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Cartoonist Gahan Wilsonís View Askew

Originally Posted: January 22, 2010

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

Gahan Wilson in his Sag Harbor studio. (Douglas Harrington)

Sag Harbor - In the company of artists the likes of George Booth, Charles Addams, Charles Schultz and his childhood inspiration Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould, Gahan Wilson can undeniably be considered an iconic American cartoonist.

(Cartoon and magazine images Gahan Wilson)

At his home in Sag Harbor, Hamptons.com sat down with Wilson and I first asked him how long he had been living in the East End, "For me it has been a remarkably long time, I have been living in Sag Harbor for 15 years. It has changed considerably."

Born in Evanston, Illinois in 1930, Wilson grew up in a household with a definite fine arts connection, "My mother went to the Art Institute of Chicago and was very, very serious about it, but for some tragic reason that did not happen so she went to work for Marshall Fields Department Store, where she met my father. Amazing in that era, she ended up with a substantial position in the publicity department. My father, a fine artist in his own right, had a job as a floor walker and he noticed a small gallery in the corner of the store, a typical department store gallery. He had a terrific eye for art and convinced them to let him expand the space and he turned it into what became a very prestigious art gallery." Wilson's father brought in new and emerging American artists from around the country and developed a wealthy and distinguished clientele.

The cartoonist himself did attend the Art Institute of Chicago and is officially recorded as the first student to fulfill the four year fine arts curriculum with the sole intention of becoming a cartoonist. Wilson can remember the moment he made the decision to spend his life drawing cartoons, "I can remember the very day I decided to become a cartoonist. I was sitting on the carpet in the living room of the apartment my parents had, I can feel that carpet. I had spread the Sunday newspapers out and I was looking over "Dick Tracy" by Chester Gould which I loved, and who I still admire enormously, mainly for the stuff he got away with. I was very young, probably nine years old and I was looking at these comics, almost belligerently I said, 'I am going to be a cartoonist!'"

The earliest drawing by Gahan Wilson, aged 6 (1936).

As taken as Wilson was with Gould's ability to "create expression in the grotesque faces of his villains," he was less taken with the 1990 film of the comic strip detective, "The Warren Beatty film sentimentalized Tracy, he missed the whole point. Tracy was a rough and tough guy."

Thanks to the generosity of his parents "banking me for half a year," Wilson made the move to New York City after college, "I went to Greenwich Village. Nowadays you can be anywhere and work with publications all over the place thanks to marvelous communications [computers]. In those days if you wanted to get into magazines you had to go to New York. So I did. I had a marvelous time, I knew all these painters [through his father], many of whom were becoming big deals. I ran with that crowd. It was a time when Americans were finally becoming important in art. Up until that time it was just understood that it was Europeans. It was very exciting times [the early 1950s]."

Wilson shared with me what he described as "my favorite story about the Bohemian life in the Village" at the time, "It sort of puts it in a nutshell. I was going to go out with this Japanese fellow, very talented, to look for girls or something, but we were having a stir-fry dinner in his $5 a week apartment first. We were sitting there eating away and all of a sudden we heard this argument from the apartment next door. It started getting louder and louder and then it turned into shouts. There were all sorts of thumps and then all of the sudden this loud crash against the wall and then dead silence. So we continued to eat and then my friend, after a few more bits, looked very thoughtfully into the air and said, 'You know it must be terrible living like this if you are ordinary people.' I thought he nailed it. That is what separates the sheep from the goats."

A sample from Wilson's National Lampoon comic strip "Nuts."

Although the payment for cartoons at the time was not what it is today Wilson said, "The good thing was that there were lots and lots of magazines around and you could sell cartoons for minuscule amounts of money. Eventually, if you had the talent, you could work your way up to major magazines." At the time Wednesday was the big day when art directors would look at cartoons and Wilson, like his contemporaries, traveled around the city dropping his drawings off at various publications with the New Yorker representing the pinnacle. "It was a very humiliating system. I remember my first day I went to Look Magazine; I got on the elevator and got off on the floor and turned a corner and saw these 20 or so desolate and grumpy people leafing through their drawings. My heart sunk and I said, 'My God, those are all cartoonists.'" Although it was highly competitive, there was camaraderie among the cartoonists, "Of course you would do anything to get your work published, but there was no nastiness, no back stabbing or anything like that. I think poets are the worst when it comes to that, actors too."

Wilson did indeed work his way up through the ranks of New York cartoonists after selling his first cartoon to pulp magazine distributor Ziff-Davis for $7.50. He said his first big break came at True Magazine, which was followed by publications in Colliers Magazine. Oddly enough, it was a return to Chicago that would put Wilson on the road to wordwide fame with his first meeting with Hugh Hefner at Playboy.

