From The Comics Journal #76 (October 1982)
Berni Wrightson, famous for his graphic portraits of rotting zombies, slavering werewolves, maniacal axe-murderers, and drooling witches (as well as the odd dinosaur or sword-wielding barbarian), is possibly the most popular artist to emerge from comics’ short-lived artistic renaissance of the late 1960s; one might say that he, along with his contemporaries Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Michael Kaluta, and Barry Windsor-Smith, were the motivating forces behind that peak period. It wasn’t just what Wrightson drew that made his work so striking, but the attitudes behind his work.
After an apprenticeship as an editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Sun (and a fanzine illustrator for such publications as Squa Tront, Amra, Heritage, and others too numerous to mention), Wrightson graduated to the professional comics, drawing two issues of Nightmaster for DC’s Showcase. From there, he went on to revitalize DC’s mystery titles, bringing to them his zest for all things gruesome and ghoulish; during this period, his style became increasingly lush and sophisticated.
While working in color comics, Wrightson also worked briefly for Web of Horror, a black-and-white Creepy imitation that lasted three issues and also featured the work of Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta, and Ralph Reese. Wrightson worked briefly for Marvel: the bulk of his comics work, however, was done for DC in the early to mid-’70s, and it was there that he scored his greatest popular success in comics with Swamp Thing. The feature was popular enough to spawn a feature film (albeit a poor one); many believe Swamp Thing’s success was due (with all respect to Len Wein) to Wrightson’s superb artwork.
After winning the Academy of Comic Book Arts’ award as Best Artist for two years running, Wrightson left color comics (for good, he thought) to pursue other projects, including work for Warren’s line of black-and-white horror magazines. He produced some classic work for Warren: many impressive single page illustrations, adaptations of stories by Poe and Lovecraft, and original collaborations with Jeff Jones and Bruce Jones. Among Wrightson’s other projects during this time were a series of full color horror and fantasy paintings executed in a variety of media, issued as posters by Christopher Enterprises, and an eight-painting portfolio based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
It was late in 1975 that Wrightson began work on what might prove to be the most distinguished and important project in his oeuvre; as of this writing, he is nearing completion of his profusely illustrated edition of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it has been suggested that Wrightson’s monster will stand as the definitive graphic interpretation.
In 1978 Wrightson’s work appeared alongside that of his friends Kaluta, Jones, and Windsor-Smith in The Studio Book, an artistic chronicle of the two years that the four artists shared a studio on Manhattan’s West Side. A Look Back, a voluminous collection of Wrightson’s work from every phase of his career, was published in 1979 by Christopher Zavisa.
Wrightson’s latest project, a full-color comics adaptation of Stephen King’s screenplay for George Romero’s feature film, Creepshow, has just been released.
Recently, Executive Editor Gary Groth (assisted by Peppy White) visited the smiling master of the macabre, who remained cheerful throughout the following conversation, despite a broken leg.
This interview was conducted in May 1982. It was transcribed by Tom Mason and copy edited by Gary Groth.
GARY GROTH: [Referring to Harlan Ellison’s introduction to Berni Wrightson: A Look Back] Were you intimately familiar with Katsushika Hiroshige’s work?
BERNI WRIGHTSON: Who? [Laughter.] No. I was a little dismayed when I read Harlan’s intro, because he seemed to go off on that and boy, he just lost me in that first paragraph. I thought, “Gee, I don’t know these guys.” I’m real happy for Harlan that he’s familiar with them and all and I’m glad he likes their work but I just never heard of them before. And I thank him for bringing it to my attention, and I have since looked into it and the guy is quite good and I can see all the correlations and everything but at the time, I just said, “what the hell is he talking about?”
GROTH: Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, why don’t we talk about Creepshow, the newest thing you’re doing—the adaptation of the Romero/King film collaboration. Could you talk about what it is, how you got involved in it, how big it is, who you’re doing it for, and what format it’s going to be in?
WRIGHTSON: Oh boy.
GROTH: All at once.
WRIGHTSON: Well, NAL (New American Library) is doing it. They’ve never done a comic book before but they are King’s publisher right now. So they of course want to do it; it’s going to be a trade paperback along the lines of the Alien comic book, whatever that sold for. Sixty-four pages I think, full color. So whatever those things are going for now, that’s what it’ll be. It’s kind of a comic book adaptation of the movie and I say kind of because the movie is kind of an adaptation of a comic book.
WRIGHTSON: No, it’s a very EC-like, horror comic called Creepshow. Basically it starts out with a kid reading a comic book in his bedroom and his father comes in, takes it away from him and says, “You readin’ this shit?” and throws it out in the garbage and the wind blows the comic book open to the first page (of course a storm is coming up), and the camera comes down on the splash page real tight; the drawing, which is done by Jack Kamen, becomes a freeze frame, and the first story starts. And the whole story runs through and the last shot becomes a freeze-frame, turns into a comic picture, the camera pulls back, and you see a full page and this awful skeletal hand reaches in and turns the page, and so on. And it just goes on like this for five stories. At the end of the last story it pulls back, freeze-frame, comic book, it fades out and comes back in to some garbage men coming down the street and they find this comic book laying in the garbage can. The guy picks it up, looks at it and says, “What is that?” “That’s a comic book.” “Oh great, say, I love this stuff” and he’s thumbing through it and he says, “Oh, look at these ads. Look at this. Venus Fly Trap. Look at this, X-Ray glasses. You want some of those? And how about that, A voodoo doll?” “I don’t know, somebody already got that,” and he holds it up and there’s the thing clipped out. The camera cuts to the kid’s house and his father’s sitting in the kitchen and he’s going like this [rubbing neck] and his wife’s at the sink saying, “What’s the matter honey?” “I don’t know, I slept on my neck funny or something, just kind of got a pain back there.” Cuts upstairs, kid’s got this voodoo doll and he’s sticking in the neck of it and it freeze-frames, becomes a comic book drawing, the camera pulls back and it’s the cover of the next issue. End of movie. So it’s just this really neat kind of well worked out thing.
GROTH: And King wrote the movie?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Did the whole screenplay, everything. A couple of the stories in it are adaptations of things he had published elsewhere. The longest segment is “The Crate” and runs about 30, 40 minutes, and appeared in Cavalier, Gallery, or something, and another one, the segment that King is in, which is a short one, like 15 or 16 minutes, was originally published under the title of “Weeds,” in some men’s magazine, I think. Anyhow, I didn’t get to see the whole movie because I was down there in October of last year and at that time the movie should have been done, but they were running overtime.
GROTH: Down where?
WRIGHTSON: Pittsburgh. And they were just finishing up the segment that Stephen King is in. And I was there. I was only supposed to be there for a couple of days to talk with King and Romero and try and get correlated with them about what we wanted to do with the comic book. But I ended up being there a week because I had to talk to the producer and he was out of the country. Just a lot of missed connections and everything. So, I spent a lot of time hanging around the studio, watching the movie being made and looking at footage that had already been shot. It’s not going to be Jaws, and it’s not going to be Superman, but it’s going to be a lot of fun. I got a real good feeling about it. Romero’s got a real respect for trash, if you know what I mean. The kind of trashiness that’s associated with horror comics. Or like B horror movies and stuff like that. The man has a genuine love and the movie has this kind of trashy aspect about it which is totally intentional, and it’s something that a slicker director would have missed entirely. It’s like the Vault of Horror and Tales of the Crypt movies. But those things are really kind of lame, just all the slickness, and pretentiousness and really, “Well, I know it’s coming from a comic book, but this is the movies, my good man.”
GROTH: That brings to mind Kubrick’s [The] Shining.
GROTH: Which was just ponderous.
WRIGHTSON: Right. Right. Because King has a very trashy aspect to him and about this stuff. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in telling a horror story. Whereas that didn’t come across in Kubrick’s movie at all. Kubrick’s movie was very prissy somehow. Even though the performances were terrific, and you can’t fault the production and all it’s just, “Christ, who wrote the cretinous script” and really changed the thing around. Creepshow is just the other end of the scale entirely. It’s like every drive-in movie there ever was rolled into one. Just real great spirit of fun about it.
GROTH: Good trash.
WRIGHTSON: Good, good trash. Yeah. Exactly.
GROTH: How many pages is your adaptation!
GROTH: And it’s in full color?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. My adaptation doesn’t have the bridge thing with the little kid, because we figured as far as the movie goes, that’s reality and what we want to present to the public is the same thing the kid is holding in the movie, which is just a comic book.
GROTH: And the coloring is full process?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. The coloring is done by my wife, as is the lettering. I just couldn’t handle the whole thing myself, and besides, I prefer that she do it because after drawing that many pages I just don’t want to know from it any more.
GROTH: You don’t want to look at it any more.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Just take it away from me, please. [Laughter.]
GROTH: What was it like getting back into comics after staying away for a few years?
WRIGHTSON: A little stiff at first. But I was surprised. I got back into it very easily, and I think the material had a lot to do with it. I was just working with good stuff.
GROTH: Did King write the comics adaptation, or did you adapt it yourself?
WRIGHTSON: No, he offered to, and I told him I would prefer just to take the screenplay, which is like this thick [indicate 5 inches], this massive tome of a screenplay, something like 3-4,000 scenes. And I just took that and re-adapted it myself to comics. I did a lot of editing and deleting, because, Christ, the way he writes, I just didn’t want to lose a word of it. But it was just too much to put into 11 pages a lot of times, because his dialogue is just so rich.
GROTH: Have you read some of his other books? Are you familiar with his work generally?
WRIGHTSON: Oh, I’ve read everything he’s ever written.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I’m a big fan of his. And that helped too. I’ve never felt this good about a project this big all the way through. It’s always been the case where I was real excited to begin with, and then halfway through it starts to run out and towards the last quarter, I could give a shit. And it really falls down.
GROTH: Which is what happened to Swamp Thing?
WRIGHTSON: Oh, yeah. It’s like 90 percent of my work you can look at and the last quarter of it falls flat. I just really run out of steam. And Creepshow doesn’t do that.
GROTH: I guess we’ll get into this more later, but to do comics and to do illustration must take an entirely different frame of mind. You really have to change your approach.
WRIGHTSON: It does. Yeah.
GROTH: Could you talk a little about that? Breaking things down into small panels as opposed to having a major illustration.
WRIGHTSON: It’s kind of difficult to talk about, really.
GROTH: Do you have to simplify your drawing for comics?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, which is something I didn’t realize until just recently. You just can’t go on putting all that work in there. Like when I brought out the first Frankenstein portfolio and had these things selling at conventions a couple of kids, came up and said “Boy, I really wish you were doing comics again” and I felt a little miffed because I had these illustrations and I said, “What do you mean doing comics again?” “Oh, I could see you doing comics because you do a whole comic book and every panel would look like that” and he pointed to one of these Frankenstein things and I said, “You’re out of your Goddamn mind. There’s no way I would put that kind of work into it any more.” Not that I ever did in the first place. You just can’t do it. I don’t know what percentage applies to comics … but a good deal of comics rely on spontaneity in the way it’s done and the spontaneity is communicated to the reader in a way. It seems to me that a comic book is enjoyed spontaneously in direct ratio to how spontaneously it is produced. And I’m not saying that “quick comics is good comics,” because you can work a long time on a comic book and still be spontaneous, but it does reach a point of overwork. I love Steranko’s work, and always have. Especially his comic stuff. But, too many times, I think he really overworks it and just cerebralizes it a little too much and, I don’t know about the rest of his audience, but he loses me when that starts to happen. And I can’t think of any specific instances because I haven’t seen his stuff in quite a while. But I remember that happening to me pretty often. Like once a job, at least.
PEPPY WHITE: His Outland adaptation was sort of like that.
WRIGHTSON: I never saw enough of Outland because I didn’t get Heavy Metal regularly enough to follow it, so all I could see of Outland was an isolated episode here and there. So I couldn’t really say how it worked all strung together, but I kind of got that feeling from it. Although that might be a prejudice now that’s kind of built in. I kind of expect it from Steranko. But I hate to single him out because I really like his work, but he’s the only example I can think of right now of really overwork … well, Neal [Adams] does it too. Neal at his worst. Neal at his best can be the best fucking comic-book guy in the business. The Superman-Muhammad Ali thing is just a classic and I still take that thing out and read it, it’s still enjoyable. And that’s Neal at his best. But you can look back and see where a lot of that stuff came from which was just Neal at his worst, well, not at his worst, but being experimental and all. And a lot of the stuff just didn’t make it.
GROTH: What do you think of Krigstein and his work for EC with all that over-elaborating and so on?
WRIGHTSON: I’ll tell you I’m probably least excited by Krigstein of any of the EC guys, including Kamen. You talk to anybody, he’s the guy that everybody is least excited about. I’m more excited about Kamen than Krigstein. But then, you have to understand. I’m always going to be more of an illustrator than a storyteller. And I look at the drawing and I don’t really like Krigstein’s drawing. And if I don’t like the drawing I don’t read the story. And if you don’t read the story you can’t comment on the storytelling. And I do read the Krigstein stories, but I’m really turned off by the drawing.
GROTH: I tended to think you would be. You’re one of the few people who can be an illustrator and comic artist with equal facility. I don’t know if you consider that to be true, but it seems true to me.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, there aren’t a lot of us around. I don’t know who else I can think of … Kaluta, Jeff [Jones]. Although I really wouldn’t call Jeff an illustrator, and I don’t think he’s really done enough comics to qualify as a comics artist. He likes to dabble and play around with the medium, but he’s certainly not an illustrator and I think he’d be upset if I called him one.
WHITE: What does he consider himself to be?
WRIGHTSON: An artist. And I think that’s about as much as you can nail it down with him. I think he doesn’t mind being called a painter but there’s a lot more to him than that.
GROTH: One of the major criticisms about most of the EC artists was that they were illustrators and not comic book artists. People like Williamson, Frazetta, and so on.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, but is that much of a criticism? I don’t really consider it anything like a put-down. What the hell is wrong with good draftsmanship, good drawing? And as far as storytelling, outside of Krigstein, who, from what I understand, was just hanging on by a toenail there because of what he did to Feldstein’s stories, you couldn’t do much in the way of storytelling. Krigstein blocked that stuff out and it was all very straightforward, cookie-cutter breakdowns, never varied from the standard format, which I always thought was one of the great strong points of EC, was that terrifically overpowering format they had. Speaking more in line with the horror books it seems like any artist of a lesser caliber than they had would not have been able to survive the format, the format was that tight and that restrictive that you needed somebody who could really draw well and draw straight. Even Graham Ingels was considered a straight artist.
