Gahan Wilson: Zombies, Vampires and Little Kids

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

Gahan Wilson is a true living legend of the cartooning world and has succeeded entirely on his own terms. Wilson was one of the main cartoonists in magazines such as The New Yorker, Playboy and various pulps, always creating comics that were a bit different from the norms of the time. Wilson loved to draw vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night and always presented them in a loving and charming style. In 1970, the editors of National Lampoon asked Wilson to create a comic strip for their "Funny Page" section, for which he created the now legendary strip Nuts. Recently Fantagraphics has released a collection of that strip, which revealed the strip to be a charming and idiosyncratic creation. I was absolutely delighted to get a chance to speak with Gahan Wilson; despite the fact that he's 81 years old, he was full of boundless energy and wonderful stories.

We're reviving this interview to highlight the wonderful-looking Kickstarter project Born Dead, Still Weird, which will be ending very soon. If this interview intrigues you, please consider donating to this Kickstarter.

Jason Sacks: I had a lot of fun rereading the stories in Nuts. I remember reading a lot of them back in the original National Lampoon, but it was fantastic to read them all together in a collection. 

Gahan Wilson: I'm just delighted that they did such a good job with it, and that it's complete. I think it's one of the best things I ever did. It just kind of worked. It's kind of like sometimes you get these things and you don't really know where they came from. But I know how this thing originated. The Lampoon people, who are a marvelous crowd -- I wish we had the National Lampoon going on today, what fun we'd have -- they decided the last part of the magazine would have some comic page type stuff. They asked me to make up something so we'd have a regular page on it. And I said OK I would, and they said make it full of monsters and so on and so on. I was thinking of classical monsters and what I could take off here and take off there.

I was thinking, what's really horrible? What's the most horrible? Then it was a bright sunny day in the city and -- I can still see it. I was just sort of wandering in a park. There was this little kid with some grownups. He was this itsy bitsy thing with these huge towering creatures. He was trying to do this and they were making him do that (laughs). I watched them, fascinated, and I remembered that that was one of the roughest, toughest stages there is. You're trying to conform this enormous world, figure out how it works, function in it, make it do things which it doesn't. I just dived into it. It just kept coming. It made me feel good and I hope it cheers others up too.

Sacks: I loved how there was a whole mix of stories. There were a lot of stories about your character feeling lost in the world, which I think we all felt at his age, about elementary school age, I guess. But there were also a lot of stories about how things were great in his life.

Wilson: Absolutely, yeah.

Sacks: The scenes where he was off at summer camp, feeling completely isolated from everything around him. And then you had him discovering his favorite comic book and how fun and wonderful that was in his life.

Wilson: It's just amazing how alive these little guys are, and how they're sort of like little zen monks. Sometimes you'll see them just light up with something or other. They'll just see something and glow. Or they just get involved with something with terrific intensity. They are so alive. It's awesome, truly.

Sacks: I think you summed it up well in the first strip when you wrote, "Those who remember how great it was to be a little kid don't remember it was to be a little kid." It's not that the strip is unsentimental. It's very sentimental in its own way. But it takes a different tack, I guess, than a lot of strips that are very nostalgic.

Wilson: The thing that inspired me and put me on the kids' side, kept moving me along on it, was that the grownups -- and more grownups do it wrong than right -- that they don't understand how complicated that little rascal is. How much they're taking in. How alive they are. How much they apprehend. And how seriously they take it. They are astoundingly alive with bad things and good things. You watch a little kid go through a little something -- a venture to the zoo or something like that -- and they're so conscious that it sort of shames you as a grownup because you realize you've sort of distanced yourself in a way. It's a protective maneuver and one that I suppose is necessary to a degree, but you've got to watch out or you'll go numb.

They're intensely sensitive about good bad stuff. And discoveries -- when they see something new -- my gosh, the wow look on them is…

Sacks: You kind of miss that at a certain point in your life. It's never quite the same as when you're a kid.

