Tuesday, July 9, 2019

He distorted body parts

Wolverton was a master in caricaturing the human face and body. He distorted body parts while multiplying others. Noses hang on necks, ears stick out of eye sockets, teeth point out in all directions, skins droop to the ground and virtually everyone has blisters or freckles. His characters seem to be made from plasticine rather than bones.’ This how a comic encyclopaedia describes the work of Basil Wolverton, born 110 years ago today. He was one of America’s great mid-20th century comic artists, working for Stan Lee’s (pre-Marvel) Atlas Comics, and for MAD in its early days. But he was also very religious and produced many a biblical illustration. He kept diaries for a year as a child and then regularly during the second half of his life. Although these have not been published, they have been exploited by Greg Sadowski in his recent two-volume and highly illustrated biography of Wolverton.

Wolverton was born on 9 July 1909 in Central Point, Oregon, but his family later moved to Vancouver, Washington. His parents, though religious, divorced when he was a teenager. An older sister died around the same time, which led the young Wolverton to abandon his faith for a decade or more. Aged 11, he drew a weekly cartoon of famous comic characters to sell at the local farmers’ market, and aged 16 he sold his first nationally published work. His comic strip, Marco of Mars, was accepted by the Independent Syndicate of New York in 1929 though it was never distributed.

Wolverton made a living as a vaudeville performer for a time, with a special act where he sang in a baritone voice, played ukulele and tap danced. Other income came from his job as a journalist/cartoonist for the Portland News. He was baptized into Herbert W. Armstrong’s Radio Church of God in 1941 and was ordained as an elder in 1943. As a board member of the church, he was one of six people who re-incorporated the church in 1946 when it moved its original headquarters from Oregon to California. Later, he drew many illustrations for Armstrong’s religious publications, and then for The Plain Truth. But, in the comic world, he was building up a portfolio of clients: his first major success came with Powerhouse Pepper, from 1942 to 1948, a humorous boxing series. In 1946, he won a competition in Life Magazine which brought his name to a wider public.

Lambiek Comiclopedia gives this assessment: ‘Wolverton was a master in caricaturing the human face and body. He distorted body parts while multiplying others. Noses hang on necks, ears stick out of eye sockets, teeth point out in all directions, skins droop to the ground and virtually everyone has blisters or freckles. His characters seem to be made from plasticine rather than bones, but Wolverton knew how to draw it all with a sense of fun, elegance and innocence.’ It was only a tiny step, the encyclopaedia adds, for him to go from monstrous faces to drawing actual monsters and extraterrestrial aliens. In the early 1950s, he drew many and varied horror and science fiction stories for Stan Lee’s Atlas Comics (preceding what would become Marvel Comics) as well as for the comic books published by Stanley P. Morse. And, in 1952, he was among the pioneering artists working for Harvey Kurtzman's new satirical magazine MAD. Later in his career, Wolverton illustrated several covers for Joe Orlando’s satirical comic book Plop! (DC Comics, 1973-1975), and in 1974 he turned briefly to self-publishing. He suffered a stroke that same year, and died in 1978. Some further biographical information can also be gleaned from Wikipedia and Jim Vadeboncoeur Jr’s Illustrators.

Recently, in 2014, Fantagraphics released the first volume of an illustrated biography of Wolverton’s life - the most comprehensive biography ever published, it claims: Creeping Death from Neptune - The Life and Comics of Basil Wolverton (Volume 1: 1909-1941). The second volume, Brain Bats of Venus: The Life and Comics of Basil Wolverton (Volume 2: 1942-1952) is due to be published this coming autumn.

