The Wolverton Bible - Introduction: "Wolverton and Armstrong" by Monte Wolverton
Written by Monte Wolverton   
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The Wolverton Bible [Sold Out]
The Wolverton Bible [Sold Out]
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asil Wolverton, my father (who I will respectfully refer to as Wolverton throughout this book), was a unique cartoonist and illustrator, known for his extreme, otherworldly creatures, spaghetti-like hair, smoothly sculpted faces and figures and insanely detailed pen-and-ink work. Born in Oregon in 1909, Wolverton pitched his first comic strip to a syndicate at the age of 16. But it was 13 years later before he would sell his first comic features to the new media of comic books. “Disk-Eyes the Detective” and “Spacehawks” were published in 1938 in Circus Comics. in 1940, “Spacehawk” (a different and improved feature) made its debut in Target Comics. It would run for 30 episodes (262 pages) until 1942. “Powerhouse Pepper,” Wolverton’s most successful humor comic book feature was published in Timely, Marvel and Humorama publications from 1942 through 1952 (76 episodes, 539 pages). Wolverton penned many other features to produce a total of some 1,300 comic book pages. in 1946 he earned first prize for his rendition of lower Slobbovia's ugliest woman, Lena the Hyena. The contest, part of Al Capp’s “Li'l Abner” newspaper strip, was judged by no less than Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra and Salvador Dali. It won Wolverton fame (or notoriety), and moved his career into the mainstream spotlight for a few years, with features and caricatures appearing in Life and Pageant magazines. At the peak of his style in the early 1950s, he produced what many regard as his best comic art in 17 episodes of horror and science fiction, while, in the same general time period, creating incredibly outrageous work for the early MAD magazine.

Yet about this time, Wolverton was also embarking on a body of biblical and religious works that would occupy most of his efforts for the next two decades. The artwork in this volume includes nearly all of these illustrations — more than 700 — created by Basil Wolverton for the Worldwide Church of God and Ambassador College corporations, from the years 1953 through 1974.

As longtime aficionados of Basil Wolverton are aware, he was somewhat of a paradox. On one hand he was a Christian minister — gentle, 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 faith are inextricably woven together.

Wolverton was born in 1909 in Central Point, Oregon (near Medford) to parents who had come from Maine and new Brunswick to settle in Sunnyvale, near San Francisco. Not long after the earthquake of 1906, they moved to southern Oregon. His father tried his hand at various jobs and businesses (railroad construction foreman, sign painter, sheep rancher), some more successful than others. When Wolverton was about ten years of age, his family finally settled in Vancouver, Washington, just north of Portland, Oregon. Wolverton’s parents were devout Christians and they raised their children accordingly. Yet in the mid-1920s when Wolverton was in high school, his parents separated and his older sister died unexpectedly. Wolverton became disillusioned with religion. He would remain an agnostic (even atheist) for the next 12–14 years—until he encountered Herbert W. Armstrong.

Armstrong was 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, he joined a group of seventh-day sabbatarians, and his personal studies led him to believe 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 lost key to all biblical prophecy, and that the Great 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 launched his ministry in Eugene, Oregon, Armstrong believed 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 (both launched in 1934). 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.

While Armstrong was by all accounts a pioneer in religious broadcasting, his theology was regarded as heretical by most Christians — not so much because of his end-time prophetic constructs, but because of his requirement that believers observe selected Old Testament laws and regulations (including the seventh-day sabbath, Hebrew festivals and dietary practices) and his assertion that humans could become God.

in the late 1930s, young cartoonist Basil Wolverton was in the habit of surfing the radio as he worked on “Disk-Eyes the Detective” and “Spacehawks.” Armstrong's radio broadcast caught his attention. Wolverton wanted nothing to do with religion, but Armstrong’s newscasterlike speaking style, devoid of churchy language, both challenged and appealed to Wolverton. He was not equipped to see the problematic aspects of Armstrong’s theology and worldview. Beginning in early 1940, he corresponded with Armstrong, initially disputing his assertions about the existence of God. But ultimately, over a period of a year or two, Wolverton bought into Armstrong’s theology and was baptized by Armstrong in the Columbia River in 1941. Coincidentally, Wolverton’s estranged father had also been corresponding with and contributing to Armstrong, but Wolverton did not find this out until later.

As Armstrong got to know Wolverton and his wife Honor, he saw an energetic, young, professional couple who could help him with his mission. He ordained Wolverton an elder in 1943 and not long afterward appointed him to the board of his Radio Church of God (later known as Worldwide Church of God, or WCG). Although Armstrong would have liked even more involvement from Wolverton, these were Wolverton’s most productive comic book years, with “Powerhouse Pepper,” “Bingbang Buster,” “Mystic Moot and His Magic Snoot,” “Culture Corner” and many other features.

When Armstrong moved his growing operation to Pasadena, California in 1946 to establish his Ambassador College, he relied on Wolverton to pastor a small congregation in the Portland area. This was the same year Wolverton won the “Lena the Hyena” contest. As the 1950s began, Wolverton found himself preaching on the weekends while creating his horror and science fiction comic masterpiece stories, such as “Brain-Bats of Venus” and “The Eye of Doom” during the rest of the week.

