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SYFY WIRE obituary

Gahan Wilson, creepy cartoonist loved by Stan Lee and Guillermo del Toro, dies at 89

By Benjamin Bullard
Cartoonist Gahan Wilson

Gahan Wilson, a prolific illustrator with a career-long penchant for probing the dark and creepy recesses of the human mind, has reportedly passed away at the age of 89.

The New York Times reports that Wilson, whose work over five decades appeared in everything from Playboy to The New Yorker to National Lampoon, died Nov. 21 in Scottsdale, Arizona. Wilson wrought humor even from humanity’s most dark and helpless circumstances, telling The Arizona Republic as he suffered from dementia earlier this year that “[i]t can take kind of grim stuff and turn it into a joke and destroy it therefore, so it goes away … It's a lucky thing we've got it, our sense of humor.”

Drawing on childhood science fiction, horror, and fantasy influences to cast an incredulous eye toward pop cultural images of upbeat and cheerful tropes, Wilson’s unique take on everything from office politics to the things that go bump in the night pleased both critics and mainstream fans, by being both cerebral and accessible. 

Even when his cartoons weren’t being overtly horrific or fantastical, they often bore the kind of darkly comedic tone that buoys dystopian and horror-tinged genre fare. Murder, chaos, and subverted expectations were often on the minds of Wilson's characters, and his vividly stylized illustrations often featured imagery drawn straight from his horror and sci-fi roots: Lovecraftian sea-beasts, bats, teeth, and skeletons, and — to jarring effect — grotesquely anthropomorphic animals and objects.

In 2009, Wilson illustrated an animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “It was a Dark and Silly Night” ahead of a New Yorker retrospective of his eerie, yet playful, body of work for the magazine. The 2013 documentary Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird (previewed in the trailer above) enlisted an A-list cast of creators and media icons including Gaiman, Stan Lee, Guillermo del Toro, and Hugh Hefner to explain how Wilson’s artistry — despite its dark, offbeat, and often ghoulish character — managed to resonate with such a wide cross-section of readers over the decades.

In a full-circle moment of serendipity in 2005, Wilson was honored with the Lifetime Achievement award at the annual World Fantasy Awards. The honor came with a familiar-looking trophy for the cartoonist and designer: It was a stylized bust of H.P. Lovecraft that Wilson himself had originally designed for the organization — three decades earlier, in 1975.

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