(This is the 7th installment of a series. Be sure to start with Part 1)
Although I grew up in the 1950s and graduated high school in 1964, I don’t really remember having much personal angst about the nuclear threat of the Cold War as a young person—except for the short period around the Cuban Missile Crisis and President Kennedy’s national address in Fall 1962. His comments about the world hanging over the Abyss of Destruction were indeed a bit unnerving! But in a few days, the Soviets backed down, and I went back to not paying much attention. I don’t remember watching nightly news on the TV, or reading newspapers or news magazines such as Time, to keep up with the latest information on A-bombs and H-bombs and Mutual Assured Destruction. I was too busy thinking about homework, school dances, and the latest clothing fads.
This changed when I got married at age 18, in May 1965, at the end of my Freshman year in college. One day shortly after the wedding, my new husband, George, brought home to our apartment a tall stack of magazines and other literature from his parents’ home. Back in 1959 or so, when he was in high school, he had answered an ad in the back of an old December 1957 Capper’s Farmer magazine he found while rummaging in his mother’s stash of clutter in the attic. (She had kept the issue for the Christmas cookie recipes.) The ad offered free copies of booklets titled 1975 in Prophecy, Will Russia Attack America? and The United States and the British Commonwealth in Prophecy. And included would be a free subscription to a monthly magazine, The Plain Truth. All were offered as publications of “Ambassador College.” As a bored, flat-broke high school student, free sounded good, so he sent for it all.
From that day until our marriage, he had continued to receive the free magazine issues, and kept them all. He didn’t mention any of this—nor anything about his religious beliefs—during our brief courtship, so I was taken by surprise by this unusual literature.
I had never read any of the Bible on my own. And although I’d attended several different churches with friends and relatives during my childhood and teen years, none of the preachers or Sunday School teachers ever talked about prophecy. So the information in this literature published by Ambassador College came in totally from Left Field, and was a shock to my system.
The writing style was very bombastic and insistent, pummeling the reader with facts about the ominous reality of current world conditions and how they fit in with Bible prophecy.
And the grim and gory illustrations in the 1975 in Prophecy booklet of the “prophesied” world-wide tsunami and the Plague of Boils were horrifying.
Before the summer was over, I was hooked on this material, and had read the booklets as well as many of the issues of the Plain Truth. Each magazine and booklet also offered more free literature, so I began sending for everything they had to offer and started building my Apocalyptic library. There was a lot of material included that was on topics unrelated to prophecy, and I read all of it, too. But the prophetic material overshadowed everything else with its constant appeal to paranoia and near hysteria. Jesus was scheduled to return to earth to set up a beautiful Kingdom of God by 1975. But before that would be the Great Tribulation.
I learned the most about that Tribulation in one of the earliest booklets I sent for, titled The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last! And the first grim illustration in it cemented my new interest in nuclear war.
In the coming months and years I was to be exposed to quite a few more of this kind of grim illustration, peppered throughout literature published by Ambassador College. Sometimes the topic wasn’t even all that grim, but the artwork had the same gritty “feel” to it.
It was obvious after a while that the illustrations were all drawn by the same idiosyncratic artist—who had a fascination with filling every square inch of a picture with dense inked-in dots, hashmarks, and other “textures”—particularly of human skin that looked, even on “pretty ladies” (such as Delilah shown below), like it was pockmarked with acne!
The artist’s name was Basil Wolverton, but his name didn’t ring any bells at the time. All that I figured out early on was that Ambassador College was an arm of an organization called the Radio Church of God. And the Radio Church of God seemed to really, really like Basil’s artwork.
They used his “semi-realistic” illustrations in The Bible Story, an ongoing serialized collection of Bible episodes in their Plain Truth magazine.
They used some more openly “cartoonic” work by Basil in a manual for their men’s speaking group, “Ambassador Spokesman Club.”
But they used it most effectively to whip up panic with illustrations to go along with their prophetic pronouncements. Below are samples from a series of articles about the book of Revelation that ran in the Plain Truth from 1953-1955. These articles were later combined into the Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last booklet, and the accompanying illustrations from the magazine were included in that booklet and also in 1975 in Prophecy.
