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Friday, May 23, 2008

The Will Elder interview

Will Elder was born in the Bronx in 1921. As a child, he was known as a comic, a prankster, a class clown. He loved physical humor and imitated exemplars of the genre such as the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton well into adulthood. (I once viewed a sketch he and Kurtzman did, circa the late 1950s, in which they both demonstrated remarkable physical comedic skills — more Jonathan Winters or Red Skelton than Keaton or Chaplin, demonstrating a subtle, antic elegance that would have been perfect for TV at the time.) But he was also a skillful artist and, after graduating from the famous High School of Music and Art, he segued into commercial art and comics.

He learned the ropes by inking his pal Johnny Severin on Western material for Prize Comics in the late '40s, continued inking Severin's war stories (written by Kurtzman) at EC and, as we all know now, came full circle, finding his métier illustrating stories for Mad and Panic from 1952 to 1956 — four years of some of the most inspired work in the history of comics.
©1973 Will Elder
©1973 Will Elder

When Kurtzman left Mad, Elder left with him and followed him into three noble failures: Trump, Humbug and Help! Trump was the realization of Kurtzman's dream to produce a slick, upscale humor magazine — and Elder's contributions show a quantum leap forward into breathtakingly detailed painting and intricate black-and-white line work that even surpasses the advertising parodies he had done for Mad (themselves a huge leap in technique from his earlier comics). After Trump folded with its second issue — publisher Hugh Hefner had to pull the plug due to his bank calling in loans unexpectedly — one of the contributors, Arnold Roth, cheered everyone up and suggested that they try again. So, they did. Roth, Kurtzman, Elder, Al Jaffee and production man Harry Chester all ponied up some money and started Humbug, which they owned equally (along with Jack Davis, who ponied up art instead of money). The idea behind the magazine was that each artist would own his own work as well as a stake in the magazine, and that each artist would benefit if the magazine took off. This lasted 11 glorious issues and failed for numerous reasons, most of which boil down to the fact that they were great artists and lousy businessmen. The artists lost their shirts. (Some of them even lost their art.) Elder continued to refine his technique, which he applied to television and movie parodies and the occasional illustration.

After Humbug, there was a lull, during which Elder drew illustrations for a variety of magazines, such as Pageant. Although many of these are stunning, most of them weren't of a humorous nature, and you can tell that his technique was in it but his heart wasn't. In the early '60s, Kurtzman started yet another humor magazine, Help!, that Jim Warren published. Kurtzman and Elder once again collaborated on a series of strips starring the Candide-like hero, Goodman Beaver, which represented some of Elder's best work to date. In 1962, Kurtzman and Elder began a 26-year collaboration for Playboy: Little Annie Fanny was entirely painted in watercolor and tempera — the first and surely the most virtuosic of its kind.
©2008 Will Elder
©2008 Will Elder

Will Elder is most widely known as Harvey Kurtzman's lifelong collaborator. True enough. But he was, in his own way, an autonomous artist — not unlike Jack Kirby during his most creatively fecund collaborations with Stan Lee. Elder's parodic work for EC holds up almost irrespective of the writing, which would fluctuate wildly. For example, Kurtzman, who wrote the Mad stories, was far more sensitive to the graphic rhythms of visual storytelling than Al Feldstein or Jack Mendelsohn, who wrote the Panic stories, but it's a testament to the immanent hilarity of Elder's drawings that there's so little qualitative difference between the stories in the two comics. Elder obviously reveled in the outrageous and added immeasurably to the stories proper with jokes, gags, signs, all imbedded in the background, as well as just plain drawing funny. While researching Elder's work, I paged through the Russ Cochran reprints flagging Elder's stories and I discovered that the quickest way to spot an Elder story was by what I would call an absence of style. Wally Wood's, Jack Davis' and John Severin's work could be spotted a mile away— Wood's lush, sensual brushwork, Davis' angular figures and flailing limbs, Severin's rangy figure drawing — but Elder's work was characterized by an imitative approach in which what few stylistic mannerisms there are (exaggerated lips on the female characters, for example) were subsumed into the unique approach each strip required and hidden beneath a meticulous, almost anonymous graphic approach.

Elder continued to refine his inking technique throughout his collaborative work in Trump, Humbug and the Goodman Beaver strips in Help! even as the intrinsic humor of the drawing continued unabated. I have to admit that slogging through 26 years of Little Annie Fanny became a chore — the satirical quality is intermittent at best — but interest was maintained mostly due to the lushness of the painting and what Kurtzman called Elder's "eye-pops," the details, nuances and gags hidden in the backgrounds of the panels. Remarkable too is how Elder is able to maintain the essentially exaggerated cartoony quality of the drawing with his meticulous, painterly technique.

Elder, at 83, is mentally alert, although somewhat physically frail; he underwent triple bypass surgery in 1999. Journal interview introductions always refer to the interview subject's modesty, generosity, decency, charm and hospitality. This one won't be any different — except that in this case it happens to be true (my first and last attempt at Elderesque humor). This interview was conducted over the course of two months in late 2002. The first interview was conducted in Elder's home in New Jersey, the four subsequent sessions over the phone. We have tried to retain as much of Elder's spontaneous and absurdist sense of humor as we could on the printed page. It was a real privilege to get to know and talk to Will, one I hope will continue for quite some time to come.
— Gary Groth, June 9, 2003

[This interview was transcribed by Ilse Driggs and copy edited by the participants, Greg Vandenbergh and Milo George.]

GARY GROTH: The Bronx in the 1920s must have been pretty rural.

WILL ELDER: Yeah, I'd say. It was the slums, but we never knew it. We never knew there was anything outside of the slums. It kept us from doing wrong — at least, what we thought was wrong. We had our own set of rules that we lived by. Apparently it worked for all of us. There weren't too many criminals, if that's how you gauge a neighborhood. There was nothing to steal. The people who had garbage were rich; they had something to throw out.

GROTH: So you grew up, obviously, during the Great Depression.

ELDER: Yeah. We moved from address to address to avoid the landlord. He went crazy looking for us. We lived with family, in-laws, that sort of thing, till my father got a steady job. And the work brought us back to one whole family again.
Image Image

study of Elder's father, Morris Eisenberg, ©1936 Will Elder.

GROTH: What did your father do?

ELDER: He worked in a big clothing factory, pressing the suits, that sort of thing. It was the only type of work he could get through the department stores.

GROTH: Were your parents immigrants?

ELDER: They were immigrants, yeah. They were born in Poland. They came here through the Canadian border, down through Canada. My brother and my sister were born in England. And I and my other brother were born in the United States.

GROTH: Your mother was a homekeeper?

ELDER: She was, but she never showed any affection toward me, because I was always wasting my time. I was a little nutty. I would make my own toys. I couldn't buy any, so I'd buy the cheapest thing possible, and that was a clay set, and I could mold it into any shape I wished, and bang it and destroy it. I used to sculpt a menagerie of animals and figures out of kids' clay. We didn't have all the things kids have today, there were no video games or Gameboys or DVDs or videotapes, so you had to use your imagination. I was lucky; I always had a good imagination. But when you have nothing you can make a lump of clay go a long way! That was the beginning of being curious how to do things with your hands, working with your hands.

GROTH: You made your own toys?

ELDER: Yeah, I'd make a sculpture of an animal, any animal. A deer.

Speaking of deer: I used to paint a deer on a canvas board. The boards; not the plain canvas that you roll up. This was in the summertime, and the weather was hot outside; I figured it was better to stay indoors in the shade and paint this deer. The forest looked very cool. So I carried that a little further. I began to see into the fall, autumn, and the leaves began to fall and turn colors, so I had to erase all the green leaves I had drawn before and replace them with the red- and orange-colored trees. Al Jaffee thought that was funny. Well, that's nothing. Wait until winter comes. I never touched the deer, except in wintertime. There was snow all around. Snow on his antlers; snow on his back. He said, "What are you doing here?" Al would come over to my house and always correct me and criticize me. He said, "This deer hasn't moved. He must be dead." Then comes the spring, and I start making green leaves again. The deer, I hadn't touched too much. So the deer was actually flat with the canvas, and the scenery around was about an inch high, built up over the seasons. He thought it was crazy. I said, "Al, the reason I'm doing it is because I can't afford a new board with every season. I have to make one board work for me," because that's all we could afford.

GROTH: How old would you have been?

ELDER: About 13, 14, junior high. My early boyhood was made up of Al and my friends. I hardly was at home; we had nothing to be at home for. I think my dad figured I was the only hope, if not money-wise, then showing some kind of talent. And he promoted me wherever he went: "My son could do that with no sweat," he'd say when he'd see something in a window that was painted by someone else. "He's very good at it, and I try to encourage him to do that. Maybe he'll work for Walter Disney." He'd never say "Walt Disney." Always "Walter Disney." Very proper, my dad. And lo and behold, I wrote to Disney and I got a nice rejection note. It says, "Please get a little older and we'll try to understand your request. Why do you want to work for Disney?" Because I love cartoons. "That's good. You and a few thousands of kids would love to be Walt Disney." So nothing ever came of it.

I started doing work for my school, and luckily Mayor Laguardia had promoted this ordinary system of uncovering talent through the city. He said, "I think we need a special high school for that, and perhaps we can do that." Lo and behold, the High School of Music and Art was born. And that culled from the city all the people who were talented in music and in art, plus the regular curriculum. And it seemed to work because I met some very interesting people and they inspired me. There's also a tremendous feeling of competition. Competition was good in a case like that. You want to be better than your friends, show them that you can do as good or better than they. It worked. It made me stand out in class. I was drawing cartoons on the blackboard, and the teacher would see my work and she thought I would be a good example for some of the other kids who refused to draw. She would display my work for the rest of the class to see. It was ego-building in the most positive way.

Elder and boyhood friend Al Jaffee ham it up.

GROTH: You had siblings.

ELDER: I had a two brothers and a sister.

GROTH: Where did you fit into the hierarchy?

ELDER: No place. My nearest older brother, who was nine years older than me, was my friend. He'd put me on his shoulders and we'd go to a movie. He'd come out of the movie and he says, "I'd like to see this picture with the Marx Brothers." They were a big influence. And he'd say, "Let's go again!" Same day, he'd take me to the movies twice. Six hours of the day at the movie house. I came out, I thought I was blind.

GROTH: Which brother was this?

ELDER: Irving. He just lost his wife last week.

My oldest brother, Sam, was out of the house before I knew him. He got married and lived apart from all of us. Sam died young of a heart attack. And of course, my sister got married very young, so I didn't see much of her growing up — except when she would watch me, but she couldn't take that! She's in her 90s now, living in Florida. My friends saw more of me than my family. Lucky for me, I got along with them.

We would play stickball. My career would start with stickball. I was kind of a runty kid. I wasn't tall or heavy or muscular. I was simply a smallish kid with a big fat mouth. And they would never put me on their roster to play stickball, and I really wanted to play. I said, "Why not me? I know something about stick ball. I'm pretty good, I think, I'm pretty good. You should give me a tryout." They said, "Well, we'll do something else. We'll let you score." So I kept score and my chalk was mightier than their sticks because before you knew it, they would gather around me like chickens at feeding time because I drew their caricatures as they played. I would get bored between innings and start to draw. I made guys score 14 runs in one inning. [Laughter.] On the other team, they got back with 20 runs in the next inning. Of course, I'm exaggerating. It's actually 15 runs. And in between innings when they came to see what the score was, one guy would say, "Hey, that's Philip! How'd you do that?" I had a lot of power. I didn't think I had so much power. And influence. The guys were thrilled. And I made my overnight friendship right there and then. That's pretty much how it all started. They encouraged me to do more.

GROTH: So, drawing with chalk on the blacktop and having that effect fueled your motivation?

ELDER: Yeah, only because I kept score. I was bored and I thought that didn't give me any kind of out for feeling good or doing something worthwhile. In this case I kind of put it on myself to go one step further. You got chalk? Do it like they do in school. Draw a diagram, but in this case make a caricature so these kids can recognize what you can do. So I did that.

GROTH: How old would you have been during the time you're describing?

ELDER: I would say around 9 or 10.

GROTH: Stickball is essentially baseball with a stick played in the street, right?

ELDER: A broomstick, without the bristles at the other end. It was about six feet in length.

GROTH: Let me skip back a little bit. You were the last of the four children?

ELDER: Yeah.

GROTH: And your father was proud of your skill?

ELDER: I was my father's wunderkind. He would brag about me to his buddies, he was so proud of what I could do with a pencil or chalk or anything that was handy, actually, that he would go on about me. If he was at work and one of the workers would show someone a print or a sketch he would chime in, "Oh my boy could do that ... only better!" He was very proud of me.

GROTH: Your siblings weren't like that?

ELDER: Well, I never had a chance to find out because they left the house pretty much before I was growing up.

Self-portrait of the artist as a 12-year-old boy, ©1933 Will Elder.

GROTH: You said that your mother didn't give you much affection. Were you kidding?

ELDER: No. She loved me, I don't want to give you the wrong impression, but she was just a little cool and distant. She never showed me that much affection. I mean she was a typical mother: When I got hurt, she tended to me, she loved me too, but don't forget that her youngest before me was nine years older than me. I think she was tired.

GROTH: Did that bother you?

ELDER: It affected me, only because she wasn't like my father.

GROTH: Who was more affectionate, in his way.

ELDER: I think my father was a man I couldn't disappoint because he had all this faith in me.

GROTH: You sort of indicated that you were poor, but your father had a full-time job.

ELDER: When he finally got one. Yes, he had a full-time job. It didn't pay much, but it kept the wolves at bay, so to speak. And I had a good time because of him.

GROTH: Did the crash in '29 affect your family?

ELDER: We were just as poor, before, during and after. [Laughter.] No change.

GROTH: You couldn't go down any more ...

ELDER: No, I was down. My only way was up.

GROTH: So, the High School of Music and Art: you would have started there when you were 14 or 15.

ELDER: Correct. That was a unique high school. I didn't know it at the time. When it's happening, there's very little you know about anything. It's only after I graduated — and I did graduate; that's the miracle — it would show that you really accomplished something. It's a wonderful feeling, especially in the field of education. It was hard for me because I never had books or libraries. Now I had libraries whether I needed them or not; they just have them around. If I wanted something, I could look it up.

GROTH: What was your childhood like before the High School of Music and Art?

ELDER: At public school, I used to have fights in the school yard — nothing dangerous, just kids pushing each other around. I couldn't keep my mouth shut. If someone irritated me, I let them know. That caused me some problems early on. The school was about a block and a half from where I lived. It was very convenient. But then, when we moved, and I went to another school, that was a pain.

GROTH: Do you remember what schools you went to?

ELDER: Not really. I remember the neighborhood; I can almost see it in my mind's eye.

GROTH: What did it look like?

ELDER: Well, it was next to a church, and the schoolyard was adjoined to the churchyard, and when I'd pick a fight, I'd make sure I wasn't in the churchyard. I'd make sure that somebody was on my side. But anyway, it was just a matter of egos pushing each other around.

Will Elder, class cut-up.

GROTH: Did you have a lot of friends?

ELDER: Yeah, I did because I could make people laugh. When the bullies came after me I could usually stop them with a quip or a crazy face or some crazy thing that I would think up on the spot. I just knew I could make the bad guys laugh and the other kids, who were more like me, appreciated that and were drawn to me because of it, I think.

Once I got into Music and Art we played association football — touch football. Al would throw me passes — Al Jaffee. He had a very good arm. He'd throw very high and far, and I'd go catch 'em. He used to scratch his head: How does a skinny lump like me catch those passes? Well, it was coming at me; what am I going to do? It was so easy. Just stick my hands out and grab it. We played in a lot, and on one side of the lot there was a pile of junk: old tires and car tires, steering wheels, wagon wheels, cans of soup — empty, of course. Jaffee would throw a pass to me, and point to where it was going to go. I was going to go to the junk pile. No one would go there to chase me, to follow me. And I'd dive into the junk pile and catch the football. He was amazed because, he said, "You'd risk your life to catch a pass? You're crazy!" I know. That's what makes me go.

GROTH: Were you a gregarious kid?

ELDER: Yeah, I used to go to parties, and I'd always be invited. I would turn them down, and of course they would say "You're a snob! Turn me down?" I'd say, "Well, if you were invited to five parties in one night you'd also be a snob."

GROTH: At least four times over.

The Funny Papers

GROTH: What were you interested in as a child?

ELDER: I was captivated by the Saturday matinees and the funny papers. I would try to copy the things I was attracted to and my father always made a big deal. He would pick up the comics. He didn't read English too well.

GROTH: What were your favorites growing up in the late '20s, early '30s?

ELDER: Katzenjammer Kids. I loved them because they were so mischievous. I saw myself in that damn strip. What else? Smokey Stover was one of my favorites, Wash Tubbs...

GROTH: You had an affinity for the newspaper strips?

ELDER: Yeah, because during the week, they were black and white, and in the Sunday paper, it would be color. And the colors were beautiful. It was beautiful! It was like a hand-painted film. It's like the colorful scene in Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. There's the scene at the ball, did you ever see that? The Phantom comes down dressed as Death in a red robe. That was a hand-tinted scene. And what was the other one? I think, the pirate with Douglas Fairbanks — The Black Pirate. Anyway, the insertion of color added so much to the strip; it was like a blind man seeing for the first time. That's the feeling I got.

GROTH: There was much less media available back then to compete for your attention.

ELDER: I didn't know it, but now that I look back, you're right.

GROTH: So, you had radio?

ELDER: Radio was my life. I used to come home every day just to listen to my programs, The Witch's Tale and Chandu the Magician. I used to sing the introductory music that goes with those episodes. Like Chandu the Magician: How does it go? I forgot. It was a lot of fun, and a few chapters of Sherlock Holmes was one of my favorites.

GROTH: Dramatized on the radio?

ELDER: Yeah. And then I Love a Mystery. The author of I Love a Mystery lived outside of San Francisco. When [Elder's wife] Jean and I went to San Francisco a number of years ago we passed his house on a tour, I was impressed. The bus driver thought he was funny, but he wasn't. That was a great trip, very picturesque. I painted Jean near a tree in Carmel by the sea. It was fun.

School Days

GROTH: You told me you'd go on trips sponsored by the school.

ELDER: Yeah, we'd go to Westchester, and we'd sort of stand in line and shake hands with Eleanor Roosevelt. That was the highlight of my life. I thought she was somebody special.

GROTH: So you entered the High School of Music and Art, and was it there that you developed your passion for...

ELDER: The High School for Music and Art at one time was called the Wadleigh Junior College for Women where they had a two-year course for teachers. We were the first graduating class in Music and Art — if you stuck it out, of course, or weren't thrown out, like some friends I know. If I mention his name, I'm afraid you might repeat it, so I won't say anything.

