I don't know how far I should take this.  Do I make it mostly silhouette or something?"  Jeff said, "You know what?  It's not a total loss until it goes completely black."  (Mutual laughter.)

Prof:  I like it.  So many of the examples I've seen of your work include just incredibly detailed backgrounds.  What was your typical production rate like, or did you ever employ assistants for that?

BW:  No.  I pretty much always worked alone.  There were times where I asked my friends to help me like I said earlier, back in the old days when you just had to meet a deadline and many hands make light work.  But for the most part I worked on my own and I'm very, very slow.  I'm not one of these guys that can do two pages a day.

Prof:  There don't seem to be many who could actually pull that off.  I've heard legends about [Jack] Kirby and Mike Sekowsky, but beyond that it seems to be something of a patient man's game.

BW:  It is for me.  I was never really good at churning out a lot of work.  I really admired people like Kirby and Mike Sekowsky and I hear Jack Davis also was incredibly fast.

Prof:  The only other one that ever came up was…it was Al Plastino.  He was telling me that when he shared a studio with Jack Sparling that Sparling could just knock them out like crazy and he said, "It kind of got into my blood and I felt like I wasn't working fast enough."  Of course sometimes quality gets sacrificed for quantity, but not necessarily for those we've talked about.  It's a difficult line to walk, I'm sure, particularly when you're talking about your livelihood.

BW:  Almost always you put in a lot more hours than you're actually being paid for in order to meet deadlines.  I remember many nights just staying up all night to get a job done.  

Prof:  Did you have a favorite scripter you liked to interpret back in the day?

BW:  I don't think I could nail it down to a favorite.  I've been really lucky in my career.  I've worked with some of the best people in the business.  I loved working with Len and with Bruce Jones and I've been doing some things lately with Steve Niles and I've been having an awful lot of fun with that.  Jim Starlin.  Just all the really great writers that I've been able to work with over the years.  I've been really, really lucky.

Prof:  I know you did a little bit of work with Bob Kanigher back in the day and it seems like the general consensus was that he was kind of formulaic in his approach.  Did you find him to be that way?

BW:  I don't really remember working with Bob.  I don't think I did that much with him.  I do remember conversations with him up at the office.  He was a fascinating guy.

Prof:  I've heard some interesting stories.  It sounds like he was one of those unforgettable types.  I also see where you worked on The Spectre with Denny O'Neil.

BW:  Yeah, I liked working with Denny, too.  I also remember a Batman mini-series with Jim Starlin and at that time Denny was the editor.  I always loved Denny.  He was one of my favorite people, and he's just a tremendously talented writer.

Prof: I would agree.  He had some great stories when we spoke.  It looks like you nearly always did your own inking over your pencils.  Did anyone else ever ink you?

BW:  Occasionally.  Not too often.  There were a few times in the old days when we would jam together and Jeff Jones did some inking and Mike Kaluta and Al Weiss; and I did a Punisher mini-series about 10 or 12 years ago for Marvel that Jimmy Palmiotti inked.

Prof:  Okay, so definitely not the normal procedure for you.

BW:  No.  Usually I liked to do it all myself. 

Prof:  You've got better control then.  I was talking to someone recently and they were saying, "Just imagine penciling a story and then completely surrendering it to someone else."

BW:  Yeah.  I know I'm going to be inking my own stuff, so when I pencil I take a lot of short cuts because I know what I'm going to do with the inking.  There's a lot of stuff that just doesn't need to be penciled for myself.

Prof:  You have on occasion inked other artists.  I saw where you inked over Steve Ditko once, for example.  Mike Esposito said he made the attempt to follow Steve once and he found it very difficult.  Was that your experience?

BW:  I wouldn't call it difficult.  Everything was there with Ditko's pencils.  No matter who's inking him it always comes out looking like Ditko.  He gives you very little to work with.  It's just kind of basic shapes and outlines and if you're just going to ink him you just follow what he gives you and it comes out looking like Ditko.  It's that strong.  If you want to make it look like you, you really have to re-draw it.  That was my experience with it anyway.

Prof:  Do you recall inking anyone else?

BW:  Occasionally, yeah.  I inked Gil Kane a few times and Kaluta and I inked a whole issue of Green Lantern over Neal Adams.

Prof:  That must have been fun.

BW:  It was.  I think Dick Giordano was the regular inker on that and he got sick or there was work overload or something and they asked me to pitch in for one issue.  That was a lot of fun and again, it came out looking like Neal, because Neal's stuff is just very, very strong.  I just found that there was very little that I could bring to it.  It was all there.  All I did was follow his lines.  

Prof:  What sort of equipment do you favor?

BW:  I like inking with a brush. I very seldom use a pen.  

Prof:  Have you ever tried your hand at writing? 

BW:  I've written a few things, but it comes very hard to me.  So just to get things done and to make a living I'm much more comfortable drawing.  

Prof:  You've collaborated on some of Stephen King's work.  What was that like as opposed to what you typically do?

BW:  I loved working with Stephen King.  I'm just a huge fan of his.  I've been reading his books since they first started to appear in I guess the mid-70's and I'll work with him any time.  

Prof:  It seems like a perfect match.  I think I saw a few examples in "From a Buick 8."  It almost looked like it was strictly pencil work or is my memory failing me?

BW:  No, "From a Buick 8" those were paintings.  

Prof:  Okay.  Maybe I didn't get a good enough copy.  (Chuckle.)  I read where a large book of your Frankenstein work is either about to be released or has been.  Has that been a pretty exciting project?

BW:  Oh, yeah.  Very much so.  It's been around for awhile. This is actually the 25th anniversary edition.  It's coming out from Dark Horse and it's a beautiful book.  They did a great job on it.  

Prof:  So it's been released or is going to be soon?

BW:  It's already out.

