Mad cover by Basil Wolverton

Basil Wolverton is one of the most polarizing artists in comic history, but gained a strong cult following at the same time. The man is notorious for his unforgettable depictions of wacky, grotesque and ugly people. His artwork has often been described as "spaghetti and meatballs", while he referred to himself as a "producer of preposterous pictures of peculiar people who prowl this perplexing planet". Yet he didn't just draw "ugly". His seemingly disgusting and repulsive illustrations still illuminate a certain fun and charm. Naturally his style suited comedy and horror the best. He created humoristic comics like 'Powerhouse Pepper' (1942-1952), visualized the previously invisible character Lena Hyena for Al Capp's 'Li'l Abner' and designed the hideous woman on the cover of Mad Magazine's 11th issue, arguably the most iconic cover in its history. Wolverton drew various chilling one-shot horror stories for comic books like Mystic, Journey Into Unknown Worlds, Adventures Into Terror, Weird Tales of the Future and Weird Mysteries. He also proved he had more up his sleeve than shock and shlock alone. The artist illustrated various chapters of The Old Testament. While not all people may like his aesthetic view, few can deny that Wolverton had a highly original, unique and instantly recognizable style which still influences artists today. He remains the godfather of all "gross-out" cartoonists.

Powerhouse Pepper, by Basil Wolverton
Powerhouse Pepper (Joker Comics #19)

Early work
Basil Wolverton was born in 1909 in Central Point, Oregon. His father was a jack-of-all-trades who settled in Vancouver, Washington, when Basil was ten years old. Despite being devout Christians, Wolverton's parents divorced when the boy was a teenager. Around the same time his older sister died unexpectedly from rheumatic fever. This made Wolverton lose his faith for the next 14 years. The man had no formal art training, but loved doodling anyhow. Among his graphic influences were Sidney Smith, Rube Goldberg and E.C. Segar. Later in life he also expressed admiration for the work of his good friend Al Fagaly. As an adult, Wolverton made a living as a vaudeville performer. He had a special act where he sang in a baritone voice, played ukelele and tap danced. Others sources of income were provided by his job as a journalist/cartoonist for the Portland News. One of his most exciting assignments was visiting the set of the film 'The General' and meeting Buster Keaton in person. In 1926 he sold his first cartoon to America's Humor Magazine. He had less luck with his first comic strip, 'Marco of Mars' (1929), which he sold to the Independent Syndicate of New York. The editors however felt it was too similar to Philip Francis Nowland and Dick Calkins' 'Buck Rogers' and never brought it into circulation. In 1937 Wolverton applied for a job at the Walt Disney Studios, but was once again rejected.

Spacehawk by Basil Wolverton
Spacehawk

Spacehawk and other early work
In 1938 he finally managed to get his work into print, by entering the American comic book market. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wolverton didn't relocate to Manhattan, but remained in the Pacific Northwest, and sent his work by mail. Wolverton's early work already stood out for its oddball appeal, and can be compared to the work of other "weird" Golden Age artists like Boody Rogers and Fletcher Hanks. The science fiction comic 'Spacehawks' and the detective comic 'Disk-Eyes the Detective' found a spot in the short-lived comics magazine Circus, The Comic Riot by the Globe Syndicate. In 1940 Wolverton reused much of the themes of 'Spacehawks' to create the nearly identically titled 'Spacehawk' (1940-1942), which appeared in Target Comics by Novelty Press. The zany science fiction saga starred an interplanetary lawman who battled space pirates and other malefactors. It was an early showcase of Wolverton's talent for creating highly imaginative worlds and creatures.

