Sunday, 6 January 2013
BOOK REVIEW: THE WOLVERTON BIBLE by BASIL WOLVERTON (FANTAGRAPHICS BOOKS, 2012)
It would be easy to give this book a superficial review which concentrated on the more fantastic and grotesque elements which are, admittedly, a large part of the attraction but that would be to do the book and its creator (such an ironic word to use in this context) an injustice. So to be fair, I'm going to explore what exactly the Bible is, its relationship to Wolverton himself and also to me, an atheist of over 40 years standing.
The Bible, specifically the Old Testament which is what I'm almost solely referring to for this review, is one of the oldest sources of history. It's a compilation of creation myths, religious and moral teaching, and the story of small Middle-Eastern monotheistic tribe's struggle to survive to become a nation and to define its identity. That said, as a source of history it is often unreliable simply because it has been written and rewritten many times in order to present a more cohesive picture but it's the overall picture which is interesting. It ends, if memory serves me correctly, more or less with the Maccabean revellion against the Romans and the beginning of the dispersal of the Jews.
This dispersal or Diaspora had the ironic effect of forcing the Jews to become self-sufficient and maintain their identity wherever they went rather than being absorbed into local populations. Ironically two thousand years later when a mad dictator tried to kill them all off it ended up with the Jews regaining what they had long considered their homeland, the very opposite of what old Adolf H intended. Shame he never saw it happen. But that which did not kill them made them stronger, to paraphrase one of his heroes.
Had it not been for the birth of Yeshua bar-Joseph -Jesus being, of course, the Greek form of the name- and the resulting New Testament, the OT would probably have ended up being a minor curiosity studied only by academics. Instead it, along with the NT, became the most widely read book in history, with the possible exception of Mao Tse Tung's Little Red Book, and had a major impact on the development of civilisation, most notably in the 'West'.
Essentially Christian culture suffuses Western thought and Biblical imagery once dominated its art. I was a child in the 1950's and attended a Methodist Sunday school until around the age of 14 when I first began to question what I was being taught. For the next several years, during which time I took Religious Education at A-level and then Religion as my main academic subject at a teacher training college, I fought a battle within myself over the contrast and conflict between faith and science. By my mid-twenties the battle was over and atheism had prevailed. So, here I stand, an atheist but one who is nevertheless steeped in Christian/Biblical culture.
Basil Wolverton went the other way, more or less, becoming an atheist in his teenage years but a Christian two decades later after correspondence and meetings with Herbert Armstrong the radio evangelist and leader of the (heretical by mainstream Christian views) sect the Worldwide Church of God. (Side note: his son Garner Ted Armstrong was well known to -and a figure of fun to teenage- listeners of Radio Luxembourg in the 1960s.) Less restrictive than many fundamentalist sects, the WCG had a definite appeal for the charming, easy-going sociable (according to many sources, notably his son) figure of Basil who liked a drink, to party, and to go hunting and fishing.
Wolverton began his series of illustrations to accompany text in the Church's magazine and there's little doubt that he regarded it as his most important work -full details are in the book. He avoided the New Testament because the sect (i.e. Armstrong) believed it was wrong to depict his saviour, though that didn't prevent him from having a go at the Revelations of St.John the Divine which is in itself the most misunderstood book in the Bible, most notably by fundamentalists who often display a shocking lack of background knowledge of their own faith. Still, what can you expect from people who are so stupid that they believe the Bible (with all its internal inconsistencies) is the divinely inspired word of God. Maybe He's just got a short attention span. Revelation allowed Wolverton indulge his wonderful fertile imagination and sense of the grotesque and, yes, to a secular reader this is the most impressive and vibrant part of the book.
But that isn't to dismiss what came before. The Old Testament is packed with stories and characters that have become archetypes and images which have become icons. Wolverton also gives us the I Am A Jealous God figure of the OT. His imagery is dark and powerful, bleak and often grim. A small amount of text summarises each section of the Bible he illustrates.
Graphically this is a hugely impressive work, whether you appreciate it purely on an aesthetic level or with an awareness that here lies some of the roots of our culture. This is really quite a unique and very special book and is well worth your time and money.
I doubt very much, however, (and here I breathe a sigh of relief) if it will convert anyone to the Worldwide Church of God.