We wrap up our interview with the great Gahan Wilson by discussing the Disneyification of children’s entertainment, Peanuts as religious allegory, and a question from an audience member about Hugh Hefner’s sthance on sin.
Nuts was published in Lampoon, so you were essentially writing it for adults, right?
That was always attack mode, Lampoon—out to get, out to destroy these sons of bitches. “We’ll show them.” This era is just beginning for a National Lampoons. These clowns who are running the country—good lord. Especially when you see them on television, this room full of idiots. It’s angering.
I guess what I was getting it as that there’s a huge difference in target audience if you’re writing for an audience of children, versus writing something for Lampoon. The age of the characters may be the same—
But it’s different, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. It’s a different show.
How do you write differently for children?
I’m just writing for children. I’m thinking of them. You have to be straight with kids. Kids see right through you if you’re not. So you do your best—you get this little sweet kid and you’re telling them a story, and you want them to enjoy it, and it helps them. You’re this big grownup and there’s this little kid, and you’ve got to be gentle with them, because you’re this hulking thing. So that’s part of it. You do what any decent person would do with a kid, which is you be nice to the bugger. Because they need it. They can use it.
“Disneyfication” is a word people use a lot—that things are a little too candy-coated. Is there a limit to being nice?
I think there’s a failure to appreciate what they’re dealing with. These kids do see through stuff. A bad kids book is phony. A good kid’s book is wonderful.
Were there good strips at the time you started Nuts? Were there realistic strips around?
You don’t feel like Peanuts filled that void?
Peanuts never was about kids. What Schulz was doing there was a religious teaching kind of thing. The children there were not children. They were people in a teaching story and this one represented something and this one represented something else, and their relationship was a comment. It wasn’t about kids. And he was quite good at it. But it wasn’t about kids.
I would like to open it up to questions, if anyone has any.
Audience member: Would you tell the Hefner pro-vice story.
Oh, pro-vice. I thought you said “pro-life.”
Harvey Kurtzman, who created Mad Magazine and went on to other things, brilliant, lovely guy, and he created this thing called Trump. It was a beautiful humor magazine. It didn’t last long at all, but it was just gorgeous. And I knew I had to be in it. I just must, must, must do it. I checked its heading and saw that the address was in Chicago. I went to my parents—I was brought up in Evanston, Illinois, and then my parents then moved to the other side of Chicago, and I would go see them at Christmas. So I called up the number that was on it, and I set up an appointment.
I had a little portfolio set up and a pitch written out, and I turned up at this thing—a brownstone on the north side of Chicago. I went inside and said to the lady, “I’m Gahan Wilson, I have an appointment,” and she said, “yes, yes, that’s fine.” So I sat down, and I said, “is Mr. Kurtzman there? Will he be in?” And she said, “no, no, Mr. Kurtzman is in New York.”
I didn’t know what to do. I thought, “have I screwed up.” It turned out that it was Playboy, and Hefner had helped set Trump up. So I was flabbergasted. So this guy said, “Hef would like to see you.” So he opened up this door, and there was a little narrow staircase. I could see a light shining at the top, so I went upstairs. And there was this room with this little thing man looking at stuff. There was just one light bulb. He finished up.
It was Hefner. The phone rang, “and he says, yeah, and we’ve got your letter. Very good. Excellent. Very good writing. The problem was that it was anti-sin, and we’re pro-sin.”
And that was it. He had seen my stuff. He couldn’t have been better. He’s brilliant. And he’s encouraged me to go ahead and explore. And also, I had this one magazine called Collier’s. It’s long gone. I used to do color for them, there were these dinky one panel things. You couldn’t do too much with them, but with Hefner, I’m able to experiment with the work.
You arrived at Collier’s almost by pure chance. There was a switch over with the art director. He had quit.
I believe you’re right. So I was able to experiment with stuff, in a limited way, which was one of the reasons that Henfer thought, “let’s really push this thing. Let’s do it.” There were scads of magazines with cartoons. Actually, I started with the pulps.