GROTH: You know I would.

ELDER: I was thrilled to be in that school and had so much mischievous fun that I nearly didn't make it through myself. But it was a real turning point in my life, that school. My life and many other kids too. If you look at the people who have graduated from that school it reads like a Who's Who of American cultural icons, musicians, artists, amazing people.

Anyway, it was a junior high school and it was in a park. It was a lovely location. They had to destroy a baseball field to put the school there. I thought that was a mockery of education. But it wasn't. It was a good thing it happened, because I wouldn't have gone there and been entitled to a scholarship in music and art. So, little things, little nuances of society kind of change your life. You don't know when it's happening, but when it does, you appreciate it.
Image Image

Elder was an angel in school.

GROTH: How long was Music and Art's program?

ELDER: Four years. And the teachers were special too. They were culled from the neighborhood and they showed their talent. They were very good; they made you feel like you were part of a big, very important movement.

GROTH: Is it at the School of Music and Art that you developed your passion for drawing?

ELDER: Yeah, I'd say so. We had the typical live models and still lifes. It was the place where I found myself. It was the first time I visited a museum and was exposed to the art of the masters and that really opened my eyes.

GROTH: Tell me about the curriculum and the atmosphere.

ELDER: We had a long, long, long day in school because we had both music and art. If you were an art student, you'd have a course in music and vise-versa, or versa-vise. You had five hours of regular studies and you had the rest, three hours or so of music and art. An hour and a half of music and an hour and a half of art. Both areas were covered pretty well. The only thing that I missed was in music; they didn't have enough opera singing and I thought I wanted to cover the field entirely. But otherwise it was an inspiration.

GROTH: What were the music courses like?

ELDER: Well, the lighter classical stuff: Music by Mendelssohn, the "Spring Song." [Sings "Spring Song."] Very appealing. In fact, we were bathed, so to speak, in classical music. We had no chance to listen to jazz; only when you went home and did it on your own. At least I have the taste of having both possible worlds flung at me. I learned to play the mandolin there.

GROTH: Did this open up a world of art for you?

ELDER: Yeah. I didn't think these things existed. I came from a poor neighborhood and the only thing we played on the block was stickball, and it doesn't take much brains to do that. This was a way of telling me there's more to the world than appears on the surface.

GROTH: Was it exhilarating?

ELDER: Oh, sure. I enjoyed it. It was one of those things that everybody's not going to feel the same. We're all made of different stuff.

GROTH: Now, at some point during those four years, you obviously moved more passionately in the direction of visual art than music.

ELDER: Yeah. Anything that's creative was something I envied very much.

GROTH: How did it happen that you focused more on art and drawing?

ELDER: Because I would go to the museum, more often than most of the other kids. That surprises people. But I found something that really resonated in me and I felt that I could paint and draw, so here I saw that there might be something I could do with this ability I had. I think that I had been drawing for a long time, but I never thought much about it. You know, drawing caricatures on the street never struck me as a real talent! But, I always knew I had this ability — talent I guess you would call it — but I never had the idea that it meant anything or I could really make something of myself by using that ability, until I got to Music and Art and was exposed to all these people throughout history who really made a mark. Plus all the other kids there could draw, paint or play instruments incredibly well and I thought, maybe in a small way I could do something with my art. And that's how I got my first feelings for music and art. It was a great move for me. It really was. Turned my whole life around.

Sketch circa his high-school years, ©1937 Will Elder.

GROTH: Now, you referred to the Museum of Natural History. That wasn't in the Bronx, was it?

ELDER: Manhattan. It was off of one of the wings of Central Park. There were stuffed animals, like bears. They looked very real to me. I'd never seen a bear before in my life.

GROTH: Can you tell me a little about the curriculum? They taught you drawing and painting techniques?

ELDER: Yeah, they gave you a variety of media to work with. You pick your own. Choose whatever comes easy to you, whatever seems to be effective. A lot of simple freedom. If you start piling things on a kid and he's trying to prove he can do things, they're under some kind of pressure. It doesn't work. They rebel against such stuff. It should be fun. That's the way I started out.

GROTH: At the time you were drawing and learning how to draw, did you know that you wanted to become a professional artist?

ELDER: After a while I did. After a while the drawing became, not an obsession, but a very strong desire to do something further. I took out my sketchpad and started sketching bears, the stuffed bears, on a mountain. Or a fox in the woods. These things remain in my memory. It's a backlog of things that you've seen and digested intellectually. It works for me.

GROTH: Now, you must have graduated from high school in '38 —

ELDER: No, '40. A long time ago. We had a 50th anniversary ten years ago, I think. We got some of the teachers. Some of them in wheel chairs. They're still around.

GROTH: Did you have any other notable classmates?

ELDER: Yeah, but they are gone. That's notable. Well, there was Jaffee, and Jaffee's brother went to the same school. He died rather young. Al and I and another friend, who's no longer with us, also gone. There was one or two of Al's friends at his birthday party, at the Society of Illustrators.

Bess Meyerson graduated the same year as me. After the war I was back in New York with some of my buddies, and Bess Meyerson was at Radio City Music Hall for some event or something tied in with being Miss America. We went past there and I said to my friends, "Oh Bess Meyerson, I went to school with her." None of them believed me, so I had to prove it to them: I went to the stage door and whispered into the guard's ear "Tell Bess that Wolf Eisenberg is here." We stood there for a few minutes and the guys really thought I was up to my old stuff, so they said "C'mon, let's go," when Bess came running to the door yelling at the top of her lungs "Wolfie, Wolfie, Wolfie Eisenberg!" She threw herself onto me giving me a big hug — you know it had been a while. The guys' mouths dropped open, I think they were saying, "Who's Wolfie?" But they got a big kick out of that. They couldn't believe it.

But, yes, she was a Miss America and she got in a lot of trouble, which I can't go into because it wouldn't be etiquette.


GROTH: You shouldn't be a Miss America unless you get into trouble. [Laughter.] Weren't you a real wiseacre in high school?

ELDER: I was a likeable guy.

GROTH: A practical joker?

ELDER: Yeah, I'm telling you, the only way to equalize the pressures on a young kid like me was to make them laugh. And that was the great equalizer. They enjoyed it; so did I. It saved my life.

GROTH: So you were theatrically funny in high school.

ELDER: If you can call it that. I tried to be pleasant all the time. It didn't always work out, but it was my intention.

GROTH: I have a great story here that I —

ELDER: Is it related to what I'm talking about?


ELDER: Tear it up, quick!

GROTH: I understand you had a penchant for zany stunts, one of which was that ...

ELDER: I was a practical joker. I didn't walk around with a pistol on my hip or a knife in my belt. I wasn't a deadly person. I loved to have fun, at someone else's expense. But not to harm anybody. I wasn't a criminally minded person.

GROTH: No. But one of your stunts was that you dressed up some raw meat in old clothes and slung them around the railroad tracks. After a train had gone through, you would start screaming at the top of your lungs that someone had been run over by the train.

ELDER: That's the gist of it, yeah. Screaming for this boy who I thought had been cut into mincemeat, and I had all this stuff put into a shirt that was hanging from a clothesline drying. The shirt was dripping blood and broken bones sticking out of the sleeve, and it looked like a massacre had happened recently. And I kept yelling and screaming, "Oh, he shouldn't have gone on that track! He didn't listen to me! He's dead now!" And suddenly the windows would open up and the women's heads would peek out. "Is my Frankie there? Where's my Frankie?" They'd all start getting hysterical.

Young Elder and a train.

GROTH: And these horrified teachers walked by.

ELDER: Not teachers. They were the neighborhood people that lived there. They'd look in everyone's back yard. Everything was accessible in those days: the fire escapes, the rear windows, the roofs. How do you pronounce that? Roofs or rooves?

GROTH: Roofs, I think. So where do you think this prankish nature of yours came from?

ELDER: Well, it was like a living cartoon. Cartoons walk off a cliff and they never get killed. I thought that would be the same with me. But of course I knew better than that. I just loved to see embarrassment on the other person's face. It gave me some kind of pleasure. It gave me a sadistic pleasure, but it was fun.

GROTH: Were you inspired by the Marx Brothers?

ELDER: Partially. But, I later learned that Hollywood movies are all pre-fab, and it's all figured out beforehand, so I stopped doing them. The lesson I learned.

GROTH: You stopped doing —

ELDER: Pranks that would hurt somebody. I would put it on paper. Years later, Harvey [Kurtzman] came to me and said, "How'd you like to put all your crazies on paper? I think we would be able to start a comic book that's funny like you, Will." Harvey knew of all my antics from Music and Art and I think he thought it would be very advantageous to him to have me doing some work on Mad. You know, I was just starting to draw a little more at EC; most of the guys there knew me as Severin's inker, but I was starting to draw some more in a couple of the other EC crime and horror books. Harvey knew I could take on the funny stuff, so I think that's where all my pranks went — into the work.

Going to Work

GROTH: What did you do after graduating?

ELDER: I went to work. I had a couple of strange jobs, like dressing windows with a very strange guy in one of the department stores. Then I went on to the Academy of Design in Manhattan. I was there for about a year, maybe a little less, I don't remember, but then Uncle Sam called. I just collected my 52-20. For 52 weeks I got $20 a week.

GROTH: You went in the Army. How soon after graduating were you drafted?

ELDER: About a year and a half later. I was in the National Academy of Design for almost a year. It was a private school, but you have to pass some kind of a test.

GROTH: How could you afford that?

ELDER: Little by little. It wasn't so bad. Part of it was on money I had saved. I always tried to save some money. I did some work for somebody. I didn't do very much. My folks would supply most of the money. The Academy taught me how to provide composition correctly. Perspectives. The intricacies of art. Without them, it didn't look like much, unless you're an abstract painter.

GROTH: Was that an industrial orientation?

ELDER: No. It was a fine art and model painting.

Elder's first paying job as an artist was to draw these Dartmouth decals.

GROTH: I see. In 1941, you evidently worked for a place called the Decal Company doing design and cartoons?

ELDER: That's correct.

GROTH: And you would have been approximately 19 when you worked for them?

ELDER: Yeah. I was out of school for about a year before.

GROTH: Tell me what that place was like and how you got a job there and what you did.

ELDER: Well, they liked some of my cartoons and they thought that I could apply my skill to some of their stickers you put on the back of cars and plates and whatnot. Their mascots were once the Dartmouth Indians. I'd make a decal about an Indian with Dartmouth written all over its chest. I would start doing a lot of college insignias. It was NYU and four of those universities.

GROTH: How long did you work there?

ELDER: Oh, roughly, I would say about three months. I wanted to find something better. I thought I'd be getting something better.

GROTH: So mostly what you did was hand-drawn?

ELDER: Yeah. And they turned these things out. It was sort of a light, supple plastic.

GROTH: I assume you were pretty happy to get a job there during the Depression?

ELDER: Yeah. It was something I always liked. I love cartooning and drawing in general, so this was a job that gave me some kind of pleasure. Not much money, but it was fun working at it.

GROTH: Was that in Manhattan?

ELDER: That was in Manhattan.

GROTH: Would you have gotten into making the rounds of the comic publishers right after that?

ELDER: I went into some of the agencies, the big advertising agencies. They promised me the moon, but I never heard from them.


GROTH: Shortly thereafter, in 1942, you were drafted into the Army.

ELDER: Pretty good. In the Army. Yeah. And we went out to Governors Island. That was your admission into the army. They'd give you your uniform, that sort of thing.

GROTH: Did you get out of the Army immediately after the war?

ELDER: Yeah, and I started looking for work.

Manipulated photograph of Will Elder and Will Elder, cutting it up during wartime.

GROTH: What was your experience in the Army like?

ELDER: Well, I was a young little hero. I saved a man's life. I was proud of that. I came home two hours late from a pass. I think it was two o'clock in the morning. Midnight was the deadline. And I saw smoke coming out of this tent, which suddenly ignited into flame. I reacted out of instinct, not even thinking whether I'd get hurt or not; I dashed into the tent, took the guy and threw his cot and him out, right through the flames. We both dived through it. I started pounding on him. He was drunk. He was a chef and he must have drank. And I kept beating the flames out, and he says, "What are you hitting me for? You could have let me fry instead." "I'm hitting you to put the fire out, you idiot." And then the next day he found out what I did, he gave me extra potatoes. [Laughter.] Got more spinach. He'd take another pork chop, "Go ahead, Will. It's on me." I never forgot that. It's a great feeling.

GROTH: It's good you didn't rescue somebody who cleaned out the latrines.

ELDER: It's a good thing it was in the United States. If it was in Europe, I'd be dead by now.

GROTH: So, what did you train as? Did they give you a specialty of some sort?

ELDER: Yeah, I used to do VD posters. I would draw some of them, showing a G.I. that looks like he's going to fall apart. I did a few propaganda posters for the Army: "Loose Lips Sink Ships," a couple of patriotic type of posters but that was just the beginning. I was actually put into the photo-mapping section of my platoon, and we did maps of the Normandy beachhead. And, what was it now, from the neck of the attack? One of the beaches...

GROTH: Omaha?

ELDER: Omaha. That's good. Omaha beach. There were several others, but that one I remember. I remember that one. We came in D-Day plus six, so it wasn't that terrible.

GROTH: So you actually landed at Normandy after it had been secured?

ELDER: Yeah. The Germans were on the run. Of course they gave us a good pasting, and then they went on the run. It was the beginning of the end for the Germans. I got caught up in the Battle of the Bulge and I went in with the shock troops that stormed Cologne. We were some of the first American troops that crossed the Rhine.

GROTH: So, you saw some fighting over there?

ELDER: Oh, yeah. There's no way out. You had to fight for your life. I'm trying to think of the name of the place... It took place during the snow and the foggy weather. And they couldn't drop any food and rations for us from the air because you were blinded to everything out there. Anyway, that's when they demanded we surrender and the American General told them "Nuts!"

GROTH: Oh! Sure, sure. That was Bastone.

ELDER: Yeah, well, I was in part of it. I didn't pick up a rifle. I just was standing around and didn't know which door to go through. It was chaotic.

GROTH: How long were you in the European theatre?

ELDER: About a year, a year and a half, something like that.

GROTH: You were in France?

ELDER: I was there three and a half years, in France, Cherbourg, Paris... Didn't get into Germany. Got into Czechoslovakia, which is close by. Pilsen — that's where the little underground barrels of beer, pilsner beer — nothing like it, coming out of big barrels. We were stationed there for about a month.

Elder (right) making maps for Uncle Sam during WWII.

GROTH: What is photo-mapping?

ELDER: It's taking aerial photos of the area that's about to be attacked. It worked very well, because there was 60 percent overlap stereo, so it looked like the real thing. You started seeing it in three dimensions. It was just a wonderful experience, as long as you came out of it alive. Luckily, we did a major job in keeping back the enemy. A lot of it's faith. A lot of it is faith.

GROTH: How much did you know about what was going on over there?

ELDER: I knew quite a bit, because I was in photo-mapping and the engineering department, 668 Engineer Corps, and we saw the big wigs. Not staying for a minute, but just walk right through.

GROTH: Were you aware of the concentration camps?

ELDER: Oh, yeah. I'd been to one or two of them. One of them was a sorry sight. The other was paperwork. But the sorry sight is pretty much what you see on TV. You don't want to bring that up all the time. People would always ask me what it was like. I mean, they know already, but they want to get a fresh take.

GROTH: Did you spend your entire stint in the Army in Europe?

ELDER: I'd say most of it. Most of my army days were in the European theatre. And I was just hoping they weren't sending us over to Japan.

GROTH: No one wanted to go to Japan. So, you weren't sent to the Pacific theatre?

ELDER: No. No Pacific theatre.

GROTH: So you got back to the States, and you got out of the Army in '45 or '46?

ELDER: The end of '45. Levittown was in full bloom. I thought perhaps someday I could move there, but I'm glad I didn't.

Rufus De Bree

GROTH: In '46 you started writing and drawing a backup feature in Toy Town called Rufus De Bree. Can you tell me how that came about?

ELDER: Well, I had a cartoon that I was fooling with, and this friend of mine who lived down in St. Lawrence, Richard Bruskin, who now, as I said to you earlier, has his own ad agency in Florida. Rufus De Bree was a play on words: refuse and debris, Rufus De Bree. He was a garbage man. One day he was walking the street and he bent down and then back up again and got smacked in the head by one of those wooden arms that sticks out giving you directions. And the drunk driver was a little short guy like Sancho... Macho... the one that was partner to... I'm running out of tape in my head. Don Quixote. What's his partner's name?

GROTH: Sancho Panza?

ELDER: This old gentleman, he was a little decrepit looking, and he gets smacked in the head by this truck that was driven by Sancho, and he wakes up the next day in a strange land. There's a guy in an armored suit looking at him as he wakes up. The guy in the armored suit is a Don Quixote type, Rufus De Bree. And he says, "Come with me. We're surrounded by a bunch of crazy armored people. We're living in a strange age." So the idea was to have a story written like King Arthur's Court. It was a direct swipe from that — just changed the characters around. I thought that would be good for a young reader. And being it was a comic book, I had to make sure it was tasteful, something they would learn by.
Image Image

A Rufus De Bree splash page.

GROTH: I know you read comic strips, but had you at one point started reading comic books?

ELDER: Yeah, I started reading comic books when Walt Kelly drew comics. He had a great technique. I loved his technique. It was very attractive to me.

GROTH: Did you read comics before you went into the Army or during your stint?

ELDER: It was after.

GROTH: Well, it couldn't have been much after, because if you were working on a strip for comic books, you must have been aware of comic books at the time.

ELDER: I was aware of the comic books produced by Max Gaines. And I had read those when they first came out, I guess in the mid to late 1930s. You know, the first ones that were just reprints of the Sunday comics. I remember that. I'm not sure what came next, but I was always drawn — there's a pun — to them. I was... attracted — is that better? — to any kind of illustrated strip whether it was a comic book or a strip or whatever. So I knew about them, but I always liked Walt Kelly's work and when his stuff was put out I remember seeing that.

GROTH: What prompted you to try to draw comic books?

ELDER: I thought it would be an easy way to make a living. It was simple drawing. It was for children. They don't get technical about how this or that should be. And they were pretty good on deciding what's wrong and what's right.

GROTH: So, how did you go about trying to sell Rufus De Bree?

ELDER: I heard through a friend of mine — I've forgotten who now, honestly — that there was a woman publisher, one of the very first, what was her name again? Rae Herman. She was open for a lot of these fairy tale types of things.

GROTH: What company was this?

ELDER: She had her own publishing company. I don't know what company she worked for. [Toy Town Publications.] The strip's kind of awkward and not done very well. I can look back and see the things I used to do.

