Mad cover by Basil Wolverton
The iconic cover for Mad issue #1 (April 1954). 

Basil Wolverton was a U.S. comic artist, 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". Naturally his style suited comedy and horror the best. Wolverton created humorous comics like 'Powerhouse Pepper' (1942-1952). He visualized the previously invisible character Lena Hyena for Al Capp's 'Li'l Abner' and designed the hideous woman on the front page 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. It gained him a strong cult following, but Wolverton also broke with his signature reputation by illustrating various chapters of The Old Testament ('The Bible Story'). Although a polarizing artist, Basil Wolverton has a highly original, unique and instantly recognizable style, which still influences artists today. He remains the godfather of all "gross-out" cartoonists. At the same time, his zany and sometimes repulsive illustrations illuminate a sense of fun, elegance and charm. 

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

Early life and career
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 comedian Buster Keaton in person. In 1926 Wolverton sold his first cartoon to America's Humor Magazine. He sold his first comic strip, 'Marco of Mars' (1929), to the Independent Syndicate of New York. But the editors felt it was too similar to Philip Francis Nowland and Dick Calkins' 'Buck Rogers' and never syndicated it. In 1937 Wolverton applied for a job at the Walt Disney Studios, but was once again rejected.

Spacehawk by Basil Wolverton

In 1938 Wolverton 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. His 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 comic 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 stars an interplanetary lawman who battleds space pirates and other malefactors. It was an early showcase of his talent for creating highly imaginative worlds and creatures.

The Culture Corner by Basil Wolverton
'The Culture Corner', Fawcett's Whiz Comics. 

Another early client was Centaur Publishing, for which Wolverton most notably created the 'Space Patrol' feature (1939-1940), published in 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 western comic published in Black Diamond Western, another Lev Gleason title.

Bingbang Buster by Basil Wolverton
'Bingbang Buster And His Horse Hedy'. 

Powerhouse Pepper
Wolverton's first major success was 'Powerhouse Pepper' (1942-1948), a humorous boxing series published by Timely (the future Marvel Comics), most notably in the comic booksJoker 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. Powerhouse 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. Pepper also wastes much of his energy doing tedious work, that 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.

Powerhouse Pepper
'Powerhouse Pepper'.

Other Timely Comics titles
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, creator of the popular comic strip 'Li'l' Abner', 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. The author 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. What especially made the difference was Wolverton's skill in drawing something hideous with a professional look. When printed in the papers on 21 October 1946, the drawing indeed surprised, shocked and entertained many readers. 

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, 21 October 1946. 

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. His lack of academic schooling, gives his drawings an otherwordly appearance. They have the same primitive power of an amateur who just draws what he feels. Contrary to his colleagues, Wolverton didn't use a brush, but always preferred pen and ink. A signficant amount of people still dismiss his drawings as being "ugly". Some, like William M. Gaines and Jules Feiffer, even utterly hated his work. But to the attentive observer Wolverton's art is far more skilled and calculated that it may appear at first sight. He knew how to draw despicable, hideous men and women with a sense of fun, elegance and innocence. Above all it was highly unique. Their zaniness and elasticity had no comparison in the 1940s and 1950s, save perhaps in the animated cartoons of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett.

Basil Wolverton has always been a cult artist. Children and youngsters have an instinctive attraction to his work. Since many young people have sometimes felt ugly and insecure in their life, especially while undergoing bodily changes, his characters are almost an invitation to laugh at one's selves. They are a caricature of puberty. And yet, even the ugliest Wolverton characters are happy. They sincerely don't care how they look or what others may think of them. They simply love looking ridiculous, another reason why young people in search for self respect love his drawings. 

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).

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, #11 (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 numerous young readers. Both Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman remembered this cover vividly as their first memory of Mad, the magazine which would change their outlook on life and later inspire their own comics.

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

Inside Mad #11, Wolverton illustrated an article about a fictional "Mad Reader of the Month" election contest. It was merely an excuse to draw various contestants with hideous and hilarious goofy faces. In the 17th issue (November 1954), Harvey Kurtzman , Will 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. Certain flabby body parts looked too reminiscent of genitals. Wolverton once analyzed his style: "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'.

Panic and Topps
Wolverton also published in another magazine by EC, namely Panic!, 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 Wolverton seemed condemned to a lifetime of doodling nothing but goofy and repulsive faces, he switched over to other projects. Despite coming from a religious household, he had abandoned his faith for decades. In 1943, however, he became a born-again Christian. He 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 his idea of The Apocalypse. 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
'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 through romanticized family friendly junior bibles. To him all biblical disasters and God's wrath had to be depicted as scary and horrible as possible. His experience with horror comics helped him achieve his goal with ease. 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. 

Wolverton took the project seriously. He abandoned his trademark cartooniness and actually researched the biblical text and the time period. He consulted historians for information and visual documentation regarding ancient Judea. 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 regarded his biblical illustrations as 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
Covers for GJDRKZLXCBWQ Comics and Plop Magazine. 

In 1991 Basil Wolverton was posthumously inducted in the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame and in 2000 in the Will Eisner Hall of Fame.

Final years and death
In 1973 comics collector Glenn Bray brought Wolverton's work back to attention with the release of the "underground" comic books 'Basil Wolverton's "Gjdrkzlxcbwq" Comics' (1973), featuring the most grotesque gallery of freaks and weirdos. Bray followed it up with another book: '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 comix 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 was brought in as well. 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. Basil Wolverton passed away four years later, in 1978. 

Artwork by Basil Wolverton
'Weird Tales Of The Future', issue #2 (June 1952). 

Legacy and influence
Basil Wolverton had a huge impact on the U.S. underground comix movement and inspired artists like Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Diane NoominJohn ThompsonS. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams and Art Spiegelman. He was also an influence on Peter Bagge, Glenn Bray, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Mike DianaGary Figari, Drew Friedman, Cameron Jamie, Kaz, Larry MarderJoe MattGary Panter, Everett Peck, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Joe SaccoJ.R. WilliamsGahan Wilson and Bill Wray. In Canada, he inspired John Kricfalusi, while in Europe he found followers in Belgium (Jean-Louis LejeuneDieter Van Der Ougstraete), Croatia (Tom Bunk), France (Jacques Pyon), The Netherlands (Flip Fermin, Maia Matches) and the United Kingdom (Hunt Emerson). 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

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 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 contain selections of his 1950s mystery comic books work. Pure Imagination published a three-issue comic book series called 'Intense!', with mostly '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.

Books about Basil Wolverton
For those interested in Wolverton's work, the book 'The Original Art of Basil Wolverton: From the Collection of Glenn Bray' (Last Gasp, Grand Central Press, 2007) is highly recommended.

Basil Wolverton
Basil Wolverton in 1959.

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