Basil Wolverton was a true enigma of a man, best known for his work in both MAD Magazine and for his religious illustrations for the Radio Church of God (also known as the Worldwide Church of God, for whom he served as a board member) and of the Old Testament. His unforgettable grotesque and psychedelic style could be used just as easily to convey something hilarious as it could something damning, though there are certainly commonalities to be drawn in his use of exaggeration for doing both.
Although Wolverton’s early works of note were Powerhouse Pepper and Spacehawk, it was not these accomplishments that brought his distinctly characterized style into the public eye- but instead a contest that he won within the storyline of Al Capp’s famous Li’l Abner comic to draw the ugliest woman alive. As a smart humor device and a way to keep his readers hooked, in 1946 Capp introduced the now legendary character Lena the Hyena of Lower Slobbovia into the world of Li’l Abner on the premise that she was so hideous that anyone who looked upon her immediately went insane- and he himself never drew her face. Instead, the public was baited with teases of exposing Lena’s visage, which went on for months before Capp finally held a competition for readers to send in their own versions of Lena- the ugliest of which would be selected by Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra, and Salvador Dali. Yes, this was indeed a time for comics where celebrities of such a high caliber were actually participating as judges for a gag on the funny pages.
Among the couple million other strips in our beloved San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection are chronological clippings of Capp’s Lil Abner, so we thought we’d share some of the build up to Wolverton’s striking national debut. Considering that the Lena the Hyena plot was built up over such a long period of time, we’ll fill in some of the gaps to explain the story as we go.
For starters, Lena the Hyena is the most despised citizen of Lower Slobbovia, the country that fictional cartoonist Lester Gooch (author of Capp’s comic-within-the-comic, “Fearless Fosdick”, a favorite among citizens of Dogpatch) found her living in. Gooch is determined to show Lena’s face to the public by drawing her in his comic, but goes insane after doing so, only to find out that his editor has removed her image from the page because it was simply too vile to see.
After escaping the sanatorium that he was placed in, Lester Gooch struggles time and again to recreate his drawing of Lena, even going to such lengths as killing a dentist in order to steal his “Freezocaine” so that he can numb himself from the revulsion enough to redraw her. This eventually works.
However, just as Gooch has finished his masterpiece, the police and doctors break into his apartment to drag him back to the hospital. As he tries to flee by jumping out a window, they capture him but the drawing of Lena floats out onto the wind. From there, its travels in the breeze causes weeks of devastation in the Li’l Abner strips as police officers and top meteorologists trace its path. Below, two of the more ridiculous strips from this hunt:
Mass-hysteria continues, at some point dissuading a gang of “good will” distributing aliens from visiting earth after they catch a glimpse of Lena’s picture through a telescope. Eventually, the President calls for all red-blooded American’s to help:
A jury of Frank Sinatra, Boris Karloff, and Salvador Dali is formed to judge the submissions of the best (or worst) rendition of Lena the Hyena, the 500,000 of which even included an entry from Carl Barks. Below, the reasons for choosing the judges and their response to call of duty:
After more social upheaval, and as the public impatiently waits to see Lena’s face once and for all- the acclaimed judges survive the process and finally deliver both the verdict and Basil Wolverton’s talent to the national public eye:
Wolverton’s career was intensely amplified after this (Lena’s face making it to the cover of MAD Magazine), with his portraits soon appearing in Life and Pageant. In tune with his now defined drawing style which Life would coin “spaghetti and meatballs”, these portraits include the two originals below from our collection, of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Stalin:
Although his name is not a household one, Wolverton’s influence on countless other well-known cartoonists like R. Crumb is undeniable, and his unique style would become a school of cartooning in itself. Basil would be 103 this year on July 9th.