GROTH: Did you go to her office?

ELDER: Yeah. She looked at it, and she held it for a day or two, then she called me and said she'd like to go ahead and publish the story. But, she wanted to change it, put him on a horse, something decorative. I go, "What in Sam Hill?" I don't know what's in Sam Hill.

Her office was not too far from Columbus Circle — a few companies were around there. Might have been Broadway, I'm not sure. My affiliation with her was limited.

GROTH: How old was she?

ELDER: I have no idea. Might have been in her 40s. She wasn't a young whippersnapper. She said, "Work up something for me and bring it in. We'll see what we can do." I did three stories for her, until I did some freelance outside of that place for Simon and Kirby. I was doing some love stories, that sort of thing.

GROTH: First time in Kirby's shop?

ELDER: Yeah. And then Johnny Severin came around and got jobs for the two of us. Severin could draw very well. He had a good memory for mechanical things. And I could ink really well. I could ink fast; he drew fast. We were both the opposites of each other. I couldn't draw as fast as him. To make money in that business, you have to be pretty fast and turn out a lot of material. We turned out the best we could at that stage of the game. We hit it off with the few samples that we showed Simon and Kirby.

GROTH: How did you get hooked up with Joe Simon's shop?

ELDER: Through Kirby, because Kirby was the artist and Simon was the businessman.

GROTH: How did you know Kirby?

ELDER: Well, through some of the artists. We came up to his office and we saw some of the work that was being done, and I said, "We can do it." John Severin was the same way.
Image Image

Another Rufus De Bree page.

GROTH: Well, how did you discover the Simon/Kirby shop?

ELDER: It's hard to put my finger on. I can't know exactly when that happened.

GROTH: And you went up to Simon's shop, and he gave you some work...

ELDER: He gave us some work. It worked out pretty well. We weren't getting paid very much, but that was the reason we got the work.

GROTH: Who did you deal with, Simon or Kirby?

ELDER: Simon. No, no, no, no, Kirby. Kirby was the shorter one.

There was a guy in the office who was very funny. I wonder if you know who I'm talking about if I mention what happened. This guy would follow us down the stairs, get out in the middle of the street and start directing traffic. Severin and I looked at each other: See any cops around? I look at this guy, directing traffic. I think he had a nervous breakdown; I found out later. Couldn't stand the traffic. I couldn't blame him for that. But to direct it?

GROTH: Probably just some poor cartoonist. So, when they gave you work, what does that mean? They gave you scripts that you illustrated?

ELDER: No, he said "If you have any ideas, let me know." Then we got the scripts because we pretty much relied upon scripts. We were doing well enough to follow a script.

GROTH: I see. How much work were you doing for Simon and Kirby?

ELDER: Not much. I'd say about maybe a half a year's worth. Then we did it for another outfit — a guy who lived up in Westchester. I forgot his name. Typical Irish name: McSomething. McDormott? But this guy liked our work. He said, "We have some material that you can give me a finished product." And Johnny, this is Johnny Severin's greatest skill, to draw these mechanical devices: railroad trains, airplanes, tanks in war, the G.I.s out there. He knew it all. I was just a sidekick, inking as well as I could. I tried to dramatize the picture, you know the black-and-white content.

GROTH: Tell me how you met Severin.

ELDER: Well, I knew him from school; he was in my class. I didn't know him that well, but I'd see him occasionally, and we'd talk about what we would do when we got out.

GROTH: So, how did you hook back up with him when you got out of the Army?

ELDER: I really couldn't tell you.
Charles William Harvey

GROTH: Well, in 1946 or 1947 you started the Charles William Harvey Studio. How did that come about?

ELDER: Harry Jaffee and I were walking down the street, as usual, and I see a friend of mine who I recognize was Charlie Stern. Charlie and I knew each other. I used to go over to their house. Along with Charlie Stern was a fellow by the name of Harvey Kurtzman. I knew that later. I'd seen him around, but I didn't know his name was Harvey Kurtzman. And he would laugh at some of my jokes and I said, "This guy is for me!" He says, "You looking for work?" He says, "Yeah, we are, too." Harvey had just finished with Scientific America, something like that, and he had a friend who gave Harvey work. He was coming from that building, or going toward it, I don't know which way. We met, and he and I got together and he said, "Let's draw up some things."

GROTH: But that was a little bit later. You started the Charles William Harvey Studio prior to that.

ELDER: That's right. It was a little later.

GROTH: So the first time you met Harvey was in 1947.

ELDER: Yeah. I was on the street in New York, minding my own business. That worked out well for us.

GROTH: Did Harvey know John Severin?

ELDER: Oh, yeah. We all knew Johnny. Harvey didn't get along with Johnny. There were conflicts. Not for me to go into. He may see this and come after me with a shotgun. [Laughter.]

GROTH: And who could blame him?

You knew Harry Jaffee. What was he like?

ELDER: Al's brother was doing very well. He was doing airplanes and knocking them out maybe a dozen at a time; these Kitty Hawks or whatever they were called. He'd put them in the window of Brentano's in New York, a very popular and famous souvenir store or bookstore. I think it was selling something like that.

GROTH: These were replicas of the Wright Bros. airplane?

ELDER: No. They were later than that. I would say that they were like Piper Cubs. They were about a foot in diameter. He handmade them by the dozen. He had a system. I would help him. I would do the tracings on the illustration board. He would dip his brush into some kind of egg tempera paint. He'd go over it as if he were some kind of machine or something. He had some kind of a system that worked really well, and he made a lot of money doing it.

GROTH: And then he sold them directly to stores?

ELDER: Well, he worked through Brentanos. They'd pay him per job and they'd sell them. And then he'd pay me. He paid me very little.

GROTH: And that would have been in the early '40s, before you —

ELDER: I think it was somewhere in 1938.

GROTH: Is Jaffee older than you are?

ELDER: Al's about a year older and Harry was a little younger than I was. Harry died a number of years ago.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Charles William Harvey.

GROTH: You started the Charles William Harvey Studio I think in 1947?

ELDER: Yeah. That was Fiasco Incorporated.

GROTH: [Joking.] Well, I'm sure you had nothing to do with that part of it.

ELDER: Well, I was part of it. That's the idea. We were on the second or third floor. I'm not quite sure. But I'd make paper airplanes and throw them out of the window into the street. And of course on the paper airplanes was written in beautiful block letters, "Charles William Harvey Studio is now open."

GROTH: Did you get arrested for doing that?

ELDER: No. It was just people picking up papers and throwing them into the gutter.

Of course, we experienced a fire. Somebody was fooling around on some other floor and there was a fire. Smoke was billowing into the rest of the hallway and we had to evacuate the building.

GROTH: Let me back up a little bit. Who was Charlie Stern, the Charles of Charles William Harvey?

ELDER: Charlie was another Music and Art-er. We had that in common. We had a few laughs when we met in the streets of New York retelling the stories about Music and Art, talking about teachers and episodes with some of our classmates who were kind of freakish. We thought it was fun and that we ought to get together more often and maybe as a team we could pick up some work and the public won't know the difference.

GROTH: So you guys just eventually got together and decided that you could do better as a studio than you could individually?

ELDER: That's right. I knew somebody in the movie business. Her father worked as an executive for 20th Century Fox's Manhattan branch. She also was a Music and Art-er. That school turned out some very interesting people and some well-dressed people.

GROTH: Didn't you do work for a movie called Ernie Tubbs the Singing Cowboy?

ELDER: That's right. Your memory is very good. That was one of those grade B-movies.

GROTH: What would you have done on it? A movie poster or something like that?

ELDER: It was a press book. The kind of thing that was sent around to theater owners, I guess, advertising this new movie coming out. I would try to capture the expression on his face. He would sing with a guitar in his hands, I think. There was a montage of other people in the background, riding horses. It was just chock full of photos and lettering. I think Charlie would letter. We all would undertake various jobs doing it and turning it out.

GROTH: You were essentially doing commercial work?

ELDER: Yeah, 'cause that's where we could pay the rent.

GROTH: Did you work together or was it always individually?

ELDER: If there was enough work we'd work individually. [Telephone beep.] Hello? I must have pressed the wrong button here or something.

GROTH: No button pressing.

ELDER: Only pants pressed.

GROTH: Right. So did you ever work together on a project where you would all draw on the same project?

ELDER: Well, if we had enough work we'd work individually. Somehow we were kind of confused in who was running the show, who was president of the agency. Here's a classic example of what happened. And Harvey and I would always retell this at conventions. Being a business without a president doesn't work too well. Someone has to be in charge. So we we took a vote, but everyone voted for himself. That's what we wanted to avoid. The idea was to put these tabs in a hat, pick it out and that's how we finally got ourselves straightened out as to whose name is first mentioned in the organization.

GROTH: So that's how you decided that? I was wondering how you chose the order of the names.

ELDER: It could have been something out of a hat or a bowl or something like that.

GROTH: How long was the studio in business?

ELDER: I'd say six or seven months, maybe eight months. I think it was less than a year.

GROTH: Wasn't John Severin involved in it for a while?

ELDER: He'd come up and visit. We had other guys in the business who would come up and visit. They'd shoot the breeze, sit around. They'd bring up some lunch once in a while — a sandwich, a Coke. I would fool around and they would kibbitz around. We had a lot of guys... One fellow — Jahorson? Leon Gehorsin? — I've never gotten the spelling of his name but he was the architect that designed some of the main buildings at Farleigh Dickensen University, he was an architect, also a Music and Art-er. We were all from Music and Art. We had that in common. We could relate stories and get a lot of chuckles and laughs as if we were old schoolmates.

High School Pranks

GROTH: My impression is that you didn't really know Kurtzman in high school even though you both went to the same school.

ELDER: But he'd seen me many times. I was oblivious to a lot of people because I was only interested in making them laugh and getting along with my fellow students.

GROTH: It sounds like he was aware of you because you were quite a prankster.

ELDER: A prankster and a class clown looking for popularity of some sort. Yeah.

GROTH: But you weren't aware of him?

ELDER: No. I'd seen him. I saw him but I never even spoke to him. He was an underclassmate of mine by one year.

GROTH: So you really met him for the first time on the street eventually and shortly thereafter...

ELDER: He brought up the fact that he saw me in the telephone booth the other week and he thought I was very funny. What he observed... He had a remarkable memory.

GROTH: Do you want to tell me what the telephone booth prank was?

ELDER: Well, I would try to capture the attention of my classmates, who would sit at this one favorite table of ours. I would fool around, make some strange things with my food. I've forgotten at this point what it was but it had them laughing. Then I sneaked into this telephone booth at the end of the lunchroom. I'd take this hat. It was in the winter. There was cold weather like it is around here now. I'd take this cap, button it on the bottom. It was like the old-fashioned Foulker German Ace, Baron Von Rifftoffen type of German Ace. I'd button it on the bottom of my chin, and I had this dribble of catsup dribbling from the corner of my mouth. And I'd take a pack of cigarettes, light a few, and drop them on the floor of the phone booth and then stomp on them so the smoke would rise and that was the plane going down in flames. And I would be hanging out crawling on the floor and taking some of the forks and knives and making a clatter of some sort. And they looked and they'd say, "My God, it looks like a Grade-B movie."

From left to right: Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, a Playboy bunny who was probably traumatized for years after this photo shoot, and Jack Davis.

GROTH: I'm collecting these anecdotes about the crazy stunts you would pull.

ELDER: Well, another one was about the closet.

GROTH: Yes. The closet in the schoolroom.

ELDER: I never showed up to class on time and the teacher would ask where I was. And one day someone said they saw me in the building. They knew that I was in school. And the teacher says, Where did you see him last? And he says, pretty much on this floor, somewhere down the hall. And the period was over. The teacher opened this closet door, and there I was hanging from one of the hooks, my face pale as a ghost. I'd rubbed some chalk on my face. And the teacher screamed and ran down the hall. Before he could come back I was all cleaned up and sitting in my desk like it never happened.

GROTH: What prompted you to go to such lengths?

ELDER: Well, I was supposed to hand something in and I didn't have it. I didn't have my assignment and I thought it would be better putting it off a day or two rather than getting a zero.

GROTH: But I mean in general. You did a lot of these intricate stunts. What prompted them?

ELDER: It was attention-getting, to be very honest with you. And having fun doing it and making friends who admired that sort of thing because I had the guts to go ahead and do those kinds of things.

GROTH: Harvey Kurtzman said once, "Many years later Willy told me he resented his clown period because he realized, as many clowns do, that they are clowns because they want desperately to be loved."

ELDER: Yeah. I think that's the dilemma of most clowns. They want your sympathy. And they do it by painstaking moves, by sacrificing their own health and happiness so that others can be happy and healthy. That's the way most clowns work.

GROTH: Do you regret having done all of that?

ELDER: No, because it gave me a background of how it felt to be liked and admired and simpatico. Harvey analyzed it quite correctly when he said that I should put that stuff on paper. That I should put it down, write it down. All the exploits that I'd gone through should be written on paper. If not written, at least drawn in a cartoon style. Which I eventually did.

GROTH: Now, back then, that would have been mid to late '30s when you were probably doing a lot of that stuff in high school. Were there comedians you liked? You mentioned the Marx Brothers.

ELDER: The Marx Brothers, of course. They were the wackos of the day. Laurel and Hardy — very subtle but two beautifully committed guys who I loved very much. Harold Lloyd — this goes way back. I would go to these film festivals. Not that I was there when it first played. I'd go to a film festival and see all of the Harold Lloyd films. Chaplin. Buster Keaton. All of these classic comedians. They wrote their own material and did their own stunts. It never ceases to amaze me.

GROTH: So you had a real affinity with those physical comedians.

ELDER: Yeah, physical and it was mentally done on the screen, too. The ideas were put there, too. I thought it was all the physical myself, but eventually I found out that they thought of these things. They were their own producers, writers, directors — all in one man.

GROTH: It also occurs to me that a lot of their humor — Keaton, Chaplin, the Marx Brothers — was very intricately thought through. It occurs to me that a lot of your humor drawing is very intricately thought through as well.

ELDER: That's true. I would apply these characters to a situation. The situation had to absorb these people and become something like a fiasco. They fail at what they do, and that's very human. If you fail at what you're doing after thinking about making some creative beauty out of anything, and you fail at it, whatever it is, you gain the sympathy of many people. You find out that you certainly have a lot of friends.

GROTH: This is getting ahead of myself, but let me just ask you this question because it seems appropriate: A lot of your humor work has a spontaneous quality to it, but it's also obviously very calculated, very thought through.

ELDER: Well, I use a mirror and I use myself as a model. And I get that feeling. The trick is to feel like the character might feel in any situation. If something saddens me, I will let you know by giving the classic expression of a person who is sad: mouth turned down, the eye sloping downwards toward a point, eyes half open, half closed. Whatever. The clown. The clown is always looking sad. Either sad or extremely happy. Both extremes are exposed by a clown.

GROTH: And I guess that's the reason for his profundity.

ELDER: That's true.

Back to The CWH Studio

GROTH: Let me get back to my chronology. The Charles William Harvey Studio lasted six months or so —

ELDER: We moved to another building that was over a restaurant. I think the proprietor, the owner of the restaurant, resented the fact that we had friends coming up there at will. There was like all of these people, potential customers, but they're not going to my shop, they're going upstairs. It was all of the fellows from Music and Art that I mentioned earlier.

GROTH: Not clients.

ELDER: Not clients. No. People like Dave Berg, Leon Georhsin, Jules Feiffer, René Goscinny and other ne'er do wells!

GROTH: I assume both of these locations were in Manhattan?

ELDER: Yeah.

GROTH: I assume it didn't last longer because you weren't successful?

ELDER: Correct.

GROTH: That's why I am where I am today. So you just weren't getting the work?

ELDER: That's exactly right. Any work at all would interest me. I felt anything I did added to the experience of just getting around and proving my way.

GROTH: Learning the ropes.

ELDER: Learning the ropes is right.

GROTH: You don't strike me as a real hustler type.

ELDER: Well, I was too busy. I would never brag. I was rather timid. I felt my work should do the speaking for me.

GROTH: I was going to say, by temperament you don't strike me as being a hustler. Was there a hustler in the studio who could go out and try to get work?

ELDER: Stern. And Harvey moreso than me but not too much more. We were too busy knocking out some stories and we thought that we had no time or place for feeling sorry for ourselves.
Image Image

A page from "Chicken," penciled by John Severin and inked by Elder, from Two-Fisted Tales #22; ©1980 William M. Gaines.

GROTH: So after the Charles William Harvey Studio ended, which would have been in '48, did you start working at EC, inking John Severin's work?

ELDER: Yeah. Well, John Severin was tied up with Simon and Kirby. It was through the organization of Charles William Harvey that it came to fruition. Harvey had worked for Stan Lee at Marvel. And he'd always do his work at the Charles William Harvey Studio. I saw the work that he did. I said, "Is there any chance that I can find some work up there myself?" Harvey says, "Yeah. Go up. Call Stan Lee or go up and see somebody there and see what they have," which I did. And I got something. I don't remember what it was, but it was something. And through that people began to know me, and vice versa. I think it's who you know in this business as well as what you know.

GROTH: Now you started off inking Severin's work at EC? The war books?

ELDER: Yeah. I felt that I could work on a finished product much better than if I was working at it day to day.

GROTH: Do you mean better or faster?

ELDER: Faster and better. For some reason or other I had the ability to do that. I couldn't explain it, but perhaps it's because the pencils gave me all the guidance I needed. The inking came very natural.

I started with American Eagle. I think it was about an Indian who was very loyal to our country.

GROTH: And you inked that?

ELDER: I inked it.

GROTH: And Severin penciled. Then, you went on to ink the war stories at EC that Harvey wrote?

ELDER: Yeah. Correct. Two-Fisted Tales. That sort of thing.

EC and Inking Severin

GROTH: During that period, were you at all frustrated that you couldn't draw your own stories, or were you pretty happy to get the practice in inking?

ELDER: Well, little by little, through osmosis I guess, I worked my way independently. And then Mad came along. Mad was really fun. A magazine that didn't offend anyone except those without a sense of humor. It might offend them. But there were few of those kinds of people. Mad gave me the freedom that I really wanted all of the time. And I think that freedom was unlocking the abilities that I had. I was always a gag man. But I was a sub-gag man. Once the thing was put on paper, I could do whatever I wanted with it and add things to it in the background and the foreground, where have you. It was a blessing for me to work for Mad because it gave me complete freedom. And freedom is what I needed.

GROTH: When you were inking Severin, you were basically just sort of a hired craftsman?

ELDER: And we had a boss to contend with, Jack Kirby. He'd say, "Give me another figure. This doesn't look right," and so forth.

GROTH: But when you inked Severin at EC you were also basically a hired craftsman.