Wilson: You can, sometimes. I've found that you sort of can remember that. It's there. It's in you. You are alive. You need to open yourself, have sort of like a zen thing. You really become aware of whatever the heck is going on. It increases, if you let it. It’s more there. It never gets to that almost terrible intensity that little kids get to. But you can increase it.

Sacks: Do you feel that part of being a creative professional is being able to be open to that?

Wilson: Oh, I think it's a must. Absolutely. That's what painters do. They see things and they also get this feeling of doing it. They actually see things very clearly. Sometimes it's distorted, but it's whammo and they put it on this canvas or a piece of paper, whatever. It does tie in with going back to that freshness, to that openness that a kid's got.

Sacks: You can certainly see that in your career. You've done probably thousands of cartoons in your career, single panel and multi-panel, through the years, and I think they're still just as fresh as ever before.

Wilson: Oh thank you very much!

Sacks: You're obviously filtering the world through your own perspective.

Wilson: Well, that's all you've got.

Sacks: What stands out about your older work is that you were one of the first people who -- maybe you and Charles Addams -- were all about, maybe not a darker side, but a more literate horror side. You're obviously a fan of Lovecraft and Poe and Conan Doyle.

Wilson: Oh sure!

Sacks: Looking back at that work, it stands out versus your peers.

Wilson: Thank you very much! Thanks very much for that.

Sacks: Did you ever feel like a salmon swimming upstream, trying to make your way in the industry in those days?

Wilson: It wasn't easy. Sometimes they'd just look at you sort of like you were nuts. But an awful lot of the editors, they would get it. It was a little hard in the beginning but then one thing I survived on was, they had a lot of these pulp magazines and that sort of stuff. I managed to sell them cartoons, so that helped. Plus, at that time I lived in Greenwich Village living that classic Greenwich Village thing when you could rent a place for absurd amounts of money. That's why Greenwich Village was Greenwich Village, really.

Sacks: Those days are long gone now.

Wilson: Oh boy. There's no more Greenwich Village like that anymore. That is over!

Sacks: One of the things I've read is your story about how you got your first gig with Colliers magazine. I love that story.

Wilson: That's cute. The editors were really not bad at all. They were doing their best, and I suppose, probably, if you were a cartoon editor you were this sort of oddball. It was basically a pretty friendly reception that I got. A lot of them, I think, went out of their way to push an artist through sometimes. It was iffy and scary and all that, but you didn't feel like they were pushing you out of there at all. They were open and they'd encourage you.

Then Hef. He was really brilliant. He's quite a brilliant character. He spotted this and he spotted that and he was right. He really let me play with textures and colors and whatnot.

Sacks: Playboy was about the slickest and most popular magazine of its time in the '50s, '60s and '70s. It must have been great to be in that atmosphere. You've mentioned several times how Hefner was a spectacular editor.

Wilson: He was. He was. All across the board. He'd take up very tricky topics and have really interesting people report on them and write articles on them. He was certainly willing to explore as far as fiction was concerned. He's good. He's very good. He would encourage anything that was sort of odd. He'd like it and let you run with it.

Sacks: There were really two schools of cartoonists at Playboy at the time. There were the cartoonists who produced what I guess you could call racy work and then there were people like you and Charles Addams who were in your own unique place. It must have been nice to have that level of freedom. You weren't forced to draw pretty girls or whatever.

Addams: Oh no, never anything like that. He knew what he was doing. If he picked somebody who knew how to draw pretty girls and so on and so on, he knew how to bring that out. And with me, he was working with me. He would work with the artist and he would be very encouraging and he'd let you do stuff that nobody else would get away with. And he also would encourage you with the drawing and he'd let you experiment with textures and lighting and do all sorts of oddball things.

And too, because it was full page and full color and all that, you could do things that were totally impossible with the usual cartoon, which was small and they couldn't print what they had there. But Playboy could. He's first rate.

