There are those cartoonists whose work is always in the forefront of the public eye, reminding you constantly of their talent and greatness, and then there are those whose work, though paraded in front of us on a regular basis, somehow slips by our notice or is taken for granted, and it’s only upon looking back on their career that we’re able to fully appreciate what they’ve accomplished.
To some degree, such is the case with Gahan Wilson, the noted gag cartoonist who is probably best known for his work with “Playboy” magazine. Even more than Jack Cole or Eldon Dedini, Wilson is probably the cartoonist best associated with the magazine, which is funny considering his horror-tinged gags and black humor general tend to be the antithesis of the sort of sexual antics that generally go on display in Hugh Hefner’s magazine.
Despite such a lengthy career, Wilson isn’t always immediately recognized in comic book circles, a omission which will hopefully be rectified with Fantagraphics’ release of the massive, “Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons,” an impressive, weighty tome that collects every single thing Wilson has ever done for the magazine, including some short stories.
CBR News spoke with Wilson from his home in Sag Harbor, NY, about the new collection, his storied career and what further reprint projects we can expect to see from Fantagraphics in the near future.
CBR News: Looking at the collection, the first thing I noticed is that your style appears in those first few issues of “Playboy,” fully formed. It doesn’t change or develop over time, like you usually see in a project of this nature. How long did it take you to develop your style and what led you to the type of artistic style that you have?
Gahan Wilson: Well, I was determined to be a cartoonist at a very early age. As a kid, I was one of those people who would doodle all the time, which I found was pretty much a necessity if you’re going to do it and succeed.
I was just a compulsive drawer. My parents were quite generous and financed my going to a commercial school in the summer when I was in high school. It was helpful. They weren’t teaching me technique that I wanted to learn, so I went to the Art Institute in Chicago. I took a four year fine arts course, which was very intense. I had many excellent teachers, and the work was really diverse, which was unusual in art school. So I had exposure to all kinds of different knowledge and notions. It was four years of really intensive learning, and that basically put me together as to how I would approach the stuff.
Then I went to New York City and Greenwich Village and all the cliches piled together and started going out and selling these things, eventually working my way up to the larger markets, until finally I got an association started with “Playboy.” The “Playboy” thing was marvelous, because it was unlike [gag cartoons in other magazines] which was these small cartoons, and if you did color, it wasn’t much color, just tinting. In “Playboy,” I had this full page in full color and I could just run with it, which was exactly what I was after. Hugh Hefner was extremely good in terms of letting me go ahead and just do it.
So the thing shaped very rapidly. That’s the basic explanation.
What led to your interest in the subject matter of the macabre and the use of monsters and other horrific material?
I just loved the stuff. I read the books and saw the movies and all the rest. I just enjoyed it very much. And “Playboy” allowed me to go and explore it.
But specifically, what do you think it was about that material that you responded to so much?
I don’t really know. I think it was just the way I inclined. I think most people, if they’re into a various specialty – whether it’s science fiction, mystery and so on – it’s just something that they like to do and they decide that would do it. They were just attracted to some kind of a thing. That’s what they wanted to do and they just went and did it.
Obviously Charles Addams is a big influence of yours.
Oh yeah. Absolutely.
Outside of comics, who were some of your biggest influences?
Actually, Goya was a huge one from the get-go. I just loved his stuff. And I also loved the Japanese people that did these fantastic prints. I would say those would be the two most obvious influences from the high-toned art area. I loved etching, so that’s probably how I got into this kind of business. But the major thing with the “Playboy” stuff was simply having a full color, full page. It really allows you to flap your wings.
The colors really pop out in this new book, too.
The thing that’s really astonishing about the book is that Hefner was always extremely – and continues to be – picky about reproduction, and does the very best that he can. But the bottom line is that they’re working on magazine paper, which is this thin stuff and is therefore, in a sense, gray, because it’s almost translucent. Whereas the paper used for this book is thick – actually opaque – and also brilliantly, grandly white, so that it allows for a green like I’ve never seen green before. It’s just a really big thrill to hold this book and page through it and see these cartoons popping out. I’m just in ecstacy.
What’s it like to revisit all this older material? It’s such a huge project and collects such a vast swath of your work.
It’s awesome. That’s the best word for it. My jaw dropped and I just wallowed in it. The Fantagraphics people are extraordinarily conscientious. They’ve done these beautiful, beautiful books. I suppose the most spectacular was the one they did on Bill Mauldin’s war stuff. It was lovely. They sent me some of the stuff they had done when we were negotiating. I had been familiar with them for years, of course. But they’re marvelous, absolutely marvelous. They love cartoons and are fanatical, really. They print the things to look as good as they can, and they succeed.
Did you have much of a hand in the production of the book?
No. I had no worries about it either. I was thrilled to death. I had no concern at all. I knew they would do what they always do, which is their very best.
You’ve been at “Playboy” for such a long time now, you’re so closely associated with the magazine and vice-versa, I was wondering how, if at all, has your relationship with the magazine changed over the years?
Not at all. It’s a very friendly, pleasant relationship with Hef. That’s what it boils down to. That’s really it. He’s an excellent editor and very positive to work with. If he makes a suggestion, it’s good. He’ll say “Why don’t you do such and such,” and he’s always right. The whole time I’ve been with him, it’s maybe a dozen times that I’ve differed with him and we’ve had a discussion. [And usually] when I did, he’d say, “OK, if that’s the way you feel about it.” Usually, if he says something it’s, “Try this, try that,” and, “That would be a good thing to do,” and he’s right.
Reading the interview with Gary Groth in the back, about working with Hefner, it seems like a real beneficial relationship. A rare one at that.
