Comics

Will Elder, RIP

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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!

NEXT: I Shouldn't Have Done It

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  1. including, most infamously, the Little Annie Fannie strip in Playboy

    Is Little Annie Fannie infamous? I remember being a preteen in the 70’s and enjoying it quite a bit. Back then of course we didn’t have an internet full of hard-core-fetish porn. We had to scavenge Playboys from sock drawers and dumpsters. Kids today, they don’t even know what filth is.

    HEY! Get outta my yard!

  2. The only thing i remember about mad was those foldable pictures in back and one in particular that showed a nuclear power plant and when you folded it it turned into a mushroom cloud.

    Even then i thought the anti-nuclear power movement was full of shit and I have not forgiven mad for falling for it.

  3. 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.

    Kultur-Terror?

  4. “showed a nuclear power plant and when you folded it it turned into a mushroom cloud.”

    For some reason, I remember that one. But I didn’t give much thought to it.

    So on my lunch break today, I told a Greenpeace activist/panhandler that no, I don’t want to save the world from global warming, and she didn’t even get mad at me. She just smiled and told me to have a good day.

  5. The only thing i remember about mad was those foldable pictures in back…

    “Q: What higher power do TV evangelists worship?”

    “A: The All…Ighty…Ollar”!?

    Oh, I get it!

  6. Wasn’t that classic “Superduperman” drawn by Wallace Wood, not Bill Elder, though?

  7. Ahh, Warren, you crack me up. Thanks for the LOL.

    What I actually came here to say is that I remember nothing about Mad Magazine (CRS) except how funny that stuff in the margins was. I loved all of it. Always thought it was way funnier than the features. So nice to finally, after all these years, know something about who did it and how it came to be.

    “showed a nuclear power plant and when you folded it it turned into a mushroom cloud.”

    For some reason, I remember that one. But I didn’t give much thought to it.

    Now that you two mention it, I remember that too.

  8. Nit Picker picked it right on the nit….Superduperman was drawn by Wally Wood, not Will Elder.

    At least Wood is also dead (albeit for 27 years).

  9. R.I.P. Will Elder.

    I liked MAD, read it growing up. I always liked the movie parodies drawn by Mort Drucker. Still probably one of the greatest caricature artists ever printed.

  10. My father once remarked to me when I was little and watching one of the early Zucker brothers films, that their background gags, similar in substance, were inspired by Elder’s work.

  11. By the time MAD started those silly folding back inside covers it had already gone downhill, as youngsters like Warren would know if they hadn’t grown up in the easy porn access 70s and had to get their pictures of naked breasts from National Geographic like we did!

    Sorry, gotta go. It’s vanilla pudding night here at the home!

  12. As the Reasonoids’ resident Playboy expert, I regard Little Annie Fanny as the Jar Jar Binks of the magazine-although her bespectacled friend is pretty hot.

    I used to read Mad as a kid, but I ran out of patience for the whole concept. Nowadays, it rubs me the wrong way by reminding me of the bitterness towards consumer culture of someone like Kalle Lasn of Adbusters.

    I dare say that, in the gist if not necessarily in all the particulars, the semi-Oscar Wildean aestheticism of Playboy‘s approach to consumer culture is wiser than what Mad basically intends to say about it.

    In Mad as well as Adbusters, the consumer is an eternal victim. In Playboy (for example), the consumer is an eternal adventurer. Even if the high standards set for adventure have to be taken with a grain of salt, the essential attitude is more consistent with what Reason tells me about the best moral evaluation of consumer capitalism.

  13. Note to all: There is a big difference between the Harvey Kurtzman-edited Mad of the early/mid ’50s and Bill Gaines-edited Mad that succeeded it. There was a lot of good stuff in the Gaines years, but Kurtzman was more … intense.

  14. DAR,

    You think MAD was all ready downhill by the time of those folding back covers? I thought it was pretty solid up until William Gaines died.

    Of course, I’m one of those youngsters who grew up digging my porn out of newspaper recycle bins, so WTF do I know? 🙂

  15. Whenever I hear that a comics great has died, I check out Mark Evanier’s News from Me. Mark always has interesting stuff, and for some reason – probably because he knows (or knows of) everyone in comics, he usually is first with the facts.

    BTW, Al Feldstein took over the editor’s chair at MAD when Kurtzman decamped.

    Kevin

  16. Bill Gaines did not edit MAD after Kurtzman left. Al Feldstein did.

    These kids, I tell ya….

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