Beauty Of the Beast

Too ghoul for school. Image courtesy of the Grand Central Art Center.

For many years, Mad Magazine hyped Don Martin as "Mad's maddest artist." Martin's work featured square-headed, dimwitted idiots who were forever doing gross, improbable things while accompanied by such sound effects as GAZOONT! and SPLOINK! It was gloriously goofy stuff, sure, but if true madness was what you looking for—nightmarish, squirm-inducing, sometimes even Naked Lunch-ian madness—well, Basil Wolverton was your guy. Wolverton's characters were hilarious nightmares, fleshy horrors with noodle hair, staring eyes and big, drooling mouths with cracked teeth going every which way.

"The Original Art of Basil Wolverton," the new show at the Grand Central Art Gallery, offers you the chance to get up close and personal with some of the greatest beasties to ever crawl out of the end of a pen.

There's something so hideously tactile about Wolverton's creations. The little hairs on their heads, each strand so distinct (they always have hairs, not hair) that they look like they would be springy to the touch and leave an oily film on your fingers. The flesh appears warm and clammy, like you could really reach into the page and grab hold of those saggy jowls and floppy noses. (Not that we'd recommend it.) And those nostrils! Lord almighty, you can practically hear the snorting laughter of these freaks and smell the garlic on their breath. You definitely wouldn't want Wolverton's parade of grotesqueries to follow you home—even if you put down plastic, you just know they'd totally ruin your furniture.

As brilliantly twisted as Wolverton's art was, he had a way with words that was equally inventive. His comics assaulted you with relentless wordplay—murderous puns, groan-worthy rhymes, thumping alliteration. One moment, Wolverton's mutant boxer Powerhouse Pepper is getting sweet-talked by a pretty girl, and he has a "lush blush on his mush." Then he's encountering a belligerent monster and threatens to dish out "a clout on your snout." Wolverton once described himself as a "Producer of Preposterous Pictures of Peculiar People Who Prowl This Perplexing Planet." (And that's all well and good, of course, but we wish we could have asked him: Which planet?)

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The show reveals some fascinating and surprising details about Wolverton's life. It seems almost inevitable that he dabbled in vaudeville as a young man, but fans of his comedic work will be amazed to discover his crackling sci-fi adventure comics, depicting fat little rocket ships of the Buck Rogers school and faraway worlds that look like backgrounds from one of Dr. Seuss' crazier picture books.

It's even more startling to learn that the creator of all these cartoon ghouls was a deeply religious man; baptized into Herbert W. Armstrong's Radio Church of God in 1941, Wolverton became ordained as an elder in 1943. Wolverton illustrated some horrifying pamphlets that Armstrong gave away as part of his long-running radio show, The World Tomorrow(Wolverton's 1975 in Prophecy is even more grim than the real 1975 turned out to be). He also wrote and illustrated The Bible Story(a.k.a. The Story of Man), a six-volume series covering the entire Old Testament.

Wolverton's apocalyptic visions of people suffering from sickly boils and wretched famine don't exactly put the fear of God into you; they put the fear of everything into you. Spend enough time with Wolverton's art, and you don't even want to have a body anymore. You just want to be a nice, safe brain in a nice, clean jar on a nice, quiet shelf.

But while Wolverton excelled at sci-fi and holy terror and pretty much everything else he did with his pen, he will perhaps be most fondly remembered for his "beautiful girls"—who were, of course, anything but. He first got noticed in a big way when he won a 1946 Li'L Abner contest to depict Lena Hyena, the ugliest girl in the world. The judges were Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra and Salvador Dali (and man, don't you wish you could've heard those three fumbling to make small talk), and they rightly proclaimed Wolverton's Lena the very Lena-est in all the land. With her H.R. Giger teeth protruding from a vulture-like face, Lena was a punk-band mascot 30 years ahead of her time. Wolverton would spend the rest of his life depicting girls who made Lena look like a babe. Head over to the Grand Central Art Gallery, introduce yourself to Wolverton's honeys, and maybe you'll make a love connection.


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