Gahan Wilson’s “Meet the Author” bio here on the Barnes & Noble website looks normal at first, and then you read it again. “In his ninth decade as a human being and his sixth as a master cartoonist, Gahan Wilson (born dead in 1930) continues to produce cartoons for a variety of magazines, including Playboy and The New Yorker.” The oddity makes more sense once you know what the bio doesn’t say: Wilson (now 87, and still kicking) is also a hard core science fiction, fantasy, and horror fan, and formerly an author, reviewer, and editor in those genres as well.
While Wilson’s work appeared in numerous periodicals, he had a special relationship with the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). Gahan Wilson’s Out There: The Science Fiction Cartoons and Writings of Gahan Wilson, collects all his cartoons, stories, and reviews that appeared in that magazine. According to the introduction by Gary Garth, F&SF was Wilson’s favorite of the science fiction and fantasy digests that succeeded the “pulps” in the ’50s and ’60s. He first appeared in the magazine in the April 1964 issue with a story, not a cartoon, because F&SF did not publish cartoons at that time. His first cartoon appeared in the April 1965 issue, and he had a full page cartoon in every issue after that until October 1981. He also drew several covers and illustrated numerous stories for the magazine.
The cartoons collected in Out There are classic Gahan Wilson, twisting science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes. My favorite features a doctor reluctantly giving up his anemia diagnosis when they find a vampire in the patient’s room. His stories, meanwhile, are all short, some only one page. And like his cartoons, they are driven by ideas, not characters. The best is “M-1,” a story with a twist ending involving a huge artifact of unknown origin. More intriguing are Wilson’s book reviews. Periodically he would write a column for F&SF called “The Dark Corner.” As the name suggests, he directed his attention to horror, weird, and supernatural fiction. He reviewed anthologies designed to introduce readers to old masters like Clark Ashton Smith as well as new (at the time) works. There seem to have been a number of authors reinvigorating the Cthulhu Mythos back then, a practice revived with vigor in 2016.
In 1981, Wilson received the World Fantasy Convention Award, given for “peerless contributions to the fantasy genre,” then went on to win the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2005. Fittingly, the award trophies that he received were a bust of H. P. Lovecraft Wilson he himself designed for the first World Fantasy Convention in 1975. (That trophy was retired after the 2015 awards following a campaign by authors and readers dismayed by Lovecraft’s racist attitudes. Recently, the World Fantasy Award administrators revealed the final design for the new award, by Chelsea Award-winning sculptor Vincent Villafranca. The 2016 winners just received a paper certificate as an IOU until the new trophies are available.) While it may not be the kind of thing we want to hand out to winners of a prestigious literary honor in 2017, there’s no denying the compelling, angular oddity of the Lovecraft bust; to call it grotesque is perhaps an understatement, but this is H.P. Lovecraft we’re talking about. Horrors of the deep don’t shy away from a little grotesquery.
Gahan Wilson has a special place in my heart because I used one of his cartoons as a reference in a major paper that I wrote for my doctorate in clinical psychology—a funny, but very insightful, illustration of the difference between child and adult perceptions, which was a major theme in the paper. Using it as a reference was not a prank, but I did get a kick out of revealing to the professors (after I got my grade) that the reference, “Wilson, G., 1973, page 43”, was from a collection of Gahan Wilson cartoons from Playboy, then passing out a copy of the cartoon. It was a high point of grad school for me. But then, I’m a little “out there” too.