Sacks: One of the things I was thinking about with your single panel cartoons, especially, is that they're kind of ahead of their time in that you loved vampires and monsters and Cthulu type creatures. All of that was outside the mainstream when you were first drawing it, and now it's very much part of the mainstream. As my friends like to say, the geeks have taken over the world.

Wilson: One thing I find hilarious is that just yesterday I was in New York and I was browsing on the bookstore on 86th Street. They had a bunch of kids books and I noticed they had a bunch of them that were about zombies. That's fun. They're really dishing it to them. It's a big vogue now, zombies. They have these jolly, happy things but they're very dark and the zombies are really bug-eyed and icky.

Sacks: And you were doing that stuff 40 years ago.

Wilson: It’s a classic area. All through all the arts there's always some oddball who's doing that sort of thing. And it's great fun.

Sacks: You must have been drawing stuff like this as a kid.

Wilson: Absolutely. I loved drawing from way, way back. I don’t think I'd want to survive without being able to do it. It’s basic. I was always doodling. It's doodle, doodle, doodle. I never stopped. And I think most everyone I know in the visual arts, that's of course good, that same thing. It's just something you do.

Sacks: It’s almost like breathing when you do that so much.

Wilson: It's very much like breathing, yeah.

Sacks: You can't help yourself. Your hands always have to be moving in some way.

Wilson: Right, right. Absolutely. I like to write stories and so on, very much, but the sensual business of working with a pen or a watercolor or oil or whatever, a pencil and an eraser. It's a marvelous experience, it really is, to see this thing sort of grow out, then you adjust it and you do this to it, and at a certain point you realize you have to put this little dot over here instead of over there, it's a magical kind of operation.

Sacks: I'm much more of a writer than an artist, but when you get in the zone of creating, too, time stands still and you're very much in your own world. It's one of those magical moments in life to me.

Wilson: You learn to put yourself in a state, a meditational state. And also, one thing I would wonder sometimes. I'd have done a morning's drawing and I would be just exhausted and I'd think wow, why am I this tired? Holy Moses! About three years ago they made a movie on me. Steven Jaffe did a thing called Born Dead Still Weird. It’s a good little documentary. It's been around, gotten prizes and stuff. It's good. He did a swell job with it. His brother did the camera work on it; he's a good cameraman. He did the camera work for The Kids Are All Right, which was a very good movie. He does marvelous camera work in this movie. The scenes are very mundane in this movie but you realize he has a fantastic eye.

Anyway, they were shooting this thing. I had seen lots of photographs. Someone would come to do an interview with me and bring along a camera person and I would be drawing, looking like someone drawing. Okay, right. But with this thing, I was looking at some of the early rushes and I'd never seen me working with the camera just looking at me for whole stretches of time. There I am, working away. I was more than a little bit frightened by the intensity. I didn't know that I was that into it. I mean god, I was crouching over it, grabbing a pen, the erasing and everything. Intense, intense, intense. My Lord, it was something. So that's why you're tired.

Sacks: We should all have careers where we're so intense and so in our own zone all the time. You're lucky to have been able to turn this into a fantastic career for yourself.

Wilson: It is a swell way to make a living, yeah!

Sacks: Do you have certain works that you're most proud of, when you look back on your career?

Wilson: I basically am happy with most of it. The Nuts thing really is, thanks to the Lampoon people I could really sort of wig out and go wherever I wanted to go. They were a swell bunch because I got in with other stuff. When you got into political stuff, they would egg you on. They'd say yeah, that's OK, but go back and give it another try. I loved that whole thing. It was a fascinating experience, that whole Lampoon thing. I wish there were a Lampoon now.

Sacks: It seems like they gave you complete freedom. You were able to talk about whatever you wanted to talk about.

Wilson: Absolutely. And they would egg you on if they thought that there wasn't -- they'd say gee, that's great, but they'd egg you on to really go for it. So you would.

Sacks: And your peers. One of the best things about the Lampoon funny pages was that everyone was doing different stuff. "Dirty Duck" was one thing and "Trots and Bonnie" was another. And there you were. There was such a diverse group of cartoonists and strips.

