The long-awaited second volume of Greg Sadowski’s ongoing biography of Basil Wolverton covers the peak years of its subject’s creativity and renown. In this decade, though Wolverton struggled to keep the lights on, and endured confusing and frustrating treatment by comic-book publishers, he entered the national eye through his ghastly version of Lena the Hyena. His rendition of Lena was drawn in response to a contest created by Al Capp’s Li’l Abner to envision the world’s ugliest woman. Its selection was famously juried by Boris Karloff, Salvador Dali and Frank Sinatra. Published in Capp’s popular strip, Lena gave Wolverton a flicker of popcult fame.
Dubbed the creator of “the spaghetti and meatballs school of art,” Wolverton found freelance work for a time, but soon receded to obscurity. He ended this era of his life with a sheaf of unforgettable horror and fantasy stories for various comics publishers.
Sadowski opens a window into the life of a professional cartoonist in the 20th century. Stories of the ups and downs of a comics creator’s career are many. Wolverton’s archived correspondence with publishers, clients and colleagues, plus his personal work ledgers, preserved a realistic look at the small triumphs and hindrances of his career.
As with the first volume. Creeping Death from Neptune, this opens with a procession of letters from comics publishers and editors. Beneath their merry, colorful letterheads are phrases no creator ever wants to read:
…not in the market for any material…too grotesque and slapstick…we can only promise to keep you in mind for the near future…I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you…
As the book opens, Wolverton ends his attempts to create serious super-hero material. He rebrands himself as a cartoony cartoonist and finds success with his original characters Scoop Scuttle and Powerhouse Pepper. The latter, a Popeye-esque bald-pated Hercules with a knack for snappy alliterative patter, became his longest-lasting mainstream strip. It appeared in Timely’s Joker Comics for five years, had five issues of its own book, and popped up in other Timely titles through the end of the 1940s.
Wolverton came close to having a syndicated comic strip—a prestigious achievement for a mid-century cartoonist, though it didn’t guarantee wealth and fame. He worked hard to get his foot in as many doors as he could find. He and his wife Honor made trips to New York and Hollywood to woo clients and finesse existing connections. These were exhausting journeys, but they helped him become better-known to publishers. In a time when long-distance calls were costly and the closest thing to e-mail was a telegram, Wolverton had to wait days or weeks for replies to his queries to Northeastern publishers. This arrangement meant that he often had to drop everything and rush an assignment without the lead time given his New York colleagues.
Sadowski makes clear Wolverton’s assets and affable personal eccentricities. Painstaking, ambitious and long-suffering, he might have fared better by being closer to his employers. Wolverton’s work, like that of fellow outlier cartoonist Jimmy Thompson, looked and read differently than most of his peers. Wolverton bought comics and studied them, but he never tailored his approach to fit the Northeastern mainstream. This aspect of his work, which we now treasure, caused him trouble in the 1940s and ‘50s. He struggled to fit into a system that valued mediocrity. His singular imagination rarely got free rein. Trademarks of his comedic style, such as aggressive alliteration, cringey puns and zany signs that commented on their stories’ themes and locales, were often met with editorial grouses.
His SF-adventure feature Spacehawk, published by the staid Novelty Press, is among the best and wildest of the first wave of super-hero strips. In less than two years, demands from Novelty Press’s editors, supported by complaints from readers, turned an imaginative, disturbing and gripping strip into an earthbound flag-waver, redeemed by its creator’s inability to keep his own quirks at bay. Instead of valuing Wolverton’s work for its uniqueness, Novelty nit-picked the life out of Spacehawk.
Timely Comics’ come-here-go-away treatment of Wolverton, as documented in both volumes, is galling. That he put up with it says much about his determination to stick to his instincts as a cartoonist. Whether fueled by personal resolve or a lack of self-awareness, Wolverton seems to have held hope that the value of his work would win out.
