Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ode to the Ugly

I was probably 18 or 19 the first time I read Basil Wolverton comics. If I remember correctly, my brain caved in. Here was a guy who predated Ed Roth, Robert Crumb, XNO, Peter Bagge -- not by years, but by decades -- and perfected the fine art of the grotesque long before punk rock made ugliness sexy.

Jules Feiffer, one of Wolverton's far more urbane and successful contemporaries, said this of Wolverton's homely, gleefully damaged cartooning: "I don't like his work. I think it's ugly." Mr. Feiffer, with all due respect, don't be such a pussy. There's more craft and feverish imagination to Wolverton's work than he's ever gotten credit for, although Fantagraphics, bless them, have been going out of their way for many years to collect as much of the man's output as they can (including the brand-new Basil Wolverton's Culture Corner, a mind-melting anthology of his WWII-era strips).

To me, Wolverton's eye-gouging gags and rubbery surrealism were as as subversive in their time as was the work of William Burroughs or Lenny Bruce -- maybe more so, seeing as how that subversion was smuggled inside kids' comics, a modus operandi he carried over to his seminal work on Mad. But Wolverton never seemed like a rebel. He was more of a merry prankster -- that is, a prankster with one foot in Bosch and the other in bubblegum.


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