Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.
I first encountered the works of Bernie Wrightson as a kid decades ago in the 1980’s. Back in those days, before I had access to a proper comic shop, my local supermarket carried shrink wrapped bundles of comics, usually (if I remember correctly) four to a pack. There was no rhyme or reason to the packaging of these bundles, it was purely luck of the draw; you could just as easily land an issue of Simonson’s Thor as you could Moench’s Aztec Ace. One Saturday, upon returning home from food-shopping and opening up the goods, there was a (battered and yellowing, decade old) copy of Swamp Thing number ten. “The Man Who Would Not Die” featured a cover of the Swamp Thing locked in mortal combat with the monstrous Anton Arcane, while in the background stalked his horribly mutated Un-Men. One look at that image and I became an immediate fan. I was simultaneously repulsed and drawn to the detailed rendering of the monstrous imagery. To be honest, I don’t recall many of the details of that issue except for Wrightson’s lush and consistent art style. As the years passed, I was able to check out his work on Creepshow and (in my humble opinion) his straight-up masterpiece of pen and ink illustration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, all the while marveling at the fact that his already prodigious artistic talents increased exponentially since those early Swamp Thing days from the 1970’s. I recently had the opportunity to pick up IDW’s three issue collaboration between horror writer, Steve Niles and Wrightson entitled The Ghoul. This comic is a throwback to those earlier days, when horror and monster titles were ubiquitous on the spinner racks; a combination Monster Rally by way of a 1930’s detective pulp.
LAPD Detective Lloyd Klimpt is working a bizarre extortion case concerning Ester Atwood, an actress whose family has deep roots in Hollywood (going back to her grandmother, silent film star Polly). Klimpt has requested outside help concerning this strange case from the Feds, specifically the sub-department known as the Federal Bureau of Supernatural Investigation. The FBSI agent arrives by specially modified plane in the dead of night at a discreet airstrip in Burbank. Klimpt is bewildered when the FBSI representative, codenamed The Ghoul, disembarks from his transport; towering at eight feet in height, clad in a leather duster, with a slate gray, inhuman visage and a shock of black hair. This agent is obviously a non-human entity. Klimpt drives The Ghoul to his house (in a rented U-Haul, no less) to examine the Atwood case files; the Detective is suspicious that at any given point in time, the three generations of actresses look exactly identical to each other. Klimpt suspects that something beyond the boundaries of the natural world is at play with the Atwood clan. This is a time sensitive consultation, given the fact that the FBSI agent is on loan to the LAPD until morning. To complicate matters further, The Ghoul is in town on a secondary mission. It is Walpurgisnacht, the night when the creatures from the underworld make an incursion into our realm. After making a pit stop to equip Klimpt with heavier ordinance, the pair makes their way to the Griffith Park Observatory and get into a running gun battle with a pack of feasting demons. The Ghoul is able to pry information from one of the hellions about Ester Atwood and eventually the duo make their way to the family estate to confront the seemingly immortal creature(s) that are veiled in human skins.
Although lighter in tone in comparison to other projects penned by the author (30 Days of Night comes to mind), there are some genuinely gruesome scenes that are rendered in bloody detail by Wrightson’s masterful line work. Like Niles’ other series Criminal Macabre, there is some humorous back and forth verbal banter between this odd couple (it parallels the patter between Cal McDonald and his partner, Mo’lock). Along the course of their investigation, Klimpt and The Ghoul make contact with two individuals who are well versed in the supernatural that are able to lend a helping hand. Doc Macabre is the boy genius/ occult investigator who creates his own DIY, jerry-rigged monster fighting equipment. He comes off like a cross between Egon Spengler and Jack B. Quick, while the second is the chain smoking, whiskey swilling, Private Investigator Joe Coogan, who also happens to be a rotting corpse, a member of the living dead. These two ancillary characters have starred in their own respective three issue miniseries’, Doc Macabre and Dead, She Said, which were written and illustrated by the same creative team. It is my understanding that Niles and Wrightson were in the process of assembling their own little pulp flavored comic universe, with the lead characters from these three books acting as the foundation stones. Given the fact that these two creators were (almost) exclusive practitioners of the horror genre, one can imagine that this universe’s main focus would be on supernatural/ monster comics, with a large dose of crime fiction mixed in as well. The next phase of the Niles/ Wrightson pulp universe was to be a team book, consisting of The Ghoul, Doc Macabre and Coogan (and I suspect Klimpt as well, given the third issue’s finale). These characters were to combine their collective efforts in staving off an even larger supernatural threat. Niles christened this crew, The Moorpark Rejects, sort of the IDW version of Night Force, The Midnight Sons or perhaps The Defenders; a misfit gang of monster fighters, of whom two of which are actual monsters. Sadly, this project never made it to fruition; half of this creative team, Bernie Wrightson passed away in 2017, leaving The Moorpark Rejects in a permanent state of limbo.
The backup feature in The Ghoul is a serialized prose story by Niles entitled “My Ghoul” in which, while on the hunt for the serial killer, Scabby McCain in Canada, The Ghoul encounters Millicent, a female member of his species. This meeting comes as a shock to the protagonist. Throughout his long life, never once has he encountered anyone of his kind, let alone a woman. Niles drops more tantalizing hints concerning the murky origins of the FBSI investigator (and his female counterpart) along with creating a potential romantic interest for the character. The Ghoul is a fun, fast paced read. This book is a classic Monster Rally, with some police procedural and hardboiled elements blended into the mix. Readers who are fans of the Hellboy comics and films, the Cal McDonald mysteries, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, or Bronze Age horror comics from DC, Marvel and Warren, should feel right at home with this miniseries(1). This is a quality, albeit minor, piece from a master illustrator’s substantial body of work that left this world far too soon.
During their initial release, Dead, She Said; The Ghoul; and Doc Macabre, were published as color comics. In early 2018, IDW released The Monstrous Collection of Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson. This deluxe edition brings these three miniseries’ together in one volume in all their pulpy glory (along with a healthy dose of extra material spanning Wrightson’s career as an illustrator over the decades). This volume does away with the original colors entirely, letting the meticulous pencil and ink work take center stage, boosting the mood factor substantially. While not as polished as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or its sequel, Frankenstein, Alive, Alive! , the absence of the color scheme certainly plays to Wrightson’s strengths as an illustrator. The black and white interiors of The Monstrous Collection give off that classic Creepy and Eerie magazine vibe.