I’m wiping tears from my eyes as I write this tribute of sorts to my friend, Bernie Wrightson. After battling cancer the past few years, Bernie passed away on Saturday, March 18, 2017. His lovely wife Liz and son John honored his memory and shared the news on Facebook, as trying to call ALL of Bernie’s friends and associates would have likely been impossible. Comic book fans knew Wrightson well for his work on books like SWAMP THING, BATMAN: THE CULT, PUNISHER: POV and SPIDER-MAN: HOOKY. Those in the entertainment business may know him more for his stellar concept work on films like GHOSTBUSTERS, GALAXY QUEST, SPIDER-MAN, THE MIST and more. He was an amazing artist, first and foremost, and one of the most respected men in the pop culture industry… but he was more than that. He was just a terrific human being, the kind of guy you wanted to be friends with, and the kind of guy who was welcoming to just about anybody.
I was fortunate enough to meet Liz and Bernie in 2004 while attending my first Frank Darabont dinner at San Diego Comic-Con. And oddly enough we didn’t meet during dinner but rather afterward standing outside, just chatting and getting to know each other. There was this weird instant connection, and I felt like I had known them both forever. That friendship blossomed quickly and I invited them to their first Dallas Comic Con, a show I was involved with at the time, and they attended as guests in February of 2005. It would become their first of many, and I always enjoyed having them on the guest list for the conventions here. When I started Dallas Comic Show in April of 2017, the Wrightsons were there for me, and even then Bernie wasn’t 100%, but he wanted to support me and it meant the world to have him headline the guest list.
Bernie and Liz would invite me to stay with them in L.A. which was always a treat, and eventually they moved to Austin. We shared so many great experiences together, going to shows out of town, visiting great bars and restaurants, and we even traveled to Dave Stevens’ funeral together in 2008… yeah, I know that sounds odd, but in a weird way it was comforting for us just being together to say goodbye to our friend Dave. In the last few years I didn’t see them as much as would have liked to, but I also knew Bernie’s health was becoming a more difficult issue. Despite that, I have wonderful memories that will serve me well. One of our greatest experiences together involved a trip we took in 2008. I had attended my first Baltimore Comic Con, and Bernie was returning to Baltimore that year (he grew up there) for the first time in almost 40 years. His plan was to attend the show, then afterward visit his old stomping grounds. He invited me to come along, and I decided to change my flight and book an extra night in the hotel (I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did). This was such a great adventure I ended up writing an article about it for Heritage Magazine, which you can now read below (uncut for the first time and with several photos from the trip). I chronicled that trip in this article, but nothing comes close to actually being there for it. I was and still am honored that Bernie invited me into this personal moment in his life, and it’s one of the best memories of him I’m more than happy to share. I will miss my friend, but in the 13 years we knew each other, his gift of kindness and love is one I will cherish forever. Rest in peace, Bernie… love ya, pal.
BERNIE WRIGHTSON CAN GO HOME AGAIN
By Mark Walters
In my life I’ve had the good fortune to meet and sometimes get to know some of my personal heroes. Being a comic book fan, it’s hard not to be in awe of the amazing Bernie Wrightson. But after getting to know Bernie and his lovely wife Liz in 2004, we’ve since become very close friends, and I truly cherish the time I spend with them. We even drove to Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens’ funeral together earlier this year, and I’m very glad I was able to spend that difficult time with them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hung out in Bernie’s studio, watching him draw, and later thinking just how very cool that is. Aside from lending illustrations and paintings for multiple Stephen King books, he’s well known within the comic book industry for co-creating Swamp Thing with Len Wein in the 1970’s for DC Comics. But he’s perhaps most famous for his intricate and stunning Frankenstein illustrations in 1978. This year marks the 30 th anniversary of Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein, which has been re-released in a definitive paperback format by Dark Horse Comics (now available). But even today Bernie is still staying busy, and currently working on multiple projects with horror writer Steve Niles, including the popular series Dead She Said.
In September of this year I made the trek to Maryland for my first Baltimore Comic-Con. Bernie was the Guest of Honor, and it was his first time at the show as well. He was actually born in Baltimore, where he spent much of his younger life, but oddly enough had not been back in almost 40 years. Planning ahead, Bernie had decided to rent a car, and show Liz some of his old haunts after the show. Halfway through the convention, he invited me to come along. Part of me felt like that was too personal of a trip, and that I didn’t belong. But the Wrightsons are good friends. They’re like family now, and I was genuinely interested in seeing where Bernie grew up. So I agreed, and in hindsight I’m so glad I did.
