On the eve of the first issue’s release, we talk Frankenstein with Bernie Wrightson!
NILES: I know you tried a few attempts at Frankenstein in comics form and then you went on to do your illustrated edition. What made you make the decision to do it as an illustrated book instead of a comic?
WRIGHTSON: I actually started an adaptation of Frankenstein as a graphic novel or comic book in 1965 or 66 and I gave it up after two or three pages. Then in the early or mid seventies I started again to adapt for a French publisher who wanted to publish a whole raft of graphic novels adapted from a bunch of classic books. Kaluta started with a couple of pages from Kipling's Jungle Book, and Michael did some simply gorgeous stuff, 2or 3 pages as samples. I got so inspired and excited by what he'd done that I tried once again with my own 2 or 3 pages of an adaptation of Frankenstein. The deal fell through for reasons I can't remember, but it wasn't because the art was lacking in any way. Some business/ financial or corporate crap, but everybody loved the artwork and there was lots of disappointment on both sides of the pond that it wasn't gonna happen. Maybe I'd actually have done Frankenstein as a comic book then if we were able to continue, but who knows? The novel, as you know, ain't the easiest read in the world even as prose, and my problem with adapting it was always, over all these years, just finding a way in. Also, looming in the back of my mind was the memory of the Classic Comics version from the forties or fifties. My feelings about that one have always been mixed.
NILES: Those Classics Illustrated were notoriously brief, but they were the Cliff Notes of comics in many way. I remember attempting to do a book report on Ivanhoe based on the Classic Comic. I failed. What I loved most about those Frankenstein Classics Illustrated were the covers. That Norm Saunders cover especially. But yeah, as adaptations, not so great.
WRIGHTSON: While I thought that it was largely faithful to the novel (except for dispensing with Walton's letters as a framing structure, it does tell the story in a very basic way.) I felt that a lot of the heart of the novel was somehow lost in the translation. Or maybe the artwork, while very competent, seemed pedestrian and too much of its own time. I dunno. Even after all these years I still can't put my finger on just exactly what makes that version so unsatisfying. Anyway, I still felt the urge to tell the story visually, and like I said, I just couldn't find a way into it as a comic book adaptation. So much would be lost, I thought, in the transition that a graphic novel version would ultimately diminish the novel itself. And by this time, I'd re-read the novel so many times and fallen so in love with it, I finally decided to simply illustrate the novel itself.
WRIGHTSON: I started the illustrations in 1975 or '76, all on my own, not as a job, and not being paid but on my own time, squeezing it in, one picture at a time, between paying work, just doing it out of sheer love and doing it exactly the way I wanted to do it. I decided early on that the drawings would be done in pen and ink, black & white, looking something like they'd look if done in the nineteenth century, something that would dovetail visually with the book itself, and maybe create the illusion that the book and the illustrations were done at the same time. Always I tried to be as specific and as detailed and as faithful to the text (at least as well as I could interpret it) as possible. This was my first real attempt to completely serve the story and the author's intentions, and I found it challenging as hell! I really tried to see the story as Mary Shelley wrote it, trying to stay in her time, in her "head-space", if you will, and not tart it all up or force my own gloss onto it, and at the same time, try to stay true to my own style and my own sense of drama and picture making. Like I said, a challenge.
NILES: did you ever want to just give up?
WRIGHTSON: I can't remember ever just wanting to give up, but each time I finished a drawing, I remember feeling a bit let down, like I'd just missed the mark even a little bit. If I'd only worked a little harder I could nail it exactly. Several times, I'd start a new version of an already finished piece, or even an incomplete one, trying and trying again and again, to get it just right. I drove myself a little crazy through the whole process, but finally I decided that the really important thing was to get it done and quit sweating the small stuff. I mean, I thought if I could get 90% or even 80 of what I wanted, I'd be okay. Otherwise, I'd probably still be working on it. Anyway, I worked on those illustrations for about seven years. When it was all done, I felt that I'd made a passage or completed a journey. Like I had completed something important, you know, personally. I had spent a long time pushing the boulder up the hill and I'd finally gotten there, like I had passed a milestone or something and now I could get on with the rest of my life. I can look at those drawings now with a sense of pride and satisfaction and appreciate how good they are, sometimes I marvel a bit, almost as though they were done by someone else. And in a way, they were done by someone else, a young artist, unafraid of hard work, obsessed really. I'll look at them and think, "who the hell did these drawings?", but at the same time I can still pick them apart, find all the mistakes, all the clumsy, embarrassing little glitches and think, "if I'd just worked a little bit harder, if I'd only thought through this, that or the the other thing a little more, this picture would be perfect! How could I have screwed up something so simple?" Well, all artists are nuts. It's a scientific fact.
NILES: There are stories, comic book urban legends, about Frankenstein ruining your hands because of the detailed work. Is any of that true? I mean, I think for a guy with a hook you still do pretty nice work.
WRIGHTSON: The hand thing. I broke my wrist sometime in the early nineties while I was working on Captain Sternn. The little bones knitted back together and it's never been the same since. I can still draw but it's different; I've had to adapt a bit, holding the pencil in a way that doesn't hurt and so on. Some of the control I used to have disappeared and the result is I can't really use a pen anymore. Somehow, I'm still able to use a brush so I'm grateful for that. The other hand thing was more minor. I had noticed a soreness and slight inflammation in my fingertips. Not a big deal, really, but it became worrisome enough that I saw a doctor, a skin specialist and it turned out I had developed a sensitivity to nickel. The little metal part of the brush that holds the bristles on the handle is called the ferrule. This is made of stainless steel and over the years, after coming into constant contact with it, I ended up with a kind of allergy so I couldn't handle stainless steel anymore. I started painting the ferrules of my brushes with nail polish, a lacquer barrier between my skin and the nickel, and it hasn't been a problem since.
NILES: It has to be hard to return to Frankenstein? I know I’m sitting here, a week before the release having many anxiety attacks. Is it at all intimidating returning to the creature you are so well known for?
WRIGHTSON: It hasn't been intimidating to return to Frankenstein. The story and the monster have been a big part of my life since I was a kid, and it's always on my mind. For me, the monster is immortal, he's always been there and always will be. In my mind, he didn't die on that ice raft, he only drifted off to be lost in darkness and distance. The idea of continuing his story has been in the back of my mind for many years. I talked a bit earlier about not being able to find a way into adapting the novel as a graphic novel and I'd had the same problem with this sequel, couldn't find a way in, did I even want to take it on? Was it worth it? It'd been knocking around in my head all these years, scenarios, situations, characters and storylines, all disconnected and stewing around, and no way that I could see to get started, no key to unlock the door. But you were the key, Steve. When I started talking with you about this sequel, you immediately liked it, you immediately began throwing ideas back at me, inventing and elaborating, opening doors in my mind, showing me possibilities and alternatives, reminding me that this is a great story and it can go anywhere!
NILES: This isn’t really a question. It’s a thank you… from the 12 year old who carried your Frankenstein with him like an invisible friend and from the somewhat grown 46 year old who still can’t believe he’s here, THANK YOU, BERNIE for letting me tag along.
WRIGHTSON: Don't kid yourself, man. You're not just tagging along. You are the reason this thing has gotten off the ground. It wouldn't be happening without you, and I couldn't be more excited and delighted. This is the best and finest road trip of my life and there is nobody else I'd want to share the driving.
NILES: Thanks, Bernie. Now let's go NOT read reviews. :)