Throughout both books - authored by Greg Sadowski - there is a liberal sprinkling of extracts from diaries Wolverton kept at different points in his life. The first volume, for example, draws on a childhood diary. It was given him for Christmas in 1923, and, Sadowski says, ‘sheds light on his time in high school and his advancing interest in Christianity, cartooning, scientific magazines, vaudeville, and movies’. In it, he writes of 'escapades with his friends, which include building tunnels with secret passages, diving oft piers, and spying on wandering drunken men, with public intoxication being particularly scandalous during the Prohibition era.’ Several pages can be read online at Googlebooks, Amazon and Issuu. Wolverton didn’t resume keeping a diary until 1941, but when he did would write down each day’s events, occasionally punctuated with a wry remark. He kept up the habit for the next 30 years. Sadowski notes that from 1941 onwards his biography of Wolverton is ‘anchored’ by the diaries. Further information on the forthcoming second volume can also be found at Googlebooks and Amazon. (Incidently, the original comic Brain Bats of Venus can be viewed online at Internet Archive.)

Here are several extracts from Wolverton’s diaries as found in the two volumes.

24 December 1923
‘Hello folks, my name is Basil Wolverton and the first writing in this book was put here Dec. 24, 1923, the night before Christmas. I live in Vancouver, Washington. I have one sister, one mother, one father and no brothers. Thus only four in the family. I was born in Central Point, Oregon, July 9, 1909. I am now fourteen years old.

I got all my Christmas presents tonight and I sure am happy. I got a necktie, a pair of arm bands, a pair of swell gloves with gauntlets, a Tarzan book, two pounds of plaster paris, a hair brush, this diary book, two dollars, and some candy. I think that’s a good bunch of swell presents.’

1 January 1924
‘I ate a lot of dinner and then went to the show and laughed so much at the comedy that I’d of liked to split the front of my shirt and the seat of my pants and maybe my collar or my stockings. The comedy was so funny that I was behind in my laughs when funny things came along and I didn’t get to laugh enough at everything, but when I got home I made up tor it by laughing a lot.’

6 July 1924
‘Great lapse of time. Pardon me for leaving out so much of my diary but I have forgotten and neglected to write it. Well, it is summer and school has just been out for a month. Therefore only two months left. I went to Sunday School and Church today. I have been working in the cannery. I have earned sixteen dollars in seven days. I guess all the work is over now. I went to the show yesterday that is the second show in 1924.’

29 July 1925
‘Seven months is quite a long time. It is almost August already, and vacation is going fast I was elected president of the Lower Junior Class for the coming semester and will be president of the Upper Juniors during the last semester. I am sixteen years old now. Mom wanted to take her trip back East this summer but there is not enough money. I thought sure we were going to get to take it but I guess now we are not. I worked a little over a month now in the cannery, right after school and earned $96.88, which helps a little bit.

I am now trying to sell my cartoons to some syndicates. I made a few strips and called them Simple Simon and These Modern Inventions, and sent them to the King Features Syndicate at New York. The King Features Syndicate sent them to the International Feature Syndicate, just a block away. They both had no use for the cartoons, so sent them back and I made some more, only they were not in strip form but were just one big picture, and were called Funny Features. I made a four line verse to go with each of them and then sent them off to the N.E.A. Service at Cleveland, Ohio. I haven’t got them back yet, though. I sent them sixteen days ago. This mornings mail hasn’t come yet; they might be coming this morning.

Dad has been gone for about six weeks. He lives in Portland now. I will go out and saw some more wood and then come back and write down whether my pictures came this morning.

My pictures are coming tomorrow, I guess. I got a letter today saying that the syndicate had no use for them. C. N. Landon of the Landon School of Cartooning is the art director of the syndicate, so of course he wants me to take a course in his school, and then I’ll get a job. I won’t do that but I’ll make eight more pictures and send them to another syndicate.’

23 February 1942
‘First enemy shells (from submarine off California coast) landed on U.S. continent in this war. One wonders what will happen a week, a month, or a year from now.’

Early March 1942
‘Phone rang at 3:35 A.M. Was dreaming of air raid. Phone call was from Warden Farrell: alert alarm. I dressed and dashed over to Ben Wells’ place. Couldn’t rouse him. Went to Bettesworth’s place and got him up. Reported to Farrell. He told me to rout out neighbors who might help. I went after Frank Wanamaker and called Sollie. Then all-clear signal came. Went back to bed.’

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