Great Gahan Wilson and Poor Miss Emmy

(After yesterday’s bitchfest, I decided today to send a valentine—albeit a gruesome one.)

Right now, it’s a great time to be a fan—new or old—of the artwork of Gahan Wilson. To the uninitiated, he’s one of a dozen or so very important cartoonist/humorists who helped shape the perception of morbidity in the 60s and 70s. And if that doesn’t explain him, then just take a look at the cover of his 1971 book, I Paint What I See.

Reason #1 it’s a good time to be a fan: Fantagraphics just published the gorgeous Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons, which is exactly what it claims to be: well over 1000 cartoons he’s done for the magazine since 1957. (It also has every article and short story he contributed to Playboy, too.)

Reason #2: Mr. Wilson’s website has been fastidiously cataloguing all of his artwork, and for about $1.25 a month, you can have full access to it.

Reason #3: Today’s post.

Back in the early 80s, I was lucky enough to get exposed to aforementioned I Paint What I See. That was one of the first collections of Wilson’s cartoons, and I gather it’s his most influential and most popular book. Lord knows it had a positive effect on my life.1  The book’s biggest drawback, however, is that it’s in black and white, whereas any of its full-page cartoons were originally published in Playboy in full color. And Wilson’s use of color is very unique: he doesn’t favor vibrant colors, per se, as much as muting them under layers of heavy dark strokes and crosshatches. Sadly, when printed in black and white, this can significantly minimize the impact.

Well, thanks to some info I found in the Fantagraphics book; and American men’s long-standing obsession with holding onto their Playboys for decades; and ebay, I was able to get the cartoon below– the legendary “Miss Emmy” drawing–from its original source: Playboy’s October, 1964 issue. It’s my favorite Gahan Wilson drawing, and I once read its Wilson’s favorite of his own work, as well. (It may have also inspired a scene in Joe Dante’s Gremlins.) It’s a thrill for me, after thirty years of patiently waiting, to get it and share it with you all.

The whole package still thrills me: Miss Emmy’s timid face and bird-like hands; Santa’s death howl, reminding me a little of Munch’s The Scream; his radius and ulna laying on the floor; the assistant chimney sweep’s blasé demeanor and cigarette; the faces in the paintings on the wall—all of it. Wow.

If I had gotten this color version a few years ago, I would have definitely framed it and hung it on my wall. But now with a three-year old in the house–one who’s being raised Jewish but still presently infatuated with Santa Claus–well, damn, the signals are just too complex and potentially damaging. (Do me a favor and don’t forward this post to him, OK?)

And, hey, a big shout out to Victor who gave me I Paint What I See almost 30 years ago. I still have it and it still makes me laugh!


BACK TO POST 1> One of these days I’ll do a post about the Holy Trinity of Cartoon Books from my childhood in the 70s: this one, George Booth’s Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat, and, of course, B. Kliban’s Cat:


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6 Comments

Filed under Comedy

6 responses to “Great Gahan Wilson and Poor Miss Emmy

  1. jen

    perhaps it’s because i’m not fully awake yet, but this talk of artwork from childhood reminds me of the story book embedded within nilsson’s “the point” lp. know of which i speak? pretty cool…

  2. Adam L

    but don’t just stop with CAT! the other Kliban’s are not to be missed. NEVER EAT ANYTHING BIGGER THAN YOUR HEAD, TWO GUYS FOOLING AROUND WITH THE MOON, THE BIGGEST TONGUE IN TUNISIA… these books had an enormous impact on my humor life as a teenager in the 70s, along with saturday night live, steve martin, the marx brothers. can’t wait to hear you on him.

  3. Adam L

    oh, and of course: mad magazine.

    • I agree with you on all fronts, and would have to toss in Monty Python to boot.

      As for the Kliban post, well, I’m not backing down completely, but I just gave the notion some serious thought. And there’s any truth to that concept that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” then writing about Kliban’s artwork will be like a 48 hour foxtrot marathon comparing Beaux Arts Classicism with the Georgian movement of the 18th century.

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