November 12, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

The Animation of Gahan Wilson

Suspended Animation #345

Gahan Wilson who passed away in 2019 was known for his work as an author, illustrator and cartoonist whose work primarily depicted horror and fantasy situations sometimes in a comedic manner.

While similar in approach to cartoonist Charles Addams, Wilson’s work was singularly distinctive and was generally considered impossible to animate.

However, that changed in July 1992 with the release of Gahan Wilson’s Diner, a six minute animated short written by Wilson and animated in his artistic style. It was directed by Karen Peterson and Graham Morris. It was actually produced by Marvel Productions Ltd. and released by 20th Century Fox.

On a dark and stormy night, a rookie trucker on his first assignment is asked by his supervising driver to check out on an eerie nightmarish diner where a ghoulish counter waitress and a giant monstrous cook try to put him on the menu.

Wilson told writer Richard Gehr in 2011: “The most difficult thing I’ve done so far was an animated short called Gahan Wilson’s Diner that was released in 1992 with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was in very bad taste but really good.

“They let me do the whole damn thing. And they took what I storyboarded and followed it meticulously. For some reason or another, they let me just do it. They didn’t fix it up.

“I went to see it in this huge movie theater, and at the end of the short the whole theater burst into applause. I thought, ‘Hot shit!’ The genius director Steven Spielberg said it was the best animated short he’d ever seen.”

In October 1993, Variety announced that Wilson was developing a full-length animated feature for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The project was untitled at the time but was about vampires and was to be produced by Wilson’s producing partners Gene Kraft and Paul Winters who produced Gahan Wilson’s Diner.

Kraft and Winters had teamed with Wilson five years earlier in an effort to turn his cartoons into films. “The short demonstrated that Gahan’s work could be animated,” said Kraft.

Wilson said he had turned down previous offers for an animated feature film but relented when Amblin gave him assurance of control over his work.

“I wanted to have more control than was offered before,” said Wilson. “You have to be able to get your own vision across which comes from being able to supervise your own material. I have a nice feeling of how this will turn out.”

In addition to the Spielberg project that was never made, Wilson had several other deals in the work. He had signed a “first-look” deal with Universal Cartoon Studios to develop family entertainment. His first project was going to be a Saturday morning animated series tentatively title Monster Park. In addition, Wilson had a development deal with Disney for a primetime Halloween animated special.

Unfortunately, none of these projects were ever produced.

Produced in 2001 by Nelvana, Gahan Wilson’s The Kid was loosely based on his popular National Lampoon magazine cartoon strip Nuts that depicted how scary it was growing up from the POV of a ten year old child.

Wilson said, “The Lampoon people decided the last part of the magazine would have some comic page type stuff. They asked me to make up something so we’d have a regular page on it. And I said OK I would, and they said make it full of monsters and so on and so on because that is what I was know for doing.

“I was thinking of classical monsters and what I could take off here and take off there. I was thinking, what’s really horrible? What’s the most horrible? Then it was a bright sunny day in the city and — I can still see it. I was just sort of wandering in a park.

“There was this little kid with some grownups. He was this itsy bitsy thing with these huge towering creatures. He was trying to do this and they were making him do that (laughs).

“I watched them, fascinated, and I remembered that that was one of the roughest, toughest stages there is. You’re trying to conform to this enormous world, figure out how it works, function in it, make it do things which it doesn’t.”

The animated episodes were written by Wilson and Stan Daniels (who was one of the co-producers). The shows were directed by Larry Jacobs and Steve Daye and featured voice work by Ed Asner, Lolita Davidovich, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, William Shatner and Jennifer Tilly among others.

Three twenty-two minute episodes aired: The Cat where the kid is haunted by the ghost of the dead cat he dissected in biology class; The Waitress where the big bully Bruno tells the Kid and his friend Earl that he can undress women in his mind and they try this x-ray trick on the zoftig new young blonde waitress in the mall. The kid ends up seeing naked breasts everywhere and on everything; The Witch that takes place on Halloween night, when the Kid and his friends have covered just about every house on the street except the creepy old house on the hill.

The three separate episodes were later stitched together as a 75 minute feature film shown on the Showtime network.

Wilson’s last animated short was five minutes long and released in 2008 and entitled It Was A Dark and Silly Night. The short was directed by Steven-Charles Jaffe and meant to accompany his documentary about Wilson entitled Born Dead, Still Weird. Animation director was Laban Dickinson for 6th Avenue Productions.

It was based on a four page comic story that Neil Gaiman wrote and Wilson illustrated for the Little Lit anthology of the same name edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly where multiple writers and artists used the title as a springboard for a short story.

The Gaiman-Wilson collaboration had kids throwing a party in a graveyard and literally waking the dead. The parents did not want their son Edgar and his friends to have a party because of the noise and clean-up from the last one that had messy games like Jello tag.

Edgar’s little sister suggests the Happy Rest graveyard where it is quiet and no one will care.

