Meeting Our Idols
I’ve been a fan of Bernie Wrightson’s work for several decades now. In the 70’s Wrightson shared a studio with Barry Windsor-Smith, Jeff Jones and Mike Kaluta. Being the ingenious artist types that they were, they named it “The Studio” and collectively and separately produced some of the finest comic art ever seen. There are not many creators who reduce me to a slobbering fanboy, but these four artists do just that.
Wrightson is perhaps best known as the co-creator of “Swamp Thing” for DC Comics in the 70’s. Certainly Swamp Thing is typical of his defining genre of work- horror. His work is macabre and dynamic, full of zombies and monsters. It is a genre that I’m not normally a big fan of, but there is something about his art that transcends it. One thing is for certain, you won’t mistake his work for that of anyone else, or vice versa. While he has influenced a large number of artists, nobody else’s work looks quite like his.
It is natural for passionate fans to want to meet the creators of their favorite works. Comic conventions across the world give us fans a chance to meet our favorite artist and writers, which I think helps solidify the bond that we feel with our hobby. I had attended a number of those conventions and met a number of artists, but the one single creator I was fervently awaiting was Bernie Wrightson.
On two separate occasions he was scheduled to appear at conventions in nearby Dallas. Each time I loaded up some 80 lbs of books for him to sign. Both times I was disappointed, as he was forced for one reason or another to cancel. By this point meeting Bernie Wrightson was more than just a casual desire. It was a quest!
Then one summer, Michael Kaluta was at a comic show in Dallas. I made the trip there, waited around all of the first day, only to have him show up as I was leaving. So I journeyed back the next day. The extra trip was worth it. Kaluta was friendly, and very happy to share anecdotes. He drew me a little “Shadow head” inside the Shadow book I took for him to sign. I bought another sketch from him and left feeling like I had met one of the true nice guys in comics. My vigor was renewed. I would fulfill my destiny! I would meet Bernie Wrightson!
Finally Bernie was scheduled to appear at the Fantasy Fair in Dallas (OK, so I had never met the man. After lugging around 90lbs of books in vain hopes to meet him, I was on a first name basis with him whether he liked it or not). The Fantasy Fair went bankrupt days before the show (another story entirely) but Bernie was still scheduled to appear at a makeshift show that was thrown together to replace it. So once again I made my way to the show, 100 lbs of books in tow. I waited at his empty table for hours before he arrived, quivering in anticipation of all the stories that I just knew he would tell. After meeting Kaluta, I was certain he would recognize me as his greatest fan and share some personal insights into his work.
Finally he arrived, portfolio in tow. He complimented the shirt I was wearing (A Comic Book Legal Defense Fund shirt- every comic fan should have at least two) and asked me to help move his table a few feet down. I hoped that no one noticed the pool of fanboy drool collecting at my feet. He seemed personable and friendly. Once he sat down a change seemed to come over him. He was still friendly enough, and extremely polite. He was, however, all business. Perhaps it was years of signing “Swamp Thing” comics at countless conventions, or maybe it was just that the hordes of fans worshipping his every pen stroke made him a bit uncomfortable. Either way, no matter what kind of question I posed to him, I got the same response. He would smile his most polite convention smile and say “Hey, Thanks for coming out!” It was obvious that he was on comic show autopilot.
I went to the show all three days and purchased some original art from him. I left happy with my acquisitions (a zombie sketch and three small paintings), but vaguely disappointed. I had built up expectations of meeting Bernie Wrightson that simply could not be met. Over the next couple of years, as I enjoyed his art (hanging proudly in my library) I slowly came to realize that I had gotten a lot more from him than I had realized. His art and the various comics he had illustrated, were important parts of my life. If I had not made a special connection to Bernie Wrightson the person, that didn’t matter, because Bernie Wrightson the artist had produced a tremendous amount of work for me to enjoy.
A couple of years later I met Bernie at another show. Now a card carrying member of his fan club, I had a lot less books to take for him to sign. I did, however, have a recently acquired hardcover of “Freakshow” that I proudly handed him to sign. I asked him if he would sign it “To David: Thanks for coming out!” He looked at me oddly for a moment, and then graciously complied. I left happy with my memento (and perhaps a little smug at my own inside joke). While I might not have made the fan connection to him that I envisioned, I still learned something about not only him, but myself as well. I saw him as a person and not this giant that had to live up to my expectations. He produced truly great work and was gracious to his fans (me), but beyond that, his life was his own. Like any artist, he shares his work with us and we are richer for it.
Of course, now Bernie Wrightson thinks I’m gay.