Gahan Wilson is one of a handful of contemporary comics creators who can be described as a legend. The octogenarian has been contributing cartoons and prose to magazines like “Playboy” and “The New Yorker” for decades, and his work was just as skilled when he was in his twenties as it is today. Much of his cartooning has been in single panel comics, a form that he’s certainly a master of, but he’s also worked in animation, created children’s books, comic strips and other projects. Two years ago, Fantagraphics published a three-volume hardcover slipcased collection of Wilson’s work for “Playboy” magazine. It’s an astonishing piece of work, one of the single greatest retrospectives of a cartoonist ever produced.
In early October, Fantagraphics releases another collection of Wilson’s work which has long been out of print. “Nuts” collects a comic strip that Wilson did for “The National Lampoon” in the 1970s. Centering on an unnamed character, the strip centers on a young boy who faces childhood and the wider world, which is as strange and monstrous as anything Wilson could invent. An antidote to the nostalgic, saccharine portrait of children and childhood that is so often presented in comics, “Nuts” is familiar to us all, and makes us grateful that childhood is behind us. Wilson sat down with CBR and what follows is an edited transcript of a much longer conversation held earlier this year.
CBR News: Your new book, “Nuts,” collects a comic strip that you did originally for “The National Lampoon” in the 1970s, is that correct?
Gahan Wilson: Yeah, it was “The National Lampoon.” It was marvelous. I miss that [magazine]. I wish it was around, because we could use it now. We had fun being really nasty to silly people. I don’t know who it was who got the idea, but they thought, let’s have comics every week. The tail end of the magazine would have, I don’t know how many there were, around ten strips that various cartoonists would do. They asked me to do something as horrible as I possibly could. I toyed with Frankenstein monsters and all that kinds of stuff. Suddenly, I saw this little kid, I think it was in Central Park. He was walking along with his parents, it was a very busy day and he’s trying to cope with it all and take it in. I was very touched by him. It reminded me that [childhood] was probably the most difficult time you go through, ’cause it’s totally incomprehensible, and yet they do they struggle through. People treat them like they’re teensy weensy, cutesy wootsy, but they’re human beings. Little, very young, human beings. They’re not cutesy wootsy. That’s how I hit on the “Nuts” idea, and once I opened the gate, it just poured out of me. Now, [Fantagraphics is] going to bring out a book, which is very well done. It’s a nice little collection, and this will be the whole thing.
Was a full page comic strip what you pitched “National Lampoon?”
The idea was, “Would you do a comic strip?” As far as “Nuts” was concerned, they never touched it. They never even discussed it. They just took it and printed it and that was that. The only time we would have any kind of pep talk or something would be when they wanted it to be worse: “You’re being too nice. C’mon, you can really…” They’d just egg you on.
The best “Nuts” comics are funny, but they’re also sad.
Well, yeah. What’s fascinating about humor is it makes you laugh because it’s recognition. That’s what it is. A good joke alerts you or awakens you to something and you laugh. What is funny? It’s an awakening, really, and sometimes it’s very grim. With humor, you can accept things and put yourself in a position where you can really look at things which are really intolerable. With humor, you can really observe it. There’s been no Freud or other thinker of that nature that I know of who’s really gone into humor. I think it’s very funny that they haven’t, because it’s just an incredible, profound thing. Just astonishing. And it’s also just terrific therapy. To be in a theater watching a movie, when it’s working and everybody’s laughing, is just magical. I’m awed by it.
There’s one strip from “Nuts” that I remember well, and others have written and spoken about it as well: the Christmas one, where the boy gets the toy circus.
And then he’s topped totally by this other kid’s stuff. That’s based on a true, tragic event. At the time I realized it was ridiculous, but holy shit. I don’t know if I said shit, probably I didn’t, but that’s what I was thinking. I had this great satisfactory thing and I was very smug about it. He was a perfectly okay kid, but they were rich as Croesus, these people. It was kind of hard to take.
That is a good one. On the whole, [the comic] was mostly autobiographical. It just rolled out and it was and continues to be very satisfying to me. It helped me see kids better, too. They’re just wonderful. The creativity of children is kind of frightening. They all do these drawings which are just gorgeous and profound, and they’ll do poetry. They’re brilliant. I think adults have gotten better than they used to be when I was a kid, but there is a tendency to squash the children, to make them fit in and to reduce their creativity. “That’s not the way you do this sort of thing.” “This is the way you do this sort of thing.” And that isn’t true. There’s millions of ways to do it. I can understand if it’s immoral or harmful or something like that, but they have specific ways that you do or do not do art or do this or do that. It’s silly, it’s stupid and it’s crippling. But the kids outwit them. They just do it anyhow. I think they’re very encouraging because they give you a peak at what we could be if we grew up right. I think there’s hope for us all, and kids are evidence of that.
Do you enjoy the comic strip format? Most of your comics work has been single-panels.
I loved that. It’s just like making a movie. You have the visual and the literary. It has to flow. You have to work with this panel to panel approach or deviate [from it] or play with the panel structure. It’s great fun. Just a lot of fun. And unlike a movie, you do it all yourself. Nobody “improves” it for you.
I did one short film which I really liked. I think it was for Universal. It was called “Gahan Wilson’s Diner,” and for some reason or another, they let me just do it. They didn’t fix it up. Spielberg said it was the best animated short he ever saw. That was it. Everything else I’ve done has been “improved” and messed up.
I was complaining about this to some old hand in Hollywood, and he told me a joke: Did you hear the one about the three creative guys and a producer in the desert? They’re lost. They’re dying. They’ve been there for days. They saw, in the distance, a glean and crawl towards it. They barely made it and there was a small pool of water. The producer got up and unzipped his pants and urinated into it. The creative people said, why did you do that? The producer said, well I wanted to make it better. [Laughs] That’s the best Hollywood story I ever heard.
