Celebrating Basil Wolverton’s Essential Insanity
Basil Wolverton is one of comics' great individual stylists, a creator whose idiosyncratic imagination has impacted generations of artists, and influenced a broad spectrum of popular culture. Cartoons, hot rod art, underground comix, skate design, and nearly every form that revels in the humorous and grotesque has drawn inspiration from the exaggerated absurdities that Wolverton called forth with his twisted-yet-delicate ink lines.
Wolverton was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and began working as a professional cartoonist while still a teenager. He had his first major success with the off-kilter science fiction saga Spacehawk in Curtis Publishing's Target Comics, and in 1942, he launched the Powerhouse Pepper feature at Martin Goodman's Timely Comics, which became one of the publisher's mainstays over the next two decades.
Through the '40s and '50s, Wolverton created stories for a number of different publishers, developing a devoted following for his mix of absurdist plot twists, bizarre landscapes littered with sight gags, and alliterative and/or rhyming dialog, while also continuing to turn out memorable horror and science fiction stories, in addition to his humor work.
In 1946, Wolverton achieved widespread fame when he beat out tens of thousands of other entrants in a contest in Al Capp's syndicated Li'l Abner strip, and depicted the previously-unseen character Lena the Hyena (the world's ugliest woman) in all of her toe-curling grandeur.
The hyper-detailed illustration technique used for Lena (which he dubbed his "spaghetti-and-meatballs" style, in a typically absurdist use of language) would become Wolverton's signature, and he gained a reputation for his adeptness in stretching and corrupting the human form, creating memorably eye-popping portraits for Marvel, DC, Topps trading cards, Mad Magazine, Cracked, and many other companies in ensuing years.
Wolverton's approach to characters, full of pock-marked skin, bulbous distortions, and cleverly mis-arranged features, would have a huge impact on the youth culture of the '50s and '60s; it's easy to detect his influence on everything from the hot rod monsters of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Bill Campbell, to the surf-flecked psychedelia of Rick Griffin, to the underground stylings of Denis Kitchen, Robert Crumb, and Gilbert Shelton.
Wolverton continued to produce phenomenal work right up until he passed away in 1978 --- his covers for DC's Plop! and his posthumously-published Bible adaptation are especially unsettling and brilliant. So today, on the anniversary of his birth in 1909, we at ComicsAlliance celebrate the life, work, and legacy of this one-of-a-kind creator.