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.
Frankenstein art for sale from Joel’s Fantastique Illustration #3 catalog, 1984.
Joel: Whenever I visited Bernie, we would always have dinner at least one night at a restaurant that was owned by Albert Grossman. He was the manager for Bob Dylan. He owned a restaurant in Woodstock called the Little Bear. It was a Chinese restaurant. We always had dinner there. It was usually a group of us. Usually Jeff Jones came along, with Bernie and Michele, and Jeff’s current girlfriend at the time, whoever it might be.
talking about how horribly Barry treated his girlfriend Linda Lessman. They all kind of looked down on Barry for that, because Linda was a sweet person.
Lee: The first time you went to Bernie’s place, you obviously went with some money in your pocket. Was that a large amount of money that you had saved, or a fairly modest amount?
Bernie Wrightson art from Joel’s Fantastique Illustration #1 catalog, 1983.
Joel: I brought as much money as I had at any given time. It was probably a modest amount by today’s standards, but it still bought a lot of Wrightson artwork. He was selling it to me very reasonably.
Lee: Did you zero in on certain pages? Did he have Swamp Thing pages?
Joel: I have owned one Swamp Thing page, but I don’t really believe he still had any of that art at that point. Bernie sold a lot of what he did. He didn’t hang on too much, although he still has stuff, I’m pretty sure. I was probably visiting him between 1982 and 1985. I opened a shop in 1986, and I don’t know whether I was visiting him at that point.
Lee: When you got the art from Bernie, did you just list it in the catalog, or did you have contacts you would call to let them know about the art?
The cover of Joel’s Fantastique Illustration #3 catalog, 1984.
Joel: I think I was just selling through the catalogs. I think I probably advertised the catalog in early issues of the Comic Buyer’s Guide. I had a mailing list, but I didn’t necessarily talk to anyone on the telephone. I remember one of the early people on my list was Benno Rothschild. I was a charter member of the CFA-APA, so I had a lot of connections that way.
Bernie really liked dealing with me because I always paid cash. I always brought cash, never a check.
Lee: Did you keep any pieces for yourself?
Joel: For a long time I did. I kept four of five of the very best Frankensteins that I had. I had the title page. But I ran into tax problems sometime in the 1980s, and I
was really dumb. Instead of borrowing money from friends to pay taxes, or taking out a loan to pay taxes, I sold art. I got good money for it. The title page for Frankenstein, I got $2,500 for it. You know what that’s worth now? I wouldn’t be shocked if you could get $100,000 for that right now. Certainly $50,000, just like that, I’m sure.
Lee: Do you remember who you sold those to?
Joel: The title page I might have sold to Richard Kelly, but then when Richard switched over to illustration art, he sold that himself.
Lee: You stopped going to Bernie’s house around the time you opened your shop?
Joel: I think I pretty much did. We had Bernie in for a signing at one point. He had a very aggressive girlfriend who was marketing him. I don’t remember her name. She was very attractive, and she was definitely smart. She wanted to make sure Bernie got paid properly, which he did. We did get to do a Wrightson signing with him. It could have been Hooky, because I had a lot of the Hooky pages at one point. I don’t think I ever had any of the Thing/Hulk pages. But I had a bunch of the Hooky pages. I probably had 20 of those pages at least.
An ad that was included as part of Joel’s contribution to CFA-APA #5, 1986.
I don’t think I ever got to watch Bernie draw. When we moved him from Queens to Kansas City, though, I remember he threw away a lot of artwork. He lived in a building where Simonson and Chaykin were both living at the time, and Simonson and Chaykin were always raiding his trash can. Bernie would throw away really nice artwork, because it wasn’t perfectly the way he wanted it. You’ve seen all the Frankenstein “outtakes”. There’s probably 50 Frankenstein drawings that never got published. Bernie was a real perfectionist. Sometimes he would lose interest in something, and you would look at it and ask, “Why? This is fantastic.”
After Frankenstein, I think he went through a fallow period. I think it’s because he spent himself on Frankenstein. Originally, he was going to self-publish Frankenstein. I don’t think he had the patience for business. He didn’t want to have to do all the work that was involved with self-publishing. It’s a shame a fan didn’t step forward and say, “I’ll publish for you Bernie. I’ll take care of all the details and do it.” He ended up selling it to Marvel, and I think that took a little bit out of him emotionally. His work seemed to slip a bunch at that time. He was also having some allergy problems with his hands. Evidently the ink and part of his brush were causing his hands to get eczema, where they were cracking. That might have affected him a bit too.
But I think that Frankenstein was such a masterpiece, and he sweated blood into that. It’s hard to say that he ever did work that was better than that. He had moments that were equally as good. But he went through a period where he did a bunch of comics for Marvel, which he said he would never do. He didn’t really want to do comics again, but he went back and did comics, because he had kids then, and he had to earn a living. Bernie had a lot of years there where he wasn’t living up to his promise, and I think he’d be the first one to really tell you that privately, if not outwardly. Maybe his heart wasn’t into it. I’ve been told that having kids can be a huge distraction. I don’t think you could say that the work he did on Punisher: POV and Batman: The Cult was as good as the work he did on Swamp Thing, or for Warren magazines. The work he did for Warren was amazing. That was probably his high point in comics.
It’s interesting because, the thing he did a few years ago, Frankenstein Alive, Alive! That was a return to form for him. I was amazed. He really seemed inspired by that. It’s a real shame that it probably never will be finished. And if it’s not finished, they should still publish what’s there in a paperback, because it deserves to be in permanent form.
I’m not sure I fully appreciated how talented he was back then, compared to how I look at him now. Genius might be the wrong word for him, because all his genius was just in one area—drawing. But he was a prodigy. He was great from day one, and he just kept getting better.
Bernie Wrightson’s preliminary drawing for the cover of Toe Tags Featuring George Romero #3 (DC Comics, 2005) (from the collection of Joel Pollack).