The magazine and booklets were all done in black and white, and the illustrations are horrific enough in that form. But a few years ago I discovered that Basil’s son, cartoonist Monte Wolverton, “colorized” all those old pics to look the way he believed his dad had originally envisioned, and uploaded them to the Web. The color certainly adds to their impact. Below are colorized samples of some of the most poignant. The prophetic scheme of the Radio Church of God of the time declared that first would come a thermo-nuclear World War III, with resulting famines and disease epidemics. Close on the heels of that would be huge natural disasters including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, asteroids hitting the earth, and more. All before 1975.
I’ve personally talked and corresponded with many people who grew up in the Radio Church of God, or the later Worldwide Church of God, who vividly remember having nightmares in their childhood about the illustrations in these booklets, pushed on them by their parents. Why would parents force-feed such visions to their young children … sometimes even pre-schoolers? Because Herbert Armstrong, whom they believed to be a unique spokesman for God Himself, insisted they should:
Plain Truth magazine, Febuary/March 1955 Plain Truth Herbert Armstrong
“Yes, I KNOW these pictures are terrifying… but they may save thousands of precious lives from the horrible fate they depict—including yours! Read WHY we are forced to publish them—and of the happy World Tomorrow just beyond! There is the final article on the BOOK OF REVELATION. READ! THINK! HEED!”
… Some few have written me gripes and criticisms. Some few have not wanted to SEE such realistic pictures of WHAT’S COMING IN REAL LIFE! Some few have threatened to stop reading the PLAIN TRUTH, unless I stop publishing such realistic pictures! Some don’t want their children to see such pictures! Yes, I KNOW these pictures are terrifying—revolting! THAT’S WHY WE ARE PUBLISHING THEM. Better show our children what’s coming—better WAKE THEM UP—and teach them how to SEEK GOD and His divine protection. Better explain to them that these horrible conditions NEED NOT ever strike them—that they MAY be taken on a flight to a place of SAFETY, where they need never SEE such terrifying scenes in real life.
Unfortunately, most little kids didn’t really take “comfort” in some sort of assurance that they would indeed miss all the gore in the pictures. For they knew nothing about prophecy or theology. They knew nothing about what it would take to be counted “worthy” to get to be taken on such a “flight.” Actually, most adult members of the organization knew that their worthiness depended not on accepting Jesus as Savior, or baptism, or Bible study, or good deeds, or lots of prayer. It depended on … being totally loyal and obedient to the church hierarchy, and giving sacrificial amounts of tithes and offerings to the organization so it could print more booklets and magazines! No, the only thing a child could do was hope that the “flight” didn’t come the day after he did something naughty at home. And found himself “Left Behind”! And thus the many nightmares.
MAD Paranoia/ BAD Art
This literature was being produced at a time when Mutual Assured Destruction was on the minds of many Americans, so it easily fed any paranoia they already had. In cases such as my own, where someone had been pretty much oblivious to regular news about such matters, it created a paranoia where none had previously been! By the time I began reading the literature, the Plain Truth had a circulation of over 600,000. By 1969 it reached the 2 MILLION mark. Many of those magazine copies were likely read by more than one person. And many of those folks likely sent for the free Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last booklet that was regularly offered to subscribers. So the organization (renamed the Worldwide Church of God in 1967, just before I was baptized and became a member in 1968) had quite an impact on many people.
As did the artwork of Basil Wolverton. Thus the title of this blog entry … MAD BAD art. BAD in this case stands for “Basil Advertises Doomsday” … a Doomsday scheduled to start with the Mutual Assured Destruction of a thermo-nuclear WWIII.
But it was almost a decade later before I finally realized just WHO Basil Wolverton was. One day in about 1973 I was at the local convenience store in my neighborhood buying a snack, when I glanced at the magazine rack. It had various magazines and comic books on display. And there in the middle of it all was THIS:
There was no mistaking it … I was looking at artwork by Basil Wolverton! Yes, there was his name right below the belly of the grotesque character. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had long assumed that Basil was the “in-house” artist for the very exclusive Worldwide Church of God, that he was a zealous, loyal member and minister, and that he was devoting his life to spreading the gospel (along with prophetic paranoia.)
Back in the 1970s it was hard to dig up obscure information, so it wasn’t until I got on the Internet in 1996, and learned how to use search engines to find just about anything, that I was able to eventually Google the whole Rest of the Story about Basil Wolverton.
