The Offbeat Art of Basil Wolverton

Few comics creators could come close to matching Basil Wolverton's gift for the outlandish.
A look at one of the field's most eccentric humorists.

Even though I see that statues of some of his drawings, sculpted by Jean-Louis Crinon, are now being advertised for sale, it's no exaggeration to say that Basil Wolverton is not widely known today; after all, his old comics are hard to obtain and are listed at high prices in the comic book price guides. Wolverton was a unique --one might say grotesque-- talent in a comic art field very often dominated by house styles and his work has been cited as an influence by the leading underground cartoonist, Robert Crumb.

Wolverton was a self-taught artist with an eccentric style that was rendered in a painstaking technique of stippled shading more suited to the pulp magazines than comic books. Despite the fact that his work didn't mesh with the norm, and despite the fact that he lived hundreds of miles away from New York City in Vancouver Washington, and worked entirely through the mail, Wolverton managed to pick up assignments both as a comic book illustrator and as a humorous cartoonist. His first published work, a science fiction strip called Spacehawk, debuted in Circus (The Comic Riot) in June 1938, a collector's item now worth considerably more than any fee the artist ever collected, $4900 in near-mint condition.

Spacehawk initially had a rather limited first series run; the editor of Circus, Monte Bourjaily, a former editor at United Features Syndicate (and the man who had signed on Al Capp's Li'l Abner) had intended the comic as a launch pad for syndication. The idea was to make the characters in it well known, building up a following that would make strips attractive to the syndicates. That was the plan for Spacehawk and another, more humorous, Wolverton effort, Disk Eyes the Detective, but the comic went belly up after only three issues. Wolverton had experienced bad luck with trying to break into the newspapers before; in 1929 he had created a s.f. strip called Marco From Mars, only to be beaten to print by Buck Rogers.

Spacehawk survived to resurface in Target Comics #7 in 1940 and was the most successful of Wolverton's science fiction strips, appearing in 30 issues of Target for a total of 262 pages. Originally appearing masked for his first two appearances, Spacehawk was possessed of super human strength and was presented as a grim and ruthless foe of crime. In his first espisode the space faring hero foils a gang of space pirates, leaving the gang leader to be horribly absorbed by the protoplasmic "Creeping Death From Neptune" (Spacehawk preferred to ruthlessly exterminate his enemies rather than turning them into the law).

By the third issue, Spacehawk removed his mask for the rest of his career, revealed as a lawman from another solar system. After nine interplanetary adventures, Wolverton grounded his hero; war had broken out on earth and fighting the Axis seemed more important than battling menaces on Venus.

Other Wolverton science fiction strips were Space Patrol (Amazing Mystery Funnies), Meteor Martin and Rockman, all rendered with meticulous attention to shading and detail. By 1942, however, after Spacehawk had been cancelled, Wolverton turned to humor and created Powerhouse Pepper for Timely Comics. The strip featured a bald well-meaning roughneck whose brawn made up for a noticeable lack of mental ability. During the rest of the forties Wolverton created a number of other humor strips, including a second Timely feature, Inspector Hector the Crime Detector, as well as Scoop Scuttle (for Lev Gleason), and Mystic Hoot and His Magic Snoot (Fawcett).

A trademark of Wolverton's humor was his frequent use of zany rhymes and oddball alliteration, as well as silly signs in the backgrounds and wacky dialog (which might've served as an inspiration for Harvey Kurtzman; the future Mad editor also worked for Timely with his Hey Look! strip).

It was in 1946 when Wolverton scored a major publicity break thanks to Al Capp and Li'l Abner. Capp had worked up a sequence where Dogpatch and the rest of the world were going to encounter Lena the Hyena, "th' ogliest critter in all creation." Of course, Capp told his readers, inasmuch as Lena was that hideous, a true representation of her real face might destroy the publics' minds. Readers were invited to send in their own version of the Lower Slobbovian. A contest was set up, with Salvador Dali, Frank Sinatra, and Boris Karloff acting as judges. Wolverton submitted his version, along with about 500,000 others and won (Dali and Sinatra fainted). In addition to a $500 prize, Wolverton's Lena made the cover of Life magazine. A few weeks later the magazine featured more of Wolverton's cartoons, describing them as belonging to "the spaghetti and meatball school of design."

With the valuable publicity Wolveron was able to gain quite a few new assignments. "At long last," Wolverton remarked, "I was able to afford an eraser for each hand." Among them were some jobs for E.C.'s Mad and Panic --an equally hideous Wolverton woman appeared on Mad #11 as a cover satire of Life Magazine, and yet another ghastly female appeared as "The Face Upon The Barroom Floor" (Mad #10), and as Lena herself in a Li'l Abner satire in Panic # 3.

By the early 1950s horror comics were booming which provided a market Wolverton due to his abilities at creating ghastly monsters. Among others, he worked for Atlas (post-Timely, pre-Marvel) and some of his stories were inked by Daniel Keyes, who later went on to write the Nebula Award winning Flowers for Algernon (Later adapted into film as Charlie). Wolverton did a few more humorous pieces for Mad and then dropped out of comics in 1955.

Wolverton made a brief comic book comeback in 1973, doing covers and interiors for DC Comics' satire comic Plop!. The major project of his last years as an illustrator was illustrating six volumes of the Bible, from Genesis to Samuel, as well as Revelations. Beginning in the late 1950s the long-term project involved hundreds of black and white drawings.

Ambassador Press published the six volumes from 1961 to 1968. A few samples have been reprinted in fanzines here and there, as well as in the Kitchen Sink Press Li'l Abner, volume 12. Wolverton also contributed art to religious periodical, The Plain Truth. In 1978, at the age of 69, after producing over 1,300 pages of art, Basil Wolverton suffered a stroke and passed away in his hometown of Vancouver, Washington.
 
 

--Steve Stiles