Toon Musings: Nuts!

Several cartooning notables passed from the scene in the last few months. I wrote about Stan Lee about a year ago; this past August we lost Richard Williams, the genius animator responsible for A Christmas Carol, The Thief and The Cobbler and more recently, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In September Lee Salem, longtime editor and president of Universal Press Syndicate, died. He shepherded the development of Doonesbury, Cathy, Cul-de-Sac, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes, to name just a few of his more popular comic strip charges—I believe I have a rejection letter or two from him. In November, we lost Tom Spurgeon, a cartoonist and writer about cartoons, who was also founder/editor of The Comics Reporter and Executive Director of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, the midwest’s premiere comics convention. But the death, last week, that affected me the most personally was that of Gahan Wilson.

Back when printed magazines mattered, there were certain publications that were stalwart patrons of the cartoon art. The New Yorker was one (and still is). Playboy was another, often running their cartoons in full color on a full page, in between the nudie pictures, short stories, and articles by distinguished authors, and promotions of the swinger’s lifestyle. The National Lampoon had a comics section in the back of the magazine which carried recurring strips by some of the best in the business. Gahan Wilson was a regular contributor to all three of these periodicals, and others besides. He specialized in a darker, more macabre humor, as Charles Addams (of The Addams Family fame) and Edward Gorey did before him. I was a subscriber to the Lampoon in my younger, wiseguy days, and used to look forward to the full-color, multi-page stories he would occasionally create for them; but the work he did for them that I remember most fondly appeared monthly in the Funny Pages section—indeed, it was their anchor strip—Nuts.

Looking back, I consider Nuts to be his most enduring work, a true masterpiece. I bought the collected strips in book form for $3 (marked down from $4.95!); I spotted a copy today on Ebay selling for $75. A new copy can be had from Amazon for only $1012.90. If you do buy it, get the Fantagraphics reprint—it’s more complete.

Many of Wilson’s obituaries mention that he’d described Nuts as a sort of “anti-Peanuts.” Certainly, there are differences; unlike Peanuts, Nuts is happy to show adults and to let them speak. The adults are not idealized, though. They bicker and belittle each other and the protagonist, known only as “the Kid.” Whenever they’re shown, it’s only as a looming presence, often with a giant hand… sinewy and hairy, in the case of the camp counselor, or doughy with carefully manicured claws, in the case of the Kid’s Ma. Pop is generally out of frame, judging. There’s a good deal of bad behavior and swears, just like real life. Waldo the dog is poorly trained and dumb, in both senses of the word. The Kid’s world is more realistic than Charlie Brown’s; while the Peanuts gang is generally left to their own devices, the Kid and his friends are constantly being acted upon by the various adults in their lives. You get the feeling they’d be content just watching cartoons and eating cereal out of the box all day, but grownups are forever bothering them with camp, or school, or errands, or trips to the grandparents, or a myriad other opportunities to screw up. The Kid’s life is a minefield. While Peanuts made the adults mute and had the children speak and act like adults (though peculiar and flawed ones), Nuts was much more evocative of a kid’s world as it truly was, with other people always up in your business. Here’s the introduction to the book:

I worry sometimes that Nuts isn’t relevant to today’s kids, that there’s no mention of cellphones or videogames or memes or a million other popular shit that my admittedly ancient consciousness hasn’t even registered. Hell, Wilson grew up in the thirties, and Schulz even earlier, and yet their work still resonates. If you’re too cheap to pick up a copy of Nuts, just do an image search on “Gahan Wilson Nuts” and you’ll see a bunch of ‘em:

Take it from an old fart, it’s worth reading.

Terrific obituary. I wrote most of this piece before I read it, I swear! Great minds think alike.

Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.

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