Cartoonist Basil Wolverton (1909-1978) cast a large, if sometimes unrecognized, shadow over the underground comix of the 1960s and punk graphics of the 1970s and 1980s. Robert Crumb and his two cartooning brothers were smitten with his work in MAD magazine, and the master of the macabre Gahan Wilson said, “No small child exposed to his drawings could ever be expected to walk in a straight line again, or vote a party ticket.” Wolverton’s reputation as “America’s weirdest artist” continues to grow 40+ years after his death.
Robert Crumb is often, rightfully, cited as the godfather of underground comix. Before R. Crumb, though, there was Basil Wolverton (1909-1978), who could rightfully be called the ur-Crumb. Wolverton began plying his cartooning trade in the late 1930s and was, by 1960, called “America’s weirdest artist” by no less an arbiter of coolness than Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
His contorted portraits, what he called “preposterous pictures of peculiar people,” combined with his meticulous cross-hatching graphic style can be seen in the work of Crumb, as well as Bill “Zippy” Griffith, Kim Deitch, Trina Robbins, Diane Noomin, S. Clay Wilson, Jay Kinney, Robert Williams and many more.
Since his death in 1978, Wolverton has continued to gain a rabid following. In 2009, when a retrospective of his work was mounted in New York, art critic Holland Carter, reviewing the show for the New York Times, called Wolverton the “van Gogh of the gross-out” and “the Michelangelo of MAD magazine,” using words like “pathological” and “uncouth” to describe the work on view. He called one of Wolverton’s most famous pieces—a grotesque MAD magazine cover from 1954—“a virtuoso exercise in bad taste.”
In other words, Basil Wolverton is right up PKM’s alley—starting with that amazingly strange name, itself seemingly culled from a Charles Addams cartoon. In fact, in the 1950s, Wolverton produced a series of drawings called “Private Peeps at Preposterous Punks Who Prowl This Planet.” Gahan Wilson, the cartoonist who mined the macabre in his art and willingly admitted the influence of Wolverton on his work, said, “No small child exposed to his drawings could ever be expected to walk in a straight line again, or vote a party ticket.”
Surely, Wolverton’s drawings in MAD began warping the minds of the Crumb brothers when they were small children leafing through their magazines. Indeed, it is not out of the realm of possibility that had Wolverton not created Lena the Hyena, we may have had no Mr. Natural, Snoid, Devil Girl, or even Keep on Truckin’. And what a loss that would have been for Western civilization!
He called one of Wolverton’s most famous pieces—a grotesque MAD magazine cover from 1954—“a virtuoso exercise in bad taste.”
But what about Wolverton’s reputation in the fine arts world? His freakishly grotesque portraits of women were done around the same time Willem de Kooning was slinging blobs of paint at the canvas to produce the “Woman” series that shocked visitors to the Sidney Janus gallery—shocked them so badly that the paintings are now worth millions of dollars! And yet, Wolverton worked largely unaware of trends in the fine art world of abstract expressionism, action painting and the like. Living and working in relative obscurity in the Pacific Northwest, Wolverton mailed his cartoons to his editors in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, seldom venturing out on trips to these hotbeds of the hip.
He was, ultimately, a contradiction in terms, which might partly explain the twisted tendencies of his art. A self-taught artist, he brought fine-arts precision to even his most grotesque works, earning comparisons to Bosch and Breughel. Though he was a staple of MAD magazine during its most iconoclastic, gloriously degenerate years under Harvey Kurtzman, he was also a political conservative who in 1941 became a Born Again convert to the Radio Church of God, ordained as an elder in that church and even led a congregation in Oregon. He was, in fact, most proud of the scarifying apocalyptic illustrations that he produced for the church’s evangelical publications (this was way before Jack Chick) and his illustrations for the church’s edition of the Bible. Maybe this is a stretch but another parallel between Crumb and Wolverton is that though the former did not necessarily undergo a religious conversion, he did produce a startling, serious-minded and beautiful edition of the Book of Genesis in 2009.
PKM spoke with comics historian Jon B. Cooke, editor of COMIC BOOK CREATOR magazine www.twomorrows.com and author of The Book of Weirdo, a history of Crumb’s attempt to produce a serial comics magazine.
