Will Elder

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Will Elder
Will Elder self-portrait
BornWolf William Eisenberg
(1921-09-22)September 22, 1921
Bronx, New York, United States
DiedMay 15, 2008(2008-05-15) (aged 86)
Rockleigh, New Jersey, United States
Notable works
Little Annie Fanny

William Elder (born Wolf William Eisenberg; September 22, 1921 – May 15, 2008) [1] was an American illustrator and comic book artist who worked in numerous areas of commercial art but is best known for a frantically funny cartoon style that helped launch Harvey Kurtzman's Mad comic book in 1952.

Harvey Kurtzman American cartoonist

Harvey Kurtzman was an American cartoonist and editor. His best-known work includes writing and editing the parodic comic book Mad from 1952 until 1956, and writing the Little Annie Fanny strips in Playboy from 1962 until 1988. His work is noted for its satire and parody of popular culture, social critique, and attention to detail. Kurtzman's working method has been likened to that of an auteur, and he expected those who illustrated his stories to follow his layouts strictly.

Mad is an American humor magazine founded in 1952 by editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines, launched as a comic book before it became a magazine. It was widely imitated and influential, affecting satirical media, as well as the cultural landscape of the 20th century, with editor Al Feldstein increasing readership to more than two million during its 1974 circulation peak. From 1952 until 2018, Mad published 550 regular issues, as well as hundreds of reprint "Specials", original-material paperbacks, reprint compilation books and other print projects. The magazine's numbering reverted to 1 with its June 2018 issue, coinciding with the magazine's headquarters move to the West Coast.


Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner said, "He was a zany, and a lovable one." [2] Longtime Mad writer-cartoonist Al Jaffee called Elder "Absolutely brilliant... he was the star from the beginning. He had a feel for the kind of satire that eventually spread everywhere." [2]

<i>Playboy</i> Mens lifestyle and entertainment magazine based in Chicago

Playboy is an American men's lifestyle and entertainment magazine. It was founded in Chicago in 1953, by Hugh Hefner and his associates, and funded in part by a $1,000 loan from Hefner's mother. Notable for its centerfolds of nude and semi-nude models (Playmates), Playboy played an important role in the sexual revolution and remains one of the world's best-known brands, having grown into Playboy Enterprises, Inc. (PEI), with a presence in nearly every medium. In addition to the flagship magazine in the United States, special nation-specific versions of Playboy are published worldwide.

Hugh Hefner American businessman and magazine publisher

Hugh Marston Hefner was an American magazine publisher and life-stylist. He was the founder and editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine, a publication with revealing photographs and articles that provoked charges of obscenity. The first issue of Playboy, published in 1953, featured Marilyn Monroe in a nude calendar shoot and sold over 50,000 copies.

Al Jaffee American cartoonist

Allan "Al" Jaffee is an American cartoonist. He is notable for his work in the satirical magazine Mad, including his trademark feature, the Mad Fold-in. As of 2019, Jaffee has been a regular contributor to the magazine for 64 years and is its longest-running contributor. In the half-century between April 1964 and April 2013, only one issue of Mad was published without containing new material by Jaffee. In a 2010 interview, Jaffee said, "Serious people my age are dead."

Elder was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2018, the Comics Reporter's Tom Spurgeon described Elder as "an amazing artist, a sneaky spot-holder on the top 20 of the 20th century." [3]

Tom Spurgeon American writer

Thomas Spurgeon is an American writer, historian and editor in the field of comics, notable for his five-year run as editor of The Comics Journal and his blog The Comics Reporter.

Early years

Born Wolf William Eisenberg in the Bronx, New York, Elder was known in his teen years as Wolfie. Elder would later joke about his poor slum upbringing: "The people who had garbage were rich; they had something to throw out." Elder attended New York's High School of Music and Art together with future Mad artists Harvey Kurtzman, John Severin, Al Jaffee and Al Feldstein. [4]

John Severin artist

John Powers Severin was an American comics artist noted for his distinctive work with EC Comics, primarily on the war comics Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat; for Marvel Comics, especially its war and Western comics; and for his 45-year stint with the satiric magazine Cracked. He was one of the founding cartoonists of Mad in 1952.

