Gahan Wilson and the Comedy of the Weird

GEHR: When you sold your first cartoon to The New Yorker in 1980, did Lee Lorenz ask for anything substantially different from what you were doing in Playboy?

WILSON: No. If you come up with something that gooses them, they’ll go along with it. If you don’t, they won’t.

GEHR: Did you ever consider using other people's gags?

WILSON: No, I decided very early, even before I started selling, that I wouldn't. I was devastated when I learned that Addams, Arnold Roth, and all these guys were using other people's ideas. I was crushed. Boy, it was a shock.

GEHR: Mad magazine started around the same time as your cartooning career. What was your take on it when it launched in 1952?

WILSON: I was good friends with Harvey Kurtzman later on, but there was a hokiness about it that didn’t appeal to me. The humor wasn’t edgy enough for me. It had some good slapstick. But the outfit I fit in with instantly, was National Lampoon. 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.

GEHR: How did you end up drawing "Nuts" for the Lampoon?

WILSON: They told me they were going to do a comic book at the end of the magazine, and they wanted me to do a strip. “Make it as horrible as you can,” they said. “You bet!” So I fooled around with monsters, which was interesting but wasn’t turning me on. Maybe I would have come up with something if I persisted, but I was already doing monsters successfully in my panel things. What's really horrible, I wondered. What's really scary? Oh, shit! A little kid is scary! And in that instant I knew that I'd do a realistic strip about what the little bastards go through. That was it.

GEHR: You titled your National Lampoon strip "Nuts" in response to "Peanuts," right?

WILSON: Yes. I always respected what Charles Schulz did, which was religious teaching. His strips were little moral fables. It’s fine and dandy, but it has nothing to with children and that's all there is to that. But he did exactly what he set out to do, and it's quite extraordinary stuff. It did piss me off that he was pretending it was about children and it wasn’t.

GEHR: How does your vision of childhood differ from Schultz's?

WILSON: Childhood is a terrifying world. The little critters are so alive and so perceptive. They're all scared to death but also so delighted when something works out. Children are intensely alive and complicated. The thing that made me angry at Schulz is that he sentimentalizes the idea of childhood, which has really done a lot of harm.

GEHR: How did you come up with the claustrophobic look of "Nuts"?

WILSON: Everything's purposely drawn to scale. 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. But they struggle through; they're amazing. Sometimes, you see a kid crossing a busy street and you feel like, "Good for you, kid!"

GEHR: Speaking of religious teaching, were you brought up in a religious home?

WILSON: I was brought up atheist, because my mother was rebelling against this very Irish-Catholic crowd. And my father's people were very big in the prohibition movement. William Jennings Bryan is another relative. He would turn up at their house at breakfast and spout about prohibition as he was eating enormous amounts of food. My father walked away from all of that and did the “Roaring Thirties” thing. I guess that’s what started his drinking.  I’m very grateful to have been brought up that way. I’ve been spared a lot of fretting that's involved in being religious as a kid. It must be very, very difficult.

GEHR: Your very first New Yorker cartoon depicted an old Buddhist monk saying to a younger adherent, "Nothing happens next. This is it." Do you have a particular interest in Buddhism?

WILSON: Yeah, I got involved in it way back when these early D. T. Suzuki books came out, so I was pretty far ahead of the pack. I did the thing where you go to the little zazendo and sit around and do the whole number. I describe myself as a half-assed Buddhist. Reincarnation strikes me as absolutely ridiculous. It supposedly makes you respect animals more on account of it being somebody. What's really wonderful about squirrels is that a squirrel’s a squirrel. So that kind of makes me a bad Buddhist right there. But I love the insight. The Zen crowd's the one I go for the most. And it inspires gorgeous art. It’s human. A fisherman looks like a fisherman and the fish look like fish and water looks like water. It’s the message about being alive and it makes you think, “Thank God, what a lucky break.” Just be, you know?

Gehr: What are the tools of your trade?

