Several years ago I was at a science fiction convention and wandered into a room where an author I wanted to meet was supposed to speak, except he didn’t show up, so they had an alternate speaker who I thought was even better. It was the cartoonist and author Gahan Wilson.
I was already familiar with Wilson’s work because my parents occasionally had issues of The New Yorker lying around the house and I didn’t read the articles but I did look at the pictures, and my father also had a collection of Playboy issues and I didn’t read the articles there either but I did look at the pictures—and by “pictures” of course I mean Gahan Wilson’s cartoons.
Wilson started with a story about the origin of one of his most famous cartoons. National Lampoon was looking for cartoons with the caption, “Is nothing sacred?”
He didn’t have a copy of the cartoon he drew. He just described it to us. At first there were a few chuckles through the audience, then more of us started giggling, and by the time he got to the punchline the whole room was laughing.
And the coup de grâce was when he said, “National Lampoon thought it was too weird so Playboy bought it instead.”
National Lampoon would publish his long-running series Nuts, a sort of response to Peanuts, which Wilson didn’t think represented childhood accurately enough.
His cartoons were wonderfully morbid—like Charles Addams or Gary Larson, but even more out there, and even more obsessed with death and disease. Several are set in doctor’s offices. It’s fitting that there’s a 2013 documentary about him called Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird. Sometimes his cartoons even contained a touch of social commentary.
It’s hard to know what to say when someone with such a dark sense of humor as Wilson’s passes on because it’s like he beat us all to the punch. He knew all along that life has only one inevitable conclusion, and he was dying to make a joke about it.
Hail and farewell, Gahan Wilson.