Cartoonist Gahan Wilson Dies at the age of 89

Photo by Seth Kushner

Cartoonist Gahan Wilson, whose genius for melding horror and humor regularly sent a disruptive shudder through venues as staid as the New Yorker and as libidinous as Playboy, passed away Nov. 21 at the age of 89. Novelist/journalist Nancy Winters, his wife of 52 years, had died in March and Wilson himself had declined into debilitating dementia in recent months. He had been placed in a memory-care home with support raised through a GoFundMe page. The cause of Wilson’s death was identified as complications from dementia.

Wilson’s ability to find laughs in an incongruous mixture of supernatural and mundane elements — the waste bin in a meticulously ordinary kitchen opening its voracious maw to devour leftovers, the chanting cultists preparing a sacrifice alongside a neighborhood of backyard barbecues — drew comparisons to Edward Gorey and Charles Addams. But Wilson also understood the profound horror that lurks in the everyday world of children, as seen in his National Lampoon strip Nuts.

One of the "Santa is scary" comics.

Though he worked in a variety of media and formats — single-panel cartoons, strips, children’s books, animation, computer game designs, advertising, short stories, novels, illustrations, album covers and movie and book reviews — his sinister themes carried over into all of them. In a momentary foray into acting, he cameoed as a zombie in a 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake.

Wilson sometimes explained his affinity for macabre entertainment as a combination of genetics inherited from ancestral showmen (among his great uncles were circus impresario P.T. Barnum and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan) and childhood trauma (he was, as he put it, “born dead,” initially pronounced stillborn and only able to breathe after being dipped in hot and cold water and slapped). The roots of his artistic impulses can be located more readily in his parents. He was born Allen Gahan Wilson on Feb. 18, 1930, and raised in Evanston, Illinois, the only child of an inventor father, Allen Barnum, and an artist/publicist mother, Miriam (Gahan) Wilson. Barnum developed steel Venetian blinds while an executive of research and development at the Acme Steel Company. He had previously been a floor manager at the Carson Pirie and Scott department store in Chicago, where Miriam Gahan occupied a high position in the advertising department. After collaborating on an art gallery in the store, the two left to form an art consulting business. Wilson’s mother had been an art student and painter but dropped those pursuits after a nervous breakdown before his birth.

An obsessive drawer from an early age, Wilson was encouraged by his parents but he grew up during the Depression and a milieu of heavy drinking, which, he said, made for an erratic, dysfunctional home life. Wilson, himself, later replicated his father’s alcoholism but was able to kick the addiction at a rehab institution in the 1960s.

As a child, Wilson took refuge from real-world chaos in the scary and exhilarating thrills of pop culture: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy; Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie; the spine-tingling radio shows Inner Sanctum, Lights Out and The Shadow; pulp magazines like Weird Tales; and comic books. More than anything else, young Gahan liked to draw monsters and ghosts.

A Playboy comic by Wilson, from 1960

“I was frankly an odd little kid who was always lured by the fantastic and the bizarre,” he wrote in his introduction to The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.

Wilson grew into his teens in time for the explosion of comic books onto newsstands and recalled regularly devouring comics while sipping sodas at the Evanshire Drug Store. He drew a comic for his middle-school class called Drippy Dan the Detective. Dan’s deerstalker-style hat later found its way onto the head of the child protagonist of Nuts.

In his teens, Wilson attended the Todd School for Boys where he was among the students invited to dinner with the school’s famous alumnus Orson Welles. And at age 15, Wilson was suddenly plucked out of his Midwestern existence and given a whirlwind tour of Hollywood. Chicago Tribune Editor Don Maxwell was a friend of the Barnum family and, seeing Gahan’s interest in movies, he wrote the boy letters of introduction to the major studios. Wilson visited sets, met celebrities — including Fred Astaire and James Cagney — and came away star-struck but resigned that he would never be tough enough to compete in such a world. He preferred to interact with his drawing board.

Wilson spent his high school summers at the American Academy of Art and, after high school, attended the Art Institute of Chicago. The Korean War was under way when he graduated from the Art Institute’s four-year program, and fearing that he would be drafted, Wilson enlisted in the Air Force. He was quickly discharged, however, due to a staph infection in his leg.

In 1952, Wilson went to Greenwich Village, New York, where he became a struggling artist, eking out a bare subsistence selling cartoons to low-paying magazines. The experience was an eye-opener for Wilson, who had been raised in a comfortable, suburban, Republican household. He saw what life was like for people without money or connections and he slid happily into a bohemian social scene, mingling with other artists.

