Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Basil Wolverton

Basil WolvertonWhat has skin like the cratered and mountainous surface of an alien planet, teeth that look like diseased barnacles, popping bloodshot eyeballs that would have made Big Daddy Roth grimace in envy and, of course, carefully combed hair and a pearl necklace?

Why, it’s one of Basil Wolverton’s charming beauties, of course!

Wolverton was a cartoonist active in the middle part of the 20th Century. He started doing work for newspaper comics and then in comic books. In the mid-40’s, Wolverton created Powerhouse Pepper, a little guy who could out-muscle bullies and strongmen twice his size. The strip ran in comics for 10 years.

In 1946 he won a contest for the best image of “Lena the Hyena”, a character spoken of, but never seen, in Al Capp’s Lil Abner newspaper comic. Lil Abner was so popular at the time that the contest was judged by a celebrity panel composed of Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra and Salvador Dali, and Wolverton’s winning entry was featured on the cover of Life Magazine.

He eventually developed a specialty for the portrayal of perfect ugliness, a celebration of the grotesque and counter-pretty that has never been matched. He found a likely outlet for these talents in the E.C. horror comics of the 1950’s and on the covers of Mad comics. In the early 50’s, Mad was a comic book rather than a magazine, and was a bastion of outrageous, against-the-grain humor (and had not yet devolved into the faded remnant of its former glory that you see on the shelves today). In the 1970’s he continued the tradition for Plop!, a short lived, anemic version of Mad comics from DC.

Wolverton retired from comics and devoted most of his remaining years to illustrating The Bible Story, for which he provided hundreds of illustrations, some of which are just bizarre, particularly in his interpretation of The End. There is a selection of those drawings here, originally in black and white, but colored by his son Monte Wolverton.

There are a few books available with Wolverton’s work. Some are out of print but should be available with a little digging.

Wolverton’s exaggerated weirdness was an inspiration for the original 1950’s Mad comics artists (See my posts on Wally Wood, Will Elder and Jack Davis), the early 60’s Kustom Kar Kulture artists like Ed Roth, the mid 60’s Undergound cartoonists like Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson and Robert Williams, the lowbrow/”Pop Surrealism” artists of today and numerous cartoonists in between.

2 thoughts on “Basil Wolverton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>