On Monday after the show, we headed outside of downtown Baltimore, and into the extensive neighborhood areas. Our first stop took us to the street where Bernie’s childhood home was. We exited the car and began walking. Bernie strolled down an alleyway that appeared to be stuck in time. As we came around the backside of the building, we walked into a reverse section of home fronts, and ended at the house where little Bernie spent his earliest years. It was actually up for sale! There was of course some joking between Bernie and Liz about the idea of buying it and moving in. Can you imagine?
We left there and hit the historic Patterson Park, adorned with canons and an impressive pagoda. This park once received a visit from President John F. Kennedy, by helicopter no less. In fact Bernie’s cousin even got to shake JFK’s hand. I commented on how large this park was, rivaling something you’d expect to see in New York. Bernie spent a lot of time looking around there, marveling over how little the park had changed. A few blocks away we hit the neighborhood church, large and impressive, much like the park. This is one of those churches you don’t see much anymore, and like that aforementioned alleyway, it seemed to be stuck in time. From there we headed to Bernie’s old grade school, still standing, and still very much in business. The doors were locked, but it was good to see they were still going strong. Next stop was an old (and rather large) cemetery, where Bernie used to sneak into as a young boy. Keep in mind, within the comic book industry, Wrightson is known as the “Master of the Macabre!” We drove past the numerous plots, crossed a small bridge, and the car stopped. Mere feet away, practically covered in full by lush green grass, was a fish-filled creek. Bernie led us up and down the water, explaining how he would crawl through the fence after hours, and attempt to grab fish from the babbling brook. It was beautiful. If I were a kid, I’d have done the same, I just know it.
As we drove to our next destination, we passed a little strip of shops, and Bernie exclaimed “Oh my God, it’s the G and A!” The G an A is a classic diner which he used to frequent as a young man, well known for their chilidogs and milkshakes. We had to stop… plus we were all getting a little hungry anyway. Walking in there was perhaps the most nostalgic portion of the trip. The old soda shop had changed little through the years, still featuring many of its original fixtures, plenty of 50’s style booths, and a good old fashioned low bar with swivel stools. We each grabbed a seat, ordered some dogs and a fountain drink, and just soaked it all in. That moment was perfect, for everyone I think, but mostly for Bernie. A little more on that in a bit.
After lunch, we headed to another former home from the younger days, still in great shape, with the reddest brick you’ve ever seen. Upon posing for a photo out front, Bernie explained to Liz and I how he had a drawing table set up in the basement of that house, and that his earliest artistic efforts came primarily from there. If it weren’t from a fear of bothering the current owner, I would’ve loved to have checked out that basement. Next up was Archbishop Curley High School. Like most of the other areas we already visited, this building was still very much alive, filled with students and teachers, some of whom were walking out as we pulled up. It was the end of the school day. The doors were open. I looked at Bernie and Liz, and stated “We have to go in.” So we headed inside, roaming the halls, and checking out the photos of former faculty on the walls. Many of the pictures featured familiar faces for Bernie. This was a Catholic Franciscan school were kids wore uniforms, and some of the instructors were Friars in tied-off robes. At one point we walked by an active gymnasium, and I even returned a volleyball which came flying out unexpectedly.
It had been a full day, and Bernie knew the best way to end it. We drove back to the area where we began, just around the corner from his original house. There was a little bar called Kislings Tavern. Bernie told us that his father, while taking him out for a stroll in his baby years, would always stop in there for a beer. Evidently there was one day where baby Bernie was particularly fussy, and daddy came up with a solution. He gave his infant what would be the first of many beers. It worked like a charm. So we walked into Kislings, grabbed a seat at the bar, and called up a couple of brews and an order of giant onion rings. The bartender knew something was up, and she asked us what gives. So Bernie told her the story, from start to finish. How this neighborhood was where he grew up, how he once lived just around the corner, and that absolutely unforgettable tale on his father’s unique babysitting tactics. She bought our first round. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.
I never grew up in a small town, or even a small neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen the streets and land change over the years in Dallas, but I doubt I’ll ever experience true “small town” nostalgia as part of my own history. They say you can’t go home again. Bernie Wrightson did, and I was along for the ride. Seeing Baltimore through his eyes was better than any tour bus or talkative cab driver could ever have been. I saw this man’s early life, and so much of what he grew up with hasn’t changed. How cool is that? Oh, and during lunch I spoke of before at the G and A, at one point as I was taking a bite of that delicious chilidog, I looked over at Bernie to see how he was doing. There was a tear rolling down his cheek, and a big grin on his face. Little Bernie Wrightson is all grown up, and for that brief moment, he was home again.