Bernie Wrightson got his first job as a comics creator in the late sixties. He quickly gravitated to the DC Comics’ House of Mystery and House of Secrets, with both anthologies starting contemporaneously with horror anthologies from EC comics like Tales from the Crypt. With the advent of the Comics Code, House of Mysteries and House of Secrets started printing more superheroic and science fiction work in the mid-60s.
By the time Wrightson came around, horror themes were back in vogue and he was able to flex his creative muscles, most famously co-creating Swamp Thing with writer Len Wein in 1971. This culminated in a Swamp Thing series, which Wrightson drew for the first ten issues.
Around the mid 70s there were signs that Wrightson was looking for other creative outlets beyond a monthly ergodic serial with a set page count. He started doing shorter, stand-alone stories (original and adaptations) for Warren Publishing’s horror anthologies Eerie and Creepy. Omnibus published The Berni Wrightson Treasury in 1975 and he did a wide variety of posters, prints, calendars, and even a coloring book alongside a slew of spot illustrations for a plethora of outlets. He also started creating a series of illustrations for an edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that was eventually published in 1983.
It was during this same period that Wrightson rented a large studio with three other artists (Jeffery Catherine Jones, Michael William Kaluta, and Barry Windsor-Smith). Calling themselves The Studio, they published a volume that was part coffee table book and part self-promotion. An ad for the book (creatively named The Studio) even appearing in the January 1980 issue of Heavy Metal.
These four artists were comfortable working in multiple media and had all worked in comics at one time or another. They always seemed to know which media worked best for which situation. More importantly, they all knew how to capture objects in space so that it was always immediately obvious where everything in a drawing was in relation to everything else. These were masters and Wrightson's work matured in the company of equals.
In 1982, Heavy Metal magazine was publishing some of its best issues. It may or may not be a coincidence that three members of The Studio (Jones, Kaluta, and Wrightson) were producing strips for Heavy Metal (I’m Age, Starstruck, and Freak Show, respectively) during this period. I’m not saying that the presence of these three were what made Heavy Metal so successful in 1982, but I could make an argument.
Written by Bruce Jones, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, and colored in watercolor by his then-wife Michele Wrightson, Freak Show ran from August 1982 to January 1983. And while the story is chilling and discomforting enough on it’s own, we would not be talking about it now if it weren’t for Wrightson’s art.
After a decade of placing material in horror anthologies, Freak Show could have easily been just another journeyman work. However, it was created during the period when Wrightson was working on his Frankenstein work, and Freak Show boasts generous use of spotted blacks and precise parallel hatching that gave everything a thoroughly atmospheric look and made it look like he had turned in an engraving.
The effect of the color on this style of line work makes me think of examples of hand-tinted engravings and maps from the seventeenth century by Dutch masters like Dirk Jansz van Santen that I’ve seen in the Rijksmuseum. Obviously, the color in Heavy Metal is more garish than the faded tinting from centuries ago -- especially considering the limitations of the four-color printing process in 1982 -- but the overall effect makes Freak Show look like an undated gothic relic. The resulting verisimilitude is clearly why Wrightson was chosen for the job.
One of the things that the members of The Studio also had in common was a mastery of anatomy and the human form. Wrightston leveraged this for Freak Show and obviously enjoyed drawing the grotesqueries demanded by the script. His cartooning often contained an element of caricature which he knew exactly to channel to foreboding effect, something he'd been able to do since his earliest work.
Based on the art alone, Freak Show should be a more well-known work instead of a footnote in Wrightson's career. It's possible that the fifty illustrations he created for Frankenstein were enough to crowd out just about anything else he produced in the early 80s, but the truth is that while Freak Show may be a masterpiece of gothic illustration, it’s often given lesser consideration because of its story.
The main problem with Freak Show’s story is how body horror is handled. Freak shows were a staple of travelling entertainment for centuries. It's such a common trope that it would absolutely make sense to structure a gothic story around the conceit. Unfortunately, the story tells us almost nothing about the inner life of the so-called freaks and sticks stubbornly to the point of view of a travelling able-bodied white man named Valker who has conquered his alcoholism and feels compelled to act out a sort of messianiac role saving suicidal people with congenital deformities and bringing them into a community of like-bodied individuals.
Wrightson is superlative in these opening scenes, filling the world with rain and the interiors with an emptiness that reflects the emptiness of societal rejection. In other circumstances, this could almost be a queer or trans allegory and there are shades of the X-Men in the introductions. This approach to relatability is undermined by the inclusion of a blond, beautiful, able-bodied woman named Lila who runs into the forest because her husband committed suicide.
