Friday, May 23, 2008
Will Elder, Cartoonist of Satiric Gifts and Overpopulated Scenes, Dies at 86
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: May 18, 2008
Will Elder, whose frantic, gag-filled illustrations helped to define the comic identity of Mad magazine and who was a creator of the Playboy cartoon serial “Little Annie Fanny,” died Wednesday in Rockleigh, N.J. He was 86.
A cartoon drawn by William Elder for Mad magazine. He also helped to create the serial “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said Gary VandenBergh, his son-in-law.
A dead-on caricaturist with an anarchic sense of humor, Mr. Elder stuffed the backgrounds of his Madison Avenue parodies and comic-strip spoofs with inane puns, silly signs and weird characters doing strange things.
“That approach to humor seeped into the rest of the magazine and the DNA of its contributors,” said John Ficarra, the editor of Mad. “It set the tone for the entire magazine and created a look that endures to this day.”
Mr. Elder called these background fillers “chicken fat,” explaining that they were “the part of the strip that gave it some flavor but did little to advance the story line.” This layered, free-for-all approach influenced the cartoons of R. Crumb and films like “Airplane!” and the “Naked Gun” series.
Born Wolf William Eisenberg in the Bronx, Mr. Elder attended public schools and, an unimposing physical specimen, sat on the sidelines when teams were chosen for neighborhood sports. Chalk in hand, he kept score and drew caricatures, a valuable defense against bullies. “My chalk was mightier than their sticks,” Mr. VandenBergh recalled him saying.
He attended the High School of Music and Art, where his fellow students included Harvey Kurtzman, the eventual founder of Mad, and Al Jaffee, who later became a cartoonist for the magazine. After studying for a year at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan, he was drafted into the Army, where he served with the 668th Topographical Engineers. His duties included drawing maps for the Normandy landing on D-Day.
On returning to the United States, he changed his last name to Elder and began looking for work as an illustrator. His first assignment was to create a comic book based on a character called Rufus DeBree the Garbage Man, a trash collector with a fantasy life as a Knight of the Round Table.
Mr. Elder married Jean Strashun in 1948; she died in 2005. He is survived by a brother, Irving Eisenberg, of Delray Beach, Fla.; a daughter, Nancy Elder VandenBergh, of Cresskill, N.J.; a son, Martin Elder, of Riverdale; and two grandchildren.
With Mr. Kurtzman and Charles Stern, another artist, Mr. Elder created the Charles William Harvey Studio. “It became a hangout for the lost and unemployed,” he would recall. The hangers-on included Jules Feiffer and René Goscinny, who later wrote the stories for the Asterix comics. Largely through Mr. Kurtzman’s connections with William M. Gaines’s E.C. Comics, Mr. Elder did work for Weird Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.
In 1952, Mr. Kurtzman, encouraged by Mr. Gaines, assembled a team of artists and writers, including Mr. Elder, for a new satiric magazine, Mad. From 1952 to 1956, Mr. Elder was a mainstay there, usually working in collaboration with Mr. Kurtzman, although “Ganefs!” — the madcap adventures of a gang of creepy crooks that appeared in Mad’s first issue — was a solo production.
Together, the two generated memorable comic mayhem in cartoon spoofs like “Starchie” and “Mickey Rodent” and in the adventures of Melvin Mole, a determined but hapless criminal who tries to dig his way out of prison with a spoon, then a toothpick and finally a nostril hair.
After Mr. Kurtzman left Mad in a huff, he and Mr. Elder worked together on Trump, a slick satirical magazine financed by Hugh Hefner. It ran for only two issues, whereupon Mr. Kurtzman, Mr. Elder and other colleagues from Mad pooled their resources to create Humbug. It quickly failed, although its successor, Help!, ran from 1962 to 1966.
At Help!, Mr. Elder created Goodman Beaver, a Candide figure adrift in a corrupt world. In one episode, “Goodman Goes Playboy,” Archie, Jughead and other characters from Archie Comics headed to the Playboy mansion for a night of drinking, smoking and sex, lured by a satanic figure with a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Hefner.
The executives at Archie Comics did not laugh. They sued and won, but Mr. Hefner loved the cartoon. The partners soon created a new property for Mr. Hefner, “Little Annie Fanny,” a comic strip chronicling the sexual adventures of a character who was essentially Little Orphan Annie grown up and outfitted with enormous breasts. Mr. Elder created a separate watercolor illustration for each panel of the cartoon, which ran from 1962 to 1988.
Fantagraphics Books has published two collections of Mr. Elder’s work: “Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art” (2003) and “Chicken Fat” (2006). It is scheduled to publish the full run of Humbug in August.