Friday, October 31, 2014

Creepy presents: Bernie Wrightson

While I guess there’s a bit of truth that Dark Horse has become “the place where properties DC and Marvel loses the rights to go to die”, look at all the fantastic collections of material, much of it never before reprinted, that they’ve been putting out. There are few comic book artists who have gotten as much mainstream recognition as Bernie Wrightson, and hence, as many reprints as Wrightson has, but you know what? I don’t care! This little hardcover collecting the work Bernie Wrightson did when he was at Warren is fantastic. No enlarged or reduced pages or panels, no garish coloring. Here’s everything as it as it was meant to be seen. You know something has to be good when you buy it despite already owning most of the stories contained therein!
 A small caveat though, is that, famous as Wrightson’s stories at Warren are, the amount of actual stories he drew for the company is relatively small. A good chunk of the book is made up of his covers, pin-ups, back-covers and frontispieces, as well as stories where he was just the inker.
 But anyway, on to the stories:
 Stories from Creepy:
 -“The Black Cat” from Creepy #62:

 There have been quite a few adaptations of The Black Cat in comics over the years, and I don’t think this was even Warren’s first! But damn, when you read the introduction where Bruce Jones talks about Wrightson won over James Warren by intentionally withholding the pages at first and showing him work he’d done as a teenager, you believe it! Who wouldn’t be blown away by work like this?

 It’s a pretty straightforward adaptation of the story with almost no changes, but what do you expect from a story as done to death as this? Gorgeous stuff.
 Most memorable scene: When the narrator kills his wife. Ugh! That hurts just looking at it. Note how there’s no blood; it’s the sheer furor that sells it.

 -“Jenifer” from Creepy #63:
  This is the infamous shocker which got made into a Masters of Horror episode (aka “The only worthwhile thing Dario Argento has done in years”) and always gets cited when people bring up horror comics stories along with Hoppin’ Down the Bunny Trail and The Monster of Dead End Street. It's so popular Wrightson actually gets sketch requests of it.
 
 Truth be told, as good as the script by Bruce Jones is, I’ve never really gotten into Wrightson’s art that much in this story. It’s great, but I always found the titular character more comical-looking/pitiable rather than frightening, although that’s sort of the point, I guess.

 The story is about a wealthy family man who rescues a deformed and (apparently) retarded girl from being killed in the woods by shooting a man. Not wanting to face a scandal, he buries the body and “adopts” the girl, who he names Jenifer. Jenifer seems to exert a hypnotic influence on the man, making him overlook all the horrible things she does to his family, eventually causing them to leave. Half-horrified and half-attracted to her (Jenifer has quite a body), the man and Jenifer hit the road, with the man trying to escape but always coming back no matter what, sometimes out of pity, sometimes out fear, with each night a living hell of cheap motels, female-on-male rape and the dead bodies of Jenifer’s victims. Yes, it’s a story designed solely to prey on male anxieties about being dominated and a fear of “ugly” women, but it’s so hauntingly, unrelentingly bleak that you won’t even think to criticize the cliché ending.

 Most memorable scene: When Jenifer decides to get “frisky”. This is probably comicdom’s most sickening rape scene.

 Oh, by the way, “feminist” community Scans_Daily sees Jenifer as the real rape victim and completely ignores everything about the story in order to suit their “head-canons”. I wish I was kidding:
All of these dissenters have probably been banned now

-“Clarice” from Creepy #77:

 A man whose wife accidentally died in a blizzard returns, but is she after revenge? And which of them is truly dead? Told entirely in rhyme.
 Not much to say about this one either in terms of art or story (it is only 5 pages, with four panels to each page), but I do like Wrightson’s snow effects and how he tries to downplay the horror aspects to fit the romantic, melancholy mood of the story.
 Most memorable scene: I usually try to avoid spoilers, but the last two panels manage to be surprisingly emotional, although the ending doesn’t really make sense to me.

-“Country Pie” from Creepy #83:

 This one was actually drawn by Carmine Infantino and only inked by Wrightson. It’s about a woman hunting down a serial killer. We see a woman who is apparently the one tracking the killer, hitchhiking  undercover along with her ‘little brother’, getting in a car with a man who is apparently the killer on a lonely, country road. Seems pretty reckless bringing a child along on such a mission, and we never see how our undercover girl is communicating with the police.

 Sure enough, there’s a twist, and I’m going to go ahead and give it away. The girl and her little brother are the killers, the man is just a horny travelling salesman and the woman hunting the killer is actually a psychic observing this all from afar. Oddly enough, there’s a happy ending. Pretty weak overall and the misdirections are obvious.
  Infantino would later draw a much better (or at least, more atmospheric) story about a serial killer targeting travelling salesmen. Wrightson’s hand can barely be felt.
 Most memorable scene: When the salesman is thrown into a lake and observes the corpses of all the other victims. “Sis” must be a good swimmer to have tied them all down like that.

