The entryway into Gahan Wilson and writer Nancy Winters’s modest, white-picket-fenced cottage in Sag Harbor, Long Island, is filled with vintage toy theaters, cardboard replicas of popular plays of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Which seems fitting, insofar as Wilson is himself a miraculous miniaturist, one who uses cartoons as his stage. For nearly sixty years, Wilson has been aiming his faithful B-movie shrinking ray at monsters and aliens and evil humans of all sorts, and distilled their most terrifying qualities into beautifully rendered cartoons that magically manage to both disturb and comfort us at the same time. It’s a terrifying world out there, he seems to say through his art, and this is how I’ve learned to cope with it.
Some of Wilson’s most important work has (or is about to) become newly available. Last year, Fantagraphics published a handsome three-volume box set containing all his cartoons for Playboy, the magazine in which he’s appeared monthly since 1957. And in August Fantagraphics will publish the complete Nuts, the virtuosic semi-autobiographical comic strip he drew for National Lampoon in the early seventies.
Of course Wilson still draws regularly for The New Yorker, too, a relatively new relationship that extends back to 1980. In a recent cartoon for the magazine, a large dog bares its teeth while clawing at the tablecloth. “He’s not begging,” the host advises his obviously dismayed dinner guest. Wilson’s people are puffy and shapeless beneath their baggy formal attire. The mood is mildly sinister. It’s like the second act of a play, the rest of which you’ll have to imagine for yourself. The only thing you can rely on is that dinner will continue.
RICHARD GEHR: What sparked your interest in cartooning?
GAHAN WILSON: When I was eight or nine, I was browsing through the books section of a second-hand store and I saw this set of bound volumes of Punch. I bought one of the volumes for fifteen cents and took it home. After pleading with my father, he very sweetly drove me back to the place and plopped down for the entire set, bless his heart. I can’t say how important that was.
GEHR: How so?
WILSON: They had fantastic people back then. They had Honoré Daumier, George Cruikshank, and all kinds of amazing painters but also did cartoons. Some of them were wonderfully political. They’d have a drawing with a caption underneath, but it wasn’t necessarily a joke. They eventually hit on the idea of the one-liner and it became more than an illustration. The form was established, and it could work with or without a caption, depending on what sort of joke you were creating. Later, I realized those were the artists who got me into cross-hatching. I began to think, “What the hell, let’s make a really interesting drawing while we’re at it.”
GEHR: Were they the first cartoons you remember seeing?
WILSON: I enjoyed other stuff, too. I liked The New Yorker, and the newspapers had cartoons.
GEHR: Where were you born?
WILSON: I was born in Evanston, Illinois, on October 18th, 1930. Charles Jaffe made a nice movie about me called Born Dead, Still Weird, and I was indeed born dead, which is quite an extraordinary story. I came out blue and not breathing, so they just put me in the sink. Fortunately for me, the family doctor was on the scene. 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. I don’t know if anybody at the hospital ever apologized for it. “Oh, jeez, sorry…” The same thing happened to John Steinbeck. I could have spent some time in the afterlife before I was born.
GEHR: Tell me about your family.
WILSON: My father’s name was Allen Barnum Wilson. I’m so proud that P. T. Barnum is a great uncle of mine, although he was long dead by the time I came around. He’s a sensational character. The more I read about him the more in awe of him I am. He was a brilliant showman and even larger than his legend, and far ahead of his time. He introduced modern advertising and changed the world of show business very skillfully. Hugh Hefner did the same thing. He set out on a campaign, and he moved stealthily and astutely with the Playboy clubs, which were a safe fantasy place. You could go there and nothing would happen, but you had a sort of romance with pretty girls. It’s a different country because of both of them.
GEHR: Where did your father work?
WILSON: He was an interesting character. He worked for the Acme Steel Company. Before that he worked in a Carson Pirie Scott department store, which was the other big Chicago department store beside Marshall Field’s. Both he and my mother worked there. My mother was way ahead of her time.
GEHR: What was she like?
