Will Elder

Will Elder was a joker of maniac proportions. Born in 1922 in one of New York’s numerous burroughs, he found his comics metier with his friend, classmate, mentor and studio partner, Harvey Kurtzman. But he didn’t meet Kurtzman until they both were attending the High School of Music and Arts in Manhattan; Elder later went on to the Academy of Design.

Elder admitted that his reputation as a practical joker is deserved. At the San Diego Comic Convention in the summer of 2000, Elder appeared as a special guest, and he recounted a particularly spectacular effort at mirth that he had committed while still quite young.

He and some friends secured some scrap from a butcher shop--bones, mostly, with bits of meat still clinging to them. And then they obtained a cast-off child’s garment and went down to the railroad tracks near their apartment house and scattered the bones and clothing along the tracks. Then they began a chorus of lament: "Louie!" they wailed, "poor Louie! Poor, poor Louie!"

Louie’s mother appeared at her apartment window overlooking the scene of the disaster, crying out: "Louie? Where’s my Louie?"

The kids yelled back: "His face got run over by a train," pointing to the array of bones and bits of clothing on the tracks. Funny? Not very--except to the kids who perpetrated the gag.

Shortly after World War II ended, Elder and Kurtzman were out of the service and back on the streets, looking for work. And they quickly decided to open a freelance art service studio (or "agency") together with a third party, Charles Stern.

"We advertised our services by making one-sheet flyers into paper airplanes and sailing them out the window of our fourth-floor studio," Elder explained. "People would get them and look up. It was the cheapest form of advertising."

They were very good at starving, according to Elder. One day John Severin wandered into the studio, and before long, he and Elder had teamed up to produce comic book stories. They had discovered that they complemented each other perfectly: Severin penciled quickly but inked slowly; Elder penciled laboriously but inked rapidly. So if Severin penciled stories and Elder inked them, they could produce material very quickly.The Severin and Elder byline in a box became almost as well-known as the Simon-Kirby duo (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby).

By 1951, Elder, Severin, and Kurtzman were all producing material for the "new trend" line of comic books from E.C. (Entertaining Comics)--crime, science fiction, and horror stories. At first, Kurtzman worked alone, penciling and inking stories; but when publisher Bill Gaines started the adventure titles (which quickly became war titles with the Korean War bubbling far in the West), Kurtzman was the editor. He researched every story extensively and did detailed layouts for his artists, doing very little finished artwork himself. Meanwhile, the Severin and Elder team soldiered on apace. But when Kurtzman launched Mad in the late summer of 1952, Elder came into his own as a solo humorous cartoonist. The first time Elder and Severin each pencilled and inked their own work completely for EC was for the first issue of Mad (cover-dated October-November).

Elder out-did even Kurtzman for zany visuals. Typically, he filled the panels of the stories he drew with dozens of looney characters irrelevant to the story, each an antic sight gag. The resultant visual hilarity set the standard for Mad: thereafter, all the staff artists crammed their drawings with chochkes, as Kurtzman called them--"eyeball kicks."

When Kurtzman left EC to join the Playboy empire and produce the world’s most extravagant parody as satire, Trump, Elder went with him. Unfortunately, publisher Hugh Hefner encountered money trouble just about then: his Playboy Clubs were draining off the company’s resources, so Trump was killed after only two issues, dated January and March 1957. (The times were not good for magazines: the venerable Collier’s collapsed just about the same time.)

Elder stayed with Kurtzman as he created a six-man partnership to produce another satirical magazine. Hefner, feeling guilty, gave them office space in his New York Playboy offices, and by August, the partners had concocted the first issue of Humbug (which ran 1957-1958). After that expired, Kurtzman did Help! (c. 1959-1965).

In the meantime, starting in October 1962, Elder collaborated with Kurtzman in Click image to enlarge
producing for Playboy the most sumptuously executed comic strip of all time: Little Annie Fanny was a fully painted color enterprise, in which a grown-up, voluptuous version of Little Orphan Annie wanders contemporary society, Candide-like, to satirize hip society and sexual mores. Like most Kurtzman productions, it was meticulously plotted with detailed pencil layouts by Kurtzman. Elder then rendered each individual panel (each "painting"), initially getting help from other artists (such as Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta, Arnold Roth), but, ultimately, doing all the final art himself (with generous assistance from Annie herself, as we see here).

Elder’s working method was meticulous. And time-consuming. Meeting deadlines was vital, but he worked too slowly to meet them as often as Hefner was scheduling the strip into the magazine. Arnold Roth remembers one occasion when he and others had been recruited to get Annie done by the looming deadline. Kurtzman rented a hotel room, and all the artists piled into the same room. In order to finish the strip as quickly as possible, they each worked on one panel at a time, passing them around the room.

Roth suddenly realized that the panel he was coloring was a panel he’d done before. Once the alarm was raised, the difficulty was discerned. Elder was taking the painted panels into the bathroom and scrubbing them with water to remove whatever he didn’t like. Then he put the panel out to be re-done. When Kurtzman found out, Elder’s perfectionist tendency was curbed, and production went rapidly forward.

At one of the EC panel presentations during the San Diego Comic Con in 2000, the elfin Elder remarked that for him, the EC line--all of it, the war books, Mad, everything--was just "a giant experiment." But he loved particularly the humor.

At a panel featuring Elder, he was quizzed by moderator Steve Ringgenberg about his career, including his reputation for perpetrating the wildest species of practical jokes. Ringgenberg coaxed Elder into telling about life in their studio, and Elder told how they "advertised" by launching paper airplanes out their window.

At just about this point in his recitation, Elder was interrupted. Somewhat frail at age 78, Elder slouched in his chair at the headtable, and his voice barely reached the microphone. Someone from the audience came up to move the mic closer to Elder. When this personage left, Elder stared blankly at the mic for a moment then turned to moderator Ringgenberg. "Where was I?" he asked.

"You were telling us about the studio."

"How did you know?" quipped Elder.

He went on to tell about how they would coat their fingers with rubber cement and set the cement afire and run around the office like human torches. "It doesn’t burn your finger," Elder explained, "until the rubber cement is burned up."

By this time, Elder had slouched too far away from the mic again, and two eager minions of the convention staff raced up to the table to make adjustments. As they descended on him, Elder cried out: "They’re coming for me!"

I was sitting next to his wife, Jean, who muttered, "He may be a little slow physically, but his mind is as quick as ever."

From the audience, Al Feldstein, Kurtzman’s successor on Mad, commented that Elder’s work on Trump had been absolutely brilliant. (He was producing counterfeit ads that looked exactly like the advertisements being parodied.) "If Trump had succeeded," Feldstein went on, "Mad would not have been so successful"--implying, in fact, that had Trump succeeded, Mad would have expired in the face of such superior competition.

No doubt about it, Elder in his heyday was one of the medium’s most accomplished practitioners, a genuine genius at visual comedy. And a funny man, too. Still is.

For more tales of comic book cartoonists, check into my book on the subject, The Art of the Comic Book, by clicking here.

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