In all this, Wolverton saw no conflict. One realm was religious and the other secular. He believed religious people needed to lighten up and not take themselves so seriously. He also saw that the biblical account was full of conflict, pathos, tragedy, violence, bloodshed and horror. It was, after all, a story of humanity — and in this way, Wolverton’s comic horror work and his grotesquely humorous drawings were consistent with his theological understanding of the human condition. His faith gave him hope, to be sure, but he did not view the current world optimistically. Dispensational theology in general, and that of Armstrong specifically, views human beings as fallen and destined to grow worse as time goes on, until the return of Christ.

As early as 1942 Armstrong had suggested to Wolverton that the comic industry would soon decline — that Wolverton would be wise not to rely on comics for his livelihood. He encouraged Wolverton to pursue his biblical studies. With Armstrong’s publishing and broadcasting efforts expanding, he was preparing Wolverton for more active involvement.

But Wolverton’s involvement in Armstrong’s publishing efforts would not come for another decade. His first major project for Armstrong was a series of illustrations based on the book of Revelation. Most of these Apocalyptic illustrations originally appeared in Plain Truth magazine later reprinted in two booklets, 1975 in Prophecy and The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last, as well as other church publications. These illustrations appear in Part 7 of this volume, and they arguably include Wolverton’s finest serious work.

Wolverton working on The Bible Story while vacationing at spirit lake, Washington, circa 1967
Wolverton working on The Bible Story at Spirit Lake, WA, circa 1967.

The second body of work commissioned by Armstrong was far larger, and comprises the first six parts of this volume — The Bible Story. The first mention in print of this project is in a letter from Herbert Armstrong to Wolverton dated July 1950. Another letter from 1952 discusses the idea of a Bible narrative done completely in comic strip format. The two men certainly had other discussions as to the nature of the project, which continued to evolve. Throughout 1953, Wolverton records in his journal that he is working on a “Noah’s Ark” story, which apparently included the creation account. The project as it was originally conceived consisted of large illustrations with captions which carried the story.

But the “Noah’s Ark” project was delayed because of temporary financial difficulties in the church. During that delay, the project morphed into a much larger, text-intensive project — one that would provide a sort of popularized Bible commentary for the historical narrative portions of the Old Testament. Armstrong also realized this could become an attractive serialized feature in his magazine. In 1957, Wolverton was commissioned to proceed on a full story of the Old Testament accompanied by illustrations, as opposed to the earlier concept.

The story was finally rolled out in the november 1958 issue of Plain Truth magazine. it continued in every issue through chapter 133, until December 1969. With the launch of Tomorrow’s World magazine in January of 1970, it was felt that The Bible Story (now renamed The Story of Man) was more suitable for this publication. Plain Truth was being positioned as a magazine of world news, social issues and science versus religion, and Tomorrow’s World carried more Biblical content. Serialization in Tomorrow’s World continued until chapter 156 in April 1972, ending with the “handwriting on the wall,” presaging the fall of Babylon.

in 1961, Armstrong had decided to bind the serialized Bible Story into volumes. These original six volumes (1961 thorough 1968) were distrubuted to WCG members around the time of the church’s spring or fall festivals, to encourage generous offerings.

From the beginning, both Wolverton and Armstrong sought to create a story that followed the Biblical account more accurately than children’s Bible story books on the market in the 1950s. Most of these books, following a sentimental tradition that had developed in the 19th century, laundered the narrative into something suitable and non-frightening for children. Wolverton did not want his story to seem religious, sanctimonious or churchy. He wanted it to come across as a straightforward account, with edgy, challenging illustrations. He hoped that his product would be read by secular types and well as religious. The Biblical account of Noah’s flood, for instance, was popularly portrayed with cute animals, a big boat and a kindly old man. The Biblical narrative, by contrast, is a disaster story of cataclysmic proportions, in which millions of people and animals violently die. Wolverton’s challenge was to portray the biblical accounts accurately without traumatizing children too much. Yet from his background in comics, he understood that children actually enjoy a certain amount of violence (how it effects them is another topic). In this way he was a pioneer for later comic artists, beginning in the 1970s, who would bring a more realistic interpretation to graphic renditions of the Bible.

In the second bound edition of The Bible Story, however, editors deleted the illustration of drowning people clawing at the ark (page 37), to avoid complaints from worried parents. several other drawings that were not included for similar reasons are mild by today’s standards. Wolverton received numerous letters over the years complaining about the horror and violence in his version of the Bible, but he never backed down from his position that the Old Testament needed to be depicted for what it was.

