Gahan Wilson and 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons

by |July 1, 2010

A friend of mine was recently discussing the proliferation of porn and recalled (rather wistfully) his days as a young country boy where the biggest thrill was going into town and lurking in the back of the general store in order to furtively view the ads for Playtex cross-your-heart bras in The Australian Women’s Weekly. Well, he is of a certain age, and it was Queensland.  Playboy, when it finally made its way across the border, was a complete revelation (literally) and of course he, like thousands of men across the country, went on to be an avid consumer – only for the articles you understand.

Much more believable would have been buying it  for the cartoons, the cartoons of Gahan Wilson  to be more specific. And let me tell you, if Playboy had have consisted entirely of these cartoons, I would have been first on its subscription list.

News of the publication of the Gahan Wilson collection Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons, got completely lost in all the noise around Christmas last year. Nonetheless, the title quickly sold out. Happily its publisher has seen the light and for a very brief time, this fantastic collection will soon be available again.

In a very sturdy cleverly designed package, resplendent with  die-cuts, embossing and the squashed face of the said Wilson stuck up against the plexi-glass window, this is a handsome three volume hard-back boxed set.  With introductions by Hugh Hefner and Neil Gaiman, the set covers every one of these iconic cartoons from 1957 right up until 2008. Wilson is well known of course to Playboy readers, but to those who haven’t had the pleasure of that magazine, do not be deceived. This is a collector’s edition of very funny cartoons that range across just about every topic and not a bare bod to be seen. The third volume also includes some of his illustrated short stories.

Apparently,  when Gahan Wilson walked into Hugh Hefner’s office in 1957, he sat down as Hefner was on the phone, gently rejecting a submission to his new gentlemen’s magazine: “I think it’s very well-written and I liked it very much,” Hefner reportedly said, “but it’s anti-sin. And I’m afraid we’re pro-sin.” Wilson knew, at that moment, that he had found a kindred spirit and a potential home for his cartoons. And indeed he had. What transpired was probably one of the most fruitful, successful, and long-lived relationships between a contributor and a magazine, ever.

Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons features not only every cartoon Wilson drew for Playboy, but all his prose fiction that has appeared in that magazine as well, from his first story in the June 1962 issue, “Horror Trio,” to such classics as “Dracula Country” (September 1978). It also includes the text-and-art features he drew for Playboy, such as his look at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, his take on our America’s “pathology of violence,” and his appreciation of “transplant surgery.” Wilson’s notoriously black sense of comedy is on display throughout the book, leaving no sacred cow unturned (an image curiously absent in the book), ridiculing everything from state sponsored executions to the sober precincts of the nouveau rich, from teenage dating to police line-ups.

Gahan Wilson is among the most popular, widely-read, and beloved cartoonists in the history of the medium, whose career spans the second half of the 20th century, and all of the 21st. His work has appeared in the pages of Playboy, The New Yorker, Punch, The National Lampoon, and many other magazines. This three-volume set truly demonstrates the depth and breadth of his range-from illustrating private angst we never knew we had (when you eat a steak, just whom are you eating?) to the ironic and deadpan take on horrifying public issues (ecological disaster, nuclear destruction anyone?). Gahan Wilson has been peeling back the troubling layers of modern life with his incongruously playful and unnerving cartoons, assailing our deepest fears and our most inane follies.

I’ve had this three volume set on my desk on loan for about a week, and it has proved a marvellous distraction from just about everything. It is a must for collectors, and makes a very fine gift for the right person. My advice is to get in a get it now, before it disappears again.

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