Of Mirth And Madness
Cartoonist Gahan Wilson laughs in the face of doom.
Thursday, October 29, 1998
To gaze upon the works of cartoonist Gahan Wilson is to enter a bizarre yet hilarious world--a world inhabited by cannibals and clerics, jack-booted fascists and unscrupulous tycoons, aliens, aristocrats, scientists, monsters, madmen, gods and demons.
But what is most shocking about Wilson''s cartoons isn''t the strangeness or seeming malevolence of his subject matter, but how shockingly familiar and funny it all seems. For all intents and purposes, the world we inhabit is no stranger or more twisted than the one that inhabits Wilson''s fevered imagination.
"Horror and humor provide the same exact perspective, the sudden ability to see events as they are and not try to make sense of them," says Wilson. "Every other approach tries to pretend everything is logical and sensible in a huge cosmic way, which it may be, but human life is full of shocks and surprises."
In anticipation of his appearance as guest of honor at the World Fantasy Convention ''98 in Monterey, Wilson spoke with Coast Weekly from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, to share his thoughts on his life and work, and the role of horror and fantasy in a world that is oftentimes more extreme than even the most demented and delightfully twisted imagination can envision.
Even for an artist as steeped in the extremes of human behavior as Wilson, our contemporary zeitgeist is verging on becoming an absolute nightmare in its own right.
"We''re into a phase of amazing pointlessness and astounding selfishness and isolation," says Wilson, who comes across in conversation as voluble, philosophic, and, like all great satirists, extremely moral in his outlook.
"In the last few years, I''ve gone to parties not believing the sublime confidence of people there, the fantastic financial know-how of people who have dropped everything [except] acquiring more and more. We''ve lost the notion that there is something else there besides acquisition, which is weird. It''s very sad."
It is his central belief that there is more to life than the strange rituals and behaviors we indulge in every day, that informs Wilson''s brilliant cartoon oeuvre. Combining the sensibility of such masters of horror as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft with the sharp satiric edge of writers like Jonathan Swift, Wilson''s great talent lies in taking the most banal realities and twisting them into bizarre extremes, or taking the strangest scenarios and making them seem plausible and mundane.
It is this shock of recognition, as opposed to the shock of revulsion, that forms the essence of Wilson''s humor, and which makes his work so prophetic, visionary and political.
"I see myself as somewhat prophetic, but that is really rather easy to do," says Wilson, who has published numerous cartoon anthologies and works of fiction, but whose fame rests primarily from his long and fruitful publishing career with Playboy magazine.
"What I am is still in the proper ''60s mood, I''m still quite irritated and still fighting the good fight," adds Wilson. "I think I''m heavily political, that''s what separates me from other macabre people like Charlie Addams and Gorey. They''re apolitical, where my stuff always has some political point."
Wilson''s political outrage remains focused to this day on various end-of-the-world scenarios, the potential for an apocalypse brought on by human greed, carelessness or stupidity.
"One of the themes I''ve used again and again is all about the destruction of the ecology that supports us," says Wilson. "That is hilariously funny. We won''t necessarily ''destroy'' the world but we can screw it up so we destroy ourselves. I ask myself why are we doing it and why do we persist in that obviously losing battle."
It would be easy to dismiss Wilson''s work as excessively morbid, given his fascination and fondness for monsters and other walking grotesques, but the humor that emerges from the dark shadows of Wilson''s imagination reveals a man who is in fact open, caring and committed to a vision of a better world.
"The moral usually in dark fantasy or horror is if you violate, avoid or prolong life, by violating something natural you end up with something unnatural, which is liable to end badly," says Wilson. "Death underlines the preciousness of everything. You realize this person or this object will only be here awhile and then be destroyed. It makes you more kindly disposed and sympathetic.
"The intriguing thing is that people that do fantasy, especially dark fantasy, are very kindly and gentle," adds Wilson. "People who write about ghosts and mortality deal with the fragility of everybody, our essential defenselessness against a rather hard life. I''m fond of these monsters I saw in movies and books. They have a vulnerablity and are rather sweet, and most are essentially very sad and having a hard time of it."
It is Wilson''s fondness for the imagination and hopefulness of children that forms the basis of his optimism. In contrast to his dark view of human behavior, Wilson says children are proof that people are possessed with an inherent decency and goodness.
"To see a little child is the most reassuring thing in the world," says Wilson. "They''re just great, they are creative and aware of everything, and are in touch with their wonderful imaginations.
"Children have the potential of what humans could be if allowed to mature without being crippled by society, and prove conclusively that human beings are magnificent," adds Wilson. "Unfortunately, in every case, society takes these wild strange creatures that are human and turns them into something to fit into society by crippling and bashing them down."
As society embarks on its journey into the brave new world of the 21st century, Wilson is tentative regarding our ability to shed our darkest impulses and embrace a truly civilized outlook on life.
"You have to consider that our society is very primitive," says Wilson. "Look at televangelism, the way things are handled, and what gets you into [elective] office. It''s the primitive stuff that works and it shows what level we''re operating at.
"We pretend to a level of civilization we haven''t achieved, and the danger is we could screw it all up and destroy ourselves," adds Wilson. "I cross my fingers occasionally and pretend to be optimistic but there is no predicting. So much luck is involved. Who knows if some nitty dip will let loose some ridiculous bug and kill everyone. It would be a very embarrasing way for the race to be demolished."
In a society that has become overly sensitized to extremes in expression, Wilson says there still are no limits to his imagination, although where he lets his imagination tread in public is another matter entirely.
"The stuff I do is quite different, and my teeth are considerably sharper," notes Wilson. "There is such a thing as bad taste as far as being offensive, but it''s a sociological thing. There isn''t a line beyond which I won''t go, but it depends on the market.
"Most stuff is extremely bland, but I can see why it is," adds Wilson. "I wouldn''t do something shocking for a general audience, but creatively you should do whatever you want. It''s like appropriate dress. You don''t walk in the street naked."