BASIL WOLVERTON and HARVEY KURTZMAN – Letterers

From AMAZING MYSTERY FUNNIES Vol 2 #12, Dec 1939, © Centaur

In the early days of comic strips, the creators did everything: writing, art and lettering. Over time, if a strip was popular, the creator could afford to hire assistants who often did the lettering, which was considered an onerous chore by some. A percentage of early strips were always entirely the work of one person, as with Winsor McCay and George Herriman for example, but as assistants and their share of the work were usually unknown, it’s hard to be sure who did the lettering on many strips. In comic books, the demands of volume meant that creation was often an assembly-line process at both shops and publishers, with the work divided into tasks such as writing, penciling, inking, lettering, coloring and editing. A creator might begin with submissions that were all his own, but if he or she was accepted into the business, it was likely that person would become a specialized part of a team, and lettering gradually developed as a niche job done by lettering freelancers or staffers. There were always exceptions in both comic strips and comic books, two important ones in more recent comic strips are Charles Schulz and Gus Arriola. There were a few creators in comics whose work was so singular that it was best produced solo, but those creators tended to work on the fringes, not on mainstream books and characters. Basil Wolverton is a good example, an early story page by him is above. We’ll also look at Harvey Kurtzman later. Wolverton’s art was stylized and quirky, with lots of texture, like pulp magazine illustrations. His lettering was easy to read and professional, in neat lines of even letters, and his story title above is sedate block letters. This is Wolverton trying to fit in with the comic book work of others, I think.

Basil Wolverton, 1959, image found online

Basil Wolverton was born July 9, 1909 in Central Point, Oregon. He later moved to Vancouver, Washington, and worked as a vaudeville performer, and a cartoonist and reporter for The Portland News. At age 16 he started pitching comic strips to newspaper syndicates. One was accepted in 1929, but never appeared because it was deemed too similar to Buck Rogers.

Disk-Eye the Detective, possibly from CIRCUS THE COMIC RIOT #1, June 1938, but original art from Basil Wolverton’s Weird Worlds Artist’s Edition, © IDW 2014

Wolverton placed a few short stories in this 1938 comic, probably reworked newspaper strips, or this might be an unpublished story. It has a more natural and personal style very similar to underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb in the 1960s. The lettering has more personality too, with interesting thicker letters for bold words that also have squared corners.

From TARGET COMICS #5, June 1940, © Novelty/Curtis

Basil’s early stories are mostly science fiction and lean toward creepy aliens, as here. The story title is again fairly bland in style, but the subtitle text is heading toward horror movies. Special lettering styles are emerging, a decorative first letter in the opening caption, and some larger and bolder words, but this is again subdued work compared to Disk-Eye. The balloon and caption borders stay very close to the letters to leave as much room as possible for the art. Remember that Wolverton was writing as well as doing the art and lettering. Spacehawk ran for 30 episodes until 1942.

From DAREDEVIL COMICS #12, Aug 1942, © Lev Gleason

For Lev Gleason, Wolverton did this strip about an American reporter in Nazi Germany. Again, the lettering and art is more cartoony and quirky, so perhaps that Disk-Eye story is from this time period. The feature logo has lots of bounce, and I like the overlapping letters. The bold words are effective, with extra time taken to point the corners. It seems possible Robert Crumb was looking at Wolverton’s comics work like this when developing his own style.

From POWERHOUSE PEPPER COMICS #1, 1943, image © Marvel

At Timely/Marvel, Wolverton found a home for his longest-lasting comics feature, Powerhouse Pepper, which appeared as a backup in many humor and teen humor titles and eventually received its own book in 1943. The title character is barely on this page at lower left. He was a strong but not very bright boxer. Much of the dialogue was in rhyme. Wolverton was allowed to sign the stories, as here at lower right, often with silly middle names. The logo is well done with just one oddity, the way the W sits on the lower P. Small jokes and sight gags were common.

From POWERHOUSE PEPPER COMICS #1, 1943, image © Marvel

A single page filler by Wolverton in the same issue shows where his art was headed, toward large, extremely weird faces. The lettering is a little more sedate, with decorative initial letters on the captions and a well-drawn title.