The Culture Corner by Basil Wolverton

Another early client was Centaur Publishing, for which he most notably created the 'Space Patrol' feature (1939-1940) for Amazing Mystery Funnies, followed by two 'Meteor Martin' (1941-1942) stories for Amazing Man Comics. In Lev Gleason's Daredevil Comics and Silver Streak Comics he had a comic strip named 'Scoop Scuttle' (1942-1945), about a newspaper salesman. For Fawcett's Whiz Comics, he made a filler feature called 'The Culture Corner' (1945-1952), a screwball guide to life, hosted by a certain Croucher K. Conk, Q.O.C (Queer Old Coot). 'Mystic Moot and his Magic Snoot' (1945-1948) ran in Fawcett's Comic Comics and parodied Bob Kingett's 'Ibis the Invincible'. 'Bingbang Buster and his Horse Hedy' (1950-1952) was a cowboy comic published in Black Diamond Western, another Lev Gleason title.

Bingbang Buster by Basil Wolverton

Powerhouse Pepper
His first major success was 'Powerhouse Pepper' (1942-1948), a humoristic boxing series published in comic books by Timely (the future Marvel Comics), most notably Joker Comics, Gay Comics and Tessie the Typist Comics. Pepper debuted in Joker Comics' first issue (April 1942). The character received its own one-shot comic book in 1943, and then returned in four more solo issues in 1948. Pepper is a superstrong hero who out-punches everyone who pushes him too far. Unfortunately he isn't very bright and frequently underestimates his muscle power, with disastrous results.

Powerhouse Pepper
Powerhouse Pepper

Pepper also wastes much of his energy doing tedious work which more clever people would do in a more efficient and less time-consuming way. In one story, for instance, the dim-witted boxer digs throughout an entire beach looking for clams, while throwing away piles of treasure. Powerhouse Pepper gave Wolverton the opportunity to draw slapstick fist fights and physically impossible actions. At the same time the series was also very verbal. Characters used alliterations, spoke in rhyme and made lame puns. Among Wolverton's more short-lived contributions to Timely were such melodiousnessly titled features as 'Prof. Jogg's Travelogs', 'Frink Clinkslink', 'Flap Flipflop', 'Inspector Hector the Crime Detector', 'Dr. Whackyhack the Wacky Quack', 'Hothead Hotel', 'Dr. Dimwit' and 'Supersonic Sammy'.

Flap Flipflop (Gay Comics #23)
Flap Flipflop (Gay Comics #23)

Lena the Hyena
Wolverton's national notability increased when he entered a contest held by Life Magazine and won. In June 1946 Al Capp, the famous creator of the comic strip 'Li'l' Abner', had introduced an invisible character named Lena Hyena. She was reportedly the "ugliest woman in the world" but as a running gag she was always depicted off screen or with her head hidden from view. After intriguing audiences for several months Capp asked readers to draw their own interpretation of Lena. The winning drawing would be printed in an episode of his comic strip. He joked that the jury would consist of Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, 'Frankenstein' film actor Boris Karloff and singer Frank Sinatra (who was still nothing more than a teen idol in those years and thus hated by many men). The contest was a perfect marketing strategy. About 500.000 readers sent in drawings of the most gruesome females they could imagine. Even some professional artists joined in, like Carl Barks and Jack Cole. Yet nobody could top Wolverton's entry. His interpretation of Lena was a lanky hag with menacing eyes, a huge nose, bushy eyebrows, wrinkles, blisters, a twisted neck and fang-like teeth. On 21 October 1946 the illustration appeared in the newspapers, complete with Wolverton's name and address. The drawing indeed shocked many readers, even though the work of other contestants was arguably uglier. But Wolverton could draw something hideous with a professional look. It was this rare aspect that made the difference.

