‘Lucky to be alive’ — morbid cartoonist faces dementia

Evanston native Gahan Wilson, who attended the School of the Art Institute, has Alzheimer’s. “I look at the body of his work, and it’s basically about what it’s like to be human,” said his stepson, Paul Winters.

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A comic strip of a boy with a big cap building a perch in a tree.

Gahan Wilson’s “Nuts” comic strip from the National Lampoon. The artist is now 89 and struggling with dementia.

Artwork used wth permission.

Charles Addams isn’t forgotten. Not with “The Addams Family,” the black-and-white TV trifle that lasted two seasons in the mid-1960s and forever in syndication. Plus the sharp 1991 movie and a new, animated one, out last week.

Addams was more than that, of course. Readers of the New Yorker magazine savored his gorgeous, full page cartoons delving into the macabre. My favorite showed a pleasant suburban couple, the father with his pipe, the mother informing a trick-or-treating spaceman at the door, “I’m sorry sonny. We’ve run out of candy.” A second look shows the darkened neighborhood overrun with identical spacemen, the sky filled with hovering motherships.

After Addams died in 1988, his mantle of morbid fun, though not his fame, was taken up by Gahan Wilson. No movies to make him a household name. But he checked in at every phase of my life. In the 1960s, he illustrated a series of kids books about a moon boy name Matthew Looney.

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In the 1970s, Wilson had a monthly strip in the National Lampoon. It was something of a horror story about growing up, called “Nuts” — that had to be a play on “Peanuts.” Its protagonist was a large-headed boy in a plaid cap, his face just peeking out, rolling in the agony of childhood that Charles Schulz could only hint at.

“Nuts” hit the sweet spot between the hope and disillusionment of being a kid. I was shocked at how many specific strips came back after 40 years, particularly the one where the boy builds a pathetic shelf of a fort: just a board in a tree. “Nice to have something work out OK for once,” the kid muses. You could feel the weight of all those things that didn’t work out, hovering just off the page.

Cartoonist Gahan Wilson, now living in memory care in Arizona, with a sketchpad.

Cartoonist Gahan Wilson, now living in memory care in Arizona. His macabre cartoons were featured for decades in magazines like Playboy and The New Yorker.

Provided photo

I hadn’t seen Wilson’s stuff in the New Yorker lately, but it was still a shock to learn that Wilson, 89, has Alzheimer’s disease and his stepson, Paul Winters, started a GoFundMe page to pay for his care.

“I look at the body of his work, and it’s basically about what it’s like to be human,” Winters said over the phone from his home in Arizona. “He keeps everybody honest.”

Wilson was born in Evanston and attended the School of the Art Institute.

“He was very proud of being a Midwesterner,” said Winters.

Half a century of being a popular cartoonist — didn’t he save any money?

“Gahan was a true genius,” Winters said. “He didn’t really care about money. [Wilson and his wife] spent it and had fun. Add Alzheimer’s to the pot, and all of a sudden they don’t have any money. They lived with us for a while, then we got them into assisted living. Medicare doesn’t cover Alzheimer’s care.”

Winters was very reluctant to use GoFundMe. On one hand, it worked. He raised $80,000.

“Everybody loves Gahan,” he said. “Everyone loves his work. People who love him send five dollars, $20.”

On the other.

“What about people who can’t do this?” Winters said.

Recently, Wilson needed surgery — the doctor said “if you don’t do it, he’ll die” — and Winters approved the operation.

“Alzheimer’s patients, it’s not good for them to have surgery,” he said. “One of the medical team said, ‘Why didn’t you let him die?’”

Winters thought about that. “Every time I see him, he doesn’t know who I am. But he likes us, hangs out with us. He’s still very smart. What he always says is, “We’re so lucky to be alive.’

“I think it’s a terrible life to have Alzheimers, but he’s happy. He projects it. This is my step-father, I met him when I was 10,” said Winters, now 65. “He’s been around all my life. He has a sense of humor, even now. You’ll be talking to him and he’ll say this thing, and you’ll go ‘Wow!’ Something so succinct and thought-provoking.”

He isn’t soliciting donations.

“I want people who look at this to change things, as a society,” he said. “What’s going to happen to all the people who are going to get this? Either you spend all the money you’ve saved, or they get state aid, People really pay the price. I have nothing against him. ... he and my mother lived in a nice apartment, ate good food. When you’re living the high life like that, you don’t expect Alzheimer’s.”

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