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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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One Comment leave one →
  1. Carl permalink
    July 28, 2010 1:04 am

    Thank you for a wonderful interview with one of my favorite all-time cartoonists. Gahan’s talk of Goya as an influence surprised me at first, but I don’t know why it should have surprised me, considering the horror and humor in Goya’s own work. Now I want to take Gahan’s advice and go see the paintings for myself at the Prado.

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