-“Dick Swift and his Electric Power Ring” from Creepy #86: A terminally ill young boy is comforted by the author of his favorite dime novel hero as he lies dying. However, the author has a secret: The electric power ring from the stories is real, and he gives it to the boy. I’m not spoiling this one.

 This is a very sad, sentimental story that nevertheless manages to be uplifting. Warren re-used this plot several times, but this time was the best. Infantino & Wrightson’s styles mesh perfectly this time, capturing the mix of sadness and childlike wonder that pervades the story.
 Most memorable scene: The ending, but since I’m not going to spoil it, I’ve decided to focus on the glimpses of the dime novel itself, which are pretty funny (and spot on if you’ve ever seen any 19th century dime novels) even though it looks more like a comic book.
 -“A Martian Saga” from Creepy #87:
A stranded astronaut  with a rapidly dwindling air supply is welcomed by a Martian tribe, kills a monster, saves a girl, is rewarded with sex, then dies from lack of oxygen.
 There are worse ways to go.
 Kidding aside, this is a good one, not so much for the story, but for the way it’s told. There’s no dialogue and everything is written in limericks. I love when writers mix comics with poetry, but I love it even more when the poetry is good, and Nicola Cuti’s certainly is. The subject matter may be a bit far afield from what you’d expect from Wrightson, but it’s still beautifully drawn, and with just one look at the ‘Martian monster’ (that looks more like a werewolf) you know you’re in Wrightson territory. Dig the full page, thin panels too on every page, similar to “Clarice”’s four panels-a-page grid. Wrightson’s layout skills are underrated.

 Most memorable scene: Our hero’s tragic death. Like I said, there are worse ways to go.

-“The Laughing Man” from Creepy #95:

 A disheveled explorer staggers out of the African jungle and relates the strange tale of what happened to him and his partner, Briggs. The two were on a quest to find a tribe of intelligent apes to bring back to a freak show, which Briggs hoped to infiltrate by skinning and dressing up as one. Unfortunately, the apes were watching, and strong adherents to the old phrase “Monkey see, Monkey do”…

 If you can overlook that Wrightson’s art here is cartoonish to the point of caricature, this is easily the, well, creepiest of his stories for Creepy. I’m not including a “most memorable scene” for this one. It needs to be seen all its own. Rarely has the image of a smirking gorilla been so scary, and an excellent way to end Wrightson’s work for the magazine.
 Part of me likes to think the scene of Briggs dressing up in the hollowed gorilla’s skin was inspired Tintin in the Congo. Huh, first boy’s adventure dime novels, now Herge. The writers for Creepy sure loved turn-of-the-century kid’s stuff.
Stories from Eerie:
-“The Pepper Lake Monster” from Eerie #58: A tourist sailing on Pepper Lake runs afoul of the legendary monster of Pepper Lake and decides to capture it, gradually becoming more and more obsessed. His plan seems to be working, but perhaps the monster is not the biggest problem he has to face…

 This is hands down my favorite stand-alone Wrightson work. Sure there are little flaws here and there (Pepper Lake must be the size of one of the great lakes to fit that thing in it), but damn if the drawings of the monster and our hero’s increasingly obsessive attitude still aren’t drawn beautifully. I’m a sucker for lake/sea monster stories in comics (I even considered making it the theme for one past Halloween before realizing there were several I’d overlooked), and this one, with its cynical but perfectly believable twist, is easily the best of them.
 Most memorable scene: There are plenty, but the splash itself is simply incredible. Every medieval mapmaker whoever scrawled a sea serpent would be jealous:

 Here it is in color:

-“Nightfall” from Eerie #60: A young boy named Nemo is harangued night after night by a group of goblins, then by his parents for waking them up. The goblins insist they just want to play, but Nemo knows better.

 I usually love stories about primal childhood fears, but this one is just okay. The design of the goblins looks unintentionally comical. Just look at the one in the splash pages’ tail:

 Looks like a man in a saggy suit.
If you overlook that though, it’s a lot of fun. The boy’s name and a few clever visual gags provide the set-up for this to be a wonderfully dark parody of Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo, but it never goes far enough. Still, you have to love that wash work.
 Most memorable scene: The Little Nemo shout-out, by far.

