Elder Statesman of Comics

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 Crumb, Kim 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 PanicMad'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 source material.

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 education.

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 ever did.”

“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.

About the Author: Michael Dooley is a History of Design, Comics, and Animation professor at Pasadena’s Art Center and Loyola Marymount University in L.A. He’s an author and since 1991 a Print Contributing Editor. He’s also the creative director of Michael Dooley Design.