Gahan Wilson, Vividly Macabre Cartoonist, Dies at 89


Gahan Wilson, whose outlandish, often ghoulish cartoons added a bizarrely humorous touch to Playboy, The New Yorker, National Lampoon and other publications in the era when magazines propelled the cultural conversation, died on Thursday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 89.

His stepson Paul Winters said the cause was complications of dementia, which Mr. Wilson had been dealing with for years.

Mr. Wilson was known for visual surprises and black humor:

A steward tells a couple on a cruise ship, “I’ve passed your complaints along to the captain,” while in the background the captain, a violent-looking pirate, approaches.

A man in a doctor’s office is reading an eye chart that says, in letters of diminishing size, “I am an insane eye doctor and I am going to kill you now”; behind him a crazed doctor prepares to attack him with a knife.

“Some cartoonists can be good by having jokes, gags, and they’re funny gags,” David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, says in “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird,” a 2013 documentary directed by Steven-Charles Jaffe. “The really great ones develop a private language, a set of characters, a set of expectations, a world. Gahan Wilson developed a world.”

Another editor who published him frequently was Hugh Hefner of Playboy. He printed his first Gahan Wilson cartoon in the late 1950s.

“Gahan Wilson was an immediate hit with our readers and a perfect contrast to our usual, more sexual cartoon fare,” Mr. Hefner wrote in the introduction to “Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons” (2011).

“By the early 1960s,” he continued, “I could say with real satisfaction that no other magazine in the world — The New Yorker included — had a cartoon stable the equal of Playboy’s. And no cartoonist was more popular, or more enduring, than Gahan Wilson.”

Gahan Allen Wilson was born on Feb. 18, 1930, in Evanston, Ill. His father, Allen, was an executive at a steel company, and his mother, Marion, did publicity for a department store. The “born dead” part of the documentary’s title refers to the story he recounts of his birth: His mother had been given an anesthetic that knocked her out but also caused him to be born seemingly dead. The hospital staff was prepared to “put me in some sort of box,” he says in the film, but his family doctor intervened.

“He used hot and cold water and slap, slap, slap,” Mr. Wilson told The Comics Journal in 2011. “He got me coughing and puking and breathing and that’s that: I was alive.”

Mr. Wilson was an only child and, he said, his parents drank too much, resulting in a bittersweet childhood. He turned to cartooning while very young, cultivating his imagination.

One cartoon done years later speaks to his upbringing. A child is emerging from an alley, surrounded by bizarre creatures. Two adults on the sidewalk can see only the child. “Here comes that Wilson boy — all alone as usual,” one says.

“And I wasn’t all alone,” Mr. Wilson says in the documentary, “which was the joys of imagination.”

Both parents had artistic abilities; his mother had attended the Art Institute of Chicago for a time. He found his father distant, but Allen Wilson did provide Gahan with a key to his future.

“When I was 8 or 9, I was browsing through the books section of a secondhand store, and I saw this set of bound volumes of Punch,” the British humor magazine, he told The Comics Journal. “I bought one of the volumes for 15 cents and took it home. After pleading with my father, he very sweetly drove me back to the place and plopped down for the entire set, bless his heart.”

His father, he said, was not so supportive when, after serving in the Air Force and graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, Gahan announced his intention to seek his fortunate as a cartoonist. His father said only a terse “Good luck.”

Although his family was well off, Mr. Wilson did not benefit from financial support; he settled into a spartan 1950s bohemian life in New York, trying to break in but mostly accumulating rejections.

“Editors would take my drawings, laugh like hell, then hand them back and say, ‘Sorry, our readers wouldn’t understand,’” he told The Boston Globe in 1973.

“Dealing with poverty wasn’t the biggest barrier of my career,” Mr. Wilson told The Globe in another interview, in 1982. “The hump was dealing with the emotional part of rejection. You have to say, ‘I will not accept it,’ and go on.”

He was selling to small publications at $7.50 a cartoon, trying but failing to get into Collier’s Weekly, which paid much more, until a change in Collier’s editing staff brought in William Chessman, who promptly bought some of Mr. Wilson’s work.

“Collier’s started publishing me by mistake because the cartoon editor left and the new man didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to buy my stuff,” Mr. Wilson explained.

Other top magazines followed, including, in December 1957, Playboy.

“I don’t think I could have imagined before the fact how Gahan was going to grow,” Mr. Hefner wrote in his introduction to the Playboy collection. “What one saw in the beginning was only the promise.”

Mr. Wilson became a Playboy regular but drew for other top magazines as well. In the 1970s he had a regular strip called “Nuts” in National Lampoon, a view of the unsettling, often disappointing side of childhood; he envisioned the strip as a sort of anti-“Peanuts.”

Mr. Wilson married the writer Nancy Winters in 1966. As his health declined, she had been “his rock and his guide through the world,” as a GoFundMe page set up by Mr. Winters on Mr. Wilson’s behalf put it. Mr. Winters created the page, to help with Mr. Wilson’s care, after Ms. Winters died on March 2; more than $83,000 was raised.

In addition to Paul Winters, Mr. Wilson’s survivors include another stepson, Randy Winters; a daughter-in-law, Patrice Winters; eight step-grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

Mr. Wilson’s cartoons occasionally included social or political commentary, and one issue that most concerned him was the environment.

In 2010, when he lived in Sag Harbor, N.Y., he told, “I have this touching fantasy that maybe one day some senator will look at one of my cartoons and actually say to another senator, ‘You know, he has a point here.’”


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