Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons (Fantagraphics, 2009)

Be careful what you wish for department: I've loved Gahan Wilson's work for many years. He's an amazing talent, and while you may never find a consensus as to precisely when Playboy was no longer really worth the effort, it's clear that the cartoons have been the best thing about the magazine for many years, and Wilson's the best of those.

Fantagraphics has pleased me greatly by releasing this fantastic collection of all of Wilson's gleefully surreal and macabre work for Playboy. It is one hell of a presentation. It's three hardback collections in a slipcase with a plexiglass backing. The back cover of each volume features a different hilarious photo of the 79 year-old artist's face and hands pressed up against glass; boxed in the slipcase, it looks like he's been crammed into the box and is praying for release. Each book has a die-cut cover and, while arranged chronologically, is divided into sections by inserted pages repeating the die-cut of the cover.

This can't have been a cheap book to produce, and the price tag confirms it: $125 is a lot to pay at retail. It's worth every penny, as, apart from the bells-n-whistles of the presentation, it does contain every single drawing that Wilson did for Playboy, along with short stories, appreciations by Hugh Hefner and Neil Gaiman, and an interview with the artist by Gary Groth. It's nearly 1000 pages long, the cartoons are printed at their original publication size (that is, mostly one to a page), and it's all done on just about the nicest paper available. It's a book that just oozes quality.

And yet... there's a part of me that wishes there was a little less to it. Don't misunderstand me; Fantagraphics has created an amazing tribute, and I'll treasure my copy, but $125 is a really tall order. The presentation and the supplements are wonderful, but I can't help but wish that Fanta made this material available in a series of inexpensive softcover volumes as well. I feel at least a little strongly that great comics should be available to as wide a range of buyers as possible. Then again, I thought that about the thematically similar complete hardcover editions of Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side and Don Martin's work for Mad and nobody's put out anything resembling mass market editions of those, so I'm not holding my breath. Thanks for realizing one Reprint This! request, Fantagraphics, but could you make sure the next one you fill is just a little more affordable?

(Excerpted from today's Reprint This!)

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