TNB Night Owl – Lena The Hyena

Spotted Hyena, Photo by Marieke Kuijpers

It was a gimmick that became a pop culture phenomenon.

Li’l Abner was one of the great comic strip successes, bringing the creator, Al Capp, fame and fortune (and providing a start to the career of a young Frank Frazetta, who came in during the later years as an inker and ghost artist for the strip.)

Fourteen years into the strip, in 1946, Capp introduced a new character – Lena the Hyena. She was so hideous, said the artist, that he could not draw her because merely looking at her visage was enough to drive some people insane. Instead, wherever she appeared in the strip, her face was replaced with a large white block, often with “deleted by editor” inserted.

The image – or lack thereof – sparked the imagination of readers, and Capp was deluged with requests to know what Lena really looked like. There was only one problem – Capp had no idea. It had been a gag, a cheap joke designed to garner a few laughs. Now Capp was expected to produce, and with the hype he’d generated he risked greatly underwhelming his fans.

In a stroke of brilliance, Capp sidestepped the risks by creating a contest. He invited people to send their drawings of what they thought Lena looked like, and offered a cash prize of $525 to the winning art.

Hundreds upon hundreds of entries were received, including by famed industry professionals like Carl Barks (creator of Scrooge McDuck, Huey, Dewey, & Louie and most of the rest of “Duckberg”) and Jack Cole (creator of Plastic Man).

For some, the lure was likely the money; for others the attraction was likely the notoriety… after all, the judges Capp had procured for the contest were Salvadore Dali, Boris Karloff, and Frank Sinatra in addition to himself.

In the end, a relatively unknown comic book artist named Basil Wolverton submitted the winning entry. The subsequent attention launched him to prominence, and he parlayed that fame into memorable work for early Mad Magazine issues as well as Marvel and DC comics and non-comic book illustration.

If you’re curious about what some of the entries looked like, here’s a Google archive link to the Life Magazine pages which showcased the contributions to the curious public. Scroll up and down to see a variety of interpretations of the character, including (at the top of the entries) the winning version that made Wolverton’s career.

Question of the night: Were there ever any Mad Magazine features which particularly appealed to you?

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.