Thursday, August 05, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 183 (8/5) -- Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons by Gahan Wilson

Gahan Wilson is the premiere macabre cartoonist of the past fifty years; he took over that role from Charles Addams, bringing a more ghoulish, middle-American sensibility to the role. Perhaps his most prominent outlet -- what The New Yorker was to Addams -- has been Playboy, which has had a Wilson cartoon (very often at full-page size, in color) almost every month since 1957. At first glance, Wilson is a much worse fit for Playboy than Addams was for The New Yorker -- Addams was urbane and understated, like his home, while Wilson revels gleefully in death and destruction in the land of happy sex. (Wilson, perhaps, is the extreme version of the man whose job was to whisper in Caesar's ear "remember that thou art mortal" -- and Playboy is entirely devoted to forgetting about mortality and limitations of any kind.) But if every yin must contain the seed of its yang within it, then Playboy was the perfect home for Wilson cartoons -- they gave Playboy's upwardly mobile young men something to laugh at, and to discount, as they flipped forward to get to more pictures of naked women.

(And of course Playboy's legendary editor, Hugh Hefner, was himself an erstwhile cartoonist, and saw Playboy as the natural home for the best cartoonists he could attract -- preferably with gags about nubile women and sex, but without if that's how it happened.)

Wilson has had collections of his cartoons published before -- all the way back to The Man in the Cannibal Pot, in 1965, and including a couple of smaller books of his Playboy work -- but this book is vastly larger and more impressive than any Wilson book to date. That's not to say it's necessarily all of his best work -- I'm among those who love his continuity strip for the '70s National Lampoon, Nuts, which was at least partially collected thirty years ago and hasn't been seen since -- but it's the kind of doorstop that caps or defines a career. Fantagraphics has collected all of the Playboy cartoons from December 1957 through the end of 2008, and printed each of them on a single page -- again, the vast majority of them were full-page, full-color pieces to begin with -- on lovely white paper, in a three-volume set that comes with its own slipcase.

The first two volumes also have introductions -- from Hugh Hefner in the first and Neil Gaiman in the second -- that say all of the expected laudatory things, but do so honestly, fervently and with reference to specific cartoons along the way. The third volume has even more extra material, including a recent interview of Wilson by Fantagraphics' Gary Groth, an appreciation/biography of Wilson by Groth, an index to all three volumes, and forty pages of short stories (and one work of what I think is journalism) by Wilson that also appeared in Playboy -- so this is not only the utterly complete Gahan Wilson from Playboy, but it's also a great guide to Wilson as an artist.

Obviously, this is not a small book or a cheap one -- but it is a magnificent, essential collection of great work by one of the 20th century's very best cartoonists, in a superb package. When people ask me why I'm sanguine about e-books, it's things like Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons that I point to -- I'd like to see someone try to Kindle this!
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alright, Kindling it might be hard, but what about, say, an ipad translation? Large screen, full colour - seems like a half-decent medium to me...

And, on a related note, do you think comics and illustrated books would ever work on something like the ipad?

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