May 31, 2008

William "Will" Elder (Sep.22, 1921 – May.15, 2008)

An American illustrator and comic book artist who worked in numerous areas of commercial art, but is best known for a zany cartoon style that helped launch Harvey Kurtzman's Mad comic book in 1952.

Mad publisher Bill Gaines approvingly called Elder "unquestionably the nuttiest guy who ever walked in the doors here." Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner said, "He was a zany, and a lovable one." 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."

Elder was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2003.

Kurtzman and Elder were classmates at Manhattan's High School of Music and Art, where they were in the school's first graduating class. In the late 1940s, they 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 John Severin's pencils on stories for Weird Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat and other titles.

When Kurtzman created Mad in 1952, he immediately fixed upon Elder. 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!" The story 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 it was often quoted ("Dig! Dig!") and even referenced years later in a Psychology Today illustration. Elder's device of separate foreground and background actions was referenced by Louis Malle in his film Zazie dans le métro (1960).

According to Al Jaffee, "[Elder] could have been the world's greatest forger." Elder also 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 (as in the sequence where "Mickey Rodent" and "Darnold Duck" literally locate the border between Disney cartooning and a more realistic drawing style. Both characters gain an additional finger on each hand as they cross over).

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."

He was a legend, and he will be missed.

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