January 17, 2018

Last year’s documentary gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird shows profile on New Yorker’s acclaimed cartoonist

Saturday, May 17, 2014

An inside view on one of the most singular illustrators in the US

By Michael O’Sullivan
The Washington Post
Reviewing the recent documentary portrait of artist-illustrator Ralph Steadman, For No Good Reason, gave me a hankering for more of the same. So I was delighted to stumble upon Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird. Steven-Charles Jaffe's film is a fascinating profile of one of cartooning's best and most venerable workhorses.

Chances are you know Wilson's work, even if you don't recognize his name. A longtime contributor to both Playboy and the New Yorker (among many other magazines), the octogenarian is known for cartoons that reveal a twisted, if not downright macabre, sense of humor. Cannibalism and other atrocities are commonplace in Wilson's single-panel drawings, which are populated by people and monsters rendered in his signature doughy style that makes it seem as if the characters' flesh is melting off their bones.

And sometimes it is.

The film — whose slightly hyperbolic title refers to Wilson's delivery as a cyanotic, or ”blue,” baby, i.e., not breathing — centers on interviews with Wilson, who demonstrates his working methods, revisits his childhood home in Evanston, Illinois, and reminisces about his parents' alcoholism, as well as his own (and his subsequent rehab). Testimonials as to Wilson's creative genius are provided by such celebrities as Lewis Black, Stan Lee, Roz Chast, Guillermo del Toro, Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert, who credits Wilson with the earliest introduction to what the satirist euphemistically calls “dark humour.”

The movie is generously illustrated with examples of Wilson's work, which live up to that description. Fears of all kinds — childhood nightmares, ecological disasters, the horrors of war and garden-variety existential dread — are all addressed in Wilson's art, which is often quite profound and always very, very funny.

As Black, a comedian known for his own dark comedy, puts it, if you don't “get” Gahan Wilson, there could be something wrong with you “as a person.” You might as well go back to knock-knock jokes, Black suggests, and work your way back from there.

Humour, as the film makes clear, is easier to recognize than to define. One of the most illuminating digressions in the film occurs as Jaffe and his camera tag along during one of Wilson's weekly visits to the office of New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, who's shown critiquing Wilson's preliminary sketches and half-formed ideas (along with those of several other of the magazine's contributors, both regulars and aspirants).

Mankoff's comments can be blunt, if genially delivered, and it's clear that the vast majority of potential cartoons never see the light of day. This section of the movie in particular — but really the whole thing — offers a powerful illustration of a truism so often repeated that it's a cliche: Genius, even that as unimpeachable and long-standing as Wilson's, is still 99 percent perspiration


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