By Michael Aushenker
“When I was born, I was dead,” octogenarian cartoonist Gahan Wilson says matter-of-factly in a new documentary on his life, explaining how during birth a doctor gave his mother an anesthetic and, as he turned “cyanotic, blue,” the doctor finally revived Wilson by dunking him in a succession of cold and hot water.
“It worked,” Wilson continues in the film. “I started to gasp. I started to howl.”
From this character-defining beginning, Venice documentarian Steven-Charles Jaffe derives the title for his documentary on the often underrated humor cartoonist — “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird.”
G. Wilson, as he is known to many readers, has quietly built a voluminous body of work and achieved a cult status with his offbeat mix of the mundane and monstrous — often juxtaposing childhood with macabre creatures that are equal parts Maurice Sendak and Universal movie monster.
Wilson, who turns 84 in February, has cartooned for various newspapers and magazines — The New Yorker, National Lampoon, Colliers, Look, The New York Times — for more than 50 years. But his longest-running and most well-known artistic venue is Playboy magazine, to which he still contributes.
Wilson’s idiosyncratic cartoons emerged at a time when comic books and comics at large were being vilified as a corruptor of children’s minds. Largely reacting to popular horror and crime titles put out by William Gaines’ EC Comics (such as “Tales From the Crypt”), psychologist Frederic Wertham’s 1954 tome “Seduction of the Innocent” — which attacked comics for glorifying vice and promoting subliminal references to homosexuality and bondage — set in motion a congressional inquiry that led to the creation of the Comics Code to regulate sex and violence in comic books.
Mark Arnold, a comics historian who has authored the book “Frozen in Ice: The Story of Walt Disney Productions 1966-1985” and a two-volume history of leading MAD rival Cracked magazine, first fell in love with Wilson’s work as a kid after seeing “Gahan Wilson’s Sunday Comics,” a syndicated strip that appeared in the Los Angeles Times from 1973 through 1977.
“I had no idea who he was and didn’t know at the time that he had drawn for Playboy since 1957,” Arnold said. “By the late ‘70s, I became a regular reader of National Lampoon and loved his grotesque work there. I picked up every paperback and hardback cartoon compilation of his work that I could get my hands on, because I just loved his quirky, creepy style. I still do. He is, to me, one of the greats.”
Jaffe’s film, which opens in limited release Friday, features an impressive slate of celebrities waxing nostalgic on Wilson’s work, including Marvel Comics architect Stan Lee and comedians Bill Maher and Lewis Black. At first blush, several of the other gushing fans in Jaffe’s doc may seem incongruous until one reflects on the more personal movies of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (such as “Pan’s Labyrinth”), the humanoid-monster hybrids of Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” comics and the bent offerings of Dan Piraro’s “Bizarro” syndicated comic. Then the inspiration becomes clear. (Wilson has also been credited as an influence on such offbeat single-panel masters as B. Kliban, John Callahan and “The Far Side” creator Gary Larson.)
Many, including Del Toro and Piraro, stumbled onto Wilson’s work in their youth while sneaking peeks at a Playboy magazine.
“They were the creepiest, weirdest most fascinating drawings and subject matter,” says Piraro — who grew up reading Marvel and DC superhero yarns — in the film, likening Wilson’s creature-in-the-closet gag cartoons to “a weird child making these cartoons, which in a way he is.” Discovering Wilson, Piraro continues, became “a life-changing event for me.”
“I’ve never seen anyone portray the frustration of being a little kid [like Wilson],” adds Mignola.
As a child, Wilson survived abusive and alcoholic parents, from whom he later inherited a drinking problem.
“I showed [the documentary] to Robert Redford,” Jaffe said. “He wrote me this short but very astute note [which included the observation] ‘Gahan’s life was saved by art.’”
“Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird” represents Jaffe’s first full directorial credit.
The son of producer Herb Jaffe (“Time After Time”), Jaffe has long worked as a producer (“The Fly II,” “Ghost,” “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”) and second unit director (“Time After Time,” “Strange Days”). Jaffe also wrote and produced the 1980 horror film ‘Motel Hell” and did second-unit directing work on the controversial nuclear war TV movie “The Day After” in 1983.
Jaffe’s love for the documentary form goes back to a long-ago association with legendary director John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon”), who had produced documentaries on topics such as post-traumatic stress syndrome for the military.
“In the evening, he used to show documentaries and talk to anyone who wanted to listen,” Jaffe recalled, “and I wanted to listen.”
Several years after the success of 1990’s “Ghost,” Jaffe was able to befriend his favorite cartoonist. Then he saw Terry Zwigoff’s award-winning documentary “Crumb” in 1994.
“I wasn’t a huge Robert Crumb fan,” Jaffe said. “I knew his work, I liked it. I appreciated it. As soon as I saw the film, that’s when my opinion [of the pioneer underground cartoonist] got elevated.”
Jaffe and longtime collaborator Nicholas Meyer (screenwriter of “Time After Time” and several “Star Trek” movies) wrote a screenplay for an animated feature based on Wilson’s “Eddie Deco’s Last Caper” book. Despite much rejection, Jaffe and Meyer continue to push the project, heartened by quirky fair such as 2011’s “Rango” which was able to buck the Pixar formula and be commercially successful.
In the meantime, Jaffe hopes that his documentary — seven years in the making and funded by Jaffe’s own money — will become a back-door way to get “Eddie Gecko” made. And made correctly, contends Jaffe, in Wilson’s off-beat style.
“If you really got into this business to make movies, you have to find projects to satisfy your soul,” Jaffe said.
“Born Dead, Still Weird” also features conversations with author Nancy Winters, the New York-based cartoonist’s wife of nearly a half-century, who, in recent years, has turned their marriage into a long-distance relationship by living in London; and Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker’s longtime former cartoon editor.
The film makes a point at how daunting it is for even legendary cartoonists as Wilson to land a cartoon into the New Yorker. As frightening as some of Wilson’s monsters may be, nothing in Jaffe’s documentary is as horrifying as witnessing a succession of young cartoonists get rejected by a New Yorker editor on film.
And yet, decade after decade, Wilson, who lives in Sag Harbor, New York, plies away at his craft and continues to impress his cartoonist colleagues.
A“Gahan and I shared adjoining tables at a  Boston Comic-Con,” Stan Sakai, cartoonist behind the long-running comic-book series “Usagi Yojimbo” told The Argonaut. “He was very gracious, and an incredibly hard worker. He was at his table all the time, doing sketches for fans — including myself — no pencils, working directly with a magic marker.”
One of the more important figures in Jaffe’s film is the cartoonist’s longest and most loyal editor, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.
An aspiring cartoonist before hitting pay dirt with his magazine in late 1953, Hefner has long held a deep respect for cartoonists, as evinced by the number of cartoons found in each issue of Playboy since its inception. In 1957, when Hefner endeavored to compete with Gaines’ MAD magazine with his short-lived magazine Trump, he stole their best founding artists, including Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Will Elder and Al Jaffee.
“The market for magazine cartoons has gotten smaller and smaller,” Hefner says in Jaffe’s film. “It would be difficult to think, had Playboy not come along, where Gahan would have gone.”
“Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird” opens in limited release Friday and screens through Nov. 29 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Call (310) 274-6869.