Gahan Wilson talks with Marc Librescu (Part One)

Posted by on June 28th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

I met Gahan Wilson at the Horror Writers Association (HWA) Stoker Awards Banquet in New York City in 1998. We talked over a drink at one of the cocktail parties at the weekend event. In addition to feeling somewhat awestruck to be in the presence of one of the greatest contemporary cartoonists, whose work has appeared in Playboy, Collier’s Weekly, The New Yorker, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and National Lampoon, I was also struck by his affability and his sense of humor.

With his play on gothic horror tropes, he’s often compared with Charles Addams, who he cites as a major influence on his own art. Walter Hopps, former curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s 20th Century American Art Collection, said Wilson’s art “provides his audience with a lucid and lyrical, violent and apocalyptic windshield to view the chaotic landscape of our culture as it whizzes past our peripheral vision into the rear-view mirror of art history.”

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.

Gahan recently spoke with me by phone from his home in Sag Harbor, New York.

— Marc Librescu

MARC LIBRESCU: 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?

GAHAN WILSON: 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.

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

WILSON: 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.

LIBRESCU: 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?

WILSON: 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.

LIBRESCU: Let’s talk about the art world for a moment. Does fine art have a future?

WILSON: I think definitely so. Fine art goes through phases. For example, one of the most spectacular things that happened in the history of representational art would be Cézanne. In his work, he completely revolutionized the idea of the flat plane — the canvas or paper you’re working on and the three-dimensional object, and how you have the two things work out. Prior to Cézanne, painters kind of made a photograph effect. You saw a flat photograph kind of thing, which was very lovely, but he was exploring the whole spatial thing, three dimensions turning into a two dimensional thing.
His experiment led to Cubism, which fractured the whole notion of what you could do with planes. So, art movements sort of glide from one insight to the next insight. They become basically a fashion or a vogue. What’s happened relatively recently is that it’s become very literary, very political and very commentary-ish.

Warhol, I suppose, is the one who really kicked it off. You would just have representations of Coca-Cola boxes or just simply the logo. The idea spread around, and a lot of other people, lesser talents, crowded round and [did similar work] and it worked. It’s interesting to look at and you say, “That is interesting, my goodness. Yes sir, that’s interesting.”

Now we’ve gotten to a very intriguing stage where art has almost left the whole idea of [painting on canvas]. It’s gotten into a sort of show biz thing, which I’m not saying in a derogatory way, but it’s a theatrical thing. There’s a big show in New York now where you encounter these actors. For example, you have to go through a doorway and brush past this naked lady, and this is a statement. That’s an interesting statement! It has an effect in the same kind of way that looking at a Cézanne has an effect, only it has nothing to do with drawing or painting.

There are some very intriguing developments, especially with electronics. God only knows where that’s going to go. There has always been this interaction between different art genres. There was an interaction between drawing and painting, between photography and movies. It’s a process. It keeps on going. It’s unpredictable. Someone comes along with something, and you say, “My goodness!” It surprises you. That’s the definition of “unpredictable.”

But I don’t see any awful things happening. I don’t see [painting and drawing] going away. I see it coming back. Eventually, I think, somebody will just say, “All right, let’s get back to painting and drawing.” And bang, they’ll do something amazing!

Putting it in boxes doesn’t really work. That’s for scholars. As far as the artists are concerned, they’re curious, and they get interested [in an idea], and they say all right! But at the core, you have some creative character and there’s something he sees that interests him. He sees an interesting way of playing with it artistically. The interaction between this idea that he’s interested in and his way of representing it artistically has an impact on the viewer.

LIBRESCU: In the past, it seemed that an art movement would start with an artist or a small group of artists and then spread organically. Today, the establishment of art movements seems more cynical and calculated — movements are created and shed like last year’s fashions.

WILSON: When you read about whatever the hell is going on in the art field, whatever the hell the “art field” is, it’s written by critics and scholars — they’re both sort of the same thing.  They’re commentaries, so they tend to emphasize definition and placement: This is chapter 3 of paragraph 7 of Book A.

But that’s not the point. The point is that this thing is there and there’s this interaction that occurs, and [the viewer] is analyzing it. As far as the description thing goes, that’s for critics and that’s for teachers. It’s not for artists.

Cézanne demonstrated this thing about space and then Impressionism developed — Monet and so on. Monet saw light; there was this light business. There are people who get together and make a club and say, “This is right and this is wrong.” I think those are usually rather second-rate people who are gathering together in self-defense and making art that is way too definable. I get very suspicious [when you can define it too easily].

If you can describe it in words, really, it can’t be all that much. The whole point of art is that it does something nothing else can do. You can’t describe a Goya painting in words. It just won’t work.

As far as influences, Goya is a huge, towering influence. He’s just huge. About three years ago, I made a holy pilgrimage to Spain to see a Goya exhibition in the El Prado. I’d never seen a Goya exhibition before. I was just bowled over, because the fascinating thing about him is that the son of a bitch had great fun having a composition which will go in light value from very dark to very, very brilliant glaring lighting.

So you make out this subtle variation in tone in the painting or etching. But it was like he knew [that one day] there would be photography and reproductions and he was having fun setting a trap for everybody, because you can’t reproduce his work properly — at least I have never seen a satisfactory reproduction of his work. If you try to get the bright part, the black part turns into a smear. You don’t see the subtleties. If you go for the dark stuff, the white just becomes this pure white area. So you just can’t do it. You could do it, I suppose. If you just did this incredible painstaking job, you might be able to come close to it. It’s extraordinary!

LIBRESCU: So unless you’ve seen a Goya, you haven’t actually seen a Goya.

WILSON: Yeah. You’ve missed about half of it, at least.

LIBRESCU: They’re dealing with this in digital photography right now. HDR photography combines multiple exposures to capture the details in the shadows and the highlights.

WILSON: They may catch up with him yet! But you had a point, as far as the technical aspect. Yes, there will come a time when they will be able to reproduce a Goya. That will lead to something else that will involve technical stuff that doesn’t exist now. You see it happen all the time.

It’s like the Web. You can access any topic or subject you want like you could never access it before. It’s staggering. You can get into some obscure area, some very esoteric something-or-other, and you can get all this information, print it out and read it. Just a couple of decades back, you would have to travel to a museum and get papers and accreditation so you could open this book in this room that is not available to anybody that hasn’t got that accreditation. And now you can do it. You can see the most incredible secret stuff there is. It’s staggering!

All cartoons Gahan Wilson ©2009 Playboy

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One Response to “Gahan Wilson talks with Marc Librescu (Part One)”

  1. […] almost an hour. An expanded, two-part version of this interview appears at The Comic Journal: part 1 | part […]