October 28, 2008

Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein


Just in time for Halloween: This week, Dark Horse Books is releasing a new, 25th anniversary edition of Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein.

I am resisting the urge to post a ton of drawings from the book, but there is no monitor in existence large enough and sharp enough to accommodate the size and the fine details of Wrightson’s Frankenstein art. Images here are mere glimpses, very heavily cropped. You’ll have to seek out the book to fully appreciate the art.

Bernie Wrightson fell in love with Frankenstein, like most of us, through the magic of the Karloff movies. As a kid, he tried to read the novel, found it opaque, incomprehensible. As an illustrator and a comic book artist, Wrightson often drew Karloffian Frankensteins, and he would eventually contribute a memorable take on the character, the Patchwork Man, for the Swamp Thing comic he co-created with writer Len Wein. Then, one day, irresistibly drawn, Bernie Wrightson returned to the novel, to be captured, finally, by the depth and the sweep of it, and to make a momentous decision. He would illustrate the novel, faithfully, as written by Mary Shelley. A self-imposed challenge, a personal mission, the job would take seven years to complete.

The result, first published in 1983, is a masterpiece. There are no definitive illustrated versions of Frankenstein. Many artists have attempted the task, and all are interesting in their interpretations, but Wrightson’s version is magnificent by any standard and certainly stands with the best, up there with the genius of Lynd Ward’s woodcuts.

In large, panoramic, black and white drawings, engraved in busy pen and ink, Wrightson captures the scope, the scale of the story. It’s a wonderful tale to illustrate with its period costumes and majestic landscapes. Wrightson attacks it all in rigorous and dramatic detail. The action switches from Alpine glaciers to windswept fields, to fractured Arctic wastes. There’s a heavily rigged sea vessel plying under churning skies, a snowbound cemetery, a study stacked with an impossible number of books. There’s massive architecture, soaring windows with endless drapes and monumental doors 20 feet high.


Frankenstein’s primitive lab is literally bursting with hundreds of crowded bottles and retorts, strewn books and curled parchments spilling out of chests and off packing crates, baskets and nets full of instruments, discarded skulls, and the scientist’s grisly work lying on a rough slab under beams hung with pulleys and chains.

The detail is incredible, every scene rendered fully, down, it seems, to every blade of grass. And then there’s the true measure of the book: The interpretation of The Monster.

Wrightson follows Mary Shelley’s description to the letter. Here, personified, is the wretched giant whose skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing… his watery eyes… his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.

Wrightson’s death’s head Monster is perfectly realized, and then some: Wrightson is resolutely on script, accurate to Mary Shelley’s description, but there’s more here, there’s a clear connection to Wrightson’s original inspiration. Look closely; this Monster is “played” by Boris Karloff. The hooded eyes, that unmistakable lower lip. It’s Karloff all right. Wrightson, brilliantly, brings Karloff full circle, back to Mary Shelley.

Long out of print, hard and expensive to find, Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein is available again in a beautiful done hardcover from Dark Horse Press, with an introduction by Stephen King. Don’t miss this one.

The book arrives in comic shops on October 29 and it’s available right now through The Frankenstore.


Dark Horse Books, with preview pages. Also on Facebook.

A fan site with images.

Bernie Wrightson’s website.


6 comments:

Cory Gross said...

Thanks for tipping us off to this! Wrightson's work on Frankenstein is easily the equal of the great illustrator/engravers, like a Gustave Dore. I'm glad to hear that it's back in print!

Max the drunken severed head said...

My thanks, too, Pierre!

tom said...

Nice writeup of a fine book. I got the Dark Horse edition a couple weeks ago, they did a nice job. Anyone know what's up with the Ultimate Edition?

Anonymous said...

what's the matter, man, you don't want to hear anything upsetting about this guy? I'm telling you, go to your local library and put your hands on the old 1940's copy of Arthur L. Guptill's "Drawing in Pen and Ink" and look up Samuel Chamberlain's illustrations and you'll see that your boy Wrightson lifted entire PAGES from this guy.

I think it's telling that you deleted my post. Personally, I don't really care but I'm wondering why you're sticking your head in the sand when the truth is right there to be seen and proved.

Oh, WTF, he's still a good artist and all that, but, dude, you just DON'T copy other people's work stroke for stroke and then put it out there and then call it your own and smile when people praise you for "your" work. You just don't DO that, ok?

Pierre Fournier said...

You’ve got it ass-backwards, “dude”. What you ‘just don’t DO” is post on a comment thread or a message board, denigrate someone, attack his reputation, and then slink away without leaving a trace. Easy, isn’t it? And cowardly. Mr. Wrightson signs his name to his work, as I do my blog. We stand up for and answer to what we do. You don’t.

Your “proof” of wrongdoing is “Go see for yourself!”. You also invited me to confront the artist. Sorry, I don’t work for Mr. Anonymous.

It’s your responsibility to back up your otherwise spurious claims. Scan and compare images, make your case. And it’s up to you to confront and expose the artist. You can submit your whistle-blowing exposé to any number of websites and blogs that are more widely read and far more influential than mine. I’ll gladly provide a list. You can even fire up your own blog in 30 seconds. What are you waiting for? Just be sure to sign your name, and stand up for your claims.

When you do publish your exposé, may I suggest that you refrain from wild exaggerations and empty-headed expressions like “stroke for stroke” and “lifted entire PAGES”, with caps for effect, that weaken your argument. Please avoid the highly disingenuous practice of praising an artist and disparaging him within the same sentence. It reeks of dishonesty. And most of all, try to understand the difference between a swipe and a reference. You obviously have no clue.

Look, try this: Draw me a picture of the Eiffel Tower. You can either fly to Paris and do onsite sketches, or you can consult a photograph. That’s called a reference. Now, draw me a picture of a European village in the late 1700s. You can either use your time machine, or reference a drawing of same. Case in point, there’s an illustration by Mr. Wrightson of The Monster running from villagers that has a house in the background based on a drawing by Chandel. Not a swipe, and certainly not plagiarism, a grave accusation that you level recklessly. Not a tracing, not a “stroke for stroke” lift either, but a reference, adapted, interpreted and skillfully and intelligently integrated into a new drawing.

Study Franklin Booth and you will see where Mr. Wrightson learned how to draw a dappled forest scene or towering storm clouds in the exacting period pen and ink style he chose, to great effect, for his illustrations. In fact, Mr. Wrightson himself would be the first one to point it out. He has always been generous and even enthusiastic in acknowledging and discussing his influences. Mr. Wrightson’s Frankenstein has been published in various editions over a twenty-five year period, he has also published his sketches and preliminary drawings, and he has stood proudly —justifiably so — behind his work.

The only thing that is “telling” about my flushing your previous comments is that I won’t let anyone use my blog to post malicious gossip. Quote Mr. Anonymous: “You just don't DO that, ok?”

You said “don’t shoot the messenger”. You flatter yourself. Misinformed, misleading accusations and freewheeling aspersions, posted anonymously, don’t make you a messenger. They make you a troll.

Max the drunken severed head said...

Hear, hear! Way to tell it, Pierre!

Some folks don't understand the meaning of the word "integrity", it seems.

Max Cheney