Friday, November 22, 2019

Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Now Dead Again

Gahan Wilson is dead.

I'd make a joke about it, but nobody joked ever about Death as well as Gahan, or, I suspect, for as long.

His stepson describes him, in his death announcement, as "one of the very best cartoonists ever to pick up a pen" and he was.

He was a gentle, funny, charming man. One of the most perfect evenings I've ever had was the night that Peter Straub and Gahan Wilson and I wound up after an event in the little lobby bar at the Royalton Hotel, back when it was a Philippe Starck-designed place, and the three of us, in our uncomfortable tuxedos, talked about art and puppets and humour and horror and Sherlock Holmes and and what we were trying to make until late into the night.

Ten years ago, I had the honour of writing an introduction to Gahan's book, 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons.

This is what I wrote:


I have an embarrassing admission to make: when I was a barely pubertal schoolboy I did not look at Playboy for the articles. I did not actually care about the articles. Interviews with American politicians or movie stars left me unmoved, reviews of stereo equipment or sports cars or cocktails meant nothing to me. No, I went to Playboy for the pictures.

I was not old enough to buy it, nor brave enough to steal it, so each month I would head into my High Street W.H. Smiths, and go up on tiptoes, and reach up to and take Playboy down from the topmost shelf. Then I would slick through it as rapidly as possible, past the Playboy Advisor, past the naked ladies (pneumatic, terrifying creatures, quite unlike the girls at local schools I would stare at awkwardly and with longing when I passed them on the street), past the short stories (even if I wanted to read them there would not be time before a shop assistant spotted me), until I found it. It was always there: the Gahan Wilson cartoon. And I would stare at it, at the strange, squashed Plasticene-faced people, at the vampires and the people building monsters, at the enormous aliens and raggedy mummies and acts of unspeakable cruelty and nightmare (“What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?” asked one spouse of another. And under the seat was the cat, and it had.)

In a magazine devoted to sex and aspirational lifestyle accoutrements, Gahan Wilson was about something else – a cock-eyed, dangerously weird way of looking at the world. Even when sex entered the picture it did so strangely and awkwardly (Superman, his back to us, flashes an old lady, who, unimpressed, retorts “You're not so super.” Vampires view sleeping nubiles as snacks. Werewolves... ah, you'll find out.)

And, strangely, the knowledge that each Playboy had a Gahan Wilson cartoon in it somehow, for me, made Playboy cool in a way that the cars and the cocktails never could, just as the knowledge that Charles Addams was forbidden to draw the Addams Family characters in the pages on the New Yorker made that respectable magazine significantly less remarkable in my eyes.

Over the last two decades I have had the good fortune of encountering Gahan Wilson in the flesh: initially, oddly, as a book reviewer who said nice things about what I did. I wrote him a fan-letter, got a wonderful letter back from him with a drawing of Mister Punch on it, and finally got to spend time in his company at a variety of conventions and meetings across America. Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly teamed us up for their Little Lit book, and I wrote a story for Gahan to draw that meant that I found myself interviewed when they made a documentary about him (Born Dead, Still Weird) and that the comic we did was beautifully animated for the movie: it had ghouls in it, and small children, and dead people, all of which traditionally show up in Gahan Wilson's work.

In person, Gahan is tall. His face might possibly have been made out of Plasticine, but he is – and I doubt he will mind me telling you this – significantly better looking than many of the people, some of the monsters, and all of the aliens that he draws. He is, in person, a funny man, not with the compulsive joke-making look-at-me funny of comedians, but with a comfortably wry view of the world that he communicates with ease. He is affable and intelligent. He does not seem like a cartoonist – were I to pick a profession for him based on his looks it would be that of successful small-town mortician, I think, or owner of a backwoods motel. Or an alien, squished uncomfortably into a Gahan Wilson-shaped humanoid body suit, here to observe our ways and taste our wine and despoil our women.

He operates in no tradition, although, on occasion I have seen people and line in nineteenth Japanese prints and, in one case, a five-hundred year old graffitied drawing of a monk and a dragon on the side of a Chinese temple that I could have sworn were made by Gahan Wilson's pen. He draws on horror movies, on popular culture, on his own strange view of the world and of the permeability of language – not punning, but playing with words and popular expressions in ways that flex and stretch them, like a morbid poet. (“Is Nothing sacred?” asked a man in a place where they worship Nothing. “How are they selling?” is asked of a sad-looking man with piles and piles of unsold hot cakes.)

Until now it was hard to be a real fan of Gahan Wilson's Playboy work. I do not read every issue of Playboy, for a start, and these days the magazine is too often sold wrapped in plastic. And when Gahan Wilson's cartoons have been collected in the past, the Playboy cartoons were often black and white reproductions of the colour originals. This book made me happy and excited when the publisher told me it would exist, and it makes me happy and excited now – the idea of getting to see the Gahan Wilson Playboy cartoons as they were meant to have been seen, all of them collected together chronologically is one that I find intrinsically wonderful. The world is a better place for having this book in it. No kidding, no hyperbole (well, maybe a little. But I mean it, so that makes it all right).

I'll shut up now and get out of the way. You have pictures to look at that will make your world more interesting. I don't know if these cartoons will taste the same without me having to do that nervous top-shelf dash. Possibly they will be better.

I trust these volumes will sell like hot cakes.

Neil Gaiman

They were cartoons like this...
I got to reprint one of his short stories in the book Unnatural Creatures, a benefit book for the Washington DC literacy program 826 DC. It was not actually called

although sometimes it's called (Inksplot).

Here's the animated film I talk about above.

It's a short film that was made for the documentary BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD, as an adaptation of the short story we did together for Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman's IT WAS A DARK AND SILLY NIGHT book.

I really really liked Gahan. He was one of the people you admire before you meet them who live up to your expectations and hopes when you do. I'm deeply sorry he's gone.

It seems like last week that I bought a drawing from him, the cover art for a book I wrote with Gene Wolfe, A Walking Tour of the Shambles.

We used to talk (half-joking, but only half) about doing another volume of Little Walks For Sightseers, but 2019 took Gene and now it's taken Gahan, and I miss their conversations and I wouldn't want do it on my own.