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Remembering 'New Yorker' Cartoonist Gahan Wilson

Wilson, who died Nov. 21, was fascinated by monsters, which he saw as metaphors for human fears and weaknesses. His work was often inspired by science fiction. Originally broadcast in 1986.

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Other segments from the episode on December 2, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 2, 2019: Interview with David Harbour; Obituary for Gahan Wilson.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Cartoonist Gahan Wilson died November 21 at the age of 89. He was known for his cartoons in The New Yorker, Playboy and National Lampoon. His work was often described as macabre and weird. In an appreciation of Wilson published in The New Yorker, cartoonist Michael Maslin described Wilson as liking to depict ordinary folks encountering some kind of anxious terror or experiencing the unthinkable in mundane places.

Gahan Wilson was a fan of vampire and werewolf movies and even made his own pilgrimage to Transylvania to visit the historic Castle Dracula. I spoke with Wilson in 1986. He told me he was fascinated by monsters and thought they were great metaphors for human fears and weaknesses. Here's an excerpt of that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Another theme that recurs in your work is childhood fears, and especially some of the really irrational ones that we all have. The toilet monster is really one of my favorites.

GAHAN WILSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you explain the toilet monster?

GROSS: The toilet monster is - if in the middle of the - there's this - in the middle of night, you have to go the bathroom. You have to be very careful because there is this thing who lives down in the works underneath there. All plumbing is a source of great peril and danger because it goes from the known world into the unknown depths there. And that's why we have all these things about the snakes coming into the bathtub via the drain, and we know, of course, about the crocodiles in the sewers and all that sort of stuff.

There's also this thing, which is somehow associated with the toilet. It's down there, and at night, if you flush the toilet, you're liable to waken it. And it may come up and get you, so you have to be - you have to flush it and get the hell out very quickly.

GROSS: Were you really worried about that?

WILSON: Well, I - that one, actually, I thank God I wasn't. I - this was a - this was something that I heard from somebody else. But a lot of the other ones were definitely...

GROSS: OK, like, making a face - what's going to happen if you make a face?

WILSON: Making a face - if you are - if you make a face and somebody startles you, like you get slapped in the back or there's an explosion or it backfires - something like that - you've got to watch out because it might freeze on your face forever. So you'll have the - you can get your tongue sticking out for the rest of your life.

And then there's others - a lot of this stuff happens - is because parents don't understand and make you do things you - that are obvious they're fatal. I mean, like eating cherries with milk - every kid knows eating cherries with milk or something else. It depends on the region and so on. There are various combinations of food which are fatal, and parents don't understand that. And they make the kid do it anyhow, and the kid does it because he's a good kid. And it kills him, and the parents feel very bad because they've done it. But that's life. That's the way it goes. That's part of growing up.

And there's also stuff like trying to cope with the mysterious areas. Like, if something falls down into a drain or something, like a ball or a dime rolls down, don't reach into the thing with your bare hands because something may get it, you know - your fingers or the whole hand - and pull you in or something like that.

GROSS: What about water fountain germs?

WILSON: Water fountain germs are - contagion is a big kid thing, and, of course, a water fountain is a mass of horrible, contagious possibilities. And the thing is that if you rub the fountain top part carefully, what'll happen is the germs will go around underneath the little edge there and wait. And then when you turn the water on, they will pop out and get you. And it goes on like that. It's a - so you can't - there's no safety if you're a kid anywhere at all.

GROSS: You have a chapter in your book "Gahan Wilson's America" devoted to smile buttons. You think that smile buttons exemplify the whole idea of phony fun.

WILSON: Yeah. They irritate me very much. I suppose one reason is because as a humorist, I am particularly aware of the value of what a smile represents. I mean, this is - a smile is an extraordinary achievement, and humanity has done it. I mean, there's animals that have got a sense of fun, and they like to frisk. And they have a - they got a rudimentary idea of absurdity and silliness and all that. But a real smile is a human thing. I mean, this is quite - this is a remarkable damn thing. And it's very brave, and it's very insightful, and it's very profound. And to say - make these little fake slap-on sticker smiles is - cheapens them and doesn't understand them and makes very light of them.

