"They're Aware We're All Doomed"
Talking with Gahan Wilson About the New Renaissance, Cartooning for the New Yorker, and How Many Dead People Are in His Basement
Gahan Wilson has been drawing creepy, hilarious illustrations for magazines for 60 years. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Playboy, and Collier's Weekly, as well as just about everywhere else. On Saturday, February 13, Wilson will be appearing at Fantagraphics Bookstore to celebrate the release of Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons, a lavish, comprehensive three-volume slipcased set. Over the phone, Wilson is charming and delightfully forthcoming, but never crass or crude; he's a real gentleman's gentleman.
I've been reading some interviews with you, listening to some interviews with you, and every one of them starts with the word "legendary." I was wondering how "legendary" is working out for you?
It's a big surprise.
It's been going on for quite some time now. It's nice that you've been able to get the respect that you deserve. I've been a fan of yours for a very long time.
Oh! Thank you very much!
So to start at the beginning: About how long does it take you to finish a magazine illustration?
That would depend. Just doing the finished drawing? That's usually easily a one-day job. It's uncomplicated out of necessity, because it's relatively small. It doesn't have lots and lots of little details, etc. The Playboy [illustrations] can go on for quite a stretch, because I do really elaborate production with those. Because it's color and full page, it's a series of sort of underpaintings. I'll do the pen drawing, then I'll do the first color, then I'll spray it with a workable fixative, and then I'll do another color on top, or some other medium, sometimes. Sometimes I'll do more watercolor, sometimes something else. With New Yorker [cartoons], sometimes I'll do the thing to the point where I think that's all I can do, and then I'll set it down, and then just sort of sneak a look at it as I pass by, and then the next day, check it out again, just to see, and stuff will pop into view that I had missed. So that's how it works. It's not regular. Sometimes it'll take a couple of days, sometimes it'll take a little longer.
What are you working on right now? How many pieces?
Right now I have a New Yorker finished, I have... there's a book of illustrations thing I'm doing, and that needs more illustrations than I thought, and then there's an animated project that is coming along, and that is just ongoing... you never really know. I usually have two or three something-or-others.
You're always going.
Yeah, it's good for you.
I was doing a little digging online, and I came across the fact that you drew the covers for an annual magazine called Passport for World Band Radio.
I did that. I'm very sorry that that's a ceased publication. They were very nice people.
When did they cease publication?
Just this last year. Apparently, the fandom was reduced. It's a whole other world of communication, and apparently it just wasn't functioning anymore. So I was very sorry to hear that, when they called and told me that was it.
I was looking at the covers you did for them, the ones I can find on eBay. The style of the artwork feels completely unlike anything else you do. It's more childlike, and glossy. They feel like something different than what you usually put into your illustrations.
Yeah, that's because it's a magazine cover. I wanted the thing to be visual from the newsstand. And unlike the New Yorker covers, which sort of take care of themselves—what the people are looking for is the logo on that one, so you can go with all sorts of different kinds of stuff —World Band Radio should be sparkly and pop out. My covers were designed to catch your eye.
It was interesting to discover this whole other plane to your work.
Everything that you do depends on the market, or where it's going to be shown, or what it's supposed to do. My usual analogy is like if you're going to a party, and you know the people who are going to throw the party, you know roughly the sort of people who are going to turn up and what essentially they'll be doing. And when you go to any party, you dress appropriately for the party, ranging all the way from very formal to casual, and you behave differently, you act differently, because it's another kind of communication thing going on. So it's like that.
The book from Fantagraphics...
I'm delighted with that one and the marvelous reproduction they've given this stuff. It's different from its first appearance, because Playboy and Hefner were very careful about doing a good job of reproduction, but the paper for a magazine—and they've got very good magazine paper [at Playboy]—but it's [still] magazine paper. The stuff they use in these books is extraordinary stuff. It's very thick. It's got this gleaming white, marvelous surface. They're using cells and whatnot from Playboy, but the paper makes a huge difference. And so I was very happy about that.
Each book has a photograph of your face on it, smushed.
That was my idea. They were trying to figure out what to do with the back page of these things, so they had some thought of doing a formal portrait or this or that. And I said, "No, no, no. When you send the photographer, have him bring a plastic sheet. And just hold that up, and I'll just press my face against it in various ways, so it'll look like I'm trying to, struggling to, push my way out of the book." And it worked out pretty well. It has a nice quality to it.
