Basil Wolverton (1909–78) was an influential twentieth-century cartoonist. He created some of the most iconic images in the early issues of MAD magazine by rendering the human body in outlandish, bizarre, and warped visual forms.
In the 1940s, Wolverton became active in Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. Started as a radio ministry in Oregon and eventually establishing congregations around the world, the denomination became popular for its apocalyptic teachings and ‘plain sense’ approach to the Bible. Armstrong said Jesus would return after a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Wolverton’s creative approach to rendering the human form proved a perfect fit for a form of Christianity convinced of an imminent nuclear apocalypse. His Bible illustrations revel in the melting, twisting, chomping, and other destructive effects that he thought the nuclear end times would have on the human body.
This image of the Beast was first published in the Worldwide Church of God’s denominational journal Tomorrow’s World. It was part of a series of illustrations that accompanied Bible stories for children. The image originally appeared as an illustration of Daniel 7, but in the Worldwide Church of God’s interpretation this was thought to be the same Beast described in Revelation 13 (Armstrong 1952: 6–7).
This image of the Beast permits no abstractions or metaphors. In Wolverton’s reckoning, the prophet travelled to the future and saw a horrible Beast. This image depicts that Beast as a hulking, grotesque lizard-monster. Unconventionally, its ten enormous horns protrude from its back instead of its head. It has four legs on one side of its body, a heavy tail, huge nostrils, and threatening teeth.
This image of the Beast is meant to terrify the viewer. The Beast devours those who are not prepared for the end times. Body parts protrude from the Beast’s teeth. People run away from it with pained, anguished faces. These victims were assumed to be people who had not undergone Christian conversion—those who had not ‘accepted Jesus’ as their personal saviour in an emotional conversion experience. The image suggests that to avoid becoming the Beast’s next victim, a person must accept Jesus right away.
Armstrong, Herbert W. 1952. ‘Who is the Beast’, Plain Truth, 17.1: 5–7, 11
Coates, Andrew T. 2018. ‘The Bible and Graphic Novels and Comic Books’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America, ed. by Paul Gutjahr (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 451–67
13 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads. 2And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 3One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth followed the beast with wonder. 4Men worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
5 And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months; 6it opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation, 8and all who dwell on earth will worship it, every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain. 9If any one has an ear, let him hear:
10If any one is to be taken captive,
to captivity he goes;
if any one slays with the sword,
with the sword must he be slain.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
11 Then I saw another beast which rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13It works great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of men; 14and by the signs which it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast, it deceives those who dwell on earth, bidding them make an image for the beast which was wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast should even speak, and to cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six.