A small town in Washington quietly incubated the "spaghetti-and-meatball school" school of art until the 1970s. If you have never heard of this movement, join the club of "We the Uninitiated." Until a recent conversation with Monte Wolverton, I had no idea my hometown ever hosted such a peculiar genre. But this enigmatic style wasn't inspired by a place or even the times, but conceived in the mind of only one man.
Basil Wolverton died in 1978 but not before he led a spectacularly full life, seeded with milestones and contradictions. Milestones included work in the Smithsonian and election to the Comic Artists Hall of Fame. But his greatest contradictions are his work as pastor and church writer, most vividly expressed through hundreds of idiosyncratic Bible illustrations and explanatory texts.
Advertisement - story continues below
Many artists work in vastly divergent genres, but the intensely religious convictions of Basil Wolverton set his work into a starkly heightened contrast. People (especially church people) expect their artists to follow certain rules, to stick to serious themes and attitudes. They generally do not like faces appearing to expel explosive snot from unnatural crevices.
Beyond anything, however, Basil was a Christian and a comedian. Well versed in the "ick-factor" – the corny, ebullient silliness that little boys of about eight years of age naturally host, he just never outgrew it. Basil safeguarded the joy of yuckiness and raised it into a true art form and genius, a zany form of "Srewballitude," as one reviewer called it. Take it from the "Producer of Preposterous Pictures of Peculiar People" (the motto off Wolverton's stationary).
Basil lived the majority of his life in Vancouver, Washington, quietly serving the Lord and the world, or at least the adolescent populations thereof. Always a bit "different," Basil was born with unique genetic material or found a rich muse unknown to his neighbors in pokey, dull, mostly white- and blue-about-the-collar Vancouver. A town really is what you make of it, he proved.
His first attempt at the creative life was in Vaudeville – a ukulele act with "imitation tap dancing." The budding terpsichordist soon found it was possible to starve even faster in theater than visual arts, to which he always returned.
Advertisement - story continues below
Busily employed on one of his comic lines, "Disk-Eyes the Detective" in the late 1930s, Basil happened on broadcasts of radio evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong and was intrigued. So much that he was personally baptized by him in 1941 in the Columbia River (Armstrong was then based in the area).
Wolverton became a deeply religious man, staying on to work for the Worldwide Church of God (WWCG) for the rest of his life (although most denominations considered them a cult because of extreme theological quirks at the time.)
Armstrong recognized Basil's gifts and shrewdly enlisted him as cartoonist, illustrator and writer for their publications. "The Plain Truth Magazine" showcased his work along with prophetically slanted news, reaching a monthly circulation of eight-million in seven languages in the 1980s. Armstrong found no irreconcilable differences between the man who portrayed an awe-inducing New Jerusalem while simultaneously creating deranged permutations of life such as the Crab Men and Red Trumpet Creature.
Remaining childlike in some respects is not an un-Christlike goal. There is a type of joy at work instead of despair, at the bizarre qualities of the human race. Wolverton's work is so utterly enigmatic he can hardly be compared to another. He exulted at being a "lowbrow" version of apocalyptic artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, in the same spirit if not by style.
Basil never attempted to cross into "fine arts," as he found fulfillment, a good income and even some fame and notoriety as a cartoonist/illustrator. He also served his church through art for decades, obediently drumming up the call of the day – be it elegantly detailed plagues of destruction or humorous church graphics.
Advertisement - story continues below
Herbert Armstrong commissioned Basil's most serious, intense and arguably best art in a series of illustrations on the Apocalypse – all originally printed in "The Plain Truth" magazine.
These are hard to view even now in our jaded, violence-savaged time, but were horrific then. Children weren't accustomed to see such things in the 1950s. Basil's versions of the "Wrath of God" and his judgments were so effective, many joined the church after his images alone turned them to the Bible.
Although Armstrong honored Basil's artistic and spiritual judgment, occasional pieces were too hot to handle. One of the artist's personal favorites, "Mutants," was rejected for the Revelation series. The scene is sci-fi horror at its best, his take on spiritually and physically mutated humanity after an atomic deluge.
Advertisement - story continues below
Except for the Day of the Lord and Apocalyptic pieces, Wolverton's horror scenes always held a slight humor that softened the fear factors. But he cranked up spiritual terror in what he did not consider fictional for the adults.
Bible illustrations as well as some of his space comics display extraordinary technical skill. Basil worked painstakingly via intricate buildups of lines, cross-hatching or thousands of circles or waves to build a scene. All this was done entirely by hand (pre Photoshop days).
Works such as "Giant Tsunami" and "The Plague of Heat" are so clean, tight, regular in pattern and hard-edged they give the appearance of etching or engraving. Emotions run riot in faces of the suffering, lost masses at the end of time. Although melodramatic and hardly human, they seem appropriate here somehow.