It does, yeah. It was a nice surprise when I opened up the box.
It's a nice, nutty notion. It works. It's silly. Yeah, I was very happy with that.
The books in the slipcase are really a beautiful object.
Fantagraphics did an extraordinary, scrupulously careful job. They are really something else. I've seen their other stuff, and I've always admired them enormously.
Have you ever worked with them before?
Nothing major. And then there is another thing coming up from them, which I'm very happy about, which is a National Lampoon... They had a little section in the rear of the magazine, which was called The Funny Pages, and they had the more regular artists do little comic strips. And so I had this full-page thing, which was called Nuts. When they proposed doing this thing, and they asked me, I said, "Well, what did you have in mind?" They said, " Well, just something, you know, something really horrible, something shocking." So I started fooling around with vampires and Frankensteins, and maybe political whatnots and so on, and then it dawned on me—it was a strip, and it had to be some sort of ongoing regular kind of thing, so it had to be a theme that will persist and survive. It dawned on me that one of the most really challenging, horrific adventures we go through is very early childhood. I think most adults visualize kids in this ridiculous way, that they're some sort of little cutesy-pie toy. And they're very alive! And they're very perceptive! You sometimes see grown-ups going "goo goo" over this baby, this kid, and the kid is looking up at them baffled at why they're behaving so foolishly. You know, it's very embarrassing. And they're always fretting! If you watch kids, they're humans. So they're really trying the best they can to understand and cope with this fantastic, mysterious thing—being alive. And they don't know anything about it. It's all a mystery to them—it's a mystery to all of us—but it's a total mystery to them. I mean, starting from how do you keep upright, things like that, to all kinds of complicated things happening in their presence and they can't figure out what is going on. But they have to somehow or other, they want to appear that they're functioning right and so on. So that's what my National Lampoon strip was about. There was a collection of it, oh, I don't know, 20 years ago. But the magazine closed—I wish some magazine like that still existed; we could use it—and so this will be The Complete Nuts. And so Fantagraphics will do their usual beautiful job. And I'm absolutely delighted. That'll be coming up next year.
Good to know. Are those single-panel cartoons?
No, it's a comic strip. You have the kid, he hasn't got a name, and he's presented with a different challenge in each and every [story]. It's a full page, which gives it about six panels or thereabouts. So I put him through some paces, and I give him awesome things to solve or figure out how to deal with. And he usually fails.
Traditionally when people think of you, it's as a single-panel cartoonist. Do you feel a special affinity for that? Because traditionally in the comic-book world, people kind of look down on single-panel gag cartoons. I don't know if you read Understanding Comics, but he dismisses them entirely as comics.
Scott McCloud. His book Understanding Comics came out, oh, I guess almost 20 years ago now. His definition of comics is sequential art and the interaction between words and pictures. But he flat-out says that the single panel is not a comic because it does not have art in sequence.
Oh, I think that's meaningless. That's like saying a mural makes sense but a portrait is no good. It just doesn't make any sense.
Yeah, it seems like an arbitrary decision.
Highly! And also, what's the basis? That's the first time I've ever heard of that announcement, and I know many strip cartoonists, both book and newspaper, and single-panel cartoonists, and there's no conflict there. Very often, they'll wander from one medium to the other. I think that's a very odd statement.
I guess the business has changed a lot since you started. The magazine industry is obviously going through some tough times.
Oh yeah. It's extremely tricky, because it combines two things. You have on the one hand this really astounding switch in technologies, so you've got, all of a sudden, capabilities of things that can be done with the web and so on. And then you've got publications of all kinds—newspapers, books, magazines—they're all having a problem with this sort of shift. So it's this complicated business. I think frankly, that as far as—and we're still in an early phase, we'll see what happens—as far as this change, this transformation... my feeling is so far this electronic thing is full of potential. And there's some marvelous stuff, too. But I feel that there's a format problem that hasn't really been solved. The magazines and the books and the newspapers have worked out through the years, and it hasn't solidified, it's kind of floating toward the electronic thing. But some bright genius will come along, or it'll be solved, and there will be some new kind of format. The format is the problem. The solution will happen, will occur, and that will produce another change. But this whole technological transition and instability is complicated because we're simultaneously presented with this extraordinarily serious financial situation, which has yet to really... I mean, nobody knows exactly what the hell is going on. Very mysterious. And totally disastrous for a tremendous amount of the population. And you've got the thing that's hit the newspapers and magazines; they're not getting the advertising they're used to, and that's their primary source of income. Newspapers have handled it quite badly. Many disasters going on. The magazines... it's very heavy. I have no idea which way it's going to go. I've always done stuff in a lot of media, and I love that, I'm definitely increasing that, because it's such perilous times. Who knows what will happen. I hope and pray that the New Yorker and Playboy do well, and continue and so on.