 Dime novels, Tintin and now Little Nemo. Yeah, someone at Warren was definitely a big fan of turn-of-the-century children’s entertainment. Love it.
-“Cool Air” from Eerie #62

 Coming away from comics beloved in countries that don’t like comics or speak English, we come to the world of pulp magazines with this adaptation of Lovecraft’s Cool Air, the story of a man made immotal being keeping himself frozen temperatures, which has had a number of retellings in comics (and what do you think inspired Mr. Freeze?), but this is the best.
 Most memorable scene: The money-shot at the end:

Oh come on, even if you’ve never read Lovecraft’s story, how did you think a story about a man kept alive by the cold would end?
-“Reuben Youngblood: Private Eye in: Beware the Scarlet Combine” from Eerie #72:

 Depression era private eye Rueben Youngblood accepts a job as a bodyguard for some wealthy Germans having a party on a zeppelin, shortly after his partner was murdered by a blood cult called The Scarlet Combine. Little does he know that the Combine is closer than he thinks...
 I was initially hesitant about this one since it’s really more of a detective story/pulp parody than outright horror, but it’s actually my favorite in this volume of the stories I haven’t read before, mostly because it’s so different. The writing tries a little too hard to create a period atmosphere, but it’s still a fun read. I could easily see this being a decent poverty row horror movie, or serial. Also, Wrightson’s art is excellent. He apparently relished the chance to draw a good old fashioned adventure story.
 Most memorable scene: The escape from and destruction of the zeppelin. If you’re wondering why Youngblood and his lady friend are dressed like that, it’s because of a costume party.

-“The Muck Monster” from Eerie #68:

 A Frankenstein-like mad doctor creates a monster from a blob which came to earth on a meteor, but the blob is sentient and realizes it has no place in the world of man, and thus refuses to come to “life” despite the scientist’s methods. The doctor hacks the creature up in frustration and dissolves it in acid, dumping it outside, but instead it oozes into a nearby cemetery and fuses with a long dead corpse. Now having been brought to life against its will for real, the ‘creature’ sets out to find a purpose….

 Despite the title, this story manages to be a melancholy, surprisingly, optimistic blending of both the blob monster and Frankenstein archetypes, with maybe a little inspiration from The Incredible Shrinking Man, at least as far as the ending goes (“To God there is no Zero” pretty much sums this whole thing up). Good as the story is, the real draw, is of course, Wrightson. Along with “The Pepper Lake Monster”, it’s the most beautifully drawn of all the stories here, and like the Arcane stories in Swamp Thing #2-3, feels like a dry-run for Wrightson’s later Frankenstein illustrations, but even more so. The ‘Muck Monster” is virtually identical to Wrightson’s Monster, and the unnamed scientist is also identical to his Victor:
 

 Even the damn test tubes are similar!
This is also the only story here printed in color. Wrightson was reportedly unhappy with the coloring, but it doesn’t really obscure any detail. Finding black and white copies of this story isn’t difficult anyway. In fact, if you’re really curious, you can buy the recent “Artist’s Edition” from Fantagraphics (I thought they hated horror comics over there? Must need the money) which reproduces Wrightson’s original art in full:
 

 Currently going on Amazon for the cheap, cheap price of $74.99. At that price, why not buy two?
 Most memorable scene: The liquefied creature “leaking” down a mountain.

Just the panel layout alone is breath-taking.
 That’s the end of the stories reproduced in this volume, the rest of the book is mostly covers and introductory splash pages. Some are good, some are a little too cartoon-y for my tastes.
  All in all, while some of the stories are a bit better than others, everything here is just of such high quality it is impossible not to love this volume. I give it a full 5/5.
 
Now if only DC would put out a Wrightson collection like this…
Happy Halloween!
 

1 comment:

  1. Dear Jesus, I know that Wrightson is a technical master of the genre, but "Jenifer" scared me so badly when I read it that I had to sleep with the lights on for a week. Now I think I get PTSD flashbacks whenever I see his other art.

    (That said, is it just me, or is Wrightson generally remembered as THE horror comics artist just like Bruce Jones is THE horror comics writer? It's like every iconic horror comic, except maybe Gaiman's "24 Hours", had one of those two involved.)

    Incidentally, in the spirit of the season, I urge you to read Detective Conan's "Adventure of the Mountain Villa Mummy". Just start here, and it goes on for five installments.

    http://www.mangapanda.com/139-8086-6/detective-conan/chapter-40.html

    This story is the closest thing to outright horror that beloved children's manga author Gosho Aoyama ever did, and I'd love to see a seasoned horror fan's perspective on it.

    (BTW, if you need a quick introduction to the premise of the series, I made one here: http://scans-daily.dreamwidth.org/4893992.html. Yeah, yeah, I know, S_D, couldn't find a reliable audience elsewhere, etc., etc.)

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