The early innovators of the comics medium as it developed in the beginning of the 20th century were as eclectic as they were talented. Take, for example, the work of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby prior to the 1950s. Their output not only included superheroes, but also hard-boiled crime stories, westerns, and straightforward science fiction, just to name a few of the genres explored by these titans of the comics page. These artists had to be flexible; their very livelihood depended on working as often and as hard as they could to sell as many strips as possible. Basil Wolverton, a young renaissance man from the Pacific Northwest, entered into this environment in the early 1930s as an incredibly enthusiastic and hard-working cartoonist, skilled in both traditional sci-fi adventure and slapstick humor. In the first volume of Creeping Death from Neptune, a portrait is drawn (through the marriage of biographical text and archival comics), of a fun-loving guy, yet also a consummate industry professional who flat-out refused to let rejection stop him from achieving a career in the funny papers.
Basil Wolverton grew up and spent most of his adult life in the Pacific Northwest. Drawing his first cartoon at the ripe old age of four, Basil displayed an imagination that, upon reflection, seemed perfectly fit to a job in the comics industry. His interests varied wildly during his formative years—writing and drawing, reading scientific magazines, going to afternoon movies at the town theater—all of these activities could sound familiar to any young person of a nerdish persuasion. As Creeping Death unfolds, the early drawings and doodles of his teenage years begin to morph into a distinctive style, complete with rejection letters from various editors and publishers to whom Wolverton had sent strips. These letters are often somewhat harsh, yet to Wolverton’s credit, it quickly becomes clear that he simply took their constructive criticism and redoubled his efforts to provide them with what they wanted.
The evolution of Wolverton’s style features prominently throughout Creeping Death; sequences of text, photos, and single panel drawings are interspersed with longer sections of full stories and unpublished material. The focus in volume 1 of Creeping Death is his early work in science fiction. His most notable comic was the ongoing space opera Spacehawks, which ran for 30 issues from 1940 to 1942. Wolverton took a great deal of inspiration from Buck Rogers for the tone of his comics, yet the artwork was anything but similar—where Rogers was lean of line and intricate in detail, Wolverton’s Spacehawks was muscular, broad, and far more interpretive. Wolverton likely learned about perspective and shadow from his afternoons spent watching silent movies, as his panels clearly reflect a dedication to framing eye-pleasing angles. His almost trademark stippling technique was already in full-swing in the early ‘30s, and he gradually let himself get wilder and far more bizarre in his renderings of fantastic beasts, rocketship battles, and alien worlds. In addition to his science fiction, some of Wolverton’s early humor and caricature work is on display as well, foreshadowing his eventual stint at Mad Magazine.
Fantagraphics and author Greg Sadowski have outdone themselves with this collection. It is an incredibly satisfying, hardcover spectacular stuffed with the life and early work of a comics pioneer. While it could be a bit much for casual readers, comics fans, collectors, and historians would be remiss in passing up this handsome volume.
Creeping Death from Neptune: The Life and Comics of Basil Wolverton, vol. 1, 1909-1941
by Greg Sadowski
Art by Basil Wolverton