The cartoonist Gahan Wilson, who died last Thursday, was a Guest of Honor at the first International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts that I ever attended, in 1995, and that is the scene of this story.
I arrived at the con hotel a day early, knowing no one, and mostly roamed the halls, hoping someone might talk to me. Seeing a propped-open door, I walked through it, and found myself in a big room set up for an art show, a maze of temporary walls. Hanging on them were dozens of original Gahan Wilson drawings. So much larger than the published versions, several feet to a side, these were museum-quality works, in pen and ink and pastel, their captions handwritten across the bottom.
I slowly roamed the exhibit, taking my sweet time in front of each piece. I examined them up close and from a distance. I savored every moment of that private viewing, that wholly unauthorized VIP preview experience.
And repeatedly, my path kept crossing that of the only other person in the room: a balding man in a safari jacket, holding a clipboard, who stopped in front of each piece and jotted a note. I assumed he was a conference official, some sort of curator, and I expected him to ask me, politely, to leave, and to come back when the exhibit was open.
Instead he just smiled at me, and nodded, and stepped back to let me pass. I smiled and nodded in return. The next time we met, I made way for him, and we exchanged another smile and a nod. This happened several times. We moved about the room in an utterly companionable silence.
Finally, I found myself in front of a drawing of a funeral. A group of pallbearers in pinstripes were clustered around the closed casket, peering at the lid, hands cupped behind their ears, expressions of dismay on their faces – and as these were lovingly detailed Gahan Wilson pallbearers, their lined, geriatric faces were very expressive indeed. The caption read: “I think it’s his beeper.”
I laughed out loud, whereupon my unseen, previously silent companion spoke up, from the other side of the room. “Thank you!” he said. “I was hoping you would laugh at SOMEthing. I’m glad I’m not a COMPLETE failure!”
It was, of course, the artist himself, and I rushed to his side to apologize and to gush and to assure him that I had been laughing at his drawings for half my life, since I discovered the National Lampoon. He told me he was only teasing, and then offered to tell me about some of the drawings, if I was interested.
He wound up giving me a private, one-hour tour of the exhibit, stopping before each image to tell me where the idea came from, and what headaches the art director had caused, and to point out whatever part of the drawing had given him (he claimed) the most trouble. (I saw no signs of trouble.) It was an extraordinarily generous investment of his time, and I have never forgotten it.
Later that weekend, for his SRO Guest of Honor talk, Wilson stood beside an easel with a big sketch pad, and told the story of some of his favorite cartoons, sketching each one with a Sharpie as he went, then flipping back the page to make room for the next drawing. At the end of the talk, amid enthusiastic applause, he said, in an offhanded way, “If anyone wants any of these drawings, you are welcome to them.”
Fanboy me was sitting in the front row, of course, and as one of the first people at the easel, I claimed my favorite, and asked Wilson to sign it. And that is why the Organ Grinder of the Rue Morgue hangs in our living room today.
RIP Gahan Wilson, a great cartoonist who was a really nice guy to a lonely graduate student, 24 years ago. Read his complete obituary here.
See a retrospective of some of Gahan’s work here at Black Gate.
Andy Duncan is the author of The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, and Agent of Utopia. His short fiction has been awarded the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. He is a Professor of English at Frostburg State University. His last post for us was an obituary for David G. Hartwell.