Poetry Madness

Rain Taxi
Monday, August 10th, 2009
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The Wolverton Bible

by Basil Wolverton

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth

A review by Spencer Dew

One of Basil Wolverton's most gripping pieces is a portrait of seven terrified faces -- mouths agape, eyes wide -- crowded into a panel with a stark black background. The caption, in such small print and so far below that it does not distract from the wordless power of this image, is a citation from the gospel of Luke: "Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world..." Indeed, the following pages detail horrors surreal and familiar. We know mass graves and planes crashing into towers too well to associate them with the eschaton, and mutant armies swarming across a ruined earth seems more the stuff of summer matinees, but Wolverton's better pieces continue to focus on individual faces, baffled with shock and pain. In one large panel illustrating a giant hailstorm, chunks of ice and a man's face are foregrounded, his gaze shooting straight up into a sky veined by lightning and slashed at dramatic diagonals by a collapsing bar sign, a crashing plane, falling utility wires, a streetlamp with a shattered dome -- plus, of course, the panicked pedestrians, the crashed car with a broken corpse dangling from its window, and the desperate body falling from some skyscraper out of view. The fear of violence and its concomitant titillation, the safety and simultaneous indictment of the voyeur's stance -- these dynamics play out, in disaster after disaster, throughout The Wolverton Bible, from Samson's blinding (white-hot metal spikes descend toward his panicked eyes) to the fate of Jezebel (sated dogs slouch away from a pair of hands and a gnawed skull).

Ostensibly, the publisher's justification for this volume is to anthologize and preserve the lesser-known but important work of a major figure in comic art history, the artist who made "Spacehawk" and "Powerhouse Pepper" and is best known for his graphic work on MAD and Plop! Yet, while famous for such grotesqueries as "Lena the Hyena," Wolverton was also a Christian minister, converted and ordained in Oregon by George Herbert Armstrong eight years after the latter had founded the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), a manifestation of wider traditions in Christianity, notably that of Sabbatarian Adventism, which held to select Hebrew laws (the Sabbath on Saturday, certain Bible-based dietary restrictions). To this Armstrong married Anglo-Israelism (the belief that those people who trace their ancestry back to the British Isles are, in fact, members of the original ten tribes of Israel) and Millenarianism (the insistence that cataclysmic apocalypse is right around the corner -- followed, for WCG believers, by the triumphant return of Jesus Christ, marked by peace, miraculous healing, and predators and prey frolicking in a renewed, pastoral environment).

While discord and theological disagreement later racked and reshaped the WCG, The Wolverton Bible was authorized by the church nonetheless, and many elements within it attest to the faith's specific exegesis. Jacob's blessing of his grandson's Ephraim and Manassah, for instance, seems too minor a scene to which to dedicate a full page, unless one knows that in Armstrong's thought, Ephraim and Manassah were the origin of the Anglo bloodline and thus the biblical precursors to the peoples of Britain and America. Likewise, an image of a muscular and villainous Nimrod collecting Babylonian babies for fire sacrifice to a sun deity echoes Armstrong's notion that this biblical bit character later originated most forms of polytheistic religion. Other such innovations noted in passing in the text are the association of the goddess Astarte with Easter eggs and the idea that the cross is a pagan symbol. This book might be richer if such beliefs were explored, though every page of Wolverton's "Bible" offers interpretation, from Michal's becoming "jealously angry" at David's dancing (dancing that, in this re-reading, is not associated with the Ark of the Covenant) or that same David's peering down at what in another version would be a bathing (and soon-to-be-raped) Bathsheba, here only "a woman in a courtyard below. He little realized how much she was to affect his life."

While sexual content is played down or eliminated, what this volume makes graphically clear is the role of violence in this religious vision -- a vision at once unique and yet characteristic of a much wider American grain. Wolverton's pen presents disaster rather than combat; ruin is highlighted, not heroism. As notable -- and certainly related -- is the artist's obsession with the prohibition against idols. The false gods of paganism act as an outlet for Wolverton's sense of the bizarre; his squat, cross-armed baboon deities, evil chickens, and assorted Canaanite toadies are at once comical and alluring. Herein lies the tension: Wolverton lavishes attention on visual representations that are, themselves, indexes of the simultaneous social power and spiritual emptiness of visual representation. As much as he presents these alien gods as pathetic, they are also titillating, and they take center stage not as moral lessons but because they are fascinating in their own right. The Ruth story doesn't need a third of a page devoted to some evil Moabite muppet god, for instance, save that the visual presence is both threatening and seductive.

Wolverton's idols echo the hunched mutants stumbling through the nuclear-ravaged wasteland, and they point to the complicated nature of his five final images from Revelation. Drawing on prophecies from Isaiah, Wolverton illustrates a blind man given sight, a child playing near a viper's nest, a young boy petting a lion and a wolf. These are images of the heavenly promise, or paradise, but from a pen so tilted toward threat and terror they, too, are frightening to behold. The picture of the blind man, in fact, was never published, as church authorities feared the pupil-less visage would scare readers. Whether believers or potential converts found themselves plagued by nightmares of the child and the viper we may never know, but certainly this volume, assembling as it does a visual representation of a disturbing religious dream, will help readers better understand the fearful allure of end-time theology.

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