Gahan Wilson is gone at 89 years old. Wilson was a prolific cartoonist with a penchant for probing the pitch-dark, puzzling corners of the human mind.
I became a big fan after discovering his work in my father’s hidden Playboy magazines; I’m one red-blooded American male who really did read Playboy for the articles and cartoons. And when I received a subscription to The New Yorker when I was 10 years old, I was happy to enjoy it out in the open, although my mother did not find Wilson funny at all when I posted this drawings on the bulletin board in my room.
Wilson worked in the tradition of the famed New Yorker cartoonist, Charles Addams, who also drew macabre situations with a humorous edge to them. Wilson, though, took a more modernist approach to his cartoons.
For over five decades, Wilson’s illustrations appeared in Playboy, The New Yorker, Collier’s, Look, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and National Lampoon.
Without ever losing sight of the humor in it all, Wilson’s cartoons show his disgust with the American war machine, rage over possible Armageddon, and fear of ecological catastrophe. As early as 1958, he drew two Eskimos looking up at nuclear warheads on a collision course in the sky, with one saying to the other, “Looks like the end of civilization as they know it“. One of his very best drawings is of a demented-looking soldier, bloody bayonet in hand, declaring on a desolate battlefield: “I think we won!”
Wilson’s genius for grotesquery shows up in his concerns about the environment. One drawing is of a chemical plant gate, where the horridly infected, pustulating, disintegrated guard tells a reporter: “Chemical spill? What chemical spill? Anybody here know anything about a chemical spill?” Wilson is sublimely unsubtle: in one of his simple black-and-white panels, some animals in the distance shoot some hunters in the foreground, their bodies splattered in the snow. His work is clearly not for the squeamish.
He found humor even from humanity’s most ominous circumstances. In a 2018 interview in The Arizona Republic, he talked about suffering from dementia:
“…it can take kind of grim stuff and turn it into a joke and destroy it therefore, so it goes away…It’s a lucky thing we’ve got it, our sense of humor.”
As a youth Wilson was drawn to science fiction, horror, and fantasy, giving him an incredulous eye toward pop cultural images of upbeat and cheerful tropes. Wilson’s unique take on everything from politics to the things that go bump in the night pleased both critics and fans, by being both cerebral and accessible.
Even when his cartoons that aren’t frightening or fantastical, they still have a dark comedic tone. Murder, chaos, and subverted expectations were often on the minds of Wilson’s characters, and his vividly stylized illustrations feature imagery drawn straight from his science fiction roots: beasts, bats, teeth, and skeletons, and grotesquely anthropomorphic animals and objects. Despite its dark, offbeat and ghoulish character, his cartoons manage to resonate with a wide cross-section of readers.
Here’s my favorite:
In a 2011 interview with Comics Journal,Wilson stated that he was “born dead”. Wilson explained that when he was born, he was blue and not breathing. Wilson said the doctor put him in the sink. Shortly afterward, the same noticed that Wilson looked as though he was stirring. Wilson:
“He was looking through the little porthole into the operating room and then burst in and grabbed me up. He used hot and cold water and slap, slap, slap. He got me coughing and puking and breathing and that’s that: I was alive. The same thing happened to John Steinbeck. I could have spent some time in the afterlife before I was born.”
The documentary film Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird (2013) has artists who felt his influence including the late comic book genuis Stan Lee, Academy Award-winning director/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro, and Hugh Hefner, commenting on Wilson’s artistry.