Shelf Life: Bernie Wrightson's Halloween

Thu, October 27th, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT | Updated: October 27th, 2011 at 2:42pm

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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Ghosts of Halloweens Past

Bernie Wrightson's upstate New York Halloween gatherings were famous and star-studded

One of the best aspects of working in comics -- I mean in addition to making up stuff and getting paid for it -- is the social circle it brings with it. Almost all of my close friends are people in the business. Conventions are more like family reunions for a lot of creators, a chance to catch up with friends and collaborators we see only a few times a year. There's a sense of community in comics that I've not seen in other industries.

More than a decade ago, we lived in Woodstock, NY, in a contemporary house I still dearly miss, nestled up against the base of Overlook Mountain. The Hudson Valley was home to a lot of comics professionals: Bernie Wrightson, Jim Starlin, Terry Austin, Barry Windsor-Smith, Joe Staton and plenty more. Most are still there, and truthfully I'm less than an hour north of the area now. But back then, we lived on the same road as Bernie, just a few miles away. In fact, we only found the house because we were familiar with the area from visiting Bernie's place for parties, including monthly "First Friday" parties at which everyone brought their current work to show off. I saw Jim Gurney's initial "Dinotopia" paintings at those parties, long before the acclaimed books were published. The gathering that everyone looked forward to more than any other, however, was the annual Halloween party held in Bernie's backyard studio.

The studio itself was big, built on a slab that was once the barn-sized chicken coop (if I'm remembering the tale correctly) of a previous owner. The studio itself was one of my favorite places -- large windows looking out onto the forest, and countless cubbyholes and shelves crammed with books, toys, bones and all manner of curios. There was a stuffed boar's head on one wall; jars containing a menagerie of preserved creatures and oddities; a real, complete human skeleton (supposedly from India); antique tools; plastic dinosaurs; statues and sculptures; props from films. And, of course, miraculous art everywhere, Bernie's work as well as that of other artists. For parties, the drawing tables were folded up and put away, easels and art supplies stored in the loft, all to make room for a large crowd.

This photo, showing Ron's girlfriend at the time (as the Punisher), along with another friend as a seppuku victim, gives a glimpse at Wrightson's studio decor.

I visited Bernie's house to interview him for my college newspaper. As I got ready to depart, Bernie mentioned his Halloween party coming up soon, and told me I should come. I was surprised, and flattered. I mean, I was just some college kid. He was, you know... Bernie Wrightson, with "Swamp Thing" and "Frankenstein" and everything else already on his resume. Though, knowing Bernie as I know him now, it wasn't a surprising gesture at all. He has a big heart, and embraces everybody.

To give you an idea: when my father died more than 15 years ago now, Bernie came to the funeral to pay his respects. My father loved horses all his life, and at one point, had told me that when he was gone, he wanted to go the last mile to the cemetery in a horse-drawn wagon. So I made sure that happened. A mile from the cemetery, the pallbearers -- me, my brother, brother-in-law and uncles -- unloaded his casket from the hearse and placed it on a wagon drawn by two big draft horses. The pallbearers walked behind the wagon... the pallbearers plus Bernie, who had stopped his car, and asked if it would be okay if he walked with us. He walked with us and cried with us. That's Bernie.

I spent a few days hesitating over the party invitation. I would know almost no one, which is never a terribly comfortable social experience. But I did know I wanted to be there. I waffled right up to almost the last minute, but I finally pushed myself into going. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but it was a decision that changed my life. If I hadn't gone, I suspect I would've had a very different life. I probably wouldn't be working in comics, because I'd likely never have met Jim Starlin, meaning Jim never would've suggested that I write comics, or showed me the ropes of writing comics, or led me by the figurative hand into Marvel Comics.

Ron Marz dressed as the Joker at one of Bernie Wrightson's legendary Halloween parties, along with his girlfriend at the time, dressed at the Punisher.

I think my costume that first year was the Grim Reaper. Not the Avengers villain, but the black-robed, scythe-carrying specter of death. It was a real scythe, too, some antique I remembered from my parents' tool shed. I can recall making the walk down the path to the studio that first year. A few dozen carved, lit pumpkins were stacked on the retaining wall that bordered the path to Bernie's studio, each with a different face. The awkwardness of not knowing anyone at the party evaporated, because everyone at the party was... someone else. Everyone was in costume. It really didn't matter who you were, or who you knew.

After that first year, I don't think I missed another party for more than a decade, until the parties stopped because Bernie and his first wife split. In the years between, it was always a not-to-be-missed event, attended by comics pros, fine artists, musicians, writers, naturalists, anybody who came into contact with that creative circle. Among them: Charles Vess, Jim Starlin, Fred Hembeck, Joe Staton, Terry Austin, Dan Green, Jon Muth, Joe Chiodo, Tom Raney, Elaine Lee, Jack Morelli, Christie Scheele, Jim Gurney, Stephen Hickman, James Warhola. I suspect there were plenty of other pros I didn't recognize due to the costumes. And everybody was required to wear a costume.

Back then, I had the time to come up with elaborate costumes. One year, I was the Bride of Frankenstein, complete with a wedding dress, surgical wraps and an Elsa Lanchester wig piled high. Another year, the Joker, with custom-made purple-and-white formal attire. My favorite, though, was an elaborate Marley's Ghost costume with white breeches, waist coat, white makeup, my hair sprayed white, and yards of white chains decorated with ledgers, keys (all painted white) and cobwebs. Great costume, if I do say so.

Unfortunately, that year the costume didn't last through the night... and neither did I. I'd broken up with a longtime girlfriend not that long before, and... well, I don't remember much of the night, except drinking to excess, and falling on my ass in the mud outside the studio. I woke up the next morning in the passenger seat of my car, still wearing my muddy costume, dead leaves in my hair. My car was parked outside my ex-girlfriend's house. Her brother, who'd accompanied me to the party, had driven us home (despite not having a license) when I was too shit-faced to get behind the wheel. Apparently I refused to sleep it off inside, so he had no choice but to leave me in the car.

A Frankenstein illustration from Wrightson's masterwork at left, and a page from Ron's "lost" Batman story with Wrightson

One of the stranger experiences of my life: waking up in my car, dressed as a ghost, brutally hung over, with no earthly clue how I'd arrived at that particular place.

Another Wrightson Halloween memory involves Jim Starlin and Fred Hembeck. Jim had a habit bringing a few costumes and switching during the course of the party. One year, Jim dressed as Rorschach from "Watchmen," as well as Rorschach's sign-carrying secret identity of Walter Kovacs. Another year, Jim snuck out of the party and returned in a completely different guise, wearing a rubber clown mask to conceal his identity. He introduced himself as "Elan," with a squeaky, faintly European accent, and proceeded to cozy up to a slightly inebriated Fred. Fred tells the tale on his blog much better and more completely than I ever could.

This time of year, I miss Bernie's parties terribly. I miss Bernie too, since his move to the West Coast more than a decade ago. Now we usually only see each other at conventions. But when we do, we usually find some time to talk about those parties.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, "Voodoo" for DC and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, bernie wrightson

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