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Wilson is going to be at the show to promote the massive, three-volume collection of Playboy cartoons that Fantagraphics is going to be publishing later this year. That’s an amazing, praise-worthy collection project, but while I don’t want to appear greedy, there is one other comic of Wilson’s I’d like to see collected.
Even if you don’t recognize Wilson’s name, chances are you’ve seen his cartoons, either in the occasional Playboy (where he’s been a regular staple for decades now, hence the Fantagraphics collection) or perhaps the occasional issue of the New Yorker or some other magazine. He’s also written children’s books and even the occasional novel. He’s mainly known for his decidedly dark sense of humor and a genuine appreciation of the macabre.
Nuts, however, isn’t really concerned with ghoulies, ghosties or long-legged beasties. No, it’s focus is decidedly on childhood, and the all-too real terrors and humiliations that are contained therein.
Originally serialized in National Lampoon magazine back in the 1970s (for those of you unfamiliar with the Lampoon, it was The Simpsons of its day, but in print form), Nuts was a small, six-panel strip that focused on a kid known simply as “The Kid,’ (though it didn’t take a mind-reader to figure out the tyke was a stand-in for Wilson himself).
The first panel usually began with Wilson directly addressing the reader, saying “Remember when …” But this wasn’t some treacly, Vaseline-smeared on the camera look at life in olden days. Wilson had apparently little use for nostalgia and its distorting effects. No, what Nuts was preferred to reminisce about was all the horrible anxieties and fears that plagued him in his early years. Nuts is about the slow discovery that life is a series of endless frustration and disappointments. In one strip after another, The Kid endures trauma after trauma, be it a hellish summer camp, wasting money on a submarine model that doesn’t work, going to the dentist or visiting a deathly ill relative.
It’s not all bad times of course. Sometimes you get to get a chocolate sundae at the family drug store, or your dad comes home drunk the day you hand in a bad report card.
All these tales are told with Wilson’s usual flair for exaggeration and sense of mischief, albeit grounded in a strong desire to honestly depict the roller-coaster of emotions The Kid frequently goes through. There’s one tale in particular, that is both a highlight and a typical example of what I’m talking about. In it, The Kid gets the one Christmas present he wanted more than anything else — a little circus set. Before he can enjoy it however, he has to head over to his rich cousin’s house, where he discovers that the smug bastard has received an even larger and more impressive circus set for the holidays.
Look at the kid’s expression in that first and third panel. I don’t think anyone’s been able to capture sheer disgust and bile as well as Wilson does here. If that image doesn’t make you hunger to read more than I don’t know what else I can do to persuade you.
Nuts takes place in a world geared solely towards adults, not kids. It was a place where those under 18 had to maneuver carefully and where a wrong turn could easily result in a bizarre misunderstanding or worse (at one point the Kid tells his parents about the guy he met at the movie theater who talked about Oscar Wilde and “acted funny”). That world doesn’t really exist any longer, at least not in America. We have tailored our culture to fit to kids’ tastes and interests — the better to maintain our precious hold on our own immaturity and nostalgia for our youth. There’s a reason why even people who don’t have kids know who Hannah Montana is.
And yet there’s no doubt plenty of material in Nuts that the kids of today would recognize instantly. My own son and daughter would no doubt be very familiar with the Kid’s constant sense of confusion, frustration and deep-seated fears. even though they may never have attempted to express it in words. Some experiences are universal. And Nuts captures the worst aspects of childhood better than any comic I know. And it’s real funny to boot.
My thanks to Bill Peschel for the loan of his book.