Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Creepy, Funny, Absurdist World of Playboy's Gahan Wilson

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“Werewolves are the silliest of monsters, and they’re a great example of being inept socially. Most monsters are,” Gahan Wilson says. We’re sitting in a crowded restaurant in his hometown of Sag Harbor. It’s a tourist trap of a town, complete with wharf and beach, and a historical whaling town (it even appeared in Moby Dick).

In his fifth decade as Playboy’s longest-running cartoonist, Gahan Wilson’s unique idiom of cartooning has a loose and kinetic hatch line, with characters existing in an absurdist world of UFOs, ghouls, monsters, and – most often seen – werewolves.

“What Karloff and [director] James Whale did with Frankenstein (which was very clever), was that they were trying to sympathize with people who are a big flop socially. The Frankenstein Monster has a terrible problem dealing with society. He can’t understand what he’s doing wrong and asks [impersonates Karloff] ‘Why? Why?’ It’s really good. Whale was very aware of its comical aspects. Fantastic humor is a marvelous way of approaching society.”

“Circus freaks were also a big influence,” he admits. “My father used to take me to the circus, and though I loved circuses, what I really wanted to see was the sideshow. I dug the sideshow. My father hated it but he would go along with it because I’d argue ‘Dad! Dad’ and drag him to it. I loved those people, because they were so brave. They took something awful, such as being crippled or horrible looking, and turned it into an advantage. They made it into a show and something to be proud of. They won the crowd over! I found it mighty encouraging that you could be like that, getting a lousy deal out of life, and miraculously turning it into something happy and positive.”

This Fall, Fantagraphics is releasing a three-volume hardcover edition of all of Wilson’s Playboy comics, chronicling the evolution of his moody and darkly comical work. Gahan’s large blue eyes peer out from an expressive face, long white hair growing out from the sides and over his ears. Despite his sometimes grisly and sometimes dark cartooning, and bouts of silliness while engaging in conversation, Wilson is much more normal and sane than you’d expect from a master of the macabre like himself.

Gahan Wilson’s childhood in 1930s Evanston, Illinois was filtered through his cartoonist’s eye in ‘Nuts, the full-page comic for National Lampoon in the 1970s.

National Lampoon was out to make fun of anything they disapproved of,” Gahan remembers. “It was great fun, and I enjoyed it enormously. I did satirical spreads, mostly, and I also did something I’m very proud of, which is coming out in a book, which is my strip ‘Nuts.

“They decided to call the comics pages in a Sunday strip format, and asked me to do something. I was toying around with ideas, and I fooled with classical formats. Some were promising, but somehow I flashed back to being a little kid. I remembered being a little kid and trying to make sense of society and why parents and the whole world tell you what to do. That’s what it was about.”

With ‘Nuts, Gahan sympathized with the child by only showing the world at his level. Parents were always heard “off screen” and never seen, while thought balloons revealed the kid’s real feelings about life.

“I tried to make it accurate,” he reveals. “Parents, meaning well, try to help them fit into society, insist that the kids act in such and such a way. The parents mean well, but it’s very hard for the kids to make sense out of anything.”

While ‘Nuts is mostly devoid of the crazy supernatural horror movie elements of his Playboy work, it’s a pretty dark strip. In one of the early installments, the kid is stuck in bed, sick, and imagines himself dying and then rotting in his coffin. Another strip has him coming home with a bad report card, taking the slow way home while trying to find a way out.

“Maybe they’ll both be dead!” he hopes about his parents. “Maybe Pop got killed in an auto accident and Mom’s been electrocuted by the iron! I sure hope that’s what happened! Oh, please, God – Let that be what happened!”

The kid’s escape? His father comes home drunk and he’s spared punishment. One of the following strips has him dreaming of zapping his parents with a death ray. Wilson then balances ‘Nuts by throwing in a strip with the kid going to his favorite malt shop, feeling the comfort of the soda jerk remembering his favorite malt.

“I was just looking at what kids knew, and how they had to put up with all this stuff,” Gahan sympathizes. “It sets out what do you do now? It’s interesting to watch a little child as they get older and more clever. When you watch a baby getting carried around, the kid will try emotional gambits with the parents and start sobbing, and then you’ll see them check the mother and see ‘Is this working?’ The thing that so many grown ups get wrong about kids is that they’re people, and very conscious, very aware. It was great fun drawing it and I’m delighted a complete version of it is going to come out.”

“They’re all reporting,” Gahan says of both ‘Nuts and comics in general. “Most of them are actually ridiculous, because that’s what cartoonists do: they point out the ridiculous. We do it affectionately.”

Gahan made his way to Chicago for college, with the intent dream of becoming a cartoonist.

“I had gone to commercial art school in Chicago, during a summer when I was a high school student, and they really weren’t teaching me what I was after,” he says. “They didn’t go into technique or anything like that, so I went to the Art Institute of Chicago and took a four-year fine arts course and, every so often, in their alumni things I would pop up there. It turned out I was the first caricaturist who took this fine arts course with the goal of being a cartoonist. They went along with it, and it was a very good period. One of the things that they had was to have different points of view, where most schools say there’s only one way to do things, the Institute threw at you a bunch of different teachers, with a wide divergence of conflicting theories. They made you work, work, work very hard on different techniques that you might never use. You ground lithograph into stones, made etchings, and drew, drew, drew, and painted, painted, painted. It’s what I was after.”

With a strong foundation of the fine arts holding him up, Gahan did his damnedest to break into the magazine cartoon market. He made his way, like most aspiring cartoonists, to New York City.

“I moved to Greenwich Village, because that’s where you moved to,” he casually says. “It was a fascinating period. I had just finished college, which my parents had generously paid for.

