This is a short story of love and regret, about my favorite artist, Bernie Wrightson.
Growing up in Paradise Hills (San Diego), I would save up my pennies and bike or walk miles every few weeks to National City's Comic Castle to look at new comics. But the truth is, I really went to find new Bernie Wrightson books. I'd been given a stack of old Warren, Metal Hurlant and National Lampoon magazines by a boyfriend of my mother's early on, and KNEW Bernie was God.
Searching through the stacks on a weekly basis, I'd get enraged that the comics buyer was somehow missing out on Bernie. “Where's the Bernie?!!”, I’d ask to blank stares. Sure, there were other, brief flirtations— the 3 Johns (Buscema, Byrne, Romita Jr.), Philippe Caza and Moebius, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Bill Willingham's 'Elementals', Mike Mignola, and others... But it was always about Bernie— he was The One, the reason I'd go home and draw, never having a clue how he did what he did- just that I wanted to do it too, as good as he did it.
Picked up his whole run of Swamp Things over time (still the best Batman EVER). Picked up Hooky and The Cult and The Weird. Cycle Of The Werewolf is still a favorite- Bernie really did the BEST werewolves. I would chatter for hours to whomever would listen that 'Frankenstein' was the reason no one else was capable of doing art, period.
Years later, I went to the Joe Kubert School and got exposed to many more artists, including Joe. Classmates were enthralled with the 'new' kids on the block, the Image gang— but I continued to beat the Bernie drum. "I don't think any of you have a clue— Bernie's the best!", I'd say as we drank beers on a Friday night and talked about what got us there. My classmates thought I was crazy (with the exception of one Matt Roach- who was a better Bernie imitator than I could ever hope to be).
Upon graduating, I took a job as the Art Director of Heavy Metal Magazine in New York City. My favorite magazine! Upon walking in my first day, I looked Howard Jurofsky, the Publisher, in the eye and said, "I want to hire Bernie Wrightson! And Richard Corben! And Philippe Caza! I want to make Heavy Metal great again!" Howard laughed at my youthful naivete (and put me to work doing paste-ups and mechanicals). After a short month or so, I returned to San Diego now working as an intern with those brash young heroes at WildStorm.
Coming into the Image/WildStorm fray, I was a brush guy- after all, Bernie was a brush master- I needed to bring that to WS. After some horrendous results, Tom McWeeney sat me down and patiently explained that I needed to know how to use the nib- Bernie was a pen master too, you know (thanks again Tom- saved my career!)...
Over time, I became a real professional. I discovered other artists and added new techniques and skills to my bag of tricks. And I came to view Bernie as part of a 'holy triangle' of art, along with John Buscema and Mike Mignola.
Eventually, I'd get invited to pro parties and meet Bernie. I sat next to him at a Gaijin party once— right next to him!— and listened to hilarious stories about Stephen King and making movies and good beers, but was too shy to talk to him. I became an art director again and wanted to hire him. But my shyness and long-standing hero worship of him prevented me from talking to him— I'd literally freeze up EVERY TIME I SAW HIM. Other friends, other pros would laugh at me— "Mark, Bernie's the nicest guy you could ever want to meet. You need to talk to him, let him know how much you appreciate him." I just couldn't do it, couldn’t get over the stage fright.
My wife eventually sort of thawed that ice for me- she marched right over to Bernie at an SDCC (1997? '98 maybe?) and said, 'My husband, the guy standing over there all red-faced, LOVES YOU. He's your biggest fan- would you sign a print for him?" Bernie started laughing and was very gracious. He signed a few items for me, and I said a few words to him (still shaking), and off I went.
Many years have passed since then. I did manage to call him once for a job that he passed on. And I’d say hello at conventions (not even sure he remembered me) when I saw him. But Bernie is still The Man to me, the greatest influence and art love of my career and really, ‘comics’ life. My well-worn copies of A Look Back, Freakshow, and The Studio have been pulled out for perusal today. My stomach churns at the thought of all those missed opportunities to say and feel, "Yeah, Bernie's a friend." And I'll pore over every piece and every panel, every wonderful line and think, "we lost the best of us." R.I.P. Bernie— I wish I could have known you as a friend, but I am thankful for what you gave me as an artistic inspiration.
— Mark Irwin, Insight Comics
Mark Irwin is senior editor at Insight Comics. He has worked with Marvel and DC Comics, Heavy Metal Magazine, Konami, Nickelodeon, and many others over his twenty-five-year career as an art director, editor, and illustrator.