Wilson: You put your finger on it. That's a very important thing about that magazine. They were unabashed. They'd find these really talented people and then just let them go. And urge them, push them forward and they'd respond happily.

Sacks: This was obviously a multi-panel strip. You're best known for your single panel strips. Was that exercising a different set of muscles? What was it like moving into a different sort of medium?

Wilson: It was sort of a different thing, and, of course, you have a narrative rather than just a bang or a gag cartoon. But actually if you're doing, oh, a vampire cartoon for Playboy with a this and a that and the other, a castle and so on and so on, you do the gag but then you also do exactly what you do if you were doing a shot in a movie. Work out the atmosphere. Work out the validity of the props and how they should look. The lighting and certainly the colors and all that. It's like setting up a movie shot. It's not a narrative but if you look at a painting, you find yourself rapt in it. Notice people in a museum, like if they're looking at a Matisse, sometimes you see them lean forward and get a little bit more into it. And it's there because he put it there.

They do connect, but with the Nuts thing, it was also the thing where you got back into the kid that you used to be and let him do it. It was commonplace for him to come out with surprising statements that I had no idea he was going to say.

Sacks: You were surprised yourself by the strip.

Wilson: Absolutely, yeah. In writing stories it's the same thing. You have a general plot notion and you have interaction between the characters, points you want to make, etcetera, etcetera, but it's oftentimes very eerie in that it's writing itself. It just sort of takes off. But it isn't writing itself. You are writing it. But there's this part of you that's kind of watching this happen. And then jumping in if you see it swerves in the wrong way.

Sacks: I think that's the sign of a three-dimensional character when they come alive. This boy obviously has an extremely vivid inner life.

Wilson: He does indeed, yeah. He's very intense. Absolutely, yeah.

Sacks: I wonder what he turned into as an adult.

Wilson: I don’t know; good question.

Kids are pretty intense. Wander over to Central Park and find some kids. Then just plunk down and watch them and listen. Watch the amazing interaction and emotional stuff that's going on. Just amazing.

Sacks: So how much of this is based on your own life? Most of the strips start with the word "remember". Were you actually remembering events that happened to you or that you were part of?

Wilson: Some of them were very close to autobiographical, but I don't have anything there that's specifically "I did this" or "I did that" sort of thing. But it's a recollection of feeling. You put yourself into the character and your start out with, well, let's see. You think, we mentioned the zoo, so take him to the zoo. And, before you know it, a lot of stuff comes pouring back. It’s an awesome procedure. It really is.

Sacks: The book looks beautiful. It was just such a pleasure to read it and see these stories all together. I read these strips more or less monthly for a while, but to read everything together, I was really struck by what a vivid character the boy is.

Wilson: Thank you! I'm just so happy about it. I really am just delighted that that's there. That' s the whole little package and it's there and it's going to be there. I remember one time I was doing a thing in England at one of the colleges, Oxford, and they have, in these college towns, these fabulous bookstores that have been there forever. They're not the sorts of bookstores we have here, which are big rooms with tables. It used to be a residence quite often. So you have stairways and little side closetty rooms. And they put shelves all over the place in it. And then you'll come across things tucked away in some little place. I remember I came across a collection of cartoons by an artist who had been with Punch magazine. I was reading them and chuckling at them. His name was Phil May. He did stuff that was about the Cockneys mostly. They were lower middle class but not impoverished, had a pretty tough life. He caught this whole thing. I remember reading it, getting deeper and deeper into it, then coming out of it and realizing I was in this funny old room with lots of rooms all around, and that this guy had been dead for decades. But he was still there. I thought that was wonderful. I'm very happy because copies of this thing will hang in there.

Sacks: It must make you think a bit about your legacy.

Wilson: It does, it does. I think it's terrific. Somebody 50 years from now will open this thing and enjoy it. It's really quite thrilling.

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