Gahan Wilson, magazine cartoonist with dark sense of humor, dead at 89

Cartoonist Gahan Wilson, left, waits for New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff to assess his offerings at the magazine's offices in 2001.
Cartoonist Gahan Wilson, left, waits for New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff to assess his offerings at the magazine’s offices in 2001.
(Kathy Willens / Associated Press)

Gahan Wilson, whose humorous and often macabre cartoons were a mainstay in magazines including Playboy, the New Yorker and National Lampoon, has died at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Wilson, who died Nov. 2, was suffering from dementia, said his stepson, Paul Winters. He was 89.

Wilson delighted readers with his haunting scenes and dark humor. One cartoon shows a man reading a doctor’s eye chart with progressively shrinking letters that spell out, “I am an insane eye doctor and I am going to kill you now.” Behind him, a mad scientist gleefully holds a blade, ready to strike.


In another, two fishermen sit in a boat, unaware the captain behind them is removing a human mask to reveal a fish-like face, a mischievous toothy smile and scaly chest. “How did you come to name your boat the Revenge, Captain?” reads the caption.

In a story posted on his website, Wilson recalled how he’d struggled to convince editors that their readers would understand and appreciate his cartoons. His big break came from a fill-in cartoon editor at Colliers magazine who didn’t know the conventional wisdom about his work.

“Not being a trained cartoon editor, he did not realize my stuff was too much for the common man to comprehend, and he thought it was funny,” Wilson wrote. “I was flabbergasted and delighted when he started to buy it!”


He went on to reflect on artists who push boundaries and shock the status quo.

“Art should lead to change in the way we see things,” he wrote. “If some artist comes up with a vision which gives a new opening, it usually creates a lot of stress, because it’s frightening.

His regular multipanel strip in National Lampoon in the 1970s was called “Nuts,” a takeoff on Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts.”

Gahan Allen Wilson was born Feb. 18, 1930, in Evanston, Ill. His father was an executive for a steel company, his mother a publicist for a department store. He served in the U.S. Air Force and went to the Art Institute of Chicago.

His wife of 52 years, writer Nancy Winters, died in March. He’s survived by two stepsons, a daughter-in-law, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.