GROTH: Yeah, that’s because the format was so strict. I guess what we’re getting into now, what comics are developing into is a more organic process where the artist is the writer or the artist and writer work so closely together they almost become one.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. That’s good and bad. There aren’t too many artists around who work well as their own writers, myself included. Sometimes it clicks, most of the time, no. Never really have been. There have been people like Eisner, Johnny Craig …
WRIGHTSON: Kurtzman … Woody [Wallace Wood], to some extent.
GROTH: Have you seen Miller’s work?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Yeah. I like what I’ve seen. I think he could spend a little more time on his drawing. Not too much though, he’s got it down. Personally, his drawing doesn’t turn me off to the point where I don’t read the stories. So I read the stories and it’s like … Christ, his strong point really is storytelling. I mean, aside from plotting, characterization, and everything else it’s just this cinematic, well let’s just get on with it.
GROTH: I would think the reason the drawing doesn’t bother you so much is because the narrative is so powerful.
WRIGHTSON: That might be, but I really don’t think there’s all that much wrong with the drawing. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to that Marvel house style, but that’s something I think everybody’s gotten used to, as far as super heroes go anyway. Kirby set the pattern for that 20 years ago and, hell, we’ve all settled into it very comfortably, thank you.
GROTH: Are you a big fan of Kirby’s and that whole school?
WRIGHTSON: No, never have been.
GROTH: Do you like his work, or are you just indifferent to it?
WRIGHTSON: Not especially. My own peculiar tastes. I liked Kirby’s stuff in the horror books before he started doing superhero stuff. Although I was a carryover into the superhero stuff when he did it. Like the early Fantastic Four. The first 3 or 4 years of that were just tremendous, and Ditko’s Spider-Man and all that stuff. But superheroes I’m pretty much out of.
GROTH: You never were into them?
WRIGHTSON: Not especially, no.
GROTH: Well, let me get back to the beginning here. I read your book, Wrightson: A Look Back, and one thing I noticed was at the very beginning you said you were taught in Catholic schools and I quote you as saying, “It was awful.” How much do you think that had to do with your subsequent passion for horror?
WRIGHTSON: A hell of a lot, I’m sure. I mean, I’m not scared of being struck down by God any more [laughter], and I’m not scared that the Holy Mafia’s going to come after me. But I think the whole idea of that kind of parochial education is pretty twisted in a kind of medieval way. Especially for somebody who is slightly sensitive like I was, and like a lot of other kids were too. It really has deep effects. And it affects just everybody else deeply too, although a lot of people just muddle through life and never really notice it. So they send their kids to Catholic school and it just continues on and on and on.
GROTH: I went to seven years of parochial school.
WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah? Is this early grade school?
GROTH: From 1st grade to 7th. Very oppressive. Hated it.
WRIGHTSON: Well, especially from where we’re from. That was in Virginia, I presume. GROTH: Yeah.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And Maryland’s not too far off. And that part of the country is really … I hate to be prejudiced again and make sweeping statements and all … but it seems like the further South you go the more backward you get in a lot of ways. I’m speaking from experience, and my own experience having grown up in Baltimore and knowing people that have grown up in Virginia and the Carolinas and everything and Jeff [Jones], my God, who grew up in Georgia, and it’s … I’m at a complete loss for words …
GROTH: How long did you go to parochial school?
WRIGHTSON: I went for the limit. Twelve years.
GROTH: No wonder you’ve turned out this way.
WRIGHTSON: Oh, it got even worse in high school.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Cause in high school you could get punched by a priest. The nuns … there was a limit to what the nuns could do.
GROTH: I got punched by nuns. [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: Well, yeah, but they were not as physically strong as a full grown man. Nuns were mostly little old ladies. Once in a while you’d get a young one, like an ex-basketball player or something who could really swing.
GROTH: An ex-boxer. [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, in high school a lot of the priests there were ex-boxers and they still did it like for exercise, recreation.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, they’d spar. When it came time for a little corporal discipline, Jesus, these guys were whap, whap, whap. I mean, you can’t use the old deadly weapons thing on a priest.
WHITE: It seems like a contradiction, too. Priests slapping around little children.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Well at the time I don’t know how … They were the only ones around who could still get away with it. We had lay teachers in the same school with the priests because there weren’t enough priests to staff it, and at the time the lay teachers in parochial school could slap you around too.
GROTH: My experience was that the lay teachers were just as bad. There was really a sadistic streak …
WRIGHTSON: Oh, boy, we had some, let me tell you, we had a guy who wasn’t content to make you write “I will be a good boy” 50 times, this guy would do things like make you take off your jacket, roll up your sleeve, and hang your arm out the window in the middle of January for the whole class. He had a broken brick that he used for bookends and, this is going to sound like a sadistic fantasy but it actually happened, he put the thing down with the jagged ends up, and when some kid in the class was talking out of turn or something, he’d make him kneel on it, make him put his arms out like this and start piling books on the guy’s hands. And make him stand there like that for the whole class. And the guy’s up there trembling, y’know, and the books are starting to fall off and the guy would go and put the books back on. And the guy is whimpering up there, crying, tears, and all but wetting his pants, y’know. I was riveted between the spectacle of this poor fellow being crucified and watching the teacher really getting his rocks off in a strange way.
GROTH: That really is medieval.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, and it was really … I could give you a lot of really overt examples of all this kind of nastiness.
WHITE: You ever do any stories of nuns with axes in their hands?
GROTH: You mean axes in their heads. [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: No. No.
GROTH: Do you see a lot of your work as a kind of purging? Or do you really think of it consciously?
WRIGHTSON: No. Sometimes if I get depressed or confused I’ll start to think along those lines but usually not. Usually I’m having too much fun with it.
GROTH: It’s probably not wise to psychoanalyze yourself and your work.
WRIGHTSON: No, I have a real fear of that. I’ve got a feeling that maybe the reason I’m doing what I’m doing as well as I’m doing it is because I got bent very badly somewhere back there and if I went to a doctor and got myself straightened out I would lose just my whole motivation for working. It’s like, “Well, shit, thanks, Doc, I just don’t feel like doing this any more. I’m going to sell shoes now. Thanks.”
GROTH: Yeah, because you really do have an obsession with horror and really ghoulish aspects of life that has not diminished in the least over the years, as far as I can tell …
WRIGHTSON: I’ve occasionally tried to clean house in my own psyche and try to suppress it and get on to something else. Come along and do something like Captain Sternn and kind of get sidetracked and all. But, Jesus, it always comes back full force. I’m working on a bunch of stories right now for no particular publisher, just playing around with ideas that are probably some of the most horrendous comic book stories, comic book horror stories that have ever been done.
GROTH: Are you writing them too?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, these things are …
GROTH: Beyond the pale?
WRIGHTSON: Well, these things are made for reading on the toilet.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I’m determined to write some horror stories that will scare the shit out of you.
GROTH: Are you at all worried about the conservative bent of the country, the Moral Majority, and book burnings and things like that, with regard to what you just talked about, the horror stories?
WRIGHTSON: Yes and no. Sometimes I think that the majority, not the Moral Majority, but the majority of the country has got so much better sense they’re not going to let anything like this happen. It’s like this block of people, fine, they’re going to live their own lives and they’re going to complain from time to time, and what it’s going to come down to is that if they don’t like a particular book, they aren’t going to buy it, and if they don’t like a particular TV show, they’re going to change the channel, and if they’re not going to like a particular movie, they won’t go see it. And that’s all that’s going to come of it. Other times I get real paranoid. And I think that this is just the groundswell, and it’s just going to grow until it takes over the whole country like some kind of awful rotten cancer. Just invade everything.
GROTH: It really is frightening because it’s based upon infringing upon certain freedoms.
WRIGHTSON: Well, that’s it. I mean, I’m a confirmed abortionist, and have no patience with right-to-lifers because they want to tell somebody what they can and cannot do with their own body. I’m sure the majority of the Moral Majority are very honest, hardworking …
WRIGHTSON: Well, not really wrongheaded. I mean, they believe in what they want to believe in very strongly and life works for them and all. Don’t impose it on me, because what works for you isn’t going to work for me and I am every bit as good as you are as a person. And we will meet in heaven, if there is such a place, and don’t tell me I have to do everything you have to do to get to heaven because that’s all bullshit.
GROTH: Are you a particularly religious person?
WRIGHTSON: No, not at all. Not in the standard, academic sense. I don’t practice, don’t go to church, don’t go to confession. Couldn’t even tell you if I believe in God, because I … okay I guess I do believe in God, but what is God? I don’t believe that he’s this big guy in a robe and white beard. And I don’t believe that he’s any kind of person, he’s just some force completely beyond our understanding. There’s gotta be something out there running the show. I mean, there’s gotta be something behind all this. And in that respect, okay, and as far as life after death, who knows. If there is a thing like heaven, like I learned in school with the golden streets and the gates and the harps and angel wings and like that, I’m going to go there. I’m not going to go to hell just because I’m not going to church. It’s like, I got an arrangement with the guy upstairs and I’m leading a good life, not doing anything bad, not hurting anybody.
GROTH: I’ve never known you to be a particularly political person. Are you?
WRIGHTSON: No. I’m probably the most apolitical person I know. Drives my poor wife crazy sometimes.
GROTH: Is she very political?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I couldn’t tell you how, or in what direction because I just have no interest at all. I figure there are so many people out there that are so much more hip to that than I am. For me, I’ve got better things to do, I’ve got horror stories to tell.
GROTH: Does your wife ever jump on you for that?
WRIGHTSON: Every once in a while, she gets a little despondent about it, but it doesn’t last very long. I think my saving grace is that I can only take it seriously up to a point, and then it all becomes a big joke. She refuses to see horror movies with me, though.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Unless they’re really top-of-the-line horror movies. She’s agreed to see Cat People although I don’t know if I can go now with a broken leg. I like to see trashy stuff. I like to go see like Friday the 13th, and He Knows You’re Naked, and all this stuff. [Laughter.] And she just refuses to see that. We went to a triple feature at the drive-in last summer. It was The Fog, Escape From New York, and Scanners, and they ran Scanners last. Escape From New York was fun, we loved that. The Fog was okay. It was an all right ghost story, nothing special. And then Scanners, oh God! After sitting there and getting media burn for about four hours, they give you this thing and in the first 10 minutes a guy’s head explodes and that was a bit much for me to take, and my poor wife was just cringing under the seat.
GROTH: There’s something really disturbing about that movie.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. Can’t put my finger on it. I mean, I’ve seen other movies with a lot more splatter than that, but that one had some undercurrent of sadism which really kind of …
GROTH: I thought there was really something ugly and distasteful about it but I really couldn’t put my finger on it.
WRIGHTSON: It seemed to kind of revel in its own excesses or something.
GROTH: Okay, moving right along. You said that a TV personality actually taught you basic drawing. Guy by the name of Jon Gnagy.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, Jon Gnagy.
GROTH: Could we just talk for a minute about that?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I’m surprised you never heard of him.
GROTH: No, I never did. And of course, I lived down there.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I know he was in Virginia because Kaluta used to watch him too when he was a kid.
GROTH: My whole life could have changed if I watched this thing.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah! [Laughter.] The guy was on something like 9:30 in the morning every Saturday.
GROTH: I was probably watching Romper Room.
WRIGHTSON: Or Rocky and Bullwinkle or something. Although I think that was before their time. But it was fascinating. I mean, to this day I’ll stop on the boardwalk or in a shopping mall if there’s somebody there doing portraits or caricatures or whatever. It’s like, “Okay, I can do it myself, but I just love to watch other people draw.” I’ll be delighted for hours over at Jeff’s place while he’s working. He’s used to me hanging over his shoulder. And he can just paint away, and we’ll sit there and talk and drink beer and all and just watching him work even somebody who isn’t a goddamn genius like Jones, just some guy picking up pennies doing caricatures. I love to see that thing moving around on paper. And I think that was the basic fascination with this guy on TV. But of course I was young enough and had the energy and really wanted to give it a try and started dragging out the paper. He just had these four basic shapes, the circle, the cone, the cylinder, and the cube, and he would just show you that anything you wanted to draw was made up of these components. Which is oversimplified, but it’s like basic construction for just about anything. And that’s where it came from.
GROTH: And you took the Famous Artists Course for one year?
WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah. Never finished. Haven’t met anybody who ever finished it. [Laughter.] But everybody speaks very highly of it. It’s a real good course. I think the problem is it’s a little too good and the students who take it have learned so much in the first year, they go out looking for an art job and they get it and once you get a job you don’t have time to mess around with it any more.
GROTH: After the first year, how did you learn, or elaborate on learning anatomy, composition, all the basics?
WRIGHTSON: That was just flying completely by the seat of my pants.
GROTH: Did you study certain other artists, or was it just practice, practice, practice?
WRIGHTSON: Oh, yeah, I think any other artist I ever looked at I studied to one extent or another, and learned something from them. I guess some small part of it was natural aptitude. But I can’t really say how much because I’ve been influenced by so many people, living and dead, that it’s hard to say where anything comes from. It’s all this big hodgepodge. And it’s hopefully something original by the time I’m done with it. But you can kind of narrow it down to a handful of people like most of the EC guys, and Frazetta the paperback cover artist as opposed to Frazetta the comic-book artist, because I never really saw much of his comic book work.
GROTH: What about the early illustrators like Franklin Booth?
WRIGHTSON: I didn’t get into that until later. My introduction to them was mostly through these later guys. I found out about J.C. Cole, Leyendecker, and people like that through Reed Crandall and his work, found out about Hal Foster and George Bridgeman through Frazetta, and Alex Raymond through Williamson and it’s like everyone of them you can kind of trace back, go back to the guys that influenced them.
GROTH: Do you like Foster?
WRIGHTSON: Oh, yeah, yeah. I like Foster a whole lot better than Raymond, actually. I used to get into intense arguments with Al [Williamson] about that.
GROTH: He preferred Raymond?
GROTH: I suppose Raymond is a more romantic artist.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, Raymond is very romantic.
GROTH: Foster certainly seems a superior illustrator.
WRIGHTSON: Foster has this timeless quality about his drawing. And I don’t mean the fact that he’s dealing with Prince Valiant, which happens in the past, but it’s the actual drawing itself, you could almost call it absolute drawing. There’s seems to be very little stylization in Foster’s work. For the life of me I can’t think of anybody who can draw that well academically, that straightforwardly, with none of the flash that Raymond had. And I think that’s the key. It’s like Raymond maybe has a little too much flash. I don’t know. I can never get too much beyond this point talking about it because it starts getting very confusing and contradictory. I just prefer Foster over Raymond.
GROTH: You had a stint at the Baltimore Sun.
GROTH: What did you do there, and how old were you?