One of Gahan Wilson's New Yorker covers.

"I hadn't really thought about sending Playboy anything, which in retrospect I have to wonder why I had been so stupid. From the beginning Hefner bought excellent fantasy and macabre short stories. Why it hadn't occurred to me to send him my cartoons that were in that vein is beyond me."

Wilson had actually intended to bring his work to what he thought was Chicago based Trump Magazine during his Christmas visit to his parents. He had called ahead and set up an appointment with the editors, "The time came and I show up at this very nice, sort of robber baron building and I went inside and said I had an appointment with the editor of Trump Magazine. The secretary told me that I did have an appointment, but the offices of Trump were in New York City. I was totally flabbergasted and wondered how I made such a mistake. Then this guy came up to me, put his hand on my shoulders and said, 'Hi, I'm Mark Paul and Hef would like to see you.' I didn't even know who 'Hef' was. So I was guided through this door and up this staircase and there was a darkened room with one lamp and a man sitting at this desk. He was talking on the telephone and waved me into a chair. I can remember his conversation on the phone word for word, 'It's a good story, a very good story, well written, very well written. The problem is it is anti-sin and we are pro-sin.' Then he said a few more pleasantries to whoever was on the phone and hung up. Then he reached over, shook my hand and said, 'I've been waiting for you.'"

Hefner had obviously been watching Wilson's rise through the ranks and the Playboy publisher did more than anyone to speed up the process. One of many important editorial decisions that Hefner can perhaps be credited with is moving the cartoon off the corner of the content and giving it full page placement in color. Wilson was not the only cartoonist he did this with, but it is indisputable that Wilson's worldwide fame and recognition can be linked directly to Playboy. It is a relationship that has lasted 52 years. Wilson notes, "Hefner is a very good editor and he certainly knows cartoons."

Over the years Wilson has frequently been compared to Addams in their shared passion for the macabre, but where Addams was mannered and Gothic in his style, Wilson had a more contemporary, fantasy/sci-fi edge with a definite view askew. In the 1960s Wilson admits to becoming political in his drawings, "All these things were happening, the Vietnam War, the murders of Kennedy and King, they were killing all the good ones and I got furious. I started including politics in my work, sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly." Along with political and social commentary, Wilson includes eco-commentary in his cartoons. "I have this touching fantasy that maybe one day some senator will look at one of my cartoons and actually say to another senator, 'You know he has a point here.'"

I asked Wilson if he could draw a cartoon for President Obama what it might be, "Oh I have no idea. I think this poor man has inherited such a mess; I give him great credit for taking it on. I really think, I believe he will get us through all this."

Iconic American cartoonist Gahan Wilson.

Over the years Wilson's work grew beyond cartoons into short story writing and film and book reviews. He has produced more than a dozen of his own titles and illustrated numerous others. He has created a computer game called "The Ultimate Haunted House" and is presently beginning work on a 3-D animated film from his book "Eddy Deco's Last Caper." Wilson is also the subject of a feature length documentary film, "Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird," directed by Steven-Charles Jaffe. And yes, Wilson did indeed scale the cartoonist's Everest known as the New Yorker, having over the years created hundreds of cartoons and covers for the magazine.

Although known for single image cartoons, Wilson did an on-going comic strip for the National Lampoon for years called "Nuts." "I loved working at the Lampoon, it was so much fun. All these incredibly talented and crazy people, I wish there something like that magazine still afoot." Wilson admitted finding the demise of printed publications "disturbing." Although now working in the electronic medium himself, he notes, "I am not unfriendly at all when it comes to the electronic thing, it has enormous potential. But I think they still haven't quite got it right yet in regards to the format of a newspaper or magazine, I am sure they eventually will. I hope magazines and newspapers can survive. I like the feel of paper."

Movie poster for "Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird."

Fantagraphics Books, which has just released a stunning three volume boxed set called "Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons" that includes over 1,000 of the cartoons published in Playboy, will in the near future be coming out with the complete collection of Wilson's "Nuts" comic strips. "As good as my other collections have been these guys at Fantagraphics really have got it, the reproduction value is just incredible and the cartoons are printed on the most incredible paper." For more information go to www.fantagraphics.com.

I asked Wilson if he had plans to retire or would he just keep creating, "Oh no, I saw my parents retire and it just destroyed them. They went down to Florida and got this posh place, with the dock for the boat and they were in the company of other people doing the same thing and they were just completely miserable. My father actually built himself an office and sat in it looking for something to do. Forget retirement!"

We should all be grateful for Wilson's adamant resistance to retirement and his admitted interest in "still exploring." Exploring the social, political and eco view askew with an artistic macabre and comedic gift that has endured and will continue to endure for generations.

For more about Gahan Wilson go to his website at www.gahanwilson.com.

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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