June 16, 2015

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Creeping Death from Neptune The Life and Comics of Basil Wolverton Vol 1


Biographical Writing by Greg Sadowski
Comics by Basil Wolverton (with a few others for context)
Published by Fantagraphics

Go all the way back to the beginning of the comic book era with this fascinating look at a man who struggled mightily to find his niche in medium that was still in its infancy. Basil Wolverton may not be one of the best known of the early comic book creators, but the Pacific Northwest native was getting rejections while trying to put gag strips next to Batman in Detective Comics and having Joe Simon find others to draw characters Wolverton created, among other fascinating stories uncovered by Greg Sadowski in this first part of a look at Wolverton's life and comics career.

I admit to knowing almost nothing about Wolverton, as his most notable work is all in gag comics such as Mad Magazine and other similar veins, an area of comics that while I appreciate others enjoy, holds very little appeal for me personally.* However, I've been really digging learning more about early comics history, both in terms of reprints like Fantagraphics' excellent Fletcher Hanks volumes or historical overviews, such as (again) Fantagraphics' Pretty in Ink. And here we are again, with yet another Fanta book that covers that time period, and it's just as good as the others I've read.

Wolverton is old enough that his career could have followed any number of directions. He was a man doing a bit of everything--reporting, comedy, promotional jingles, and even an attempt to get into Walt Disney, which did not work. (Sadowski reprints the rejection letter, along with several other notable ones, making all of us who've ever gotten them nod our heads.) He was sending both stories and covers to the print pulps, and that, too, failed. Wolverton could have been spoken alongside Howard and Lovecraft instead of Feldstein and Aragones, had life taken a different path.


Watching that evolution and change and constant shifting of gears is fascinating, as Wolverton tries to stick to his artistic guns even as the industry--even at this early stage--starts to calcify into something that's basically changed little at its core since World War II. Sure you can draw bodies ripped in two and throw F-bombs (both freely and badly "censored"), but now, just as then, anything different is looked at strangely.

This was a real problem for Wolverton, as we see in this book. He was very adamant about what he wanted in his sci-fi horror stories, and one wonders if EC had come along about ten years earlier, would he have been at the vanguard? There's definitely some hints he'd have found a home there, as we see in some great unpublished work (and a few that were, in altered forms) presented here by Sadowski. Thanks to the editorial notes he also includes, we find just how strange some of the space work might have become, had Wolverton been allowed total freedom.

In terms of the science fiction work, Wolverton's lines are pretty typical of the time period, except that he's not so good on the details. He'll draw grotesque monsters and wild backgrounds, but a ray gun's just a gun gussied up a bit, and instrument panels look a bit like a set from a cheap movie. His figure work, however, is pretty strong, especially for the time. You'll see some definite similarities to Hanks because of the subject matter of outer space, but he seems to have a much better grasp of science. The creatures from each planet are much more theoretically plausible based on the planet itself--relatively speaking of course. His dialogue is pretty good, too,

The humor? Well, it's got some good slapstick moments, particularly one recurring theme with a doctor who wants to operate on everyone, but it's a bit dated. Kinda reminded me a bit of Popeye in terms of the character designs and structuring. Part of that is no doubt due to Wolverton constantly trying to get into the newspapers, so his full comic pages are often news strips converted into the larger format.



All of this is covered in the text sections by Sadowski. He breaks things up into pairs, covering Wolverton's life and career, then showing examples of comics from that time period. It's a great balance, as the comics are allowed to flow and breathe, and you can feel like you're following along with his career path without getting interrupted by a page or two of out-of-context art. Sure, there are examples of things (like the "My God, those are amazing" moon drawings, from an aborted project) and pictures of Wolverton and his world, but it's not like other things I've seen, where the comics aspect takes a back seat or is so chopped up as to be hard to contextualize. Sadowski nails the balance well, and it's a model other comics historians should follow.

I also liked that while I got a lot of information, it didn't feel bloated. Too often, biographies are so freaking long, I feel like it will take my entire life to read about theirs. That's not true here. Sadowski shows us slices of Wolverton's life, like the job hunts, his compulsive need to participate in contests, and trying to keep his finances in order when the comics industry was full of companies, projects, and issues that came and went from month to month. (The more things change, right?)

Obviously, this is something that isn't going to be for everyone. You have to be interested in the subject material, which I definitely am. If you also want to know more about the early days of comics, and see things that are in  the hands of private collectors, possibly reproduced for the only time, then you're in for a treat. This is extremely well done, with slick writing and Fantagraphics usual high production quality, and comes highly recommended.

*I am extremely picky about what I find funny. Make me laugh and you'll hear me three states away. But it's extremely hard to do, across comics, television, and especially prose. Oh man, the number of things that are supposed to be funny in print that I just find banal. Anyway, felt I should make that clear.