Yes, Basil was a member of the WCG. He’d been baptized by Radio Church of God founder Herbert Armstrong personally in 1941. Two years later he was ordained by Herbert Armstrong to be a minister. At one point he even pastored a congregation of the Radio Church of God in Oregon. He was also on the original board of directors of the Radio Church of God as it was formed in Oregon, and later one of the six founding directors of the RCG after it moved its headquarters to Pasadena, California, in 1946.
Herbert Armstrong did on occasion mention just a snippet of Basil’s qualifications as an artist. In 1958 Herbert introduced the new Bible Story series in the Plain Truth by saying this about its author and illustrator: “Basil Wolverton formerly drew comic strips for many comic books. Millions of youngsters bought these comic books on the newsstands. One day, over twenty years ago, I received my first letter from Mr. Wolverton. He became an elder in God’s Church. He has been for some years now a member of the Board of Directors of the Radio Church of God, and, since it was incorporated, a member of the Board of Trustees of Ambassador College…Basil Wolverton’s work has been published extensively in LIFE, TIME, Pageant, and a total of fifty-eight national magazines. We believe this is outstandingly the most important work he has ever produced. We believe it is one of the most important phases of GOD’S WORK in these last days.”
All that was true … well, except for the “FORMERLY” part. The description surely seems to imply that Basil was now doing work only as a minister, using his gifts within the Church. This was incredibly misleading, as can be seen by this biography on Wikipedia. And Herbert also conveniently forgot to say just what “work” was displayed in LIFE and some of the other magazines.
Basil Wolverton (July 9, 1909 – December 31, 1978) was an American cartoonist, illustrator, comic book writer-artist and professed “Producer of Preposterous Pictures of Peculiar People who Prowl this Perplexing Planet”, whose many publishers included Marvel Comics and Mad.
His unique, humorously grotesque drawings have elicited a wide range of reactions. Cartoonist Will Elder said he found Wolverton’s technique “outrageously inventive, defying every conventional standard yet upholding a very unusual sense of humor. He was a refreshing original,” while Jules Feiffer stated, “I don’t like his work. I think it’s ugly”.
He was posthumously inducted into the comic book industry’s Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1991.
…In 1946 [in the same year he was inducted into the board of trustees of Ambassador College and the board of directors of the Radio Church of God of California), Wolverton won a contest to depict “Lena the Hyena”, the world’s ugliest woman, a running gag in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner newspaper strip where Lena remained unseen beneath an editorial note stating her face had been covered to protect readers. Capp, responding to popular demand, announced a contest for artists to submit their interpretations to be judged by Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra and Salvador Dalí.
Among 500,000 entries, Wolverton’s was the winner; it appeared in a Li’l Abner and Life magazine. Wolverton’s fame briefly led to Life and Pageant printing his caricatures. The Lena portrait typified the unique “spaghetti and meatballs” style he employed regularly thereafter.
…Wolverton first appeared in Mad  with a single panel in #10, drew Mad Reader! for #11 and also contributed an iconic Lena-like image to the cover of #11, which was billed as the “Beautiful Girl of the Month”. Mocking the glossy cover images of Life Magazine, Wolverton’s hag was the first magazine parody cover image on Mad.
Although Wolverton contributed sporadically to the title—appearing in just nine issues over two decades—his work was memorable enough that, in 2009, The New York Times dubbed him “The Michelangelo of Mad Magazine”.
Here are several illustrations from MAD in 1954, the same time he was working on the illustrations for the Revelation series.
Although I don’t care for that kind of goofy art, I can vaguely understand why some people find it “funny.” But while I can’t speak for anyone else, I personally found this one below from the same time period astonishingly repulsive and …dare I say it? Unchristian. How a minister of Jesus Christ would be able to create this—at the same time he was working on creating The Bible Story!—is beyond me. This is neither humor nor satire nor irony. It’s just plain ol’ sicko.
This was one of a series of pics in MAD portraying “MAD Readers.”
Here’s the caption that went with the picture, an illustration that depicted the dead bodies of a boy’s parents hanging down from the ceiling.
The Young Mad Reader (with mother and father). Here is a good example of the clean wholesome effect MAD has on our young readers! For instance, before reading MAD, this young man very often used an axe on his playmates! When he read MAD, he realized how ugly and sordid axing his playmates was…so now he uses a pistol.
I am left speechless.