WILSON: Her name was Marion Gahan. I was originally Allen Gahan Wilson. She had wanted to be an artist and went to the Art Institute of Chicago. She was brought up in Elgin, Illinois. The Gahan family was completely off-the-boat Irish. Elgin was a very Irish town and her father – my grandfather, Frank Gahan, who I’m sorry died before I came along, because I would have loved to have known him – was Elgin’s police chief. He was extraordinarily brave and effective in his operations. During this period, Chicago gangsters would spread out and take over these little towns. If the Capone types got in trouble, they could always zip off to one of these refuges where they basically ran the place. They tried it in Elgin, but they hadn’t counted on Frank “The Tiger” Gahan. He knew exactly what was happening when the gangsters came in, and he started a very efficient campaign against them. They brought in larger figures than they ordinarily would have and began plotting what to do about Elgin. But his informants told Frank the gangsters were having a big meeting in an apartment building. Frank and his men crossed the alley on a board and they barged into the meeting. And that was the end of the attempt to, as they said, “Fuck Elgin.” He just stopped them cold.
GEHR: You’ve described your childhood as “turbulent.”
WILSON: It was a little difficult. My father was definitely an alcoholic, and I’m a recovering alcoholic. But going back to my mother and father working for Carson Pirie Scott, the art thing didn’t work out for her. She was very determined and serious about wanting to be an artist, but she had some kind of devastating nervous breakdown. I don’t know what it was, but it spoiled the whole damn thing. It was always quite hush-hush mysterious and not talked about. But what she did was quite heroic. She was one of these women who were way ahead of the rest of her peers. So she got a job in the store’s advertising department and worked her way up and became quite an important figure there.
My father was a floorwalker, one of these people who no longer exist in department stores. He would walk along and say, “May I help you, madam?” They would be all dressed up, and he was tall and had this presence. He also had a great eye for art, and at that time department stores would sell framed paintings in a sort of art gallery. My father thought Carson Pirie Scott’s stuff was junk.” But he knew some real artists, like Winslow Homer, so he took over the gallery as a side thing, brought in some respected guys, and transformed it into an important gallery. It was a big deal. Ralph Norton, who owned Acme Steel, was an art collector, and one day he dropped by the place and was very impressed by what saw there. He was quite taken with my father and they became friends. Norton saw that my father was a bright guy and got him into Acme Steel’s development department. And my mother and father got married.
GEHR: What did your father do for Acme Steel?
WILSON: He was eventually put in charge of developing new products. One of their main products was strip steel. I remember him taking us to the factory outside of Chicago. They’d turn bars of steel into this white-hot stuff that would come out as big planks. Then they’d chop them up into smaller slabs and end up with strip steel, which was used for strapping packages and all kinds of things. My father developed machines that could do this stuff. I remember being absolutely appalled by the working conditions in the factory. It was horrible. You’d have great slabs of steel hurtling on rollers until they’d crash to a halt. Then these guys would lift the slabs and hoist them onto a railroad car. And what happened was they went deaf, every damn one of them. I couldn’t believe it. And guys would fall into pits of bubbling steel and completely disappear.
Probably the most brilliant thing my father developed was steel Venetian blinds. There wasn’t a suburban house or executive suite that did not have steel Venetian blinds. He worked out this very simple way to maintain strip steel’s integrity, so you could bend it and it would snap right back again. He did bunch of other stuff too. He was just extraordinary.
GEHR: And yet his drinking made things ugly for you and your mother.
WILSON: Yeah, there were depressing things going on. When I was in high school we had this very nice apartment on the north side of Chicago. Once, in the middle of the night, there was a ruckus in the hallway, and there’s my father and he’s stinking drunk. He had been to the yacht club. He had a boat and loved sailing, but there was also a lot of drinking and so on. That night he’d bashed into a taxi on the way home, and one of these Chicago cops had him in tow. My father tells me to call a lawyer at the steel company. So I call him up, describe the situation, and he’s there in half an hour. While we’re waiting for the lawyer, one cop asked me, “Is your dad a big deal?” And I said, “Yeah, he’s a big deal.” And off we all went to the police station, where I saw the taxi driver. He was OK, and he looked pretty smug when he saw this drunk come in. He was even happier to see this guy put in the slammer. But then it all got turned around for him, and it was a very depressing thing to see. The taxi driver thought it was going his way, but then he suddenly realized he was being fucked. It was disgusting. I was horrified, it was just awful. And Chicago is still like this.
GEHR: When did you realize you needed to stop drinking?
WILSON: For a while it was manageable, but it started sliding beyond manageable and became really ghastly. This was decades ago. I had been in control, sort of. I was doing just what my father did, which was get drunk every damn night, practically.
