Sunday, June 01, 2008

Will Elder

Will (Chicken Fat) Elder
Will Elder, the funniest comic book artist ever, passed away on May 15 at the age of 86. The Comics Reporter had a thorough look at Elder's career. (They also posted links to other online remembrances and more artwork.) The Comics Journal and Mark Evanier are worth checking out also. Both the New York and Los Angeles Times ran pretty good obituaries, the obvious error in the L.A. Times obit notwithstanding (a correction has been added). The picture gallery more than makes up for the flawed fact-checking.

Willie is an extremely funny natural born cartoonist. He contributed much to the feel of the early Mad. He did a lot to make Mad the kind of wild irreverent thing that it was, and I think Will's "chicken-fat" humor was very necessary to the feeling that Mad generated. As a matter of fact, Will did much to set the cartoon approach that was used for years in Mad — the details, the asides... —Harvey Kurtzman, interviewed by John Benson1.

Will Elder was the definitive Mad artist. For Harvey Kurtzman's Mad, that is, the EC comic book published from 1952-1955. There was nothing like it before and, not for lack of trying, there's been nothing like it since. As some of the obituaries suggest, when Mad is evoked to describe another zany work, like a "Naked Gun" movie, it's Elder's Mad they're talking about. Mark Frauenfelder said, "Harvey Kurtzman may have invented Mad, but for 99% of Mad's readers, it's the work of Will Elder that comes to mind when they think of the magazine."

Some lucky souls — busted-down racketty old souls by now, but lucky — were around during the short time the Mad comic was coming out new every month. Some of us, almost as busted-down and racketty, discovered it when it was already ancient history —meaning 10 or 15 years old — preserved in a few hard to find paperbacks. I found a copy of one, The Mad Reader, in a pile of cartoon paperbacks in the back of Ephraim's Books in Worcester. I'm sure that by this point I'd read somewhere that Mad had started as a comic book, but this paperback was the first chance I'd had to see it. It was the best half a buck I ever spent. Much as I'd like to say that I opened the book and had some sort of a comics epiphany, the truth is I probably wasn't quick enough to immediately see the brilliance of what I had in my hands. I was probably laughing too much to notice.

The Mad Reader had two stories each drawn by Jack Davis and by Wally Wood who, along with John Severin, were the other founding Mad artists. I was already familiar with their work from the current Mad magazine or from other comics. It also had three stories drawn by Bill Elder, who I wasn't familiar with at all.

There was "Dragged Net," a spoof, obviously, of the TV show "Dragnet."
This was drawn in Elder's own style, which might seem a stupid remark were it not for the fact that the other two stories showcased another of Elder's talents, the ability to expertly mimic other cartoonist's styles.

"Starchie" set the Archie strip in an urban high school rife with "Blackboard Jungle"-like juvenile delinquency. Elder brought a lot of the riverfront to Riverdale in a spot-on, hilarious take on the Archie house style. Frank King received somewhat gentler treatment in "Gasoline Valley," where the focus of the story was on the difficulties faced by a family of cartoon characters who posess the unusual ability to grow older.

The Mad Reader
was a pretty good introduction to Will Elder's work: two completely different yet equally deft parodies of other cartoonists and a blast of pure Elder. I might have made different selections for someone's first time, but anybody that doesn't get it from these three is probably going to struggle with any of them.

All of the Mad artists worked from Harvey Kurtzman's layouts (there are some examples of this method as it was used on Humbug here.) Kurtzman's genius was evident throughout The Mad Reader, in the foundation for the artwork as well as the writing, but when he teamed up with Will Elder something special happened, something extra was added... and that something was... chicken fat.

"Chicken fat" is described as the extra jokes and business added into the backgrounds, the things that made repeat readings worthwhile. Put like that it suggests an identifiable but ultimately imitable aspect of Elder's work. The real payoff to reading his stories again and again is discovering that everything that Elder drew was funny: people, pencil sharpeners, piles of garbage; it was all funny. I read and re-read The Mad Reader countless times, from Wood's brilliant "Superduperman" to Davis' "Lone Stranger" and I loved it all. But nothing smekked me around like Will Elder's comics did. He was my favorite. He was the best.

You know, very often at conventions somebody will rush up to me and say, "I read your work when I was young and I've wanted to meet you and shake your hand." After some years of being exposed to this kind of flattery I realize that when something touches you at an early age, it really leaves an indelible mark. That's the only way I can explain the enthusiasm of these fans when they meet me. I've done something to them at an early age. It's not imprtant that what I did is of little consequence, but that the stain runs deep. That's what's significant. What they think is much is not so much, but it's the way they've been touched that makes it into something important. But it's not really important. —Harvey Kurtzman, interviewed by John Benson2.

Or, put another way:

One Sunday in October of 1974 I bused over to the Booklyn Museum for an exhibition called "Brooklyn's Comic Book Artists". This was, it was claimed, the first time comic book art had hung in a museum and that alone probably would have been reason enough to go look. But the list of artists included in the show, even restricted as it was to those who were Brooklyn-born or -raised, made this an absolute must-see event: there were 13 in all, among them Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Gray Morrow, Neal Adams, Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman.

From Playboy, June, 1973.

Kurtzman exhibited this Little Annie Fanny story. Though Elder's name was on the artwork, the label on the wall credited only Kurtzman, which I thought was odd. I remember spending a lot of time in front of these pages, absorbed in each panel, probably a lot like this guy, only not so tidy. After a while I was approached by a kid roughly my age, though probably still in high school, who very nicely asked if I wouldn't mind stepping back for just a minute. I did and then turned to see what looked like a typical suburban family on a typical Sunday outing, except the typical suburban dad was now taking snapshots of Playboy cartoons hanging on a museum wall. As I recall — or, more likely, embellish — more snaps were taken of family members posing by the pages. This, I thought, has got to be him.

"I wonder," I wondered out loud to the nice kid, "why they left the other artist's name off the wall?"

"I don't know." He turned to the man taking pictures. "Hey, Dad, he wants to know how come they left your name off?"

"I'm from the Bronx," he said.

Yep, it was him all right. Will Elder standing right over there. There must have been a million things I wanted to say and questions I wanted to ask but I couldn't think of a single one of them at the moment. Instead, I talk with the kid. I won't even pretend I can recall how that conversation went. All I remember is that he said his name was Marty and that he wanted to be a disc jockey, which made an impression because that was how my father earned his living. "Let's trade dads," I suggested.

Eventually he took me over to meet his dad. Mr. Elder was now looking at someone else's artwork. I'm standing next to an actual idol of mine. My mind has gone blank. I don't know what to say. I'm a complete moron. Luckily, Marty wasn't so overwhelmed. "Dad, this is Steve. He wants to be a cartoonist."

Will Elder gave me a quick glance and then turned back to the artwork.

"Well," he said, "If that's all you can do..."

OK, OK, I get it, already. Sheesh! This stuff isn't important. I know. I was just deeply stained at an early age, otherwise I'd know how insignificant it all is.

Bullshit. Fifty years after it first appeared this stuff is still funny. It still makes me laugh anyway.That's not important?

1, 2. The interview of Harvey Kurtzman by John Benson, September 7, 1985,was conducted especially for publication in the 4 volume set of the complete Mad, published by Russ Cochran, 1987.

Thanks to Tom for the Annie scans, and to Jim for bringing the sad news to my attention in the first place. Also, heartfelt condolences and very, very belated thanks to Martin Elder.