Meet Basil Wolverton (1909-1978), a minister in the Radio (later Worldwide) Church of God from the latter 1930s until his death in late 1978. As a nationally known artist, Mr. Wolverton's artwork had an impact on people of all ages and across many walks of life.
Meet Basil Wolverton (1909-1978). Wolverton was a minister in a small quasi-fundamentalist sect called the Radio (later Worldwide) Church of God from the latter 1930’s until his death in late 1978. From 1953 through 1974 Wolverton produced for the church a narrative of the Old Testament with more than 500 illustrations and more than 170 cartoons. All in the inimitable Wolverton style.
As a nationally known artist, Mr. Wolverton’s artwork had an impact on people of all ages and across many walks of life. The recent reissue if some of his religious art titled The Wolverton Bible (Fantagraphic Books, 2009) makes this a fruitful time to consider his legacy.
An Oregonian, Mr. Wolverton’s first published work as an artist and writer appeared in issues of the magazine America’s Humor, a contemporary of the then-popular College Humor magazine, back in 1926. However, he set out to be an actor, preferably a comedian. One of his first jobs was in Vaudeville at various theaters in Oregon and Washington, “Thereby hastening Vaudeville’s death” he later said. He dryly explained in an interview his reasons for changing careers: “Eventually I heard or read that a two-bit actor earns even less than a two-bit cartoonist. Later there were times when I wondered how that could be possible.”
He started in comics in 1938 with the United Features Syndicate. He also worked at ad agencies in Portland and Hollywood and did caricatures for Universal International Studios and Samuel Goldwyn Productions. These appeared in newspapers all over the country, wherever movies were advertised. His artwork has appeared in 60 national magazines plus several house organs.
Wolverton also served a stint as a radio announcer in the late 1940’s on stations in the Pacific Northwest. He wrote his own scripts and did his own sound effects and “several ridiculous voices” as he put it. He would send a daily caricature to a listener he didn’t know, who had written in, based on his or her handwriting.
It has been said that people either hate or love Mr. Wolverton’s artwork, which Life Magazine described as an example of the “Spaghetti-and–meatball school of design”.
Yet most comic-book historians and colleagues are unanimous in their praise. In 1946 Wolverton earned first prize for a drawing to appear in Al Capp’s L’il Abner strip, a venture judged by the unlikely combo of Frank Sinatra, Salvador Dali and Boris Karloff. His comical grotesque style took off. Hubert Crawford, in Crawford’s Encyclopedia of Comic Books, wrote of Wolverton’s contributions to “Weird Tales of the Future,” published in the 1950’s: “Artist Basil Wolverton, whose ingeniously constructed short story narratives appeared in almost every issue, was generally responsible for the magazine maintaining its high level of artistic and literary excellence.”
Comics of the American West author Maurice Horn summarized: “The comic (Black Diamond Western) was on the whole undistinguished, with only the wildly parodic ‘Bing Bang Buster’ by Basil Wolverton as its redeeming grace…”
Stan Lee, co-creator of such comic book characters as the Incredible Hulk, Spider Man and many others, was the editor for Timely Comics (now Marvel Comics), the company that published more of Mr. Wolverton’s artwork than any other. Of Basil Wolverton, the now legendary Lee said: “Basil is one of the most original, unpredictable talents in the field. His style is unique and virtually inimitable – and I’ve never known anyone who didn’t get a real kick out of Basil’s far-out artwork”.
Wolverton loved verbal wordplay such as captions for his sometimes outlandish work:
“PECULIAR PEOPLE – Private peeps at preposterous punks who prowl this planet.” Or
“Hothead Hotel” – The shed where you dread to head for bed.” This poetic license was famously carried over into dialogue, as in this example from “Bing Bang Buster”; “When it comes to speed, steed, you’re just what I need! Besides, you don’t need so much coolin’ and refuelin’ and it’s easier to recline on your spine than it was to squat in a knot in that flyin’ pot.”
Not all was fun and games. Jerry De Fuccio of Mad Magazine, who felt that the comics industry “Oscar” equivalent should have been called "The Basil", said this: “Basil never had it easy in the comics. One of his initial disappointments was the dropping of his accepted MARCO OF MARS strip (‘a pseudo-science feature’) just at the time a rival syndicate launched BUCK ROGERS. Marco was scrapped because it was considered unethical to run a newspaper strip that resembled another – in those days”. As Mr. Wolverton later noted: “It was evident that Marco and Buck were going to arrive about the same time at Mars.”
De Fuccio continued: “Basil was at a distinct disadvantage, doing all his work on the western slope and mailing it east. Once when he ‘stumbled into New York ’, he was shocked to learn that one or two publishers were paying him only the going rates for art.”
What should have been paid him for package jobs, stories and lettering, had been conveniently overlooked.
Mr. Wolverton’s religious art was motivated by contact with the then-Radio Church of God. This all began one evening around 1938 when he heard a program titled “The World Tomorrow” carrying the forceful voice of Hebert W. Armstrong. In going through the prophecies of the book of Daniel, Chapter 11, Armstrong claimed that then-fascist dictator Benito Mussolini by attacking Ethiopia was reviving the “Holy” Roman Empire which biblical teachers had identified as the “Beast” of the Book of Revelation. In 1938, Wolverton, who prided himself in being an atheist, was so astounded that he wrote to Armstrong: “I started listening to your broadcast in September, 1938, and since that time I have been coming to my senses. In other words, you have been the medium through whom God has acted to blast away my atheistic ideas, false conceptions and idiotic philosophies…I wish you could reach a much larger audience, and I’m praying for the time when you can.”
The Armstrongs out of Eugene, Oregon visited the Wolvertons in Vancouver, Washington shortly after. Armstrong later summarized: “Immediately a warm friendship generated that never lapsed.”
With the World Tomorrow radio work constantly expanding as World War Two raged, Armstrong drafted the artist to keep peace in the small, rambunctious Portland and Vancouver churches during the 40’s. When church headquarters moved from Oregon to Pasadena , California , Elder Wolverton held Bible studies and led these churches for more than 12 years.
Without Basil Wolverton, Armstrong recorded, “those churches would have died before they really were started.” A church executive testified of Basil: “People respected him because he and his wife were a prime example of what a Chris tian family should be.”
In 1957, Armstrong commissioned Basil Wolverton for the work he later said he wanted to be best remembered for. This was to serialize in the church’s Plain Truth magazine, a narrative account of the whole Bible Story. This began in 1958 and ran till 1972. It was separately published as a six volume work: The Bible Story. It was reissued later in the 1980s and is the basis for much of The Wolverton Bible. Wolverton’s art has been attacked as overly grotesque and for having the potential to traumatize young children. Yet as the editor of The Wolverton Bible claims, children actually enjoy a certain amount of violence of which there is no shortage in the Bible and it was necessary to break with the overly-sentimentalizing style of “Little Women.”
The debate remains but MAD’s creator Harvey Kurtzman offers: “For me, Wolverton always had an integrity of style and effect…He never borrowed, never hacked, and he never short-changed the public.” Not a bad epitaph at that. For information about availability of Mr. Wolverton’s published work just access Amazon.com.
– Al Doshna