WRIGHTSON: Oh, let’s see. I was about 18 or 19 I guess. And I worked there for nine months as an editorial cartoonist, which sounds better than it was. I just worked in a big room with a bunch of other artists and most of the work was photo retouching and paste-up, layout type work and not a lot of cartooning or illustrating. I would have preferred to do a lot more and give the goddamned airbrushing to somebody else. You know, I just couldn’t handle that fucking machine. [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: Still. Keep me away from machinery. I just can’t do it. I was driving the car a few weeks ago and the windshield wiper went out of whack and I just panicked, because it was a thunderstorm, and I said, “Oh God, what’s going on with this thing?” I didn’t know what the hell to do with it. I had to drive from here to Poughkeepsie, which is about 50 miles, in the middle of a rainstorm, and after the rain stopped the road dirt was being splashed up and I had to get out of the car every five miles and wipe the thing off. I finally got to where I was going to go and Jim Starlin was there and I told him, “Oh Christ, the goddamned car is just no good,” and he said, “What do you mean?” “Oh, the windshield wiper doesn’t work, and I don’t know what I’m going to do, and it’s going to cost me a million dollars, Jesus, this is so goddamn depressing.” He goes out and looks at it, goes into his car and gets a socket wrench and tightens a nut. That’s it, y’know. It wouldn’t occur to me to do that because I’d be afraid of screwing it up. It’s like I’m not going to touch it because I’m going to make a mess, and it’s just going to cost me more in the long run. When I was living in Florida, the refrigerator started to make a funny noise. I was going to call the repairman in. A friend of mine came over and said “Well, let’s pull it out from the wall and look.” And I said, “What do you know about refrigerators? Let’s call the guy in and find out what’s making this noise.” “Look, what’s it going to hurt? We’ll take the thing off and look at it.” So we took off the front vent thing and looked down there. A register receipt from a shopping bag had slipped down and gotten stuck in the thing so the fan blade was hitting against it. [Laughter.]
WHITE: So he just took it out?
WRIGHTSON: Right. Just pulled it out, and the refrigerator was fine. No more noise. I would have called the repairman, who would come in, cost me $75 just to walk through the door, just to pull the goddamn thing out. Terrific. Me and machines, no way.
WHITE: There’s something mystical about machinery.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I believe that machinery has a life of its own.
GROTH: Berni Wrightson meets the Industrial Revolution.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. I tell you, machinery to me means a pen point as opposed to a brush. I mean, it’s made of metal and if it’s flexible, that means it’s got moving parts, you know, and I don’t want to mess around with it. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Did you learn anything on your Baltimore Sun job or was it’ really drudge work?
WRIGHTSON: I learned a bit, yeah. I learned a lot of the realities of working as an artist
GROTH: Grim realities …
WRIGHTSON: Well, yeah. I learned that working as an artist was a little like a shit sandwich. [Laughter.] The more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat. [Laughter.]
GROTH: From the Sun you went to work for DC, you moved to New York. And that was a pretty big move for a 19 year old, 20 year old, or however old you were.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. It was a little weird. To this day, I keep feeling that there were other agencies afoot. I look back on it and it just somehow seems to me that a lot of that decision was completely out of my hands. I came up here with a few samples, and showed them around … I won’t bore you with the whole story, because it’s in the book anyhow. But it was just kind of word of mouth, people say, “Oh, I saw this guy Wrightson, blah, blah, blah” … on and on and on and next thing I know I get a call from Kaluta, who got a call from Williamson who got a call from Dick Giordano who said, “where’s this Wrightson kid?” And I said, “Oh really?” So I moved to New York.
GROTH: When you first moved up, you talked to Giordano?
WRIGHTSON: I think so, yeah. Or I talked to Williamson, who talked to Giordano. I talked to Williamson first, and I don’t remember if I saw Giordano at the same time, or if Williamson kind of passed it on to him or what.
GROTH: When you moved up, did you move right in with Kaluta?
WRIGHTSON: Well, no. That’s a little bit backwards. I moved up first and then he came up about four months later.
GROTH: Because around that time, the thing I remember was all you guys living in one big place.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I was there alone for a couple of weeks. And then some friends from Baltimore moved in and then Mike [Kaluta] came in December or January, I think. But that was on 77th Street. You never came up until we were on 79th Street.
GROTH: Probably, yeah.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And at that point, there were about 10 of us living there full time and at least another 20 coming and going constantly.
GROTH: Wait a minute. Ten of you? Not in one apartment?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, not usually there all at the same time, but, there were ten of us circulating through. We’d all kind of make an appearance at least once a month.
GROTH: Who other than Mike and Jeff Jones?
WRIGHTSON: Well, Jeff had a separate apartment. Jeff started out on the first floor and moved up to the 6th. We were on the 8th floor. And mainly it was myself, Kaluta, Al Weiss, always two or three girls, somebody’s girlfriend living there, and then a whole bunch of people I don’t think you’d know. They weren’t really in comics.
GROTH: Was it a kind of artistic commune?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, sometimes it sure seemed like that. Mostly it was just like …
GROTH: Chaos, lunacy.
WHITE: A big party.
WRIGHTSON: Well, no, it wasn’t really a party, it was, “Christ, where’s the money going to come from so we can get something to eat?” Although that was never really a big problem. I initiated those intro pages in the DC mystery books as a device to make money without having to do a hell of a lot of work because at the time it was just … you know, comics were still fun, but doing an eight or 10 page story took up a lot of time and I really wanted to fuck off because
everyone else was doing it.
GROTH: Everyone else was fucking off?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And I felt left out if I had to stay home and work, you know. So, I wanted to go over to the park and play frisbee, and do all this stuff. And I decided to come up with some way to make some money without really busting my ass. So … covers were fun, but there’s a limit to how many covers you can do. But the intro pages … boy, I could do three or four of those things, just kind of do a backlog between House of Secrets and House of Mystery, and I don’t know what I was getting paid at the time, maybe $50 a page which doesn’t sound like much but the standard of living was a bit lower then too. And I could do one in a night, sometimes two. So that was fun. And just knock the sucker out, get the money and I could just breeze through for another week or two. Not have to work.
GROTH: Yeah, I remember you saying once that you could do one illustration a week and live comfortably, something like that. And I also had the impression that you would prefer to do that rather than busting your chops and making a lot of money and having a big bank account. You would almost prefer doing less work and living comfortably than …
WRIGHTSON: Ideally, the thing is to do a little bit of work and make a lot of money. But it doesn’t always work out that way. But, yeah, being comfortable is just fine. I don’t mind being comfortable. As far as being rich …
GROTH: You don’t mind being rich either?
WRIGHTSON: You gotta pay the fucking tax man. And that’s where it all goes. So what’s the sense in having a whole lot of money anyway unless you’re going to spend it on something. I mean, I’m going to make out real good this year financially, but I got a lot of things to spend it on. I’m building this studio, I might buy another car strictly for business. Okay, fine. I’m not going to be left with a whole lot of money at the end of the year. And most of what I spend is completely deductible. I don’t really want $100,000 a year. I don’t know what I’d do with it. Until I find out that I could do something with the money, that I could hang on to it, I don’t want to make it.
GROTH: Are you very materialistic? Do you buy a lot of things?
WRIGHTSON: I love to buy things, yeah. And I like to buy things that I can somehow deduct, if possible, and still have my nice possessions. Yeah, I’m real materialistic.
GROTH: Since you’re an artist, the world is your business.
WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah. I love having interesting things around to look at. You know, a lot of it, you look around and think, “Oh boy, what junk.” It’s like one man’s junk is another man’s treasure and a lot of this stuff I find real appealing.
GROTH: Your first big job for DC was Nightmaster. That was the first character. But you did, I think, a mystery story or … they put you on something before that, and there was a little dispute there because you didn’t get the first Nightmaster.
WRIGHTSON: They put me on Nightmaster first actually, and I did the first third of the book, I think seven pages. Carmine Infantino was underwhelmed. I mean he was just not impressed. “Who is this kid I’ve been hearing so much about?” He very, very diplomatically said, “Well, we don’t think you’re quite ready for a full book. We’re going to put you on mystery fillers to get you started.” I was kind of disappointed, but not really, because the Nightmaster stuff wasn’t what I wanted to do anyway. I thought it was going to be like Conan, real barbarian stuff. Of course, National in its own kind of wimp way wasn’t prepared to pull out all the stops and do a barbarian comic, so it had to be this kind of wimpy, wishy-washy fantasy thing with a rock singer. Real trendy and groovy and … Yeah. Just didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do horror stories anyway, so that’s what they put me on and I was happy to be doing it. Then by the time, I guess three months later, when the second issue of Nightmaster came around. I took that on out of injured pride. Just to kind of prove to myself that I could do it. So I did it. Big deal. Really set the world on fire, you know. [Laughter.]
GROTH: You only did about two of them, right?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Believe me, that was enough. I’d really had it. After that I didn’t want to know from a fucking full comic book ever again.
GROTH: You were slow.
WRIGHTSON: Not just slow. But the material was just not your Stephen King, you know. WHITE: Slow and bored.
GROTH: Was Nightmaster the one that Kaluta and Jones helped ink?
WRIGHTSON: Everybody helped on that. Jesus. I think Steve Hickman helped on that. Steve Harper. God I forget. Anybody who happened to be passing by helped on that, because I’m real slow, real slow. I’d never been up against a deadline like that before.
GROTH: After that, did you go to work for Marvel?
WRIGHTSON: I forget, really, at what point I went to Marvel. But it was mainly over a dispute about coloring my own work at National. They refused to let me do it there, and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll go to Marvel.”
GROTH: Hmm. That’s sort of ironic, considering what happened at Marvel.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And as it turns out, I did a couple of jobs for Marvel, colored them, and decided that I didn’t really like coloring anyway, and went back to National because I just kind of liked it better over there.
GROTH: You mentioned in the book a lot of glad-handing at Marvel, a lot of pep talks …
WRIGHTSON: At the time, yeah. It’s not like that anymore, it’s a lot more business-like and loose and actually a lot nicer, freer atmosphere than National now. But at the time, I don’t know how much of it was me, because I was a little bit of a tight-ass at the time, but I just felt there was a lot of glad-handing, phoniness. Never really warmed up to Stan [Lee] a whole lot. I always thought of Stan as this kind of grinning idiot PR man that didn’t write real good comics, let’s face it. But he really knew how to sell them. And really knew how to sell himself. I’ve since changed my mind. Stan is a lot more than that. But at the time I kind of had a chip on my shoulder.
GROTH: Can you talk about the King Kull job, which more or less sent you back to DC?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, not really much to talk about. I colored it. Or rather I didn’t color it. The whole idea was trying to figure out some way to show sound draining from a soundless medium. So, I thought, of course, the lettering and the balloons become smaller. The balloons stay the same size and the lettering becomes smaller until finally you have people speaking in blank balloons. That’s good, but that’s not quite enough. Well, what if it’s a really brightly colored thing to begin with. Lots of primaries: reds, yellows, and blues, and all. And this all starts washing out, until it finally becomes black and white, as the color drains out, the color bleaches out of the thing. I thought, “Yeah, that’s interesting. I like that.” So that’s what I did. That’s the way I handled this thing. And I drew it that way in black-and-white with that in mind so that the pages where the sound was all gone were going to be in black-and-white, and there’d be lots of zip-a-tone and screens and stuff so there’d be some interest, some grays and stuff, but no actual color. Then I got the silver prints to color, colored those up, spent a lot of time on it. Really sweated on it, y’know. And paid close attention to the color chart and getting this thing just right. Turned it in, everybody said, “Oh, lovely! Terrific! We love it!” I didn’t hear anything about it until the job comes out and when it comes out … in the first place, they obviously hadn’t printed from the originals. They had printed from low-grade photostats. So a lot of the line work, especially the zip-a-tone and the screens and stuff I had done fell out, was gone, completely. On top of that, they had gotten somebody to recolor it, so that all these pages, all this real careful orchestration where the color is bleaching out. If I’m going to put all that kind of work into it, and this is what happens, why bother? Of course, I got pissed off. I went in to Roy Thomas and Stan and raised hell: “What did you do this for? Didn’t you know what I was trying to do?” What I got out of that, was, “We’re doing color comics here.”
GROTH: Every panel has to have color in it.
WRIGHTSON: Right, right. Like the company is going to go under if they publish a comic book with one page of black-and-white.
GROTH: You probably don’t remember this, but I coincidentally happened to visit you in New York the day you got that comic …
WRIGHTSON: I don’t remember.”
GROTH: … and the thing that I remember most is that you were raving and ranting which struck me because …
WRIGHTSON: I can’t rave and rant like I used to.
GROTH: Is that right?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. [Laughter.]
GROTH: You never struck me as getting mad that much. I mean you always seemed to be sort of an easygoing guy.
WRIGHTSON: Oh, I save it up. When I get mad, I’m a real stinker. I go off on a hell of a toot when I get angry. But it takes a while. Sometimes I go for years without getting mad. But boy, when I get mad, watch out.
GROTH: I do remember you were really hot.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. Well, even at that, I don’t think I’d get quite that hot any more.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I figure maybe I’ll live longer.
GROTH: Now at about this point in your career, you’re quoted as saying, “I’ve reached a point where I’ve outgrown comics.”
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I’ve probably said a lot of dumb things like that. [Laughter.] I guess at the time, maybe I felt that I had. I realize now that I never did and probably never will. I think what happened at that time was, I’d been in the business long enough to see what had happened to a lot of the other guys. Most notably Woody [Wally Wood], who … Christ, Woody could have had the world at his feet at one point but didn’t do it. He just stayed in comics. One of the best, maybe the best comics man that ever lived. Even his comics stuff started getting stale after a while. He was just a very unhappy man, very disillusioned, very bitter. I mean for a long time, like the last 30 years of his life. And, boy, I didn’t want to be like that. And it’s not just Woody, I can talk about Woody like that, because he’s dead. But there are a lot of other guys around, now, alive, that aren’t terribly happy men, who are working in comics. They do good comics, and I can’t fault them on that. But they could do other things, and I get the feeling that they would like to do other things, but they’ve reached a point where they can’t. And I just reached a point back then where I thought to myself, “Do I want to be 40, 45 years old, and wake up in the morning and call Jim Warren and ask where my check is?” I thought, “Nah, nah, there’s more to it than this.” I just got to get out, see what’s going on in the real world. This is just becoming too much of an enclosed little microcosm, I just couldn’t handle it any more. So I had to get out. And I’ve done that periodically since then.
GROTH: There’s a certain tragedy in watching people do comics for 30 years by rote.
WRIGHTSON: Well, after a while it becomes a formula, a system. I’m real suspicious of stuff like that.
GROTH: What do you mean?
