Friday, October 28, 2011

Wertham Was Right II: The Horrifying Art of Basil Wolverton

"No small child exposed to his drawings could ever be expected to walk in a straight line again, or vote a party ticket."
- Gahan Wilson

See?! Even so respected a horror cartoonist as Gahan Wilson thinks that Basil Wolverton was bad for children! WERTHAM WAS RIGHT!!

Okay, no. No, he wasn't. To reiterate, in fact, he was dead wrong. Again.

But if you were ever going to make a case that a single artist should never, ever be seen by small children, it would be Basil Wolverton. Or Kevin O'Neill, according to the Comics Code Authority. Or maybe even Simon Bisley, if you're Paul Levitz.

Anyway. Basil Wolverton. The man who drew stuff like this:

Horrifying, isn't it? I mean, my god. To be sure, artwork like that should never be shown to the Children of America. It would terrify them! It terrified me when I was a wee lad! See, Wolverton had been hired by DC Comics to do covers for their new humor series Plop!, and when that book hit the stands and made its way before my tiny little virgin eyes...

Instant Nightmare Fuel!
Why are you laughing?! This cover scared the complete and total bejeezus out of me back before I could read! I lived in fear of this comic! It was traumatizing! I could hardly bear to look at it after I bought it, and... WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?!

Okay... It is pretty funny. And it did get me to buy the comic, even though it freaked me out. I had this kind of love-hate relationship with all kinds of things that scared me back then, and Plop! definitely fit into that category. I was simultaneously repulsed by it, and drawn to it. Let's look at a couple more Wolverton Plop! covers before we move on, shall we?

These two are actually a little bit scarier, I think, and probably better-illustrate why I both loved and hated that series. But man, those giant nostrils are funny business! And I can't ever pass up some cheap humor.

At any rate, my point is that, yes, Wertham was indeed wrong about stuff like this. Because kids eat this stuff up, and in the long run it doesn't do them any harm. Though I must admit, I've never voted a party ticket in my life, and sometimes do indeed have trouble walking straight lines. So...

But I'm getting way, way ahead of myself. Plop! came at the very end of Wolverton's career as a cartoonist, and he had a long history of entertainingly horrifying children pretty much from start to finish. He made a name for himself when he was still in high school, by winning a "draw the ugliest woman in the world" contest running in the Lil Abner comic strip. Wolverton's entry was Miss Lena Hyena, who looked like this:

Not a horror image in its own right, certainly, but Wolverton was just getting warmed up.

Wolverton loved the comics industry, and produced some of the most memorable horror and science fiction pieces of the pre-Code era. These were little six- or eight-page shock-ending pot-boilers, made memorable both by Wolverton's artwork, and their macabre subject matter. Most of them would start with a splash panel summing the story up in a single image designed to catch the eye of potential readers as they flipped through the funnybook:

Sometimes you catch the eye, sometimes the eye catches you.

The future is inhabited entirely by zombie giants! Pass it on!

The twist? It's actually a talking gorilla!

Wasn't this the basis for a Frank Zappa album or something?
Evil Space Baboon!
Of course, Wolverton being Wolverton, these weren't the only arresting images in the story. Every page or two gives you one completely insane, terrifying, or just plain well-drawn panel to look at. The above "Planet of Terror" story, for instance, gives us what appears to be the giant floating head of some kind of wizard hobo...
"Mokog will also take personal checks!"
...and what looks to me like an excuse for Wolverton to just rip a page out of one of his sketchbooks:
It's no Ghost Spider of Death, but...
The stories would also, sometimes, give Wolverton a chance to actually up the ante on the monsters he drew in the opening splash. The Brain-Bats of Venus, for instance, look pretty menacing on page one...

,,,but it's only once you see them in action a couple of pages later that they begin to haunt your freaking dreams:

As you can see, Wolverton was a pretty great monster designer. Almost all of his monsters look cool, and sometimes they even defy the rational imagination:

click to embiggen

Yes, that's a giant talking human hand. A giant talking human hand with soulful puppy-dog eyes capable of melting the heart of even the most hardened space explorer. Because, AGH!!

Wolverton's stories themselves were often based in some pretty creepy ideas, too. In his story "Nightmare World," for example, his hero is dealing with primitive cave-people who are also expert brain surgeons:

Yes, you're dreaming. Suuuuurre you are...
These were exceedingly compact stories, of course. They had to run in, punch you in the face, and then leave before you got back up. Fortunately, Wolverton had the storytelling chops to pull that act off. Here, in fact, he gives you all the story you need on the final page:

click to embiggen
That's a pretty neat little vampire story, certainly, but the most horrifying, and therefore the best, of these stories (the best of the ones I've read, anyway) is a little number called...

There's this great robotics scientist known as Fozzmo, you see, and Fozzmo has a problem:

But luckily, Fozzmo is enough of a genius that he's able to create the Robot Woman of the title, a perfect woman who will love him unconditionally. Because there's nothing creepy about that at all...
Nothing. At. All...

He calls her Robota (because he's an imaginative chap), and everything's coming up roses for Fozzmo...

click to embiggen
Creepy, AND abusive! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!
After that charming scene of domestic brutality, Fozzmo stumbles back off to his lab to, like, work on his totally awesome important stuff without his stinky perfect woman to bother him. But then he smells smoke, and when he goes to investigate, he finds that he'd left Robota lying too near a heater, and her face has melted! Repulsed by her just as normal human women are repulsed by him, Fozzmo recoils from her ... and straight into a bank of chemicals, which proceed to fall on him. Fozzmo dies, eaten alive by acid. And the story ends on this pleasant little note:

Woot! Awesome 50s horror, with one of the more disturbing character turns I've seen!

Strangely, I've never seen that much cover work from Wolverton from this era. He did covers for his humor strip Powerhouse Pepper, and his straight space opera series Spacehawk, but apparently very little for the horror series he was working on. This example from 1952 is the only noteworthy one I could find:

Rocket from the crypt!
As the 1950s wore on, Wolverton turned more to humor work, most notably for William Gaines' Mad. Much of his work there was of the Lena Hyena variety, and not really all that horror-oriented, so I won't post much of it here. Still, though, I can't resist tossing a couple of classic Wolverton grotesqueries your way...
Miss Poontney Spadafroont

Wolverton also did a strip called "Mad Readers" that featured the artist's impressions of various "typical" readers of Mad. Though funny, most of them don't really belong in a post about Wolverton's more horror-tinged work. There are two, however, that you definitely need to see:


So. With this sizeable body of work, and a reputation as one of the most grotesque artists working in the funnybook field, what did Basil Wolverton turn his talents toward after the Comics Code went into effect, ending the fun for everyone and very nearly killing the funnybook business aborning?

Why, he started illustrating the Bible, of course.

Having converted to a small, apocalypse-focused sect sometime in the 50s, Wolverton was put to work illustrating scenes from the Good Book for his church's publications. While many of these scenes are beautiful illustrations, Wolverton was no shrinking violet Christian. The Bible is full of many horrific images, and Wolverton wanted to capture those in as much detail as the nicer parts. The result is some of his most gripping, and most horrific, work. The Book of Revelations was, of course, a favorite subject, and Wolverton brought its imagery into the present-day, featuring images of ruined modern cities, and bomber jets reconfigured as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The illustration directly above, entitled "Mutants" by Wolverton, was deemed a little too extreme by his church publishers, but some of the stuff that did see print is like something straight out of a horror movie. So tonight, I leave you with those...

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