asil Wolverton, my father (who I will respectfully refer to as Wolverton throughout this book), was a unique cartoonist and illustrator, known for his extreme, otherworldly creatures, spaghetti-like hair, smoothly sculpted faces and figures and insanely detailed pen-and-ink work. Born in Oregon in 1909, Wolverton pitched his first comic strip to a syndicate at the age of 16. But it was 13 years later before he would sell his first comic features to the new media of comic books. “Disk-Eyes the Detective” and “Spacehawks” were published in 1938 in Circus Comics. in 1940, “Spacehawk” (a different and improved feature) made its debut in Target Comics. It would run for 30 episodes (262 pages) until 1942. “Powerhouse Pepper,” Wolverton’s most successful humor comic book feature was published in Timely, Marvel and Humorama publications from 1942 through 1952 (76 episodes, 539 pages). Wolverton penned many other features to produce a total of some 1,300 comic book pages. in 1946 he earned first prize for his rendition of lower Slobbovia’s ugliest woman, Lena the Hyena. The contest, part of Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” newspaper strip, was judged by no less than Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra and Salvador Dali. It won Wolverton fame (or notoriety), and moved his career into the mainstream spotlight for a few years, with features and caricatures appearing in Life and Pageant magazines. At the peak of his style in the early 1950s, he produced what many regard as his best comic art in 17 episodes of horror and science fiction, while, in the same general time period, creating incredibly outrageous work for the early MAD magazine.
Yet about this time, Wolverton was also embarking on a body of biblical and religious works that would occupy most of his efforts for the next two decades. The artwork in this volume includes nearly all of these illustrations — more than 700 — created by Basil Wolverton for the Worldwide Church of God and Ambassador College corporations, from the years 1953 through 1974.
As longtime aficionados of Basil Wolverton are aware, he was somewhat of a paradox. On one hand he was a Christian minister — gentle, humble, generous to a fault — morally and socially conservative — always ready with a word of encouragement or humor. On the other hand, he created some of the most terrifying religious art since Hieronymus Bosch. And much of Wolverton’s bizarre, frenetic secular work wasn’t any less shocking. Like Bosch (an excellent cartoonist himself), the key to understanding Wolverton is an understanding of his religious convictions. The threads of Wolverton’s creativity and faith are inextricably woven together.
Wolverton was born in 1909 in Central Point, Oregon (near Medford) to parents who had come from Maine and new Brunswick to settle in Sunnyvale, near San Francisco. Not long after the earthquake of 1906, they moved to southern Oregon. His father tried his hand at various jobs and businesses (railroad construction foreman, sign painter, sheep rancher), some more successful than others. When Wolverton was about ten years of age, his family finally settled in Vancouver, Washington, just north of Portland, Oregon. Wolverton’s parents were devout Christians and they raised their children accordingly. Yet in the mid-1920s when Wolverton was in high school, his parents separated and his older sister died unexpectedly. Wolverton became disillusioned with religion. He would remain an agnostic (even atheist) for the next 12–14 years—until he encountered Herbert W. Armstrong.
Armstrong was a Chicago advertising and marketing man who had experienced an economic downturn in the early 1920s. Armstrong had moved his family to Oregon, in search of greener pastures. There, he joined a group of seventh-day sabbatarians, and his personal studies led him to believe that the Anglo-Saxon people were part of the descendants of the “Lost Ten Tribes of the House of Israel.” A high-school dropout with no formal theological education, Armstrong thought he had discovered the lost key to all biblical prophecy, and that the Great Tribulation spoken of in the book of Revelation would shortly fall on the United States and the nations of the British Commonwealth.
Not unlike many evangelical preachers of the early 1930s, Armstrong adopted a dispensationalist paradigm, with a with a pre-millennialist, literal interpretation of the apocalyptic sections of scripture — albeit with his own particular spin. The Bible, he taught, predicted imminent worldwide calamities, followed by the return of Christ and a happy Millennium, followed by the destruction of the wicked, followed by the advent of new heavens and earth.
As he launched his ministry in Eugene, Oregon, Armstrong believed that God had chosen him to bring a warning message to the world — that he was the only true messenger of God in this age. To proclaim his message, Armstrong began a radio program, The World Tomorrow, and a magazine, The Plain Truth (both launched in 1934). As Armstrong’s following grew, so did the threat of a second world war. He believed this was it—the Beast, the Antichrist, and the whole end-time enchilada.
While Armstrong was by all accounts a pioneer in religious broadcasting, his theology was regarded as heretical by most Christians — not so much because of his end-time prophetic constructs, but because of his requirement that believers observe selected Old Testament laws and regulations (including the seventh-day sabbath, Hebrew festivals and dietary practices) and his assertion that humans could become God.
in the late 1930s, young cartoonist Basil Wolverton was in the habit of surfing the radio as he worked on “Disk-Eyes the Detective” and “Spacehawks.” Armstrong’s radio broadcast caught his attention. Wolverton wanted nothing to do with religion, but Armstrong’s newscasterlike speaking style, devoid of churchy language, both challenged and appealed to Wolverton. He was not equipped to see the problematic aspects of Armstrong’s theology and worldview. Beginning in early 1940, he corresponded with Armstrong, initially disputing his assertions about the existence of God. But ultimately, over a period of a year or two, Wolverton bought into Armstrong’s theology and was baptized by Armstrong in the Columbia River in 1941. Coincidentally, Wolverton’s estranged father had also been corresponding with and contributing to Armstrong, but Wolverton did not find this out until later.
As Armstrong got to know Wolverton and his wife Honor, he saw an energetic, young, professional couple who could help him with his mission. He ordained Wolverton an elder in 1943 and not long afterward appointed him to the board of his Radio Church of God (later known as Worldwide Church of God, or WCG). Although Armstrong would have liked even more involvement from Wolverton, these were Wolverton’s most productive comic book years, with “Powerhouse Pepper,” “Bingbang Buster,” “Mystic Moot and His Magic Snoot,” “Culture Corner” and many other features.
When Armstrong moved his growing operation to Pasadena, California in 1946 to establish his Ambassador College, he relied on Wolverton to pastor a small congregation in the Portland area. This was the same year Wolverton won the “Lena the Hyena” contest. As the 1950s began, Wolverton found himself preaching on the weekends while creating his horror and science fiction comic masterpiece stories, such as “Brain-Bats of Venus” and “The Eye of Doom” during the rest of the week.
In all this, Wolverton saw no conflict. One realm was religious and the other secular. He believed religious people needed to lighten up and not take themselves so seriously. He also saw that the biblical account was full of conflict, pathos, tragedy, violence, bloodshed and horror. It was, after all, a story of humanity — and in this way, Wolverton’s comic horror work and his grotesquely humorous drawings were consistent with his theological understanding of the human condition. His faith gave him hope, to be sure, but he did not view the current world optimistically. Dispensational theology in general, and that of Armstrong specifically, views human beings as fallen and destined to grow worse as time goes on, until the return of Christ.