GEHR: Were you in your thirties?
WILSON: Yeah, something like that. I don’t remember the exact time. I cannot describe how depressing it was. I never got into the dope, thank God. I had a little bit of cocaine and didn’t care for it. I did marijuana, which I didn’t like at all except for one time. I never took LSD and so on, so that dates it. You get into this thing where, like in O’Neill’s plays, there’s total horrible despair, and it’s just awful. I cannot describe it. Everything’s hopeless, no good, a black pit.
GEHR: But you must have still been productive.
WILSON: I was still producing, yeah. That’s the stuff of classic artists’ stories. Art is a thing of such power it’s terrifying.
GEHR: How did alcoholism affect your work, and what did you do about it?
WILSON: It started to fuck it up. I was in terrible trouble, in utter despair. So Nancy, bless her heart, did research. She is a very sharp and intelligent person, and she did a good job of checking out these dry-out places. We made a short list and took a little tour of these joints. We ended up in a place called Silver Hills. It was a very touching experience, really. You know what these other people are going through and they know what you’re going though. But nobody else does; there’s no way they could. It’s like a bunch of people on a life raft or whatever cliché you want to use. I love these people. I kept in touch with a good many of them. For some of them it worked, for others it didn’t. The intensive Alcoholics Anonymous stuff is the same exact thing: You have people who’ve been where you’re at. That’s how you help each other. It’s very tricky but it worked for me, praise be. I’ve never been even slightly tempted to drink again, although I miss the lovely taste of wine. It was delicious.
GEHR: You mentioned a marijuana epiphany earlier.
WILSON: That was absolutely fascinating. I’d smoked marijuana but didn’t like the effect at all. I particularly didn’t care for the thing where time slows to an incredible crawl. You’d be at this slow-motion party and realize, oh, I have to go to the bathroom. And two hours later you’re in the bathroom. You’re standing there urinating for a half hour, then you come back. And God knows how long that takes. But once we were at this extremely well-to-do art person’s dinner party. A small group of people was at this lovely table. And after our exquisite dinner, servants appeared with trays holding little ciggie-poos. I don’t know what was in the damn things, but it was supposed to have started with marijuana.
GEHR: It sounds like you think there might have been something else in the joint.
WILSON: I suspect so. I had always been extraordinarily fond of Paul Cézanne, and still am, very much so. I can remember looking at his paintings while I was at the Art Institute of Chicago, sketching endlessly, and trying to understand how he magically transformed three dimensions into a flat plane. I made tiny bits of progress here and there but never really got where I wanted. But after toking away, I looked across this magnificent table full of crystals and lovely china and bottles and whatnot, and all of a sudden I got it. And I still have it. I’m doing it now. I can look at objects and see them and drawn them as Cézanne did. It’s a miracle that has stayed with me, totally and completely. Very often you can see Cézanne touches in my cartoons, three-dimensional objects and planes. This was given to me by whatever the hell it was that I smoked and for that I’m very grateful.
GEHR: What was your experience at the Art Institute?
WILSON: It was quite remarkable at that point because the teachers were famous artists whom you wouldn’t ordinarily have as teachers. They were incredibly good painters, drawers, and sculptors. Some of them had fled Hitler. It’s still an excellent school, and I’ve been back there a couple of times to talk. Today the school is in a building behind The Art Institute of Chicago Museum. But when I went there, the school was secreted within the same building as the museum. So as you walked from your etching class to your life class, you’d walk through galleries containing El Greco, Cézanne, Picasso, and all that. It really changed and inspired me.
GEHR: You started working for Playboy in 1957. What went through your mind as you browsed Fantagraphics’ three-volume box of your complete Playboy cartoons over a half-century?
WILSON: What really knocked me over was the color. Hefner is a brilliant editor, and very tough, so I know he reproduced those things as well as he could. But they were on translucent magazine paper. The colors look glaringly brilliant on the books’ opaque paper, so I was in ecstasy.
WILSON: Goya is an obvious influence. But what really helped me out were those lovely Hammer horror movies. They opened my eyes so far as the atmospheric, bright, and spooky thing went. But it’s mostly from all the great paintings I saw at the Art Institute.
GEHR: Are you being asked to do more color cartoons for The New Yorker?
WILSON: Yes, but you never know in advance. They’ll buy one and then ask you to do it in color. And they don’t pay extra for it, which I get a little pissed off at.