THEY CAN LURK so large in a Gahan Wilson cartoon. Those fluid monsters, those loose-lined beasts can bring the gloom yet also loom with levity. And so often, the one thing sharper than their claws is their creator’s satirical point.
Filmmaker Steven-Charles Jaffe initially mistook such monsters as snarling stand-ins for the cartoonist’s own family. But that was before the documentarian studied the full story.
“Gahan grew up during the Depression, and as he put it to me, things were tough enough,” Jaffe tells Comic Riffs, “but when your parents go routinely nuts every night, leaving bottles of alcohol all over the place, it’s pretty tough for an only child.”
Especially, the director notes, “when you’re looking for stability in your parents as the whole world is falling apart.”
Given that Gahan was raised in such a house of true alcoholic terrors, it would be natural to see the beasts as symbols of his parents.
“But there’s one of his first drawings where a monster is hovering over a child in its crib, and the monster seems to be protecting the child,” Jaffe points out. “Hence, Gahan’s undaunting love of [classic] monsters — Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman.”
Where others saw coldblooded horror, Wilson found warmth and heart.
It was those kinds of discoveries that helped compel Jaffe — a veteran filmmaker and producer (“Ghost,” “Time After Time,” “Strange Days”) — to devote himself to making a documentary about the 83-year-old author/illustrator and his half-century of oft-macabre gag cartoons.
“In some way, my counterintuitive, passionate decision to make the doc — [to] spend over six years on it instead of taking lucrative producing gigs — has unintentionally put the sword of fate over my head now,” the California-based filmmaker tells us.
But there comes a time, Jaffe continues, “if you’re making a career in the movie business, you have to ask yourself: Do you really passionately believe in something, someone, an idea, an injustice, something that’s risky but if it works, all the risk, worry, financial pain is worth it?”
That risky passion resulted in “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird,” a documentary that features interviews with some of the cartoonist’s celebrity fans, including Neil Gaiman, Lewis Black, Guillermo del Toro and Stephen Colbert. The film won a 2011 Best Documentary award at Comic-Con; now, buoyed by the crowdfunding power of Kickstarter, Jaffe hopes to get the film into theaters long enough for Oscars eligibility.
With just more than a week to go, his Gahan Wilson Kickstarter project is nearing half its $50,000 goal.
Comic Riffs caught up with Jaffe to talk about the genius of Gahan Wilson, his place in cartooning — and Jaffe’s own pursuit of a crowdfunded dream:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Okay, Steven, you had me “Born Dead,” so I must ask: Is that colorfully macabre hyperbole, or was Mr. Wilson actually“born dead” before a family doctor changed the history of cartooning? Is this fact, fiction or sales-pitch folderol — what’s Gahan’s origin story?
STEVEN-CHARLES JAFFE: Gahan was actually, literally “born dead” and luckily revived by the family doctor. Apparently his mother was given too much of a narcotic — [a] sedative — with a lovely nickname: “Twilight Sleep.”
MC: You describe as influential ... your seeing your first Gahan cartoon when you were 10. Which cartoon was it — and what did you think at the time? Did it fire a boy’s humor synapses in a fresh way?
SCJ: The first Gahan cartoon I saw depicted Leonardo da Vinci standing on a castle parapet with a smoking cannon and a huge mushroom cloud on the horizon. An aide next to him asks: “…And suppose you do repress it, Leonardo? Somebody else is certain to come across it again in a few years.”
That may seem harmless. However, it was also the first time I’d seen a photo of a naked woman — [the] same issue of Playboy I believe where they had photographed partially naked scuba-diving women. … Okay, still harmless, until my friend whose father’s Playboy we had borrowed ... set fire to the brush where we were standing and [there was] the rush of adrenaline, colliding with confused guilt. I shared this story with Stephen Colbert, who smiled when I told him it was my friend’s first Communion that day, and [he] said, “Wow, fire and brimstone — the whole works!”
MC: How much did seeing “Crumb” inspire you to think that Gahan needed his own documentary? And had you secured Gahan’s permission and/or cooperation before you launched into this six-year saga?
SCJ: Well, I’ve always been more of a Gahan devotee than [of] Crumb, I appreciated his work more in the ‘70s, but what surprised and pleased/inspired me was the fascinating personal story that Terry Zwigoff revealed about Crumb’s family. I had known and had been working with Gahan for a number of years at this point, and he was very reluctant to commit to doing the doc.
We were on a research trip to Montreal to meet the inventor of the IMAX camera, Roman Croiter, who had invented a real-time computer animation system that we were hoping to employ on an animated feature film based on one of Gahan’s illustrated novels (“Eddy Deco’s Last Caper”) — which screenwriter Nicholas Meyer and I adapted and are still working to raise the funds to produce it. ... On that research trip, I convinced Gahan to do some casual interviews on film, just to see if we could get comfortable discussing his past with a camera rolling. Eventually, Gahan agreed to do the doc with me.
