Basil Wolverton’s work first became physical for me, that is to say, it wasn’t just a bunch of crazy stuff in those awesome, thick-as-a-brick Fantagraphics catalogs from the 90s when I found a copy of the Dark Horse reprint Gateway to Horror in a quarter sale about two and a half years ago. I’d remembered the name from some old R. Crumb interviews and sitting there with pages of super-line-y grotesquerie, it made sense he was a Crumb influence and even kinda made Crumb’s work well, way less interesting.
That The Wolverton Bible has been out for a few months and Crumb’s version of “Genesis” rolls into stores in the fall is oddly perfect. Though the sincerity of Crumb’s opus won’t be questioned, it’s safe to say he simply isn’t the believer that Wolverton so clearly was. Many have commented about the odd fit between Wolverton’s wacky and weird drawings and his employment by the Worldwide Church of God, but it’s really a perfect fit.
What’s shifted since Wolverton sat down and slowly built a religious art masterpiece nearly by accident (like all the best masterpieces) isn't religion, but the perception of religion, especially Christianity. You know, up until about thirty or so years ago, a huge chunk of art history (like hundreds and hundreds of years) was devoted to religious expression, celebration, confusion, and angst. Just because an unfortunate version of secular Liberalism’s taken over Western entertainment, doesn’t make Wolverton’s work out-of-step with Christian values, it makes readers out of step with the plurality of religious faith and expression--when you don’t reduce it to Pat Robertson and George W. Bush.
Paging through The Wolverton Bible, I kept thinking of Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s term to describe Gothic architecture: “savageness”. Ruskin’s argument, and I’m paraphrasing, is that the smoothed-out, idealized images--the beauty of Renaissance art--was really a kind anathema to Christian values. That Christianity was all about things ending and decay and the comfort we should feel with those things when faced with the endless glory of God. Symbolically, Ruskin celebrated gothic tombs and coffins adorned with skulls and bones, over Renaissance tombs decked-out in idealized human forms.
Wolverton’s at his most “Gothic” and most “savage” towards the end of the book, which shows his version of the apocalypse. A kind of EC Comics horror meets in-the-gut actual horror, that’s particularly disturbing. But the genius of Wolverton’s work is that his sense of the grotesque is there on every page. Mouths agape with fear when waters breaks from the ground starting Noah’s flood, return when “hailstones of about a hundred pounds each” fall in the book’s final, ‘Book of Revelations’ section. That the actual geyser of water looks a lot like the nuclear explosion that begins ‘Part 7: The Apocalypse and Beyond’ is kind of added bonus of image-linking that all sequential art, when it’s real good, does.
I mention these because they are formal, “teachable” highlights of Wolverton’s work here, but there’s deeper, harder-to-grasp aspect of his art in the book too. That every image is dark or ugly or at least plain odd, no matter what it’s portraying touches on an innate sense of menace and fear central to the Old Testament. Diseased faces, boil-filled, blood pouring out, are only a tiny bit different from the ragged close-up of Moses’ faces a hundred or so pages earlier, and not even that different from the Platonic entity rising from the ground kicking-off the story of Creation. Don’t think of Wolverton’s book as an exception or a bizarre footnote in religious art but one and maybe the 20th century continuation.
What you see in Wolverton’s work, be it horrifying crab people of Gateway to Horror or Delilah’s tilted, provocative eyes (herself a horror character as far as Wolverton’s concerned) is a tension between conventional illustration and do-whatever-he-wants weirdness. Hidden inside of Wolverton’s illustrations is something “pure”—he just took the next bunch of hours to break apart that ideal cartoon face via jagged lines and dashes of ink—beaten up by a very Ruskinian sense of “savageness”. By the end of the book, pages after pages of doom and destruction, you realize that Wolverton is maybe the only person to illustrate the The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation--the most “savage” books of the bible.