ELDER: Yeah.

GROTH: So how did you feel about inking Severin's war stories? Was that an enjoyable experience?

ELDER: Johnny was a very good artist. He still is, if he's still around. I haven't spoken to him...

GROTH: He is. A good artist and still around.

ELDER: He was out in Colorado. Out west somewhere.

GROTH: I was going to say, it looked like you may have deliberately tried to give your inks a Milton Caniff-esque sheen.

ELDER: Yeah.
Image Image

Elder draws the E.C. gang on the last page of "The Night Before Christmas" in Panic #1, ©1984 William M. Gaines.

GROTH: Was he an influence?

ELDER: That's a good observation, Gary. I would say yes, because Milton Caniff was the artist of the day, of the year. Dickie Dare and then, of course, Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, pretty well done. His stuff was like a movie. His people were rather Hollywoodish in a way. They always spoke the current language and they were rather good-looking, like old Hollywood. Nobody with pimples. He set that for the day. That was our goal, to become another Milton Caniff. But then along came other strips that did the same. Not Buck Rogers. I remember reading Buck Rogers and looking at it again, it's rather crude compared to Caniff.

GROTH: Very much so. When you were younger you were a comedian of sorts, and then you entered into a period where you just applied craft to various projects, inking Severin and so on. And then you found your forte with humor. You returned to humor.

ELDER: Harvey used to tell me, advisedly, that I was wasting my time doing all of these funny gag mechanisms in my head, because I was always talking about how to make a situation funny or how to pull some crazy prank out of a normal thing and Harvey would say I should put it on paper, as I mentioned earlier, and it would go further. It would open up doors for you. It would show people what you can do, not what they think you can do. He was right in that area, too, because he was a very keen observer.

GROTH: When you were inking Severin on the war books, did you get to know the other EC artists like Wally Wood and Jack Davis and so forth?

ELDER: Rather vaguely. I knew Wally. I would travel on the subway with Wally and we'd talk our hearts out to each other. Wally was a really serious guy, but with a terrific sense of humor. You would never think so. He was rather shy, yet aggressive on paper. He was a hard worker, a very hard worker. And sometimes it was difficult to please him. You had to be very careful how you criticized his work. He would take it to heart. That's the side of Wally that I saw. I'm sure he showed other sides to other people, but that's how he came across to me.

Jack Davis was a lot of fun, because he comes from another world, and I always used to make fun of him. He resented it with a big smile on his face saying, "You don't have to call me that, Bill," or that sort of thing. But he was a lot of fun.

GROTH: Was that because he was sort of a Southern Gary Cooper type?

ELDER: That's true. I didn't know Jack Kamen too well. But I've seen him around enough to feel as if he was one of the boys.

GROTH: Did EC create a social context for the artists to —

ELDER: We would go on excursions once in a while. We went to Long Island onto the Sound. We hired a big boat and took a trip around the Sound. That's when I went nuts. I kept making everyone feel nauseous pretending I was throwing up. I would bend over. They would never see my head; they would just see me bending over. And out would come a salt cellar, spoons, a box of pepper. This was coming out of my stomach supposedly. I would carry on. It was a lot of fun. In fact, anywhere where there was no legitimate reason to behave oneself, I would go wild.

After we left Mad, I heard stories about them taking trips to Paris.

GROTH: That's right. They did go on international junkets.

ELDER: To Ireland, to England, to France.

GROTH: That's right. You missed that...

ELDER: I felt disgustingly angry. I left too soon.
Wrapped up with Mad

GROTH: You only got to Long Island. That's not nearly the same.

The first issue of Mad, was published in October of 1952. Can you tell me what you know about how Mad came about?

ELDER: Well, it was during the Kefauver Committee, the hearings on juvenile delinquency. Of course Bill Gaines appeared and he spoke about "The Night before Christmas," which I, by the way, drew, penciled and inked. He said, "I'm going to get up there and tell them what I think." And he did. He said, "The Night before Christmas" is poking fun at Santa Claus. Santa Claus is not a religious figure. It's a phony figure. It was made up by Thomas Nast, another cartoonist. He also invented the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. So the committee wasn't surprised but they figured out that Gaines knew what he was talking about.

Gaines was going bankrupt really rapidly. But someone said, "Why don't we start a humor magazine or something that pokes fun at these characters that we've been advertising all of the time. Make a comic book that makes fun of the comic book." That was a very unique idea at the time. Now, it seems like it was a simple idea, but it wasn't. And it was a desperate idea, because we needed to find something that would keep us afloat. And because of that, we came up with a humor magazine that was going to be very irreverent and perhaps sell a few copies and it overwhelmed everybody. It did well. It didn't do as well as it did a few years later, but it certainly kept us afloat. And that's how Mad was born.

This sequence and next from "Ganefs!" in Mad #1, ©1952 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: You mentioned "The Night Before Christmas."

ELDER: That's correct. They thought that would be corrupting the youth.

GROTH: That was also banned in Massachusetts.

ELDER: Everything is banned in Massachusetts.

GROTH: That I didn't know.

ELDER: It has a notorious outlook on life.

GROTH: What was your relationship with Harvey at this point, in 1952?

ELDER: Well, Harvey would take me into his little room where he always took artists and discuss a story or whatever.

GROTH: At the EC offices?

ELDER: Yeah. Right down on Canal Street, somewhere around there. And he would say, "We just came up with the idea of a magazine called Mad. I think it's up your alley. If I were you, I would go put yourself into it and become an actor or become an actress, become an opera singer. Do whatever you want for yourself, but make it funny. It's got to be funny. And you can do it." He encouraged me like a football coach. Get out there and fight! That's the way I got myself wrapped up with Mad.

GROTH: There were basically four revolving artists in Mad: you, Wood, Davis and Severin.

ELDER: Johnny didn't hang around too long; he left for other pastures.

GROTH: The first strip you did for Mad was called... "Ganefs?" [Mad #1]

ELDER: Gah-niffs. It's an old German term, which means thieves. They were more or less influenced by the early comedians of physical humor. Buster Keaton. Harold Lloyd. Charlie Chaplin. You can see that in the little guy who uses violence in his humor. Always flapping the big dumbbell... What the hell's his name? I can't remember his name. Oh, it's been so long. My God, it's over 50 years.

GROTH: In the story? The character's name is Bumble.

ELDER: Hello? [Phone glitch.]

GROTH: Can you hear me?

ELDER: Sorry I woke you.

GROTH: The character, are you referring to Bumble?

ELDER: Bumble. Right. That's it.

GROTH: I want to get into some details with the stories you did for Mad. "Ganefs," for example. My understanding is that Harvey wrote the stories.

ELDER: Right, for the most part, I had a lot of freedom with Harvey at Mad. He would write the stories and give me a lot of latitude and say, "make it funny, Will." So I would say that "Ganefs" in particular and "Mole," [Mad #2] were much more from the two of us, I think I came up with "Mole" and Harvey may have come up with "Ganefs." It's hard to know who did what after all these years, but I do know that Harvey gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted on the Mad stuff.

GROTH: And he provided layouts?

ELDER: Yeah. He would roughly set it down on paper in these little panels and written dialogue and sound effects. I would work with that as a base. Basically I would use that and start throwing my things in. And he never said a word, because he figured whatever I did would only enhance the humor of what he did. And it was a good combination. It worked well. Before you know it, I was throwing in the kitchen sink and the dumbwaiter. Every blessed thing that came into my mind, which ended up in a hilarious clutter, as he put it.

GROTH: Was the lettering on the boards by the time that you started?

ELDER: It wasn't finished lettering. No. It was just the story that was being told or that was being recorded on the paper.

GROTH: When would the lettering be put on the artwork? At what stage in the process?

ELDER: After I got through with the inking. They would either paste it on, and have balloons that were pasted on ...

GROTH: Oh, really?

ELDER: Yes. Because I would try to leave room. I had to have the example of the lettering first, to see how many lines of lettering there would be so that when I made room for it eventually, it wouldn't cover up part of the pictures or part of the illustrations. I would leave a note where the balloon would go for each panel with the proper lines and size of the letters. So it wouldn't... beforehand it would be sitting in the right place in each panel, where the dialogue took place. Do I make myself unclear?

GROTH: Very precisely. I assume that many, if not all, of the details in the work are yours?

ELDER: I would say a good many of them. Yeah.

GROTH: When Harvey wrote the scripts for the stories, did he also accompany that with a description of what was going on in each panel?

ELDER: Yeah. He would reenact each scene. It was kind of peculiar and it was rather humorous. He would reenact each scene, he would tell you what every scene should have, what the situation was. His voice would change in order to express his ideas. It was fun. I would throw in a few ideas and he either rejected them or accepted them. Then I would take those ideas that I got from Harvey's re-enactment and go to town, adding as many things as I could think of to Harvey's basic layout.

GROTH: Let me ask you a specific question which you might not be able to answer because you might not remember. I wouldn't blame you a bit, but let me go ahead and give it a shot.

ELDER: I don't remember the shot.

GROTH: In the story "Dragged Net!" which ran in Mad #3, I noticed things that you've drawn in the panel that wouldn't necessarily have been indicated in the script.

ELDER: Right. Good thinking.

GROTH: I'm wondering to what extent you took the script and visualized it differently than Harvey or another artist would, and to what extent Harvey gave you directions.

ELDER: Every artist that worked for Mad had a style. Harvey knew that. He prescribed certain stories to certain artists, to one of the four of us who was best-suited to that particular story. But Harvey would reenact the story in addition to the layout so the artist had the layout and Harvey's explanation to go by. I would listen very closely to Harvey's explanations, his reenactments and I would use that to embellish the story with my own ideas.

Somehow he introduced Bernie Krigstein to Mad. Bernie was certainly not, to my mind, a humorous cartoonist. His work is very serious and very well done, but I found that he wasn't suitable enough for Harvey, for Mad. He did From Here to Eternity ["From Eternity Back to Here!" Mad #12]. There were a lot of things that he could have done better, because I've seen his work. His work, some of it is beautiful. The thing is, Harvey knew exactly what could be done by what artist and how he worked. And somehow it worked. It was a very good plan. It was a good way of organizing each one of us into doing what we best do.

GROTH: EC started Panic as soon as they realized Mad caught on. You were in every issue of Panic. In fact, in later Panics, I think you had two stories in each issue.

ELDER: I wish I had it in front of me, but I'll take your word for it.

From Mad #12, ©1954 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: Let me ask you how you worked with Al Feldstein vs. how you worked with Kurtzman. I assume that Feldstein also gave you the layouts?

ELDER: Feldstein was a little looser than Harvey. He relied on the artist more and gave the artist more freedom to do it on his own. He also did layouts, but they weren't tight like Harvey's and he never reenacted the story like Harvey did.

GROTH: So it was the same method.

ELDER: Yeah. They figured, what's good enough for them is good enough for themselves. [Laughter.]

GROTH: So the stories in Panic were completely written when you got them?

ELDER: No, Feldstein would leave a lot to the artist, including some of the writing. I know for Panic #1 we were under a lot of pressure to get that issue out and Al said to me, "Just do ‘Night before Christmas.'" I don't even think I had a layout on that one!

GROTH: Describe the difference between working with Harvey and working with Al.

ELDER: Uh... With Harvey, I was a little closer, because we'd known each other years back. At least, ever since we'd met in the streets of New York, and that was about ten years ago or so from that point in time. And we'd be very frank with each other. I'd suggest some ideas. He'd accept them or not accept them. He would laugh and we'd have a good time. I'd go to his house in Mount Vernon, sit on his porch and have tea or whatever we drank, Coca-Cola. It was very homey and very homespun and we were very open with each other. Feldstein I didn't know that well. I knew him, of course. He remembered me from Music and Art. He was another Music and Art-er. And we spoke about Music-and-Art days. It was a friendly but a distant friendly. But he wasn't as hands-on as Harvey was; he wanted the work to get done and he gave some input, but he wasn't as involved with the details of the story like Harvey was. When Harvey re-enacted those scenes, the artist really knew what he was looking for. Al didn't do that, so — for me anyway — it was different. I wasn't always sure what Al was looking for, but he seemed to like what I did.

GROTH: Did you detect a difference in Feldstein's approach to humor?

ELDER: Yeah. It wasn't classic enough for me. To me the challenge was something classic, something that had an intelligence behind it — an intelligent thought. It was like... I'm trying to make a comparison here to something I've seen. It's like Chaplin compared to a Laurel and Hardy. Chaplin was physical, but with an idea behind it. Laurel and Hardy were not exactly physical. They were physical, but I wouldn't call them physical artists. They were endearing characters, someone you would have loved to have known as a friend. So to me the lot of them are comedians, but at the same time their approach to any problem is slightly different, given their characters.

GROTH: You did "Starchy" in Mad #12.

ELDER: Oh yeah. There were a lot of letters on "Starchy."

GROTH: Which was actually remarkable. It seemed to me to be the most risqué strip that Mad published up to that time. You had Starchy smoking —

ELDER: All the things that are wrong with people in society registered on those pages.

GROTH: You had the principal chasing Betty and Veronica around.

ELDER: Well, it happens. Some teachers prey on their students.

GROTH: Right. But it was pretty unheard of to put that in a comic in 1954.

ELDER: Yeah. But I feel my zaniness is based on truth. If it weren't that way it would be pretentious. It wouldn't be believed at all; all really great comedy is based on truth.

GROTH: How are you able to capture the likenesses and the artistic styles of these strips? I'm thinking of "Starchy" and the Li'l Abner —

ELDER: I worked like a b-a-s-t-a-r-d. I worked very hard, because not only was I challenged to do something interesting, very interesting, but also to show Harvey that he's got a guy whose doing hard work for him and myself. I was really out to please him, because he never knew I could do that many characters, and accurately. Of course, when I say accurately it was them during those days. They changed during the latter part of their careers. People forget that. When you do a caricature of anybody like that — like Hirschfeld, the Line King, you know, he drew pictures of people in the theatre who aren't recognizable in their last days on Earth. They've changed. So you're apt to be criticized for the fact that it looks like them but many years later.

Sequence from "Restaurant!" in Mad #16, ©1954 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: When you started off at Mad, your first four stories were crime satires. They were "Ganefs!" "Mole!" "Dragged Net!" and "Shadow!" [Mad #1-4]

ELDER: Well, it's like the old Hollywood days. They'd come out with films that were pretty much all alike. Westerns for a time dominated the screen. Everybody loved them until the darn things wore off. Gangster movies were very, very famous, very popular in the later '20s and the early '30s. You had Cagney and Bogart, Edward G. Robinson. Then you had the romantic comedies with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn and that sort of thing. So it changed with the audience and the times.

GROTH: Right. Then you did a couple of horror satires: "Outer Sanctum!" and "Ping Pong!" [Mad #5 and 6]

ELDER: Well, you have to try something new.

GROTH: Then you started to do character satires like "Shermlock Shomes." [Mad #7] One of the things that I liked most in your stories was, for example in the Holmes satire, suddenly toward the end bubbles are coming out of his pipe and Dr. Watson is holding up an umbrella. Would that sort of invention have just been a spontaneous decision on your part?

ELDER: Probably so, because it had nothing to do with the story.

GROTH: It had nothing to do with the story or the dialogue. It just pops up out of nowhere.

ELDER: Harvey, when we went on these conventions, would answer questions from the audience and from the fans in general, and would tell them that he never knew what I was going to come up with. He laughed at everything, Harvey. If you laugh at something, you're more or less forgiving them.

GROTH: I think the fact that it simply pops up for no reason makes it even funnier.

ELDER: Yeah. It's like the Marx Brothers. They would do something anti-social out of nowhere.

GROTH: Like a series of non sequiturs.

ELDER: It's also battering the social divides to hell, such as people who are very rich and very mannered as opposed to those who are starving to work for a buck. Harvey would say, everybody will be reading Will's sight gags and not even read my stories. Everyone laughed and I expected them to laugh because the whole thing was ludicrous.

GROTH: Do you, among the strips you did for Mad and Panic, have any favorite genres that you worked in or any types of strips that you preferred?

ELDER: In Mad I liked the newspaper-comics and radio parodies. Those were the things I knew the best and I had always made fun of them when I was in school, so it came very naturally to me. Harvey knew that. I would have to say that the radio — "Dragged Net!" and "Outer Sanctum!" — and, of course, the newspaper funnies — "Poopeye!" [Mad #21], "Mickey Rodent!" [Mad #19], "Tick Dracy!" [Panic #5] — jeeze, that list just goes on and on. It's hard for me to pick one; I like them all. There are things I like about all of them, but I can't say I have a favorite. It's like asking a parent which child is his favorite; you just can't do it... out loud!

Will Does the Funnypages

GROTH: In general, I thought your most successful strips were the newspaper parodies.

ELDER: Yeah. I would say that there are so many that come close that I dare not say any one in particular is my favorite. They're all my favorite, because I put whatever I could into all of them.

Sequence from "Bringing Back Father" in Mad #17, ©1954 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: What I thought was so amazing was just how closely you were able to ...

ELDER: Copy the style?

GROTH: Yes. What kind of preparation did you do?

ELDER: Well, there's this philosophy behind that. If you don't make the thing look like the actual living undisturbed, unprecedented thing, you're not making your point. The point being if it's so close to the original artwork that it could fool any reader, then your gag is much stronger.

GROTH: Yes, it is, right. Because you're putting these exact likenesses into completely different contexts.

ELDER: You fool the reader. I do that with my wash in the advertisements.

GROTH: And you did many of them. You did Bringing Up Father, Li'l Abner, Gasoline Alley, Katzenjammer Kids, Wash Tubbs —

ELDER: You're naming them all. Those are my favorites.

GROTH: What kind of preparation did you have to do before you drew the strip itself? Did you sit down and study the original strips and work up sketches?

ELDER: Oh, yeah. That's a must. You must study them and see where he makes a certain expression and his linework is of a certain type. And his drama, his lighting in the cartoon has to be a certain original type. And I tried to capture the inner feeling of that particular strip.

Sequences from "Captain Izzy and Washt Upps" in Panic #10 (©1955 E.C. Publications, Inc.) and "Gasoline Valley!" in Mad #15 (©1954 E.C. Publications, Inc.)

GROTH: That sounds like an enormous amount of work before you even start drawing a strip.

ELDER: Yeah. It's like anything in life; you want something decent, you have to really rehearse. You find that a lot of good plays have a tremendous rehearsal period. And when they actually put the show on, it's just about a few minutes of the time that you had at first. Preparation is everything.

GROTH: So how long did it take you to prepare, on average, for parodying a strip?