Yeah, I know. I agree. I work for a newspaper, too, you know.
That's really terrifying, what's going on with the newspapers. They've always been the Rock of Gibraltar... the Boston Globe...My God, the idea of the Boston Globe [closing] is just ridiculous.
You actually just brought up something that I'm interested in. A lot of cartoonists I've found have been slow to adapt to technology.
Well, they shouldn't be.
Yeah. Well, you did a computer game a long time ago, and your website is updated and savvy and pretty well put together. Have you always been embracing the new that way?
Yeah, it's like when we were talking about this odd thing the fellow said about comic strips and comic books and so on and panels... artists in other areas, capital-F capital-A Fine Art artists do a lot. They do sketches, they do paintings, they do murals, they do statues, they do this, that, and the other thing. If there ever was a renaissance time, we are in it! I mean, this renaissance is a renaissance that makes the Renaissance looks a little timid. It's going all over the place. I think there's going to be various platforms and media (and by media I mean TV and this, that, and the other) and really different media coming along, which will present who knows what? I mean, there'll be three-dimensional things that take place in your living room.
Obviously, I'm the book editor here at The Stranger, so I do the books section and I've always enjoyed the Lovecraft and Poe references in your stories. Do you read contemporary literature? Who else do you like?
All kinds of people. Of course, obviously, I adore the spooky stuff. And the Poe and Lovecraft... one of the things that's so successful in both of them is that they've created these worlds, these alternate universes convincingly. That's the thing. It's a marvelous deal. It's quite extraordinary. I think that a really good fantasy is based on somebody who's done a good job observing the actual world. Lovecraft is really a regionalist, bottom line. And he knew his New England and the period very, very well. It's all incredibly fantastic. But it's rock solid as far as talking about New England in that period. It's amazing. Poe is the same way. It's commentary on all kinds of things, how people related to one another, what they could grasp of science as it was in the period, and so and so on. The past is based on reality.
When you talk about the spooky ones... I put something on Twitter asking people if they had any questions for you, and like three of the people wanted me to ask about the number of dead bodies in your basement and, you know, spooky things like that. You have this sort of macabre reputation. Does that ever chafe at you a little bit, or is it something you embrace? You're not going out in scare makeup like Alice Cooper or anything, obviously.
I sort of ask for it. So it'd be strange if people didn't wonder about how many dead bodies. I'm not going to tell you how many there are because I would get into trouble. No, that makes perfect sense. One thing about horror people, at first it puzzled me very much, I'd go to these various horror conventions either as a guest or just as another person coming to mingle and have fun. I noticed that horror writers were... one of the most noticeable things about them... Well, I also got involved in other convention things like Mystery Story Writers and all kinds of other writers, science-fiction writers, and so on. I noticed in some of these other conventions that some of the authors would condescend to these fans who would attend the conventions out of love and affection. But the horror writers, from the most obscure of them to the most successful, were always extraordinarily kind to their fans. In other outfits, I would often notice somebody would approach some author, and they'd have a silly amount of books to sign, and the author would sign one or two or three and say well that's enough. But the horror outfits, when fans would come up with this armful of books, they'd sign each and every one of them. And ask questions, would you like me to do this, would you like me to do that, and so on. If the fans started asking questions, they would answer the questions. They were terribly gentle with them. These guys write about terror, and the instability of everything, and how thin the ice is, and so on—they're aware we're all doomed and that sort of stuff. And that was it. They have a lot more empathy than most people. They understand you're transient, you could snuff out at any moment, life is a mystery, totally, and you're just doing the best you can. That's why they were gentle with them.
Huh. That's interesting.
It makes perfect sense. I [knew] just a couple, or hardly any of them, that were at any point rude or inconsiderate. They were just as gentle and sweet as they could possibly be.