It’s an odd thing, to learn all about your favorite creators. Sometimes they delight a reader, by discovering that they’re as gracious, kind and pleasant as you might want. Sometimes they disappoint by being a jerk. But sometimes – and this happens only rarely to me – you get confused by the mismatch between the work that this creator presents and the way that he lives his life. There seems to be a disconnect between the attitude presented in his or her art, and the way that they live their life.
That odd thought is triggered by Creeping Death from Neptune, the first half of a magisterial biography of the great Basil Wolverton. To me, he’s the master of odd science fiction, of scenes like the one above that anticipates the great bar scene in Star Wars with a group of aliens who look improvised on the spot, arbitrarily created, weird and sublime and oddly realistic in their strangeness.
Wolverton’s life was apparently not very odd at all. He lived what appears to be a very happy life in Vancouver, Washington, far from the New York publishers, with a wife he loved, many friends with whom he played board games, a nice car (that’s him with his brand-new Ford Tudor V-8, which cost $720 in 1947) and deep involvement in his religion. He was happy – or so it seems anyway – and aside from having trouble making a living in comics (he worked in a seafood cannery on the side), he didn’t appear to have many troubles.
In fact, part of what makes this biography so fascinating is in the manner in which it explores how hard it was to be a working comic book artist in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In preparation for this biography, Sadowski had access to Wolverton’s private records. The artist didn’t save copies of the letters he sent to editors, but he saved all the editors’ replies, and those are reproduced and shared in copious detail. It’s thrilling in a way to read the original mail from Centaur Publications or Detective Comics, reprinted with Fantagraphics’s typically exhaustive attention to detail as the stories reprinted here. For us history geeks, that level of attention is fascinating and fun, a great exploration of obscure corners of pictoral history. There is an awful lot of these old letters shared here, perhaps a bit too much detail for me as my eyes glazed over after a while, but it’s important to keep this sort of history alive and in print.
But what readers really want from a volume like this is a chronicle of Wolverton’s obscurities and juvenilia along with some classic work by him. Sadowski unearths dozens of images that the artist created in his younger years, including the wonderfully evocative image above, which has many of the elements of his greatest science fiction stories. Wolverton loved art deco, blimplike spaceships with giant portals in the front as well as strange alien landscapes; here you can see those concepts at play in some relatively early work.
One of the coolest things that Sadowski unearthed was a blind submission that Wolverton sent to take over the Mickey Mouse comic strip, which was then drawn by the great Floyd Gottfredson. On this page Wolverton combines his deep love for Mickey Mouse with his love for alien creatures and landscapes. It was smart of the artist to work to his strengths in his submission, and also to follow the house style of the comics with sweat flying from all the characters’ heads, but he had to know his submission was a futile gesture.
I never get tired of looking at Basil Wolverton’s space adventures, with their full-fledged alien characters and use of blacks that causes images to pop from the page. The page above has an almost three-dimensional quality at times, which makes the images pop on the page. This 1939 page starts to show Wolverton’s glorious mature style beginning to fall into place.
That style comes to delightful life by 1940’s “Space Patrol”, with magnificent Golden Age of Sci-Fi hokum on display. We get weird lizardlike space aliens, a benign friendly bipedal space alien, a love for jewels that implies they’ll be just as valuable in outer space as they are on Earth, an art deco space ship, an escape in the nick of time, and of course a heady dose of American optimism. This is undiluted Wolverton as I love him: nearly camp in its solemnity.
You can see in these “Space Patrol” stories why Wolverton was so beloved by fans of underground comics. With their dreamlike logic and impossible creatures, these stories were literal and figurative trips to other worlds that ordinary people could only dream of. This is auteur work at its most psychotronic, with an energy and joy that seems to radiate optimism.
Wolverton’s art in these stories is beautifully straightforward and relatively unadorned. It’s melodramatic and arbitrary and unembellished, sincere stories to captivate young children and those yearning for escape, or for those who crave a pure vision of an artistic viewpoint distilled in its simplest form upon the comic page. Wolverton was completely self-taught as an artist and didn’t have many – if any—friends who worked as artists, so his work was raised as a hothouse flower, free from outside influence and completely his own. Though his editors gave him much guidance (and you can see his editors’ strong effect on his work in the wonderful Spacehawk collection), Wolverton was forced to be his own man because of where he lived.
In fact, towards the end of this volume, Wolverton was edited by Joe Simon, co-creator of the dynamic Captain America. Simon asked Wolverton to break up his static panel arrangements and use some of the techniques that Simon and his partner Jack Kirby used in their comics – characters breaking out of panel borders, or odd-shaped panels – and the results seem awkward, like flashy clothes on a conservative man. The pages of this “Rockman” story are dynamic but they look strange and uncomfortable, the linework in conflict with the panel design.
Creeping Death from Neptune takes readers from 1909 to 1941 and provides an invaluable biography of the first half of Basil Wolverton’s life. It’s a must-read for any lover of classic comic art. However, Wolverton’s art gets even more wild and wonderful after World War II. The second volume of his life and times will be glorious, and the last few stories in Creeping Death show some of the brilliance that readers will find within that book. Even if his life itself is surprisingly ordinary.