ELDER: It's hard to say exactly how much time I had, but I would say about two or three days of steady work. Eight-hour, nine-hour, ten-hour days on and off. You know, many people comment on my ability to imitate the style without realizing what I really put into it. I wouldn't expect them to know, but I always had the impression that the fans thought I was up in my studio with a rubber stamp or something, and I was just able to punch this stuff out, but I put in a tremendous amount of time, research and effort in every story I did. I don't see how I could have done it any other way.

GROTH: How exactly would you go about doing that? Would you do sketches and drawings over and over again to get the feel of the strip and the artist's style and approach?

ELDER: Yeah. I would work in pencil very lightly so if I made a mistake it would be easily erased. But I would do pencil because it's flexible.

GROTH: Did you do a lot of preliminary sketching and drawing of the characters?

ELDER: Well, I did a minimal amount of sketching and drawing, because I thought, depending on the strip, something was very simple looking like Popeye. You know, he's a very original looking guy. A typical guy, with a round chin and his corn pipe, his one eye squinting. That sort of thing is very typical of Popeye.

GROTH: I assume you never kept any of your preliminary sketches and drawings you did?

ELDER: I try to, but I'm not sure how much survived. I'm going to keep looking, too, because I have a mess of stuff here in my studio.

GROTH: Did you and Harvey discuss what you wanted to do beforehand or did he simply say, "Let's do Joe Palooka this month," and you were open to whatever he proposed, or did you have preferences?

ELDER: Well, you hit it on the head the first thing you mentioned. We went over it, and he would describe it. He was very much in favor of having each artist according to his own ability and observations do a strip that he thought was right up their alley. And that, to me, was good captainship, if you want to call it that. He knew exactly what each artist was capable of doing. And if it was something zany or wacky and full of garbage, he'd hand it to me. He would hand straight comedy to Johnny Severin, Jack Davis and Wally Wood.

Sequences from "Tick Dracy" in Panic #5 (©1954 E.C. Publications, Inc.) and "Irving Oops" in Panic #8 (©1955 E.C. Publications, Inc.)

GROTH: Did he ever suggest parodying a strip that you just didn't like? That is, where you simply weren't interested enough in the original strip to enjoy parodying it?

ELDER: Believe it or not there was a strip in Panic I didn't care for. It was with the young ladies. One was a brunette and one was a blonde. I forgot what it was called.

GROTH: Mary Worthless?

ELDER: No. No. It's not that. It's these two very beautiful women who live in a basement and their dad tells them to be careful going out with men.

GROTH: There was "The Heartaches of Joliet's Groans!"

ELDER: That's it. That's the one. Heartaches of Juliet something. Whatever.

GROTH: Who was the original artist on that one? Was that —

ELDER: A very good artist. I think his drawings were beautifully done. I never followed those stories very closely, but I just thought that they were a waste of time. They were very unexciting.

GROTH: So why were you less interested in doing that? Was it because it was so stylistically vapid that it wasn't a sufficient challenge?

ELDER: They never moved out of their space. They were always there, and they were talking about the men and they had Li'l Abner appear one time as one of the dates. It was a bunch of clichés that he did over and over again.

GROTH: And your drawing is noticeably less manic and more static.

ELDER: Right. It was just redoing the beautiful women. That could be done anywhere and anyplace. Lack of excitement.

GROTH: Some of the strips were really uncanny the way you caught them, like Alley Oop and Bringing Up Father.

ELDER: I had to do that, because it was a case of the ego in me. I figured, if he could do it, I could do it. In fact, it was a lot easier for me than it was for him, because he's got it laid out in front of me. All I do is use that same character and make him twisted. Do something ridiculously funny unexpectedly. So I had all of the advantages.

Sequence from "The Heartaches of Joliet's Groans!" in Panic #12, ©1956 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: The George McManus parody, which Krigstein contributed to...

ELDER: That was one of the better ones.

GROTH: Whose idea was it for you and Krigstein to sort of collaborate on that?

ELDER: That was Harvey.

GROTH: Do you think that worked?

ELDER: No. I didn't think ... They were very glum and dark and very disillusioned.

GROTH: Krigstein's part of it. Yeah.

ELDER: Krigstein may be a fine artist, but it just didn't work in this area. Because the whole thing was a parody to begin with, and to suddenly throw cold water on it is very disappointing.Will and Harvey's Process

GROTH: In the explanatory text in one of the Mad collections, there's a question posed to Kurtzman: "How closely did the artist follow the tissue overlay?" And Kurtzman replies, "They resented it at first, but we had thrashed that out in the war books."

ELDER: Excuse you for a minute. Except that didn't work for me. He gave me full rein. He knew how wacky I could be, so Kurtzman was very kind to me. He said, "Will, get funny like you usually do. Get funny." And I'd try to.

GROTH: What were these tissue overlays that they refer to? I understand that he laid out the strip, right?

ELDER: Yes. The tissue overlays actually saved a step in the process of doing these satires.

GROTH: Can you explain how that worked?

ELDER: Well, it would be translated from the tracing paper with a drawing on it in pencil onto the illustration board. But what Harv used to do was to pencil on the illustration board and then lift it off with tracing paper. He would rather work on the tracing paper at first and then from the tracing paper onto the illustration board. Do you follow me or am I —

Sequence from "Shermlock Shomes!" in Mad #7, ©1953 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: Yeah. Now these would be Harvey's drawings on the tracing paper?

ELDER: Harvey's very rough layouts. In other words, he showed us the exact thing that was going on in each panel. What was happening. In other words, basically there was a story behind all of the garbage.

GROTH: And then those rough layouts would be transferred onto the board?

ELDER: Right. Illustration board. I would take a piece of a very thin, ordinary stationery paper and I would blacken one side of it with a very soft pencil. I would slip that between the tracing paper and the illustration board, go over the tracing paper again as to where to put Harvey's layouts on the illustration paper. We would use the blackened page like carbon paper. Now, I don't use the real carbon paper because it has a wax finish and wax and ink do not mix. What I use is a pencil reproduction or drawing on the illustration board because you can always erase it. Wax you can't erase. It will smear, that wax carbon paper. If I'm getting complicated, let me know.

GROTH: I'd be interested to know how much you changed or altered Harvey's layouts.

ELDER: Harvey would be the first one to tell you that, if you think that I'm trying to grab credit from Harvey, on the contrary, we worked as a team and we worked very well. Harvey would be the first to tell you that my gags and my layouts and my rendering made that strip very plausible.

GROTH: Let me ask you if you can remember some specifics. On page five in the first three panels of "Shermlock Shmoes!" you had Holmes and Watson en route to another location. In the first panel they're in a soapbox-derby car. In the second panel they're on a camel and the third panel...

ELDER: Oh, the modes of transportation.

GROTH: That's right. What did Harvey give you to work with and how much did you add to that?

ELDER: If Harvey were here he would tell you just exactly what I would say, and that is that I did most of the gags. In fact, I did almost all of them. Harvey would leave the funny ideas on paper, and I would embellish whatever was there with my own ideas.

GROTH: So with that example, he would have drawn what in those panels?

ELDER: He would draw very rough or very crude placement in each panels. In other words, figures he thinks should have been in an area of the panel, that's what he did. He handed me a sheet of paper the size of a comic-book page, but in this case one and a half to two times up so I could work a lot easier on the details by working on a much larger scale. When I finished the sketches, I would send it to Harvey or meet him. He thought they actually saved the strip, because he said, "I run out of ideas and come to my rescue if you can." I don't want to take all of the credit, but there was a section of my work in almost every panel. Harvey knew that I would handle it. After all, it reflects on all of us if we do good work.

GROTH: The lettering was put in after you penciled it. Were the balloons blocked in before you penciled it?

ELDER: I think so. They were real professionals, and they put the lettering in really tight at times and very well executed. We didn't have to worry about that.

GROTH: In what form did you get the script from Harvey? Was the actual writing on the board you drew on?

ELDER: He would write on there and he would segue with a balloon, so I knew right away it was dialogue.
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One of Elder's fake ads, from Mad #27, ©1956 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: How organic was the collaboration? Did Harvey change things based upon gags you would put in?

ELDER: I would change things. I have a film that we've made. Have you seen it?

GROTH: Well, I've seen one video with you and Harvey in it.

ELDER: We were on the back porch one summer.

GROTH: Where you're both sitting in chairs?

ELDER: Well, I was sitting in one of those sling chairs, yes. Harvey was in a lounge chair or something.

We'd discuss ideas for humor takeoffs and things of that sort. I'd come up with a few ideas and he'd say OK and write it down very crudely as if it were a note. But when it came to that page of that particular panel, I would have to expect from Harvey a layout of very crude figures, if there were figures involved. Or things of transportation. Are they going to Spot... what's his name? The guy from that space program? Spock.

GROTH: Oh, Dr. Spock.

ELDER: Yeah. He roughed it in very, very quick and fast. What I did is I took it from there, looked at Spock in the pages I remember him appearing in, and did a whole thing over from scratch. But at least I was sure of where Harvey wanted the panel to be, or the figures in the panel to be.

GROTH: That was in Little Annie Fanny.

ELDER: That was Little Annie Fanny. Right. The same principle applied to everything I did.

GROTH: How elastic was Harvey in terms of the writing? Did he change things after he saw your drawing?

ELDER: Very rarely did he do that with me. I must brag about that. I'm very proud of it. The fact is, he let me work alone. He knew that I was a nut if I kept quiet and stuck to myself and did my own work without anybody supervising me. Because usually he accepted it when he finally got it.

GROTH: Did you fiddle with the writing at all?

ELDER: Hardly. Very, very rarely did I do that. Hardly.

GROTH: Do you remember if Harvey ever changed the writing after you did a drawing to accommodate your drawing and your gags?

ELDER: He might have. I wasn't aware of it. What I was aware of was turning in the work on my behalf with an illustration.

GROTH: I know you might not remember all of this stuff because they're very, very... I'm getting into some minutiae...

ELDER: Over 50 years ago...

GROTH: In the Holmes story, for example, you have a panel where Sherlock is playing the violin with the mop. One side of the mop is going into Watson's mouth and the other side is splattering against —

ELDER: I vaguely remember that. Yeah.

GROTH: Would Harvey have just drawn Sherlock Holmes with a violin instrument and you created the mop?

ELDER: I don't know. I'm not too sure about that, but I think, as I said earlier, he made the stories less lengthy by the fact he threw it my way and we would meet deadlines. The trick was to get all of the stuff ready for reproduction. He wanted everything to be orderly. Harvey was very meticulous. He wanted everything to be orderly. The fact that we went to Music and Art High School together, he was like my kid brother or vice versa. He figured he'd leave me alone. He would never bother with me.

If you notice, there're about four stories in every comic book of Mad. And one of those stories he would keep open for me. Because I would be working on an illustration — for example, an ad parody I did. It was wash and tone. It wasn't exactly black and white or line work. It was a washed advertised fiction of a guy going... Harry Chester was the model in this case. The guy going to the electric chair. Well, there's this young guy with this jockey suit on, I guess you would call it. A young midget. Walking around the lobby of the hotel yelling. But in this case, he was witness to an execution. We had a priest in the background, someone uncuffing Harry Chester, and you see a hand sticking out from the side of the illustration with one of those long matches giving the criminal a chance to have his last smoke. And the chair is in the immediate half-distance. That took time because I wanted to make it look real. By looking real it becomes more convincing as a gag. If I made it crudely, it would look like a gag right from the very get-go. So I would make it almost exactly like the advertisement but a different subject. Nothing like Madison Avenue would put out. We weren't knocking the products, we were knocking the people who were advertising the products.

Let me add one more thing, Gary, if I may? The ad parody with Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly took work. To achieve the concept of that idea took a little time. Rendering took time. A double whammy there, taking so much time, which left me not working on the other stuff, whether it be Humbug, Mad, Panic, Trump whatever magazine I had my work in. You have to make sure that your ideas are not forced but left open for whatever ideas you might come up with.

The same thing could be applied to Mad magazine when they had an illustration for an ad where the family, everyone's sitting around drinking beer. That's in Mad magazine. That was one of the later issues. At the time, it was probably coming to an end for us.

From "Frank N. Stein!" in Mad #8, ©1954 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: Well, you know, in the Frankenstein story you did for Mad...

ELDER: Oh, that was my favorite.

GROTH: Was it?

ELDER: No. The Humbug Frankenstein. I really loved that.

GROTH: But on the Mad one, you have a four-panel sequence where Frankenstein's assistant Bumble is reading a newspaper.

ELDER: Oh, yeah. It shows him marching up that hill at night in the storm. He reaches his castle and falls through a trap door. That's Bumble and Dr. Frankenstein, if you want to call him that. Bumble was a real nogoodnick.

GROTH: And the newspaper he's reading, it has all kinds of...

ELDER: In every language, right. It was authentic. I made sure I got a piece out of the newspaper to write about it.

GROTH: Those are authentic?

ELDER: As far as I know. I won't guarantee it but I tried to get something from the paper and more or less copy it. So if somebody does understand it, it will be a double whammy for him. They'll get a kick out of the funny idea.

GROTH: Some of them looked Asian and Arabic. So that gag was your idea?

ELDER: Yes, it was. All the little things were stemming from my mind and Harvey enjoyed them. In fact, he used to laugh at my stuff. He hardly laughed when we were in that little box office.

GROTH: Since you brought it up, why do you prefer the Frankenstein you did for Humbug?

ELDER: It was more realistic and a lot funnier, I think. The humor was more sophisticated. And more or less rendered the way it was, was the style I prefer. The one in Mad was topsy turvy to meet a deadline. But the one that I did for Humbug, I thought had a little more style.

I got a letter from two college kids from Rhode Island. I think it was Brown University. They said they were aficionados of Frankenstein's monster by Mary Shelley, the original book's author. He more or less said that that story Frankenstein was the closest thing to the best ideal for Hollywood to take place in. He said it was very accurate. The people in it were very accurate. He said I must have been a fan, too. No. I just did it for the laughs. I didn't do it for any fans or anything. But he thought that they were very sharp and to the point.

GROTH: The Mickey Rodent strip that you did, I was curious as to which artist you based the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck renderings on? Would that have been Floyd Gottfredson's newspaper strip?

ELDER: I had a lot of things laid out before me on the floor of my studio. I saw things that look typically Disney, whoever handled that particular part of it. But I would lay out and I'd say, "If I can get this style, the original style of Mickey with the sharp looking body." I didn't have a crude body like Steamboat Willie. Do you remember that first one?


ELDER: That was far from Steamboat Willie. I would use the best Mickey Mouse figure I could find.

From "Mickey Rodent!" in Mad #19, ©1955 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: Were you aware of the Donald Duck comics, and Carl Barks' work at the time?

ELDER: No. I didn't know Carl Barks at all.

I heard of him later after he had left or was retired. Yes, I did use his figures. They were very recognizable, and my gag wouldn't be any good if they weren't recognizable.

GROTH: I thought a real stroke of inspiration in the strip was when Darnold Duck was pointing to your signature and saying, "Look at that signature! It's not Walt Dizzy's style!" And then there were references to the differences in line work between your Donald Duck and the original.

ELDER: That was a lot of my doing, I must say. But Harvey wrote the general theme of the story, the basics. The idea, the general idea, he came up with it. He'd talk to me and say, "Will, I have an idea for Mickey Rodent, Disney's bread and butter. I want to give it the works. See what you can do." He comes back and he says, "I want the story to exemplify the Disney characters. And suddenly this Duck rebels against whatever Disney has done to the fowls of America, the ducks," and then he says, "I have a surprise ending. I'd like to end with a real duck." That was Harvey. What I did in between, like people in the woods or in the beginning splash page, you have people watching one of their friends being dragged off to the police station, handled by police that look like animals — horses, cows, whatever. One of the victims, one of the people who are watching this going on has a little leash. And at the end of the leash there is a little naked man. That was a crazy idea I thought of.

GROTH: I have to ask you about Mad #22, the all-Elder issue. First of all, whose idea was that?

ELDER: Oh, I have a confession. That issue was a fill-in. There wasn't anything going on that week. Davis didn't have a complete story or was starting on a story. Wally Wood was the same. I think he was ill or something and just never had time to look forward for another story. It was a filler issue. It had to be done.

GROTH: So it was done out of desperation?

ELDER: Harvey approached me and said, "How would you like to do the whole book?" I said, "Wait a minute. That's a job." I said, "Well, what if it's just one of you guys." Then he pointed toward me. I said, "This is going to be tough." Now that I'm looking back, it paid off as far as people liking my work and making me feel wanted.

GROTH: I guess that explains why you didn't draw the whole thing.

ELDER: Yeah. I left in some commercial ads. Typical ads, and then I would render something in there that would catch your eye, something that was completely outrageous. I was a kid that was yelling for attention when I had these stories.

GROTH: I assume Harvey wrote it?

ELDER: Yes, he did.

GROTH: And you compiled all of the photographs and doctored them?

ELDER: Well, the mechanics were something that I handled. The ideas I would embellish it with many more ideas than Harvey had laid out, because he was thinking only of getting the book done. It's a question of timing. I had more time to do these things than Harvey did.
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Page from the all-Elder Mad #22, ©1955 E.C. Publications, Inc.

GROTH: Now, it is somewhat autobiographical. It is embellished, but I noticed some things that were accurate. So Harvey must have taken some things from your life and then embellished them wildly.

ELDER: One thing I want to make clear is that Harvey and I were alter-egos at work. There was a very magical chemistry that was formulated by the two of us. We were successful in our renderings of the ideas from the very beginning. It worked. Everything we did seemed to gel. I was very lucky to have him as a friend and a collaborator.

GROTH: Did you guys work more closely on this particular autobiographical piece, or did he just write the whole thing and hand it to you?

ELDER: He handed it to me, because it was too much of a job for me. I was doing other things. I was freelancing, I believe, if nothing else, maybe on Panic. I really don't know. I know I was busy getting things together. I tried to contribute whatever I could to help the thing along.

GROTH: Why do you think you were chosen rather than Davis or Wood or —

ELDER: Because he thought I was funny.

GROTH: I guess you had a funnier life.

ELDER: Well, I was a practical joker. Being a practical joker gives me the fortitude and weaponry of doing mischief to anybody. If you do it to your friends, and they happen to know you did it, they can take it quite easily. But you don't do it with people you don't know. It could be dangerous.

GROTH: At some point, you were working for Panic and Mad at the same time because Feldstein could no longer do all of the writing. And he brought in a writer by the name of Jack Mendelsohn.

ELDER: Yes. Jack used to like the radio personalities.

GROTH: How did you like working with him?

ELDER: I never knew he was doing it, frankly.

GROTH: [Astonished.] Huh.

