Friday, October 25, 2019

‘Lucky to be alive’ — morbid cartoonist faces dementia

     Charles Addams isn’t forgotten. Not with “The Addams Family,” the black-and-white TV trifle that lasted two seasons in the mid-1960s and forever in syndication. Plus the sharp 1991 movie and a new, animated one, out last week.
     Addams was more than that, of course. Readers of the New Yorker magazine savored his gorgeous, full page cartoons delving into the macabre. My favorite showed a pleasant suburban couple, the father with his pipe, the mother informing a trick-or-treating spaceman at the door, “I’m sorry sonny. We’ve run out of candy.” A second look shows the darkened neighborhood overrun with identical spacemen, the sky filled with hovering motherships. 

     After Addams died in 1988, his mantle of morbid fun, though not his fame, was taken up by Gahan Wilson. No movies to make him a household name. But he checked in at every phase of my life. In the 1960s, he illustrated a series of kids books by Jerome Beatty Jr. about a moon boy name Matthew Looney.
     In the 1970s, Wilson had a monthly strip in the National Lampoon. It was something of a horror story about growing up, called “Nuts” — that had to be a play on “Peanuts.” Its protagonist was a large-headed boy in a plaid cap, his face just peeking out, rolling in the agony of childhood that Charles Schulz could only hint at.
     “Nuts” hit the sweet spot between the hope and disillusionment of being a kid. I was shocked at how many specific strips came back after 40 years, particularly the one where the boy builds a pathetic shelf of a fort: just a board in a tree. “Nice to have something work out OK for once,” the kid muses. You could feel the weight of all those things that didn’t work out, hovering just off the page.

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Among my favorite Gahan Wilson cartoons is the one heaven I could imagine actually existing.
The caption: "Somehow I thought the whole thing would be a lot classier."


  1. Thank you for this story.
    I was fortunate enough to run across a couple of books of his work recently and finally put the two together: the man whose work I instantly recognized and adored, and an author's body of effort.
    Or was it joy?

  2. I was also a big fan of Wilson's and sent his GoFundMe a few bucks about six months ago, when I found out about his situation.

    It is beyond disgraceful that GoFundMe should have to serve as an option, if not the only hope, for Americans stuck with big medical bills.

    Cartoonists like Wilson don't have it easy. No benefits and, insofar as the New Yorker goes, no job security. I was very surprised to learn recently that there's no such thing as a contract or an assignment for New Yorker cartoonists, as opposed to writers. When you draw a cartoon for the New Yorker, you draw it entirely on spec, no matter how famous you are or how many of your cartoons they may have already published. If they reject it, you either find someone else to buy it or you eat the time and effort you put into it. Seems harsh.

    1. Hi Bitter Scribe,
      As stated in the column Medicare does not pay for long term care, but Medicaid does. If a person is truly indigent they can be fully covered. The rules can be complex, so it's a good idea to consult an attorney who specializes in estate planning. There are families that opt to drain their elderly relatives of assets, so they can qualify for Medicaid. If I recall correctly, Carol Moseley Braun did this for a parent. The better facilities have a waiting list for a limited number of Medicaid patients. Allegedly the Senator had the clout to bypass the waiting list. If there is a family history of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, it's a good idea to purchase insurance coverage to prepare for such an event.
      For every issue The New Yorker pays a nominal amount $25 for the dozen or so cartoons that appear in each issue. Open to all, they get hundreds of applications, the real reward being having the prestige or bragging rights if your cartoon wins.

    2. Bernie, I think you may be confusing the regular cartoons with the caption contest that appears on the back page. I have a hard time believing that the New Yorker pays just $25 for cartoons, and I really have a hard time believing that they depend on random submissions, 99% of which would be dreck.

  3. I love cartoons and I have no idea why. The Gahan Wilson heaven cartoon, for example. Seems to be simply a silly incongruity, but the Lazarus/Dives story may be in play for me as well and others may have more profound thoughts inspired by the cartoon. I call up Dilbert faithfully every day and every day it's the same story: boss stupid, worker smart. Likewise, I hunt through the paper every day for the Frank & Ernest cartoon, which mostly depends on goofy puns of no discernible value beyond a brief chuckle. Whereas, I regard certain cartoons as unworthy of my attention, but again I don't know why. I detest Marmaduke, but like Garfield, both of which explore the same territory, I think. At any rate, cartoonists serve an important function in society even if I can't identify it; and I hope Gahan Wilson continues to overcome his dementia and doesn't descend into the hell of hostility so many dementia patients inhabit.


  4. I've lost several friends to dementia. All of them bright people. One probably the sanest man I ever knew. It seems the care givers usually suffer the most.

    I like cartoons too, but there has been a falling off from the days of Thurber, Adams, Kelly etc. the unsettling ones stick in the mind. One, I recall, by Virgil Partch. A woman running in the shadow of a giant bird, looking up and screening, "Drop the keys George."


  5. My Gahan Wilson story:

    I was 22 and in college in 1969, so I was familiar wih his work in both The New Yorker and Playboy. My father's youngest brother was 40. I was visiting him in L. A. My uncle was working late when my "aunt" (who was his third wife and just six years my senior) mentioned the cartoonist by name and casually added that he had repeatedly asked her to divorce my uncle and marry him. I thought she was putting me on and told her so. She then produced pages of ardent scribblings, some of which included a number of signed cartoons, probably meant for her eyes only.

    It's been fifty years, and I have no idea why she revealed all that, or showed me the evidence, and I have long since forgotten what he said to her, or even what the cartoons looked like. But both their style and their signatures were his.

    Long story short: they never divorced their spouses. He was a regular at the topless bar (remember those?) where she worked, close by the airport, and he had became more than a little obsessed with her, probably after more than a few adult beverages. I would have disposed of the letters but hung on to those signed cartoons. My guess is that she eventually destroyed them.


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