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)