In this second part of our interview with the Playboy cartoonist, we discuss the birth of Wilson the humorist, the influence of fine art, and why all aspiring cartoonist ought to go to art school.
Where did humor enter the picture for you?
Well, I just liked humor. It seemed a very sensible way of looking at things. I just gravitated to it. It’s a damn good question, because I don’t think any humorist can tell you why they are humorists.
But your work was funny from the beginning?
Pretty much. And I gravitated to the magazine panel thing, rather than the strip thing—though I have certainly played with the strip thing, as I did with Nuts. By the way, they’re going to bring out The Complete Nuts. They had, some years back, a nice collection, and this one will be the whole schmear.
You should explain what the strip is.
Yeah. Nuts is a thing I did for The National Lampoon, godbless ‘em. I wish they were with us today. This would be a better country. It was a wonderful, wonderful bunch of crazy people.
So you fit right in?
I fit right in. The minute I walked in and we started talking, I knew ‘this is wonderful!’ They would egg you on. You would do something that was distasteful or you would attack something, and they’d say, “oh, you can do worse than that, can’t you?” That sort of thing.
You had some problems early on attempting to break into mainstream magazines. You were worried that they wouldn’t understand your humor.
Oh yeah. It was very hard to. What I did was, I started out with the pulps. I was in New York—Greenwich Village. I had this cruddy little apartment. I knew artists because I had gone to the Art Institute of Chicago, which is a magnificent institution, I just love it. But nowadays, it’s separate from the Museum of Art, which has a magnificent collection. If you’re ever in Chicago, by all means, check it out. Nowadays the Art Institute school is in a separate building, in the rear.
But when I was there, they didn’t have a separate building. It was secreted in the bowels of the museum. So you had this one little thing where you’d be in the life class, drawing this pretty lady, being very artistic about it, of course—even if she didn’t have any clothes on, you’d be even more artistic—then you would head to the engraving class. You had to go through all of these rooms full of fantastic art. It would be El Greco. If that didn’t prod you on, I don’t know what would. And Cezanne and so on and so forth. Just magnificent stuff.
So, in amongst all of these great works of art—
We would scuttle from one little cubbyhole to the next.
Did they try to beat comics out of you?
No, no. That’s the first time anyone’s ever asked me that. For one thing, I was deadly serious about drawing. I loved to draw and I loved to paint. They were very pleased with what I was doing, so there was no problem with that. But there was never ever any, “you should do serious work. You shouldn’t do funny drawings. You are too good for these drawings.” Nothing like that.
Were you doing humorous work in the classroom?
No, no. I was drawing the pretty ladies as well as I could.
You were moonlighting as a humorist?
No, no. It was all to the end of becoming a cartoonist. it occurred to me that, if you were going to do good cartoons, it would be a good idea if you knew how to draw. So that’s why I went to Art Institute. I never regretted it. And I would strongly recommend it, if you have any children who want to be a cartoonist. Send them to a real art school,. So they’ll learn how to draw and paint and whatnot. Because their stuff will be a lot funnier and a lot clearer, too.
You get all kinds of wonderful challenges in composition. To get a point, the gag, you do a whole set. It’s exactly like shooting a movie. You get the sets and the characters and the lighting worked out. The mood and the atmosphere. But there’s no conflict. I never had any personal problems with it. Not was I ever challenged or urged to drop all of this funny business and do serious art. They were always very nice to me about the art. They really said very good things and encouraged me. But dropping the cartoons never came up.
Was fine art ever a possibility for you?
Oh, I love it. I paint. And I’m actually edging into that, and I find that the overlap is an intriguing situation. It’s there. I’m getting more and more intrigued by doing stuff that is definitely literary. It wouldn’t just be still lifes and so on. It would be based on people like Goya and people like that, which I had adored with the soles of my feet.
What is the overlap between the two?
There’s a whole bunch of extraordinaire work that you would see hanging in the Art Institute who were cartoonists. Their stuff just happens to be magnificently drawn, but they were cartoonists. So, again, no problem.
Has heading in that direction affected your comic work?
No, because I always had gone back and forth. And one thing that’s happened that’s been great fun is, with the Playboy, I’ve been able to really fuss around with the thing. The New Yorker is the best of the simple panel stuff, and I’ll play with that a lot, but in Playboy, you’ve got the whole thing, and you’ve got full-color, and the stuff is atmospheric. I’ve found that this is nudging me into this other thing.
And what’s also nudging me there is, with this electronic thing, the magazines are changing. It’s not technical, it’s aesthetic—with newspapers, they’ve done a complete switch into the electronic thing. So you get everything from that you get with the newspaper. But with the magazine format, nobody’s come up with a feasible format. It’s very hodgy-podgy, with chunks, and it doesn’t do what a magazine does. Some genius is going to do that, sooner or later.
[Continued in Part Three]