He was initially unsuccessful in breaking into more prestigious cartoon markets like Colliers magazine because editors found his humor peculiar and feared general audiences wouldn’t get it. Then Colliers editor Bernie Williams moved to Look magazine and was temporarily replaced by Bill Chessman, an interim editor who had so little experience with the conventions of cartooning that he found Wilson’s work quite funny. Colliers began running Wilson’s cartoons, which persuaded Williams to buy them and, from there, Wilson’s cachet among top-shelf magazines was assured.

Wilson’s long run in Playboy began in a similarly indirect fashion. He had heard about Trump, a humor magazine launched by former EC Comics editor Harvey Kurtzman, and on one of his trips back from New York to visit his parents, he went to the Chicago address of Trump’s publisher, Playboy Enterprises. It turned out, however, that Kurtzman and Trump’s editorial offices were at that time actually located in New York. But before Wilson could leave, he was handed a note saying that “Hef” would like to see him. He discovered he had a fan in Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner and began an association with the magazine that would continue for decades. Wilson’s first Playboy cartoon appeared in the December 1957 issue and his work, generally one color and one black-and-white, appeared in every issue after that, with some issues featuring several Wilson cartoons built around a particular theme. Five years later, Playboy published his first prose short story, “Horror Trio.” Wilson also later contributed to Kurtzman’s independently published Help!

He admired Hefner’s abilities as a cartoon editor, but Wilson’s cartoons nevertheless stood out among the mostly sex-themed gags in Playboy. The magazine that he found to be most suited to his dark humor was National Lampoon. In a 2011 TCJ interview with Richard Gehr, Wilson said, “That was a remarkable assemblage of brilliant sons of bitches. Its spirit was insidious. It was like being part of a pirate crew. We were like some kind of religious sect. We were out to show the bastards, by God, and we did, very effectively. I just wish something like that would happen again. But there’s no sign of it whatsoever, even though things are much worse now than they were then.”

Wilson’s magnum opus may be the strip Nuts, which he did for National Lampoon from 1972 to 1986. Designed as a rebuttal to Charles Schulz’ Peanuts strip, which Wilson found too adult in its perspective, Nuts dug deep into the psyche of kids to show how routinely terrifying their view of the world could be. The strip stuck close to the perspective of its protagonist, referred to only as the Kid. “Everything's purposely drawn to scale,” Wilson told Gehr. “It's like the kid is being crushed and confined in this box. The frame is kid-sized and you only see parts of the huge people and world that surrounds him. Because that’s all a kid apprehends: giant projections in his immediate vicinity and everything else far away. Doors are big and difficult to open, and so on.”

In a 2012 review of Nuts, critic/journalist Jeet Heer wrote, “Nuts is all about psychology and memory, about the tricks the mind plays with itself as we grow up and the way we suppress any recollection of our own odd mental peregrinations. Our memories are often the most private parts ourselves, locked treasure boxes which define who we are which we have no way of easily recovering let alone sharing. Wilson is one of those rare artists who has the spooky ability not just to unlock the closed box of his memories but also of revealing innermost experiences that are not so different from our own.”

Wilson’s only other attempt at an ongoing sequential strip was Gahan Wilson’s Sunday Comics, which was syndicated in newspapers between 1972 and 1974. Wilson said he found it confining to have to temper his more disturbing instincts in order to appeal to a broad base of American families.

In 1980, Wilson became a regular in that most revered of cartooning venues, The New Yorker. In a Nov. 22 remembrance at The New Yorker, contributor Michael Maslin wrote, “Wilson was part of a select group of cartoonists who own their style, who deliver on paper what seems to be a good piece of themselves.”

Fantagraphics Publisher Gary Groth in an introduction to a 2010 Fantagraphics collection of Wilson’s Playboy cartoons, calculated that “between 1964 and October 1981, Wilson published nine short stories and 197 full-page gag cartoons as well as numerous decorative illustrations.” Wilson continued to sell his cartoons wherever there was a market, including Esquire, Punch and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but as cartoons began to disappear from magazines, he diversified in just about every direction possible. He did numerous illustrations for books and magazines. In the 1970s, he wrote and drew five children’s books, including a series featuring Harry the Fat Bear Spy. He wrote prose horror and science-fiction short stories for various venues, including Harlan Ellison’s Again Dangerous Visions anthology. He wrote and illustrated two novels: Eddie Deco’s Last Caper (1987) and Everybody’s Favorite Duck (1988). Beginning in 1968, he wrote a book-review column for Fantasy and Science Fiction called The Dark Corner. He reviewed movies in every issue of Twilight Zone Magazine’s run from 1981 to 1989. He did comics stories, including a 2002 Lovecraft adaptation for a Graphic Classics anthology and DC’s Big Book of Weirdos and Big Book of Freaks, both in 1995. In 1993 and 1994, he helped design an early computer game called Gahan Wilson’s The Ultimate Haunted House for Byron Priess Multimedia. He wrote and storyboarded an animated short called Gahan Wilson’s Diner, which ran before the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie in 1992.