Episode of Al Capp's 'Li'l Abner', with Basil Wolverton's Lena the Hyena
Episode of Al Capp's 'Li'l Abner', with Basil Wolverton's Lena the Hyena

Wolverton was a master in caricaturing the human face and body. He distorted body parts while multiplying others. Noses hang on necks, ears stick out of eye sockets, teeth point out in all directions, skins droops to the ground and virtually everyone has blisters or freckles. His characters seem to be made from plasticine rather than bones, but Wolverton knew how to draw it all with a sense of fun, elegance and innocence. Children and teenagers have an instinctive love for his work. Since they go through many body changes themselves and often feel ugly his drawings are almost an invitation to laugh at puberty. Wolverton's lack of artistic schooling gave his drawings an otherworldly appearance. They have the same primitive power of an amateur just doodling what he feels. The artist also achieved this effect by using a different technique than most professional cartoonists. While others used brushes he always preferred pen and ink. Naturally there were many people who dismissed his work as ugly. Some, like William M. Gaines and Jules Feiffer, even utterly hated it. But for the attentive observer Wolverton's art is far more skilled and calculated than it may seem at first sight. More importantly, there was no other artist at the time who drew like him. His characters have a zaniness and elasticity which was quite unusual for the 1940s and 1950s, save perhaps in the animated cartoons of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett.

Brain Bats of Venus by Basil Wolverton
The Brain Bats of Venus (Mister Mystery #7, 1952, recolored for a later reprint)

Sci-fi comic books
Since 'Li'l' Abner' was such a widely read and highly popular comic strip Wolverton instantly received more commercial offers. It was only a tiny step for him to go from monstrous faces to drawing actual monsters and extraterrestrial aliens. In the early 1950s he drew various horror and science fiction stories for Stan Lee's pre-Marvel Atlas line as well as the comic books published by Stanley P. Morse. Among them were 'The End of the World' (1951), 'Gateway to Horror' (1951) for Marvel Tales, 'The Devil Birds' (1951) and 'The Eye of Doom' (1952) for Mystic, 'Planet of Terror' (1951), 'One Of Our Graveyards Is Missing' (1952), 'They Crawl By Night' (1953) for Journey Into Unknown Worlds, 'Where Monsters Dwell' (1951) for Adventures Into Terror, 'Escape to Death' (1952) and 'Flight to the Future' (1952) and 'The Monster on Mars' (1952) and 'Nightmare World' (1952), 'The Man From The Moon' (1953) for Weird Tales of the Future, 'The Brain-Bats of Venus' (1952) for Mr. Mystery, 'Robot Woman' (1952), 'The Man Who Never Smiled' (1953) and 'Swamp Monster' (1953) for Weird Mysteries.

Nightmare World (Weird Tales of the Future #3)
Nightmare World (Weird Tales of the Future #3, recolored for a later reprint)

Mad
In 1952 Harvey Kurtzman established the influential satirical magazine MAD at EC Comics. Wolverton was among its pioneers. Although his stay was brief and the amount of actual comics low he still left a remarkable impact behind. Originally he was mostly asked to express his trademark skill: drawing ugly faces. Kurtzman had commissioned just one hideous face, but Wolverton handed in two illustrations. The first one was used in issue #10 (April 1954) for a parody of H. Antoine d'Archy's 'The Face Upon the Floor'. The entire story was drawn by Jack Davis, but the final image of the actual face on the floor was illustrated by Wolverton. His second drawing was used on the front cover of Mad's next issue (May 1954), which parodied Life Magazine's "Beautiful Girl of the Month". The eye-catching image featured a blistery, horse-faced hag who laughed her pointy teeth out. The anarchic parody cemented Mad's counterculture public image. Life actually threatened to sue, but chief editor William M. Gaines sussed them by promising they wouldn't do it again (a promise he broke several times after). Wolverton's hideous hag became the most famous 'Mad' cover of all time and impressed quite some young readers. Both Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman remembered this cover vividly as their first memory of Mad, the magazine which would soon inspire their own comics.

