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Norman Rockwell’s Evil Twin

A wonderfully published compendium of Gahan Wilson's Playboy cartoons.

Book Cover For lack of a better metaphor, suffice it to say that visits from my UPS driver and his delivery brethren make almost every day like Christmas at my address. But the recent arrival of Fantagraphics’s Gahan Wilson’s Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons (three volumes, slip-cased, 942 pages), containing over a thousand of Wilson’s singular comics, was akin to winning the lottery, or the Cubs winning the World Series. Or something like that.

Wilson, whose work has also in appeared in The New Yorker, Punch, and The National Lampoon, has been referred to as “Norman Rockwell’s evil twin” (New York Times), and has been embellishing magazines for over half a century. The Playboy compendium contains all the work that has appeared in every issue of the magazine from his first appearance in the December 1957 issue to today. This includes Wilson’s short fiction, such as “Horror Trio” and “Dracula Country,” and his text /art creations, such as his take on Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

Neil Gaiman, who has on a few occasions collaborated with Wilson, introduces the collection (Hugh Hefner also has some choice remarks):
He operates in no tradition, although, on occasion I have seen people and lines in 19th-century Japanese prints and, in one case, a five-hundred year old graffitied drawing of a monk and a dragon on the side of a Chinese temple that I could have sworn were made by Gahan Wilson’s pen. He draws on horror movies, on popular culture, on his own strange view of the world and of the permeability of language—not punning, but playing with words and popular expressions in ways that flex and stretch them, like a morbid poet. (“Is Nothing sacred?” asked a man in a place where they worship Nothing. “How are they selling?” is asked of a sad-looking man with piles and piles of unsold hotcakes.)

Until now it was hard to be a real fan of Gahan Wilson’s Playboy work. I do not read every issue of Playboy, for a start, and these days the magazine is too often sold wrapped in plastic. And when Gahan Wilson’s cartoons have been collected in the past, the Playboy cartoons were often black and white reproductions of the color originals… The idea of getting to see the Gahan Wilson Playboy cartoons as they were meant to have been seen, all of them collected together chronologically, is one that I find intrinsically wonderful.
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