WRIGHTSON: For myself, when I was working in comics … well you can see it with the Swamp Thing series. The whole series, #1-9 were inked with a brush. And one of the reasons I got out of color comics was, you’ll notice that issue 10 was done with a pen, and there’s a big difference, stylistically. I had convinced myself that by the time I got to issue 9 that I had passed the point of being very good with a brush and it was … the question of quality I can’t really talk about. I can’t say that I had become too good or anything like that but what I can say is that inking with a brush had become too easy and I got real suspicious of that. I started seeing myself repeating little things with a brush and that frightened me. I started seeing this kind of business where it’s getting to the point where I can do this blindfolded. I was doing it without thinking. And that really bothered me. So I threw all my brushes out and started drawing with a pen. And this, of course triggered off a lot of other things. So the result was, I decided I had had it with color comics and quit that and I think at that point I went to Warren for a while, started doing stuff for him. A lot of pen work.
GROTH: Let me ask you something directly related to that, getting tired of doing the same thing over and over again. Isn’t part of the involvement in comics being so involved in the narrative that it doesn’t seem like you’re repeating yourself? That the story so involves you emotionally or intellectually that you …
WRIGHTSON: Now I feel that way but at the time I didn’t because I felt fairly detached from the story end of it at that time. I was working with Len [Wein]. For the most part working with a writer will do that. And I felt it’s his job to write it and my job to draw it as well as I can so I got involved with the drawing, and was the mistake I was making about comics was this kind of separation. Like you’re the writer, and I’m the artist. And if we don’t communicate, that’s fine. We don’t have to. Which is bullshit. I don’t think you can be a good … I don’t think you can do comics well unless you’re a bit of both.
GROTH: Did you work with Len closer at the beginning of the series than at the end?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Because that was the time of getting everything kind of nailed down. And after that, I didn’t have the time really to get involved with the writing aspect of it. Also, I was starting to lose interest real early on, starting with #6 … I think that was the “Clockwork” thing, wasn’t it?
WHITE: “The Clockwork Horror.”
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I think that’s where it starts to show that my mind is beginning to wander a bit.
WHITE: But I think there are some incredibly detailed panels in there …
WRIGHTSON: It wasn’t easy. Boy, it wasn’t easy. I was not into that story at all. Len wanted to do that for #5 …
GROTH: Well, detail doesn’t translate into passion …
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Len wanted to do that for #5 and I was not ready for it. I mean he was real excited for this story, y’know, and he told me about it. “Oh, this is about clocks, and robots and stuff! Oh, it’s great!” “Yeah, yeah.” And at the last minute I backed out and I said, “Look, I can’t do it, okay? Let’s put it off until the next issue. I got this idea, we’ll do this witch thing in between. C’mon, let’s do it.” He didn’t want to do it, but I finally talked him into it. I think I said something like, “We’ll do the witch thing, or I’m going to quit right now.” [Laughter.]
GROTH: From what I can tell, you probably never worked faster than on Swamp Thing.
WRIGHTSON: That was real fast. I was averaging two pages a day of pencils. And maybe about a page and a half a day of inks.
GROTH: Not exactly John Buscema, but for you that’s …
WRIGHTSON: For me, that’s incredible. For me, that’s just super-speed.
GROTH: Well, you know in Europe of course they take one or two weeks to do a page. WRIGHTSON: Yeah.
GROTH: They turn out two albums a year.
WRIGHTSON: Sometimes I think it would be nice to have the luxury to do that. Other times I think … there’s a balance to be struck with doing comics. The time involved is a very delicate thing as far as I’m concerned. If you’re doing it too fast, you’re hacking. If you take too much time, you’re being too precious. And that kills it just as well as hacking does. But there’s a balance somewhere in between of just really being hot, knowing you’re hot and getting on with it. And being hot is not a consistent quality. It has its ups and downs and when you reach a down point you have to shift gears and really get on with it and say, “Okay, these two panels in between are a little bit clumsy. I could do better if I thought about it but I want to get on with it.” And you do it. Okay, every panel ain’t a classic. Big deal. It’s like you’ve got enough good stuff to let the so-so stuff … it’ll carry it.
GROTH: I guess the object is not to be so self-conscious about it.
GROTH: Because Jack Davis for the EC’s worked like a madman. He would do stories in three days, whereas Wood would take a week. People like Williamson might take longer, but they all worked at the speed they were comfortable with, even though some were faster, some were slower.
WRIGHTSON: And the work was always high quality, too. Like Davis has my unending respect. The guy could do such good work so fast.
GROTH: He was extraordinary.
WRIGHTSON: And there were other people. Johnny Craig, I understand was their slowest. I mean, he was every bit as good as Davis, but just not fast at it, so big deal.
GROTH: And of course Kurtzman took forever.
WRIGHTSON: But his stuff is always delightful.
GROTH: Let’s see, after Swamp Thing …
WRIGHTSON: After Swamp Thing was Warren, wasn’t it?
GROTH: No. [Laughter.] Not if my notes are accurate. Purple Pictography. Is that accurate? With Bode.
WRIGHTSON: That came before Swamp Thing, actually.
GROTH: Did it?
WRIGHTSON: I’m pretty sure. Yes it did. Because I was still living in New York when I did that and Swamp Thing for the most part, I was doing upstate.
GROTH: All that means is that A Look Back isn’t in chronological order, exactly.
WRIGHTSON: Oh, well. I never noticed. But yeah, Purple Pictography came before Swamp Thing.
GROTH: And again with that, you lost interest toward the end.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I hate to say for the same reason because it seems like I’m blaming the writer, which I’m not, but we were doing the pictography things … Vaughn and I would get together and talk about a premise and all. Mostly it was just an opportunity to get together for an evening and bullshit. So we’d sit around and do a lot of bullshitting and take five minutes off to work up a plot for the next Pictography. And it was real comfortable. We did that for the first three and it was fun. And it was mostly Vaughn saying, “What do you feel like drawing this month?” And I’d say, “Oh, I feel like drawing Frankenstein this month.” “Okay, we’ll do something about Frankenstein.” “What do you feel like this month?” “Oh, hell. I just saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Let’s do something underwater this month.” And it was easy, and it worked for the first three. And the fourth one, we didn’t discuss at all. He didn’t come to the city, he sent me a letter with a plot, not just a plot, but a full script and I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t what I wanted to draw. We didn’t have a chance to bullshit, we didn’t talk about it. And that just kind of killed it. I struggled through it, and struggled through it and couldn’t get it off the ground. Got Weiss to help me on it and he drew a couple of panels. Got Jeff to do some coloring on it. Just really was not happy with it. Don’t think I mentioned anything to Vaughn about it. And then he did the same thing on the last one. Instead of us getting together to chew the fat, he just sent me a finished script. And I just kind of gritted my teeth and got down and did it but said this is the last one.
GROTH: Prior to the fourth one did he give you full scripts?
WRIGHTSON: No, no.
GROTH: So it was more of a collaboration?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. We would just kind of agree on what I wanted to do, and we just did it “Marvel style.” I’d pencil it up and send it to him and he’d send it back dialogued.
GROTH: Now in the book you say you’ve been offered opportunities to work for magazines like Hustler and you’ve basically said you wouldn’t do that because you had moral qualms about some of the magazines.
WRIGHTSON: Well, times have changed. [Laughter.] When I was doing the thing for Cavalier, it was kind of an innocent, tits ’n’ ass book. And since then, we’ve gotten into all this beaver stuff, bondage—all this kind of crap. And … I hate to sound like my own little Moral Majority here and say, well, tits ’n’ ass is fine but cunt shots are definitely out. [Everybody chuckles] I’m uncomfortable with it and that’s all it really comes down to. My opinion of that kind of stuff is trash. I mean, I still like good tits ’n’ ass stuff. I still buy Penthouse, Gallery, kind of the relatively classy things. Playboy not so much unless they’ve got an interview with somebody I want to read. But the really trashy things, I don’t buy ’em. I don’t want to look at
them. It’s like … women are beautiful no matter what, right? But there’s an attitude involved with that that I just don’t like. I don’t know. It’s difficult to explain.
GROTH: Do you consider the exploitive aspect of things like Swank, Penthouse, Playboy? I mean, all of them in some way exploit women.
WRIGHTSON: It never really bothered me, because I never saw anything really wrong with it. I can’t ever remember thinking of it as pornography. And even Hustler isn’t really pornography, it’s what I consider bad taste. Well, not even bad taste, but wrong attitude. Which is even worse than bad taste. Bad taste can be fun, but a wrong attitude never is. It’s kind of a subtle difference and I don’t know if I’m explaining it well. I’m not talking about the attitude of the women being photographed. But it’s kind of an editorial attitude where the women are really … like Playboy and Penthouse, I really don’t get the feeling that the women are being treated as objects. Whereas things like Hustler, I really get the feeling that they’re being treated as objects. And that offends me.
GROTH: I think it’s the old adage that nothing succeeds like excess.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. But that’s not necessarily true. I mean, you can be excessive as hell if it works, and you’re doing it with the right attitude and it’s being received with the right attitude.
WHITE: Sort of the George Romero attitude.
WHITE: As opposed to the Wes Craven attitude.
WRIGHTSON: Right, exactly. Romero can do it and get away with it, because there’s a purpose behind it.
GROTH: A good analogy would be the EC horror comics, which were always tongue-in-cheek.
WRIGHTSON: Exactly. And which were, strangely enough, never really all that excessive. It was like they didn’t have to be. They knew that they were quality, they knew that they had good stories and the best artists around and they were top of the line. They didn’t have to fall back on all the schlock stuff. Although …
GROTH: The baseball game with entrails …
WRIGHTSON: [Laughter.] That’s still an awful good story.
GROTH: It’s still fun.
WRIGHTSON: And it would not have succeeded if you hadn’t shown it. It’s that kind of thing. You had to see the guy there where all the schmutz and stuff hanging out of his head to be impressed for the story to make its point. It’s like “Yeah, of course,” and that’s not offensive at all.
GROTH: There was an odd kind of integrity at EC to even the worst stuff they did, because it was so beautifully crafted. Just to get back to Swamp Thing for a second … Have you seen the movie?
WRIGHTSON: No, no.
GROTH: Do you want to?
WRIGHTSON: If it ever comes around, sure. I’m not going to break a leg to go see it. [Laughter.] It is supposed to be on Sneak Previews next week, so I’ll catch that.
GROTH: Yeah. I told you we saw it. God, was it incredible.
WRIGHTSON: All I know is what I’ve read in the magazines, fanzines and all and the stills I’ve seen.
GROTH: What’s the general reaction been, because I haven’t really been following the reviews?
WRIGHTSON: It’s been remarkably quiet. I haven’t heard anything from anybody. I don’t know if they have the mistaken notion that I don’t want to talk about it or anything. Or if they feel I’m embarrassed, which is completely erroneous. I couldn’t give a flaming fuck. [Laughter.] I’m curious. I would like to see what they did with my character.
GROTH: Or to.
WRIGHTSON: Or to, as the case may be.
GROTH: I—we—saw it at a preview and for the first half of the movie the audience was polite. Then, toward the second half, the film was so ludicrous that even at this preview where you’re supposed to be civilized, and the guy who produced it is sitting up, people in the audience were still screaming, giggling … Whenever this guy who looked just like Curly from The Three Stooges would appear you’d hear somebody in the audience go “Whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop.” [Laughter.] Did you see Craven’s Last House on the Left? I mean, that was a sick film.
WRIGHTSON: I saw a part of that and I can’t remember the reason for leaving. It had nothing to do with the movie, but I don’t recall it.
GROTH: It was not humorous or charming or …
WRIGHTSON: I never saw the end of it and I hear that was the best part.
WRIGHTSON: Or the most notorious part. What else did he do?
GROTH: I don’t know what else Craven’s done, but I did see that one movie and thought, “Holy hell.”
WRIGHTSON: No, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Wes Craven movie. Although his reputation does precede him.
GROTH: Well this, I guess, is as good a time to get into that, just briefly. You were actually considering suing DC?
WRIGHTSON: Not really. That’s kind of a mistaken notion. What I wanted to find out … See, what happened was, they went and did the movie and I had to find out about it by reading it in your publication, as a matter of fact. I got pissed off. Here’s this whole movie, it’s practically done, and nobody told me about it. Then I hear that Len and Joe are flown to South Carolina in some kind of advisory capacity and it’s like … I mean, I like free trips [laughter], I like to go somewhere on somebody’s expense account. I mean, I’m not asking to be involved with the movie. I probably would have turned it down anyway, because I don’t think it’s a good idea for a movie [laughter], I just don’t think I would have been.
GROTH: They should have used you for an advisor.
WRIGHTSON: I don’t think it can be done. Or if it can be done, do it in the dark, for God’s sake.
GROTH: Without Adrienne Barbeau … [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: Anyway, I got mad that this all seemed to be done. It seemed like I had been singled out to be excluded from this …
GROTH: You were only the artist.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. And I didn’t know why. I have been referred to as one-third of the creative team, I’ve been referred to as a co-creator. So, how come? Why am I being left out? I was not about to call National to ask them why I was being left out. So I went to a lawyer and told him the whole deal, and said I was pretty pissed off. What is my situation legally? Am I in any position to get any satisfaction out of this? And they said they’d look into it. I guess that’s where it still stands.
WHITE: They’re still looking into it?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Well, they’ve called me several times. What happened was that they were looking into it back in October when this Creepshow thing came along and once I started on Creepshow, I was feeling too good about that job … going along with it, getting it done, just sailing along and having a real good time. Whenever the lawyer called and wanted to get together in the city, I kept putting him off. I didn’t want to go down there and get aggravated about all this when I was feeling so up about this job. Besides, I had a real tight deadline and didn’t want to waste a day going into town. I guess they got tired of calling me after that. And then, after Creepshow, we had to go see my parents because we had to see them for Christmas, tax time came along and I had to worry about that. And, I broke my leg. [Laughter.] So there just hasn’t been time to see what’s going on and frankly I’ve still been feeling too good about things in general that I don’t want to talk to a lawyer and be brought down.
WHITE: You seem like a happy man.
WRIGHTSON: Well, I am. I am happy, not content. I believe it’s a mistake to be content. You should always want to strive for something more. Happy? Yeah, yeah. I’m real happy.
GROTH: The lawyers will fix that.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I have paid this guy a good sum of money to look into it for me and I figure he probably feels by now that he’s earned it. So the next step is to get together and see where the lawyer can take it from here so the lawyer can make some more money from me. At this point, I’m feeling too good about it and I think I’ve pretty much changed my mind about it. I don’t think I’m going to do it. I’d just be letting myself in for, win or lose, three to five years of aggravation with this thing. I figure maybe the worst thing I can do to National is to just never work for them again.
GROTH: Did DC pay you something for the film?