From CAPTAIN BATTLE JR. #2, Oct 1944, © Lev Gleason

Another example of this feature with lots of alliteration and rhymes in the signs and dialogue. Wolverton is using comics shortcuts like the hearts and sound effects and giant question mark in the bottom row. I also like the label and arrow in the center right panel.

From Li’l Abner Daily by Al Capp, Oct 21, 1946, © Capp Enterprises Inc.

Wolverton’s ability to create truly disturbing faces paid off in 1946 when he won a contest to draw the face of previously unseen character, Lena the Hyena, for the comic strip Li’l Abner, taking the prize over half a million other entries. It further encouraged Basil to go in this direction, and brought him attention and fame. No lettering involved, but interesting all the same.

From POWERHOUSE PEPPER #5, Nov 1948, image © Marvel

Perhaps because of the attention to Wolverton over Lena the Hyena, Timely/Marvel brought back POWERHOUSE PEPPER for four more issues with all new Wolverton stories, suggesting Basil had continued to do them regularly even if they weren’t being used very often by this time. The use of pointing arrows is increasing in Wolverton’s busy pages.

From WHIZ COMICS #99, July 1948, © Fawcett

Considering he was about as far from New York as you could get in the United States then, Wolverton’s work kept turning up in NY-based comics. For Fawcett he did a long series of half-page fillers called The Culture Corner full of alliteration, rhyme, sound effects, and funny art and lettering.

From BLACK DIAMOND WESTERN #16, Oct 1949, © Lev Gleason

For Lev Gleason, Basil did a series of funny western stories featuring this character and his horse. I see it as not only a precursor of underground comics by Crumb, but perhaps also a precursor of EC’s MAD. I love the horse’s balloon in the title banner, and there are lots of funny small signs.

From BLACK DIAMOND WESTERN #18, March 1950, © Lev Gleason

Another example with lots of amusing signs and small balloons.

From MISTER MYSTERY #7, Sept 1952, © Stanley Morse

Wolverton hadn’t forgotten his first love, science fiction with scary monsters, and stories like this continued to turn up occasionally. Basil’s lettering is more conservative here than on his regular series work.

From MAD #11, May 1954, EC Comics, image © DC Comics

I see similarities in the kind of humor Wolverton liked and what appealed to Harvey Kurtzman, and it was perhaps inevitable that Kurtzman would ask Wolverton to contribute to his MAD. The cover has no hand lettering, but the image is close to Lena the Hyena.

From MAD #11, May 1954, EC Comics, image © DC Comics

Wolverton’s feature in the issue has more of his weird faces, and a little of his lettering inside the art, though the captions were lettered by Ben Oda and the title was probably penciled by Harvey. I’m guessing that Kurtzman simply told Wolverton to draw some typical MAD readers, and the results are funny and strange.

From COMIX BOOK #1, Dec 1974, © Kitchen Sink/Marvel Comics

As far as I can tell, full-page strange character art and some art for MAD and other humor magazines that didn’t involve lettering were most of what Basil produced in later years. In the early 1970s, his weird characters were cover-featured on the DC Comics humor series PLOP! A few very short stories appeared in the above experiment by Marvel to publish a mainstream magazine featuring underground comics in collaboration with Denis Kitchen. It seems like the right kind of market for Wolverton, but he wasn’t doing much story art by then. He died in 1978 at the age of 69.

From POLICE COMICS #25, Dec 1943, © Quality Comics

Meanwhile, another writer/artist with an interest in quirky humor was getting started in comics like this one in the early 1940s, penciling and inking short fillers, and possibly writing and lettering them as well, though that’s unknown.

Harvey Kurtzman about 1960, image found online

Harvey Kurtzman was born Oct 3, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York to Ukrainian Jewish immigrant parents. His family struggled during the Great Depression, but Harvey showed early artistic ability, and his pavement chalk drawings attracted crowds. He loved comic strips. He attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan where he met future collaborators Will Elder, Al Jaffee, and others. Harvey showed his portfolio around the comic book publishers and picked up work here and there before being drafted and serving in the Army.

From TESSIE THE TYPIST #6, Sept 1946, image © Marvel

After the war, Harvey found work at Timely/Marvel doing a long series of one-page gag strips called Hey Look! In this early example, there’s plenty of interesting lettering and sound effects. At this point, Harvey was trying to imitate standard comics lettering in many of his balloons, but at times they go beyond that, as in the final large HIC! in the last panel. The title with googly eyes is effective.

