Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons

Unless you’re a Playboy reader, chances are you’ve never seen any of the 800-plus fantastic cartoons in this massive three-volume collection of one-panel gags by Gahan Wilson, all of which first appeared in that once-scandalous girlie mag.  And who admits to reading Playboy  (even though it still sells over 2 million copies monthly in the U.S.)?  Maybe a few older guys who were looking for high-end stereo advice back when Wilson published his first wonderfully creepy drawing in 1957.  Young people know Hugh Hefner, the legendary editor of this improbably long-lived magazine, as the geezer who squires around a bevy of bottle blondes with fake breasts on reality TV’s The Girls Next Door.  Which certainly doesn’t help Hef’s legacy among those who admire his achievements in publishing or brood over his impact on cultural history.

Hefner’s original vision for his full-color glossy magazine included a winning combination of beautiful naked women and sophisticated consumer advice.  But equally important was his hope to develop a stable of cartoonists to rival The New Yorker, whose best artists — Charles Addams, Peter Arno, Saul Steinberg and the rest — were under exclusive contract to that more staid publication.  (Nowadays,  both magazines share many cartoon contributors, including Gahan Wilson.)   Most of Playboy‘s early cartoonists were masters of the female form at its exaggerated best: Jack Cole, Al Stine, and Erich Sokol among them.  To class up the act, Hefner found his Arno in Julien Dedman, the Yalie ad exec.  Later, of course, after Esquire stopped publishing cartoons, he incorporated the sexy stylings of Eldon Dedini and E. Simms Campbell.  All he lacked was his own version of Charles Addams’s ghoulish humor.

Into the breach stepped Gahan Wilson.  But it wasn’t that simple, and the story involves another comic and cartoon genius, the ubiquitous Harvey Kurtzman, who not only invented Mad magazine and wrote and edited some of the all-time greatest comic books, but also served the Playboy empire twice.  Hefner, after all,  considered himself a failed cartoonist, and he proved to be a connoisseur of the form,  rivaled only by his sexual connoisseurship.  When Kurtzman lost control of Mad, Hef offered him the dream job of editing a full-color humor magazine, and Trump was hatched, only to die after two issues.  (Later,  Kurtzman re-emerged in Playboy land as the creator of the long-running stripLittle Annie Fannie.”)

In 1957, a young and aspiring cartoonist who fancied himself a Greenwich Village bohemian, contemptuous of middle-class ideas of good taste, discovered in Kurtzman a like-minded  cultural rebel.  Hoping to join the former Mad men at Trump, Gahan Wilson schlepped his portfolio of weird cartoons to Chicago, assuming Trump shared offices with its parent publication.  But the soon-to-expire magazine was edited in New York, and Wilson was ushered in to meet Hefner himself. Kismet!  It was a marriage made in heaven — a paradise peopled with freaks, monsters, and aliens, to be sure. And it has lasted far longer than any conjugal partnership either man has had: 52 years, to be exact.

Hefner found in Wilson’s work his answer to Addams’s macabre sensibility; and while Addams and Wilson share a skewed view of everyday reality, their actual styles are worlds apart.  Addams worked within the black-and-white pages of The New Yorker, in which his cartoons were given only a portion of the page.  His lines were clean and his characters fairly ordinary looking, even if the gags were mind-blowing.  (Think of the skier in the classic cartoon who’s just passed a tree with his tracks curving around both sides at once.)   Wilson himself, in a 1993 interview in The Comics Journal, welcomes the comparison with the older cartoonist and illuminates the essential differences.  In his view, Addams created “beautiful, atmospheric New York stuff,” all of which evokes an era of an elegant ’40s and ’50s.  Moreover, Addams never ventured into the realm of politics that so clearly energizes Wilson’s apocalyptic imagination.

Wilson, in short, is very much a creature of his time, the postwar era of domestic prosperity and nuclear anxiety. Without ever losing sight of the humor in it all, Wilson reveals in these many cartoons a disgust with the American war machine, rage over possible Armageddon, and fear of ecological catastrophe.  As early as 1958, he draws two Eskimos looking up at nuclear warheads on a collision course in the sky, with one saying to the other, “Looks like the end of civilization as they know it.”  Not much later, he publishes a captionless gag of a sign floating in a post-explosion outer space, reading, “The World is Coming to an End.”  A full-page wordless and characterless cartoon depicts a school of sharks approaching an atomic mushroom cloud.  And one his very best drawings finds a demented-looking soldier, bloody bayonet in hand, declaring on a desolate warscape, “I think we won!” 

