Wilson’s Comedy of Horror


Monday, January 25, 2010

Review of Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons (Fantagraphics Books)

Gahan Wilson was born dead but he quickly got better. That sounds like the morbid joke, exactly the sort of queasy punchline that graces many a Wilson cartoon, but it happens to be completely factual: when Wilson entered our world in 1930 the doctor pronounced the baby a still birth, but after being soaked in ice-water the infant proved to be loudly and healthily alive. What better beginning could there be for a cartoonist who would do hundreds of comics about vampires, zombies, flesh-eating plants and many other monsters who carry death within themselves?

Both his parents had artistic aspirations but settled for a more conventional existence: Miriam Wilson as a housewife, her husband Allen as a steel-industry executive. Perhaps due to their thwarted artistic career, augmented by the stress of being a young couple during the Great Depression, both parents were also alcoholics. As Gary Groth notes in a shrewd essay near the end of this exemplary republishing of Wilson’s Playboy cartoons, the lumpy people that populate Gahan’s cartoons, with their ghastly half-melting faces, could easily be a child’s view of sodden, Depression-haunted adults.

As a cartoonist, Gahan Wilson had two fathers: Charles Addams and James Thurber. Wilson’s use of gothic motifs as comedy obviously owes much to Addams (Hugh Hefner admits that he hired Wilson to be Playboy’s Addams). But the lumpiness of Wilson’s characters, the heavy gravitational pull that seems to drag their bodies and faces earthward, is the patrimony of Thurber.

Someday somebody will have to write a history of gothic humour, the re-purposing of ghouls and monsters for laughs. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is clearly an ancestor but the genre seems to have taken off in the early 20th century, with Addams as the premier example but with many other examples ranging from Abbott and Costello to John Stanley.

Generationally, Wilson belong to a small cohort of cartoonists that includes Jules Feiffer (born 1929), Edward Sorel (1929), and R.O. Blechman (1930). All these men were metropolitan cartoonists, at home in the cosmopolitan and worldly pages of the Shawn’s New Yorker and Hefner’s Playboy. As such they were the heirs to the first generation of New Yorker cartoonists, but their work had a critical edge that the more mainstream New Yorker crowd lacked. Politically, these four cartoonists managed the difficult task of remaining radicals in the most conservative era in modern American history, the 1950s. While they lacked the iconoclastic urge and plebeian griminess of the subsequent underground generation, their work reflected the “Silent Generations” disgruntlement at existing norms.

There has been a renewed interest in “black humour” in comics (thanks I would guess to Ivan Brunetti’s superb work in the genre), as witness the current show in Detroit. Feiffer and Wilson didn’t practise “black humor” but rather its immediate ancestor, “sick humor.” To put it another way, sick humor is the middle generation in the family tree that runs from Addams to Wilson to Brunetti.

One of the many nice features of the new Fantagraphics book is that it is chronological and dated, so we can see Wilson responding to the changing social and political landscapes. It’s very evident in this book that the year 1968, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed and Nixon took the White House, hit Wilson very hard. The cartoons for the next few years are much grimmer than before, with the formerly gleeful ghastliness now transformed into genuine dread. One 1969 cartoon shows a gun-and-knife totting madman, his eyes bugged-out with joy as he surveys a post-apocalyptic landscape where everyone else has been killed, issuing a victory cry: “I think I won!”

As a physical object Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons cannot be praised highly enough. Designer Jacob Covey pulled out all stops: three handsome hard-cover volumes, complete with a die cut cover in the form of a bottle of poison, printed on plush Playboy paper, all encased in a slipcase embossed on one side with a plexiglass window on the other side that allows you peek into the front cover (an appropriately macabre photo of the cartoonist pressing his fact against a glass). All of this supplemented by smart introductory material by Hefner and Neil Gaiman, a substantial essay by Gary Groth, who also conducts a long interview with Wilson, topped off by a topical index.

At this point, some readers might ask whether Wilson deserves this royal treatment. Normally this sort of over-the-top lavishness is reserved only for an Everest-level master. I myself initially had doubts, since I wasn’t too familiar with Wilson’s work and gag cartooning in not a genre I’m naturally inclined to love. Yet looking at Wilson’s work at length, eating it up with my eyes, I came to love his work. He is, in fact, a master. He clearly belongs to the rank of Feiffer, Blechman and Sorel, not only in terms of chronology but also in his stature as an artist.

