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Three Questions For: Gahan Wilson

June 29, 2010
Gahan Wilson

Photo: Joe Mabel, Art: Marc Librescu

Gahan Wilson is one of the greatest contemporary cartoonists. His work has appeared in Playboy, Collier’s Weekly, The New Yorker, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and National Lampoon. A three-volume collection of Wilson’s work, Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons, was published in January by Fantagraphics Books. A collection of his Nuts cartoons, which originally appeared in National Lampoon, is in the works.

(Note: I prepared three questions for this interview, but Gahan was such an engaging subject that our conversation lasted almost an hour. An expanded, two-part version of this interview appears at The Comic Journal: part 1 | part 2)

Gahan Wilson Playboy Cartoon

©2009 Playboy

Did you ever run into a situation where an editor refused to run a cartoon that you particularly liked because they thought you’d gone too far?

It never gets to that kind of discussion. The way it works is you do a bunch of roughs and hand them in and they either go for them or they don’t. There’s very seldom any commentary regarding the finished cartoon.

Hefner very rarely will have some sort of suggestion or other — and every time, it’s been a very sensible suggestion. There were a couple of times where I’d reply and he’d say, “I guess you’re right,” and that was that. The Hefner relationship is a very personal one. Other than that, you just give them the stuff, they make a selection, and you’re informed that there’s no sale or they’d like you to do this, this and this. That’s all there is to it, really.

When someone passes on buying one of your cartoons, are you able to turn around and sell it to another market?

Oh, sure. If I’m particularly fond of it, I’ll throw it at them again after awhile and sometimes I’ll sell it the next time around. I have, as you can imagine, towering stacks of the things lying around.

Being a successful cartoonist means that you have to be both a talented artist and a humorist. You’ve said that Charles Addams was an influence. Other than Addams, who were your influences in both of those areas?

The list goes on and on. Addams is obviously an influence. The whole thing started when I was a little tiny kid. I can remember very clearly being on the carpet of the living room. It must have been Sunday because I was looking at the Sunday comics and I was reading Dick Tracy, which was a detective story in the Chicago Tribune. It’s still going on, I guess.

The guy who drew Dick Tracy, Chester Gould, had this kind of blueprint-like way of doing it. He started out working for the Tribune doing these little maps which would have “body found here,” and “blood trail went down Maple Street there,” with a dotted line, and so on. He got the idea of doing this comic strip and he presented it to Colonel Patterson who ran the whole thing. Patterson liked it, and they printed it, and it was hugely successful.

There have been people who have done nostalgic stuff with it. Warren Beatty did this Dick Tracy movie. It was a cute movie, but one thing it didn’t do, which Gould did, [was to depict violence]. I was always amazed what they let him get away with. It staggered me as a kid and it continues to stagger me today. It was very hard stuff and a lot of really gory, awful things happened. You would not only have people getting shot, but you’d have these guys get shot and they’d be hiding out and their wounds would get infected. It was extraordinary. And the evil things the criminals did were very evil. So that’s the thing that fascinated me about him.

I remember sitting there looking at this and I said, “I want to do this sort of stuff!” That was when I just flatly decided, without any two ways about it, that I would be a cartoonist. The end. Period. And that’s that. So he was the major influence, really.

The influences in the humor area go on and on. It’s just endless. I think, probably, in my opinion, the best American humorist ever was Mark Twain. There’s a whole bunch of them, loads of them, very funny people. If you can make me laugh, I love you for it. I can’t even start listing them. You’d need an encyclopedia and I’d just go on and on.

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Three Questions For: Tanya Petrovna

May 19, 2010
Tanya Petrovna with "Weird Al" Yancovic

Tanya Petrovna with "Weird Al" Yancovic, art by Marc Librescu

Vegan chef Tanya Petrovna founded the first Native Foods Café in 1994. Since then, the vegan restaurant has expanded to six Southern California locations. Chef Tanya has written two vegan cookbooks and is currently working on a third. She’s been featured on the Food Network, in magazines and newspapers, and has made many TV and radio appearances. She’s currently Executive Chef at Native Foods Café.

1. It’s currently fashionable for comedians to make jokes about vegans. One comedian recently said that vegans were the last minority that it’s ok to make fun of. Why does veganism inspire derision?