WRIGHTSON: I got $2000, which pissed me off even further. Got a check for $2000, which said “Swamp Thing Film Bonus” which was really kind of weird. Because to get a bonus, you should get something else ahead of time. I mean, you should get something first, and then the bonus comes. [Laughter.] So, here’s the “Swamp Thing Film Bonus” and a little note from Jenette thanking me for my most wonderful creation … I cashed the check. [Laughter.]
GROTH: And gave it to your lawyer …
WRIGHTSON: Well, not quite. $2000 is $2000, and I deserved it. I mean, it was partly my creation, they made a movie of it, I’m entitled to something. But $2000, gee, this is a movie, a major motion picture. This is Avco-Embassy. And I just started to think about how my $2000 stacks up to what National’s been getting, you know, of the fruit of my fucking labor.
WHITE: Or Len.
WRIGHTSON: Well, I don’t know about Len. I haven’t talked to him. I think that Len at this point is probably scared to death to talk to me. Probably thinks I’m some kind of fire-breathing ogre that is out to see that he loses his job and I just don’t care.
GROTH: Have you seen the new Swamp Thing comic?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, ran into it a couple of weeks ago.
GROTH: What do you think?
WRIGHTSON: Uh, it isn’t the same. And I’m not tooting my own horn, because I think I have a pretty good handle on the perspective of all this. I thought that the character died with #10. And I’m not being full of myself when I say that. It was just a very personal thing from my standpoint and when Redondo took it over, I mean that guy can draw circles around me. He’s a much better artist than I am. But he didn’t know Swamp Thing. He didn’t know the character, he didn’t know that little universe. It was just not the same. And this new fellow, Tom Yeates, looks like a perfectly competent artist. He seems to enjoy doing comics. I met him briefly, he showed me some original pages that he had with him. He’s a real nice guy. It’s just not the same thing. He doesn’t have any more of a handle on the character than Redondo did, visually. And the thing is … Swamp Thing is a real limited character. There’s only so much you can do with him. I even strayed away from the limits you could take the character to. For the most part I tried to keep him in this kind of grim little foreboding universe where it worked. Wasn’t such a hot idea bringing him to Gotham City, y’know. [Laughter.] But, hell, at the time I wanted to draw Batman. It was fun; I enjoyed it. They wouldn’t let me give Batman a gun. I always preferred the old Batman when he had a gun. He was more like The Shadow. I thought it would be great if he came up against Swamp Thing. Yeah, give him a gun. Fill him full of lead. Like shooting a cabbage.
GROTH: Glad you mentioned The Shadow. You did a sample page but that didn’t go through.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, at the time I was up to my ears in Swamp Thing, and foolishly thought I could handle two books at one time. Because like I said, I was really hot. I was penciling two pages and inking a page and a half a day. I thought it would be a breeze. Swamp Thing’s bi-monthly and I’ll fill in the other month with The Shadow. Only it didn’t occur to me that I was taking the whole two months to do the book. So I did the sample page and I think I was even slated to do the first issue of The Shadow. This was before it really started going through a lot of changes. I think Len was going to write it. And I came to my senses, fortunately, before ever starting on it. And just said there was no way I could handle two books. So I stuck with Swamp Thing. It’s more in my line. And they said, “Who’re we going to get for The Shadow?” and I immediately said, “Kaluta.” And they didn’t hear that. They said, “Who’re we going to get to do The Shadow?” So then they went through all that bullshit with Jim [Steranko], I don’t know who all …
GROTH: [Alex] Toth.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And finally settled on Kaluta, who I still maintain is the best possible choice all along. And for no other reason than he really wanted to do it. I mean, he was really intense about it.
GROTH: Now, you went to work for Warren. But you worked for Web of Horror first, didn’t you?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, that was pretty early on. That was what ’69, ’70?
GROTH: That sounded like a real anarchic situation.
WRIGHTSON: It was weird. I had this fellow, Terry Bisson, come along one day and at the time, Warren was just reprinting a lot of stuff, and the new stuff he had was just awful and the thing had really gone down the tubes. And I know the real story behind that, and I’m not going to tell you. No, Warren told me the whole thing behind that, and I’m sworn to secrecy.
GROTH: Well, he got into deep financial trouble …
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, but that was more a symptom, not a cause. But I can’t tell you the cause. So, I’ll just titillate you and your readers with that. But the magazine’s a really bad one, and we’re all sitting around saying, “Aw, Creepy used to be so good, look at this piece of shit, this is awful.” And by we, I mean myself, Jeff, Bruce Jones and Kaluta, and into the middle of all this complaining, and pining for the good old days walks this fellow, Terry Bisson from … Major Magazines. They published some romance things and Cracked magazine. Up until now, he’d been writing blurbs for the backs of the romance magazines, or for the covers. “I spent the night with my father-in-law,” things like that. He walks in and says, “My publisher wants to put together a horror magazine.” “You mean, like Creepy?” and he says “Yeah, exactly like Creepy. See, at our magazine company, we do nothing but rip off other magazines.” [Laughter.] He was real upfront about it. “We want to do a Creepy rip-off.” [Laughter.] “Oh, yeah, that sounds great, what are you paying?” And the money wasn’t bad. “Okay, yeah, we’ll do it.” So we get together, he had a place down around Canal Street and we’d get together, kind of have conferences and all. And he dug up some writers from somewhere, and he was writing some of the stuff himself and none of us knew any better. I didn’t know good scripts from bad scripts. We’d all just get down and do this stuff and it was like all of us there in the same building, virtually, all living together, just working for the same outfit. “Aww, this is just like the EC days, man, this is great! This is great!” And they had the monster contests. And it was just fun. We were real high on this thing. Even though the first couple of issues were really just crap. Awful stories, and the art wasn’t too much better. But there was a certain kind of enthusiasm that was coming through in this stuff. I thought so. And evidently, the magazines were doing well. People were buying this stuff. So it was looking real good. And how many issues did it go? Three?
GROTH: Yeah, three. And you did the cover for the fourth one.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, the fourth issue. Terry Bisson left. After the third issue, he just split. And just disappeared. “Say, what happened to Terry?” “Oh, he joined a commune in Colorado.” “What are we going to do? Who’s going to be our editor?” And Richard Sproul, the publisher, said, “Look, the magazine’s doing okay, I want to go on with it, why don’t you boys work it out?” “Well, shit, yeah, all right, yeah.” Bruce and I would get together with Mike and Jeff and say, “Hey, man we need an editor for this thing, and there’s nobody in control.” Mike and Jeff said, “Oh, leave us alone! We just want to work.” And so Bruce and I said we’d be co-editors. So we start handing out scripts to everybody … There was a backlog of stuff, some real bad stuff which was scheduled for the fourth issue. Bruce and I got in there, we took the whole goddamn thing apart. We took just about everything that was going to go in the fourth issue, threw it out and started from scratch. We gave Ralph Reese a script and Ralph did the best job that he had done up to that point in his career. I mean, just beautiful. He came in with this double-page splash of this galleon floating in space that you could just fall into. Just gorgeous. Bruce did this incredible space opera thing. Real EC type stuff. Terrific. Michael did a thing about a sea monster which eventually got printed somewhere else. I did a story called “The Monster Jar” which to this day I don’t know whatever happened to. And the cover for that issue. I forget who all we had in there but it was all good stuff. We were taking the best, the cream. This was going to be the best issue.
The only reason I did the cover for the fourth issue was that we had Krenkel lined up to do a cover, a headless horseman cover which would’ve just knocked your socks off, but he got sick. So he couldn’t do the finish, all he had was a little rough. And I wanted to go with the rough, but Bruce talked me out of it saying it was a little too rough to go with, and I guess he was right. But it was great. It was just this head-on shot of the headless horseman riding straight at you, the horse cut-off at the breast, charging out of the picture, just flaring nostrils, and this headless guy just whipping the horse. Trees flashing behind it. Aww, it was just terrific! It would have been such a great painting. And we tried to get Frazetta, but he wasn’t interested. He said he didn’t want to do the horror stuff. So we got Krenkel and he was all set to go with issue five with this headless horseman. Oh, and the best part of this whole thing, we were going to come up with a winner for this monster contest. The entries had been pouring in. Sproul takes us in to the back room, it’s like this closet where they store artwork, and says “Here’s the contest stuff.” The room looked like Fibber McGee’s closet, he opens the door and this stuff is just pouring out. Tubes, packages, and Bruce and I are carting this stuff out to his house. And it takes a whole day, between Sproul’s office which was in Long Island City and Bruce’s place, which was in Rushing. It involved something like two different buses and a long subway ride to get there. So we’re doing this, all day long, back and forth, carrying it by the armload, because he doesn’t have a car. Finally get it all to his apartment, we spend the whole weekend going through this stuff. Some of the stuff is just terrific. There are some talented kids out there that are never going to get anywhere because Bruce and I fucked up. We picked winners, then we had to restructure the whole prize thing for this because there was so much good stuff. Originally, it was supposed to be one winner per issue. We broke it down so that it was first, second, and third place and two honorable mentions. Just so we could fit all this stuff in. We were going to start announcing winners in the fourth issue. We get the whole thing together, do the paste-ups, came up with a new logo, all this stuff. Just restructured the whole magazine. It looked great. Got the whole thing done, and we spent our last weekend putting it together. And it’s looking great, we’re going to take it in and show it to Sproul. Go into Long Island City, to the office, Monday morning knock on the door. And the door just creaks open, y’know. And the office is empty. I mean, the desks are gone, everything is gone. Some scraps of paper blowing across the floor. It was just like the Twilight Zone, there was just nothing there. All the artwork, everything, all the contest stuff had disappeared. Not a word. We found out years later that the guy relocated in Florida. And I don’t know what the deal is. We tried to get people’s artwork back. Just couldn’t get it. Ralph Reese lost his thing, I lost my thing, Kaluta was late turning his in so he was able to hang on to his. Bruce lost his story. Frank Brunner did a real nice job for us in pencil or wash. That was gone.
GROTH: You must have been very depressed.
WRIGHTSON: Well, shocked. “Just what the hell is this?” We couldn’t believe it. And nobody had been paid, so there was all this money owed to us.
GROTH: You ever have the inclination to track this guy down?
WRIGHTSON: For a while we talked about it, but never quite got it together to do. I think something happened about that … I think Ralph Reese managed to get some money out of them somehow, by just being persistent. I think Michael did too, I don’t remember. But I know nothing ever happened for me. I got mad, and then it dissipated and I just decided I couldn’t do anything about it. I was just going to get on with the next job.
GROTH: Where did Abyss come in?
WRIGHTSON: Somewhere in there, it was around the Web of Horror time. Somebody, I think Bruce, sat down with pencil and paper and figured, “Well, you’re making $50 a page, and this book is selling for 35 cents or whatever it was and they print so many of them and look, there’s millions of dollars coming in off this book and you’re just getting $50 a page. So if we published our own magazine, we’d make a lot of money. All of that money would come to us and we wouldn’t have to pay the publishers.” Yeah, great, terrific! So we did Abyss and we got, I think $25 a page. No, not a page. $25 each.
GROTH: About $4 a page.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, only, out of this. That was our big moneymaking scheme.
WHITE: Not quite what you had in mind.
WRIGHTSON: No, no. We just didn’t know what the hell we were doing. Told the printer we wanted 2,000 books and he printed 1,000 and charged us for 2,000. Of course we go down to the printers and there’s all these boxes with books. I’d never seen 2,000 books before in boxes. “Yup, that’s a lot of boxes, looks good to me.” So we take them all back and realize we got shortchanged by a thousand. Call the printer up and said, “You owe us a thousand books.” He said, “Oh, no, the order was for a thousand books.” I said, “But you charged us for 2,000.” He said, “Oh, no, it says 1,000 on the bill.” And sure enough, it said 1,000. But the price he quoted us was what 2,000 copies were going to cost.
GROTH: So you guys really got screwed, huh?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, this guy really saw us coming. [Laughter.] So that’s Abyss.
GROTH: It’s amazing you guys weren’t more violent.
WRIGHTSON: We were a bunch of wimps. [Laughter.]
GROTH: How old were you about this time? About 20, 24, mid-20s?
WRIGHTSON: Not even that old, I think. I must have been like, 21, 22.
GROTH: Jeff’s older, of course.
WRIGHTSON: All the other guys were older. I was the baby of the bunch. Until Barry. And then he was younger than me. Mike’s a year older than me, Jeff’s five years older than me. Bruce is three or four years older.
GROTH: You are 34?
WRIGHTSON: I’ll be 34 in October .
GROTH: And, Badtime Stories?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, that was pretty early on. It was a fellow named Ron Barlow that I knew from Baltimore. Well, we had been talking about doing a magazine before I came to New York. And he kind of held on to the idea through everything. I worked on these stories while I was working for National, kind of between jobs I’d do this stuff. He was paying me something like $25 or $30 a page, just to kind of keep it going, to keep the interest up and all. And I finally got it all done, and put it out. Never made much more money over the original $30 a page initially. But that’s okay.
GROTH: It was really an excellent collection of stuff.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, it really was. I enjoyed doing it. Ron never put any pressure on me. It was always, “Do it at my own pace.” And I’m just amazed that it ever got done. And I’m still pretty proud of it.
GROTH: And it was nicely written, too.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I had fun with the stories. It was the first time I really had a chance to write my own story.
GROTH: Of course, you did each story in a different style and different approach.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I think that was maybe a little pretentious. I should have just concentrated more on telling the story, instead of worrying about technique and all. But I was into technique at the time.
GROTH: Here’s a quote that might go nowhere … whoever wrote the text for A Look Back …
WRIGHTSON: Chris Zavisa did.
GROTH: He wrote, “Comics tend to distort an artist’s ability to draw individual illustrations.” I assume you concur?
WRIGHTSON: What is the context this is in?
GROTH: Let me just dig it out and see if it makes any sense.
WRIGHTSON: Well, it’s a real provocative quote, but I think I need a little more in front and in back.
GROTH: [Still looking for the quote, Wrightson continues to talk.]
WRIGHTSON: I feel like I should babble on or something. Make some noise for the tape. [Looks at phone.] Yeah, this is great. Jim Starlin came over the other day and rewired our wall phone so I could use it as a desk phone. He said he’d have to rewire it to put it back on the wall when my leg gets better.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Starlin is an absolute genius as far as I’m concerned.
GROTH: Did you see his Captain Marvel book?
WRIGHTSON: I loved that book!
GROTH: Did you?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah! I really enjoyed that.
GROTH: Did you see his other book?
WRIGHTSON: I’ve got it but I haven’t read it. But the Captain Marvel book I was real impressed with.
GROTH: And that’s superheroes …
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, well that’s the whole thing. I just don’t follow that and … It’s not my thing. So I’m a little surprised at myself for being that taken by a superhero story, but I really liked it.