The children’s noisy games and Edgar’s trumpet playing have corpses coming to join the fun. Accompanied by Edgar playing Alexander’s Ragtime Band on his trumpet they teach the kids new games like Roll the Noggin and Musical Ribs and smilingly wave goodbye at the end.



  • Those were all pretty good, in different ways.
    I’m a little hazy on the payoff of “Diner”. So, the new guy trucker was expecting the diner to be infested with ghouls? And the supervisor pushes a button, which transforms to truck into s steamshovel which grabs the diner and shakes it up? So that cleans out the spooks? Not sure, could have been clearer.

  • I have a few book collections of Gahan Wilson’s artwork, but had no idea his stuff was adapted into animated cartoons! As Peter Mork said, the different styles of animation all were good and certainly captured much of Wilson’s style and spirit. I think DINER and A DARK AND SILLY NIGHT come closest to his work.

    I remember seeing some of Gary Larson’s work being animated – stuff I saw on You Tube – not all that long ago, and was also impressed that Larson must have had a good amount of creative control over the project – just as Gahan Wilson had.

    It seems to me that there was an animated short based on Don Martin’s work. Henny Youngman’s voice was used – maybe, I’m not sure. Anybody know about this? Don Martin’s work in MAD magazine looked like still frames from incredibly hilarious and weird cartoon animation – as if Tex Avery and Bob Clampett totally let themselves go as wild as they could get!

    • Some Don Martin and “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons were animated in the ’90s for the sketch comedy show MAD TV. All of them were very brief. Don’t know whether Henny Youngman was involved.

      • There was a Don Martin-designed animated short called ‘Fester Bester’.

  • I remember Gahan Wilson’s cartoons in National Lampoon magazine. He illustrated the dust jacket for a hardcover collection of H. P. Lovecraft stories published by Arkham House, which wouldn’t have paid much but, in the little world of supernatural horror, doesn’t get any more prestigious. Wilson also designed the bust of Lovecraft that for many years was given to winners of the World Fantasy Awards, until it was recently redesigned because of objections to Lovecraft’s white supremacist views (which were pretty extreme, but he recanted them later in life).

    Wilson’s style always struck me as too cartoony to be truly horrific. Stephen King famously wrote that “if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” My recollection is that Wilson went for the gross-out all too often — a little closer to Kricfalusi than to Addams, it seems to me. That said, I quite enjoyed these animated cartoons, whose existence I was completely unaware of until today. Makes me nostalgic for the animation renaissance of the early ’90s, when people finally realised that there was an adult audience for cartoons.

    Now, Edward Gorey — there was a great illustrator of the macabre. His artwork was adapted into the animated opening title of the PBS anthology series “Mystery!” hosted by Vincent Price, but I don’t know of any other examples. Any animation studio would have had its work cut out for it in trying to capture Gorey’s fine pen-and-ink work.

  • I first saw Gahan Wilson’s work in magazines like National Lampoon back in the 70s. I always thought Nuts was Wilson’s version of Peanuts and the Kid was Wilson himself as a boy.

  • I got to see Diner at a 24-hour Horror marathon in Columbus, OH years ago. I loved Wilson’s cartoons, so it was a nice surprise to see a short based on his work. It went over like gangbusters. The Kid disappointed me a bit when I got around to seeing it. It was just lacking heart, I feel.

  • Next to “Rock and Rule” (1983), I think the three “The Kid” specials might be the only other adult projects Nelvana ever did. At least, that I’m aware of. They usually are family and kid friendly.

    • Nelvana also did “Quads”, created by John Callahan. Definitely an adult fare.

    • There was another Nelvana-produced adult-oriented animated series that I came across once called (IIRC) “Committed”. It was nearly in the same vein as the short-lived series based on the “Arthur” comic strip. Apart from that, the only other thing I know about it is that Nelvana employed the services of Philipine animation studio Fil-Cartoons to do the animation work. And it was likely one of the last things that overseas studio worked on before they shut down permanently.

  • I was the storyboard supervisor on Gahan Wilson’s Diner. I hate to contradict this great cartoonist, but he did not storyboard the feature. Those listed on the end credits (Brian Chin, Bob Dranko and Glen Hill) worked very hard to create a coherent storyboard from Gahan Wilson’s inspirational drawings.

  • I was just reminded of something while I was thinking back to this article. I remembered an animated adaptation of “The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe” (based on the same series of novels that inspired “The Chronicles Of Narnia”) from back around the 70’s. In it, the art style of the layouts and character designs resembled something that was drawn by Gahan Wilson. Did Wilson actually have any involvement in the creation of that feature? Or was it some other artist with a similar style of drawing as his? Does anyone else besides me remember this feature?

    • I remember it, Al. It aired on CBS in 1979 and was directed by Bill Melendez. Gahan Wilson didn’t have anything to do with it, but I understand why you might have thought he did. It’s on YouTube if you want to have another look at it.

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