His death was confirmed by a stepson, Paul Winters. The cause was complications from dementia.
Mr. Wilson, whose first name was pronounced Gay-un, had a distinctive drawing style and, in the words of novelist Neil Gaiman, “a cockeyed, dangerously weird way of looking at the world.”
In Mr. Wilson’s cartoons, childhood fears came vividly to life, surrealistic monsters lurked around every corner and every prognosis was grim.
“Life is a grotesque thing, inexplicable, odd,” he told The Washington Post in 1976. “It doesn’t make any sense. I’m always into the fantastic, the grotesque and certainly the frightening.”
His first published cartoon, from 1954, depicted a boy and his father in a blizzard. The boy points at the frozen corpse of a bird, its feet and beak poking out of the snow, and says, “Look, Daddy, the first robin.”
In some of Mr. Wilson’s cartoons, creatures with bared teeth and bulging eyes crouch at the foot of a child’s bed or behind a half-opened door. At times, they become visible only in X-rays, as when one doctor says to another: “It is as I suspected — Mr. Harding, here, is possessed by demons.”
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In a 1968 cartoon that typified Mr. Wilson’s humor, a married couple walk down a street. The husband’s head resembles a green shrimp with tentacles.
“Harry,” the man’s wife says, “I really think you ought to go to the doctor.”
In the late 1950s, Mr. Wilson began to publish his work in Playboy, whose publisher and editor, Hugh Hefner, had early ambitions to be a cartoonist. Mr. Wilson’s full-page cartoons, often suffused in gloomy shades of brown and green, became a monthly feature in the magazine and were often reprinted in books.
“Gahan Wilson was an immediate hit with our readers and a perfect contrast to our usual, more sexual cartoon fare,” Hefner wrote in the introduction to a 2011 collection, “Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons.”
Mr. Wilson occasionally touched on risque subjects, but his best work for Playboy — and later for the New Yorker, Esquire and other publications — grew out of his diabolical, “Wizard of Odd” sensibility. Cars grew teeth and began talking, oven doors popped open, with a pair of eyes peering out.
“I see a cartoon as a kind of mini-short story,” Mr. Wilson told The Post in 1989. “If it’s any good, you see with no effort what led up to this episode, and what’s probably going to happen after.”
At first glance, one of his Playboy cartoons looks like a sweet image of childhood toys in an attic — a rocking horse, toy soldiers, a puppet — but it takes on an ominous, conspiratorial edge when a one-armed teddy bear says: “One day when he’s old and feeble, he’ll be in a nostalgic mood, and he’ll come up here and see us again, and to reminisce — and then we’ll get him!
A 1968 cartoon showed a rocky seascape, with a painting of the same scene on an easel — except that the painting shows two eyes of a huge monster rising from the water. A closer look reveals that the artist is nowhere to be seen, leaving only his hat, brushes and palette behind.
In a cartoon without a caption, a man is in a restroom, beneath a sign reading “Employees Must Wash Hands,” when he looks over at a restaurant worker casually scrubbing a tub full of disembodied hands.
“He liked to depict ordinary folks encountering some kind of anxious terror, or experiencing the unthinkable in mundane places,” New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin wrote on the magazine’s website. “Wilson’s art is both the heart-thumping you feel when you dare look under the bed and the relieved inner laugh you let loose after he’s scared the pants off of you.”
Gahan Allen Wilson was born Feb. 18, 1930, in Evanston, Ill. His father was a steel-company executive, his mother a publicist for a department store.
Mr. Wilson often said that he was “born dead,” which for him was more than a figure of speech.
“I was declared stillborn,” he told The Post in 1976. “My mother had been given too heavy an anesthetic and I had turned blue. They were about to dispense with the little blue tyke when the old family physician doused me in a bowl of hot water and then in ice water. From the first, I knew it was tough out here.”
As an only child, he enjoyed carnival side shows and the movies of comedian W.C. Fields, whom he cited as a formative influence, along with Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch and cartoonists Charles Addams and Chester Gould, creator of the “Dick Tracy” comic strip.
Mr. Wilson began drawing at an early age, graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1952, then moved to New York. In addition to his work for Playboy, the New Yorker and Esquire, Mr. Wilson had a regular multi-panel strip, “Nuts,” in National Lampoon in the 1970s. A bizarro take of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” it featured an unnamed boy and was drawn from a child’s perspective, both visually and emotionally.
Mr. Wilson published more than two dozen books, including cartoon collections, graphic novels and books for children. He also wrote reviews of horror and fantasy books and was a founder of the World Fantasy Convention.
His wife of 52 years, writer Nancy Winters, died in March. Survivors include two stepsons; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In “Born Dead, Still Weird,” a 2013 documentary by Steven-Charles Jaffe, artists from varied fields — including talk show host Stephen Colbert, comedian Lewis Black and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro — spoke of Mr. Wilson’s lasting influence.
If there was a prototypical Gahan Wilson cartoon, it may have been one that appeared in Playboy in 1964, showing a bearded skeleton in a Santa Claus suit lying crumpled in a fireplace.
“Well,” a worker tells a wide-eyed matron, “we found out what’s been clogging your chimney since last December, Miss Emmy.”
More than 20 years later, Mr. Wilson told The Post: “That got more angry mail than anything I ever did. You can mess around with religion, but when you kill off Santa Claus, there’s an uproar. You never know.”
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