Many illustrators endeavor to make their creations look as perfect and intricately detailed as possible. On the other end of the spectrum, a certain American cartoonist gained acclaim for his detailed grotesques of bizarre and misshapen people. As this week marks what would have been the 110th birthday of this unique creator, we’re diving into the mad mind of Basil Wolverton.
Born in Oregon on July 9, 1909, Wolverton later made his way to Vancouver where he worked as a vaudeville performer and a cartoonist for the Portland News. By age 16, his work was published nationally and he began pitching strips to more newspaper syndicates. Although his strip Marco of Mars was accepted by the Independent Syndicate of New York, it was never distributed because it was deemed too similar to Buck Rogers. His strips Disk-Eyes the Detective and Spacehawks were published in Circus comics, while his new and improved feature Spacehawk made its debut in Target Comics.
Along with creating newsman Scoop Scuttle for Daredevil Comics and Silver Streak Comics, Wolverton created Mystic Moot and his Magic Snoot for Comic Comics and Ibis The Invincible. Among his most popular strips was the humor feature Powerhouse Pepper for Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics). The strip followed a superstrong albeit dumb boxer, and was characterized by rhyming dialogue and screwball comedy. Later on, Wolverton gained further acclaim after winning a contest to depict “Lena the Hyena,” the world’s ugliest woman in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner strip. The Lena portrait typified the “spaghetti and meatballs” style he would go on to employ thereafter. Following his win, Wolverton’s caricatures were featured in Life and Pageant magazines.
Wolverton went on to produce 17 horror and science fiction stories for Marvel and other comic book publishers. This included “The Brain Bats of Venus” for Mister Mystery #7 and “Where Monsters Dwell” in Adventures into Terror #7. This work led to him being “hailed for creating uniquely grotesque monsters.” Wolverton then made his way to a magazine where humorous caricatures and grotesque monsters were warmly welcomed – Mad Magazine. His first work for the publisher appeared in #10, but he went on to draw Mad Reader! for #11 and contributed a Lena-like image to the cover. Although Wolverton contributed sporadically, appearing in just nine issues over two decades, his work was so memorable that The New York Times dubbed him “The Michelangelo of Mad Magazine.”
In his later career, Wolverton contributed to EC’s humor title, Panic, as well as Cracked, From Here to Insanity, Cockeyed, Ballyhoo. He also lended his trademark twisted headshots to Topps Ugly Posters trading card series. While his work occasionally drew criticism, many felt as did cartoonist Will Elder, who said Wolverton's technique was “outrageously inventive, defying every conventional standard yet upholding a very unusual sense of humor. He was a refreshing original.” Following his passing in 1978, Wolverton was posthumously inducted into the comic book industry's Jack Kirby Hall of Fame.