Basil Wolverton's Worldview
Longtime aficionados of Basil Wolverton are aware that he is somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand he was a Christian minister -- quiet, 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 his religion are inextricably woven together.
Wolverton's beliefs derived largely from the bizarre and eclectic teachings of Herbert Armstrong, 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, among a group of seventh-day sabbatarians, he became convinced 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 heretofore lost key to all biblical prophecy, and that the 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 began his ministry in Eugene, Oregon, Armstrong quickly fell into the delusion 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. 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. Armstrong, of course, was wrong -- and this would not be the last time.
In the late 1930's, Herbert Armstrong's radio broadcast attracted the attention of a Vancouver, Washington comic artist, Basil Wolverton. The son of devout Christian parents, Wolverton had slipped into agnosticism. Armstrong changed that. Wolverton was baptized in 1941 and ordained an elder in 1943. During these years, Wolverton was also busily producing his comic book features -- such as Spacehawk, Powerhouse Pepper, Rockman, Disk-Eyes the Detective, Scoop Scuttle, and Mystic Moot and His Magic Snoot.
When Armstrong moved his growing operation to Pasadena, California in 1946, he relied on Wolverton to pastor a small congregation in the Portland area. That same year, Wolverton achieved national fame outside of comics as winner of Al Capp's Lena the Hyena contest. This led to his grotesque drawings and caricatures being featured in Life and Pageant magazines. In the early 1950s, Wolverton also produced his finest comic book work -- 17 horror and science fiction features, including "Brain -Bats of Venus" and "The Eye of Doom." The early MAD magazine utilized Wolverton's unique talents -- and they continue to use his art today.
Meanwhile, Armstrong's Radio Church of God (later renamed Worldwide Church of God), and Ambassador College were growing, as were his broadcasting and publishing efforts. In the early 1950s, he commissioned Wolverton to begin work on two projects. One was writing and illustrating a story of the Old Testament, which began serial publication in The Plain Truth magazine in 1958 -- later to be published in six volumes. The other was this series of spectacular illustrations depicting shocking scenes from the Book of Revelation, to accompany a series of articles on that subject in The Plain Truth. -- later reprinted in two booklets, 1975 in Prophecy and The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last.
During the 60s and 70s, Wolverton continued to be active in local ministry, while continuing to work on his story of the Old Testament, while continuing to create increasingly bizarre humorous work for a variety of publications and clients: Plop magazine, Barker greeting cards, Topps, and others.
Basil Wolverton died in 1978. Herbert Armstrong died in 1986. Shortly thereafter, a reformed Worldwide Church of God abandoned Armstrong's unorthodox doctrinal constructs, including Anglo-Israelism, an emphasis on prophecy, and ecclesiastical exclusivism. Plain Truth magazine continues publication, albeit by a different organization (Plain Truth Ministries) and with very different content.
Wolverton's apocalyptic drawings are an important historical record, not only of a fanatically (albeit well-intentioned) literal view of biblical prophecy, but of the mindset of the mid-1950s. The bomb -- the threat of disorder and the breakdown of society -- radioactivity -- disease epidemics -- cataclysms -- things which caused the 1950s citizen to break out in perspiration. These are things (perhaps no less impending -- who knows?) at which we yawn today. But as you gaze upon Wolverton's images of the ultimate cataclysm, you just might find a few beads of sweat breaking out on your forehead.
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