Prof:  I'll have to go find it.  I saw a credit for you on a variant cover for a new House of Mystery book.  Was it kind of like coming home again working on that?

BW:  Oh, yeah.  It was great.  I was so excited when they called me about it.  

Prof:  It seems like there have been a lot more of, for lack of a better term, retro work being done lately.  You've got Jim Shooter scripting the Legion of Super-Heroes and you doing work on the House of Mystery it certainly feels like a homecoming for me as a reader.

BW:  It's great.  It's very nostalgic for me.  I have such fond memories of House of Mystery and it's really where I got my start.

Prof:  Did you prefer covers to interior work?

BW:  It really didn't make a whole lot of difference.  What was great about doing covers was that it was one single picture.  It was just one single piece and I could do a cover comfortably in two days, whereas a comic book page would take the better part of a week.  So if I ever got into a situation where I could do a bunch of covers, one right after another, that was great.  It was lots less work and more money.  

Prof:  What more could you ask?  You're a regular on the convention circuit and in fact you were recently the guest of honor at the Baltimore Con.  That must have been kind of a triumphant homecoming.

BW:  It was great.  My wife and I actually stayed an extra day in Baltimore and I took her around and showed her the old neighborhood and everything.  It was really fun.  There's so much there that hasn't changed that I still remember.  

Prof:  Do you have any current projects going that you can talk about?

BW:  I'm working on a 3-issue mini-series for IDW with Steve Niles.  It's called "The Ghoul."

Prof:  When will it be released?

BW:  I don't think it's been scheduled yet.  We're really just getting started on it.  

Prof:  Something to look forward to.  You've got a very active presence on the web.  Have you found it to be a good tool to keep fans updated and so forth?

BW:  Actually, I have no idea.  My wife runs the website (www.wrightsonart.com) and I recently threw my computer out the window.  (Chuckle.)  Not literally, but I had a computer, just like everybody else, and I tried to keep up with e-mails and the internet and all that stuff and it's such a time consuming thing and I'm just no good with technology.  The computer got some kind of virus or something and it finally just shut down completely and I got so frustrated with it.  It literally sat here for almost two years not being used because it was corrupted and I couldn't log on or anything.  I thought, "What a piece of crap."  It's just this absolutely useless piece of furniture.  It's taking up room and I finally just got rid of it.  I don't even have a computer any more.  I don't do e-mails.  I hate e-mails.  

Prof:  (Chuckle.)  They do have a way of expanding to fill every void.

BW:  It's not really that, it's just that nothing ever gets said on an e-mail.  Most of my e-mails consisted of things like, "Oh, great to hear from you, Bernie.  I'll get back to you soon."  Its like, "If it's so great to hear from me, why don't you pick up the damn phone?"

Prof:  (Laughter.)

BW:  "And then we could have like, a conversation."

Prof:  That lost art.

BW:  You say something, I say something and maybe it's funny and we laugh together.  I try to put the word out to all my friends, "If you want to talk to me, pick up the phone and we'll talk.  Actually say words and stuff."  (Chuckle.)

Prof:  Yeah.  My wife and I have this running joke, "Have we just got such superficial relationships that people only call us when they want something?"  I get to where I hate to answer the phone half the time.

BW:  It seems like that sometimes and if you really let yourself think about it, it's pretty depressing.

Prof:  Yeah, so I'd just better move along from that one.  (Chuckle.)  Are you actively doing any commission work?

BW:  No, I don't do commissions.  One of the things that has kept me out of advertising work all these years is I hate art directors.  No, I shouldn't say that because some of them, I'm sure, are very nice people.  I hate art direction, and I hate being art directed.  I've tried doing a few commissions and it always turns out to be art direction.  Someone will ask for a drawing of Batman, so I'll do a really nice, moody, atmospheric drawing of Batman, and the client will see it and say, "Oh, this is great!  Um…could you put a moon over in this corner?  And on the other side have the bat signal shining?  And while you're at it, could you turn around so he's facing the other way?"

Prof:  (Laughter.)  I can see where that would get old quickly.  That explains in part, other than the sheer quality of your work, why so many of your pieces of art go for such astronomical prices.  Sheer scarcity.

BW:  Yeah.  I really haven't done that much.  My God, I shudder to think what will happen when I die.  (Chuckle.)  The prices will just go through the roof.  

Prof:  Unquestionably.  What do you like to do to unwind, Bernie?

BW:  Watch T.V. and drink a few beers.  I don't really have that many interests.  I don't like sports, so I never go to sporting events.  I'll occasionally watch a baseball game on T.V. if it's a team I'm interested in and going out have become very expensive.  I stopped going to movies a few years ago mostly because the audience is just rude.  

Prof:  Too fully engaged sometimes.

BW:  Or distracted.  The last movie I saw…I can't even remember what the movie was, but I remember a bunch of teenaged girls sitting right behind me on their cell phones and describing the movie to their friends.  Its like, "Did you people get in here free?  Did you not pay $15.00 to come in here?  Are you rich?  Does that money mean nothing to you?  So you can pay that much money to come in here and not even watch the movie?"  Anyway, (chuckle) I'm getting a reputation in my old age as a real grouch.

Prof:  Well, save a seat, because I think I'm right beside you.  More and more I find myself being a homebody, because it's a lot more peaceful.

BW:  Well, yeah and you're pretty much in control of your life when you're at home.  

Prof:  That's it.  Bernie, I can't thank you enough for your time.

BW:  My pleasure.

Don’t you believe for a minute that Bernie is a grouch. He couldn’t have been more gracious and it was great getting acquainted. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did dear readers and the webmaster and I look forward to hosting you again in the requisite two weeks when this feature will be updated with another review and another interview. I love to hear from you, so express yourself at: professor_the@hotmail.com.


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