Meet Miss Potgold, from Mad #17
Meet Miss Potgold, from Mad #17

Inside the same issue Wolverton illustrated an article about a fictional "Mad Reader of the Month" election contest. It was once again merely an excuse to draw various contestants with hideous and hilarious goofy faces. In the 17th issue (November 1954) Kurtzman, Elder and Wolverton contributed to the advertisement parody 'Meet Miss Potgold'. Several panels of this particular comic had to be retouched because some editors felt they were too sexually suggestive. Wolverton once claimed: "Sigmund Freud would probably go raving mad over my stuff. Some psychiatrist or editor said my material wasn't fit to publish because it was rife with sex suggestions and symbols. (...) It's like the monkey which, if he pounded away for a million years, might accidentally type out the 'Star Spangled Banner' lyrics." Wolverton ridiculed table manners in 'Dining Etiquette Quiz' (issue #29, September 1956). In the 31th issue (February 1957) he illustrated 'What They're Saying Around The Solar System', followed by 'Mad Hats' (issue #36, December 1957), 'Inside Story (Famous Stomachs)' (issue #40, July 1958) and 'Wheelers and Dealers' (issue #82, October 1963). His final illustrations for the magazine appeared in issue #137 (September 1970) with the article 'Sports Cars We'd Like to See'. Wolverton also published in another magazine by EC, namely Panic!, which was edited by Al Feldstein. In the second issue (April-May 1954) he made a contribution to Will Elder's 'The Lady Or The Tiger', while in the third issue the duo satirized Al Capp's 'Li'l Abner', with Wolverton redrawing Lena Hyena once again. His gift for grotesquery was put to good use at the chewing gum company Topps, where he created the 'Topps Ugly Hang-Ups' poster series (1968) for editor Woody Gelman.

Topps Ugly Hang-UpsTopps Ugly Hang-UpsTopps Ugly Hang-Ups
Three beauties from Topps Ugly Hang-Ups series

Religious artwork
Just when it seemed that Wolverton would be condemned to a lifetime of doodling nothing but goofy and repulsive faces, he switched over to other projects. Few would assume that such an outrageous artist like him was in fact a very devout Christian! In 1943 Wolverton converted to Herbert Amstrong's cult Radio Church of God (later Worldwide Church of God) and was ordained as one of his ministers. The cartoonist preached in a small congregation in Portland, Oregon. Armstrong offered him a position as evangelist, complete with an office and secretary. But Wolverton declined because he didn't like office jobs, nor the idea of moving to another state. He did take the offer to create some biblical illustrations for Armstrong's books, magazines and pamphlets, though. In the early 1950s Wolverton was asked to visualize what he thought the Apocalypse would look like? He did it with the same panache as his humorous comics, but far more disturbing. In November 1958 Wolverton illustrated all chapters of the Old Testament for the magazine The Plain Truth. The ambitious project ran until December 1969 under the title 'The Bible Story', after which it continued until April 1972 in another magazine, Tomorrow's World, as 'The Story of Man'.

From: The Bible Story, volume II
From: The Bible Story, volume II

Wolverton's biblical illustration work was in line with the teachings of the World Wide Church, particularly their apocalyptic prophecies. He wanted to reach younger audiences, but not with the kind of romanticized family friendly junior bibles that were already existed. To him all biblical disasters and God's wrath had to be depicted as scary and horrible as possible. The cartoonist achieved his goal easily, thanks to his experience in illustrating horror comics. When the second volume of 'The Bible Story' appeared in print, editors censored the image of people drowning during The Great Flood to avoid parental complaints. The only thing that Wolverton ever toned down was his trademark cartooniness. And for the first time he actually did research. Not just by reading the Bible, but also by asking historians more information and visual documentation about ancient Israel. Between 1961 and 1968 the series was published in six volumes by Ambassador College. Afterwards they were recollected in the books '1975 in Prophecy' and 'The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last'. A posthumous collection, 'The Bible Story' (1982) followed, but the most recent and complete release is 'The Wolverton Bible' (2009) by Fantagraphics. Wolverton always felt his biblical illustrations were his personal masterpiece. He never considered a comic book version of the New Testament, since the depiction of Jesus would be a violation of the Second Commandment. But he sincerely hoped that his biblical epics would be the one thing people would remember him for.

