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Horror, faith and weirdness in the work of Basil Wolverton

Cartoonist Basil Wolverton still enjoys the dubious honor of being America′s most flamboyant artist according to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Perhaps he did not really come from outer space but there is no doubt that he was able to externalize all those oddities that civilized people hide under his masks here on Earth. The fear that is unleashed in times of wars, economic crises or natural disasters has led many like him to seek life options on other planets and for this science fiction has been an especially popular tool for this. Wolverton actually sent a man to the planet Mars seven years before the publication of Flash Gordon, when the future was still 1950!

Article by Pablo Fernández from Barcelona on Wednesday, December 22nd 2021 ·.·★ Reading takes 19 minutes or 3712 words.


Al Capp was not a draftsman from three to four. His strips were printed in more than a thousand publications simultaneously thanks to ghost artists like Frank Frazetta and in fact his photo covered the cover of one of the editions of Time magazine in 1950. One of the brilliant ideas that Al Capp had in 1946 It was creating the character of Lena the Hyena, leaving a mysterious space on his shoulders in the Li′l Abner strip and holding a contest to reward the one who drew the most horrible face for him. The ad promised $ 500 to the most macabre imagination and there were many applicants. Salvador Dali, Boris Karloff and Frank Sinatra were the judges who chose Basil Wolverton′s drawing from among 500,000 proposals.

Basil Wolverton was also a cartoonist but of course he barely made it to the end of the month working on food packaging. In his spare time he served as pastor of the church and piled up on his desk sad letters from publishers that denied him a contract; because even though he was a very good draftsman, his style simply did not fit in most of the publications. That sudden success with Lena the Hyena will not change this difficulty much in the long run; In the short term, however, editor Al Feldstein saw an opportunity to reuse the drawing in his MAD magazine in style.

Al Capp could have given up the Lena the Hyena drawing if the MAD editors had asked him directly, but they made the mistake of managing it through the union where they issued the standard refusal. Basil Wolverton, as a result, drew a second version that MAD used to satirize the then popular ′Pretty Girl of the Month′ from LIFE magazine. The controversy further multiplied his visibility and inspired many future offenders such as William Gaines, Art Spiegelman or Robert Crumb as we saw in the article on the comic ′Someone Loves Me′ by Jack Chick. Bob Dylan also covers this news with great emotion in the episode ′Hair′ of ′Theme Time Radio Hour′ (Season 1 / Episode 36).

A happy family in the Great Depression

Clarence Wolverton and Olive Hayes had come to the area now known as Silicon Valley from San Francisco looking for a better future. They came from the Canadian border on the northeast coast of the United States of America. Basil Wolverton was born when his parents had already awakened from that beautiful dream, on July 19, 1909, and he spent most of his life around the city of Portland. His father alternated jobs such as building the railroad, caring for livestock, or making posters without achieving much professional stability.

The family did not have running water or electricity at home, but on weekends his parents, his sister Wilma, and he went to church together, revival meetings, and variety shows known then as vaudeville. . All those experiences as a child will clearly shape his way of relating to the world. His own personal diary shows a boy enjoying reading the Bible and drawing comics about traveling on spaceships that he began selling as early as 13 years old. Little Basil Wolverton doubted then whether he would be a missionary when he grew up.

Basil Wolverton was in high school when his father made a dangerous business deal, apparently unaware of his risk, and disappeared forever probably in the city of Seattle. When, to top it off, his sister died of rheumatic fever, the young Basil suffered a crisis of faith that led him to identify himself as an atheist until 1941. Vaudeville had fallen into decline in the face of the appearance of cinema as early as 1920. Basil, however, found in those Scenarios not only inspired by the exaggeration and sarcasm of his sense of humor; he also found, on a more pragmatic level, the source of some of his early jobs thanks to which he would come across personalities like Buster Keaton.

Professional training between the prison and the stage

Buster Keaton did not have schooling like many of his generation but he understood perfectly that frivolity is an effective pain reliever against worries. Comedian George Burns said about that time that they were ′hungry for something much more important than fame ... food.′ The vaudeville was a family show that you could get into with a twenty-five cent buy-in, and unlike the theater or the opera, the vaudeville offered very short shows at breakneck speed. This whole concept of throwaway entertainment is key to keeping the attention of very different audiences even today and apps like Tik Tok haven′t invented anything really substantial a hundred years later

Basil Wolverton graduated in 1927, the same year his sister died. It took him a year to build his portfolio and land a job at the local Portland News thanks to the good impression he made on editor Floyd A. Fessler. From that position he was able to work professionally on the illustrations and the artistic part of the publication but also the writing, the radio and even the access to key people on the vaudeville circuit in Oregon and Washington. Basil assured in the aforementioned interview with him, shortly before he died, that he then he danced and played the ukulele with pleasure even on free nights playing the role of ′Goof and His Uke′ (Graphic Story Magazine, 1974).

