Joel Pollack Remembers Bernie Wrightson
by Lee Benaka
Originally published in CFA-APA #101, March 2017 fanzine
Lee Benaka is a Washington, DC, original comic art collector who maintains a searchable database on comic art sales at www.comicartads.com.
An illustration from Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf, 1983 (from the collection of Joel Pollack).
Joel Pollack is a charter member of the CFA-APA, ending his membership with issue #23, when, according to Joel, he ran out of things to say and started to repeat himself. I know Joel mainly as the proprietor of my favorite local comic shop, Bethesda, Maryland’s Big Planet Comics. Joel has life-long connections with comics and comic book art. His aunt was a very good friend of Ira Schnapp, who designed many DC Comics logos and even the Comics Code Authority symbol. This connection led to Joel visiting the DC offices twice in the 1960s. As Joel recounts on the website for his comics shop:
Joel began to attend comics conventions in 1968 and developed his own skills as a fantasy artist and logo designer. Joel eventually got to know Bernie Wrightson, sold Bernie’s art for a time, and interviewed Bernie forCFA-APA #5. Joel shared some thoughts, photos, and art related to Bernie with me in February 2017.
Joel Pollack, Sentinel of Liberty.
Lee: When did you first meet Bernie?
Joel: I’m trying to remember whether it was 1970 or 1971. Gary Groth lived in the Washington, DC, area at the time. Gary was a teenager, and he got his parents to help him put on two big conventions at the corner of 16th and K Street in Washington, DC. That’s where I met Bernie. I kind of think it was 1970.
It’s kind of funny, the first time I met Bernie, we smoked a joint together. It’s the only time I ever saw him smoke pot. I even asked him about it, and I don’t think he ever did again. His first wife, Michele, really liked to smoke pot. When I would go visit them at their house, she and I would smoke together.
Bernie and Michele Wrightson in Bernie’s studio in Saugerties, NY, 1983 (photo courtesy of Joel Pollack).
Then I started seeing Bernie at every New York comic convention. I went to every July 4th New York comic convention starting in 1968. Those ran until at least about 1980. For whatever reason Bernie and I became friendly. I was a very laid-back person, so Bernie and I got along well at a certain level.
At that time, I was very good friends with Bob Lewis, and Bob was very aggressive on collecting original art. Bob was the one who took me to Jeff Jones’s apartment in New York City the first time I went there, for instance. Bob and I made a trip up to Woodstock, near Saugerties, to visit Jeff Jones at the house he was sharing with Vaughn Bode. Vaughn was kind of withdrawn at that time, so we didn’t really interact with Vaughn. But we did spend a lot of time with Jeff.
Lee: Was Bernie living in New York City when you first met him?
Joel: I’m not exactly sure where he was living, but Bernie was already in New York City at the time. He was already a professional. He had cracked the market by around 1969 or so. My first encounter with Bernie was seeing an ad for a fanzine in Rocket’s Blast Comicollector, which had a drawing by Bernie. It was an outstanding drawing, and he probably did it when he was 17 or 18 years old. He was obviously a prodigy. He was brilliant almost right out of the chute. Everybody was pretty much in awe of Bernie’s talents, including guys who were almost as talented as him.
A panel from Freak Show, 1982 (from the collection of Joel Pollack).
I helped run MetroCon at the University of Maryland in 1973, and Bernie was a guest for that. We had a party on Saturday night. We ran it on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, which turned out to be quite a disaster, because we did not get a good turnout for whatever reason. The guest lineup was awesome. We had Bernie, we had Jeff Jones, we had Denny O’Neill. I think we had Archie Goodwin. Kaluta was supposed to come, but he couldn’t come at the last minute. We tried to get Vaughan Bode to do a cartoon concert, but he had other commitments. Howard Chaykin was there, and Walt Simonson, because his parents lived in College Park, MD.
On Saturday night, we had a party at the Adult Education Center, which was where we were housing all our guests because they have hotel facilities there. My co-organizer Warren Bernard, who was a film buff, screened the film Freaks, directed by Tod Browning. That was the first time Bernie had ever seen Freaks. If you remember, shortly thereafter in Swamp Thing, we had the Un-Men, absolutely inspired by the movie Freaks.
The next significant thing that brought Bernie and I a little closer together was, in 1975 or 1976, when Bernie decided to move to Kansas City. My friend owned a big van, and he volunteered to move Bernie and asked whether I could come along to help with the move. I was more than happy to do it. We took two days getting down there. We slept over in a cheesy motel. Bernie moved out there to pursue a gal, which went nowhere, and because Bruce Jones was living in Kansas City at the time. Bernie was very close to Bruce. I think Bruce talked him into moving there. We moved Bernie out there, and in less than a year, Bernie decided it wasn’t for him.
I think Michele Brand—she had been married to Roger Brand, who I think at that point had already passed away—was living in Florida. So, Bernie moved to Florida to be with her, and then they both moved up to Woodstock and I guess got married pretty quickly thereafter.
I got to visit The Studio several times, more under the auspices of Michael Kaluta than Wrightson, but I was friends with Jeff Jones, Kaluta, and Wrightson. That’s when I learned that I didn’t like Barry Smith too much. Kaluta told me that Barry Smith was running up monster phone bills calling England, because Barry had family in England. They had all agreed that they were going to divide utilities evenly, so they were all very unhappy with Smith for doing that. At some point I said something to Smith about that, which I shouldn’t have, and he got really pissed off. I’m sure he felt like he was doing something wrong.
The first person I called was Bernie, and I started visiting his house in Saugerties, probably twice a year. I slept on his couch more times than I can recount.
At some point, Bernie built a fantastic studio on the foundation of an old outbuilding, maybe an old chicken house. I think Bernie was rolling in dough at the time. There weren’t too many times in his life when he really was. I got to visit that studio several times, and became very friendly with Bernie’s wife Michele, who I thought was a great person.
Bernie’s studio was incredible. It was a huge single room, maybe 20 feet by 40 feet, with peaked ceilings, and lots of windows. It was a free-standing structure. You had to walk through the yard to get to it. He had all these skeletal remains everywhere, all kinds of Wrightson-type memorabilia. He had taken a skull and used clay to make the Frankenstein face that he used for the book.
Bernie Wrightson in his studio in Saugerties, NY, 1983 (photo courtesy of Joel Pollack).
Lee: Was someone else selling Bernie’s art previously? What made you decide to approach Bernie?