Basil Wolverton's Plop! cover by Basil Wolverton

Final years
Comics collector Glenn Bray brought Wolverton's work back to the attention of comics affectionados with the release of the "underground" comic books 'Basil Wolverton's "Gjdrkzlxcbwq" Comics' (1973), featuring the most grotesque gallery of freaks and weirdos, and 'Basil Wolverton's Foopgoop Frolics Frantic Funnies Folio' (1975). Later in his career Wolverton illustrated several covers for Joe Orlando's satirical comic book 'Plop!' (DC Comics, 1973-1975). In 1974 Wolverton briefly turned to self-publishing and released one issue of 'Common Types of Barflyze'.In October 1974 Marvel Comics and Kitchen Sink Press issued a joint underground comics magazine named Comix Book. The publication was less sexually explicit than actual underground comix but still quite an unusual work for the company. Many underground cartoonists made a contribution, among them Joel Beck, Howard Cruse, Kim Deitch, Justin Green, Will Fowler, Gary Hallgren, Denis Kitchen, Trina Robbins, Art Spiegelman, Skip Williamson and S. Clay Wilson. Since Wolverton's work for Mad had been such an influence on the underground comix movement, down to his cross-hatching (!), he couldn't be missed. He drew two comics for them, 'Calvin' and 'Weird Creatures'. In November of that same year his artwork also appeared in Hugh Hefner's Playboy. In 1974 the veteran cartoonist suffered a stroke which brought an abrupt end to his career. He passed away four years later, in 1978. In 1991 he was posthumously inducted in the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame and in 2000 in the Will Eisner Hall of Fame.

Artwork by Basil Wolverton

Legacy
Basil Wolverton had a huge impact on the underground comix movement and inspired artists like Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams and Art Spiegelman. But he was also an influence on Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Peter Bagge, Kaz, Gahan Wilson, John Kricfalusi, Bill Wray, Cameron Jamie, Drew Friedman, Daniel Clowes, Larry Marder, Glenn Bray, Joe Sacco, Hunt Emerson and Tom Bunk. Harvey Kurtzman felt "Wolverton never borrowed, never hacked, and he never shortchanged the public. This is a good deal of the reason why he was what few of his contemporaries could claim: Wolverton was an original."

Spacehawk by Basil Wolverton
Spacehawk

Wolverton's early comic book work has been a regular subject of reprints ever since the 1970s. Ron Graham already made an unauthorized fan collection of 'Powerhouse Pepper' in 1974, while Dutch publisher Robert Olaf Stoop published a 'Powerhouse Pepper' collection through his Real Free Press in 1973. 'Spacehawk' was reprinted by Archival Press in the late 1970s and then again by Dark Horse in the 1990s. Dark Horse also released 'Basil Wolverton's Planet of Terror' (1987), 'Basil Wolverton's Gateway to Horror' (1988) and 'Basil Wolverton's Fantastic Fables' (1993), which containing selections of his 1950s mystery comic books work. Pure Imagination published a three-issue comic book series called 'Intense!', which mostly contained 'Powerhouse Pepper' stories. The Seattle-based publishing house Fantagraphics has been releasing luxury collections of Wolverton's work ever since the late 1980s, including 'Wolvertoons: The Art of Basil Wolverton' (1989), 'Basil Wolverton's Powerhouse Pepper' (1994), 'The Culture Corner' (2010) and 'Spacehawk' (2012). 'Lena's Bambinas' (Fantagraphics, 1996) presented a collection of Lena the Hyena's equally grotesque family members, drawn by the author's cartoonist son, Monte Wolverton.

For those interested in Wolverton's work the book 'The Original Art of Basil Wolverton: From the Collection of Glenn Bray' (2007) is highly recommended.

Basil Wolverton
Basil Wolverton in 1959

Series and books by Basil Wolverton in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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