Al Feldstein American comics artist

Albert Bernard Feldstein was an American writer, editor, and artist, best known for his work at EC Comics and, from 1956 to 1985, as the editor of the satirical magazine Mad. After retiring from Mad, Feldstein concentrated on American paintings of Western wildlife.

During World War II, he served as a part of the 668th Engineer Company (Topographical) of the First Army, as part of the mapmaking team in advance of the invasion of Normandy. Sometime after returning home, he adopted the name Will Elder.[ citation needed ]

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.


In the late 1940s, Elder and former classmate Kurtzman teamed with Charles Stern to form the Charles William Harvey Studio, creating comics between 1948 and 1951 for Prize Comics and other publishers. At EC Comics, he inked Severin's pencils on stories for Weird Fantasy , Two-Fisted Tales , Frontline Combat and other titles.

Entertaining Comics, more commonly known as EC Comics, was an American publisher of comic books, which specialized in horror fiction, crime fiction, satire, military fiction, dark fantasy, and science fiction from the 1940s through the mid-1950s, notably the Tales from the Crypt series. Initially, EC was owned by Maxwell Gaines and specialized in educational and child-oriented stories. After Max Gaines' death in a boating accident in 1947, his son William Gaines took over the company and began to print more mature stories, delving into genres of horror, war, fantasy, science-fiction, adventure, and others. Noted for their high quality and shock endings, these stories were also unique in their socially conscious, progressive themes that anticipated the Civil Rights Movement and dawn of 1960s counterculture. In 1954–55, censorship pressures prompted it to concentrate on the humor magazine Mad, leading to the company's greatest and most enduring success. By 1956, the company ceased publishing all of its comic lines besides Mad.

<i>Weird Fantasy</i>

Weird Fantasy is a dark fantasy and science fiction anthology comic that was part of the EC Comics line in the early 1950s. The companion comic for Weird Fantasy was Weird Science. Over a four-year span, Weird Fantasy ran for 22 issues, ending with the November–December 1953 issue.

<i>Two-Fisted Tales</i> comic book

Two-Fisted Tales is an anthology war comic published bi-monthly by EC Comics in the early 1950s. The title originated in 1950 when Harvey Kurtzman suggested to William Gaines that they publish an adventure comic. Kurtzman became the editor of Two-Fisted Tales, and with the advent of the Korean War, he soon narrowed the focus to war stories. The title was a companion comic to Frontline Combat, and stories Kurtzman wrote for both books often displayed an anti-war attitude. It returned to adventure-themed stories in issues #36 through #39, co-edited by John Severin and Colin Dawkins, with a cover-title change to The New Two-Fisted Tales.

When Kurtzman created Mad in 1952, Elder's wacky panels, filled with background gags, immediately attracted attention, first with "Ganefs!" in Mad 's debut issue but especially in the second issue with "Mole!", satirizing the popular mid-1940s Dick Tracy villain named Mole. The Mad lampoon depicted the successive efforts of prisoner Melvin Mole to tunnel away from the prison, first with a spoon, then with a toothpick and finally with a nostril hair.

The wild exaggeration in this story left such a strong impression that the character was sometimes quoted ("Dig! Dig!") and even given a homage years later in a Psychology Today illustration; sixty-two years later, Mad 's 2014 parody of the television prison series Orange Is the New Black included the image of Elder's Mole tunneling to freedom.

According to Jaffee, Elder "could have been the world's greatest forger." Elder had a chameleon-like talent for mimicking the precise styles of other cartoonists, which made the satiric effect stronger. This ability was showcased in such pieces as "Mickey Rodent!" (a takeoff on Mickey Mouse and Disney in general), "Starchie!" (Archie Comics), "Bringing Back Father!" (George McManus' Bringing Up Father strip), "Gasoline Valley!" (Frank King's Gasoline Alley ), and others. Such was Elder's ability that some of these parodies featured specific observations about the source materials' art styles, with Elder switching illustrative gears in midpanel.

