Back in June Fantagraphics Publisher Gary Groth and I were trouble-shooting ideas for packaging "Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons." Most of the ideas were unfeasible or enough of a gimmick that it felt distracting from the work. (Sure an iron maiden clamshell box is funny but do we really want the case to be that cumbersome?) As we axed ideas, so to speak, I kept returning to this classic gag of a man pressed under glass and was interested in how it echoed the idea that we're capturing the legacy of Gahan Wilson within this boxed set. A little research showed that we could make a slipcase with a plexiglass back so Gary and I agreed on the direction and I called up the legendary cartoonist to pitch him on the idea of drawing a self-portrait version of his old gag.
It turns out Mr. Wilson is a hilarious, engaging man to chat with but there was no convincing him to draw the portrait. He liked the idea just fine but felt that it was somehow impure to use artwork on the case that wasn't from the work inside. As my hopes faded I heard him suggest something I hadn't dared to ask: "If you want to take a picture we could do that." So the next minute I was on the phone to Gary. Would it hurt sales to have the grim visage of a trapped 79-year-old man staring out at the book buyer? Gary didn't care, he loved the idea more than he feared how it would be received. And it certainly wouldn't be ignored. So we had our solution.
The next trick was having no budget (aka Fantagraphics Budget) and the need for a photographer willing to travel out to Gahan's studio to pull off the shoot within a few weeks time. I wasn't optimistic, but remembering the work of Seth Kushner's NYC photos of cartoonists I took a stab at conscripting not just a decent photographer but a truly talented one. Seth generously agreed to our modest arrangement and treked out to Sag Harbor with his camera and a man-sized panel of glass. In no time we had these amazing portraits that nailed the concept. (Plus we ended up with some great unpublished outtakes like this one of Gahan cradling a "baby" skeleton.)
On the production end, Playboy graciously gave us a wide berth on the design-- their only major dictate being the point size and typeface used for the art pages of the book-- so the final piece was just to pull off the tricky production Gary and I were envisioning. Our printer, Imago, worked with me at length on getting everything right and their efforts really completed the book.
In the end, each book has a different Gahan portrait on the back cover so the framed image of the artist can be changed out and displayed on your shelf of honor. The front of the slipcase is pillow embossed (ie: the image is in layered relief, which doesn't photograph well here), the back cover is silkscreened plexiglass, and the book covers are all diecut with morbid icons, with matching tipped-in interior diecut pages.
To top it off, the Special Edition set is shrink-wrapped with a box of miniature reproduction cards sent from Gahan to Hugh Hefner and a glow-in-the-dark letterpress print reminding the owner, day or night, that the end of the world is coming.
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