I think it’s because vegans are such a compassionate group that they would never even scorn those who ridicule them!

2. I think that veganism is going to become a huge transformative movement as we head farther into the 21st century. When you started Native Foods Café back in 1994, the idea of starting a vegan restaurant probably seemed a little crazy to a lot of people. What made you think it would succeed?

Well, I only knew three things:

  1. That I would die trying to make sure it would succeed.
  2. I never entertained the thought that it wouldn’t succeed.
  3. Gandhi successfully freed India from British rule. Knowing what he had to go through to do it, the idea of starting a vegan restaurant chain seemed relatively easy.

3. I believe that after eating at Native Foods Café, people who were on the fence about becoming vegetarians would realize that it’s not difficult to give up eating meat. Do you have any plans to expand Native Foods Cafe outside of Southern California?

My goal was always to have a Native Foods Café on every corner to make this way of eating accessible, thus making eating compassionately as easy as getting a bucket of chicken wings. Last year, I partnered with two great friends and customers of nine years who had the business acumen that I needed, as well as the same values to uphold the core beliefs of the brand. It has been fortuitous for all of us!

So the answer is yes, we have actively been scouting outside of Southern California and…outside of California! I’ll be doing contests and quizzes on Twitter (nativefoodscafe) and Facebook (NativeFoods) when we officially announce the new locations. Stay tuned!

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Three Questions For: Gregory Benford

May 3, 2010
Gregory Benford

Art by Marc Librescu.

Gregory Benford is a Nebula Award winning science fiction author who has published over twenty books. He’s a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine.

1. Science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke assumed that the pace of scientific and technological developments of the first half of the 20th century would continue accelerating to the point where today’s world would include humanoid robots, flying cars, and interplanetary (if not interstellar) space travel.

It’s been over 37 years since we last set foot on the moon. Impending budget cuts to NASA has put the future of manned space flight in doubt. I don’t want to downplay the advances made in communications, but many of today’s technological developments are simply refinements of older technologies—smaller and more powerful computers, cell phones that play video, and high definition TV are some examples. Even today’s 3D movies are a refinement of technology that has been around since the 1950s.

What transformative advancements will shape the next 100 years?

Most important, a huge advance in human lifespan. After all, in the advanced nations, the average longevity has increased 50% in both the 19th century and the last century. A similar improvement would take us to a curve that terminates somewhere between 100 and 110—a cotton-topped future. But technology changes, and the advances from augmentation plausibly can keep making inroads on the many causes of our mortality.

Large longevity extensions will change our views of the human condition.

We already see that young people are delaying education, marriage and other social goals beyond those typical of people in the first half of the 20th century. This may come from their sense that they have plenty of time, since they see their parents leading vigorous lives into their 70s and even 80s, a phenomenon nearly unknown only a century ago. Such subtle changes go unremarked because they are intuitive.

How far can this go? We have no true idea of an upper limit on lifespan. If we eliminated all aging, so that we faced no “fragility wall,” eliminated diseases, and could avoid all causes of death except accident (including suicide), how long could we live? When asked, most people guess at ages like 120, or 150. The answer, gathered from studying the causes of death in actuarial rate tables, is astonishing: close to 1500 years! This seems more plausible when one reflects upon how many friends die of accident. Typically, one knows only a few who die in accidents before age 50, from a total of, say, 1000 friends. This translates to a death rate from accident of about 1/1000 per year, or an average expected lifespan of about 1000 years.

With only a century or less of life, humans have developed many social forms to deal with this span, and nearly none that look beyond it. Take just a small step into that immensity: Imagine living to 150. How would you plan a career? Could you keep interested, if the job (like most) had a fair level of routine? And what about marriage?

We will learn to treat longer life as a resource, not just a goal. We can then exploit its benefits, like wisdom and equanimity, while focusing medicine and lifestyle changes on extending health and productivity, rather than dragging out the last bedridden months.

I doubt that many human pursuits of modern times—archaeology, environmentalism, SETI—would occur in even a technologically advanced society, if people lived to, say, only 40 or 50. Certainly our concerns for our eroding natural world and the climate change now accelerating would mean much to such people.

2. In your novel, Timescape, scientists use tachyons to send messages into the past. Do you believe it will ever be possible to communicate with the past, and if so, would it be be a wise thing to do?