The Wiki article makes brief mention of Basil’s affiliation with the RCG/WCG:
…Wolverton was baptized into Herbert W. Armstrong’s Radio Church of God in 1941 and was ordained as an elder in 1943. As a board member of that church, he was one of the six people, including Armstrong and his wife, who re-incorporated the church in 1946 when it moved its original headquarters from Oregon to California.
A bit more about Wolverton’s connection with the WCG is explained in material written by his son Monte that accompanies the colorized versions of Basil’s Apocalyptic pics.
“…In the late 1930’s, Herbert Armstrong’s radio broadcast attracted the attention of a Vancouver, Washington comic artist, Basil Wolverton. The son of devout Christian parents, Wolverton had slipped into agnosticism. Armstrong changed that. Wolverton was baptized in 1941 and ordained an elder in 1943. During these years, Wolverton was also busily producing his comic book features–such as Spacehawk, Powerhouse Pepper, Rockman, Disk-Eyes the Detective, Scoop Scuttle, and Mystic Moot and His Magic Snoot.
When Armstrong moved his growing operation to Pasadena, California in 1946, he relied on Wolverton to pastor a small congregation in the Portland area. That same year, Wolverton achieved national fame outside of comics as winner of Al Capp’s Lena the Hyena contest. This led to his grotesque drawings and caricatures being featured in Life and Pageant magazines.
Here’s a 1956 sample of the kind of Basil artwork featured in Life and other mags.
… These drawings [the colorized collection of Revelation pics] are an important historical record, not only of a fanatically (albeit well-intentioned) literal view of biblical prophecy, but of the mindset of the mid-1950’s. The bomb– the threat of disorder and the breakdown of society — radioactivity — disease epidemics — cataclysms — things which caused the 1950’s citizen to break out in perspiration. These are things (perhaps no less impending — who knows?) at which we yawn today. But as you gaze upon Wolverton’s images of the ultimate cataclysm, you just might find a few beads of sweat breaking out on your forehead.
As Monte wrote elsewhere about his dad, “…he created some of the most terrifying religious art since Hieronymus Bosch.” Bosch was a Dutch painter who died in 1516. He did indeed also make terrifying religious art, and it’s not hard to see that maybe Basil even studied his works a bit.
And when doing his own religious art, Basil seems to have drawn heavily at times on his own secular art, originally drawn for sci-fi, horror, and slapstick adventure comics.
Here’s a gent I’ve come to call Basil’s “Everyman,” as a clone of him shows up as a character in a number of his apocalyptic and sci-fi and horror illustrations.
He shows up in both the 1954 H-Bomb picture from the Revelation series … and the cover of Basil’s 1952 Brain-Bats of Venus comic.
The fellow in the Brain-Bat story trying to run from the bats doesn’t fare any better than the fellow trying to run from the H-Bomb two years later. Here’s how Brain-Bat Everyman ended up…
Only recently did I realize Basil had just toned her down a bit from an earlier gig as a girlfriend of his 1940s Powerhouse Pepper character. Her facial features and hair style match pretty closely in the two pics, but he didn’t give her nearly as much … ahem … curvaciousness when playing her Eve role!
Which brings us full circle back to 1973, when I first realized that Basil Wolverton had a whole other “life” from his role as Church of God Doomsday Artist. Long after his bout with Brain-Bats; long after his stint with MAD; even long after his heyday in Doomsday art, he was still grinding out grotesqueries in the technique Life magazine had dubbed the “Spaghetti and Meatball School of Design” which he had started with his Lena the Hyena pic.
Below are a few more examples of the art he created for the short-lived (24 issues from 1973 to 1976) PLOP! Magazine. These likely represent some of the last artwork Basil ever did. He died in 1978. After all his BAD art, the Doomsday that he dogmatically advertised through his art work, that was supposed to inevitably come before 1975 … never came to pass. And now even those who admire and collect his comic book art seldom have a clue that he ever was a “minister” in the “Radio Church of God” who illustrated Bible stories and gave nightmares to whole generations of little kids with his gory Apocalypse pics. Instead he will be most remembered for stuff like this …
In the next installment of this series, we will consider Basil’s Assured Doomsday a bit more and see how it fits into a larger apocalyptic saga from the era of Mutual Assured Destruction. Continue on to Imminent and Inevitable.