Friday, April 21, 2017

Here Be Monsters: The Comic Book Legacies of Bernie Wrightson, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson

A panel from Swamp Thing, story by Len Wein and art by  Bernie Wrightson, November, 1972.

When comic book geeks gather to talk about the history of the medium and, as is the custom on such occasions, break it up into decades, the 1970s never get any love. In the conventional wisdom’s most widespread take on the subject, comic books caught fire in the 1960s, with the excitement and freshness of Marvel Comics’ re-invention of superheroes on one floor and the rude, gleeful explosion of the undergrounds on another, and solidified those triumphs in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the coming of such maverick genre creators as Alan Moore and Frank Miller and indie upstarts such as the Hernandez Brothers, Peter Bagge, Dave Clowes, Chester Brown, and Julie Doucet, but nothing much happened in between except exhaustion and false starts. There’s an alternate history waiting that mirrors the American moviemaking renaissance that accompanied the confused death throes of the studio system in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s a story about how the major publishers DC, which decisively lost its first-place status in the marketplace, and Marvel, which came out on top just as it was being abandoned by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the two artists most important (along with writer-editor Stan Lee) for its triumphs in the ‘60s were left so confused that they were willing to try a little bit of anything just to see what might stick.

In the early ‘70s, DC and Marvel wound up showcasing the four-color pop visions of several up-and-coming artists whose distinctive, eccentric styles (and time-consuming, perfectionist work ethics) would have once made them very much at odds with an industry that valued hacks who could meet a deadline and stay within the confines of a house style. At least one of these artists, Neal Adams, with his cinematic compositions and dynamic character poses every panel seemed to set off a sonic boom on the page was perfectly suited to the bulging-vein action hyperbole of superhero comics. But many of the other new stars Barry Windsor-Smith, Michael Kaluta, Howard Chaykin, Marshall Rogers were oddballs whose baroque styles drew upon classical illustration and older magazine art. And except for Rogers whose breakthrough came in his collaboration with the writer Steve Englehart on a series of Batman comics most of them did their strongest work when assigned to characters (Conan the Barbarian, the Shadow, Chaykin’s Ironwolf) who were only “superheroes” by circumstance or association. And none of them left behind a stronger legacy than Bernie Wrightson, who, until his death last month at the age of 68, was Godzilla’s closest competitor for the title of King of the Monsters.

Frankenstein, by  Bernie Wrightson.

Bernie Wrightson (who was credited as “Berni Wrightson” on most of his early work, to avoid confusion with an Olympic diver of the same name) would eventually put in his (well-compensated) time with the likes of Batman and the Punisher, but his passion was for horror stories. He wasn’t in it for the cheap shocks, either. A fan of Poe and weird fiction and James Whale’s Frankenstein, Wrightson connected with the material on a deep emotional level, and, from an early point in his career, he was master enough to build his emotions right into his artwork. In such stories as “The Muck Monster” (a spin on Frankenstein that Wrightson cooked up during a mid-70s stint with Warren Publishing) and his adaptations of Poe and Lovecraft, and especially in the ten issues he did of Swamp Thing starting in 1992, the horror energizes the loneliness and sorrow that envelops the main characters, emotions that, in turn, poeticize the Grand Guignol aspects of the horror. The Swamp Thing character – a hulking monster that was once human, whose body is composed of swampy vegetation – originated in a story that Wrightson did with the writer Len Wein for the horror anthology comic House of Secrets. Wein has said that he gave the script to Wrightson when the artist was reeling from a romantic breakup, telling him, “I just wrote a story that actually kind of feels like the way you feel now.” It could have been Wrightson’s motto.

As a character, Swamp Thing was a perfect vehicle for Wrightson’s gifts. Like Frankenstein’s patchwork man made of corpses, he was a giant monster with an outsize case of melancholy, his romantic loneliness the result of his being almost but not quite a human being. But he’s also a plant, and his redemption comes through his connection with nature and the earth. By contrast, the Muck Monster deliquesces (like Poe’s M. Valdemar), wills himself back to life, and, having killed his creator, celebrates his own love of nature by sitting down under a tree and patiently waiting for his body to rot away and return to the soil, connected forever to an overcast, achingly beautiful, heartbroken world. Over and over, the vibrancy of Wrightson’s artwork is a demonstration of the thrilling contradiction at the heart of so much great horror fiction: characters who are defined by their intimate, ever-present connection to death can seem like much more effective and thrilling celebrants of life than a thousand Anthony Quinns dancing on a beach.

