New York

Basil Wolverton

“Fangs Finkelstein has snappers that are always in demand by meat tenderizer services, but his ambition is to become the world’s greatest orthodontist.” The caption to Basil Wolverton’s 1971 drawing Fangs Finkelstein goes some way toward contextualizing its grotesque extremity, but the image’s comic intent does little to mitigate its capacity to induce profound discomfort. The subject’s upper row of teeth emerges from not only his gum but also from his ears and nostrils, projecting downward like enormous tusks. Cracked, misaligned, and misshapen (though in one instance repaired with an improvised patch), they suggest the kinds of radical abnormalities collected by Ripley and tabulated by Guinness. But Mr. Finkelstein isn’t even the most out-there of Wolverton’s characters; take a look at Linus Sinus, or Sidney Kidney, or Pete Feet.

Curated by artist and “backyard anthropologist” Cameron Jamie, this packed survey of the late cartoonist and graphic artist’s extensive professional output revealed Wolverton as a master of gross-out distortion for whom Topps chewing gum posters and Harvey Kurtzman’s 1950s incarnation of Mad Magazine proved to be more appropriate forums for a consistently peculiar vision than any contemporaneous museums or galleries. Wolverton, who died in 1978, was self-taught, but his influence is clearly discernible both in the output of artists such as Charles Burns and Robert Crumb, who draw with publication in mind, and in the more rarified work of Peter Saul, Mike Kelley, and Jamie himself (who goes so far as to claim, “Basil Wolverton is my Picasso”).

Serving as background for the masterful portraits of Finkelstein and company at Gladstone was a generous sampling of Wolverton’s early work. In drawings for pulp sci-fi titles that date mostly to circa 1930 (though in the case of Peril in Cosmic Dust Clouds, as far back as around 1920), the artist details the escapades of long-forgotten adventurers like Ethan Downing, Meteor Morgan, and Comet Carson. The square-jawed heroes and alien bugaboos who scramble through these tales are rendered in a style that now appears almost classical, suggesting period-parodists like Glen Baxter before any contemporary draftsmen. Wolverton was still producing relatively conventional strips in 1950 but, as Jamie’s selection (drawn from the collection of Glenn Bray) reveals, he had also branched out into less conventional work.

That the illustrator of the unfinished 1950 “Rocket Rider” panels displayed here was also responsible, around the same time, for an extraordinary set of portraits that includes Leerer, Sneaker, and Smacker is initially hard to credit. Closer examination does reveal idiosyncrasies of line and tone that link works which at first seem unconnected, but the range of looks is striking nonetheless. By 1955, the twisted puckers of these unsightly faces have mutated even further, terrifying viewers with the frankly hideous mugs of Miss Bedney Flunt, Miss Fludney Bent, Miss Flentley Bunt, and numerous variations thereof. Miss Poontney Spadafroont, a typical entry, suffers a head full of holes, eyes that bulge in opposite directions, and a hyperextended nose that wraps around her giraffelike neck. As Jamie hints, Wolverton seems here to anticipate a vision of body-horror that was not realized elsewhere (compare it to gore-movie special effects) until years later.

Also among Jamie’s selections was a suite of Wolverton’s apocalyptic biblical illustrations, which went nicely with other scenes of catastrophe such as Aircraft over Bomb Crater and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Meteor Shower with Eclipse and Earthquake (both works ca. 1950). Yet while Jamie heralds these as Wolverton’s masterpieces, it’s those manic fugly faces that stick—like the brick that pierces Joel Holehead’s skull—most indelibly in the mind.

Michael Wilson