Of course, she runs into Valker's community in a sequence that leans into the body horror -- the PTSD from her husband's suicide is seemingly amplified by the presence of so many disfigured people. After showing us how these people have been abandoned by society, they are brought back in as nothing more than the living embodiment of creepiness. This inconsistent treatment is, sadly, consistent for the rest of the story. They are creepy and/or relatable as is necessary for the narrative. They are ciphers, physically and otherwise.
Eventually Lila settles in and becomes the mother figure of the community, which is made literal when she gets pregnant by Valker. At no point does anyone ask why Valker would naturally be attracted to the only able-bodied woman in the group, or why Valker moves the community around in a wagon emblazoned with the name Valker's Wretches.
Wrightson’s sequential storytelling skills really shine in the sequence where Lila undergoes a long and difficult birth. We are treated to the sense of Valker’s drunken frustration and impotence through his body language and constant pacing. When he is presented with a baby, we can see the relief and momentary loss of tension. And then we get the incredible panel where he finds out that the baby is congenitally deformed.
Of course, Valker loses control and lashes out at the wretches, locking them in the wagon and setting it on fire. Fortunately for us, Wrightson is absolutely in control. He evokes the emotional transition from drunken concern to homicidal intent with a firm line that shows he knows exactly what he’s doing. The confusion and the fear are evident. This is the worst day of these peoples’ lives, for various reasons and none of them (the reader along with them) will ever forget it. And that’s thanks to Wrightson’s execution.
This is clearly intended to be the big horror scene in the story -- the knowledge that no matter how committed a person could be to the sustainment of a community, all it takes is one bad day to make them commit the worst of atrocities against marginalized people who cannot defend themselves. Good horror creators know that violence is one thing, but violence with the full weight of the implications of the situation makes for much more horrific situations that linger past the end of the story.
And it is properly horrific. Wrightson really put a lot of effort into the scene, leaning into the betrayal on the faces of the wretches and a wide shot of Valker drinking against the background of the flaming wagon. Wrightson's ability to capture exactly the right moment is probably why he became such a prolific cover artist throughout his career.
Wrightson’s ability to make rain feel like an elemental emotional state also comes into play during the subsequent pages, where we see Valker drink himself into oblivion rather than think about what he did. The pathos and regret that Valker is feeling is made manifest on the page. It’s one of the most impressive expressionist sequences I’ve seen in comics. The influence of Eisner and Kurtzman can be seen in Valker's drunken stance and literal downfall.
There is a faux redemption twist at the end and the sequence where Valker is confronted with the sins of his past is fantastic. Wrightson does a great job depicting the burned wretches in their individual preserving jars. It’s very graphic, but he does a lot to balance the use of shadow and giving just enough detail to let the reader infer the rest.
Ultimately, it’s the ending of the story and the underlying conceit of the titular Freak Show that I take the most issue with. As punishment for his sins, the preserved body parts of the various Wretches are sewn onto Valker. And he is taken around to all of the small towns and displayed for all to see. We can see echoes of Frankenstein in the sutures that hold Valker’s new body together.
Previous to this point, the capitalist aspect of the arrangement with Valker’s Wretches only got two pages. It’s mostly setup, but we do get his script for when he is presenting to his audience, which includes the words “Let these wretches who cling together remind you of your good fortune.”
In these moments, the wretches are presented as having nothing to offer beyond their service as living examples of how bad it could be for the able-bodied audience. The message to the townspeople is to be grateful for what they have because they could be these poor people, congenitally disabled and forced to rely on a sanctimonious able-bodied man who exploits them for how they look. Even if this is kayfabe, it would have been difficult to hear this message over and over again and ignore the implications.
Freak Show would have benefitted from a different point of view character -- any of the wretches would have been appropriate. This would not have been a new idea. David Lynch’s The Elephant Man came out in 1980 and explored the interiority of a real-life wretch who had been exploited in a freak show. Frankenstein itself is famous for having an entire framing sequence from the point of view of the creature. Perhaps that’s what they were going for here, presenting Valker as an analog to Shelley’s creature, but they missed the mark.
The story ends with the construction that Valker got what he deserved. His redemption was necessary so that he fully understood what he did and what was going to happen to him. And the narrative is explicit that the final surgery is a form of physical inversion by putting his inner ugliness on display for all to see. The very last note on the very last page is that being physically grotesque is an actual punishment, which doesn’t strike quite the same note with disabled readers as it does with able-bodied readers.
The real tragedy is that Wrightson was at the top of his game, working in a medium that he was close to mastering, with a full range of sequential storytelling tools at his disposal and he was given this script. He did a fantastic job with what he had to work with because he was a professional and it's clear that he truly enjoyed working in the horror genre. This is a story that shouldn't be known only to Wrightson completists because, more than anything else, that would negate the undeniably incredible work that he put into finding the beauty in the grotesque.