MC: I’m intrigued by Bill Moyers’s statement that “Born Dead...” is “not just a film about Wilson, it’s about how to live one’s life with the sword of fate always above your neck.” ... What is Moyers’s take on Gahan’s work — does he see [rendered with] a playful sense that we’re as damned as Damocles?
SCJ: Bill was really taken aback by the “Death of a Salesman”[-esque], creative, financial, personal risks cartoonists — in this case, Gahan — take on a daily basis to do what they love. There’s no union, pension plan, any sense of job security — you’re on your own, and you had better have thick skin for the amount of rejection that goes with the territory.
In some way, my counterintuitive, passionate decision to make the doc — [to] spend over six years on it instead of taking lucrative producing gigs — has unintentionally put the sword of fate over my head now. … At some point, if you’re making a career in the movie business, you have to ask yourself: Do you really passionately believe in something, someone, an idea, an injustice, something that’s risky but if it works, all the risk, worry, financial pain is worth it? I wouldn’t do it differently if I had to do it again. We’ll see what happens…
MC: I’m also personally intrigued that some of my own favorite interview subjects — talking to Gaiman and Stan Lee, and Lewis Black and [briefly] with Colbert — are so represented in your film, as sought by you. Does this perhaps indicate that a certain kind of [twisted] mind is especially drawn to Gahan?
SCJ: I knew I would have to come up with some starpower to help make my case, so I went on a fishing expedition to see who of today’s most iconic personalities might be Gahan fans. I was so pleased and so lucky that all of these extraordinary people — don’t forget Randy Newman, Bill Maher… — all enthusiastically agreed to be in the film. And they each tell surprisingly personal and revealing stories — who would have thought Guillermo del Toro would be so funny in recounting his first encounters with Gahan’s work in Playboy, or that Bill Maher would attribute Gahan’s National Lampoon covers as an inspiration to become a comedian? I believe all of these people responded to his dark sense of humor, [or humor] involving totally crazy human behavior, even if it’s a senator wearing a gas mask in his office complaining about liberals and conservationists. Al Gore has [that] signed Gahan cartoon in his personal collection. I believe he was a Gahan fan before he started his “Inconvenient Truth” slide shows.
MC: I’ve met and talked briefly with Gahan once [at Small Press Expo], and found him to have a graceful humility. What’s your fuller sense of the man himself?
SCJ: If he were a serial killer, he’d have more media attention. He’s a gentle giant. I really admire and love him.
MC: I honestly had no idea that Gahan “has received more lifetime awards than any living cartoonist.” How many has he won, and he has really outpaced all the living MAD and Marvel and fellow New Yorker greats, for instance?
SCJ: Gahan and others have told me this, and although I can’t recite them all, I know he won a lifetime Achievement from the World Fantasy Awards, the prestigious Milton Caniff Achievement award….and there’s lots of statuettes holding doors open in his home.
MC: So if you hit your Kickstarter goal, how do you proceed to release “Born Weird” for Oscars eligibility?
SCJ: We’re getting down to the wire, so I’ll make a shameless plug to anyone who is a Gahan fan, or a fan of cartoonists, or as Robert Redford said after seeing the film, “I am a huge proponent of art not only getting into the educational system, but also because it can save some lives as it enhances others.” Such a beautiful and wise statement. Gahan survived alcoholic parents by drawing monsters before he could read or write, so in a sense his art saved him. And he’s still at it!
MC: What do you see as Gahan’s greatest creative legacy? And did you seek out interviewing the next generation of cartoonists and creators he apparently influenced ... [people] like “Lio” creator Mark Tatulli?
SCJ: Gahan’s ability to look at a bleak situation — nuclear war, conventional war, the ecology. The first cartoon he sold was a [black-and-white] pencil drawing of a dead bird in the show with a young child pointing it out to his father, saying, “Look, Daddy, the first Robin of Spring.” I think this appeared in Collier’s before Rachel Carson had written “Silent Spring.”
Gahan is a great teacher, he loves artists, and he encourages them all the time, specially young kids. I think he’s always been trying to let kids know that not all adults are unstable, or unreliable, or just cruel to kids.
His greatest creative legacy [is] his signature style of drawing characters behind the theme of “levity in the face of doom.” I did interview tons of young and older cartoonists, and having shot over 175 hours of footage and having to whittle it down to 85 minutes, I could only get in so much. I am releasing a special DVD of extras as one of the Kickstarter pledges — outtakes from the guest stars and others that won’t be on the DVD. They may appear with more material on a special Blu-Ray set.
MC: Anything I should ask that I haven’t ?
SCJ: “What did you learn from hanging with cartoonists?” ... I could never do what they do. And if any of my colleagues in the film industry in front of or behind the camera think the movie business is tough, they don’t know how lucky they are.