Fantagraphics released your “Playboy” collection last year, and it’s just gorgeous.
I’ve never seen anything like it. I was just as delighted with it as I could be. It’s just so exquisitely produced. Hefner’s a magnificent editor and he’s very scrupulous about things being done right, but it’s a magazine. You’re working with magazine paper, and it’s not the best paper in the world. This [book] has got incredible thick, juicy, blindingly-white paper, and the colors just come zango. It’s just a thrill and a half. Just beautifully produced. I couldn’t be happier. The Fantagraphics people have done such good work. They always do it so that that artist, whoever that artist is, can shine. They’re very, very good.
I spoke with Jules Feiffer when his memoir came out last year, and he said Hefner was the smartest editor of comics he’s ever run across.
Absolutely. Jules is a very bright guy — really, really bright — and I totally agree with him. I had this fascinating sight of him in action once — I’ve seen him in action in all kinds of ways, but at this point, [the magazine] hadn’t been around all that long, maybe a couple years. They had established themselves in this building which was set up so that the offices were built against the wall. I would be there because they wanted something done, so I’d be there at a drawing board in the center. He’d come down the staircase, almost in a kind of meditative trance, no particular expression on his face, and in the meantime, all these editors have all this stuff they wanted to show him and they’re getting it all set up. He’d get to the first door and Hefner would turn and focus with incredible attention. He would be really looking. There’d be an intense back and forth, and it was awesome. When it was done, he would then turn and go back into this kind of meditative blank, and when he got to the next door, same thing. He did a whole circuit doing this. I thought this is what Napoleon had to look like. I mean, it was amazing. It was eerie. It was awesome. I can’t think of the words. [Laughs] He is something else.
Besides “Playboy,” the other major publication you contribute to is “The New Yorker.”
That’s a whole other kind of operation. It used to be “The New Yorker,” but then it began to get shaky and they began to change the people running it. It’s been a little bizarre. It’s still a magnificent magazine and they have wonderful stuff in it. I’m not knocking it in the slightest, but different editors that have come in and each one had radically ideas of how you should run it. It’s been very interesting to see. I admire the magazine enormously. I’m delighted to be associated with it.
You also occasionally contribute covers for “The New Yorker.”
That is [overseen by] Francoise Mouly, and she’s a sweetheart. She has a little trouble getting my stuff through, sometimes. I actually sort of dropped [doing covers] for a stretch. About two years. It wasn’t a rejection or anything, I just faded away from it because she would solicit it, and for one thing or another, it wouldn’t get through. So I thought, well, to hell with it. Then I went, well, to hell with the hell with it. Show a little guts, son. [Laughs] So I’ve started sending things up to her again. She’s a first rate person.
Is there a chance that one of these years we’ll see a collection of the single panel comics that you’ve done for “The New Yorker” and other publications?
Well, you couldn’t top the “Playboy” books from Fantagraphics. I’ll settle for that for the time being. “Nuts” is coming out. They’ve got some other things they’re going to do. I’ve been lucky. I really have nothing to complain about.
I see all these sweet people, talented people. A lot of them strike me as being very promising, and I wouldn’t be all surprised if they do very well indeed. But for the bulk of them, it won’t happen, as with any field. I have no complaints of any kind. I do feel quite humbled at my good fortune, because you see a lot of these people and it’s sad because it’s not going to work out. You look at their work and you can tell they’ve worked very hard at it and you would like for them to succeed.
Are there any cartoonists in particular whose work you enjoy?
I’d have to make a list. There’s a whole bunch of really good people out there doing good stuff. One thing about cartoonists, which I find very touching and sweet, is that I’ve never seen a bunch of artists who are less competitive. They just don’t think that way. The worst bunch, I think, are poets. [Laughs] Individually, the ones I’ve known are very nice people and very brilliant, but God, they’re in these bitter contests with other poets. The only thing I can figure is that you don’t make any money in poetry, so most of them become involved in the academic world, which is worse than advertising. Many, many years ago, a number of friends who were also artists got involved in teaching art and they got into the academic world. I thought it must be interesting. I’ll see all these intelligent, scholarly, interesting, well-informed people. And again and again, I was devastated. All this bickering and petty squabbles. It was just pathetic. I’ve been in advertising and Hollywood, and they do not come close to the vitriol. But with cartoonists, it’s not there at all. Not a trace. You see somebody new, you encourage them. You see someone old, you encourage them.
Another thing which is never brought up or mentioned, but it’s very intriguing, forever going back to the old days of “The New Yorker” and through now, as far as women and men cartoonists are concerned, there is no problem. None of this bullshit that’s been plaguing almost every other endeavor or business, this war of the sexes. Not a trace of it in cartooning. It just isn’t there. It may be because we all have a sense of humor. I don’t know what it is, but it’s very interesting and it’s nice.
It’s just about the work?
And if anybody talks about anybody else, it’s in an encouraging fashion. It’s like it would never cross their minds. It’s kind of mysterious and sort of sweet. I have no explanation for it at all, except maybe it’s because we all have a sense of humor. That seems inadequate, but maybe it’s true.
What are you in the midst of now?
For “The New Yorker,” I started doing covers again and I’m enjoying it. It’s always fun, whether I sell them or not. I’m fooling around with these anthologies the Fantagraphics people are doing. There are some various books at different stages. I did kids books way back when, and I’ve got a whole bunch of them I’m thinking about. There are some nice comics in collections that came out and have egged me on to do some more of those. Your question is well timed. I’m ending a period of reinvestigating stuff.
So you’re not slowing down.
Oh, no. I have no intention of doing that. That’s fatal. [Laughs]