ELDER: I knew later on, but not at the time. I thought he was a good gag man. But he had sent an inquiry to some kind of magazine that contacted me and wanted to know exactly what you want to know: How come Jack took over and what sort of a writer was he? I said I didn't know. Jack says to the magazine, "I don't have to do anything for Will. He's funny enough." He never even told me that he was writing this stuff for me. So I got a very fine critique from Mendelson, if that means anything.

GROTH: So when you did the Panic work, would you simply pick up a script from the offices?

ELDER: I'd go into the office or he'd mail out another script. I'd look over it and tell him what I thought. Al Feldstein never really called me direct except later on in our careers if he wanted me to fill in a gap. But he would call once in a while. When he did, it meant he had a story for me to work on or to think about.

GROTH: Were you living in Manhattan when you were doing the EC work?

ELDER: No. I lived in New Brunswick [N.J.]. I'm back to where I started. I think I lived on Liberty Road in Englewood, N.J. I finally came around to living in New Brunswick.

GROTH: I see. So you didn't notice any stylistic differences between Feldstein and Mendelson?

ELDER: I knew that Al was sort of slacking off. And I felt that the job was too great to do that. You have to hold onto the reins and get things organized.

GROTH: Since you were such a chameleon doing all the satirical stuff —

ELDER: That's a good word.

GROTH: — I'm curious to know what you think is the most purely Elder-esque strip you did during that period.

ELDER: That's very hard because there was so much involved in every story and I want to... it's like asking which was my favorite. I guess the ones that were most me were the ones where I had the most freedom. Harvey gave me that freedom on every strip, he gave me a good layout to follow and then just let me go and I liked that. There were almost no changes and I just got to be me on every story. I think all the ones I did with Harvey allowed me to shine through because I didn't have to work on the layout also, I could just start in with the jokes, the gags, all my funnies. With Al, I had to do a lot of extra work because I had to first tighten up the layouts before I could start to do my stuff, so it was different and also a very long time ago. I liked doing the Marx Brothers, "The Night at the Castle," where Groucho is walking toward the beautiful maid [from Humbug]. That was a lot of hard work, but I enjoyed it. Because especially if I do the Marx Brothers it's because of the fact that Bill Gaines always thought I was the Marx Brothers in cartoon form. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn't. But I certainly enjoyed them. You could get away with murder portraying the Marx Brothers. Everything they did was acceptable, because they were loony to begin with.

Art from "A Night at the Castle" in Humbug #2, ©1957 Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder.

GROTH: Speaking of the Marx Brothers, were you aware of how much sexuality was in your strips, which was unusual for the time? I mean, there was an undercurrent of sexuality throughout a lot of your satiric work.

ELDER: Well, the same thing applied to the Marx Brothers. You always found Harpo chasing the women.

GROTH: That's why it occurred to me.

ELDER: In fact, that one picture they made, Monkey Business, they're on board a ship and he chases this woman up and down the stairs. And he continues to chase her all over the place.

GROTH: And then when he got distracted with another woman, he just turned from the first woman he was chasing and started chasing the second...

ELDER: And then there's a very buxom, sexy gal. He brings her some ice and stuff out of college, in the football team. He brings in the ice and they all jump on this girl and hug the hell out of her. Chico, Harpo and Groucho — they all jump on this girl. And they start ogling her every time they see her. Or make an innuendo type of gag.

GROTH: You had to draw these sexy girls, and we're talking about the 1950s. Were you aware that this sort of content was a little outré by the standards of comics at the time?

ELDER: Yes, I was. In fact, I figured out, what makes for humor? At least, American humor, because if you took this to China, they wouldn't know what you were talking about. Humor depends on the neighborhood it's born in. It was typically American to ogle these women because of the Hollywood movies. There was always a sense of sexuality or sensuality in all of the movies I've seen. But then you have all of these beautiful movie queens. Marilyn Monroe is the first one I think of. I was wild about her, too. She had something that no other sweetheart had. I used to call them sweethearts. Betty Grable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. You always had these sex queens.

GROTH: You were there at the end of Kurtzman's run on Mad. At that point you were pretty close with Harvey, I assume?

ELDER: Yeah. We were good friends to begin with besides being collaborators.

GROTH: My understanding is that Harvey was getting frustrated working for Gaines and that he demanded 51 percent of Mad.

ELDER: Yeah. I thought that was kind of strange.

GROTH: And Gaines refused to give it to him but he did offer to give him some percentage, I think it was 10 percent.

ELDER: Oh, yeah.

GROTH: And Harvey refused it. I'm wondering how much in the loop you were about these negotiations and if you conferred with Harvey, if Harvey sought your advice.

ELDER: Well, what I'm about to tell you, you're the second guy I've spoken about this with. That's the wrong way to put it, but anyway. I spoke to someone else about that, and I thought I made a mistake, but I don't think that I did make a mistake. I know he's not here to defend himself, so I don't have to be as careful. I'm not trying to be cowardly about it or be a first-class villain, but the fact remains I was involved indirectly, not directly. I figured he was leaving because something happened. I didn't know why he was leaving. If there was a gap in our means of working together, I'd like to know about it and be prepared about it. But I thought he moved too fast.

GROTH: Harvey?

ELDER: He might have moved a little better a couple of years from that particular period. But he moved too fast and he wanted too much. I think that was a mistake. Harvey deserved a lot of credit, but that's no way to seek it.

GROTH: Did he talk to you before he made these kinds of decisions?

ELDER: No. That was the point. It was a complete mystery. I never knew what was going on. But he said, "I'm moving on to work with [Hugh] Hefner." I figured there was some reason for that, him suddenly telling me he's going on to Hefner. I couldn't understand why. But then I said to myself, Hefner. That, at the time, was the Cadillac of cartoon careers. He gave you the job and you did a good job and he paid very well. That's a move up on the scale of careers.

GROTH: Can you give me your perspective on when Harvey essentially quit Mad and left Gaines? Did Harvey just call you up one day and tell you, he was out of there or did he consult with you beforehand and tell you that he was thinking of...

ELDER: No. In fact, Al Jaffee, at Harvey's memorial, got up to speak and he said he did a job for Harvey and he thought he'd leave Stan Lee's place, what is it? Marvel? Jaffee was working full-time with Stan Lee and decided to leave them for a greener pasture, which was Mad. Harvey promised Al remunerative rewards, I should put it this way. And Al says sure. He figured he's going to promote himself by joining Harvey and the crew at EC. So Al went into Stan Lee and with much trepidation, tells him he is going to leave and go to work with Kurtzman on Mad. Stan Lee wished him luck. Al calls Harvey to tell him the news And Harvey says, "Al, I just quit Mad." Al said, "What do you mean you quit? I just told Stan Lee that I'm leaving so now I don't have a job." And they got a big laugh. But it wasn't funny at the time. In other words, he was in the throes of being fired and Al Jaffee got the worst of it. Because he left one job for the other and the other job he left it for was completely kaput. [Laughter.]

GROTH: And he left that job on Harvey's say-so. So Harvey quit. Did you have any qualms about quitting with him? You had worked for Gaines for six years.

ELDER: Well, Harvey was pretty close to my own ideas as to what is salable and what is funny. I think humor paid off. Harvey was pretty much my alter ego. It worked out very well through our relationship. We were successful at whatever we did, except that it depends on how you did it. In Harvey's case, he should have been more patient as I mentioned before.

GROTH: Did you feel as if he should have consulted with you before he made the decision to do that?

ELDER: Oh, no. He didn't consult me. He thought that we were doing our best work when we were working with Mad and I fit him very well. In fact, I felt very comfortable and I was sorry to hear that he was going. But he happened to be going into something a little more lucrative.

GROTH: Upscale. It just seems odd that if you had that close a relationship that he wouldn't have kept you informed as to what his thinking was, or given you some foreknowledge that he might be leaving.

ELDER: I felt that emotionally he was probably disappointed. He was kind of blue and he wasn't sure of anything. He decided to look into the Hefner contract that was offered to him and that kind of straightened things out. Then he told me about it. He said, "Will, here's your chance of becoming one of the artists at Trump. You couldn't work for a better outfit." So I jumped at it.

GROTH: Were you a little concerned about leaving Gaines? You had established a relationship there.

ELDER: Yeah. In fact, they were sorry to hear me say such things about leaving and not associating with them any longer because I was going off to work with Hefner and Harvey. They were disappointed and they said, "Any time you want to do some extra work, you're welcome." But it never happened. Much later on it did happen after Little Annie Fanny closed up shop.

GROTH: Right. In the '80s.

ELDER: Right.
Image Image

An ad from Trump #2, ©1956 HMH Publishing.

GROTH: Tell me how Trump developed and what your involvement was with its development.

ELDER: That's tough. My memory's very short for Trump. I think Trump was born more out of the fact that Hefner wanted a good humor magazine, a very, very funny magazine — not like Mad because he thought Mad was giving everyone cheap humor, very unsophisticated. I know that Harvey came to me and asked how I would like to work for Hefner on a "no-holds-barred" comic magazine that he will be calling Trump? I knew about the people that were featured in Playboy and, of course, at that time Hefner was a pretty famous fellow, starting this big magazine with naked girls, and big writers and artists, so when Harvey told me about the idea of Trump, I jumped right onboard. Why not? I thought I'd be able to raise the level of my work and right from the start that's what I did. So I went from Mad to immediately doing some very involved artwork at Trump, so my recollection of what Harvey was doing to get the work is very faint. I did the Phil Silvers ad, Camel cigarettes and there were many other things I was working on at Trump at that time — the pièce de résistance Norman Rockwell satire. I think I was more interested in the quality of the work I was doing at that time and this is when I very much let Harvey deal with all those details, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to do the work I did.

GROTH: Right. It was a humor magazine.

ELDER: It had more class. That, I thought was another way of raising your career, your professionalism. I felt that this magazine would have that kind of impression on anybody who read it. It was self-aggrandizing, because here was something that I wanted to do all of my life, and here the opportunity was presented to me.

GROTH: I think Harvey worked out of the Playboy offices, correct?

ELDER: Yeah. He had a cubicle of his own.

GROTH: Did any of the artists work in the offices?

ELDER: Well, we had a setup somewhere up on the top floor. It was like a giant studio. It looked like one. They had desks up there and we made some makeshift desks if there weren't enough. We'd go to work after Hefner would look at the work. We'd go into his bedroom, take our shoes off, walk on his white rug and see him for personal reasons like, "How are you doing so far on the strip? Did you make the corrections?" That sort of thing kept going on and on until we got it correct.

GROTH: You worked in the offices, then?

ELDER: I did a little bit. Actually, it was a makeshift office. It wasn't really a professional looking office.

GROTH: So you worked mostly at home but sometimes in the office.

ELDER: It was a storage room up in the attic that had a facility for art, for working close up on a desk.

GROTH: Were you on salary at Trump, or were you paid per job?

ELDER: We were on salary. We had a contract, which stated that we would get so much per month even if we didn't turn the job out. Because when it was all straightened out at the end of the year it was a certain income that we have to earn.

GROTH: What was Hefner's involvement in the magazine? Did he have any editorial input?

ELDER: Hefner wanted something classy, salable and perhaps even sexual. He'd been following our work for years. In fact, he had once offered Harvey a position while Harvey was editor of Mad magazine. This was around the time that Harvey was looking for more from Gaines. Harvey was always a little too insecure to confront Gaines about wanting more. Had it not been for Harvey and Mad, Bill Gaines' business might have taken a different turn as a result of the Comics Code and all that stuff. Hefner liked what he saw in Mad and he offered Harvey an opportunity to get together a bunch of the artists to start a new magazine. This offer gave Harvey a little more confidence to confront Gaines and tell him that he wanted control of Mad. Of course, you know, Bill Gaines, this was his business, I think he thought, "Who does Harvey think he is?" But Harvey felt he had Hefner as a back-up plan — I don't really know, but I don't think Harvey thought that Gaines wouldn't take him up on his offer to take control of Mad and be its owner. So when Bill told Harvey he wouldn't have control then Harvey had to stand up for himself and he couldn't stay at Mad at that point so he took Hefner up on his offer.

As to Hefner's involvement, I think Hefner always wanted to do what we did. He was a cartoonist of sorts and I think he always had an idea that he would be able to have a lot of influence on Trump and sort of be able to do what he always wanted to do. Harvey said Hefner had some very precise ideas about how Trump would look and what it would say. Of course, it didn't last that long so I never even had the idea that he was so involved. Much of the time I was busy working on the job at hand to make the deadline. I knew I was doing this for Hefner's magazine, but I never knew how much he was or was not involved. I think I figured that out later while I was doing Little Annie Fanny and Harvey would come back and say Hefner wants this or Hefner said get rid of that, I thought, "Jeeze, he actually reads and looks at every detail." That was very different from what I was used to.

GROTH: Was Hefner hands on? Did he actually look at the strips and —

ELDER: No, I never saw him do it, but I assume he did that. He must have liked what he saw. But the reason that Trump failed had to do with the financial situation, the fact that it wasn't making money and Hefner was in some trouble with his mainstay, Playboy, so I think he had a lot on his mind at that time and probably didn't give Trump as much time as he wanted to.

GROTH: Trump lasted only two issues. My understanding is that Playboy got into some financial trouble because the bank called in some loans and Playboy had to contract.

ELDER: Well, the banks weren't taking chances any longer with most magazines. If Colliers went down the drain, you can imagine how bad a system that they were running.

GROTH: I guess Hefner had bank loans.

ELDER: Yeah. They wouldn't advance him anything more than what they already had and they were calling some of his loans back.

GROTH: Now, in Trump, you did three strips. One was "The Fastest Gun There Is." That seemed like an odd choice to me. It was based on a second-rate Glenn Ford Western.

ELDER: Co-starring Broderick Crawford.

GROTH: Why that choice?

ELDER: It was a Western, and we just love to tear Westerns apart. It was so phony, at least we thought so at the time. And it was a good story. The story wasn't great. It was nothing like a High Noon or Bad Day at Black Rock. Do you remember that one?

GROTH: Absolutely. John Sturges.

ELDER: Those were worthwhile Westerns. We never thought of making fun of those. But this one was a cheap Glenn Ford. He was being challenged all of the time by someone who thought he had a faster gun. So that was right up our alley. It's really humorous stuff.

GROTH: This strip is entirely different from your Mad stuff, because you're not really duplicating someone else's style. You're drawing in what I guess I would consider to be a pure Elder style.

ELDER: Yeah. I tried doing that, because it's like trying to break away from a bad habit. The end result would be the style like "The Night at the Castle." And the Queen Victoria — that was the cover of Humbug — Queen Victoria. That was just another style that I pursued, and I'm sorry I ever did, because if I was going to keep replicating that particular style, I'd go nuts. That was a very heavy style. Very nice to look at, but very difficult to convey and to work on.

GROTH: Now, in your Trump comics work, which was this satire "The Fastest Gun There Is," and another Li'l Abner parody...

ELDER: Yeah. I thought that Li'l Abner was kind of cute.
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An a page from "Eti Quette" in Trump #2, ©1956 HMH Publishing.

GROTH: Did Harvey and you work the same way? Did he supply roughs?

ELDER: In many ways, yes. In many ways, yes. Not all of the time. I was pretty much out on my own. He would give me the idea and by this time in my career I could handle things pretty much by myself. Of course, Harvey would come up with the idea in general. He made sure that we had something to work with.

GROTH: I assume he wrote the script?

ELDER: He probably did. I never saw anything, because I usually worked at home. I worked undisturbed... What a question. When the kids were growing I was undisturbed... [Laughter.]

GROTH: What is the basis for the "Eti Quette" strip in Trump #2?

ELDER: We poked fun at old, established comics in the Sunday papers. That was a very popular one amongst teenagers. There were teenagers that followed that stuff exclusively and didn't appreciate the old standbys. We figured they had their day. We were going to try to put some life into a dying empire. And we did.

GROTH: What was the name of the original strip you were satirizing?

ELDER: Eddy Cat. Etiquette. That's what the takeoff is on. He was kind of a spoiled kid whose parents are very gloating over and kind of protective of the wild kids at the soda parlor. It was typically corny. TV was much like that, like My Three Sons with Fred McMurray. It was all built on that background. It was America, apple pie and mother. The more fun was open the more satire was available to do it.

GROTH: Trump closed its doors after issue #2. How much of a blow was that to you?

ELDER: For practical reasons, I was going to make less money for myself and my family.


GROTH: Now, you did become a part of the Humbug collective after that, but you must have gone through a period when you weren't quite sure what you were going to do.

ELDER: Yeah, but I think we were bent toward that way because it was something that we could easily handle. Davis was the fastest alive, and he was quite good at it. Wally Wood was on and off. He was unpredictable. We weren't too sure about Wally.

Humbug was a chance to get something that's a little more to the younger crowd, and also we could be very much a part of it. I would have a piece of it. I would own a piece of it. Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee, Jack Davis, Harvey and myself would own a piece of Humbug. Harry Chester as well. I'm sorry if I missed his name. We were all vital to the magazine. We had some publishing company in Connecticut. I don't know exactly where but I remember we rode out there one time when the World Series was being played. We heard it on the car radio.

It went well for the first two issues. Not terribly well, but it made inroads. It made a good beginning. And then it went downhill. It ran out of money.

GROTH: I think the company you're referring to in Connecticut was the American News Service —

ELDER: That sounds pretty close.

GROTH: — which was a distributor. Let me skip back for a second. You don't seem to me to be the entrepreneurial type.

ELDER: I'm not.
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A page from "Frankenstien and His Monster" (yes, they spelled it "i" before "e") in Humbug #7, ©1958 Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder.

GROTH: But you became one of the six owners of Humbug. Did you contribute money to it?

ELDER: Oh, surely. We decided to own a piece of it, all of us. If Harvey was editor, he had the same piece of investment as anybody else. You got the darn collective you call cartoonists. Big difference.

GROTH: The whole idea was that you would jointly own the magazine and you would own your own work.

ELDER: Right. And we'd have Harry Chester becoming the white paper lord, make sure that everything got out on time.

GROTH: He was the production guy. Investing money was something that you would not ordinarily, it seems to me, have done.

ELDER: I figured that my reputation was part of it. I had something to say and there were people out there who liked my work and would offer me some kind of contract for working for them, and I thought that was a very convincing way of getting started with something someplace where I thought I had a great future.

GROTH: So was this an exciting project?

ELDER: It was, because it was a bastard subject. I mean by that that it was too small for the adult audience readership and too sophisticated for the youngsters. It was sort of in between, and no one knew what was the purpose of it. It was put in a corner of a stationery store and never picked up very much. The contributors got a little annoyed, and that was the end of that. But this is the kind of thing that we, as artists, never even considered. We thought that we had been doing this kind of work in the past and had gained some kind of reputation — noteriety, you might say — so anything to do with the business or what the newsstands were thinking was completely lost on us.

