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.