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Cross-Cultural Psychology

Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird

A documentary film by Steven-Charles Jaffe - Review by Dr. Lloyd Sederer

Finally, a documentary that's fun to watch - and has its share of wisdom embellished by moments of laugh out loud.

Gahan Wilson is one of the most unknown known (no reference to Errol Morris and Secretary McNamara!) people inhabiting modern culture. If you don't believe me listen in throughout this film to the likes of David Remnick, Roz Chast, Stephen Colbert, Guillermo del Toro, Hugh Hefner, Bill Maher, Stan Lee, Randy Newman, Gahan’s wife, and many others. Wilson is one of our greatest cartoonists whose unmistakable work has for decades saturated The New Yorker (where he has had many a cover), Playboy, and National Lampoon.

Wilson was born dead in the American mid-west in 1930. He was blue and not breathing at birth from the anesthesia administered to his mother. A pediatrician happened on him before he was placed in a casket and held him under cold water until he revived. It seems as if he has spent a lifetime embodying this moment as metaphor in his dark, shocking, and ultimately life affirming art.

His family is vintage dysfunctional: an alcoholic father who was an inventor, business executive and artist, and a mother with mental illness who also liked to drink. Wilson, an Irishman, became an alcoholic too and only got sober when his work was threatened, not his marriage or relationships. His drawings are universal yet deeply personal. We get glimpses, again and again, into his experiences with family, neighborhood, and living in a crazy world where war and environmental peril surround and perturb us. His vision, though, is like that of a child - fresh, fearful, astonished, mirthful, full of wonder, and able to see that the emperor has no clothes. He loves his monsters!

In a lengthy, wonderful scene, Jaffe’s documentary on Wilson gives us a private, painful opportunity to witness what happens at The New Yorker on Tuesday mornings, when the cartoon editor receives a gaggle of artists there to shop their wares. Wilson is among them. One by one each unveils a batch of drawings and waits to be impaled upon the sharp words of the editor, whose whimsy will determine their fate. It is just like the terrifying world of grownups in a Gahan Wilson cartoon.

You can recognize a Wilson image (B&W, color, line drawing, or rich tapestry of figures) because it is eerie, yet warm and welcoming. His characters often have naïf, whether they are children or grownups. When he needs contrast, he installs those who have lost that quality and without it occupy the world of the passionless and compassionless. Wilson's captions inspire writers' envy for their brevity and wit.

Don't expect to learn much about the creative process from this documentary, even though it surfaces in the story. Some people are simply born that way - though I don’t think you have to arrive dead to be gifted.

Wilson has left his old neighborhood to live in Sag Harbor, New York, but his roots run deep. Over 80, he looks terrible but is full of joy. He calls himself "a half-assed Buddhist," and explains why in his trademark blasphemous and sage way. He has a twinkle in his eye and a skip in his step as he continues to stroll down a merry, horrific, and wondrous life. He likes being weird, and does not miss a chance to say so.

I wonder, does he laugh at his own jokes?


You too can enjoy "Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird" on iTunes (, as well as Amazon Instant Video, Xbox Video, Playstation, Google Play & Vudu.


Dr. Sederer’s new book for families who have a member with a mental illness is The Family Guide to Mental Health Care (Foreword by Glenn Close).

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

Copyright Dr. Lloyd Sederer

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