Oh, extremely so. There just haven’t been any problems at all.
One of the other things that struck me reading through the collection is how fresh the material is.
Thank you, I’m glad to hear that.
It doesn’t flag at all as you progress through the years. How do you stay fresh after all this time, mining a particular genre? What serves as an inspiration for you?
Well, I think it’s the magic thing that any serious artist has got, if you love what you’re doing profoundly, and just throw yourself into it whole hog. One time recently [some people made], a movie about me, a documentary. I had, through the years, endless still pictures of me sitting there, working away at my drawings, no big surprise. But I’ve never seen, as I did in this film, me working for a couple minutes. I had no idea that I had such intesnity. It was a little scary. I know sometimes I finish a day’s work and feel exhausted and wonder why. Now I know why.
But I think it’s a secret of good artists. I know one marvelous documentary on Matisse showed him way into his old age. He was crippled with arthritis and various complications, and it showed him hobbling down the steps of his studio into his yard, and he had a drawing pad strapped onto one arm and some sort of pen in his other hand. It was just wonderful to see how he’d walk along, and he’d see a flower and he’d stop and focus on it and draw it with this amazing concentration and intensity. I think that’s what it is. That’s what they do.
Another thing that struck me going through the book is, while the material is very dark, there’s a – I don’t want to say gleefulness, but maybe a sympathy for the monsters…
Oh yeah, absolutely.
I was going to ask if that was intentional.
Yeah. Really, the stuff is by and large quite kindly and sympathetic. The whole thing about monsters and odd events and so on is a charity and sympathy. That’s a lot of what it’s about. For example, in the horror movies, [director James] Whale with his Frankenstein movies really nailed that. They’re really quite gentle movies. And they’re funny too. But they have this kindness, where you have this poor monster, and he’s doing the best that he can and it’s a kindness thing. The bottom line in horror, or humor, really, is that life is tough and sometimes it’s ludicriously disasterous. And yet we cope. We struggle on. That’s a large part of the thing. That’s very much underlying it. This admiration for us for making it through one day to the next. And taking care of kids and being nice to people. Working it out somehow together.
One of the things that struck me going through your bibliography, is all the different kinds of work you’ve done. In addtion to the “Playboy” work, you’ve done comic strips, children’s books, novels, animation.
Some of which are in the collection. What drives you to be so prolific in so many different mediums?
I work in different mediums because I’m just drawn to it. They’re all quite different experiences. You do a short short story and you learn things that you…it’s a learning curve. It’s an operation. Back to Matisse, you’re doing the very best you can to understand stuff and put out your understanding of it. Each medium gives you a chance to live differently some aspects of whatever the heck it is you’re looking at, if you’re looking at them from the point of view of some other art form. That’s essentially it. And also, it’s satisfying.
Is there anything you haven’t tried a hand at that you want to?
I’ve been thinking of acting, but I decided I don’t think I’d be up to that. That whole business is really rugged.
I understand Fantagraphics is coming out with a collection of your “Nuts” comic strip.
Yes, I’m very happy about that. This will be the “Complete Nuts.”
There was a previous book, which was nicely done and had a decent selection, but this will be the whole bit. In a way, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. The way I got started on it, was the people at the “[National] Lampoon” decided to – I wish to God there was a “Lampoon” still around – we could use it for sure. I remember they said they would like to have comic pages, in a comic strip format. And they asked if I would do one, and I said, “Ok, I’ll give it a whirl.” They said “Make it as horrible as you can.” So I was thinking in terms of what was really baffling and scary and terrible and, basically, it’s growing up. It’s this incredible thing we all go through, trying to figure out what in God’s name is going on. How to fit into it and how to make some kind of sense out of it. One of the things I do not understand about an awful lot of grown-ups is they sentimentalize kids. They don’t get that kids are people, and they are very alive and very conscious and just really working as hard as they can to get it. It’s staggering. You’ll see little kids’ faces with some kind of a problem and by George coping with it. It’s thrilling and touching to see these little guys do it. So that’s what led to the launching of the whole thing.
Is Fantagraphics going to be publishing any more of your other non-“Playboy” material?
There’s a possibility of maybe doing some science fiction stuff I’d done early on in my publishing career. We’re thinking of maybe doing a book of that material.
I wanted to get your take on current state of gag cartooning, because it seems like, apart from “The New Yorker” and “Playboy,” there isn’t much of a market.
No, I think it’s a dying industry, to be honest with you. It’s in a bad, tricky position at this stage. I really don’t know. I’m spreading out now and doing a bunch of stuff and really don’t know what’s going to happen. By the way, I’m not particularily optimistic or pessimistic. I just don’t know what will happen.
Because you’re so closely associated with this macabre style, I wondered if over the years people had developed odd rumors about you or people got the impression you had bodies in the basement or collected dead spiders or something like that. Have you ever had to deal with that kind of gossip?
No. You’d think I would, but nothing like that’s ever happened. You mentioned Charles Addams. He had a garden where he would get real tombstones and use it as a walkway and so on, which is something I would never do. He had spooky stuff around, but I don’t. There was one [cartoonist] in New York that had a bunch of skeletons hanging like clothes in a clothing store. I just think, “That’s a person! That’s a human being!” I have no business hanging him like a suit of clothes, putting him on display. On the other hand, I very much enjoy rubber gory stuff. It’s fun. I have it hanging round until it gets stiff, and then I throw it away.
No I never heard or no one’s repeated anything. They’ve been discreet. No one’s said, “Hey, have you heard that horrible rumor they’ve spread about you?”
They’re all just too polite, I guess.
[Laughs] That could be, yeah.