It’s been a few days since I hit the one-third mark in my yearlong look at what makes comics great. Anyone tiring out yet? I hope not. If you’re bored, you can always jaunt out to see Spider-Man 3. It’s pretty good.
For today, let’s talk about one of my favorite comics cartoonists, whose work dates back to the Golden Age.
124. Basil Wolverton
Basil Wolverton (1909-1978) was a fantastic artist with an exceptional, unique style. He first got his start drawing comic strips for the syndicates in the 30’s, but moved onto material for comic books with work like Spacehawk.
His first real hit was Powerhouse Pepper, a character who first popped up in Joker Comics and later received his own series. Pepper was a wacky Popeye-esque modest tough guy who got into random scrapes and adventures. The series featured plenty of surrealism, wordplay, and background gags, specifically Wolverton’s patented “signpost” jokes. You can read two Powerhouse Pepper stories courtesy of the Hollywood Animation Archive. They’re wacky fun. (For more on Powerhouse Pepper, hie thy browsers to Toonopedia.)
Basil Wolverton’s most famous feat, however, would have to be his depiction of Lena the Hyena in Al Capp’s L’il Abner strip. The contest was held to draw the ugliest woman in the world, and Wolverton was the clear winner (the judges who decided it? Salvador Dali, Boris Karloff and Frank Sinatra! Seriously. The grand prize? $525). His style lent itself to absolutely grotesque imagery– described as “spaghetti and meatballs.” (You may remember Lena from Brian’s Comics Urban Legends Revealed #87, in which our pal Cronin revealed that Lena didn’t appear on the cover of Life magazine, like so many people thought). Here’s the original strip:
His hideous grotesques would later appear on the covers of Mad Magazine, as well as DC’s 70’s humor series, Plop! Have a gallery of some of my favorite uglies. You can really see why he became known as the “producer of preposterous pictures of peculiar people:”
I first encountered Basil Wolverton’s work in the Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics (which fell for the urban legend Brian debunked!), and have been a fan ever since. The one-page gag strip at the top of this post is scanned from said tome. His beautifully detailed art style hooked me instantly. The same must be true of quite a few of the underground comix artists like R. Crumb– from what I can tell, there’s a lot of Wolverton influence in those books.
It’s been estimated that Wolverton drew 1300 comic book pages. All of them, I’d bet, were brilliant.
If you hadn’t heard of Mr. Wolverton, I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough for you to hunt his work down. For those of you who do remember him, I hope I’ve reminded you of why he’s clearly a reason to love comics.
For a bonus fun factoid, Basil’s son, Monte, is a political cartoonist. You can view his work at his website.