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One could do worse than having a comic strip about a
bubble-headed blonde that ran in the back pages of Playboy
as one's most well known accomplishment. But if your name was Will
Elder, who died May 14 at age 86, you could do a whole lot better.
And indeed, although his earlier works are lesser known, they have
a much more respectable, and respectful, following.
Will Elder's self-self-portrait.
More than the general public, designers are likely to be
familiar with Elder's brilliant disassembling of the mass media and
pop culture in general, starting with Mad in its nascent
phase as a 10-cent comic book. Countless comics artists—from Robert
Deitch and Rick Griffin to Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes and Chris
Ware—have been profoundly affected by his comics, to say nothing of
his numerous art department heirs at Mad, the magazine, over
the past 50 years.
And his impact doesn't stop with cartoonists. He's influenced
directors from the Zucker Brothers and Terry Gilliam to Louis
Malle, and his anarchic, anything goes sensibility can also be felt
in Firesign Theatre records and The Simpsons TV show.
It's been said that the man born Wolf William Eisenberg changed
his last name because of his admiration for Pieter Bruegel the
Elder. And indeed, if the painter of The Fall of the Rebel
Angels (1562) were reincarnated as a smart-alecky cartoonist,
it would probably be Will Elder.
Willie, as he was occasionally called (his cartoons invite
familiarity), tended to cause unprepared eyeballs to get the
willies. Forget about “less is more”: Elder would pack every panel
with so many visual puns, running gags and other witty minutiae
that to absorb the story in its entirety would take at least twice
as long as usual. And although those layouts were cluttered, they
were never confusing.
Panel from “Dragged Net!” Mad no. 11.
I had the good fortune to see Elder in person at the 1972 EC
Fan-Addict Convention, in New York. Throngs of devotees made the
pilgrimage to behold the giants of comics' mid-century era:
publisher Bill Gaines, who was responsible for making the “E” in EC
Comics stand for entertaining as well as educational, and who
called Elder “the funniest artist Mad ever had, just pure
mayhem”; Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, artist-writers who were
responsible for most of the scripting; and Wally Wood, Jack Davis,
John Severin and several other extremely talented cartoonists.
There were panel discussions on the horror, sci-fi and war lines,
and although Elder had drawn for Tales From the Crypt,
Weird Science and Frontline Combat, he didn't really
belong to any of those genres. His participation on the war panel
was mostly as comic relief. He was a humorist, first and foremost.
As he himself said that day, “I love humor. It's the only way I can
express myself.” Indeed, to see him perform on the dais, mixing
Chico-like non-sequiturs with Harpo-esque pantomime, was to see
that he quite literally embodied his art.
Panel from “The Night Before Christmas,” Panic no. 1.
To speak of Will Elder, one must also speak of Harvey Kurtzman,
his primary partner in parody. Yes, Elder had other artistic
accomplishments on his own. His “The Night Before Christmas,” for
the first issue of Panic—Mad's authorized imitation at
EC—was not only an intensely madcap desecration of Charles Clement
Moore's old warhorse of a poem, it also had the distinction of
getting that issue banned in Massachusetts. But the synergy he had
with Kurtzman as writer and editor inevitably produced more
resonance than his solo work. It was a comics collaboration as
groundbreaking in its creativity as Bill Bernbach's
copywriter-artist pairings at DDB during that same era.
For Mad, from its debut in 1952, Elder initially worked
on Kurtzman's terror- and crime-themed humor pieces, illustrating
lampoons of Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow, television's
Dragnet and Poe's The Raven. His Baroque ink
embellishments of Kurtzman's pencil roughs put the horror vacui in
horror, with intricate crosshatching and densely crowded panels of
bizarre characters engaged in even more bizarre behavior that were
simultaneously dark and lighthearted.
Panel from “Mickey Rodent!” Mad no. 19.
Eventually he hit his stride with his takeoffs on the popular
comics of the day. While Wood, Davis and the others would draw
their parodies in a style that was instantly recognizable as their
own, Elder's graphic mimicry of Gasoline Alley, Mickey Mouse, and
the Katzenjammer Kids made Kurtzman's skewering of his subjects all
the more substantive by its precise evocation of the flavor of the
Despite his flair for imitation, his personality still shines
through in his adaptations. His foregrounding of the background
with zany excesses and his literal bursting of panel borders called
attention to the artifice of the art, and provided preteens with a
lowbrow-level preview of late-century postmodernism.
The first Mad I bought was number 21. Its opening story
was “Poopeye!” in which the squinty-eyed sailor battled Superman,
Tarzan and Li'l Abner's Mammy Yoakum, and eventually beat Swee'Pea
to a pile of pulp that Wimpy gathered into a dustpan for burger
meat. Just on the basis of these eight pages of screwball
surrealism, I was hardly surprised to learn that the Grateful
Dead's Jerry Garcia was among Elder's legions of fans: a full
decade before the psychedelic revolution, this Mad man was
blowing my mind.
Panels from “Starchie,” Mad no. 12.
