LENA THE HYENAOriginal media: Newspaper comics and a magazine
Distributed by: United Feature Syndicate
First Appeared: 1946
Creators: Al Capp and Basil Wolverton
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grotesque mockeries of the human form. But some characters were too hideous even for that gifted caricaturist. When, in 1946, he brought Lena the Hyena, world's ugliest woman, into the Li'l Abner storyline, he made a point of never letting readers see her face.
It wasn't that he had any great regard for their refined sensibilities — his humor wasn't aimed at people whose sensibilities were very refined. Ostensibly, the reason was to save his readers from madness, as anyone who saw Lena's face went instantly insane. Of course the real reason was, he was simply able to milk bigger laughs out of an unseen face than a visible one, however horrible.
He also got tremendous public response. Everybody wanted to know what Lena the Hyena looked like. So he held a contest, with Salvador Dali, Boris Karloff and Frank Sinatra as judges. Entries poured in, far out of proportion to the relatively small monetary prize ($525). Contestants included many professional cartoonists, such as Carl Barks, creator of Uncle Scrooge, and Jack Cole, creator of Plastic Man.
The winner was Basil Wolverton, who at the time was known only for Powerhouse Pepper, Spacehawk and a few other characters with equivalent name recognition. His winning "Lena the Hyena" drawing (one of seven he submitted) depicted a quasi-human creature that simply can't be described — the only way to do it justice is to show the picture itself. It was first published in the October 28, 1946 issue of Life magazine, instantly catapulting the hitherto obscure cartoonist to national fame.
The Li'l Abner storyline moved on, and Lena the Hyena faded from the scene. But in the outside world, she wasn't forgotten. Her image turns up from time to time even today, and Wolverton became famous for similar caricatures, which he produced frequently over the next three decades. (Several appeared on early covers of Mad magazine and several more two decades later, on the covers of DC Comics' Plop.) He died in 1979.
After Lena returned home to Lower Slobbovia, Capp would try from time to time to revisit her success with another faceless character, just as he'd tried to duplicate the Shmoos' success with Kigmies, Bald Iggles and the like. But Roger the Lodger and his ilk never took off like Lena the Hyena did.