Elder had this to say about his mimicry:

Through imitation, I found an avenue of expression... if you're going to make an imitation of something, a fascimile, it's got to be convincing. When you convince people, then you can turn the tables and shock them as a result. Accuracy was part of it. If I could fool people to think that this was the real item, and then suddenly make them realize at the last moment that it wasn't, that in itself is surprisingly funny.

Elder's signature style, with extra humorous detail added upon humorous detail, is routinely described as "chicken fat," a reference to soup preparation. As Elder told an interviewer, "The term just came out of what we both [Kurtzman and Elder] knew were the parts of the strip that gave it more flavor but did very little to advance the storyline. That's what Chicken Fat does... it advances the flavor of the soup and, as we all know now, too much chicken fat will kill you!" [5]

Elder's rampant insertion of background gags set the tone for the comic book, quickly spreading into the panels of his fellow artists and Mad's imitators. Kurtzman described their collaborative process: "I would write a story, and as if by magic, all the empty spaces would get filled in by sub-jokes... he was an inexhaustible source." In 2004, Elder told an interviewer, "In Mad, Harvey never rejected any of my little extras in the story. I think he was much harder on the other artists, because my stuff made him laugh. As soon as he laughed I think he forgot that it didn't belong in the story!" [6]

Some viewers believe Elder's style of separate foreground and background actions was mimicked by Louis Malle in his 1960 film Zazie dans le Métro , in a restaurant scene where the background action begins to take precedence over the main character. “I thought people would notice and would laugh," said Malle, "but nobody did." Elder had drawn the article "Restaurant!" in 1954; the Mad piece was about a family and its meal, but the backgrounds were filled with numerous sight gags including the Bufferin aspirin ad campaign, hieroglyphics, a mop substituting for spaghetti, the RCA Victor dog, a toddler eating the plates, and a full coat rack including Viking helmet and deer antlers. Monty Python's Terry Gilliam said of Elder, "I don't know if anybody's really worked at that level as intensely as Willy did. And it never seemed to distract from the center." 21st-century Mad cartoonist Evan Dorkin put it more simply: "If God is in the details, Will Elder channeled God." [7]

Elder also drew for EC's other humor comic, Panic . His illustrated version of Clement Clarke Moore's "T'was the Night Before Christmas" included several irreverent images, including a "Just Divorced!" sign hanging on the back of Santa Claus' sleigh. As a result, sales of Panic were banned in the state of Massachusetts. [8] Elder included a self-caricature, being spun around on Santa Claus' hip as Santa "filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk"-- the jerk, of course, is Elder.

Sense of humor

Elder was known as an inveterate prankster. As a child, he once cut out paper silhouettes of a man carrying a knife and a woman. Attaching them to a rotating record turntable, he projected their image onto the windowshade, and began screaming. People on the outside of the building saw what they thought was an assailant chasing his victim around the room. [9] EC colorist Marie Severin recalled, "Will used to have this painting of a deer... I guess it was one of those 5-and-10-cent store things. It had a deer, a mountain, some trees, a path, flowers and the like, and he'd change it with the seasons! If it was winter he'd paint snow on the deer, and then he would paint over that and put the sun out for the springtime with flowers coming up." Kurtzman recounted the time Elder and his playmates found a stock of fresh meat as a child: "These kids collected a bunch of clothes and they dressed the meat in clothes and spread the combination of meat and clothes along the right-of-way for about half a mile on the railroad tracks. Then Willy started shrieking at the top of his voice that Mikey had fallen down onto the railroad tracks. Naturally every woman for miles around who had a son named Mike went out of their mind, seeing this mess of clothes and meat along the tracks... This is the kind of kid that Willy was." [10] Years later, Elder still had a gruesome side to his humor, sending his wife a heart from a slaughterhouse as a Valentine's Day gift.

By all accounts, Elder's humor was compulsive. Al Jaffee described a portrait Elder once painted of his son: "It was a beautiful painting. It was all in very somber blues and black tones, very dark and brooding. After he finished it, he couldn't resist putting two little red dots on the kid's neck, as if a vampire had been there. He was always driven by the notion that something should be funny."

