Will Elder, a pioneer artist at the Harvey Kurtzman-era Mad and one of the great satirists of the 1950s, passed away last week. Here's a description of Elder's distinctive style, from J. Hoberman's 1982 essay "Vulgar Modernism":
Elder's neutral detachment and uncanny capacity for mimicking other drawing styles made him the comic book's quintessential artist. His best pieces are collagelike arrangements of advertising trademarks, media icons, banal slogans, visual puns, and assorted non-sequiturs. The splash panel for "Shermlock Shomes" (Mad #7), for example, has a deep-sea diver, a man wearing a refrigerator, the Mobil Flying Horse, a puzzled Saint Bernard dog, the Statue of Liberty, and the seven dwarves from Disney's Snow White (among other creatures) wandering through the London fog.
Coincidentally, Henry Jenkins has been serializing [1, 2, 3] a paper that critiques, updates, and in general improves Hoberman's treatment of "vulgar modernist" pop culture. Today's installment discusses Elder:
Elder liked to cram his panels with what he called "chicken fat," extraneous gags and signs which pulled our attention from story actions in the foreground to seemingly irrelevant background details. As Elder explained, "chicken fat is the part of the soup that is bad for you, yet gives the soup its delicious pleasure." For the most part, these background gags were Elder's own additions, not dictated by Kurtzman's script, though some have suggested Kurtzman increasingly created opportunities for such elements. At other times, the writer expressed frustration when these gags overwhelmed the basic building blocks of his narrative or upstaged his verbal humor. Readers would linger on a single panel, scanning for more comic elements, rather than following the forward momentum of the plot.
I had that experience myself reading old issues of Mad as a kid, and it's telling that I remember the background gags in, say, "Superduperman" much more clearly than I do the story's plot (which, in fact, I've forgotten completely). They were the heart of the magazine and its satiric style. Elder went on to do more work—including, most infamously, the Little Annie Fannie cartoons in Playboy—but it's his strips for Mad that impress me the most. Rest in peace.
Update: Several well-informed readers advise me that "Superduperman" was drawn by another Mad master of chicken fat, Wally Wood, and not by Will Elder. Evidently its plot wasn't the only thing I'd forgotten!