The publisher Fred L. Boalt welcomed the young Basil Wolverton as a son, applying the strict customs of the old school of journalism on him, old practices that, as he recalled much later, led him to have to be locked up in the same cell of the criminals he had to portray. Fred L. Boalt, however, died two years later. Without his protection, Basil Wolverton lost his job and again had to seek support for himself and his mother here and there in what is still considered the greatest financial crisis of the 20th century. It cannot be said that in the Golden Age of Comics there was a lack of an audience for reading this type of story, something very different is that the cartoonist could live from it and even more so that the cartoonist could live from it deciding what to draw!

The difficult career of the independent artist

Basil Wolverton was definitely the type of cartoonist who did decide what to draw and that made him twenty years later one of the forerunners of a whole new way of understanding this profession that now has the label of underground or alternative comics. Will Elder, who helped Harvey Kurtzman create MAD magazine in 1952, called him ′original, refreshing and outrageously inventive, defying all conventional standards but maintaining a sense of humor.′ What happens is that until that day he arrived he had many sad letters to receive, most of which were sent from publishers that were in the other end of the country.

The dark science fiction story titled ′Marco of Mars′ was accepted by the Independent Syndicate of New York in 1929 but its publication was aborted due to coincidences with another story that debuted that same year under the name ′Buck Rogers′ . The market seems that it was not prepared to have two characters in space at the same time! That is why it will be followed by another ten years of different failures with ′Space Grover′, ′The Moon′ or ′Disk Eyes′ before being able to hit rock bottom ... The space traveler ′Spacehawk′ appears just then, in June 1940, thanks to Novelty Press, which was naturally founded in New York precisely that same year with the support of then young promises of the height of Jack Kirby.

Basil Wolverton had started spending more time drawing, inking and labeling the texts of his futuristic stories from home and had gotten used to doing it with the radio on. He was looking for a different station when he found the one that will change his life forever: ′The World Tomorrow′ or ′The World Tomorrow′ by evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong. He was especially attracted by the plain language of the preacher but also the idea of being able to combat those ideas as an atheist; so he listened carefully. She corresponded with him for the next two years - at the end of which he was baptized as a Christian in the Columbia River. He was then the year 1941. Basil still did not know but his own father did the same since his then unknown location.

The unpredictable crossroads

Evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong shared with Basil Wolverton a great interest in catastrophes and the future of life on Earth, but also in the artistic side of the media. Armstrong had been raised as a Quaker in Iowa and worked in marketing in the Chicago area. Due to various professional failures during the Great Depression he had to move to Oregon, where he focused more on the Adventist-type preaching duties with which he has gone down in history. Armstrong had already made great progress in founding his own institution when he wanted to promote it and take it to Los Angeles in 1946. Basil Wolverton, who was not exactly a friend of conventions, preferred to stay as pastor of a small church in the vicinity of Portland .

Basil Wolverton was already a member of the Worldwide Church of God when he began drawing his story ′Powerhouse Pepper′ in April 1942 for Marvel Comics, then called Timely Comics. Monte Wolverton, his son, assures that his father always got up at seven in the morning to do his homework. He first sought to document himself on the subject that he wanted to illustrate, something that he could keep him busy for weeks. When he was confident he would do his pencil sketches on Strathmore paper and then apply the ink with a detail that was part of his personal mark to the end. Nobody paid as much attention to the details of the landscape as he! In the background he always had a television on with old movies or boxing matches and it was not difficult to see him interrupt his day to mow the lawn or do some other errand so that many times he would finish work at two in the morning.

The end of the Second World War in 1945 brought a certain prosperity that the new generations took advantage of to make themselves heard in their fight for social justice. EC Comics used science fiction and horror from series such as ′Tales from the Crypt′, ′The Vault of Horror′ or ′The Haunt of Fear′ for its objectives, and it is no coincidence that the government created to counteract this. It hit the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1953. Basil Wolverton had already reached middle age but also gave himself fully to that struggle through seventeen horror stories such as ′Planet of Terror′ (Atlas, 1951) , ′Where Monsters Dwell′ (Adventures into Terror, 1951), ′Eye of Doom′ (Mystic, 1952) or ′The Brain Bats of Venus′ (Mystery, 1952). Some of them were reissued in 1987 by Dark Horse Comics, including a very special tribute from the famous Alan Moore. Robert Rodr�?­guez and Quentin Tarantino must have remembered reading those comics when they thought of the title of the film ′Planet Terror′ (2007)

The Illustrated Story of a Man

Basil Wolverton alternated his tasks as pastor of the church with his commissions as a cartoonist for all these horror or science fiction stories. Some have mistakenly suggested that Basil Wolverton′s conversion to Christianity nullified his career. It was just the opposite! What actually happened after his baptism in 1941 is a growth in recognition of his artistic work. Not enough has been written about how pioneer Basil Wolverton influenced the comic book world. The idea taken from the biblical book of Genesis, for example, about how ′in the beginning′ it is a couple that faces a new era alone, overturned by Basil Wolverton in ′Ten thousand years old!′ (Weird Tales of the Future, 1952) or ′In the Beginning′ (Weird Tales of the Future, 1953), will be covered by Stan Lee himself up to three times in ′I am the last man on earth′ (Strange Worlds, 1958 ), ′A thousand years later′ (Strange Tales, 1961) or ′The Last Rocket!′ (Tales of Suspense, 1962). The creator of Spider-Man not in vain baptized the couple as Adam and Eve.