Once Lena the Hyena hit America, Wolverton’s fortunes changed—for a spell. He finessed his $500 prize, and its attendant publicity, into getting spreads in Life magazine (who refused to pay him, as they considered the exposure of their publication good publicity—sound familiar to modern cartoonists?) and lucrative advertising accounts. His attempts to establish himself as a caricaturist a la Hirschfeld fizzled out. His approach was too intense and unnerving. A series of ads for Hancock gasoline show satisfied customers with demonic grins, overintense wall-eyed states, obsessively rendered tubes of hair and H. R. Giger-esque ear canals. Ditto for his caricatures of movie stars, radio personalities and politicians. His portraits of Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante are a bit frightening. A drawing of politician John L. Lewis resembles the work of Fletcher Hanks—an artist with whom Wolverton shares thematic and visual unities. And a portrait of Charles Dickens is so intense in its vibrant lines and jarring textures that it recalls Louis Wain’s psychedelic cat paintings of the 1920s. The freak-show effect of Wolverton’s work soon exhausted the public’s interest.
Wolverton’s work was valued by some publishers. Fawcett Comics gave him a steady paycheck for his Culture Corner series—half-page visual essays that offered advice on social etiquette, grooming and such, delivered with a droll gallows humor. Timely strung him along, telling him to get lost then courting him after Lena’s success—only to dismiss him again.
A lifelong reader of science fiction, Wolverton was a natural for the nascent boom in horror and SF comics at the start of the 1950s. Realistic drawing wasn’t his strong suit; his grasp of anatomy and perspective are tentative. But he had a vision, unlike most pro comics workers. When allowed to express himself as he did in these stories, the results remain transcendent. A suite of these remarkable stories comprises 89 pages towards the end of the book.
Though Timely nit-picked his art and writing, and Ray Gill, editor of Stanley Morse’s SPM Publications, stalled his payment for month after month with soft-soap and weak excuses, Wolverton was a man inspired. He plumbed the dark corners of his imagination with this work. The best of these pieces—“Brain Bats of Venus,” “Robot Woman,” “Nightmare World,” “The Eye of Doom” and “The Devil Birds”—deliver the goods in all departments. Timely soon nixed his story ideas and gave him staff scripts, some written by Flowers for Algernon author Daniel Keyes.
Timely’s publisher, Martin Goodman, had a dislike for Wolverton’s work—that’s how Stan Lee spun it in his frequent rejection letters. The reason for this isn’t clear or rational. Timely/Atlas’ 1950s comics had a diversity of eccentric artists, with inimitable creators such as Gene Colan, Bill Everett, Robert Q. Sale, Joe Maneely, Dave Berg, Matt Fox and John Forte. None of these artists conformed to a uniform style. Wolverton was a natural fit with this group, and Goodman’s aversion, if true, is puzzling.
Wolverton’s alliance with The Radio Church of God, founded by religious visionary Herbert W. Armstrong, forms a fascinating understory to this book. I wish there was more information presented on Armstrong, but perhaps Sadowski intends to expand on the man’s bizarre belief system and evangelical mission in the next volume.
Sadowski’s compelling text makes keen use of Wolverton’s papers to tell his story. His tone is clear, level-headed and objective. The book’s hundreds of illustrations, many sourced from original art, show Wolverton trying different methods, including a short-lived detour into airbrushing. His working methods are seen via rough drafts, hand-written notes and story breakdowns. It’s a pity that no complete “Powerhouse Pepper” stories were included, but that is possibly due to rights issues. The reader gets an eclectic dose of Wolverton’s work over this decade. As with the first volume, I’ll often dip back into this one when I need a dose of homespun madness.
I must wonder if the book titles work against their subject matter. Brain Bats of Venus is attention-grabbing, but it doesn’t hint at the scholarly, detailed survey of an artist’s life beneath its lurid covers. It does convey the eccentric nature of the material within, but that isn’t all Basil Wolverton was about. If these names work as a marketing tool, then more power to them.
In a year of notable books on comics history, Brain Bats of Venus is a top-tier effort. Greg Sadowski deepens our appreciation of a wild, surprising voice from the hinterlands and offers an intimate look at what it took to be a cartoonist in mid-20th century America. Despite the remove of time, Wolverton’s story has resonance for current comics creators.