GROTH: You obviously knew Jack Davis.

ELDER: Fine fellow.

GROTH: How well did you know Jack when you were working at EC?

ELDER: Oh, I knew Jack only through our work. We went out on picnics in the beginning. We'd go to Cape Cod — he and his wife, my wife and I and Harvey and his wife and his little daughter. We'd all pack in our cars and take a trip. We saw each other for maybe three or four years like that and then everything drifted apart. Then we had to leave Mad and then of course he hadn't heard from either one of us, Jack or Harvey. I would say eight years. Seven, eight — it seems like a little more than six years. I would see Jack more often usually at the Mad offices.

GROTH: Did you know Arnold Roth before you met him for the Humbug project?

ELDER: I knew him through Harvey. Harvey seemed to attract all of these people like fleas on a dog. We once went over to Harvey's house, my wife and myself, and we'd have a picnic in the back with Arnold Roth and we'd be introduced. Arnold was a fine a fellow, a very funny guy. A wonderful sense of humor.

GROTH: What were your impressions of Arnold when you met him, got to know him?

ELDER: I thought he was a very straight-laced, studious type of guy, but he had a very subtle way of slipping one over on you.

GROTH: You guys share an interest in jazz.

ELDER: I like it when it's played by a professional. I don't like people who practice on it. They're not too numerous, thank God. But I like a piano player. I like classical music, believe it or not.

GROTH: Is that your —

ELDER: I prefer classical music to anything. Berlioz. I love Berlioz. And I love Frederick Delius. Have you heard of these people?

GROTH: Sure. Yeah.

ELDER: And Berlioz?

GROTH: Yeah.

ELDER: Delius died from... What did he die from? Syphilis?

GROTH: I don't know.

ELDER: Well, I know but I've forgotten. You have to use his name these days because everybody talks of other musicians, very fine musicians, and they take something away from them.

GROTH: Would you listen to music when you drew?

ELDER: Yeah. Classical music. It's more soothing. With jazz you kind of want to hop and jump. It makes me a little too excited.
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A fake cigarette ad from Humbug #11, ©1958 Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder.

GROTH: Were you involved in all of the financial decision-making of Humbug?

ELDER: Chester would handle all of that. Harvey wasn't the great businessman that he should have been, but there's lot of people who could join him pretty easily. I'd be one of them.

GROTH: Were you comfortable being one of the owners, being in this entrepreneurial position?

ELDER: I think it over and tell myself that I could have done better. Financially, I could have done better. But then again, I wouldn't have gotten what I had done at all if it weren't for the way I worked as a businessman because I was an artist first. That's what I was known for. I wouldn't have been known as a businessman, because there are millions of guys like myself who go bankrupt in no time.

GROTH: I think you would be better off being known as a great artist than —

ELDER: Well, following the arts was a way of enjoying life. It was part of my life. It's like marrying a person that you figure you're going to live with for the rest of your life. Not that it always works out, but there's a good thought behind that. You have to believe in staying with a company that accepts you constantly and loves your work. There's no better system than that.

GROTH: Was it an enormous jump for you knowing that you would own your own work as opposed to... You know, everything that you'd done up to that point was owned by the publisher.

ELDER: Yes, and I heard through Harvey or somebody that, at that time, Esquire magazine allowed you to keep your work as soon as it was published. I didn't know about that. We had a little problem with that business of owning Humbug artwork after it's been sold. I can't say any more than that.

GROTH: You really jumped into this work and you didn't own the copyright and you didn't own the original art prior to Humbug.

ELDER: Well, we did the Goodman Beaver book, you know. Harvey had done Goodman Beaver before with another technique in a different book, but he handed me the stories and I went ahead and took them home for a couple of months doing all these stories for Goodman Beaver. It turned out to be a well-received type of art but it didn't make a lot of money.

GROTH: I'm referring to the Mad and Panic work, which you really threw yourself into and yet you didn't own the copyright or the original art. Were you aware at the time of a feeling that that was wrong?

ELDER: I was kind of ignorant. I was a young man ready to be raped, ripe to be raped. Little did I know until things were finished with and were over and out that I realized what had happened. I'm a little smarter now than I was yesterday, but yesterday is what paid off.

GROTH: When you started at Humbug, and you realized that you would retain the rights to your work and ownership of the original art, did you recognize that as an important change for you?

ELDER: Yeah. For aesthetic reasons. I wasn't going to make a fortune out of it, although I understand you can get quite a bit of money for a lot of original work today. But once you do that, the money is spent. The money that you get for the original art is spent, and you don't have your work any more. It's gone and God knows who has it and who makes more money selling it. So I figured that if I didn't hold onto it I'd be a fool not to, because I have a family I can leave it to. I can't tell them what to do with it after I'm gone. So it's a case where either they would keep it around as a remembrance or if they needed money in a hurry or in an emergency they can get something for it. But I'd hate to see them do that, and they would hate to be doing it. But it's funny with Humbug, because that is the one place where all the artists figured they would get their art back and I still don't have it.
Image Image

Art from "Goodman Meets S*perm*n," as it appeared in later paperback collections, ©1962 Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder.

GROTH: It looked to me like you were definitely trying to duplicate the kind of magazine Trump was on a tighter budget.

ELDER: Yeah, it was on a tighter budget, because it was our budget.

GROTH: Right, but you were definitely trying to be a little more sophisticated than Mad.

ELDER: Oh, yeah. In fact, we tried to capture an audience that had more wits and sense than what they had following Mad. I had more room to move in that type of cartoon. That's all I can remember. It was something a little more sophisticated than Mad. Mad was growing up very fast. It became successful the first four issues, very successful. But to go on that way, you just keep repeating yourself. I found that very early. I did it because I needed the money.

GROTH: The strips you did in Humbug, none of them was based on comics. They were based on television and movies. I assume that was a deliberate strategy to break out of the narrow confines of comic books?

ELDER: Yeah. In fact, I did less and less of the comic section.

GROTH: Can you tell me how the bureaucracy at Humbug worked? Did you still work at home?

ELDER: Yes, I worked at home for most of my career. I found that I needed quiet and privacy to get the work done and to hit my deadlines. I had the freedom to get up and leave for a while if I wanted or if I got tired or bored I would just look out the window and look at the birds. I think I was more productive without the distractions of a busy studio.

GROTH: I assume Harvey wrote all of the scripts that you did in Humbug?

ELDER: Yeah. I think we'd both sit on his back porch. Whenever he ran into a wall, I would supply ideas if I could. Generally, I did. I have a very good memory for old movies, and movies were widespread throughout the land. Everybody had movie ads in their local newspapers. Small towns, middle size towns and large cities — they all had these sections on the arts like the New York Times. Maybe not as elaborate, but we had many of the ads advertised in newspapers. Those were ready for satire.

GROTH: Let me ask you a few questions, first about the strips and then about the advertising parodies that you did. Did Harvey come up with the choices of what you parodied, or did you guys talk about it and shoot a number of ideas back and forth?

ELDER: Well, when it came to Harvey and myself we sat wherever we could sit and think and throw ideas at each other. If they were pretty good and made us both laugh heartily we would put a check that this was one story to recover from a maximum amount of ideas.

GROTH: So, were you involved in choosing the satirical subjects? Like you did "Around the Days in 80 Worlds." You did the "Cannon with a Passion." Were you involved in choosing which ones you did?

ELDER: Most of the time. Most of the time. I would choose because I knew Harvey suggested it. Let me put it that way. He would take the idea and have me go to a movie. I went to the Victoria Garden theatre or somewhere in town and they were playing Around the World in 80 Days. It was wonderful for satire. In the first place, there were a million people in it. It was a great movie that could show itself off and make a fool of itself. That's the point. The point is you can't fool the people all of the time, and we were working for the proletariat.

GROTH: Is that how you felt at the time, that you were being read by middle-class, working-class Americans?

ELDER: Yeah. Just by where we were from, we had the underdog view of things. So when it came time to satirize a movie or TV show we just naturally took our own point of view, which was much further below middle class, so it was easy for us to see the funny things in something that was supposedly from an upper-class view. Everything was upper class to us from where we came from.
Image Image

A page from Humbug #2, ©1957 Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder.

GROTH: You parodied the TV show, which I think was originally called, You Are There, with Walter Cronkite. You also parodied a TV show called To Tell the Truth, which you called Why Tell the Truth? Were those really significant TV shows at the time?

ELDER: At the time, they were. Everybody had a TV set at the time and what they saw on it was more or less shoved down their throats. We had very little choice. We made fun of that fact that we had very little choice, in our own little way, with Sgt. Bilko. That was funny. Matt Hyken was the writer. Hyken was a master at humor, I thought. He had all of these dropouts join the army and make nothing of themselves. He promised a great career. There were a lot of things that you more or less gave a twist. It was a formula in many ways, that became overdone if the formula became very plain and unappreciated. I got tired of it. I didn't think that there was that much else to make fun of. You have a big war, and so much happens that can affect the outcome of anything.

GROTH: One thing that occurred to me was that you used these square balloons in all of the strips with typeset copy.

ELDER: Oh, yes.

GROTH: I was wondering why that decision was made, because it seemed to sort of jar against your very organic drawings.

ELDER: Well, they were placed in an area that wouldn't interfere with any of the ideas and drawings if we could do that, and we did that most of the time. And as far as the squaring off of the balloons, they were rounded at the points. That's to give it class. It made it look like a well-organized magazine.

GROTH: Whose idea was it to typeset rather than hand letter the balloons?

ELDER: I couldn't tell you that. What I saw I liked. It made my ideas and humor more sophisticated than ever.

GROTH: That's how you felt?

ELDER: Sure.

GROTH: I wanted to revisit the ad parodies you did in Trump and Humbug and in the later Mads. You were that post-WWII generation that experienced this enormous boom in advertising and consumerism, so your parodies of these ads fit right into the zeitgeist of the times. I'm wondering how political you were at the time and what exactly you felt you were doing. Did you feel that you were being subversive in some way?

ELDER: I didn't think so. I think that there were people out there who read what we put out who were more aware that things shouldn't be taken too heavily, because it's advertising and they live by it. The corporations live by it. They must advertise in order to be known. We brought it down a couple of pegs, because it had to be shown that these ads were more or less making fun of us. It wasn't the ad necessarily. It wasn't the ad that we were making fun of, it was the people who pushed the ad who gave us another rendition of the ad by saying nothing about cancer of the lungs from smoking cigarettes. We had the Ed Sullivan show, which had sometimes had second-class humorists, comedians appear because they were just starting their careers. They had a future if they were popular on the show. That applied to most anybody who wanted to have an advertisement about what they did and who did it.

GROTH: So did you work from the premise that advertising was basically deceitful and that you wanted to poke fun at how —

ELDER: That's a good argument. They were deceitful in many ways. They weren't harmful, because deceit and harm can go hand in hand. But they were more or less — I'm trying to think of a good word that would place it in the proper position. They didn't exactly represent the ideas of people who bought the magazine. I think that people who bought the magazine thought that the advertisements were nothing but just that. They were nothing to them. They weren't truthful.

GROTH: How did you go about putting the ads together? That was a collaboration between you and Harvey as well, wasn't it?

ELDER: Yeah, it was pretty collaborative for all of us. We all got together with Humbug and we did the same with Trump. It seemed to work because occasionally we'd come back with a late idea if we waited until the last minute. Usually, you had to be very good in order to be part of the story or whatever we wanted to satirize.

GROTH: You mentioned the advertisement for cigarettes that you did, which was really funny. It had the guy and the girl running joyously through the Q. The guy smashes into it — a nice metaphor for the damage cigarettes cause.

ELDER: That's more sophisticated than anything else, because without seeing what happened, you knew right away what happens. The idea of coming up with the same source that we had to begin with makes that commercial very popular and very famous.

GROTH: Or the Chanel ad with the cockroach in the elegant perfume bottle.

ELDER: Reminds me of the good old days.
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An ad from Humbug #4, ©1957 Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder.

GROTH: Roughly speaking, what would Harvey do and what would you do on the ad parodies? What was the creative process like?

ELDER: Harvey would lay out the thing very crudely, very roughly, because he expected us to finish the drawing. When I finished the drawing I would show it to Harvey. He might object to it, but he was the person we were supposed to get in touch with in terms of accepting an idea or adding a few new ideas. He would tell us what to do: "Go ahead and fix this or that" and "Go ahead and finish it." It took me about a week for a very responsible ad, a very subjective, a very busy ad. He cut it down for instance. He added the back page, from Russ Heath, which was very good. Petty Girl. She had glass all over her. That was waiting for a satirical artist to come along.

GROTH: In fact, Russ Heath looked like he was trying to get as close to your technique as possible — and succeeded.

ELDER: Well, the thing is, the style that Trump, Humbug, Playboy, Mad — We would set out stories with a style that was acceptable by most people out there. In fact, some of them thought that they were photographic. The only regret I have is that I didn't want people to think that we worked with photographs. It was rendered in every way. Especially the Queen Victoria in her limousine riding down the streets of New York and people opening up windows and checking her out, yelling "Long Live the Queen." And Prince Albert is sitting in the back seat. That could never be duplicated as a photograph. It wasn't. It was line work.

GROTH: I thought one of your best pieces was Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly.

ELDER: Yes. There's a bread that's called Jenny. Jenny... What's the name of the hotel again? My wife is in the other room. I should call her. She has a memory like an elephant.

GROTH: I should be interviewing her.

ELDER: You're right. I've forgotten the name of the hotel, but she loved the hotel and she advertised it. The idea was, the man who has everything having a round table in the scene — if you remember, the round table with the baseball on the top. That was by Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series. He's got the ball. It's worth a couple of million dollars.

GROTH: Art Larsen.

ELDER: He owns that and he has a picture of Eisenhower up on the wall with all of his medals, and Eisenhower as a baby on the bear rug, with his tush sticking up. That's Eisenhower. All of the things that were extremely valuable at the time; inspecting the industries of Russia.

GROTH: Oh, you're talking about this note from Jenny.

ELDER: Jenny. Jenny... what the heck is her last name? It was a very famous hotel at the time.

GROTH: These advertisements were painted, right?

ELDER: They're painted in black paint.

GROTH: What medium did you use?

ELDER: I used watercolor and sometimes tempera.

GROTH: Prior to doing these painted ad parodies, when you were just doing the black-and-white work for Mad, what experience did you have with painting?

ELDER: I started painting in junior high school in the Bronx. It was a very new school at the time that encouraged young talent to come to that school. I was in seventh grade and we had an art contest and my name was in the school newspaper that I had won a prize. That was the thrillingest moment in my life, having someone recognize me and tell me good things about myself. My ego was well taken care of that day. I said, "I can do this again because it's fun." When it's fun, you stick with it.

GROTH: Throughout the time that you did work for Mad, were you painting for yourself, honing your skills?

ELDER: I was, but it was sporadic painting. Not steady or involved; it was nothing serious.

GROTH: The first real professional painting I know of is when you started doing the ad parodies for the magazine issues of Mad.

ELDER: I told Harvey, "I think I can do that." He said, "Let me see it." So finally I drew up something and he was satisfied. He thought I could handle the photographic ads quite well.

GROTH: Did that take a big adjustment from all of the pen-and-ink work that you were doing?

ELDER: Not at all. I brag about being one of the very few people who can paint both illustrative work and cartooning. And besides all of that, I had a good sense of humor. I had every aspect going for me. I figured I wasn't going to be going hungry much because I had these things that saved me when I needed them.

GROTH: So you basically adapted your pen-and-ink technique to painting?

ELDER: I could have done both. In fact, I did both if it called for something like that.

GROTH: Well, you did both in Humbug every issue, virtually.

ELDER: Virtually.

GROTH: Well, in #5 you didn't have a comic strip at all.

ELDER: It varies. There isn't a formula where you have to continue doing the same thing every week or every month. Why? Illingsworth did that and did it very well. Do you know who Illingsworth is?

GROTH: The British cartoonist.

ELDER: Wonderful cartoonist. Not only a cartoonist, he was an illustrator and he was great. He's one of the people I admire. He more or less set the stage for me. I wanted to be another Illingworth, but not copy his work, because that would be sort of a plagiaristic attitude.

Oh, by the way, I just thought of the name of the hotel. I kept at it. I took my time. Grossingers.

GROTH: Grossingers. That's right. It's in the ad parody.

ELDER: She says, "Next to you, Prince, Grossinger's on everything." Which was a very funny statement. A lot of the humor is the times. It depends on the time that it was told or used. If humor falls beyond the ken of being recognized, then you've failed at what you started out to do.
Image Image

A color preparatory sketch for Elder's Norman Rockwell parody, ©1957 Will Elder.

GROTH: Humbug lasted for 11 issues.

ELDER: That's correct.

GROTH: I understand that you put in your own money?

ELDER: It happened to work out almost as a big mistake.

GROTH: I think ultimately it failed partly because it wasn't being distributed properly.

ELDER: Well, I felt it was the way it was presented. The presentation of that material lost its smashing qualities.

Putting your money into it made you work overtime whether you liked it or not. If you wanted to come out in the black, and we were constantly in the red. The publishers in Connecticut wanted to see more results. They held the reins and nothing ever came of it and it slowly died.

GROTH: When it eventually died, how much of a blow was that to you?

ELDER: Well, it was a blow when I had to borrow money from my mother-in-law.

GROTH: I guess that's a blow.

ELDER: Almost a vital blow. We lost a lot of money. We thought maybe we needed one successful issue that would bring us up to even and it never came. Although the stuff in that magazine was superior to anything we'd done in the past. It was just badly presented. It wasn't a comic book and it wasn't a periodical — what was it? They never knew.

GROTH: Do you think the format just wasn't slick enough?

ELDER: That might have helped. It should have been thicker. Advertising should have handled part of it. I think we missed the advertising because they make up a great deal of the financial background of most things.

GROTH: Was there a decision not to take advertising?

ELDER: We just couldn't afford it.

GROTH: You couldn't afford to hire a salesman?

ELDER: We couldn't get anyone to advertise in it. We weren't anybody. A corporation or company of any kind would look at the magazine and say, "I'm not putting my product into that book."
Help! and Goodman Beaver

GROTH: After Humbug folded, you must have been a little concerned because Trump folded, then Humbug folded. Do you remember how Help! came to be? That was the next project that you worked on.

ELDER: Jim Warren, the publisher of Help!, knew Harvey had no place to go. Harvey was editor and he wanted people to more or less see the magazine and contribute as much as they liked. We had a lot of outside help from people who contributed. Occasionally we had a little comic strip. It was a variety book. He liked that. He liked the idea of drawing up ideas that would befit certain cartoonists. Robert Crumb started in Help! magazine. Terry Gilliam also started in Help! I think that's where he met John Cleese and they went on to form the Monty Python troupe. Cleese was auditioning for one of those fumetti things that were popular in Help! So Harvey was able to bring together a lot of young talented kids who looked like they might be going somewhere.