The new books also made me reconsider Hugh Hefner, a figure that I have mixed feelings about. Perhaps ungenerously, I’ve been inclined to think of Heffner as the man who ruined Harvey Kurtzman’s life and career. It’s hard to forgive the middlebrow doltishness of the decision to make our greatest cartoonist spend decades working on Little Annie Fanny. But there was another side to Hefner. Free of snobbery, he knew that there were many great artists working for publications that were widely considered to be trashy, whether it was comic books (Jack Cole and Harvey Kurtzman), or pulp magazines (Theodore Sturgeon and Gahan Wilson) or third rung gag magazines (many of the cartoonists who were recruited for Playboy). These were artists and writers of real talent who were despised by the official culture of the 1950s. Hefner gave them a handsome venue for their work and paid them well. As in the realm of sex, he wanted to show that pleasures that were considered dirty and bad were actually good clean fun, and should be enjoyed as such. Hefner was as much revolutionary in the field of popular culture as he was in his more famous sex advocacy. Whatever one might want to say about the Kurtzman-Hefner relationship, the Playboy publisher deserves our eternal thanks for nurturing Wilson’s poisoned plants, giving them a hothouse where they could flourish for five decades.

Wilson’s long term marriage to Playboy might seem odd (Gary Groth for one has questions about it). After all, isn’t Playboy all about sex while Wilson’s work is all about death? A more synoptic view would be that sex and death are two sides of the same coin: that the reality of death makes life’s pleasures, chief among them sex, all the more important. Or to put it another way, for all their morbidity and ghoulishness, Wilson’s cartoons affirm the value of cherishing life. As inhuman as his characters often are, Wilson is a deeply humane cartoonist.

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13 Responses to “Wilson’s Comedy of Horror”
  1. Jason Michelitch says:

    "Hefner was as much revolutionary in the field of popular culture as he was in his more famous sex advocacy."

    I don't know enough about Playboy history to know if Hefner himself deserves the accolades, but it's worth noting that Playboy was, for many years, one of if not the best market for original fiction, and especially science fiction.

  2. R. Standfest says:

    Thank you for the shout-out for the Detroit show, and for a great and timely post.

    As I have come to understand it, the term "sick" was applied to certain humorists and comedians in the 1950's, as a means of pejoratively singling them out from the "straight" comedy of the day (ie Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; Rock Hudson and Doris Day). I am curious, however, as to what "sick" has come to mean, as applied to Feiffer let's say, since the time of it's original usage. Does it refer to a specific form of political or social satire? With that said, "black humor" can be political, but not as specific in its politics as "sick humor" could be and was. Also, although "black humor" can be satirical, it need not be.

    With regard to Hefner, Playboy and Wilson– it makes perfect sense that such a relationship was established. Wilson and Hef were dismantling the rigid push for the conformist "American Dream" each in their own way.

  3. Dan Nadel says:

    Sick humor emerged in the later 40s and early 50s. It was quickly adopted by bohemian-ish artists like Feiffer (who published a book called Sick Sick Sick) Lenny Bruce, Virgil Partch, et al. It applies to things like Crying Towels, Pyscho-Ceramics, etc. etc. It's a whole sub-category that precedes black humor, which was formalized in the mid-1960s.

  4. R. Standfest says:


    When you write that Black Humor was formalized in the 1960's, I assume you are referring to it be formalized as an American literary genre (Terry Southern, Bruce Jay Friedman, et all)…? In many ways, the concept of Black Humor had been formalized much earlier in Europe when Andre Breton created the name and applied it to writers in his "Anthologie de l'humour noir," published in 1939. Not surprisingly, this text was republished in 1966 with a new forward written by Breton.

  5. Dan Nadel says:

    Yep, I'm referring to the Friedman anthology, which had more traction in pop culture than ol' Breton.

  6. Warren Bernard says:

    One must not leave out the great Shel Silverstein, whom Hefner gave a huge boost to and was also born in 1930. Hefner's (born 1926, by the way..) supported jazz, rock, science fiction and the left wing of political thought especially desegregation in Playboy Magazine. Witness his intellectually and racially mixed TV shows of the late 1950's to 1960's.

    As to cartooning, Hefner himself has said he wanted to be a cartoonist. In fact, he published a collection of his cartoons in 1951 and sold cartoons to various second to third tier publications of the day prior to starting Playboy. More needs to be written about Hefner and his love/support for cartooning and cartoonists.

  7. R. Standfest says:

    Attempting to define Black Humor beyond its American literary forms, not to mention the occasional nod given to stand-up comedy and cinema, is difficult. To my mind, there really hasn't been a comprehensive study of the presence of Black Humor in American visual arts (one would include Peter Saul, late Guston and some Jim Nutt here) nor in a porpular culture form such as cartooning or comics. One must remember that, just as Breton did, Friedman selected a group of writers and put the label of Black Humor on their work. He later regretted doing this, to a degree, as he was unable to shake the label himself. Still, it would be interesting to do a version of Breton or Friedman's anthologies for the medium of comics. An attempt to locate the strain of Black Humor as it appears throughout the history of comics. This would beg the question as to why the comics medium would be suitable for a genre such as Black Humor?

  8. Chris Cammett says:

    "But the lumpiness of Wilson’s characters, the heavy gravitational pull that seems to drag their bodies and faces earthward, is the patrimony of Thurber."

    I mainly look at Wilson's character forms and see a patrimony from the comic style of POOR BOY by A.C. Fera [re: The Comic Strip Century Vol.1 page 120] circa 1922.