As Glenn Bray remarked in an essay on Wolverton's work, "The Closer You Look, the Prettier It Ain't."
Rarely has Basil Wolverton been accused of the beautiful, although his technique could be called beautiful and some of his biblical works, if never pretty, approach a severe "beauty" at times.
Basil's art can be mesmerizing, ridiculous, crudely humorous and even (according to some critics) vulgar. For those perceiving phallic symbols rioting across some of his work, he remarked it may drive "Sig Freud" crazy, but they all just have dirty minds.
He did indeed inspire at least the style of future underground "commix" such as Robert Crumb and Gilbert Sheldon. Basil couldn't have approved, however, of their stories and content wrapped around drugs, sex, violence and sometimes open pornography.
Wolverton's public presence rocketed when he won an international art contest that landed him on the cover of Time Magazine, one of the most respectable and established secular publications he worked with. Al Capp (of "Lil' Abner'") needed a truly bizarre character and ended the search when he found Basil's version of "Lena the Hyena," a woman so ugly Capp hid her face for "the greater good of mankind."
Unable to do the hideous woman justice, Capp created the contest with a celebrity panel, reputed to have consisted of Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra and Salvador Dali, who judged amongst 500,000 entries for the perfectly disgusting "Lena."
Basil was born for this.
Mad Magazine employed Basil periodically through the years. But "Mad's" general tone of light sarcasm, grotesqueries, mockery and goofiness is also attributed to the earlier inspiration of Basil Wolverton and a few others.
After Armstrong's death in 1986 the WWCG underwent radical restructuring and discarded previous "heretical" doctrines by the bushel. In 2009 the Church allowed Monte Wolverton (Basil's son) to help publish and comment on "The Wolverton Bible; The Old Testament & Book of Revelation Through the Pen of Basil Wolverton."
Rarely are longer comics conceived, written and drawn by one person, but once again Basil bucked the system. His thoughts apparently went where few minds care to go – or could. Almost all characters spring from this fertile mind with text following. Basil also outlined the art and often the lettering.
Basil's love of puns, rhymes and alliteration are evident in the lighthearted manner he used them in the text of his funnies. Virtually all text is alliterative in some cases, such as his most popular "Power House Pepper," a corny, antihero who doesn't take his powers too seriously.
Power House asks a noisome client "How's to bolt a bit of this beautiful blob of barbecued beef?" in his restaurant with similar signage throughout.
Some of his works obviously inspired (or were inspired by) Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr Seuss). Although Seuss excelled at silly, Wolverton reached new heights of grotesque, sub or supra human and macabre.
Spacehawk, Rocket Rider, Bing Bang Buster, Scoop Scuttle, Culture Quickies and Mystic Moot were a portion of his cartoon families that appeared in Circus comics, EC Comics, Target Comics and DC's Plop Comics. And there were more.
The legacy continues: Monte Wolverton
One of Basil's sons carries on the family tradition but in his own style. Monte Wolverton was 8 years old when his father built him a small drawing board and encouraged him to learn his craft. Along with art and irony, Basil passed along his interest in scripture and dedication to the church.
Monte still lives in Vancouver and creates cartoons and other art. He worked for the church until recently, although not as a pastor. Monte considers himself more liberal than his famous parent, although perhaps in a classical sense. His political cartoons are syndicated to hundreds of publications across the globe through Cagle Cartoons.
When I spoke to Monte recently, I sensed his admiration for his father – a man who successfully straddled two worlds, or were they? He mentioned how Basil preached in a very conservative, corseted platform yet found no conflict with art, even the grotesque, macabre and playful variety.
Aren't they all in the Bible? Monsters, human and otherwise are, as well as God's mockery at the wicked, threatening and proud. Certainly the unexpected, the paranormal and the supernatural all appear in our Good Book, but perhaps not exactly the way Basil Wolverton portrayed it.
In keeping with his family's multiple creative talents, son Monte Wolverton recently wrote "Chasing 120: A Story of Food, Faith, Fraud and the Pursuit of Longevity." It's an entirely fictional account of an "unscrupulous health mogul who promises his followers 120 years of robust life if they stick to his 'Bible-based' regimen and buy his products." Unfortunately many suffer serious side effects from toxic GMOs developed in a secret underground research facility. "Chasing 120" features important lessons about God's love and grace as well as warnings on abusive religious groups, greed and spiritual naiveté.
Both Basil and Monte Wolverton are examples of the rare but entirely possible, symbiotic relationship between art and church, where each are enlarged and prosper rather than suspect and attack each other.
SOURCES: Interview with Monte Wolverton / Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. JVJ Publishing / Doug Harvey / Amazon.com / The Plain Truth / The Wolverton Bible, Fantagraphics Books / The Original Art of Basil Wolverton: from collection of Glen Bray.