And also, the other aspect is they've been grabbed onto by the worst possible, jerkiest (ph) people. And so you'll find yourself, you know, on atrocious airlines and with this crummy plane with the inflammable seats, and the stewardess will give you insulting service. And then she'll slap this disgusting plate of garbage on your little thing, which is supposed to be lunch. And then you'll look and you'll see on the little napkin is a smile.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILSON: I mean, that's the final touch. I'll take all the rest of it. I mean, I can stand the rest of it. But the smile - that's too much. I draw the line with that smile.

GROSS: Did you draw little monsters in the margins of your notebooks when you were schoolkid?

WILSON: I did. Oh, yes, I did indeed. And I had a strange experience in that I went through some stuff that - from the family. My parents were dead, and there was a bunch of stuff there. And there was one box which had these drawings I'd done as a little teeny-bitsy kid. And they were pre-literate. You know, I was really a little itsy-bitsy. And they're monsters. You know, they're - there are all kinds of stuff like that. And there's - I remember one has - in a mother's loving hand that says, strange monster come to kill us all.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILSON: And so I was doing that kind of junk way back then.

GROSS: When you came to New York with your portfolio of cartoons and tried to sell them to magazines, was it hard to get in initially?

WILSON: Very. Very, yeah because I'm still regarded as sort of far-out in some circles, and at that point, I was really, really far out. And I mean, I was really bizarre. They - what I'd - what had happened to me was this singularly frustrating scene where the editors would say, look at this stuff, and they'd laugh at it hysterically and just think it was marvelous and compliment me on - this is - kid, you're really great. This is great stuff, kid, but our readers would never understand it. And then they would hand it back to me. And that was my big block, was that they figured that I was beyond the - those jerks out there.

GROSS: Could you maybe describe a couple of those early cartoons?

WILSON: Oh, sure. Let's see. There's this fellow, and he's in a cannibal pot. He's being cooked. And he has a evil look on his face, and he has a bottle of poison, and he's pouring the poison, and the water is being cooked in. And that was one. And then let me see - oh, they were - there was one where there's this little kid, and he's with his father, and they're in a snowstorm. And there's this dead bird on the snowbank with his feet in the air, and the little kid's pointing at it. And he says look, Daddy - the first robin.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILSON: That kind of stuff. It was very much in keeping with what I do today.

GROSS: You have a very rounded signature, letters are really, pretty round. Did you work at what your signature would be when you were signing your cartoons, and do you use the same signature to endorse your checks?

WILSON: The signature on the checks is considerably sloppier, so don't try anything cute.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: The other thing is I was always irritated at cartoonists who shyly scrawled their signatures so you couldn't make it out. I thought, what - why have they gone to all this trouble and they write - and then they write deh-deh-deh-qua (ph) on the bottom. I didn't like that. And I also didn't like these old-timey signatures that have little hearts over the I dots and all that sort of stuff. So I thought, let's just write the damn name, OK? And that's what I do. I try to write clearly and neatly so that anybody can read it if they are so inclined. That's really what I do with them. It's a nice signature. And I fool around with it.

Sometimes I - I like to - what I like to do very often is I like to, like I, - I'm looking at this one here. I see I've - there's a horizon line, and I've got the Gahan on top of the horizon, and I've got the Wilson under the horizon line. That's cute. And then I have one with a little table leg, and I've got the little sort of tail at the ends, of the Gahan and the Wilson both sort of coyly going behind the leg of the table. I like to fool around with it that way.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. I want to thank you, Gahan Wilson, so much for being with us.

WILSON: Well, thank you.

GROSS: I really enjoy cartoons, and I really thank you for being here today.

WILSON: Thank you. I had a swell time.

GROSS: Cartoonist Gahan Wilson, recorded in 1986. He died November 21 at the age of 89. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be B.J. Miller, a hospice and palliative care doctor who's the former director of the Zen Hospice Guesthouse in San Francisco. He started this work because he came close to death when he was a sophomore in college and jumped on top of a parked commuter train and got electrocuted. He lost both legs below his knees and one arm below his elbow. He's the co-author of the new book "A Beginner's Guide To The End." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "RUSH HOUR")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry GROSS.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "RUSH HOUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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