    Or, at any rate, at least more of a casual swipe of Cliff Sterrett's Polly and Her Pals people in Wilson's work than from Thurber. To me, Thurber's people are drawn rather poorly or lazily out of proportion, as if the limbs and torso's are misaligned components, and his people seem to float on air. But in contrast, Wilson's people seem solidly grounded and in proportion, yet morbidly disfigured, although still comically styled with a deft flair as seen more in the work of Fera or Sterrett.

    OK, for what it's worth. Wilson rules by the way!

  9. ukjarry says:

    Yes, Gahan Wilson does rule, and the good thing about the collection is seeing so many people say so.

    I always understood Wilson as being more in a Ray Bradbury vein, than “metropolitan” like Feiffer or Sorel. The same sort of Midwestern childhood, the same interest in carnivals, horror and science fiction movies and magazines. Many of his gags about office and city life wouldn’t be out of place in the slightly more social-satirical “Galaxy” magazine. And Wilson has always been appreciated by the sf community. Wilson’s first collection was put together and published by Terry Carr, who was a very influential sf editor. Wilson was in one of Harlan Ellison’s “Dangerous Visions” anthologies. His cartoons appeared in pretty much every issue of the “Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” throughout the ‘70s. And he wrote enough horror/science fiction stories to be collected in “The Cleft and Other Tales”.

    Which all fits with a strong bias at “Playboy” to sf writers in the 50s and 60s.

    Any issue of “Playboy” from the 50s-70s is interesting as it demonstrates a nice lifestyle of cars, good liquor, jazz, the best hi-fi sets, good fiction of all brands, clothes, holidays and slightly envelope-pushing entertainment in film or stand-up. Commercial Hep. The busty ladies take up far fewer pages than imagined. And talk about sexual honesty and information is gradually more and more tied in with discussion about ecology, civil rights, and after much too-ing and fro-ing, even feminism and gay rights.

    Of course to complement the “Playboy” Fantagraphics should collect all the strips and comic essays Wilson had in “National lampoon”

  10. Rob Clough says:

    Great review, Jeet. In this golden age of comics reprints and reconsideration of older cartoonists, I feel like Thurber is under-discussed these days. That's a weird thought considering he was arguably the most popular cartoonist of the first half of the 20th century. (I also think Rube Goldberg needs some kind of super-deluxe collection, but that's another discussion.)

  11. E.H. says:

    Not to get off topic but this slightly hagiographic discussion of Hefner/Playboy seems to leave out that Hef was pushing a progressive utopia for wealthy men (largely white) pretty exclusively. Women are there to serve men and be objects of visual admiration. Culture is what can be consumed through purchasing expensive goods.

  12. ukjarry says:

    No, it wasn’t quite intended as a hagiography, merely that as a cultural artefact representing changes in attitudes and also engaged with much of the broad array of American culture (which, yes, is often highly commercialised), “Playboy” is slightly more complex than it is sometimes made out to be. There are a certainly times when it’s opinions are objectionable. It does it start off with the women’s libbers are “ugly frigid lesbians” argument. Gradually “Playboy” realises that women will be happier and better off (and yes, that is for the selfish reason that it makes for a better world for men if women are happier) if women do get to have independent existence and equality – and will make contributions to E.R.A. Eventually when a particular feminist organisation in the early 70s starts a campaign condemning “Playboy”, there’s a sequence of letters from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates defending the magazine and its support.

    I’m gay, so that’s where it’s changing opinions touch closest to home for me. For about the first 15 years, for 99.99% of the time the magazine is silent about homosexuals, and then when it does make a passing mention it’s either derogatory, awkward, or ignorant. But it gets better. And as presented in the pages of “Playboy” that’s probably as accurate a reflection of the gradual change in attitudes as you can hope, since TV and films are more prone to censorship and commercial considerations. Just to look at the cartoons, in 1965 Shel Silverstein, while not mocking, offers a sequence of weird, confused conflicted caricatures, because that’s what gay men were thought to be:


    A decade later the cartoons in “Playboy” can offer confident couples whose sexuality is a topic for humour no different from heterosexuality, and which wouldn’t much look out of place in any of the contemporary gay newspapers

    and just to bring it back to Gahan Wilson, here’s a cartoon by him about gay marriage in “Playboy” from 1980


    That’s not to say that Hugh Hefner as a person doesn’t weird me out, because he does no end. Just that his magazine is diverse and historically fascinating.

  13. Abhay says:

    I bought a couple old Playboys last year, one from April 1971 which features, inter alia, a "Playboy Panel" on homosexuality, a "symposium" on its "causes and consequences." They talk to 12 M.D.'s, playwrights, judges, etc.

    My favorite quote from Paul Goodman, social critic: "To get rid of the laws against homosexuality, homosexuals must get together and join in blow-ins. You create the world you want by doing what you want."

    It's actually a pretty thorough discussion beyond that. It's 27 pages which– that's a lot of real estate.

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