GROTH: Well, Captain Sternn is sort of a superhero.
WRIGHTSON: In his way, yeah. But that’s a funny thing about superheroes. I’m going to be involved with superheroes sometime soon, after my leg heals. [Whispering] I wonder if I should even be talking about it.
GROTH: One thing’s for sure, you shouldn’t badmouth superheroes if you’re going to be involved with them.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. [Laughter.]
GROTH: How are you going to be involved with superheroes?
WRIGHTSON: I don’t really know that much about it. George Romero has an idea for a superhero movie, which he called me and asked me to be production designer on and also to do the storyboards for the movie in comic book form. Very much like Creepshow. Which could subsequently be published as a tie-in with the movie. So, it looks like I’m going to have to be doing a lot of thinking about superheroes in the future.
WHITE: And he discussed the character with you?
WRIGHTSON: No, all he did was call for like 10 minutes.
GROTH: And you agreed to do it?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, that was the whole reason for the call. He said he had this idea involving superheroes for a movie and he wanted to know if 1 was interested in being involved. And I said, “Of course.” [Laughter.] And also, Romero’s doing The Stand. And I’m going to be doing the movie poster. It’s one of these deals where they want the poster first. Because what happened with Creepshow, they got that Jack Kamen thing which you’ve probably seen. Kamen did that before anything had been done on the movie, and they kind of made a bunch of copies of this and put them up all over the place and said, “We want to stick to this. This is the kind of spirit we want to maintain for this.” And he said it worked so well that they had this kind of visual key to kind of go by through the whole thing. And they want to do the whole thing for The Stand.
GROTH: I was surprised that you didn’t do the poster for Creepshow.
WRIGHTSON: It turns out that Kamen is an old friend of the producer.
GROTH: Because horror was not Kamen’s forte.
WRIGHTSON: Judging from the poster and the few things I’ve seen that he did for the movie, it’s more his forte now than it was back then.
GROTH: Sort of a reverse Davis syndrome.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I think he draws a hell of a lot better than he used to. He is a lot looser and freer.
GROTH: Well, I can’t find that damn quote so let’s let it lie.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I really don’t know where to take that.
GROTH: The Warren stint, 1974 and 1975 you did a lot of work for him. Could you talk about how that came about? Maybe you can say some nice things about Warren to balance out …
WRIGHTSON: I have nothing but nice, things to say about Warren, strangely enough. I may be the only person in the world that does. I think Warren is a terrific person. I got tired of color comics, just got tired of seeing bad reproduction and terrible heavy color on top of fine line stuff. And just decided I wanted to try black and white comics for a while, because you pretty much get what you do as far as reproduction. By this time, Warren was once again top-of-the-heap in black-and-white horror comics.
GROTH: About the only heap.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I think he was the only person doing them at the time. But he had survived his own bad times. He had survived all the crummy imitators who came and went. And there he was, seemingly back on his feet doing pretty good stuff, some interesting things. I think DuBay was in charge. The magazine was looking good to me so I went down to see him. He’d been after me for years to work for him. And of course, I’d heard all the Warren stories and everything. This guy sounds like a maniac, I don’t want to work for him. [Laughter.] But at this point, I thought if the guy was crazy, I can handle that. So I went down to see him and the guy was just terrific from the word go. I mean, I’d heard all these stories about people’s first meeting with Warren and crazy things. And he did do some crazy things that I kind of expected because the man’s reputation did precede him. For one thing, he trapped me into some kind of dumb thing, got me to make some kind of statement and then said, “No, you’re wrong about that.” “No, I’m right.” “No, you’re wrong.” “I’m right.” “Wanna bet?” and I said, “Yeah, a dollar.” “Show me your money.” So I took out a dollar, put it on his desk, and he took out a dollar and put it on his desk and then he proved me wrong and he took my dollar and said, “Would you sign it?” “Yeah, sure.” I signed his dollar. He opens his desk drawer, pulls out a wad of dollar bills like this [indicates a thick wad of bills]. Vaughn Bode, Billy Graham, Ken Kelley, Frank Frazetta, Reed Crandall, anybody who ever worked for him, he trapped into this stupid thing and got them to sign a dollar bill. It was terrific. [Laughter.]
I went in and he said, “Okay, you want to work for me. That’s terrific, I’d like you to work for me. I like your work. But you work for me, you understand that I own everything. I own all the rights, you don’t have anything. You get your originals back, but I get all the rights. I can do anything I want with what you do for me. I can repackage it, restructure it, anything. I own all of it. Agreed?” I said okay. That’s no worse than I am now. And I’m getting my originals back, too. And he said, “About getting your originals back, you get your originals back you can do anything you want with them. You can wipe your ass with them, line your garbage can, hang them up, you can even sell them.” And I said I probably would. “Okay, and if you sell them and the guy you sell them to sells them again and it gets sold again and again, and again and again and the 12th person down the line that it’s sold to prints it, you’re responsible. Can you deal with that?” I said sure. “All right. And on top of this, I’m going to pay you the best money you ever got.” [Laughter.] “Have we got a deal?” I said we had a deal. It was fine, it was always completely pleasant with him. It was great.
A funny thing happened soon after I started working with him. I was going to move, I found this great place. I was going to move out of my apartment and into an old church. Didn’t have enough money for the deposit for all this, so I went into Warren and said can I have an advance on the job I’m doing for you because I want to move into this place, and explained the whole thing to him. He said, “I never give advances to people, and here’s why.” And for an hour and a half he goes into this tirade about why he will not give anybody an advance; because you can’t trust artists, not me personally, but generically, artists are irresponsible people blah, blah, blah. On top of that, what if I give you this money for an advance and you have all your good intentions and everything of paying me back and then you get hit by a truck and you never finish the job. And I’m out the money, and I’m out the work blah, blah, blah. For an hour and a half he goes through this whole thing. I’m sitting there getting depressed as hell because I’m not going to get the money and then he finally says, “So that’s why I won’t give you an advance, but I will give you a personal loan.” And it was for something like $400. He writes me a personal check. Everything is fine. I walk out of his office, go and get the place. Couple of weeks later, I finish the job, turn it in, he pays me, I deposit the check, wait for it to clear, and pay him back his $400, we’re square. Then about a month after that, I break up with the girl that I moved into the church with and I’m moving back to the city. I’m going to move to Queens. Again, I’m strapped for money. I go in to see Warren, and I say “Jim, I know this is awful close on the heels of the last time, but I really have to ask you for a personal loan.” He said, “I never give anybody personal loans.” [Laughter.] For an hour and a half he sits there and gives me the same reasons why he doesn’t give anybody personal loans, and they’re the same reasons he doesn’t give an advance. He goes through the whole thing, and at the end he says, “But I will advance you on the job you’re working on.” [Laughter.] He’s a maniac. [Laughter.]
GROTH: This is apparently the sort of thing that drives other people berserk.
WRIGHTSON: I thought it was great! I loved it! The man was just totally unpredictable. All this time I’d been dealing with Carmine Infantino who was just a sweetheart of a guy, Stan, Joe Orlando, all these folks, really good people. And then I go down there to Warren and the guy is completely off-the-wall. I loved it.
GROTH: Yeah, I’ve heard some great Warren stories. I heard that when Dave Cockrum was working for him Dave walked in and asked for a raise. Warren pulled open his drawer and pulled out this box, pushed the button and the box started laughing at Dave.
WRIGHTSON: I’ve heard stories that go back a long way. Like originally he was really courting the old EC guys to come work for him and the guy he wanted most that he just couldn’t get was Davis. He wanted to start off doing a whole book of Davis’s stuff. “It’s horror stories, Jack, I want you to do all horror stories.” And Jack said, “I don’t do horror stories.” “C’mon Jack, one story, eight pages, come on Jack.” “I don’t do horror stories.” Finally he got it down to “How about designing a character? How would you like to design Uncle Creepy? C’mon Jack,” offering him money and all this stuff. And Davis said he didn’t want to be involved in the horror stuff, “I’m a cartoonist now, leave me alone.” A few days later, in the mail, Davis gets a Sony TV, small color TV, real expensive. No letter, no card, nothing, just the TV. From somewhere in New York. A few days after that he gets a tape deck. And he’s getting all this stuff. After a couple of weeks of getting all these gifts, Warren calls up. Now, this stuff has become Jack’s possessions and Warren has what he wants just by blackmail. [Laughter.] I can’t substantiate that. It’s just something I’ve heard.
GROTH: Well even if it’s apocryphal, it’s still good. So you were always on very good terms with Warren?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. And when the business of this book [Berni Wrightson: A Look Back] came up, I was living in Florida, Chris Zavisa in Detroit. He started advertising the book, saying that there was going to be work from DC, and I think he printed some pages in the ad. He got a letter from DC’s lawyers threatening to sue him if he didn’t get permission to use this stuff. So we got real panicky, and said, before we did anything else, let’s arrange a trip to the city and talk to everybody and get some permission. So I flew up from Florida at my own expense, Chris comes in from Detroit. I had previously made arrangements and set up appointments with everybody. And I set up the appointment to see Warren first. And I told Chris, “Look, Warren and I have always gotten along fine, but you’re a stranger in this, and I don’t know what he’s going to be like because the man is unpredictable. And he might suddenly become a totally schizoid, crazy person. Let’s go see him first because this is probably going to be the worst. National we’ve got them knocked, we don’t have to worry about that. I’ve worked for National for lots of years and we’re on good terms. Let’s go see Jim first and get it out of the way.” So we went in to see Warren and there was kind of a misunderstanding at first. Chris pulls out a dummy that he has and is showing it to Warren as kind of a presentation thing, and Warren is immediately from page 1 going, “You can’t do that. You can’t spread it across two pages. You’ve got to break it down into one page. You can’t go full color, full bleed, no way. Gotta enclose that in a border or we do that in black and white.” We’re going, “What, what, what?” and this goes on for like 10 or 15 minutes, and it’s really crazy. We’ve only gotten two pages into the thing and Chris is getting pissed off and I’m more and more confused and I say something and Warren says, “You mean you don’t want me to publish this?” I told him “No, this is the publisher, he wants to publish this book on me, and we’re here to ask permission to use stuff that I’ve done for you in the book.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, use it all! I don’t care! Use everything! Anything you put in there is going to look good on me. Use it all. Fine.” And it took that long to get permission from him and then we sat there for 30 or 40 minutes and schmoozed. [Laughter.] Yeah. It was terrific. Very pleasant. He made us coffee. He told us stories about the old days. Very nice. Then we go to National for the appointment and got nothing but grief.
WRIGHTSON: Right. One of the things we wanted to do was print all of the Swamp Thing covers, full page black-and-white. “No, you can’t do the whole run. You can do the whole run, but you have to print them in color from the comic book.” And I immediately blurted out, “Well that sounds like a goddamn perfect waste of a few pages of good color,” and it seemed like when I said that, they insisted that I do it their way. That’s why it’s in there. There are like these weird arbitrary conditions they put down. We wanted to print some representative pages from the mystery stuff and they said we couldn’t do that. But they let us print that whole Plop! story, “Gourmet” in its entirety. And everything we wanted to do they countered with some reason why we couldn’t do it. And we weren’t asking for anything unreasonable. This book would have been another 50 pages longer if we had gotten everything in the National chapter that we wanted to. As it turns out, the National chapter is real skimpy. So we spend two or three hours up there in the office, arguing with Jenette about all the stuff we can and can’t do and why we can’t do it.
GROTH: Who actually wanted you to publish things like the covers? Was that Jenette?
WRIGHTSON: I don’t know where that came from. I don’t think it was Jenette. That came from upstairs somewhere. The kicker, the punch line comes a few weeks later when Chris gets a bill from National for $1,500.
GROTH: For what?
WRIGHTSON: For the rights to publish this stuff.
GROTH: Did he have to pay it?
WRIGHTSON: He never did. I hope he never does. Fifteen hundred dollars. They really need the money to print whatever it is, the 20, 30 pages. Jesus, petty fucking people.
WHITE: Just to put a burr up your ass or something.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And we didn’t even have to go to Marvel. Chris wrote a letter to Stan saying he was doing this book, lots of color, this many pages, blah, blah, blah, very big deal. We’d like to use selected pieces Berni Wrightson did for you. Stan wrote back and again, carte blanche. He said use anything or everything, and citing pretty much the same reasons that Warren gave, saying it’s only going to reflect well on me and the company.
GROTH: DC really is anal retentive.
WRIGHTSON: Jesus. Those people … I just couldn’t believe it. So it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when the whole Swamp Thing crap happened. Why is it like beating my head against a wall dealing with these people?
GROTH: Will you ever deal with DC or Marvel again?
WRIGHTSON: Marvel I have nothing against. Back at the time they pulled that business on King Kull, they were doing that to everybody. That was just kind of symptomatic of what Marvel was at the time and they don’t really do that any more. They’ve gotten a hell of a lot more reasonable in recent years. In fact, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the new contracts that Marvel is offering, but these things are just dreamy. And as soon as I’ve got some time, I’m definitely going to work for them. I’m going to do something. I’d love to do a horror book for Shooter. But I just don’t want to commit myself until things open up a bit. I’ve got a few other things on the fire right now. But National, never again. Those people have screwed me for the last time.
GROTH: Ever work for Warren again?
WRIGHTSON: I don’t see why not. I just haven’t really gotten around to it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m still on good terms with Warren.
GROTH: What do you think of stuff like 1994?
WRIGHTSON: I don’t even look at it. I hardly ever buy comics.
GROTH: You just read The Comics Journal to keep up.
WRIGHTSON: Only sporadically. [Laughter.] Only when your subscription department sees fit to send it to me.
GROTH: When you got out of comics, you started painting, which was another entirely new departure for you.
WRIGHTSON: I dabbled a bit before that.
GROTH: The paintings that really impressed me here were the paintings from Poe.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, they were some of my few oil paintings.
GROTH: How did you tackle painting when you really got into it seriously?
WRIGHTSON: You mean technically?
WRIGHTSON: It was basically not knowing anything. I was living in Queens when I started the Poe portfolio and I had done the Telltale Heart there. Jeff [Jones] was living upstate, and I went up to visit him and I brought up a canvas and started working on that there, “Descent into the Maelstrom.” And I remember going into his studio, early in the morning and he was already there, working on something of his. And I set this thing up on a spare easel, and he said, “Oh, you’re going to start painting, huh?” And I said, “Yeah yeah, I’ll give it a shot.” And he said, “You’ve got a blank canvas.” I said, “Yeah, I know what I’m going to do.” So I squirt out some paint on the palette and just start picking up these great gobs of paint with the brush, whap, whap, whap. He was appalled. “You can’t do that! You can’t do that! You’ve got to lay some groundwork, lay some underpainting.” He was frantic that I was just laying this stuff on. And I’m starting to paint water directly on there. Waves are starting to appear. “You can’t do it, you can’t do it!” And I got real discouraged because he’s a painter, he should know. So I didn’t do any more work that weekend. Just kind of hung around, walking through the woods and all, wondering what I was doing wrong. So I don’t have any really conventional method of working. It’s whatever seems good at the time.
