Friday, January 06, 2012

Books of the Year, Part 2: Exhuming childhood's mysteries with Gahan Wilson

A year or so ago in this space, when I was praising the colossal National Lampoon book "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead," I bemoaned the fact that no one had collected Gahan Wilson's "Nuts" comic strips from that magazine. Well, ask and ye shall receive apparently, because the folks at Fantagraphics did just that in this snazzy little hardcover.

"Nuts," if you're not familiar with it (and really, why would you be?), was a single-page comic Wilson wrote and drew for more than 10 years for the Lampoon's "Funny Pages" section. While many of the other strips -- and the magazine itself, for that matter, specialized in jet-black humor with heavy dollops of sex and violence, "Nuts" was something else. For one thing, it had a continuing character -- a little boy who was just trying to navigate the complicated corridors of childhood. "Nuts" wasn't action-packed or boldly satirical. Just the opposite, in fact -- it was subtle and thoughtful, with what I'm guessing was a heavy autobiographical element on the part of Mr.Wilson. Each strip would take a semi-nostalgic look back at some aspect of childhood, like magic sets or libraries or school or model kits, then reflect on the fact that it was confusing or scary or disappointing or just plain strange -- or usually a combination of all of those elements.

One of the most surprising things about "Nuts" was the other thing that set it apart from the rest of the National Lampoon -- it wasn't endlessly dark or bitter-humored. It definitely wasn't a rainbows-and-sunshine hosanna to the glories of lost childhood, but it also wasn't a cruel joke on kids (or former kids). It was a lot more complex than that. Our unnamed hero did what he could to figure out the confounding world of adults, and he almost always failed at that near-impossible task, but he kept trying -- and we kept rooting for him. How could we not? You might not have grown up when Wilson did, or when the magazine was published, or when I first read these strips years ago, so the details have changed. But I'm willing to bet the emotions our hero felt remain almost exactly the same, no matter what generation is reading about him.

And, of course, Gahan Wilson's cartooning is what makes the strips special. The panels are cramped, packed with Wilson's organic linework and evocative lettering, but that just adds to the feeling that we're a little kid in the big, weird world and everything seems a bit overwhelming. Normally I like books of cartoons -- especially those done by someone with Wilson's talent -- to be big, spacious productions. But for this collection of "Nuts," the small size feels just right.

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