′There were no crimes since there were no criminals ... There was no hatred, only love, since we were in the beginning′, says the text that heads one of the versions of Basil Wolverton. Basil believed that his stories portrayed the evil, violence, and horror of man in a different but not opposite way than the Bible does. The evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong caressed since he knew the idea of paying Basil Wolverton in the creation of an illustrated Bible in his own style; He did not have the budget to his regret and it took more than ten years for that project to begin to materialize.

Wolverton had enough respect for the Bible that he did not want it to get so mixed up with his own work that it accidentally added some confusion. That partly explains why the texts were not integrated, he preferred to call the project ′The history of man′ and avoided illustrating the gospels-since that would have forced him to portray Jesus. He nonetheless made more than seven hundred drawings which he considered his masterpiece over twenty-one years ′ actually the last twenty-one years of his professional career.

The drawings were printed in an irregular way, with some censorship and in different internal publications of the church such as The Plain Truth, until they were finally published in their entirety by the giant Fantagraphics and exhibited at the Gladstone Gallery in New York in 2009 Diabolo Ediciones did not publish it in Spanish until 2012. In fact, Robert Crumb had to publish his illustrations on the book of Genesis for the original drawings of the teacher who had inspired him to be published, but isn′t that how life works? Robert Crumb′s debt is an open secret that he will never be able to pay especially in relation to Basil Wolverton stories like ′The Culture Corner′ (Fawcett′s Whiz Comics, 1945-1952).

The Missing Tombs of Daniel Keyes

The year 1974 was especially prolific for Basil Wolverton and he did work for his church, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, MAD or Playboy, and he still had time for his self-published work ′Common Types of Barflyze′. The prologue to this latest comic work is signed by what appears to be a pseudonym ... Dr. Robert Slobbert? The prologue assures in any case that thanks to his camouflage the cartoonist had survived in two world wars and that Basil Wolverton′s only concern was to also go unnoticed in the third. Nothing seemed to predict the stroke that he will suffer precisely that same year, which made his work very difficult and not in vain was the key to his death shortly after. Basil Wolverton was sixty-nine years old when he died on December 31, 1978. The woman who is often photographed with Basil Wolverton was named Honor. Honor Wolverton was three years older than him but she outlived him for twenty-seven years.

Basil Wolverton was not comfortable illustrating the stories of other authors but he made a very special and appropriate exception with a then young Daniel Keyes. Keyes was twenty years his junior and in time he will become widely recognized as a science fiction novelist. He was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family, studied psychology and landed a privileged position on Stan Lee′s writing team - which is when he created with Basil Wolverton the stories entitled ′One of our graveyards is missing′ (Marvel, 1952) and ′ They Crawl by Night! ′ (Marvel, 1953).

Daniel Keyes′s argument about how someone from another world could use his powers to find a solution to death and how it is precisely the masses who seek to oppose that intruder must have been frankly evocative of Basil Wolverton. The end of time is not exclusive to religious fanatics. The atheist scientist Stephen Hawkins assured that the Earth will be a great ball of fire in the year 2600 and put eavesdrops with the aim of contacting alien life: ′Somewhere in the cosmos′ -said Hawkins- ′perhaps, intelligent life may be looking at these lights being aware of what they mean ... ′.

The evidence that we believe what we want to believe

Jesus is also presented in the Gospels as a person from another world with authority over death and there is little opposition that he received. The problem then as today is not that there is no interest in surviving death but that we want to survive death by setting the conditions ourselves. We want to survive death by carrying our coin collection, sitting in the window seat and with the air conditioning at our preferred temperature. Perhaps in another life that is possible; However, if the next life is not in this Universe - the scientific community and the Bible have agreed that a very friendly future does not await this Universe.

Beliefs are not under the control of reason but of the will. Many deceive themselves saying that they would believe if they could see, but scientists like Hugo Mercier or Dan Sperber affirm in ′The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding′ (Harvard, 2017) not only that we believe what we want to believe, but that we continue to believe in the same thing regardless of what reason may bring us. Jesus already said it also in the first century: ′although you have seen me, you do not believe′.

′All that the Father gives me will come to me′ -continues the text of the Gospel according to the apostle John- ′and whoever comes to me, I will not cast out. Because I have come down from heaven, not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of the father, the one who sent me: that of all that he gives me, I lose nothing, but raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of the one who sent me: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. ′


This is an short translation of the original article published in Spanish by Entrelíneas: Revista de Arte as Horror, espiritualidad y extravagancia en la obra de Basil Wolverton


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