GROTH: You’re a real autodidact.
WRIGHTSON: I beg your pardon. [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah. Listen, care for a cookie?
GROTH: No, thanks.
WRIGHTSON: Oh, these are good. These are the kind that are never crisp. They’re always kind of soggy. [Laughter.] I like soggy stuff.
GROTH: I can’t wait to transcribe that. [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: I got real pissed off when as I was growing up, about 12 or 13, you couldn’t find a cereal that got soggy in milk anymore because the big selling point was that the cereal stayed crispy. I like a cereal that just sops it up. Becomes soup. Like the old corn flakes. Nowadays you can leave the corn flakes in there for a day or two and they get soggy.
GROTH: Let them soak overnight and then come back the next morning.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, right. But I like that stuff. I like granola now, because that gets soggy.
GROTH: You do have certain peculiar tastes. One of them is the painting called “Momentos,” which you characterized as not a sick picture. And you said, “Had I gone for that effect, I would have put feet on the fence instead of the heads.” I thought this was an interesting revelation. Can you talk about why the feet would have made it a sicker picture?
WRIGHTSON: It’s because when you think of things like axe murderers, most people have this kind of pigeonhole that they put someone like an axe murderer into. This kind of comic-book thing of a guy with an axe chopping off somebody’s head. Somehow it makes it easier to deal with. And you can talk about axe murderers, “Oh yeah, axe murderers, hahahaha.”
GROTH: It’s become accepted.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. In a strange kind of way because it’s a cliché, the axe murderer chopping off a person’s head. Whereas a real axe murderer might not go after a head, or any particular part of the body. Maybe just be concerned with killing you, maybe chop you in the chest or something. Nothing gets severed, really. But if you’re going to sever something, it seems a lot more horrible to me to think of a row of severed hands or, worse than that, fingers, just all lined up on a shelf or something, than heads. It’s like a head, a complete severed head—I mean, let’s get into this—sitting on a shelf, there is still that humanity about it. Gruesome as it is, it could be somebody sticking a head through the wall playing a joke. So there’s still this association with humanity attached to it. But you get to something like toes or kneecaps, elbows …
GROTH: And you know there’s a guy out there without elbows.
WRIGHTSON: Right. It’s like suddenly, “Oh my God!” The other thing is, you can cut somebody’s toes off and they can still live. Cut somebody’s head off, that’s pretty much it, except for some, um, athletes. Even like whole limbs. You can cut off a whole leg and there could be a person out there without a leg. So thereby hangs a tale.
GROTH: It’s the implication that’s so creepy.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Whereas the head, that’s it. There are headless bodies laying somewhere and they are most certainly dead. But if you get into other parts of the body you become increasingly creepy. I have the feeling I’m not explaining things terribly well today, but we’re covering a lot of ground so, why not? [Laughter.]
GROTH: I don’t know where to go from that. [Laughter.]
WHITE: I remember there’s a quote in the book that says you like axe murderers.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I think that was at a point in the interview where I was getting tired and just kind of running out of things to say.
GROTH: One thing I’m curious about, and this probably has no bearing on the interview. All your quotations in the book didn’t sound like you. I know how you talk and you’re very informal and casual. It sounded like you were being more formal, more careful.
WRIGHTSON: There were spots in there where I went over it and Chris cleaned it up too. Because I told him I didn’t want an interview where you put in all the “you knows” and “uhs,” stuff like that. So he kind of went through there and chopped bits and pieces.
GROTH: Why don’t you think people don’t kill other people? Neal [Adams] has a theory about this and I just wanted to get yours.
WRIGHTSON: Why people kill other people?
GROTH: No, why people don’t kill other people.
WRIGHTSON: But people do kill other people.
WHITE: End of discussion. [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: I mean, it’s on the news every day.
WHITE: Why do you think people do kill other people?
WRIGHTSON: Because they’re there. [Laughter.] It’s because person A has something that person B wants. And to person B the only way he’s going to get it is to kill person A.
GROTH: Why the hell didn’t I think of that when Neal was telling me? Neal gave me a theory about why people don’t kill other people and I don’t know why I didn’t sit there and say, “But Neal, people do kill other people.”
WRIGHTSON: What’s his theory, briefly?
GROTH: It’s because people won’t trust you if you go around killing a lot of people. You’ll become untrustworthy. The way Neal explained it …
WRIGHTSON: Is he talking about primitive man now?
GROTH: No, this was modern technological society. Say I killed your wife, you wouldn’t trust me any more.
WRIGHTSON: No, I probably wouldn’t. [Laughter.]
GROTH: And that’s why I don’t do it. [More laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: But, on the other hand, I’d probably kill you. [Laughter.]
GROTH: That’s probably true too. [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: So that kind of throws the people not killing each other theory out the window.
GROTH: Neal pontificated on this for about a page in the magazine.
WRIGHTSON: If everybody realized that then nobody would kill anybody. We wouldn’t have war …
GROTH: If we could get you and Neal together. I think we’d have a fascinating conversation.
WRIGHTSON: It wouldn’t go very far because Neal and I, and this goes back a long way, don’t argue. Invariably, we’d have a discussion and it would reach a point where I could see no point in going on, because Neal was completely wrong and I was completely right, and I would just shut up, leaving Neal with no one to argue with.
WHITE: And very sad.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And not a little angry. And I remember he got pissed off quite a few times at that. Where I would just kind of end the thing by saying “You’re wrong.” [Laughter.] And not saying anything. He’s becoming increasingly “Space Cadetish.”
GROTH: Wait until you read the interview. It’s really something.
WRIGHTSON: I’m looking forward to it.
GROTH: Neal always sounds very reasonable.
WRIGHTSON: Well, he’s always been that way. There was a time when he could have probably convinced me that the sky was pink.
GROTH: You did a book for Neal, didn’t you?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Freak Show.
GROTH: Has that ever been published?
WRIGHTSON: It’s in the process of coming out in Spain.
GROTH: Because you did that about two years ago.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. When did I finish that? Last year? Yeah.
GROTH: We published a couple of pages from it. It looked like nice work.
WRIGHTSON: It was pretty good.
GROTH: You wrote it yourself?
WRIGHTSON: Bruce [Jones] did. I don’t know when it’s going to come out over here. Heavy Metal wants it, but they seem to have some kind of problem with Neal about it and I don’t know what that’s all about. But it’s coming out in Spain now.
GROTH: Is it going to be in color?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, it’s sort of in color. I’m not happy at all with the reproduction.
GROTH: You’ve seen it?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I’ve seen one segment of it. And I’m not happy at all. Michelle [Berni’s wife] colored it and it looks like they didn’t photograph it right to begin with and then they had somebody retouch it, because it photographed pale, or something. She colored it very carefully with watercolor, brushwork and all, and they came and did the retouching with what looks like magic marker, solid colors, whacking away at it. Really looks bad.
MICHELLE WRIGHTSON: And it’s just in this Spanish Creepy. [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I thought it was going to be … Well, originally it was going to be Pilote, but there was some problem with that. And then I thought it was going to be some frankly, more prestigious Spanish thing. And it’s in the Spanish version of Creepy.
GROTH: I hope they don’t use the same coloring over here.
WRIGHTSON: They will.
GROTH: They will?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. That was part of the deal, that they get the separations cheap.
GROTH: That’s a real goddamn shame.
GROTH: It would be almost better to print it in black-and-white. I really like your black-and-white work.
WRIGHTSON: It takes a lot more time.
GROTH: I mean, you’re one of the few people, who, if you do a comic strip, adding color doesn’t mean that much to it. And I almost prefer the black-and-white in a lot of cases.
WRIGHTSON: Well, it depends. If I’m working for color …
GROTH: You did this specifically working for color?
WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah. So there are lots of open areas … Actually, this thing might hold up in black 6k white.
GROTH: The pages I saw were in black-and-white and they looked good.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. This would probably hold up more than Creepshow. Because that was really done for color. There are lots of wide-open areas. In fact, in a lot of places, no line to hold the color, and the color helped that an awful lot.
GROTH: I want to talk about your Frankenstein project. You’ve been at it for a long time now.
WRIGHTSON: It looks like it’s finally going to come out sometime soon.
GROTH: Is it completed?
WRIGHTSON: Yes, it is completed. There were one or two drawings to go, and I just came to the realization recently that I’m probably never going to do them. I’ve probably burned myself out on the Frankenstein project, and if I keep holding it up to do a couple more drawings the thing will never get done. So I’ve decided that … I took a look again through the structure of the thing and I thought that I would have to do a drawing or else I’d have a chapter or something without an illustration or there would be some kind of imbalance. But it turns out that there isn’t, so …
Yeah, I was going to get on it before this happened [banging cast], so I guess sometime this summer if I can squeeze it in between everything else that’s going on.
GROTH: Are you going to publish the book yourself?
WRIGHTSON: Definitely, yeah. It’s reached a point now where I couldn’t possibly let somebody else do it and expect to make any money. I’d be losing money anyway, except by doing it myself. And even then, I’ll probably lose money, so …
GROTH: What format is the book going to be in? It can’t be small.
WRIGHTSON: No. It’s going to be hardback, about so big …
GROTH: Similar to A Look Back?
WRIGHTSON: Maybe an inch smaller all around. Maybe 8 ½” x 11” then. Or whatever the next standard size is, down from that.
GROTH: Is it going to be on 800 pound paper? [Laughter.]
WRIGHTSON: I’m not really sure, that’s something else I’ll have to check. I want something pretty opaque. But it’s going to be all black-and-white, there aren’t going to be any color illustrations.
GROTH: A color painting for the cover?
WRIGHTSON: No, no. The cover, if you go up to use the bathroom, you’ll see it. It’s hanging up in the hall. Or even if you don’t have to use the bathroom. It’s a wraparound cover, black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawing. With maybe a second color for the title.
GROTH: You probably don’t even know, but about how many copies are you going to print and where are you going to sell it?
WRIGHTSON: Well, I’m planning to print around 5,000 copies for the first printing, maybe more. I’ll probably be wholesaling it mostly to comics shops everywhere. I’ll be handling a bit of retail sales myself, but certainly not too much. Because that becomes a full time job. I’ve got the thing pretty well structured for a wholesale business.
GROTH: How do you go about selecting which scenes from the novel to illustrate?
WRIGHTSON: It isn’t easy, it really isn’t.
GROTH: You must know that book inside and out.
WRIGHTSON: Oh, boy do I ever. I’m so sick of it. [Laughter.] It’s a ridiculous book. It really is silly. The thing just defies all logic and all good sense, but what the hell, it’s fun. As far as selecting things, I have a stack of drawings this big that aren’t going to appear in the thing. Finished, complete drawings and these things don’t get knocked out in a couple of hours. I spent a few days on them. You can put that much time into doing a drawing, and really become involved with it and everything, and then decide you’re not going to use it. Or, what’s even worse, deciding that you don’t like it. After investing all that time and energy into it and really being convinced that you’re doing a great picture, and get the whole thing done after a week’s work, and you look at it and go, “Nah.”
GROTH: I’ve never heard an artist say that after putting so much time into it he just didn’t like the drawing.
WRIGHTSON: I don’t know how many artists go through that. I certainly do. Not all the time. Most of what I’ve done, I like. I like to look at my stuff. But still, there’s an awful lot of stuff I do that I just put a lot of time and energy into before it really connects that this ain’t a good picture and I don’t like it.
GROTH: It’s surprising to me that you wouldn’t make that determination far before it’s finished.
WRIGHTSON: Surprising to me, too. I mean, sometimes I do. Sometimes it doesn’t get beyond a pencil drawing. Just look at it and say, “This ain’t working,” and put it aside. But more often than not, I just finish the thing, and then decide that it’s a piece of garbage. [Laughter.]
GROTH: How many drawings are going to be in the book?
WRIGHTSON: About 40 full-page illustrations, give or take one or two.
GROTH: I think at one point you said you had 100 possible illustrations but decided it looked like a Big Little Book or something.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I really had to cut it down. With that, there would have literally been a drawing every other page. And that was just too much. If you’re going to go that far, do a comic book.
GROTH: This also sounds like one of the few projects where you didn’t run out of steam near the end.
WRIGHTSON: Well, actually I did kind of run out of steam. And that’s been the problem for the past couple of years. I haven’t done anything on it in at least a year, maybe more. So I really have run out of steam. I’ve just been putting it off, saying I’ll get around to it. And, like I say, I just came to the realization maybe two months ago, that I better get this sucker out soon or it’s just not going to get done.
GROTH: Do you have a problem where your technique might change over the period of doing the drawings so that you can tell the early drawings from the later drawings?
WRIGHTSON: Well, you can, actually. I can. Because the technique improved. It’s kind of strange. The technique improved, and then it got too good. Or, like I was saying earlier on, it became too easy. And I can see that. I don’t know if anybody else will. But there’s a middle period, fortunately it’s a very broad middle period, of what I consider to be the best stuff. On the early stuff, the technique isn’t quite there, and on the later stuff the technique is completely overpowering. To me, anyway.
GROTH: Can you elaborate on that, when your technique improves? How do you improve your technique? Is it the quality of line?
WRIGHTSON: It’s a question of getting to know what you’re doing.
WRIGHTSON: No, not control. Well, control has something to do with it. But that’s not everything, because the control was there all along, but it was just knowing what to do with those lines. I’m kind of aping Franklin Booth on this thing, I’m trying to do it all with single lines varying in thickness, to kind of imitate an old steel engraving or woodcut. So there’s not a lot of cross-hatching. There’s not a lot of that kind of pen texture. So it’s … Well, let’s call it an engraving technique, with a pen. It’s just taking this engraving technique and after you’ve done 20 or 30 pictures, you really start getting the hang of what a line this thick is going to do when you narrow it down across the space of seven inches to a hairline. And then lay another line exactly like it, next to it. And the next one is a little bit thinner so you can get a gradation. And after a while it becomes remarkably easy to do it. It does for me, anyway. And I don’t think I’m going to be using this technique much after this. I’m going to find something else.
GROTH: Is there a point where you can over-embellish?
WRIGHTSON: Oh, hell, there’s always that point. Yeah. I always run that risk. There are so many things of mine that are just overdone. I could have used that fabled “second artist” standing over my shoulder to take it away when it was finished.
GROTH: Again, about the Frankenstein book, what I’m interested in finding out is what is the intent of the illustrations? Are you intent upon adding another dimension to the novel?