To make a reasonable time machine with a rotating black hole would take just about the mass of a small galaxy. Or with wormholes, exotic matter with negative energy (not antimatter, though). So we now have several ideas of how to make such a machine, though we can’t afford one right now.

Generally, time travel seemed to require vast public works projects.

But why should this matter? If a time machine is ever built, in principle we should be receiving visitors now. Yet we haven’t seen any. Why?

Imagine that people keep using such a time machine until an equilibrium sets in between past changes and future reactions. The simplest steady-state in which no changes occur is one in which no time machine exists any longer. Events conspire—say, science falls forever into disfavor, or humanity dies out—to make the time machine erase itself.

I think making a time machine is more risk than one should undertake without more knowledge.

3. You served as the scientific consultant for Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show presented Gene Roddenberry’s view of a hopeful, idealistic future where humankind has solved all of its social problems. In contrast, some science fiction writers presented post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney. Other writers warned us of dystopian futures, notably George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day. Do you share Roddenberry’s vision or do you think we’re headed toward a darker future?

The show pivoted around a desire to please everyone, with a token Russian, Asian and black woman in the crew. This apparently forgave its air of earnest moralizing, a trait we still see today in the frequent oracular pronouncements delivered ex cathedra from the Enterprise bridge. The films continued this; even in the perhaps-best, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the most adventurous position taken is “Save The Whales.”

Of course the 21st century looks gloomy. We have environmental, resource, and crowding problems galore. But it’s always easier to see problems than solutions. We have more means to confront them now, and greater talents. I think we could have a bonanza future, if we rely on reason and science to solve the problems we’ve largely made for ourselves.

In Trek’s future everyone cheerfully wears spandex and looks great, a remarkable prospect for a nation which, over the last three decades, has seen the average adult add a pound of weight in each passing year. Could this be the secret heart of our love for the show?

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Three Questions For: Stephan Pastis

April 26, 2010
Stephan Pastis, creator of Pearls Before Swine

Art by Marc Librescu

Pearls Before Swine

Stephan Pastis is the cartoonist who created the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. Launched in 2002, the strip appears in 550 newspapers worldwide. Shortly after the strip was picked up for syndication, Stephan left his job as a litigation attorney  in the San Francisco Bay area to work on his art full-time. His new book, 50,000,000 Pearls Fans Can’t Be Wrong: A Pearls Before Swine Collection, was released on April 6th.

1. You’ve said that of all the characters in Pearls Before Swine, you relate most to Rat, who is an arrogant, self-centered misanthrope. In what ways are you similar to Rat and in what ways are you different?

I share with him my dim view of humanity and some of his ego. Unlike him, I’m not a complete sociopath.

2. Newspaper comics pages seem to be stuck in the middle of the last century. For the most part, newspapers run hackneyed comic strips that aren’t funny, along with strips that have been running since dinosaurs walked the Earth. What’s going on?

The demographics of the papers skew old. Editors sometimes cater to that group. As they do, young people don’t read the paper, and it skews even older. It’s a vicious cycle that some stagnant papers may take with them to the grave. Fortunately, not all papers and editors are like that.

3. The newspaper industry has been going through hard times. Do you think new technology like the iPad will rescue the industry and provide a revitalized platform for comic strips?

I’m hoping something does. And fast. Whether it’s the iPad or not, I couldn’t guess. For me, personally, I’m hoping to get Pearls animated for the big screen. We’ve been in negotiations, but so far, I haven’t found a deal I’ve liked where I retain the right to write the screenplay. I just can’t let someone run off with my characters.

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Three Questions For: Steven Holcomb

April 20, 2010
Steven Holcomb

Photo: Parke Brewer, Art: Marc Librescu

Steven Holcomb is the American bobsledder at the helm of Team Night Train. In 2007, he was diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease that threatened his eyesight. Holcomb’s vision eventually deteriorated to the point where he was legally blind, which forced him to retire from bobsledding. In 2009, his vision was restored by an experimental procedure. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he won the gold medal in the four-man bobsled event for the United States, the country’s first gold medal in the sport since 1948.

1. How has your life changed since becoming the first American to win a gold medal in bobsledding in 62 years?

It’s said around the Olympic Village that if you win a gold medal you’ll get a few endorsements, a spot on a late night show, and your picture on the Wheaties Box.