Though most of Wilson’s cartoons tend to be universal in their themes and appeal, he became increasingly politicized during the Vietnam war and Desert Storm and his strong feelings about the environment found expression in several of his cartoons. Asked in a 1993 Comics Journal interview if the assassinations and wars of the 1960s and 1970s had affected his work, Wilson told Dennis Daniel, ”You’re damn right it did. … I was thrust into the political thing. And I just got angrier and angrier. And then the rage. Then the ecology thing … What we are doing is destroying this little delicate ecology enough so that we won’t survive.”

A number of his cartoons addressed the public’s desensitization to global violence, including one that featured a battered soldier against an empty devastated wasteland proclaiming, “I think I won!” Wilson told Daniel, “You see it in Desert Storm, and you see these unbelievable slow-pan shots from helicopters over dead bodies, dead bodies, dead bodies, dead bodies, dead bodies, dead bodies … beyond any counting, you just keep trailing over them with all the wreckage of these vehicles that they’ve crawled out of and tried to hide under and they’re dead, dead, dead. And it doesn’t get to anybody. … I noticed you don’t see that footage any more of all these things that went on for minutes. I mean these dead bodies on the desert, you don’t see that. You just see this cute little game show. ‘Isn’t this fun!’ Nintendo stuff. It wasn’t Nintendo. And as it turns out, we’re not all that smart, because they did a lot of just slop destruction.”

In a 2010 interview conducted by Groth for the Fantagraphics Playboy collection, Wilson traced his environmental awareness to his father’s steel operations: “One part of it I think was the Acme Steel Mill with its death-making machinery, situated in the little towns around these places that were poisoned, very obviously. And you could see the acid’s effect on the walls, the boards of the houses, and on the rooftops, and on the vegetation and so on. And I think that alerted me to the casualness with the fragility of the thing and the callousness.”

Other than alcohol Wilson avoided most drugs, but he credited marijuana with allowing him to see the world through painter Paul Cezanne’s eyes. In his interview with Gehr, he described an epiphany he had while sketching and toking in the Art Institute of Chicago: “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.”

Wilson’s own style is instantly recognizable, but difficult to describe. Straight lines are absent. His objects all have an organic feel to them. His figures are solid but vaguely amorphous, grotesquely exaggerated but strongly expressive of human emotions like anger, fear, greed, gullibility, and perplexity. As described by Heer, “The head of a Wilson character looks less like an ideal circle than a soccer ball which has had about a quarter of its air let out.”

In his introduction to the Fantagraphics collection, Groth wrote, “He has, through hundreds of cartoons, constructed a world that is eerily familiar, unsettlingly recognizable and lethally consistent, a fun-house mirror of a world we all live in.”

Above all, Wilson’s single-panels are suggestive. Interviewed by the Washington Post in 1989, he said, “I see a cartoon as a kind of mini-short story. If it’s any good, you see with no effort what led up to this episode, and what’s probably going to happen after.”

When he was filmed at work for the 2013 documentary Born Dead, Still Weird, he was surprised to see the intensity of his own focus, his entranced rapport with what he was drawing. He told Groth, “My basic image is that your consciousness is like a fisherman in a boat on this vast sea, and what you do is you’re expert with this rod and reel and bait and hook technique stuff. And you toss your line over the water, and the thing sinks down, and you are sensitive to the tug of this little touch, and you pull it up and hook it, and then you reel it in. And it takes a lot of trouble to do that, and then you flip it into the boat, which is the final piece of skill, and you got it. But it’s all mysterious. The profundity of what we got inside there is staggering.”

Wilson was given the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Cartoonists Society in 2005. He helped found the World Fantasy Convention in 1975 and designed its Convention Award, which he was awarded in 1981. He also received the World Fantasy Best Artist award in 1996 and the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

Wilson is survived by his stepsons Randy and Paul Winters, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.