Sunday, December 06, 2009

Books of the Year, Part 2: The Wolverton Bible

There's been a lot of buzz about Robert Crumb's THE BOOK OF GENESIS, and it's all well-deserved, but my pick for 2009's best Bibically-inspired book of cartooning is THE WOLVERTON BIBLE, released earlier this year by Fantagraphics and (and this might be the key) copyright The Worldwide Church of God.

There's no shortage of artwork by cartoonist Basil Wolverton available, but most of what's out there is humorous and in Wolverton's patented grotesque style. What's in this book is (except for a bit at the end) deadly serious and in a style somewhat less grotesque than we're used to. Wolverton was (as the intro helpfully explains) a longtime member of the Worldwide Church of God and close to its founder, radio evangelist Herbert Armstrong. For more than 20 years -- and while he was creating better-known work for mags like MAD and PLOP -- he drew hundreds of illustrations for Armstrong that depicted stories from both the Old Testament and The Book of Revelations.

THE WOLVERTON BIBLE collects all of this material, and it's -- no pun intended -- a revelation. Though his serious work is a bit stiffer and more restrained than the Wolverton art you might be used to, it's more powerful. The characters of the Old Testament seem to be seething with anger and fury, and the epic scenes of destruction from the end times -- flaming cities, oozing sores and melting faces -- are just plain creepy. And everything is rendered in that patented Wolverton style, with meticulous stipling, bold shadows and dramatic compositions. The so-called "Funny Stuff" that comes at the very end of the book (which he also drew for church publications) almost feels like a relief after all that horrible, terrible -- but beautifully drawn -- destruction.

What sets THE WOLVERTON BIBLE apart from Crumb's GENESIS (besides the fact that Wolverton's drawings aren't comics) is that they come from a true believer. Crumb is a genius, and I have no doubt that more thought went into his translation of the Old Testament into comics. But Wolverton's drawings have an intensity and sincerity that reveal something connecting him to those stories in a way Crumb just can't duplicate. He didn't take these stories of creation and destruction apart and put them back together as an intellectual experiment or artistic exercise. He put pen to paper because he believed this stuff, dammit, and he thought whoever saw his drawings had better believe it, too.