WILSON: I use Croquil pens. I like that fine line. For colors I just play around with all kinds of different mediums. Sometimes I'll start with watercolor and then spray it with a workable fixative. Then I can do a wash over that or rub the cels or whatever to enrich the depth of the colors. The lighting depends on what the scene is. It's like a movie. You draw the basic thing and then you do the lighting to make sure it brings out what's it's supposed to. And if you use a spray fixative, you can wipe it off and start over again without having to start from scratch. That's pretty much it, in a nutshell.

GEHR: What kind of paper do you like?

WILSON: Just good paper. The initial thing is just a ledger bond, a nice paper which takes the ink well. But I experiment with different kinds. I use a watercolor paper for finishes, especially for Playboy stuff.

GEHR: What's your weekly schedule?

WILSON: Essentially, it depends on how much money is needed. I’ll take a little break now and then, just wander around. I have a vague idea of who’s looking for material and what I've done for them recently? But there’s no fixed schedule. I sit down to work, and when I stop, I realize all this time has passed. You’re obviously dealing with some kind of mystical state. I don’t know what it is, but if you see a good artist working, you see them fall into it.

GEHR: Do you fall into that zone easily?

WILSON: Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you’re just not clicking that day. It doesn’t happen too often, but it can. But it usually starts out with, “Who should I do stuff for now?”

GEHR: How often do you submit work to The New Yorker?

WILSON: I try for every week. I send them ten to a dozen, sometimes more. And I do at least one solid batch every month for Playboy. But it varies.

GEHR: Does Playboy guarantee you a page every month?

WILSON: Every issue has a full page, bless Hefner's heart. But there’s nothing written anywhere that I’m aware of that says they have to take it. Sometimes I'll do a spread, but I'm doing them less often.

GEHR: I don't think most people realize that Hugh Hefner is still Playboy's cartoon editor.

WILSON: He’s there. What he’ll do is, at the bottom in red pencil he’ll say "full-page color." and sometimes he’ll have some little comment, but almost never. But oh no, he’s it.

Rough sketch for Playboy, 2010


Hugh Hefner's response to Wilson's rough sketch.

GEHR: Did you ever imagine that Hefner would turn into something of a Gahan Wilson cartoon in his old age?


WILSON: What do you mean?

GEHR: He’s become almost another life form entirely, if you know what I mean.

WILSON: Do you mean like what he’s doing now, getting married to this chick? And they’re all saying, "Ho-ho, what a dirty old man.” But thanks to science he can still function sexually with the chick, and he’s brave enough to do it. He's proving you not only can have a good time within the ordinary human life span, but you can expand it. I figured if I made into my sixties I’d be doing pretty well, especially during my alcohol years. And I remembered the old people I knew when I was a kid. There’s a point where you just stop being viable. You became this fragile thing and wore stiff, uncomfortable clothes. You sat and walked in an old-person way beginning in your fifties. Now you see these old bastards walking around in shorts and African hunter hats – and I love ’em for it. God bless ’em! So it’s all different, and Hefner’s onto that. Just as he successfully changed the way we thought about sexual freedom, he's now demonstrating that being old is not what it used to be. He’s saying “Look, what’s wrong with being old and marrying this chick?"

GEHR: How do you think New Yorker cartoons have changed over the decades?

WILSON: They’ve gotten a little bit conservative in that they used to do full pages and used to be pickier as far as the talent was concerned, both in terms of humor and art. They’ve been nice enough to the golden oldies, though. But the art thing has kind of slipped away.

GEHR: Fortunately, you've enjoyed good, extended runs at probably the two longest-running outlets for the form.

WILSON: The New Yorker and Playboy. Those are the only two left.

GEHR: Playboy, unfortunately, is nowhere near as relevant to cartoon fans as it used to be.

WILSON: But it does have cartoons. Actually, I get away with a lot more ridiculous and grotesque stuff in Playboy than anywhere else. But those are the last bastions of the magazine gag format.

GEHR: You’ve enjoyed the rise and fall of that format.

WILSON: Things are obviously changing, and I’m open to anything, electronic stuff or whatever. We'll see what happens next. Magazines like Look and Collier's no longer exist. There used to be scads of magazines, little dinky things like pulp magazines, where a cartoonist could survive, but it was a very “on-the-ledge” sort of life. You were paid very little. That was available when I started out, but I don’t know how a cartoonist would start being a cartoonist these days because that sort of thing isn't available.