“So, when I moved to the Village, the people that I knew mostly were artists. The thing about the Village was that you could live there for almost nothing. They had these dinky little apartments that you could get, and they were run-down places. They cost hardly anything at all, but they were great for artists.

“My favorite story from the whole Village experience: one of my painter friends was Japanese and very, very talented. We were planning to go out one evening and drink and do terrible things. In the apartment next door to his, we heard more and more of an audible argument between a man and woman. It accelerated and got very loud, and then there was this huge crash against the wall. I can still feel it. Then all was silent, and then the silence persisted. My friend looked thoughtfully at the wall, shook his head, and said ‘It must be terrible, living like this, if you are ordinary people!’

“I thought he nailed the whole Bohemian thing. That was it. That’s the line that divides. It didn’t matter to artists, because they just wanted shelter and a placed to store their paintings. I persisted, and started selling cartoons, and that was it. I got started.”

When Gahan finally did get into a famed magazine, he found out it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“I remember in the early days, when I was trying to break in, that there was the Saturday Evening Post. It was a family magazine, and they had some good cartoonists in it, but most of them were pretty awful,” Wilson laughs.

“Once I visited my parents in Evanston, Illinois, and they had this stack of Posts. I asked if they’d mind if I went through them and tore them apart, and they said ‘No.’ I just went through them and analyzed their comics. It was very depressing: the humor was based off of the idea that everyone was dissatisfied and unhappy with things, and the jokes were all based off of that. You found that husbands and wives worked together only if the family is being a pain.

“I did a bunch of cartoons and sent them in. Up until then, I’d just been selling to oddball little magazines in New York. I was flabbergasted, because they didn’t pay as much for it in that little market. In a few weeks, I noticed I was not happy and becoming more like a Saturday Evening Post cartoon character. I didn’t sign my name on it, but put down ‘G.W.’, because I had no pride in them.”

Three minutes after first meeting Gahan, in the studio on the side of his tucked-away house, he shows his roughs for his next Playboy cartoon, with editorial scribblings and a signature from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Hefner, after fifty years, still has his hands on the cartoons. Hef, a failed cartoonist, channeled that energy into becoming one of the most important comics editors of the twentieth century, recruiting cartoonists like Plastic Man’s Jack Cole, and Gahan Wilson, for the color ranks of his revolutionary men’s magazine.

“He’s one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with,” Gahan beams. “I like him very much, and he’s an extraordinary person. One thing about him is that he really enjoys life, he really does.”
To maintain the eerie quality of Gahan’s black and white work, Hefner had the cartoonist first start out with muted colors on the strips. Wilson’s thin pen line popped with more dimension between the dull coloring and heavy stippling and hatchwork. A woman sweeps part of her own shadow away; a doctor who is determined to find out his patient’s werewolf infatuation does not notice the man wolfed out behind him; a torturer makes shadow puppets on the dungeon wall; and Humpty Dumpty precariously sits next to a construction worker on a crossbeam overlooking the city.

Like every great single-panel cartoonist, Gahan let the action be pieced together from the results present in the illustration, or lets it be predicted by the reader. His balance of the horrible and otherworldly with the everyday brings out the absurdity in his world…and in real life.

“Its gotta be funny to you,” Wilson says of the perfect cartoon. “The ideas should amuse you. I don’t know exactly where ideas come from, though there are things like free association and news articles. The important thing, when you’re doing something like that, is to pick a topic of some sort, and then stay with it. Say it’s people sitting in a booth in a restaurant; don’t leave that and wander into something else, because if you do you just wander, wander, wander. You need to be determined to find something funny in a restaurant, and you just will.

“What my addled brain comes up with – all cartoonists have this sort of world we live in—that the audience should be able to follow, as well.”

When Gahan Wilson sent in samples to Hugh Hefner’s editorial office, he had no idea that it would be the start of a “swell association” that would last for over fifty. Gahan’s evolution as a cartoonist is well documented in October’s Fantagraphics collection, Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons, reprinting all of his cartoons and essays for the men’s magazine. Hefner’s open views of sexuality in America are on par with his views towards comics. Playboy isn’t just good for the articles—the comics have consistently pushed boundaries, as well.

“One of the aspects of Playboy that made it totally different from other magazines that showed women in very little clothing, was that in all the other editors made it very obvious that they really didn’t like women,” Gahan elaborates. “They had these poor ladies, who were very pretty, but looked sad. They tried to make them as slutty as they could. Hef went out to sink all that, if he could. His pretty little girls are very sexy indeed, but they are also nice. You could take them home to Mama. They were all treated with respect.

“He’s changed the country enormously; he formed the Playboy Foundation which, among other things, provides services for people in trouble, but not because they’ve committed any sort of crime or hurt anyone. The Foundation takes the complaints, get very expensive lawyers who look it over, and use their skills to help these people out.

“I think, historically, he’s very important. He’s done a lot of things through lawyers to help out people because their books might be deemed obscene. I think he’s starting to get some credit for what he’s accomplished.”

Gahan Wilson continues his cartooning for Playboy, as well as a few other projects. Recently, a short film was animated from It was a Dark and Silly Night, a short story about a boy’s bad horn playing that actually does wake the dead, with author Neil Gaiman. Also in the works is a documentary on Gahan by director Steven-Charles Jaffe; titled Born Dead, Still Weird, it has had limited screenings so far.

“It’s gotten a very nice response from people who have seen it,” Gahan notes. “I’m not sure when it’s going to land, but it’s good, and they did a swell job and I’m very pleased.”

Read More: Gahan Wilson