Basil Wolverton's Bible: the putting the grotesque into the Old Testament

Last month, I discovered that underground grotesque comics virtuoso Basil Wolverton had produced a series of Biblical illustrations, collected by Fantagraphics in a volume called The Wolverton Bible. Fantagraphics were kind enough to send me a review copy of the book and all I can say is "Holy cats!"

Wolverton wasn't just a funnybooks illustrator: he was also a member of a millenarian evangelical church called the Worldwide Church of God, a sect that believed in obeying Old Testament lifestyle laws and the literal truth of Revelations. So it was natural that Wolverton ended up with a regular, paid gig illustrating a series of Bible stories for kids and adults published in the Church's magazines like Plain Truth and in booklets with titles like Prophecy and The Book of Revelations, overseen by Church leader Herbert Armstrong, who had converted Wolverton to his faith.

Wolverton appears to have had little trouble squaring his faith with his legendary grotesque drawings (his notorious Life Magazine spoof for MAD was so freaky it inspired legal threats) -- he felt that the secular was secular, and could be lighthearted and weird as you wanted -- but he was also clearly a believer in the gravitas of the faith, as can be seen from these drawings.

Wolverton and Armstrong wanted to create a set of illustrated Bible stories that went beyond the whitewashed, cheerful kids' books of the day, to show the Old Testament for what it is: a book full of blood, thunder and revenge. Accordingly, Wolverton's illustrations, done in the same unmistakable, stippled style that characterized his grotesqueries, show off the grim, the violent, and the destructive in the Old Testament, putting the blood and guts in the spotlight.

The result is like no illustrated Bible you've ever seen. Goliath is a horrific giant cyclops; the drowning sinners trying to claw their way onto Noah's Ark are caught in flashbulb moments of terror and agony; Saul's army rends the raw meat of their slaughter as they try to avoid starvation; the mutilated corpses of Baanah and Rechab dangle from nooses in Hebron; the boiled heads of donkeys emerge from the cooking pot as starving Israelites look on with hungry eyes; Daniel's horned beast crushes a mountain of screaming men and women as it stalks the land; and in Revelations, the rains of fire, floods and famine lay waste to cities as horribly burned famine victims scream and claw at their flesh.

And the Passover story, of course, gets its own grisly treatment. This isn't your grandfather's Haggadah, is what I'm trying to say.

This is a side of Wolverton I never suspected, but it is perfectly him, humorous, grisly, mad and wonderful.

The Wolverton Bible

Mad Prophet (blog post with nice scans from the book)


  1. moment of obligatory pedantry:

    it’s Revelation with no “s,” not Revelations, at least if we’re talking about the New Testament eschatological hallucination and not whatever pamphlet the post mentions.

  2. OK, normally I don’t like correcting people, but you’re a sci-fi writer and I always appreciate your posts. It’s Revelation. Singular. That one really annoys me, sorry.

    I’m going to read the Hell out of this.

  3. It’s hard to imagine what Wolverton could draw that could be any more grotesque than what’s already been written in many parts of the bible.

  4. Wolverton’s always been amazing. I’ve enjoyed his work for decades.

    I like the buildings in the picture in the post — remind me of the buildings in the Desert Punk anime.

  5. It really is a brutal book for the most part, and it’s hard to look at it and accept that Wolverton was approaching it from an angle of faith. It seems very frank in that regard – there’s no sugar-coating. Most Ark stories for kids will focus on the Ark itself and its inhabitants, in my experience, but Wolverton wants us all to realise that almost everyone in the world drowned in terror.

    It’d be a piece of cake to add captions that turned it into a powerful anti-Christian book, but that’d be boorish. It is what it is – the truth, as Wolverton saw it, in all its raw and terrible glory.

    I can’t decide if that’s better or worse for kids than sugar-coating. I guess it treads a fine line of trauma between jolting them into thinking about the whole thing critically and shocking them into a state of unquestioning awe.

  6. Dunno, Staggs, if you got the Hoser Bible, you’d someday take off the dust jacket to see, in huge letters on the spine, “The HOLY BIBLE by Barry Hoser.” An incredible embarrassment: vanity projects shouldn’t generally draw attention to themselves as such.

    Skip Hoser, most of his illustrations suck anyway. His woodcuts are often too dark and heavy for my taste: Hoser’s Bible’s nowhere as good as, say, his Moby Dick woodcuts, or his delicate, haunting watercolors for Allen Mandelbaum’s Dante translations. Wolverton FTW!

  7. My main point was that Hoser’s Bible is a vanity project with sucky illustrations. And no verse divisions, making it rather hard to use as a reading or reference Bible. It just kind of sucks all around….

  8. Scriptgirl (who does weekly script purchase reports on youtube) had a genius take on Passover as a Hollywood-style Christmas comedy: a guy accidentally kills the Angel of Death with his ox cart and has to ‘save Passover’ by taking on the Angel’s grisly responsibilities. I LOL’d. :D

  9. Wolverton was no weirder than his spiritual leader, Herbert W. Armstrong, whose ubiquitous radio preachments poisoned the airwaves for decades. It was a perfect marriage of grotesques.

    1. I absolutely agree with your comment, buddy66! I was brought up in Herbert Armstrong’s fear-based cult and I can’t agree more! I have, even at my age, had nightmares about Basil Wolverton’s drawings, to which I was first introduced to some 40 years ago. Not appropriate for children, at all.

  10. I wonder why they didn’t include any color illustrations? I know they exist, I’ve seen them.

  11. I hear Boody Roger’s bible was far weirder and had to be destroyed lest total anarchy result. ;)

  12. My mother joined that church when I was about four and read the Wolverton Bible to me as a child– I absolutely loved the pictures. The bible was in 6 gray volumes. After leaving that church, my mother threw them out to my chagrin. I managed to score 4 of the 6 volumes when the church reprinted them in the 1980’s.

    I note that the print quality in the Fantagraphics version is better than in the church’s 1980’s reprint; one can see more of the detail in Wolverton’s art. Also, there was a huge amount of text in the Wolverton Bible that is not present in the Fantagraphics printing. There was roughly one picture for every three pages of text. I believe (but don’t know how to verify) that the text was also by Wolverton.

  13. I was raised in that church, but was an atheist (at age 11) before they threw us out because my mother wore makeup. My uncle is still a deacon there and he was the guy behind our expulsion – nicest thing he ever did for the family I think. I remember these as a child and I really enjoyed the strange illustrations a LOT more than the stories. I wish I still had the books.

  14. wowzers! my husband was raised in this church (he kept kosher more strictly than i ever did, and I’m a jew!), and if this is the kind of family bible they had around the house when he was growing up it sure would explain a lot about him!

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