Gahan Wilson was one of two cartoonists I knew I wanted as the subject of a spotlight panel, the minute I saw their names on the publisher attendee list (the other being, of course, Peter Bagge, whose panel is currently three-quarters of the way serialized on this site). Wilson has been popping up at some independent press shows in recent years, thanks largely to the stunning and hefty collection recently released by Fantagraphics, but some reason I’ve had some trouble pinning down the legendary cartoonist for a conversation–and hey, what better excuse to make him clear his schedule than devoting fifty or so minutes to a discussion of his half-century in the industry?
Should you ever find yourself conversing with Wilson in front of a room packed with fans, here’s a little tip: let the cartoonist do the talking. You see, running a panel with the macabre humorist isn’t so much moderating as it is offering up a smattering of topics and watching where his mind goes–and the place is nearly always the same: somewhere utterly fascinating. During my time with Wilson, we discussed storied run with Playboy, his early influences, and the genesis of his subversive children’s strip, Nuts, which is also, set to be collected by Fantagraphics.
But first, I had to begin by asking Wilson about his long history of attending conventions–fantasy, science fiction, and, naturally, comic books. Not surprisingly, my only regret was the stunted length of our conversation.
Okay, what are we talking about?
We’re talking about you. It’s a spotlight panel.
Oh, okay! When were you born? A long time ago.
I wanted to start by discussing your convention-going experience. I know you have a long history with fantasy conventions.
Oh yeah, yeah.
How did you get into that world?
Oh, you just get sucked in. It’s like why am I here?
That’s a good question? Why are you here?
They say, “why don’t you come to the convention?” And you say, “okay.” And you get to meet all kinds of really great people. I was a little, silly, bitty kid reading pulp magazines and adoring these writers and artists and so on, and they were there. It’s one hell of a thrill. And they were very nice. One of the intriguing things I found was, as it expanded, I was asked to all kinds of different conventions. The people who do horror stories and grim stuff are remarkably sweet people. The science fiction people—there are a lot of really nice science fiction people, but they do tend to be a little hard on the public. But the fantasy characters, Stephen King and all, couldn’t be nicer.
It was very odd. Why are horror writers like this? And it suddenly occurred to me—of course, what horror writers are writing about is the vulnerability of themselves and their readers and everybody and how fragile everything is. So, somebody comes up to a science fiction writer with a stack of books, they get furious. But you go to a horror writer and they’ll just sign away and sign away, without saying a cruddy word. And they’ll just pass the time of day as they’re doing it, because they know this person is vulnerable and scared. They’re experts at being scared. If they weren’t experts at being scared, they wouldn’t write about being scared and scare other people. They’re very sweet.
The other bunch that are very gentle are cartoonists. At The New Yorker, they’ve got sort of an informal little lunch thing. And we just sort of clump in this restaurant and eat and chat. They couldn’t be nicer. There’s no competition whatsoever. It’s very interesting. It’s just cooperative.
It doesn’t increase as you get to a higher level?
No. Quite the contrary. You don’t even think about it that way. They’re very helpful, one to the other, and if someone new shows up, they’ll be helpful. And another thing that’s very intriguing is that there’s a number of very successful female cartoonists, from way back when—Mary Petty and so on. I can’t think of any other area where it’s no problem. Women have never had any problem at all being a cartoonist. Again, they’re just not competitive that way.
Does that carry over to the fan base, too?
Well actually, they don’t have the same sort of fan thing with the magazine cartoons as they do with the graphic comics and so on.
There aren’t shows like this.
Yeah. There aren’t gatherings like this for the Playboy cartoonists. I don’t know why not. They’re an interesting bunch. But they just don’t think about competition. One amusing thing is the most competitive, combative bunch I know are poets. I haven’t the vaguest idea of why that is.
Audience member: There’s no money involved.
Yeah, there’s no money involved. It’s a very isolated sort of thing. You don’t make movies. Not being a poet, I’ve never had trouble with poets, but I feel like, if I took up poetry, that would be a problem. They’re nice individually, but by god they’re competitive. They have these cliques. I think it’s probably because it’s very involved with the academic world. In the academic world, outside of advertising, I can’t think of an area where there’s more competition, more plotting, or more scheming going on. You’re constantly maneuvering in that world.
In terms of your starting out, what was easier to break into? And what did you consider your main passion at the time?
I just wanted to be a cartoonist. I can clearly remember, I was just this little kid, and I don’t think it was Christmas, but it was some Sunday. I was on the carpet in my parent’s living room, and I was surrounded by the comics, spread out. I loved these comics. I particularly loved Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. Dick Tracy was very, very macabre. Extremely.
You would have things where the villain would not just get shot, the wound would suppurate. He would have trouble with puss coming out of it. It was just gory, gory, gory. He got started in The Chicago Tribune. He would do these—you don’t see them nowadays, but part of an article on a murder, you would have, plopped in, a little map and an arrow point to “body of victim” and “blood trail” and “killer shot by police,” with an “X” on it. Gould got started doing these maps. That was what he did. And that’s how he got in and I guess that’s why he was well versed in murders and such.
But I remember sitting on the carpet, this little punk kid, and I looked at this thing and decided, “I’m going to be a cartoonist.” Bang, that was that.
[Continued in Part Two]