The Wolverton Bible: The Old Testament and Book of Revelation through the Pen of Basil Wolverton

Posted by on February 10th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Fantagraphics Books; 312 7×10-inch pp. (2nd printing includes Wolverton postcard set); $24.99; B&W; Hardcover; (ISBN: 9781560979647)

For all of us, cognoscenti and commoner alike, the words “Basil” and “Wolverton” are likely to summon up congeries of hilariously grotesque images, first among them, probably, “Lena the Hyena,” a stunningly ugly female visage with which Wolverton won a contest in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner in 1946. For almost none of the aforementioned crowd, however, is Basil Wolverton a Christian minister who spent 20 years illustrating the Bible. Yet both of these Basil Wolvertons are the self-same individual, who is now put before us in The Wolverton Bible: The Old Testament and Book of Revelation through the Pen of Basil Wolverton (312 7×10-inch pages, B&W in hardcover; Fantagraphics, $24.99), with an introduction by Wolverton’s son Monte, who draws political cartoons syndicated by Cagle Cartoons and edits Plain Truth magazine, a publication of the Worldwide Church of God, the evangelical sect founded in 1934 as the Radio Church of God by Herbert W. Armstrong.

For some of us, not all of the Wolverton oeuvre can be described as “goofy pictures” decorated with unrelenting visual puns (Powerhouse Pepper, his most enduring creation, lasting from 1942 until 1952; the cowboy Bingbang Buster, Mystic Moot and His Magic Snoot, etc.): his earliest comic book creation was Spacehawk, hero of a space opera that Wolverton played straight for 30 episodes, 1940-42. Still, given the evidence, few of us would expect to find him drawing Bible stories.

Wolverton made his first sales to the embryonic comic-book industry in 1932 at the age of 23; a few years later, he met Armstrong via the radio preacher’s broadcast, “The World of Tomorrow,” which was often playing as the cartoonist worked at his drawing board. In 1941, Wolverton was baptized by Armstrong, and in 1943, he was ordained an elder in the WCG. A decade later, about the time Powerhouse Pepper stopped appearing in funnybooks, Wolverton, at Armstrong’s behest, began producing illustrations for the Book of Revelation. Soon thereafter, he started illustrating the Old Testament, a project he finished 20 years later in 1972.

“From the beginning,” writes Monte Wolverton, “both Wolverton and Armstrong sought to create a story that followed the Biblical account more accurately than children’s Bible story books on the market in the 1950s. … Wolverton did not want his story to seem religious, sanctimonious or churchy. He wanted it to come across as a straightforward account, with edgy, challenging illustrations. He hoped his product would be read by secular types, as well as religious. The Biblical account of Noah’s flood, for instance, was popularly portrayed with cute animals, a big boat and a kindly old man. The Biblical narrative, by contrast, is a disaster story of cataclysmic proportions, in which millions of people and animals violently die. Wolverton’s challenge was to portray the Biblical accounts accurately without traumatizing children too much.”

With the Fantagraphics book before us, it’s clear Wolverton succeeded. His pictures, distinguished by his usual copious hachuring and cross-hatching, are illustrative, not comedic, entirely straight and, sometimes, a little terrifying. The illustrations, accompanied by Wolverton’s plain undemonstrative captions, were first published serially in Plain Truth; subsequently, they were bound in six volumes and re-issued. The volume at hand, a project initiated and sponsored by WCG, is the first time all of Wolverton’s Biblical work has been published in a single tome. At the end of the book, several pages present raucous pictures in Wolverton’s typically manic visual mode, all done, again at Armstrong’s request, for WCG college publications and, I gather, never before reprinted. These gyrating images are alone worth the price of the book, but if you spring for the whole thing, you also get some of the most stunning black-and-white images of Biblical stories ever produced.

Wolverton suffered a stroke in 1974, effectively ending his drawing career, but he probably would not have done the New Testament in any case: Armstrong believed that picturing Jesus was a violation of the Second Commandment. Wolverton died in 1978. Armstrong’s death in 1986 was followed by “profound doctrinal and cultural reforms” within WCG, reports Monte Wolverton. His father would have welcomed these reforms, he said, which may be beside the point: The Wolverton Bible presents the traditional Bible stories without much doctrinal bias that I’m able to detect. Here are a few sample pages: one from the Flood story (with a towering ark in the background), one from the Revelation series, and, finally, a page of the usual Wolverton idiocy culled from the college drawings.

All Images ©2009 The Worldwide Church of God

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