Basil Wolverton (July 9, 1909 – December 31, 1978) was an American cartoonist, illustrator, comic book writer-artist and professed “Producer of Preposterous Pictures of Peculiar People who Prowl this Perplexing Planet”, whose many publishers included Marvel Comics and Mad.
His unique, humorously grotesque drawings have elicited a wide range of reactions. Cartoonist Will Elder said he found Wolverton’s technique “outrageously inventive, defying every conventional standard yet upholding a very unusual sense of humor. He was a refreshing original,” while Jules Feiffer stated, “I don’t like his work. I think it’s ugly”.
Early life and career
Born in Central Point, Oregon, he later moved to Vancouver, Washington, and worked as a vaudeville performer and a cartoonist and reporter for the Portland News. At age 16 he sold his first nationally published work and began pitching comic strips to newspaper syndicates. His comic strip, Marco of Mars, was accepted by the Independent Syndicate of New York in 1929 but never distributed because it was deemed too similar to Buck Rogers, which debuted that year.
Disk-Eyes the Detective and Spacehawks were published in 1938 in Circus comics. In 1940, Spacehawk (a different and improved feature) made its debut in Target Comics (Novelty Press), running for 30 episodes (262 pages) until 1942.
Powerhouse Pepper and Lena the Hyena
Wolverton’s humor feature Powerhouse Pepper, about a superstrong if none-too-bright boxer, appeared in various comic books published by Timely Comics, the 1930s and 1940s precursor of Marvel Comics, from 1942 through 1952 (76 episodes, 539 pages). Admirers consider that series a high watermark of humorous comics, with its alliterative, rhyming dialogue, screwball comedy, and throwaway gags in background signs. Wolverton drew an estimated total of 1,300 comic book pages.
In 1946 Wolverton won a contest to depict “Lena Hyena”, the world’s ugliest woman, a running gag in Al Capp‘s Li’l Abner newspaper strip where Lena remained unseen beneath an editorial note stating her face had been covered to protect readers. Capp, responding to popular demand, announced a contest for artists to submit their interpretations to be judged by Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra and Salvador Dalí. Among 500,000 entries, Wolverton’s was the winner; it appeared in a Li’l Abner daily and Life magazine. Wolverton’s fame briefly lead to Life and Pageant printing his caricatures. The Lena portrait typified the unique “spaghetti and meatballs” style he employed regularly thereafter.
In the 1950s, Wolverton produced 17 comic-book horror and science-fiction stories for Marvel and other comic-book publishers, including one story by author Daniel Keyes, which led to him being “hailed for creating uniquely grotesque monsters”. Wolverton also contributed to Mad from the 1950s through the 1970s.
In 1956 Wolverton illustrated Herbert Armstrong’s apocalyptic booklet 1975 in Prophecy and later, The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last, offered free on Armstrong’s radio show The World Tomorrow. In 1958, Wolverton began writing and illustrating The Bible Story, also titled The Story of Man, covering the entire history of the Old Testament, serialized in The Plain Truth and later published in six volumes.
In 1968 Wolverton did a series of posters for Topps, displaying his trademark twisted headshots, and in 1973 he returned to mainstream comics, illustrating several covers for Joe Orlando‘s satiric Plop! at DC Comics. His return was cut short by a stroke in 1974. He died in Vancouver, Washington, four years later.
Wolverton was baptised into Herbert W. Armstrong’s Radio Church of God in 1941 and was ordained as an elder in 1943. As a board member of that church, he was one of the six people, including Armstrong and his wife, who re-incorporated the church in 1946 when it moved its original headquarters from Oregon to California.
Wolverton’s son, editorial cartoonist Monte Wolverton, can draw in a style almost indistinguishable from his father’s, and like his father, he has worked for The Plain Truth and contributed to Mad.
- California “Articles of Incorporation” (1946) for the Radio Church of God
- Career overview with illustrations
- Reproduction of original 1956 British edition of 1975 in Prophecy
- Wolverton’s “Armageddon” drawings from 1975 in Prophecy
- The Weekly Wolvertoon (Monte Wolverton official site)
- The Bible Story (1982)
- Wolvertoons: The Art of Basil Wolverton (1990) (ISBN 1-56097-022-7)
- Wolverton in Space (1997) (ISBN 1-56971-238-7)
- Basil Wolverton’s Powerhouse Pepper (2001) (ISBN 1-56097-148-7)
- The Basil Wolverton Reader Vol.1 (2003) (ISBN 1-56685-017-7)
- The Basil Wolverton Reader Vol.2 (2004) (ISBN 1-56685-027-4)
- Basil Wolverton: Agony & Ecstasy (2007) (ISBN 1-56685-041-X) (reprints from The Bible Story)
- The Original Art of Basil Wolverton (2007) ( ISBN 9780867196870)