MADman Will Elder

If you've ever caught David Zucker's Police Squad!, the TV show or the movies, you know that one of the charms of that wacky frantic humor is that there's always something happening-- not only in the foreground, but in the background, on the sidelines, even across the ceiling, by George!

I can't prove it, but I suspect that the man who influenced Zucker (and his brand of humor displayed in Airplane!) was none other than MAD's own Will (or Bill) Elder. Called "the Lon Chaney of comics" because of his uncanny ability to do dead-on satirical imitations of other cartoonists, from Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) to Roy Crane (Captain Easy), alla time with that furshluginer attention to all those frentic visual puns! Hoo-hah!

Born as  Wolf Eisenberg in New York City on September 22, 1921, "Will" Elder learned at an early age that one way of avoiding being pulverized by local bullies was by becoming the class clown. He took the humor with him when attending the High School of Music & Art (my alma mater), driving teachers crazy with his pranks ("a particularly nervous teacher opened up the coat closet and found Willie hanging by his neck, his face chalked white.").

Upon graduating, Elder was drafted and saw action in Germany's last desperate offensive, the Battle of the Bulge. After wartime, Elder's first comics job as a civilian job was for a comic called Toy Town (1947), drawing the strip Rufus Debree, the story of a trash collector hurtled back into the days of King Arthur. Later Elder formed an art studio with his future editor, Harvey Kurtzman, and Charles Stern. After working for Prize Comics, Elder joined E.C. Comics in 1951, his first job inking John Severin's pencils for War Storyin Two-Fisted Tales #19.

Elder's inking was a natural fit for Severin's style and the successful team up constituted the bulk of Elder's early work for E.C., although the artist went solo on a number of E.C. horror and science fiction stories. Elder also worked with Severin on a number of westerns for other publishers, notably American Eagle for Prize Comics Western. The two were a good team as Elder's bold brushwork added a gritty power to Severin's tight pencils.

And then came MAD. Elder led off the first issue with Ganefs! (yiddish for "crooks"). It was amusingly drawn, but the artist didn't start hitting his stride with visual puns until the second issue's Mole!, the story of another ganef whose obsession for digging tunnels  leads him straight to the electric chair. In this story all the little sight gags that would become Elder's trademark pop up; playground equipment in a prison yard, ads about hair styling featuring chimpanzees on a cell wall, a steaming coffee pot on an electric chair. In the first few issues it is obvious that Kurtzman is feeling his way along as he developed MAD's brand of humor. By the third issue Elder opened with a Dragnet satire and the sight gags multiplied.

Elder would do 23 stories for the comic and his ability to ape others' styles while still retaining his own was amply proven from "Woman Wonder" and "Starchie," to "Manduck the Magican" and "Poopeye," to name just a few.

Elder also did twelve stories for the *other* satire mag at E.C., PANIC. His first story, Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem The Night Before Christmas, resulted in PANIC being banned in Massachusetts! For some reason Boston bluenoses had mistaken Santa for some Christian icon....

When Kurtzman left MAD in 1956 (over a dispute with publisher Bill Gaines over control of the title), Elder schlepped along with him, further developing his style, along the lines of the British Punch cartoonist Leslie Illingworth, in the short- lived Kurtzman titles Trump (1957-58), Humbug (1958-59) and Help! (1960-62). It was for the last magazine that Kurtzman and Elder created some of their finest satirical work, spoofing Tarzan, Archie, Sea Hunt,and all the moral dilemmas of life, with Goodman Beaver,a modern day Candide who would frequently run into the brick wall of hard reality.

So would Kurtzman and Elder when their Archie satire, Goodman Goes Playboy,got them into trouble with Archie's copyright owners. Their own publisher, James Warren, settled out of court. Archie's lawyers struck again when the story was reprinted in a paperback edition, even though names and likenesses had been changed.  It cost the two creators $1000 and all rights to the story (and the original artwork) were signed over to Archie Comics.

Kitchen Sink press published Goodman Beaver in 1984 and 1990, and collectors can still find copies with a little diligence, but as for Goodman Goes Playboy, Denis Kitchen dared only to reprint three panels.

Goodman had a sex-change operation for Playboy, becoming Little Annie Fanny for the October 1962 issue. While some consider the strip sexist and a sell-out, the humor and art, mostly painted by Elder (with assists from Al Jaffee, Frank Frazetta, and Jack Davis, among others) are well worth seeing and the two reprint volumes are easily obtainable.

Elder has also done considerable book illustrations and movie and TV ads and posters. In 1974 Little Annie Fanny originals were exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. Bill/Will Elder briefly returned to the the pages and covers of MAD in 1985-'87 before retiring (with the end of Little Annie Fanny... er, should I rephase that?) in 1988.

Elder's work remains available in the various E.C. reprints, but the best news is that the career retrospective Elder has long deserved has finally appeared: Will Elder: The MAD Playboy of Art has been published by Fantagraphics. The 300 page edition, edited by Daniel Clowes, features art that spans the cartoonist's entire career and includes commentary by Hugh Hefner, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, William Stout, and Jerry Garcia. Hoo-hah!
 

--Steve Stiles