Well, I have a couple of endorsements (nothing long term yet); we were on Letterman; and they gave the Wheaties Box to somebody else. Instead I’ve done a number of appearances, including a small bit with Microsoft, which was really cool. It’s been 6 ½ weeks and I am still on the road doing meet and greets, and speeches. I’ve only had three days off the entire time. It’s been crazy, but so much fun. I’ve met so many great people—a once in a lifetime experience.

2. Learning that you had a degenerative eye disease that caused blindness must have been daunting. How were you able to stay positive while you were dealing with the effects and treatment of the disease?

I knew that my eyes were going to degrade to a point that I would have to leave athletics. Knowing that helped me realize that my days were numbered and that I had to live it up the best I could. I did the best I could and actually won multiple World Cup races, and even two World Cup Titles in 2007 (and runner up in the four-man in 2007).

Knowing that you are going blind is a miserable situation. Its inevitable; it’s kind of like knowing the day you’re going to die. I had given up a number of times, but with the support of my family and my closest friends, I kept at it with my fingers crossed. Eventually I found the right guy, Dr. Brian Boxer-Wachler, and he saved my career.

3. During your appearance on the Today show, you offered to adopt a shelter dog they were featuring on the show. How’s that working out?

Things are fantastic. Bailey, my dog, is overwhelmed. She spent the first two years of her life in New York City, where life is chaotic and busy. Now she comes here to Colorado and she doesn’t know what to do. She saw her first rabbit the other day and she knew that she wanted to chase it, but she kept looking at me as if I had the answer. It was so funny. She really is a good dog and she’s very smart. I’m so proud. Not to mention, I am a sucker for her and I spoil her too much. It’s bad, I just can’t say no. Oh well. She’s happy and spoiled—so am I.

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Three Questions For: Duff Goldman

April 14, 2010
Chef Duff Goldman

Photo illustration: Marc Librescu

Chef Duff Goldman started Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, Maryland in 2000. He’s one of the most sought-after decorative cake makers in the country and is the star of the reality show Ace of Cakes, which can be seen on the Food Network. He’s the co-author of Ace of Cakes: Inside the World of Charm City Cakes.

1. The employees at Charm City Cakes look like they have a lot of fun on the job. How do you create a fun work atmosphere and still ensure that work gets done?

Good question. I think the vision of “productivity” and “economy” has been getting very skewed in business today. I know that a business like mine is special. Large companies absolutely cannot operate like we do—but a world where a very few are making hundreds of thousands of dollars every minute might explain why we have a health care crisis or an economic crisis or any other social ill. When our lives become about mere existence and continuance, devoid of a larger meaning because it’s all we can do just to keep a roof over our head or to get enough food to eat, then that is a bleak world, indeed.

I can’t change the world, but I can try to create an atmosphere around me that can benefit the people who I employ and who are my friends. Charm City Cakes is a place where people can feel safe to express themselves, and at the same time, have enough time in their lives when they aren’t working. Maintaining a balance in life lets them lead diverse and healthy lives.

We love what we do at the bakery. Thanks to the way we do business, we don’t work just to live, and we don’t live just to work. We also love what we do outside the bakery. We make art. We enjoy our community of friends. We play music in bands.

I think this way of living and working keeps the bakery as happy and as positive as it is. We have the flexibility and the free time to NOT be at work, which makes being at work that much more enjoyable. Lots of folks turn their passion into their job, but sometimes that can dull the passion because you wind up spending all your time doing it. Yes, it takes time and effort to get to the point that we’re at, but as long as you put in the time, and the goal is secure in your mind, when you get to that point, you know you’ve done so deliberately and haven’t burned yourself out.

Have I gotten lucky? A little. Was I in the right place at the right time? Absolutely. But the hard work, raw talent, and desire to be crazy good were all there—so when opportunities come along, we’re primed and ready to make the most of them.

Nobody gave me a TV show because they thought I might be good at something. I already was. So when that spotlight shone for a second, it caught something amazing and is keeping it in focus. It’s when we get complacent that the spotlight will wander and look for the next hungry subject to focus on. And for that, our vitality, our joy, our passion, and our love for our work and for each other is what we have to keep giving.