Wolverton’s working method for The Bible Story was similar to that which he had developed over decades of working in comics. He would become familiar with the scripture passages, read relevant commentaries and other works, and sometimes consult his associates in Pasadena for historical questions. Then he would write a first draft by hand in his characteristic block lettering style. Later, either he or his wife would type pages for mailing to Pasadena. His clipboard with drafts in progress always accompanied him on vacations and camping trips. For illustrations, he would select two or three scenes from each chapter. Often skipping roughs, he would pencil the image onto his Strathmore bristol and ink it. He preferred to rise at about 7 a.m., interspersing his work with household chores such as mowing the lawn, spading the garden or running errands. Most of his work was accomplished late at night, often until 1 or 2 a.m. The small black and white television in his studio was always on — tuned to daytime soap operas, old movies, boxing matches or Friday night professional wrestling. He would stop work from Friday sundown through Saturday sundown, as he observed the Saturday sabbath (he did not have a problem with watching professional wrestling or boxing during that time, however).

Because he spent long hours on The Bible Story and other work for the church, he felt comfortable taking an occasional few days to work on freelance projects for clients such as MAD, Cracked, Plop!, and Topps Chewing Gum. Wolverton commented that these projects were a kind of dessert for him after days of working on the comparatively serious work of The Bible Story.

Armstrong by Wolverton, 1962
Armstrong by Wolverton, 1962.

Armstrong wanted Wolverton to move to Pasadena. He offered to ordain him an evangelist (the top ministerial rank in WCG, under Armstrong) and give him an office and secretary. Wolverton considered the move, pondering the idea of a home in Tarzana, in the San Fernando valley, a comfortable distance from church headquarters. But ultimately he declined the offer for three reasons: 1) The idea of an office, a secretary and wearing a suit and tie every day did not appeal to Wolverton, 2) He didn’t like the hot climate. He preferred the Northwest and its proximity to forests, water and fishing, 3) He had deep roots in Vancouver, with family and many friends living there. During the 1940s, a move to New York would have furthered his career in the comic industry — but he chose to remain in Vancouver.

Meanwhile in the ‘50s and ‘60s the growing WCG was becoming increasingly institutionalized and legalistic. Members who dissented with church teaching or authority were subject to being “disfellowshipped” and shunned.

In this environment, Wolverton was somewhat of an anomaly. In contrast to the strict church culture, Wolverton put people at ease with his self-effacing humor and off-the-wall wit. He was admired and sought out for his balance and wisdom. If this was too "liberal" for any of the more officious ministers, Wolverton was generally immune from their criticism because of his friendship with Armstrong. In the early ‘60s, for example, when Wolverton was editor of the local WCG congregational newspaper in Portland, he ran caricatures of leading ministers, including Herbert Armstrong, complete with mildly satirical text. Only indirectly did he hear of any of his targets being upset.

in the early ‘50s, Armstrong and his son Garner Ted invited Wolverton to contribute his outrageous cartooning style to the college publications. Part 8 of this volume includes these and all of Wolverton’s cartoons for various church and college publications. These are nearly as delightful as his best humorous work for any secular publication.

It is worthy to note that in spite of all the WCG rules, regulations and discipline of the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were good times to be had. Armstrong’s teachings did not ban the use of alcohol (in moderation), dancing, card playing and other recreational activities forbidden by many fundamentalist groups. Both Wolverton and his wife, Honor, loved to entertain, enjoyed good food and good friends (in and out of the church) and led a very active social life.

Wolverton circa 1969
Wolverton circa 1969.

By the time Wolverton had finished the Old Testament, the plan was to condense the story and republish it in six new volumes. In 1972, having finished the writing of The Bible Story, Wolverton set about revising and condensing the story toward that end, but a stroke ended his work in 1974, and it was not until 1982 that the revised blue-covered six volumes of The Bible Story were published (some art was not included for space reasons — and some because it was deemed too grotesque or violent). This version included all the material up to the fall of Babylon. For reasons unknown, the final chapters Wolverton had written — through the book of Nehemiah — were not included. The art for these chapters is published in this volume for the first time.

Why didn't Wolverton continue the story through the New Testament? He could have — and was probably up for the task, but Armstrong felt it was a violation of the second Commandment to picture Jesus in any form. A New Testament story would have comprised a narrative of the Gospels and the book of Acts, incorporating some historical inferences from the Epistles. Of course Wolverton had already done some of his best illustrations based on the book of Revelation. But there were no plans for the rest of the New Testament and a stroke in 1974 ended Wolverton’s ability to work.

The ‘70s were tumultuous times for the WCG, with various scandals and defections of ministers. Because of this (and ‘70s culture in general) there was a certain slackening from the harsh days of the ‘50s and ‘60s — a change which Wolverton welcomed. Wolverton died in 1978, and did not live to see the profound doctrinal and cutural reforms of the church which eventually followed Armstrong’s death in 1986. While Wolverton would have been saddened by the loss of his friend and benefactor Herbert Armstrong, he would likely have embraced the reforms in his church — as his wife and family did.

As art historians will attest, many of the world’s outstanding creative endeavors have been driven by unorthodox worldviews, whether one agrees with the worldviews or not. The collaboration of Wolverton and Armstrong is an example of this. Had Armstrong not developed his peculiar theology, and had Wolverton not accepted it, we would not have the incredible body of work contained in this volume.

—M.W.


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