The Grotesque Imagery of Basil Wolverton

For a long time I have been interested in the popular arts. Their vernacular power and their low brow sensibility have captivated my attention and triggered my curiosity. Whenever I am immerse in a culture I always try to devour the popular imagery and language, and discover the carnivalesque in everyday life. During my time in the U.S., I have become more and more fascinated with American funny images, comic books, and cartoons. The tradition of caricature, humorous drawings, and funny imagery is rich and diverse in this country and is one of the pillars of American cultural industries. As a matter of fact, from live action movies to video games, characters and stories from the world of comic books have been recreated and re-appropriated in a variety of ways and with different results. Among all the great cartoonists and illustrators I have discovered, Basil Wolverton (1909-1978) stands out for his unique wacky style. Wolverton combines surrealism, horror, and sci-fi aesthetics, in an explosive mix that is grotesque, weird, and funny.
wolverton faces

Although Wolverton published his work since the end of the 1920s, it was after 1946 that his style became more exaggerated, wacky, and grotesque. It was during this period that, Wolverton draw several horror and science-fiction comic books characterized by the weirdness of characters and stories, such as the The Eye of Doom (Jan 1952):


Nightmare World (Sep 1952)
nightmare world

and The Swamp Monster(Jun 1953):
swamp thing

During this period of his creative career Wolverton also started to contribute to the anarchic humor magazine MAD with covers and cartoons. One of his most infamous covers was, inspired by his iconic “Lena the Hyena” (1946), the one for MAD #11 entitled “Beautiful Girl of the Month”:

Wolverton can be considered part of a rich tradition of “vulgar modernists” artist from the USA who have explored the anarchic forces of the carnivalesque, grotesque, and bizarre, across different arts. As Henry Jenkins notices in the essay “I Like to Sock Myself in the Face”: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism,” some outstanding members of this tradition are animators Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin, musician Spike Jones, cartoonists Will Elder, Jack Coles, and Basil Wolverton, and comedian Ernie Kovacs. All of these artists, explored different media forms in order disrupt the conventions of modernist aesthetics with the chaotic power of the carnivalesque, absurd, and vulgar. In his explorations as a cartoonist, illustrator, and comic book writer, Basil Wolverton was able to not only experiment with the imagery but was also interested in the use of graphic sound-effects. His illustrated essay “Acoustic in the Comics” is a great reflection on the power of onomatopoeic words to disrupt the realist and classic expectations of a modern audience.





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