"Mr. Lennon will see you if you crawl right in."

GEHR: Why do you think this art form is fading? There are still plenty of magazines around. And cartooning is such an elegant, smart, and snappy way to convey an idea. It's also a historical gateway into magazines for children.


WILSON: It’s a darling thing. It brightens up the place, and I really don’t know why that’s happened. Actually, along with the cartoons there’s no market anymore for short stories, serial novels, and poetry. That’s all gone. Today magazines just work their theme, be it news or fashion or whatever. It's all reporting.

GEHR: What will happen to all the creative, slightly nutty people who live to draw cartoons?

WILSON: As a kid I was always drawing, drawing, drawing. And everybody I know in any kind of visual art is a drawer. When I was the president of the Cartoonists Guild, which is long gone but was very influential at the time, we managed to initiate some interesting improvements as far as the working conditions for cartoonists were concerned. So there I was negotiating with the people who run these magazines, and it was all very grown-up, serious stuff. Halfway through our meeting I looked around and realized that everyone was doodling. It’s what they do. It’s a compulsive thing, and I was fascinated. Magazines used to be all over the joint, and there were lots and lots of different kinds of cartoons. You had more choices regarding the kinds of cartoons you did.

GEHR: In what ways did cartoonists like Peter Arno, Charles Addams, and James Thurber influence you?

WILSON: Not so much in terms of style, but in their individuality. They’re unique, and that’s what makes them interesting. They make you think,“Oh my God, I didn’t realize that.” And there’s nobody like ’em. I mean, Picasso wouldn’t be Picasso without Cezanne, but Picasso was Picasso. It’s very magical stuff.

GEHR: What impressed you most about Addams, to whom you're sometimes compared?

WILSON: I liked his respect for atmosphere and how he set his stage and created an entire world.

GEHR: You’ve collaborated with dozens of writers, including Russell Baker (The Upside-Down Man) and Quentin Crisp (Chog, A Gothic Fable). And then there was The Truth About Golf and Other Lies with Buddy Hackett.

WILSON: The Hackett book was a gig. I illustrated the jokes, that’s all. The most difficult thing I’ve done so far was an animated short called Gahan Wilson's Diner that was released in 1992 with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was in very bad taste but really good. They let me do the whole damn thing. And they took what I storyboarded and followed it meticulously. I went to see it in this huge movie theater, and at the end of the short the whole theater burst into applause. I thought, “Hot shit!" The genius director Steven Spielberg said it was the best animated short he’d ever seen. I've also been involved in other things where producers have come in and “improved” them. And they’ve fucked them up, every one of them. But I’m still game. I stand ready and willing to work with any producer who will let me do it.

GEHR: A lot of your cartoons mock the folly of politicians. How did you survive the Bush years?

WILSON: I’m still astonished by them. I was amazed at his total and complete incompetence. In a way he’s touching because he’s just so out of it. He’s so dumb. The present situation is grotesque beyond belief, too. I’m not very optimistic. I hope it all works out, but God…

GEHR: Have you ever been active politically?

WILSON: I did some good stuff when I was president of the Cartoonists Guild. There was some sneaky crap going on, and I tracked it down and squished it.

GEHR: Your cartoons often involve science in a way that anticipated Gary Larson.

WILSON: The Hubble Telescope pictures are some of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen in my life. It so expanded the wonderfulness of the cosmos. Our idea about it was so limited, so confined, but these glimpses are staggering.

GEHR: There are certainly plenty of aliens in your work.

WILSON: I think Stephen Hawking is right. “Don’t be so fast about advertising that we’ve got this planet inhabited," he says. “Remember the Indians.” We may be under very close examination even as we speak. And God knows what we’re turning into, but it's obvious we're going to transform ourselves into something spectacular. But those Hubble photos just changed everything for me.

Thanks to Hans Anderson, Oren Ashkenazi, Ian Burns, and Kara Krewer for transcription assistance.