Born Dead Review

By | Tuesday, January 21, 2020 Leave a Comment
Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird promo
I recently watch the 2014 documentary Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird. Wilson, of course, spent most of his life drawing surreal/fantasy/horror cartoons for the likes of Playboy, National Lampoon, and The New Yorker, and has had any number of books collecting many of his works. That's how I first discovered him -- my father had a few collections of Wilson cartoons that he had purchased shortly after college, and I stumbled across those on a bookshelf in the basement one summer when I was probably 13 or 14. Wilson's cartoons covered a wide range of topics and themes over his career, but they all had his uniquely grotesque sensibility. They were cartoons that stared the inevitability of death in the face and openly mocked it.

Born Dead, Still Weird is kind of a sweeping documentary in that it tries to cover a great deal of territory, starting with how Wilson was born (he was literally born dead!) and covering much of his professional work, with anecdotes and appreciations from everyone from Stephen Colbert to Hugh Hefner. Not to mention people in the comics business itself, from Dan Piraro to Mike Mignola to Neil Gaiman to Stan Lee. And since this was produced in 2014 before his death, there is quite a bit of footage talking with Wilson directly and showing him working. All in a little under an hour and a half.

The documentary does a good job of presenting Wilson as a professional cartoonist. We get some discussion of his work process, meetings with editors, and some breakdowns of the humor in several of his comics. We even see one of his cartoons that was picked up by The New Yorker being published and distributed. Many of the celebrity appearances focus on the impact Wilson had on their own work, so we get a sense of his importance to the field in general. We also see a fair amount of who Wilson is as a person. There are discussions with his wife and step-son, and Wilson talks a bit about some of his outlook and philosophy. (For as disturbing as some of his comics can be, he's got a strikingly normal outlook on life.)

During many of the interviews, particularly those in which someone is describing a specific comic, that comic is presented on-screen. Interestingly, instead of simply displaying the image on the full screen, though, they are generally shown fairly close up initially, with a slow zooming out until the entire cartoon is visible. This cleverly allows the viewer to take in the various details in a somewhat directed manner -- as Wilson often places the visual punchline to the periphery of his cartoons. With the zoom effect, the viewer can get a sense of the structure and layout before the gag is revealed. I don't think this would work for many cartoonists, but it does serve Wilson's style fairly well.

Obviously, because of the running time, there was a lot left out. Wilson relayed several anecdotes about his childhood and some background on his parents, but the movie skims over the next couple of decades and jumps to where he's a success at Playboy. No mention of how he got in the door with Collier's first, nor how he actually started at Playboy -- no mention of anything from around 1940-1960. I suppose that was a deliberate attempt to show the Wilson that everybody knows. And while you can kind of justify showing a child of under 10 as something of a blank slate, that gets increasingly more difficult as they become a teen and young adult and those periods might be considered more of a proto-Gahan-Wilson era -- where his illustration style hadn't fully matured, and his comics weren't very dark yet. Still, given the number of childhood photographs of Wilson that are used, and the various anecdotes about his childhood that are presented, that two whole decades aren't even given the slightest nod is hard not to notice.

July 31, 2006 New Yorker Magazine
One other thing that caught my attention was some "obvious" tells on when this was filmed. We see, for example, Wilson meeting with Françoise Mouly to discuss using his work for a New Yorker cover. We then see the cover getting printed, bound to the magazine itself, and sent to newsstands and it's very clearly shown to be the cover from the July 31, 2006 issue -- eight years before the movie was released. We also see Wilson receiving the key to the city of Evanston, IL where he grew up. I can't seem to find a date for this event listed anywhere, but the key was presented to him by Mayor Lorraine H. Morton, who left office in 2009, so it's at least five years before the movie came out. I get that movies take time to produce, and I don't have any problem with using these pieces of footage, but they're both presented in the context of the movie as being more immediate and contemporary. I would think that, knowing that producing a movie takes time, a film-maker would want to avoid tying such specific dates to something they're presenting as "now."

Honestly, though, those are more production-type items, and I suspect many people wouldn't care about issues like those. (I'm more of a production nerd that way, I suppose.) Overall, I did like the documentary and, as there's surprisingly little information written about Wilson, I welcomed getting to learn more about the man. Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird is currently available for free on Amazon Prime, and the DVD is available for $14.99.
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