Wilson’s genius for grotesquery well suits his environmental concerns.  Festering wounds, pustulated faces, disintegrating bodies — all these show up at a chemical plant gate, where the horridly infected guards tell a reporter: “Chemical spill?  What chemical spill?  Anybody here know anything about a chemical spill?”  Wilson can be marvelously unsubtle: in one of his simple black-and-white pieces, some animals in the distance shoot some hunters in the foreground, their bodies splattered in the snow.  His work is clearly not for the squeamish. 

And his political animus extends beyond warmongers and animal killers to sleazy advertisers and corporate meanies — one corpulent exec simply has a sign over his desk that says, in bold black letters, “Tyrannize.”  His very first contribution to Playboy involves some sharpies planning to sell a soft drink with an ad in outer space.  His disgust with consumption proves itself in a splendid line drawing with lots of oppressive cross-hatching to isolate its two hapless figures: a typically rubbery-looking couple, hunched over with wide-open anxious eyes, shopping in a supermarket where the products are labeled “shit,” “crap,” “drek,” “crud,” and “New from France-merde.”  To make matters worse, the unfortunate husband declares: “And every day it’s costing more and more.”

The Playboy cartoons collected here demonstrate above all Wilson’s phenomenal range in subject, style, and inspiration.  While his vision is dark, perverse, and gleefully cruel, there’s one thing you’ll be surprised is not here: sex.  I think I counted three bare-breasted women in the entire three volumes: one was getting ready to impale her boyfriend in some weird satanic ritual, and the other two were witches bathing in a cauldron with bits of tentacles, wings, worms, and claws hanging over its edge.  For all his more socially pointed humor, Wilson draws on popular culture and horror movies for much of his inspiration.   The great Universal characters — Dracula, the Werewolf, and the Frankenstein monster — make numerous appearances and tend to be the least gruesome players in Wilson’s cast.  The Count, for example, salts a victim’s neck before biting, and elsewhere warns his dentist to leave his fangs alone.  Wilson pays homage to the wild sci-fi flicks of the ’50s as well: his countless monsters are wonderful blobs — squishy things with multiple orifices, slithering appendages, and blood-dripping fangs.  And the aliens are never benign visitors.

Like the five short stories appended here — all of which also first appeared in Playboy — Wilson’s cartoons also look to the classics of fantastic fiction.  He illustrates some scenes from Poe and alludes to Lovecraft and Machen, and their sensibilities loom everywhere.  The menace in domestic relations, the evil that kids are capable of, the outright nastiness that man inflicts on man: it’s all here, drawn in Wilson’s inimitable comic style.  He elongates faces, adding yucky teeth, and pinpoints pupils in oversized eyeballs.  Rumpled clothes hang on squat bodies, all suggesting a whiff of mildew and mothballs.  Modern life provides the scenes: courtrooms where there isn’t a chance of mercy; psychiatrists’ couches where it’s not clear who needs the help; restaurants where the strangest fare is offered. 

Perhaps the greatest indication of Wilson’s genius — his conceptual virtuosity — is on display in the many seasonal cartoons included in this volume, a topical challenge for any cartoonist.  Most years since 1958, he’s cranked out variations on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and Christmas.  A survey of the Santas alone captures the wild and outrageously funny depravity of Wilson’s work: a rotted Santa cleaned out from a chimney; a cannibal Santa cleaning his teeth with a bloodstained hankie; Santa as a werewolf during a Christmas full moon; Santa drunk at a bar with a few of the reindeer; Santa flashing an old lady in the park; Santa held hostage by a few deranged, machine-gun wielding kids; and Santa as a Basil Wolverton grotesque — all greenish goo with protruding eyeballs — declaring to two terrified children, “Whoops!  Sorry, wrong planet.”

No doubt Wilson himself  feels that way on occasion.  Another pure product of America gone crazy, he must wonder sometimes if he’s on the wrong planet.  But thanks largely  to Hef, he’s found a steady place right here among us, where his craziness flourishes.

And Fantagraphics has also served Wilson well.  This collection is a wonder of book design, with die-cut boards, marvelous color reproduction, and a fantastic slipcase.  The clear plastic panel on one side reveals the laminated  back board of the books, each one a different head-shot photo of Wilson himself, his face smashed against the plastic, a prisoner in his own collection. It’s a perfect expression of all the inspired madness within.