Post-Mad career

Elder collaborated frequently throughout his career with Kurtzman. After leaving Mad in 1957, the two worked together on a string of short-lived humor magazines: Trump , Humbug and Help! . For Help!, Elder and Kurtzman created Goodman Beaver, a well-meaning naif whose trust in human nature and goodness were forever being undercut. One installment depicted the characters of Archie Comics as thoughtless hedonists, and was titled "Goodman Beaver Goes Playboy!". This parody resulted in a lawsuit from Archie Comics. Kurtzman and Elder had previously irritated the Archie publisher with a parody in Mad ("Starchie!"). Archie Comics ended up with possession of the story's copyright. When the full Goodman Beaver series was reprinted by Kitchen Sink Press, the story could not legally be included. However, after Archie Comics failed to renew its copyright, the original "Goodman Beaver Goes Playboy!" went into public domain and was published in Fantagraphics' Comics Journal .

Publisher and critic Gary Groth wrote that Elder's artwork in the Goodman Beaver stories "clinched his reputation as the cartoon Brueghel [ sic ] with his intricate portraits of a world cheerfully going mad". [11] Elder later talked to The Comics Journal about the Goodman Beaver series, saying, "It was the best thing I ever did."

While the owners of Archie had taken offense, the owner of Playboy did not. Hugh Hefner, a fan of Kurtzman and "Goodman Beaver", commissioned Kurtzman and Elder to create a similar but more lavish strip for Playboy. The result was Little Annie Fanny . Like Goodman Beaver, Little Annie Fanny was a pure-of-heart innocent; unlike him, she was regularly divested of her clothing. The Annie Fanny series (107 stories in all) was irregularly published in the back of Playboy for more than a quarter of a century from October 1962 through September 1988. In 2001, Dark Horse Comics published the trade paperback collections Playboy's Little Annie Fanny, Volume 1 ( ISBN   1-56971-519-X) and Playboy's Little Annie Fanny, Volume 2: 1970–1988 ( ISBN   1-56971-520-3).

Elder's advertising art, caricatures, cartoons, illustrations and stories were collected in the 392-page career retrospective, Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art (Fantagraphics, 2003; ISBN   1-56097-603-9). The follow-up book, Chicken Fat (also by Fantagraphics), was published in 2006 and compiles drawings, sketches, cartoons and doodles by Elder, most of which had never been published. In 2009, Fantagraphics published a complete boxed collection of Humbug.

Elder died on May 15, 2008 from complications due to Parkinson's disease in Rockleigh, New Jersey. [12] [13]

See also

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  1. Haber, Matt (May 15, 2008). "Illustrator and Prankster Will Elder Dies at 86". The New York Observer. Observer Media. Retrieved May 15, 2008.
  2. 1 2 McLellan, Dennis (May 17, 2008). "OBITUARIES/Will Elder, 1921 – 2008: Cartoonist at launch of Mad magazine". Los Angeles Times . Archived from the original on August 13, 2011.
  3. http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/random_comics_news_story_round_up042318/
  4. Severin profile, Lambiek's Comiclopedia; accessed October 27, 2016.
  5. Will Elder Interview – Conversation with Willy Archived May 18, 2008, at the Wayback Machine , madmumblings.com; accessed August 5, 2017.
  6. https://web.archive.org/web/20080518132751/http://www.madmumblings.com/Elder_Interview.html
  7. evandorkin: Will Elder R.I.P Archived May 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  8. "Elder Statesman of Comics". Aiga.org. Retrieved August 9, 2017.
  9. "Photostream". Pics.livejournal.com. Retrieved August 9, 2017.
  10. "Will Elder". Pics.livejournal.com. Retrieved August 9, 2017.
  11. Groth 1988, p. 318.
  12. William Grimes (May 18, 2008). "Will Elder, Cartoonist of Satiric Gifts and Overpopulated Scenes, Dies at 86". The New York Times. p. A31. Retrieved September 19, 2013.
  13. Jackson, Kenneth T. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives: 2006-2008, p. 124. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998. ISBN   9780684315751. Accessed April 21, 2017. "In his last years Elder resided at the Jewish Home in Rockleigh. He died from complications due to Parkinson's disease."

Further reading