WRIGHTSON: Not really. I started this in 1976. All this time, and all this work, all this effort and aggravation and what not have gone into this simply to embellish this old book. Which, when I started out, I thought was a terrific book. Now, six years have gone by, and I don’t think it’s such a terrific book, anymore. Okay, we’ve got some good drawings to go in there, some of them are spectacular. And for anybody who does like the book, this is going to be a real good edition of it. My personal feelings have nothing to do with that at all. You should just buy the book because you want it, and enjoy it, and don’t worry about how I feel. When I did the drawings, I was really involved with the book and my intentions were really good when I did them. They had to be or my drawings wouldn’t be that good. I really believe that an artist can’t communicate to a viewer unless he really pours himself into it and tries to do that. And I tried to do it with that, and they work. So, I’m not apologizing for that, I’m not apologizing for anything, I’m just saying that I’m glad I’m still not doing it, because my attitude has changed completely.
GROTH: It sounds like you think a little less of the book now than when you first started.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I guess I do.
GROTH: Who are some of your favorite authors?
WRIGHTSON: Stephen King.
GROTH: Poe, I guess? Or isn’t he one of your favorites?
WRIGHTSON: He was real good to start out with, but I don’t think I’d ever read him again. Wells, H.G. Wells, in limited doses.
WRIGHTSON: Nah. He was always a little too ponderous. I have a hard time with the language. There are a few things that he’s done that I’ve really enjoyed, but for the most part I can’t take him.
GROTH: What do you like about King?
WRIGHTSON: What do I like about King? Damn near everything. The guy has an uncanny knack for creating characters who are people that you know, just really solid people. A storyteller par excellence. Absolutely riveting from the first page. A terrific command of the language and colloquialism and slang and bullshit and whatever. And on top of that, he can scare the fucking pants off me.
GROTH: That’s what friends tell me.
WRIGHTSON: Have you ever read him?
GROTH: No, I never have. And friends have told me that they’ve actually gotten frightened reading his books. And I can’t imagine that.
WRIGHTSON: If you’ve never experienced that, I envy you. Because I wish I could re-experience that feeling for the first time.
GROTH: I keep intending to read The Shining, but I’ve not gotten around to it.
WRIGHTSON: I think you ought to start out with Salem’s Lot.
WHITE: How about Firestarter?
WRIGHTSON: Firestarter and Salem’s Lot, I think, are the two best stories he’s written.
GROTH: Did you see the King story in the Marvel comic?
WRIGHTSON: “Lawnmower Man,” yeah.
GROTH: What did you think of that?
WRIGHTSON: I thought Walt went a little bit off the deep end on that. Hard to explain. I like Walt’s stuff. It’s hard to talk about it with King’s stuff because when I read the story I saw it completely differently. So I see Walt’s thing, and for the most part, I disagreed with it.
GROTH: Did you disagree with the caricature aspect?
WRIGHTSON: No, no. Because that’s one of the things I like about Walt. I’ll tell you the thing that really bothered me was the layout. Usually, Walt’s stuff makes perfect sense. It’s just easy, you can breeze right through it. That one for some reason, boy, it just kept getting in the way. I was constantly reminded that I was reading a comic book that was trying to force my eye in directions that it didn’t want to go.
GROTH: Did you like the story?
WRIGHTSON: I liked the story, yeah. And I like a lot of Walt’s intentions, what he was trying to do with it, and for me, he just didn’t succeed. Maybe he succeeded for everybody else and I’m just funny that way.
GROTH: Did you like his Alien?
WRIGHTSON: I loved his Alien. That was with a little trepidation, because they offered it to me first, and I turned it down, because they said, “we want it last week.” I think they had two months for 48, or 64 pages. It might have been something like 48 pages in a month or 64 pages in two months or something absolutely ridiculous like that. Full color. I reluctantly turned it down, because they were ready to fly me to England right away. And I’d never been to England.
GROTH: Did you see the movie?
WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah.
GROTH: Did you like it?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, the movie’s a classic, I love it. I’ve seen it four times.
GROTH: We just saw it again a couple of weeks ago. It’s great for midnight shows.
WRIGHTSON: I don’t like Giger’s work. I don’t like his painting.
GROTH: Why don’t you like it?
WRIGHTSON: I don’t know if I can explain. His work seems very affected to me. Phony isn’t the right word. But there seems to be too much reliance on a certain set of devices recurring, and recurring. And I don’t like to see that. Stylistically I don’t mind seeing a recurring style, because that’s what you have, but Giger doesn’t strike me as having as strong a style as he does a reliance on objects and paraphernalia.
GROTH: It’s not genuine.
WRIGHTSON: Yes and no. That’s sort of it, but not quite. It’s a real hard thing to put your finger on. This is all a prelude to saying that the stuff he did in Alien was brilliant. For that movie, it just worked so well. And I just don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it.
GROTH: And we’re all in love with Sigourney Weaver.
WRIGHTSON: Oh, yeah, yeah. What a heartthrob.
GROTH: And Moebius, of course, designed some material for the movie. Do you like Moebius’s work?
WRIGHTSON: What I’ve seen of it, yeah. Actually Kaluta pointed it out to me, it was in The Making of Alien, it had all these sketches and everything. I don’t know how, but we got into talking about Ron Cobb. Evidently Michael doesn’t have a real high opinion of Ron and said, “Look at this,” and he shows me the book and we’re flipping through it. And I get to the costume designs. And I’m flipping through and I get to the Moebius design, which is the one they used. And I said, “Boy that’s Moebius, huh.” And Michael said, “Yeah! That’s it exactly! Right! That’s it!” And I said, “What are you talking about?” “You just flipped through 15 pages of Ron Cobb’s costume designs and Moebius comes through with one picture and they pick it!” [Laughter.]
GROTH: Let’s get in to what you like in terms of art. Not necessarily specific artists, but what do you look for? What kind of thing do you pick up on?
WRIGHTSON: Mostly, I’m really fascinated with the stuff I can’t do.
GROTH: Which would be?
WRIGHTSON: Just about everything. When you come right down to it, I’m really pretty limited about what I can and can’t do. I really admire technical facility. Not really as an end to itself, but abstractly. You can have all the technical facility in the world, and still make bad pictures, I realize that. But, still, there’s something about being able to whip something out with no effort at all, or draw a perfectly straight line with a brush, or do a perfect circle. And working with airbrush … I’m just envious as hell of people who can do that. Although, strangely enough, most of the work I’ve seen done by airbrush, I can’t stand.
GROTH: Do you like [Richard] Corben?
WRIGHTSON: When he doesn’t rely too much on the airbrush, yeah.
GROTH: About 3 percent of the time.
WRIGHTSON: [Laughter.] Yeah. No, I like a lot of what Rich does. And I’m probably pretty typical. I probably like the same things about him that you do. And dislike the same things.
GROTH: What about underground artists? I’ve never heard you talk about them. Ever. Do you follow them, do you like them?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I like most of the guys for different reasons. I always think of Corben as an underground artist. And I think as far as an artist he’s the top. And there are a lot of other guys like S. Clay Wilson, I really like. And I don’t like his drawing especially much. But I like what he does with it. That certain twist of mind that he has. Crumb, of course. Bill Griffith I think is a genius. I really like his stuff. Zippy the Pinhead.
GROTH: Have you seen Raw?
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I’ve seen an issue or two. I haven’t really had time to sit down and go through it, so I can’t really comment on it.
GROTH: There are a lot of strange things in there.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, Art [Spiegelman]’s kind of off-the-wall. He’s a character. I like Art. Did you ever get to see his lecture?
GROTH: Well, not really. He invited me over, but I haven’t gone yet.
WRIGHTSON: Actually, I kind of like early Chester Gould stuff. Again, not for the drawing but the guy was a hell of a yarn-spinner and the stuff … well, for the last 25 years, it’s been anemic as hell. But early on, it was really grim. Gangbusters stuff. No-holds-barred stories with these great characters like Flattop, Puss Face, and all these people.
GROTH: [Laughter.] How about the newspaper strips? Did you like Harold Gray?
WRIGHTSON: I haven’t seen newspaper strips in so long …
GROTH: McCay … any of the old stuff?
WRIGHTSON: I love all the old stuff. Yeah. Little Nemo and Hal Foster, we talked about him before.
GROTH: Of course, nothing like that is being done these days.
WRIGHTSON: Well, that’s it, you know. Prince Valiant is just a joke.
GROTH: It’s really tragic.
WRIGHTSON: Well, of the funnies up here, Prince Valiant is the only straight thing. And the rest of it’s all humor stuff. And I’m not too crazy about most of the humor stuff either. Ever since Doonesbury everybody’s coming along, being laid back, in the goddamn humor things, and … Whatever happened to people being hit on the head, and pies and stuff, Sure, it’s probably just fallen out of fashion and will come back, but I really miss that stuff. Slipping on banana peels.
GROTH: Yeah, there’s nothing like McCay, Herriman, and Feininger today.
WRIGHTSON: It’s probably reflecting the mood of the country. All conservative and wimpy.
GROTH: Feiffer’s good.
WRIGHTSON: Feiffer’s always good. Feiffer has just been consistently brilliant through the years. Charles Schulz has gotten tired, I think. I think he started getting tired with the goddamn Red Baron. That wore out its welcome.
GROTH: It seems like when someone does something for 20 or 30 years, he just starts to burn out.
WRIGHTSON: I don’t see how these guys can keep up with it. The only guy I know personally that does a strip is Williamson, and he’s not even doing that one any more. He’s doing the Star Wars strip now.
GROTH: Yeah, he quit Agent X-9.
WRIGHTSON: Right. I haven’t talked to him in years but I’ve heard that he is so much happier now. I mean, he’s finally away from civilian stuff and he can do people in boots and tights and outrageous machinery and stuff.
GROTH: The pay has to be better.
WRIGHTSON: Oh, I don’t know, the money was always good. Although it’s probably better, astronomically better, with Star Wars, than it ever was with Corrigan. Because Corrigan was never carried by that many papers. But he was still making a hell of a good living at that.
GROTH: What about Captain Sternn, speaking of such things?
WRIGHTSON: I did the strip, just for the hell of it, and never really had Heavy Metal in mind and Jeff came over and wanted to know what I was going to do with it, and I said I didn’t know. You think maybe Heavy Metal? He said, sure. But it wasn’t done for anybody but me. I started it while I was living in Florida, I was working on Frankenstein down there. Got bored and felt like doing a strip, so I did Captain Sternn. Got bored with that, put it aside. We moved up here and were here for a few months and then I completely forgot about it and I was digging through some old stuff and ran across it and said, “Aw Hell, I ought to finish this up.”
GROTH: What did you think of the animation?
WRIGHTSON: I was tremendously pleased with it.
GROTH: I thought it was the best thing in the movie.
WRIGHTSON: Well, I tried to convince myself that I liked the movie. I saw it twice. And then came to the realization that I couldn’t stand the movie, but I did like my part of it. And thought there was nothing wrong with that, because that’s the way it is, isn’t it? I think mine was the truest, the truest to its original form, and stayed the closest to me stylistically. And I can’t think of the guys’ names who did it, but I never talked to them, was never in contact with them. But they put their finger on the exact quality I was going for with that. Just this kind of Warner Brothers feeling. And I’m real gratified that they picked up on that immediately.
GROTH: Are you much of a film buff?
WRIGHTSON: More or less, I guess. But I don’t get out to the movies much. Certainly not now [points to leg].
GROTH: Are you kind of isolated out here?
WRIGHTSON: Not really. Kingston is 10, 15 miles away and they’ve got five theatres over there with seven more on the way. Of course, they do a lot of Smokey and the Bandit and they’re still waiting for Chariots of Fire. So they do a lot of good old boy, redneck, kick ass, drive-in stuff up here. [Laughter.] But they still get some good stuff. If you haven’t seen it yet, see the new Richard Pryor movie. It is devastating.
GROTH: Which one?
WRIGHTSON: Live on the Sunset Strip. Well, see them both actually. Because he is so good. He’s just got to be the funniest man alive.
WHITE: In the world.
WRIGHTSON: Outside of Jerry Lewis. [Laughter.]
GROTH: What kind of movies do you like? You said you liked horror movies.
WRIGHTSON: I love comedies. Horror movies. I loved Reds and Ragtime, whatever you want to call those. Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, pretty much what everyone else likes. I’m fairly typical in that respect, except that I like a lot of really bad horror movies that most other people don’t. [Laughter.]
GROTH: You have to love Tod Browning’s Freaks.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Well I think you had to have grown up in the ’50s. That’s a big part of it. You had to have grown up during the days when you had a double-feature, bad science fiction movie every week. Always involving giant bugs or some kind of thing.
GROTH: And then you get addicted.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And those things were so bad. Of course, they only cost a quarter, for two movies. No, it was 50 cents.
GROTH: Yeah, you aren’t that old.
WRIGHTSON: Maybe that was a matinee or something, because I remember standing in line half way around the block when Rhodan was playing. Which was one of your all time bad Japanese movies. But I just loved it. He’d flap his wings and the buses would go flying off into the air. [Laughter.]
GROTH: All the toy buses went flying into the toy buildings. [Laughter.] You didn’t like The Shining much.
WRIGHTSON: I was real disappointed in The Shining. I saw it twice, once in the theatre and once on HBO at a friend’s house. I had great hopes for that. I thought, “Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Wow! It’s got to be great!”
GROTH: Nicholson gave a really effective portrait of a loony.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, but the thing that really disappointed me was that he was acting too crazy too early. I mean, he’s supposed to be a little bit troubled at the beginning, but he doesn’t become a raving lunatic until later on. But you don’t trust this man from the very beginning. And Shelley Duvall was even a little on the weird side. And it wasn’t their fault. It was Kubrick, the direction.
GROTH: Duvall twitching and smoking cigarettes constantly. She looked a little off.
GROTH: So, what are you doing now?
WRIGHTSON: Well, I’m just kind of laying around. Just starting to read The Stand for about the fifth time.
GROTH: You mean you haven’t started it five times, you’ve actually read it?
WRIGHTSON: I’ve read it four times and I’m starting in on my fifth.
GROTH: Holy hell.
WRIGHTSON: I’ve read just about everything he’s ever written at least twice. And it takes a really good writer to get me to read something more than once. I mean, he’s good even when you know what’s coming. You can go through it a second time and just marvel at how well he manipulates you. And you have to marvel at it because you can’t figure out how he does it. It just works. It gets you all fired up and interested the second time around. Not many people can do that.
GROTH: Well we certainly should ridicule your volleyball feat here [pointing to Berni’s broken leg].
WRIGHTSON: I figure I have a slot reserved for me in the Volleyball Hall of Fame. There aren’t many people who can fall on themselves and break their leg.