These comics would be dress rehearsals for Wrightson’s dream project and masterpiece, a lavishly illustrated edition of Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1983. Given the classical majesty and meticulous detail of Wrightson’s artwork, it’s hard to believe that he credited his education as a draftsman to watching the self-taught art instructor Jon Gnagy on TV and starting, though never finishing, a correspondence course from the Famous Artists School. Or maybe it makes perfect sense: he was the kind of artist who had never had an authority figure to tell him what couldn’t be done.

 Skip Williamson (left) and Jay Lynch in 1973.

In March, the cartoonists Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson died within eleven days of each other, like one of those old married couples who are past the point of existing in the world independently of each other. Lynch and Williamson weren’t a team act, but as the co-publishers of The Chicago Mirror, which quickly mutated into Bijou Funnies, they were heart and soul of the Chicago school of the underground comics movement. Bijou premiered a few months after the first issue of Zap Comix and quickly established itself as the other major underground anthology comic. Robert Crumb was a major presence in both Zap and Bijou, but for all its vulgar excesses and gonzo transgressions, the San Francisco-based Zap was not entirely devoid of a streak of hippie utopianism. Bijou offered more of a brass-knuckles alternative. Its first issue appeared in the summer of 1968, and it was as if the cartoonists could see the Chicago Democratic Convention coming from a mile away. Its artists dealt with the prospect of a scary future growing out of a terrifying present with the rude laughter of anarchic entertainers whose first priority was to entertain themselves. Zap would continue publishing into the 21st century, inspire gallery shows, and have its seventeen issues entombed in an expensive, six-volume box set. But in its final, eighth issue (published in 1973, after a Supreme Court decision opening the door to prosecutions for publishers of “obscene” materials that helped to kill off what was left of the underground press), Bijou contrived the ultimate tribute that any bunch of underground cartoonists ever paid to themselves: a full-color parody-homage to classic Mad comics, with the cartoonists doing their own Mad-style spins on each other’s characters, topped off with a cover by Harvey Kurtzman himself. Truly this was what made the revolution worth fighting.

Zap featured Spain Rodriguez’s bearded urban terrorist guerrilla, Trashman, but in his Nixon-era comics work, Skip Williamson just about was Trashman, with a pen instead of an Uzi. Williamson’s artwork was broadly comic and giddily excessive, and he matched it to a love of flowery language that helped raise his scabrous urban tableau to a Marx Brothers level of fresh insanity. (A “neighborhood gadabout” who has made the mistake of standing to close to a dying wino as he takes his final plunge into the gutter expostulates, “Egad! Bloodstains on my new pimpsuit! Even in death, these clodrolls are my nemesis!”) Williamson had been on the streets during the riots at the Democratic Convention and been tear-gassed, and it was as if he took the experience as a challenge: can you top this? His response to the daily crush of the news cycle was to advise his readers “t’keep a smile on yer lips an’ a song in yer heart” as “yer smashin’ th’ state,” and also to publish comic strips in which thousands of people are reported to have been killed by Spiro Agnew’s genocidal flatulence.

Williamson didn’t exactly mellow with age, but after Nixon resigned, he’d lost his great subject, which wasn’t the man himself so much as the culture in which he’d thrived, and Bijou Funnies had lost its moment. For more than a decade after Bijou #8 was published, both Lynch and Williamson were assuring interviewers that, while the comic had never been meant to appear on a regular schedule, there’d be another issue coming out as soon as the time was right. The time never was, and they both found other ways to occupy their time and make a buck. Williamson turned to painting, dabbled in self-publishing, and worked for both Playboy and (briefly) Hustler; Lynch plowed his energies into everything from Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids cards and his long-running Chicago Reader strip “Phoebe and the Pigeon People” to children’s books and Bazooka Joe comics. The later strips collected in Williamson’s 1989 Fantagraphics book The Scum Also Rises confirm that there would still be things to get angry about, but after Nixon and Mayor Daley retreated from the world’s stage, and before our current international nightmare, the most prominent evils demanding the attention of a great gonzo cartoonist were too slick and polished to be bruised by the deep-dish scatological assault favored by the satirists of the Chicago school. Let it never be forgot that for one brief shining moment, there was a spot…

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

No comments:

Post a Comment