So the work gets done. It gets done because we enjoy doing it. If we didn’t enjoy it, it wouldn’t be interesting for us and therefore the art would suffer, wither, and eventually fade. That won’t happen. I won’t let it and neither will my crew because to create is what gets us out of bed. Fun, not money, is the greatest motivator for us.

So who cares if we’re not rich? We make enough to pay our bills. If my motivation was always the bottom line, that attitude would permeate everything we do and it would cease to be art. It would take on the mantle of a marketable commodity. I think there’s already enough of that out there.

2. Your work combines visual art with the culinary arts. Charm City Cakes may spend days creating a cake for a customer, but once the cake is delivered, it’s usually gone in a matter of hours. Other kinds of art, like paintings or sculptures, can last for hundreds of years. How do you feel about the ephemeral nature of the work that you produce?

Cake is that rare kind of art that can really symbolize the impermanence of life, beauty, and relevance. We slave over it, agonize about it, dream about it, and then it’s gone. We’re making people’s dreams and joys tangible in a sweet medium that is meant to be consumed, like the hearts of vanquished Aztec warriors that are consumed to impart that warrior’s bravery.

We make an art that excites on so many more levels than a painting or a statue. One can look at the Mona Lisa, but you can’t eat it, you can’t touch it, and you probably don’t want to smell it. Our cakes are destroyed in a fraction of the time it took to make them, yes, but that is why they exist. They are impermanent, they are fleeting, and they exist in a form that mirrors the very industry they are a product of—they are frivolous. That is no bad thing, the world could use a little more frivolity. There are serious issues in the world that we face today, but if we don’t take time to be silly and joyful, we can get mired in the sludge of our own existence. I know, maybe I’m over-thinking the importance of cakes, but if I didn’t, we wouldn’t be as good at what we do.

3. Because of the economy, many people are deciding to start small businesses out of necessity. As a successful business owner, what advice do you have for someone who is starting a small business for the first time?

Biggest thing—don’t be afraid to get punched in the face. Not literally (well, maybe once in a while), but you have to be prepared to take it on the chin and keep going. Starting a business takes a lot of courage and there are some crazy risks that you just have to take. Seeing that you do have to make some tough decisions, you really need to believe in what you’re doing. You have to try an be as objective as you can and you have to be brutally honest with yourself. If you don’t have complete faith in your product and yourself, it WILL NOT WORK. Also, you need to think on your feet. If there are 15 people doing the same thing in your town, do something different. Create your own niche. See what doesn’t exist but should and do it…well!

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Three Questions For: Steve Harley

April 8, 2010

 

Steve Harley

Photo: Tim Kavanagh, Art: Marc Librescu

 

Steve Harley formed Cockney Rebel in 1972. The band had a number of hits, including the number one Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile) and a cover of the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. Steve’s new album, Stranger Comes to Town, will be released on May 3rd in the UK and on May 4th in the US.

1. Looking back at the early part of your career in the 1970s, if you could do it again knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

I am a great believer in Fate, so I believe every decision is made with the best intentions at the time. I do, though, sometimes wish I’d had a better chance at breaking through in the United States. I love touring, playing live. Would have driven myself into the ground around that huge country, given the chance. But then I never say never!

2. What are your 10 “stranded on a desert island” albums?

  1. Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan
  2. Blonde On Blonde – Bob Dylan
  3. Revolver – The Beatles
  4. Apostrophe! – Frank Zappa
  5. Blue – Joni Mitchell
  6. Harvest – Neil Young
  7. OK Computer – Radiohead
  8. Greatest Hits – Cat Stevens
  9. The Main Event – Frank Sinatra Live
  10. Stranger Comes To Town – Myself (please forgive the arrogance, but I’m so proud of this one!)

UK links to these albums.

3. It’s been said that all literature can be reduced to two stories: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. What’s the story behind the title of your new album?

Throughout the time I spent writing the songs for this album, some two years or more, I was conscious of the invasion by CCTV and Big Brother in general into our everyday lives. Strangers! I am aware of the mediocrity of our world leaders these days, throughout the western world, men and women who lack the statesmanship and dignity of their positions. Strangers! We are all alienated in our own villages, towns, schools, universities by the conduct of the few: paedophiles, pyschos and their ilk. The bad guy has won. Strangers! I could go on, but maybe that’s for another day and another place.

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