The inner demons and visions of Basil Wolverton

There’s nothing quite like the weird world of Basil Wolverton.

One of the great cartoonists of the 20th century, Wolverton’s distinctive vision is pretty unique. He could be silly and he could be scary, but most of all, his whole aesthetic vibe was vaguely disturbing. The New York Times called him “the Van Gogh of the gross-out.”

Wolverton did slapstick surreal humour and gritty, unsettling horror, as well as his oddball series of “heads” – staggeringly ugly, creepy little portraits that were like David Cronenberg nightmares. Some of them famously ended up on the covers of MAD and Plop

Yet this strange, exotic draftsman was actually a pretty conventional person in real life, quite religious and married to his high school sweetheart. It’s almost as if he was exorcising some hidden inner demons with some of his most distorted work.

Whether it was sci-fi, horror or humour comics, you’d never mistake a Basil Wolverton comic for someone else’s work. A couple of marvellous thick coffee table books by Greg Sadowski a few years back looked at Wolverton’s career and reprinted lots of his rare comics.

He was never “typical.” Even his earliest work like the Buck Rogers-esque Spacehawk felt like outsider art. On the surface they’re pretty standard 1940s spaceman adventures, but there’s a visceral weight to the drawings that makes them feel truly alien. A lot of golden age comics were hastily drawn, rough work, but Spacehawk still shines with its gruff leading man facing a never-ending horde of endlessly imaginative, goopy monsters. 

Wolverton also spent years doing screwball slapstick comics, packed with groan-worthy puns and wordplay and rubbery hijinks. I recently picked up a old reprint of some of his Powerhouse Pepper stuff, which is fantastic fun. Powerhouse is a kind of kinder, gentler version of Popeye who fumbles his way through a world of bullies and hucksters with an oblivious charm. There’s lots of silly wordplay and a general looseness (I’d love to see more of this rare work reprinted!) but there’s also some of Wolverton’s trademark shock such as this great sequence below (don’t worry, I’m sure that guy was OK). He brings the rubbery antic energy of Tex Avery cartoons to the still comics page. 

Horror comics were overflowing from the newsstands in the ‘50s but Wolverton’s works in the genre still have an in-your-face freaky quality that makes them stand out. On his covers for Weird Tales of the Future, boldly drawn monsters leap off the page with an intimate menace – if I was a kid reading these in 1953, I’d have had nightmares for years. The especially terrifying “Brain Bats of Venus” haunted entire generations of comic readers back then, I imagine. 

Later in his career, Wolverton actually became an ordained minister, and he combined his religious life and his comics life in very idiosyncratic drawings from the Bible which took all the fire and brimstone apocalyptic imagery usually smoothed out of biblical comics and rolls with it for all it’s worth. His portraits of the Book of Revelation and the foretold biblical apocalypse have a terrifying immediacy. 

And his famous “heads” portraits, which are just snarled, twisted and blackly humourous masses of fluid flesh – well, they’re still freaky today, the most deformed almost pornographic somehow, yet weirdly innocent, too. The heads were Wolverton “playing,” making flesh his medium. This mild, churchgoing man could haunt you with his dreams. 

The key to a lot of Wolverton’s visual style is the thick weight of his lines, I think, bold outlines and vivid shadows, combined with a painstakingly intense amount of stippled or speckled details. There’s an almost woodcut quality to his finest work. It doesn’t feel sketched on a page so much as it seems to be forged, raw, from some hidden universe just beneath our own. Wolverton’s distinctive comics DNA is hard to duplicate, although you can see some of his influence in the work of ‘Rat Fink’ Ed Roth, Peter Bagge or John Kricfalusi’s Ren and Stimpy. 

While comics boasted a lot of great artists in the classic era like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner and Steve Ditko, Basil Wolverton is the only one who seemed somehow haunted to me.

These things he drew were in him, rubbery and weird and sometimes holy and sometimes hellish, but he just had to get them out. Decades after his death, there’s still nobody quite like him in comics history. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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