Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Golden Bookshelf:


Rob Salkowitz digs up something wonderfully unsavory in this Golden Age collection of grotesque prints from Basil Wolverton.

Bulging, veined eyeballs. Swollen red noses dripping with pus. Scabrous tongues hanging from mouths ringed with rotten yellow teeth. No one provides such a catalogue of the hilariously-gruesome better than American comics’ original master of the grotesque, Basil Wolverton. Wolverton broke in during the Golden Age on third-tier strips like Starhawk and Powerhouse Pepper. But his real talent lay in the delineation of horrifying portraits, including the famous “Lena the Hyena,” which won a nationwide contest for ugliest woman in creation.

Wolvertoons, a 1989 trade paperback collection from Fantagraphics, assembles the cream of this fetid crop with a delightful assortment of sketches, published pieces, promotional illustrations, strips and covers from Wolverton’s 40-year career, along with a lengthy interview with the artist. Wolverton’s (often extremely unflattering) celebrity portraits show a great eye for caricature; a few of his promo pieces for MAD comics in the 1950s will no doubt bring back fond memories for aging fan-adicts.

As distinctive and strange as Wolverton’s art is on its own, what makes him significant in the pantheon of comics history is his influence on the 1960s underground movement. The most obvious comparison is to Robert Crumb, who shares not only Wolverton’s sense of distorted anatomy, rounded forms and grotesque expressionism, but also his affinity for intricate crosshatching and fine detail. Wolverton’s technique for rendering shade and texture can also be seen in the work of iconic underground stylists from Gilbert Shelton to Denis Kitchen.

Wolverton’s traditional comic book work has been reprinted from time to time in specialty editions like Strange Tale of the Future and Spacehawk. Wolvertoons, however, is a great source for the hard-to-find material from Life and Look magazines, book illustrations, greeting cards, and other Wolverton miscellanea.




Publication Year: 1989

144 pages; partial color

Rob Salkowitz is a Seattle-based writer and authority on all manner of aging newsprint. You can e-mail your comments and queries to Rob at Use "ComicBase" as the subject line.

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