From HEDY DE VINE #29, Oct 1948, image © Marvel

Two years later, Kurtzman’s own personal lettering style is being used instead, mostly tall, narrow letters in a variety of large sizes for emphasis. The title has been simplified and reversed on a black background. Harvey’s classic signature with a stick figure “man” at the end is in use. There were 150 Hey Look! single pagers at Marvel from 1946 to 1949 in a wide variety of titles, a tough way to make a living in comics, but one that suited the unique talent of Kurtzman.

From JOHN WAYNE ADVENTURE COMICS #5, Oct 1950, © Toby Press

Like Basil Wolverton, Kurtzman’s humor also worked on short, funny western stories. The large rounded brush lettering title matches the similar large display lettering in the balloons. The balloon borders also look like they’re done with a brush. The smaller lettering is even more rounded than the previous Hey Look! example.

From MAD #1, Oct-Nov 1952, EC Comics, image © DC Comics

In 1950, Harvey began getting regular work at EC Comics, where he was soon writing and editing war titles like TWO-FISTED TALES, doing layouts for other artists, but not much art of his own. Publisher Bill Gaines suggested Kurtzman do a humor title, and MAD was born. Harvey did some of the early covers, like the first one above. I’m not positive the lettering is by him, but it looks more like Harvey’s work than that of his favorite letterer, Ben Oda. Again, Kurtzman wrote most of the stories, providing layouts for other artists, while lettering was usually by Ben Oda.

From MAD #4, April-May 1953, EC Comics, image © DC Comics

Another Kurtzman cover with balloon lettering that’s definitely his, similar to what he did on Hey Look! Other than MAD covers, I haven’t found much lettering by Harvey from this point on, with one exception.

From HARVEY KURTZMAN’S JUNGLE BOOK, 1959, Ballantine Books, © Harvey Kurtzman, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Kurtzman and EC parted ways after a few years, and Harvey launched several other humor magazines that he edited and wrote: Trump for Hugh Hefner, Humbug, and Help! for Jim Warren. By the end of its run of 26 issues, Help! had introduced a number of young cartoonists who were to play a major part in the underground comix movement, including Robert CrumbJay LynchGilbert SheltonSpain Rodriguez, and Skip Williamson. None of these books sold well or lasted very long, and Harvey survived doing freelance work for various markets. In the late 1950s he proposed an original paperback book to Ballantine Books of stories he would write, draw, and letter, and after much hesitation by the publisher, the book above came out in 1959 in the same format as their MAD paperbacks. I’ve never seen the printed book, but original art scans from Heritage Auctions show Harvey working small, not much bigger than printed size I think, on paper with printed light gray lettering guides. Harvey’s lettering barely follows them, but is lively, informal mixed case, almost like a letter written to readers. The letters are still narrow, and here the balloons are also tall and narrow. My guess is that this is how Kurtzman’s layout lettering for other artists might have looked.

From HARVEY KURTZMAN’S JUNGLE BOOK, 1959, Ballantine Books, © Harvey Kurtzman, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

On this page you can see most of the letters are outlined with a small pen, leaving small open spaces in them. This is carrying the idea of outlined lettering to an extreme, but it reads okay, and is certainly distinctive and interesting, and above all, a personal statement of the creator. While this book was not a financial success, it showed what Kurtzman could have done given free reign. Beginning in 1962, Harvey and his friend and partner Will Elder sold Hugh Hefner on an elaborate painted comic strip for Playboy, a sexy satire called Little Annie Fanny that would be Kurtzman’s main occupation for the next two and half decades. I don’t think much of the lettering was by Kurtzman himself, though he wrote it and did layouts. Harvey’s later work other than on Little Annie Fanny, was sporadic, and he supplemented his income by teaching and working on reprints of his earlier work. He died in 1993 at the age of 68.

Both Wolverton and Kurtzman’s very personal comics may have inspired and encouraged the rise of underground comix in the 1960s, and like the creators of those books, they did their best work entirely on their own, employing quirky humor and stories that included their own unique lettering.

Continue to next article. Back to The Art and History of Lettering Comics.

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