Instantly addicted, I snapped up The Mad Reader, a
paperback repackaging of earlier strips, including “Starchie.” With
its incisive portrayals of teenage switchblade shakedowns and
ruthless rivalries, rendered by Elder with a gritty realism, this
smack-down of Archie comics did a better job preparing me for high
school than all my years of conservative elementary school
Page from “Special Art Issue,” Mad no. 22.
The next Mad was a “Special Art Issue,” ostensibly a
success story about Will Elder but in reality, a portrait of the
artist as reprobate and clown. The visuals swerved back and forth
from Elder's cartoons to doctored black-and-white photos. This
stylistic experimentation, along with the growing awareness to my
naive young mind that there were actual people creating those
stories, began to instill me with the notion that art could be a
way, perhaps even pleasurably, to make a living.
Elder's illustration skills developed further as Mad
converted to magazine format in 1955, and further still under
Kurtzman's editorship at Trump (1957), Humbug
(1957–58) and Help! (1960–65). He produced
near-photorealistic takeoffs on ads for cigarettes, alcohol and
other products. And, like an un-well Norman Rockwell, he would add
incongruous, farcical touches like a dead cockroach suspended in an
otherwise pristine bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume.
With these publications, Kurtzman's writing developed a
maturity, as did Elder's art. Appropriate to the more
adult-oriented subject matter, his line work grew more
sophisticated and his figure drawing more solidly realistic. His
depictions of movies and TV shows were like Theater of the Absurd
performances in funny page format.
“Channel 5” page, Humbug no. 4 (at left); page from
“Frankenstien and His Monster,” Humbug no. 7.
Help!—in addition to being a seminal breeding ground for
young talents such as Robert Crumb and Terry Gilliam—was also the
magazine in which Kurtzman, at his most literary, wrote a number of
brilliant comics tales for Elder, including five that featured a
character named Goodman Beaver.
Panel from “Goodman Meets S*perm*n,” Help! no. 15.
Goodman was a modern-day Candide attempting to cope with a
morally corrupt world. Freed from tight deadlines, Elder lavished
each page with a richness that I consider his artistic pinnacle.
And I was happy to discover while reading a Comics Journal interview with him a few years ago, that
he agreed with my evaluation, declaring, “It was the best thing I
“Goodman, Underwater,” set within the framework of the
television program Sea Hunt, takes as its theme the delusions of
do-gooders. With visual analogies to Don Quixote, Elder's
black-and-white line work is a solid match with Gustave Doré's
etchings. “Goodman Meets S*perm*n” is a meditation on mankind's
inherent corruption, with a formerly selfless superhero who has
lost all respect for, and desire to help, the human race. Elder's
meticulous detailing of the urban street and rural nature settings
adds authority to Kurtzman's profoundly cynical scenario, while his
signature visual tchotchkes help lighten the existential load.
“Goodman Goes Playboy” is a Faustian satire in which a
collegiate Archie Andrews buys into the Playboy lifestyle.
This particular episode has come to acquire legendary status over
the years, partly due to the fact that Archie's publishers—still
sore from Mad's “Starchie”—took legal action that
effectively blocked its republication for four decades. Naturally,
as with all Kurtzman/Elder stories, the writer-editor deserves
primary credit for the contents. But it was Elder's flawless
draftsmanship in scenes like a “decline of the Roman Empire”
free-for-all orgy with Archie, Jughead, Reggie and the gang that
gives the story its remarkable staying power.
Panels from “Goodman Goes Playboy,” Help! vol. 2 no. 1.
As a parable about the dangers of selling one's soul, “Goodman
Goes Playboy” acquired retrospective irony in 1962 when Hugh
Hefner, cool enough not to take offense at its potshots, was also
shrewd enough to hire the pair to produce a female version of
Goodman Beaver. Little Annie Fanny is more admired for its
virtuosic watercolor and tempera technique than respected for its
creativity: under Hef's heavy-handed editorship, Elder's art, along
with Kurtzman's scripting, was severely tamped down. Yet it trudged
along for a quarter-century and more than a hundred installments
until it finally petered out in 1988.
Little Annie Fanny sketch (from the book Chicken Fat).
I prefer to remember the older, glory days of Kurtzman and
Elder. Personally, their best work functioned like a Rosetta stone,
helping me to decrypt the mysteries of growing up. They exposed and
savagely ridiculed the lies beneath the veneer of polite,
respectable society. And they also helped me realize that—in the
right combination—words and images can be a potent tool of
communication, opening the way to my career in graphic design.
A half-century after its creation, Elder's work is still
available in print, to be savored at length and at leisure, the way
it was intended. Fantagraphics Books has published a 400-page
monograph, Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art, and
Chicken Fat, a follow-up compendium of
drawings and doodles. Later this year, it will release a two-volume
slip-cased set of the entire run of Humbug.
That Willie Elder's manic and masterful ink marks from the 1950s
to the early 1960s continue to be available is a testament and
tribute to his artistry and, not so incidentally, to his humor.
How does one master the art of publishing comics and books of
visual culture? Heller seeks wisdom from the sensei, Dan
Nadel of PictureBox.
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