PKM: Have you ever done any research on the whys and wherefores of Basil Wolverton?
Jon B. Cooke: No. His Bible illustrations completely captivate me and I’ve bought any number of books on him. My impression is that he was an idiosyncratic but seemingly cheerful guy.
PKM: Where do you see Wolverton fitting in the pantheon of those who influenced the underground comix of the 1960s? Clearly, he cast a shadow on these artists in their formative, adolescent years, but how big a shadow do you think that was?
Jon B. Cooke: I think it was huge. Along with Don Martin and Harvey Kurtzman, I think that zany, unbridled approach — one that was truly bizarre, in Basil’s case — helped their aficionados to be as zany and unbridled in THEIR own work, to let their “freak flag fly,” in 1960s parlance…
PKM: As far as you know, did Robert Crumb ever mention Basil Wolverton as an influence on him and his work?
Jon B. Cooke: Well, not specifically, but the MAD #11 cover simply blew his mind at a very young and impressionable age, if more for the LIFE magazine parody aspect than the Wolverton illustration. I’d bet good money that El Crumbo admired Basil’s skill.
PKM: Who were some of the other precursors to Robert Crumb? There was Harvey Kurtzman, of course, but that was a direct mentorship. Would Charles Addams qualify? Saul Steinberg—or was he too “fine arts” to have much influence?
Jon B. Cooke: Nah, Basil was unique I think. A true American original. Though that Smoky Stover cartoonist, and Will Elder, certainly were in the same classroom, if you will. Functional lunatics. (Leo Baxendale is a British equivalent…)
PKM: Wolverton’s monstrous creations, like that woman on the cover of MAD in 1954, are not ha-ha funny. They seem to point to a darker aspect of the artist’s soul. What do you think Wolverton was exorcising, shall we say, when he drew these things?
Jon B. Cooke: I never perceived that myself. I always looked at it as being as outrageous and goofy as he could be. He never let go of the gross-out humor of adolescence and just pushed his concepts right to the edge and over the cliff!
PKM: Wolverton also cast a wide, if not always acknowledged, shadow on punk graphics and cartoonists like John Holmstrom, Peter Bagge, Joe Matt, and some of the other contributors to Weirdo, don’t you think?
Jon B. Cooke: I do! I do! Wolverton is infectious with a totally embraceable style! Like he “got” us kids, y’know? Like a zany old man who loved to entertain and was always mischievous.
PKM: Who are some of the young cartoonists who are carrying on in the Wolvertonian spirit?
Jon B. Cooke: Yes! I love Max Clotfelter’s wonky work. My SLOW DEATH ZERO will feature a number of zonked-out young ‘uns, including Max. There are many others but I’m kinda zoned at the moment.
PKM: Is there anything else that you want to add to this, from your zone?
Jon B. Cooke: I’ve long thought of Basil’s work as a kind of serviceable, functional manic drawing, not unlike the work of both Maxon and Charles Crumb, Robert’s brothers, which features obsessive rendering, line after line of detail that overpowers whatever piece they are working on. As if unable to stop cross-hatching. I’ve come close to that myself, often more interested in feathering drawings than the design or subject of the image itself, though I can be excused in usually being stoned out of my mind while drawing! Joe Coleman is another cartoonist whose work almost becomes evidence of a pathology that is so compelling and yet repulsive at the same time. Personally, I love the work, and I can say I believe that Basil had it under control and channeled it professionally and, well, sanely. We need to not forget his exquisite science fiction and horror work, as well as those Biblical scenes of apocalypse to recognize what an accomplished artist he was.
If I could zero in on one aspect of cartooning for study, if I had the patience and fortitude to remain on one singular subject, it would be to examine those who shared the same slavish devotion to rendering that Basil exemplified, with all the feathering, crosshatching, rendering… INK! When I was cartooning myself as a youngster, my first love was Murphy Anderson (he inked a lot of Superman stories in the 1970s, and whose best work was Atomic Knights) because of the feathering inking style. Maybe it is a sign of mental deviation, a little bit of madness, but I like that. I’ve always been attracted to this crazy kind of cartooning (though not sadistic stuff) and I acknowledge that much of it is touched by psychosis, which makes it riveting and so very human.