One of my favourite human beings who I never met passed away on the 21st of November. What I loved about him was not only his art itself, but the extraordinary vision behind it. He’s also interesting, because his combination of talents and contributions would be almost impossible to achieve in the modern world – which says something important about what we’ve lost culturally, as we have elevated outrage so far above our curiosity, openness and will to learn.
Gahan Wilson was above all else, a brilliant cartoonist – so brilliant that he had a great deal of difficulty getting published at first. As he explained it himself:
”My big break came when the cartoon editor for Colliers – who, like everybody else, thought the readers wouldn’t understand the cartoons I did – left to become the cartoon editor of Look. In the interim, the art director took over. Not being a trained cartoon editor, he did not realize my stuff was too much for the common man to comprehend, and he thought it was funny. I was flabbergasted and delighted when he started to buy it! He wasn’t in all that long, about a month and a half, but by that time my cartoons had started to appear. The guy who had gone to Look saw them in Colliers, and I guess a great dawning occurred, so he started buying them for Look, and that was it – I was now a big-time cartoonist! Absolutely foolish, but that’s the way it happened. That was the chink in the armor, and I just got through it.”
Wilson’s imagination was wild and wide-open – and ranged freely from the macabre to the profound, the deeply personal to the meta political – always powerful, in a clear and brilliantly compact way. He didn’t seek to show how clever he was, but made his vision accessible, and thus forever changed the way we all see and think. His work also lead directly to many of the absurdist cartoonists who came later (Gary Larsen and his ‘far side’ in particular).
But what most amazed me about him, from my earliest encounters with his work, was his extraordinary heart and compassion. His bittersweet memories of childhood were especially moving, and the way he played with cliches of our culture, often turning them upside down completely (and sometimes ghoulishly) was a delight, because it helped reassure us that we weren’t crazy for thinking our own wackiest ideas.
It’s fair to say that most people first encountered Wilson’s work in Playboy magazine (which he contributed to for almost fifty years), or National Lampoon – both of which are now regarded almost entirely for their negatives – which ignores their historical context and cultural impact to an extent that makes everyone a great deal stupider.
The New Yorker also ran his stuff regularly – and we must first note that the New Yorker and Playboy were the absolute best paying and highest quality markets for cartoonists for many decades (the most important and culturally critical science fiction writers of the day also published first in Playboy, both for the global exposure of their important messages, and the very helpful paycheque – Playboy interviews were also very important for radicals seeking to ‘get the word out’).
The reason it is now impossible to understand the cultural impact of such (yes, grossly sexist) magazines as Playboy and National Lampoon, is that we currently live in a world which recognizes no authority whatsoever – legitimate or otherwise, and in which censorship has been effectively overcome by the universal-access internet. But the world those magazines addressed in their early days in particular, was locked down tight by incredibly oppressive and generally poorly constituted authority.
Most of the first serious mass-market (that is, culturally relevant) discussions which began to destigmatize inter-racial relationships, homosexuality, bisexuality, trans, and many other issues which were then widely suppressed – not to mention advancing the cause of AIDS victims, when the governments of the world didn’t want to know, happened in men’s magazines of the time. This would surprise no one who has worked with the poor or desperate. You can’t minister to others where you are yourself the most comfortable, but must bring your message and good work to a place where the people actually congregate already – even if you disapprove of the reason (the Salvation Army knows every bar in town – and absolutely must, to do it’s rescue work).
As well as selling huge volumes of work to the best cartoon markets in the world (no easy feat) Wilson illustrated some fantastic kids books (I was a junkie for the Matthew Loonie children’s sci-fi series) and published many short stories (even in Ellison’s famous “Again dangerous visions” anthology) and books of drawings cartoons and stories.
He also wrote reviews of films for Twilight Zone magazine, reviewed science fiction books for Realms of Fantasy, created animations and even a computer game.
Shel Silverstein (who died twenty years ago) had a similarly wide-ranging, brilliant, incalculably influential and now virtually impossible career, doing a great deal of well paid work for Playboy magazine, as well as writing immortal children’s classics like “Where the sidewalk ends” and “The giving tree” and even penning pop music touchstones like “A boy named Sue” made famous by Johnny Cash, and “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” powerfully rendered by Marianne Faithful, decades later – he gave hits to artists as wide ranging as Judy Collins and Kris Kristofferson, along with counterculture classics like “The smoke-off” that powered the widely syndicated “Doctor Demento radio show” for many highly entertaining decades.
So – can we still see an artist as being distinct from what we dislike about their best rent-paying markets? Must we discard insights from great iconoclasts, because they failed to anticipate the toppling of their topical oppressors?
I can’t answer that question for anyone else – but I can tell you, anyone who doubted this man’s genius or heart, simply hasn’t learned how to pay attention to the world. Which is something else he talks about better than I ever could – and I’ll let him finish this piece, with this wonderful and moving quote.
”Art should lead to change in the way we see things. If some artist comes up with a vision which gives a new opening, it usually creates a lot of stress, because it’s frightening. Like Cubism reveals there’s this whole other reality to reality, or Stravinsky comes along, and there’s a riot! This is art. It’s very disturbing. If you really see a Cézanne, you never see anything the same way afterwards. It’s heavy stuff, very powerful. And the artist – literary, graphic, or whatever – does an amazing thing. The creative artist is automatically an outsider, because he sees through the world that everybody else takes as the final reality, and he’s a very scary kind of guy.”
Whether Wilson is brand new to you, or an old dear friend you’ve long missed without realizing it, I recommend the digital archives of his work. For ten bucks you can bask in his wild vision for six full months, and let him help you see (and laugh) at reality itself more and differently. Hard to think of a better value for money on this screwy (and perilously self-censored) planet.