Monday, May 8, 2017

Remembering Bernie Wrightson

(Bernie and Voz)

When I broke into comics in the mid 1970’s there was an astonishing number of new talent that arrived in the business as comics were suddenly feeling a resurgence. One of these was Bernie Wrightson, who I had been aware of from comic fandom, which introduced me to this world, and was also the gestation pool a large segment of the newcomers. 

From the first work I saw of his in fandom, it was pretty clear that Bernie was certainly cut above most of us, and when his first stories started to appear in print, there was the realization that that gap might be even wider. What he was doing was pretty special.

I first met Bernie on one of my trips to NYC when I was schlepping my portfolio around to the publishers looking for steady work. When I came into the city one of my old friends from Detroit, Al Milgrom,  graciously always lets me crash at his apartment which he shared with Walt Simonson. One night they dragged me over to visit Howard Chaykin’s studio, and while we were there, we dropped down a floor to also say hello to Bernie who also lived in the building. 

He was working on a series of Edgar Allen Poe oil paintings. Bernie had already achieved a level of fame as one of the premier artists working in pen and ink with his Swamp Thing book, and now he was trying a different medium. He was curious about our take on the work. Needless to say it was stunning. Whatever respect I had for his talent before, now I was truly impressed. 

What I came away with from that first meeting was not only just how good Bernie was, but also how well he treated you. There was a definite pecking order in comics from how the editors reacted to  you on down, and even among your peers. But there didn’t seem to be any of that with Bernie. He always treated me and my work as if we were equals. That was something I truly liked and respected him for.
(Bernie, Batton Lash, Don Glut, Bill Stout)

I saw a bit of Bernie now and then in those early years, either when I was in NYC, or at conventions. I do remember once being the designated driver with a van when Bernie, Walt, Al and myself drove upstate to visit Jeff Jones. Seems I was the only one who knew how to drive a stick shift…and it was my first experience driving in NYC traffic. However, in the mid 80’s I moved to LA with my wife Annie, and saw very little of the comic book crowd as I started working in animation and advertising and film. 

There was a show in Pasadena that I attended to meet a potential buyer of some artwork, who ended up blowing me off. At the time, the same was pretty important so I was pretty bummed;however I did run into my good friend Trevor Goring who suggested I bring in a portfolio to the Chronicles of Narnia movie and I ended up working on those for the next five years.

And as I was leaving that show, suddenly down the cooridor I hear someone yelling out my name, and there comes Bernie and grabs me and gives me a big hug like I was a long lost friend. Once we reconnected, we got together several times for dinner and I got to meet his wife Liz, and his two sons. They were always great gatherings with interesting conversation. Usually it was at our house in Tujunga, or at a monthly gathering of artists I used to host at an Italian restaurant in Burbank. It was good times. There was another space when he suddenly wasn’t around, and I discovered he had moved out of LA.

(Above Bernie and Bill Stout. Below Bernie, Mike Kaluta, Barry Smith and Jeff Jones)

Working in the commercial art business gives you a fairly nomadic life. You meet folks and work closely with them for a shorter or longer times and you’re best friends. Then the job changes and you never see them again. It is always tough to stay in contact with your friends and acquaintances as distance and jobs drag you in different directions. With Bernie you also had the reality of dealing with a celebrity. The last time I saw him was at a convention in Anaheim where we were having an interesting conversation and catching up a bit. A group of fans descend on him  and and I was suddenly standing on the sidelines. It wasn't Bernie who pushed me there, but you understood that there were restraints on his time and availability. 

What always impressed me when I saw Bernie and his family, was just how much two boys loved and respected him, and how devoted he was to them. Someone had told me once that Bernie didn’t have a great relationship with his own father, but there certainly was a bond among all the members of his own family. There was great affection between him and his wife Liz. Most fans will think of him as a world class artist, but for me I always remember him as world class dad and husband. It was an honor and a pleasure knowing him and his family.  

1 comment:

  1. Wow Mike! I hope I get an obituary like that! Thanks for sharing such personal stuff. He gave me pleasure in his artwork in the comics I bought. You are so lucky to know the guy. RIP Bernie