When Words Collide: Exploring Basil Wolverton's "Spacehawk"

Mon, December 10th, 2012 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

SPACEHAWK: BASIL WOLVERTON'S AMERICA AND BEYOND

In this era of reclaimed comics of bygone eras, it's always surprised me that Basil Wolverton's work has been mostly unavailable. Sure, there was "The Wolverton Bible" from a few years back, but that was a collection of illustrations and not comics. And though some of the "MAD" reprints may have contained some Wolverton work, it's never been his comedic grotesqueries that have engaged me with his work.

No, the best Wolverton comes when he's pressing his warped worldview and elastic artistry into the shape of heroic action. The comics burst at the seams from the tension between the lantern jawed poses of the protagonists and the decidedly weird supporting cast, set in motion amidst insane desires and nefarious plots, at home, or abroad, or in deep space.

The best Wolverton is the Wolverton now available, thanks to an oversized reprint edition from Fantagraphics. It's "Spacehawk," and it's my favorite collected edition of the year.

One of the great things about the Fantagraphics "Spacehawk" is that, yes, it's a sturdy oversized color paperback with a thick, laminated cover, but that it also collects Wolverton's entire run on the series, from "Target Comics" Volume 1 #5 through "Target Comics" Volume 3 #10. That's cover dates June 1940 to December 1942. America became involved in a pretty massive war right in the middle of those dates, and "Spacehawk" certainly doesn't let us forget it.

But the war stuff comes later in the book.

It begins, as all great books should, with "The Creeping Death from Neptune."

I know the way I'm talking about this collected edition might make it seem like I'm making fun of it, or exaggerating how much I like it considering how ridiculous it is, but let me be clear: this is sincerely one of my favorite comics of all-time, and I love it because it is ridiculous and amazing and inventive and puts not only all other Golden Age comic books to shame but also acts as a not-so-hidden link between classic comic book traditions and the E.C. Comics of the 1950s and the Underground "Comix" of the 1960s and the Art Comics of today. Plus, it's about a guy who pilots a flying missile that rams into other things all the time and he resists the temptations of gorgeous space princesses before lunch and punches fat Hitlers by dinnertime.

My hyperbole about "Spacehawk" is only tempered by the fact that I know if you read it yourself, you will see what I mean and wonder how you could have gone so long without having a section of your personal library marked "Spacehawk Goes Here."

So…"The Creeping Death from Neptune?" That's not only a strong title to kick off the collection with, it's also a story that features Gorvak the space pirate who means to poach a Neptunian protoplasm and can it for distribution to unsuspecting interplanetary freighters. Then, blammo, a sneak protoplasmic attack from within each ship, and Gorvak of the wrinkled face and bulbous eyes and rubber arms will be able to take control of the derelict vessels.

And did I mention that Gorvak's plan for capturing the Neptunian protoplasm involved shoving a pretty girl inside an iron lung and pushing her out like a space piece of space cheese to trap the space rodent, er, protoplasm? And that Spacehawk zooms down with his self-described "old-fashioned flame gun" to save the girl and battle the protoplasm and the one known as Gorvak? And during none of that time does he reveal his true face beneath the wrinkled-pickle-shaped mask he wears?

Ah, I know I didn't mention any of that, but I should have, because that's all good stuff, and Basil Wolverton's hatched line work and doll-like poses and elastic villains and empty-aquarium-style landscapes and manic intensity looks like something that could have been published by a zinester at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival in 2012 just as much as it is at home in an oddball Golden Age reprint collection. Wolverton's world is a weird and ugly and beautifully innocently horrible charmingly delightful one, and it has more in common with the absurd genre riffs from something like Pendleton Ward's "Adventure Time" or Jesse Moynihan's "Forming" or Tom Gauld's "Goliath" than it does the bland superhero melodrama of "Marvel Mystery Comics" or early issues of "Action Comics" or "Adventure Comics." Only Howard Sherman's earliest "Doctor Fate" stories capture even a fraction of the startling strangeness of Wolverton's work from the same era, but Sherman's helmeted and darkly grim "Doctor Fate" soon turned from its Lovecraft-meets-Fletcher-Hanks tone to a more conventional fisty-puncher with a half-mask and a lantern jaw.

"Spacehawk" wasn't safe from that kind of transformation either, as the threat of World War II encroached on the star-bound territory of the "superhuman enemy of crime." But even as Wolverton directed his hero at the dictators and conspirators and ethnic scientists of wartime planet Earth, he continued to tell stories in his own idiosyncratic way.

I will admit that the stories in the second half of the book aren't quite as insanely imaginative as the first half-dozen installments in the collection, partially because unrestrained fantasy trumps dated satire and mostly because Wolverton works best on the battlefields of pure imagination rather than the actual battlefields of guys marching around and shooting at each other in boring old military uniforms.

But even with the wartime stories putting a weaker Wolverton on display, this is still an exhilarating collection of tales.

Let me run through some other highlights before I end with more seemingly overblown praise for this book that actually deserves it:

Spacehawk disposes of the greedy, murdering alien named Greebo by yanking the release valve on Greebo's undersea suit, causing him to rocket to the surface and into the air with such speed he achieves escape velocity and explodes in the vacuum of space.

Spacehawk disguises himself as a lumpy green Martian to infiltrate an enemy base and reverse an attractor beam that was pulling the moon Phobos into the red planet, and says goodbye to good King Robo via a two-way television screen.

In "Lone Wolf of the Void," pathetic captain of the Neptunian guard, the not-at-all-heroic Smebar, battles for the affections of the wicked Queen Haba, while the sinister queen only has eyes for Spacehawk, though our hero gives her the cool brush off with a bit of the old "next time you want me, don't go to the expense of putting on a sham battle!"

But then the Spacehawk strips start getting the "Defender of America" subtitle and he fights racist stereotypes and foreign soldiers with ill-defined German uniforms and guys who call themselves "Moosler" (Mussolini plus Hitler, get it?) and "Nitwitler" (Nitwit plus Hitler, get it???). The comics still look great, but the lack of the alien landscapes and invitations to excessive weirdness are not quite what they used to be by the end of the collected edition.

But there's still that Wolverton peculiarity throughout. That sense that this is one artist's personal vision of the world through the eyes of comics, even if the comics are struggling to deal with the real-life threats faced by the Allied soldiers. But just when you think Wolverton is going to play it all straight and give us a Captain America in a green jumpsuit, he provides Spacehawk with a sidekick that's a bit different from the norm. Instead of a boy wonder, Spacehawk's sidekick is a pointy-eared, grinning orange alien. And his name, regularly exclaimed by Spacehawk himself, is none other than…Dork.

Spacehawk and Dork battle trouble whenever it comes their way, which is every month until December 1942. And Wolverton is there to chronicle every step of the journey.

Put "Spacehawk" on your wish list, if you haven't done so already.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, fantagraphics, basil wolverton, spacehawk

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