GROTH: Did you know Jim Warren?

ELDER: I met him several times, many years ago.

GROTH: What did you think of him?

ELDER: I think he's a hustler.

GROTH: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

ELDER: Well, it can be taken either way. If you think it's a bad thing, it's a bad thing.

GROTH: Right. Right.

ELDER: I'm being diplomatic about it.

GROTH: I'm not sure how many issues Help! lasted, but it lasted about 25 or so. That's where Goodman Beaver appeared.

ELDER: Yeah. That, to me, was the best art for a comic that I think I ever saw, or was entitled to. It was the nicest thing I ever did. It was nice and clean and funny. Goodman Beaver was Candide; remember Voltaire's Candide?

GROTH: Of course. The innocent.

ELDER: He was a goody-two-shoes.You ever read that story by Herman Melville?

GROTH: Which?

ELDER: What's his name? I forget the man's name, a young man, but he did so much good that he wasn't considered normal because he did so much good in hectic times.

GROTH: Billy Budd?

ELDER: Yeah, that's it!

Click image for larger version in new window. This panel and next (which doesn't get any bigger if you click it, sorry) from "Goodman Goes Playboy in Help! (N©2008 in the public domain). You can download and read the whole story from our website, either as a PDF file (5.9MB) or, if you’d prefer to use your comics-reader software to read it, as a Zip file (also 5.9MB).

GROTH: I think you did five Goodman Beaver stories. You did the Tarzan parody.

ELDER: We wanted to give it a face and a content that was unmatched by any other satire. It was never going to be in Mad magazine or Panic or any of the other humor magazines, more popular magazines. We wanted something that had a lot of class and artistry, something known not only for its stories but for its artistic adventures. We wanted to get popular ones so it was recognizable. Our humor may not be very funny in China and vice versa, but here was a magazine that had something for everyone. The artistic endeavors in the magazine were first class, I thought. We found that out through our mail. We were getting very good responses. The thing is, nobody bought it and it was very expensive to reproduce. I had to lengthen, by I think... a lot of ideas that were my own many years ago I revised and put them in Goodman Beaver. But the main ideas of the stories were there. Goodman Beaver meets Superman. Superman is very well known amongst the comics crowd. And Goodman — what's the name of the guy in the sea? It has something to do with the ocean.

GROTH: Oh, Lloyd Bridges.

ELDER: Lloyd Bridges. That series with Lloyd Bridges was very, very popular on TV. So we got the movies and we got TV and we had another newspaper involved.

GROTH: I assume you and Harvey would work the same way. He would supply layouts?

ELDER: Exactly. It was very comfortable for both of us to work that way. He knew exactly what was to be done on my behalf and vice versa.

GROTH: I gather that an awful lot of the pleasure that you derived doing comics was in the actual hands-on sitting down and drawing, composing each panel and stuffing them with gags. I mean, apart from the narrative itself, the actual physical act of drawing.

ELDER: Yeah. I would say it was true. Sitting down and doing something I like was a joy. But when that began to ooze and leak and I suddenly become mortified, it was time to move on. Luckily, I was reaching the age that I was taking it easier and easier and not doing the work I used to do, which was very painstaking. Once I found it painstaking, it wasn't the same me working on Goodman Beaver. Goodman Beaver had to be totally enjoyable, and it wasn't getting that way at all.

GROTH: Well, you certainly put the work into it, though.

ELDER: I'm very aware of fans based upon letters I get, believe it or not. They want to see more of this or more of that. That was an impetus to do a little better than I had been. I was given the full, free rein of making a comic strip. I gave a little tiny masterpiece. I was very hell-bent on doing that. We weren't getting paid much. We really had very little in the way of deadlines to worry about. It was a perfect setup for doodling and putting doodling in a magazine. It was the best thing I ever did. Of course, this is personal thinking on it. Many people would disagree.

GROTH: What did you mean when you referred to maybe the creative fulfillment draining out of it or oozing out? Toward the end of the Goodman Beaver run?

ELDER: Well, working at such a pace. The stories were wonderful and I thought the gags were plentiful. Wonderful and plentiful — two important words, at least they were to me. If you can reach a height of humor, the very best that you can do, a Hemingway type of technique, it takes a lot longer and it is more difficult than ever to make it consistent. But it paid off in the end. I can remember I looked at a page after it was finished and I'd say, "There's a job of sweat and saliva!" To this day, as I look through my work in Humbug, it has the same qualities of Goodman Beaver.

GROTH: Well, by the time that you did Goodman Beaver, were you feeling that you were putting an awful lot of work into something but not getting remunerated sufficiently?

ELDER: It's the way I worked. I was working very hard. At the time, I didn't know that I was working hard until I collapsed at the end of the day.

GROTH: You were kept going by adrenaline?

ELDER: I had no more adrenaline. Waterproof.

GROTH: Are you describing a situation where you were sort of running out of steam at that point?

ELDER: I would say so. Yeah. I'm not afraid to say so. I think that was the truth, that I was getting tired of it. I found the humor good. I look back at some of the stuff at the height of our career and I'm very proud of it. I'm very happy about what I've done. I have something to leave behind, if it ever does get left behind. But it gave me joy while it lasted. That's more than I could ask for.

GROTH: You seem to be describing the fun slowly leaking out. Could that have been because Trump and Humbug were ultimately failures? They just didn't work out. It seems to me like you had a couple of problems. One is that much of the work that you did you didn't own. All of the Mad work was work for hire. And the work that you did own, which was Humbug and Help! you weren't paid particularly well for.

ELDER: If I could interrupt you just a moment, Gary. When it came to not getting paid for the work, it didn't bother me because I enjoyed looking at the work. That, to me, had longevity. Getting paid for it is very frugal and disappearing. It's completely gone. What I have in my art work; that's just what I want. That tells me of better times. It's a nostalgic thing, I find, having these stories much more read. It did pay off in that respect.

GROTH: But there must have been pressures, because you were married and had three kids.

ELDER: That's right. The pressures of having a family have dwindled over the years. It also helped me, not waste, but use my time in a position where I can enjoy what I'm doing without needing to get paid for it or supporting other people.

GROTH: Did you have any insight in terms of how Harvey felt about Help! and how he felt about the magazine in relation to the publisher? Was that a good experience?

ELDER: He never really exposed that to me. Harvey was very mysterious. I had no reason to doubt him, because we worked so closely together. We had things to do and we were obligated and it kept us very busy. I never could come up with anything against any of the artists. In fact, Jack Davis was very outgoing when he'd get started, and friendly. These people were so embedded in their work that you can't approach them. Except when Bill Gaines called a meeting or we'd round up the guys to go on a trip. That's the only time that we ever did see most of each other. Graham Ingels more or less saw this as... He didn't care for Mad magazine, I don't think. He wanted to be an artist. And he did become one who taught a class to young women in Florida. Everyone loved his Copley style.

I never did try to find out what made Harvey do those things. Having the art, that was my main interest. Getting paid didn't matter to me. I had money from other sources so I didn't need to go that way.

GROTH: Are you talking about illustration work, things like that?

ELDER: Some of that and some fine-art painting. I spend my time now painting, not as much as I used to. But when I do, I take some of my old paintings out. It's a release. My old paintings represent the style that I developed through Mad and Humbug and all of the magazines.

GROTH: Were you involved in fine-art painting in the '50s and the '60s?

ELDER: Only on occasion. I was too busy to spend most of my time doing that. In fact, that happened in the magazines. When I was given an assignment to make something out of ATT, say for instance. Or bird watchers when they're running through a man's garden. [Canadian Clubbed] Do you remember that one?

GROTH: Yes. The ad parody.

ELDER: That was back in the magazine Mad. That should have been realistic, but at the same time it was a farce. The guy was drunk at the end. He was actually sitting in the birdhouse. If I came up with an idea that had some class, I would go to Harvey and ask him what he thinks.

GROTH: So much of what you and Harvey did together was essentially poking holes in American pop culture.

ELDER: Yeah. I would agree with that.

GROTH: Essentially showing how inane some of it is and was. Goodman Beaver, for example. Superman, and TV shows such as Sea Hunt. Harvey's brand of satire seemed to be obsessed with the fantasy of American pop culture versus reality. Did you share that point of view?

ELDER: I would say to a limit, to a limit. I wouldn't go that far. What I wanted to see done was young people getting a good break, I mean a lot of young people who are considered second-class citizens no matter what they do. That was wrong. In the first place, it closes the economy. It ruins the economy if you're going to neglect a very important part of our population. There were times when I thought that I was doing something just for myself. When I started getting mail, I saw that there were other people who were just as much affected by what I did. So I thought I must have been doing something right, and that I understood their problems. Not to a healthy degree, but in general, I understood their problems.

GROTH: I assume you're talking in particular about the '60s?

ELDER: The '60s. That's when Marilyn Monroe died. A lot of people went berserk because of that. It was a wicked year.
Little Annie Fanny

GROTH: You've seen the two big volumes of Little Annie Fanny, of course.

ELDER: Yes. I was sent one.

GROTH: I read all of that. I wanted to know if you could sort of put yourself back in 1962 and tell me what you know about how Kurtzman and Hefner got together on Annie Fanny and how you were brought in. What were you doing prior to Little Annie Fanny? Was the work that you were doing for Help! enough to pay the bills?

ELDER: No. Not where I lived. Taxes went up suddenly, drastically. I had to go confront that sort of thing.

GROTH: Right, because you weren't doing a tremendous amount of work in Help!

ELDER: I was, and I was trying to get all I possibly could, the more the better. I figured people would get to know me and often. [Excuses himself to take a phone call.]



MRS. ELDER: OK. We're back.

A Kurtzman and Elder portrait, ©2008 Will Elder.

ELDER: Nosy neighbors. They're very good. You need the neighbors, around here. Otherwise you grow old alone. What were you saying?

GROTH: You were doing work for Help! and Kurtzman was on salary there as an editor. But you weren't on salary; you were still freelancing.

ELDER: That's right.

GROTH: Now, I know that you also did work for Pageant.

ELDER: Oh, yes. I did quite a number of works.

GROTH: And I'm not sure if that was the same time you were doing work for Help! in the early '60s; I think Pageant was the late '50s, though it could have spilled over into the '60s.

ELDER: Well, yeah. I think you're absolutely right. The thing is, there were some stories I'd rather not have illustrated, just because anyone can do them. The surface of the moon or deep-sea diving for some kind of mining. But when it came to humor I was right there. I loved what I did.

GROTH: You were first and foremost a humorist.

ELDER: Yeah. I was doing some stories on Christmas cards, all of the different renditions of Christmas cards: the homemade kind, the very classy kind like a Rembrandt painting. But there's a theme running through all of them, which showed that it was not the real stuff. It was something kind of fictitious and ridiculous.

GROTH: Can you tell me a little about Pageant?

ELDER: Pageant was like Coronet. It was one of these handy magazines. You could hold it in one hand. And it covered all sorts of things like People magazine today. The latest movies, the latest shenanigans of a movie star, that sort of thing.

GROTH: And you would illustrate articles.

ELDER: Yeah, I would do that. If there was a story attached to it, I would do some lead-ins, leading illustrations.

GROTH: After Humbug, one thing I'm curious about is why you didn't go into doing more comic books — go into DC Comics or one of the other companies and try to get a job?

ELDER: Because I knew a lot of people in the trade by this time. Or at least they knew me. And they offered me all kinds of things. But I like the humor and you had a lot of humor in the later cartoon comic books. To me, it suited my tastes moreso. As long as there was work, I was able to get that sort of genre.

GROTH: How did you get the Pageant gig? That lasted for a few years, I think.

ELDER: Well, Harvey had worked there and he recommended me. I went up there one day and showed them my work and they asked me for an example of my ideas. They were very pleased, and they offered me the first story and that's how it began.

GROTH: I have to ask you about something called Hateful Thoughts.

ELDER: Oh yeah. This was an early cartoon book. Black and white. There were some very funny things in it. The ape at the end of the book, that's what I remember the most.

GROTH: Yes. The back cover.

ELDER: It's an ape or a Neanderthal. Did you ever see the Neanderthal I did where the guy is chipping out a message on a stone? Do you remember that one?


ELDER: That was the epitome of the Ice Age or the aftermath of the Ice Age.

GROTH: So how did this book come about?

ELDER: I kept looking for work. I went from door to door, and I figured I'd better go to a publishing company that puts out comic books or comic art. And sure enough, Citadel was one of those companies. I dropped by the offices and the editor told me he had something up my alley. He said, "Come around next week." I couldn't find other work during the week because I knew I was going to get something at the end of the week. And the guy kept his word. A miracle.

GROTH: So basically this was just a commission job. They gave you the manuscript and you did the drawings?

ELDER: Right. It kept me in the business.
Image Image

A Will Elder cover for Cracked, ©1959 Major Magazines.

GROTH: I was surprised to learn that you actually did work for Cracked.

ELDER: Yes. That was in the early days of Cracked.

GROTH: That's right. 1959.

ELDER: Yeah. It was fun. Severin was an old buddy of mine. We worked together on many things penciling and inking, as you know. This was something that they needed at Cracked.

GROTH: And you did a cover as well.

ELDER: Yeah, with Brigitte Bardot.

GROTH: Right. So your memory's good.

ELDER: Thank God!

GROTH: In the '50s, when you were looking for work, you were knocking on doors and you were working for Cracked and Pageant and so forth, did you consider calling up Gaines and going back to Mad?

ELDER: I got a call from Al Feldstein. Al offered me all kinds of things — to sleep with his wife...

GROTH: Which I assume you did.

ELDER: Yeah, I didn't mean it, Al, wherever you are. He would laugh. That's the kind of guy he is. I like Al. I think he's a very bright guy. He deserves more credit than he's getting. Just because he took over institutions, people hate the people who take over the institution. They don't realize that if it wasn't for them, the institution wouldn't be around! That's what happened to Mad magazine. There's 50 years of it. Don't forget that for a moment. That guy kept it alive. As much as I thought Harvey was tremendous, one of the best, Al shouldn't be pointed out as an interloper. Nothing could be further from the truth.

GROTH: So after Humbug, why didn't you go back to Mad? Do you remember?

ELDER: Because that would have meant that I was leaving Playboy and I was starting to build a career at Playboy. If Annie Fanny didn't work I would have other work to do. So that was too appealing, too appetizing for me to turn down.

GROTH: But how about after Humbug and before Playboy. It sounds like you were kind of scrambling for work between magazines. Have you ever thought about what would have happened with your career in Mad if Kurtzman had continued editing it?

ELDER: I don't know. Really. I wish I had the answer to that. I don't know what would have happened. I have to be under duress before I can make any normal decision. I just don't know. It's hard to judge how you'd behave. It really is. You base your judgment on what's happening and it's not always the best thing.

GROTH: How did you segue into Little Annie Fanny?

ELDER: Well, Harvey later on expressed his ideas and opinions to me and said, "Will, there may be a book coming up soon. I hope you can become available." And I said, "Well, I have to find out what it is." He said Hefner and he had gotten together. Harvey said we'd have steady work, we'd get paid a lot better than we were; the only difference would be that we would have to stick to a code of ethics and material that is acceptable to the Playboy reader.

GROTH: Did you ever talk to Hefner before you entered into this agreement?

ELDER: No, not really. He asked Harvey who he would recommend to draw the strip, and he said, Will Elder. Hefner agreed immediately. But he didn't know who the heck to... Jack Davis, Wally Wood. They are all great artists.

GROTH: Now, Annie is essentially a female Goodman Beaver.

ELDER: Exactly.

Early Elder design sketch for Annie, as reprinted in Chicken Fat: Drawings, Sketches, Cartoons & Doodles, ©2006 Playboy Enterprises.

GROTH: How did you go about designing her?

ELDER: Well, I suggested Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot. They both were cutie pies and they're very, very sensuous. A girl like Jane Russell is a little too masculine, if you ask me. There's nothing pitiful or lovely and feminine about Jane Russell. Of course, I thought very much of her looks, but the rest of her is another story. But Marilyn Monroe had that sensual innocence. She was like a sexy child. She would appeal to most anyone. In fact, she was very famous at the time. Why not work with someone who is famous?

GROTH: Right. She was at the very height of her popularity.

ELDER: I think so. Yeah. In the early '60s. '60, '61. She died in '62.

GROTH: Right. So you and Harvey must have talked about the concept of the strip,

ELDER: Yeah. I would make a few sketches in color and show them to Harvey and he'd look at them and give his opinion. And he'd say, "Can you make some suggestions?" We went over it about three or four times before we got what we liked. Or rather, I should say what Hefner liked. He was footing the bill.

GROTH: How was it decided that you would paint the strip rather than draw it with pen and ink?

ELDER: Hefner had given out freelance work to his brood of people, and I got a challenge. He said, "Give me an illustration that is realistic, but a cartoon illustration instead." That's just what I did. I did a panel of Phil Silvers in Sgt. Bilko. He's lighting a cigarette, I believe, with a toy gun. And everything is rendered very tightly and illustriously. He liked that technique. He said to do that with Little Annie Fanny, and I did and it was accepted. It was more work. I told him I was going to spend a lot of time doing these things, because they take up a lot of room. An illustration is a very slow process, unless you have a simple style, which he didn't point out at the time.

GROTH: What was your preference at the time? Did you actually prefer to paint the strip, or did you —

ELDER: I would rather have an outline and painting it semi-flat. Not entirely flat, because you have a comic book. I stuck to the realism, but in a line casement.

GROTH: I was surprised when I read the strips. I mean, the early strips were four, five, six, even seven pages long.

ELDER: That's right.

GROTH: Did you already have your painterly technique down when you started Annie Fanny?

ELDER: It developed. It hadn't fully blossomed yet. In fact, no one knew how it would develop, they would accept it for what it was at the time. But since it grew, and if you compare notes at that point, you can see the development, the change of technique — for the better, actually.

GROTH: You used tempera and watercolor.

ELDER: Watercolors and tempera where it needed it. But I used the white, blank surface of the drawing board, or illustration board in this case, to carry out my point.

GROTH: What do you mean by that, using the white of the illustration board?

ELDER: I would go over everything very lightly, more or less. In fact, Harvey would give me a rough sketch. I would refine it, redraw it, sometimes put in the color. Harvey would put in dabs of color but more or less sketchily put in colors. Not always, but some stories that were complicated. I would take it from that point and develop it a little bit more and give it a three-quarters, if you could measure it, a three-quarters adjustment to the entire strip, show it to Harv. He'd make some suggestions and say, "Go ahead and finish it." And that was the first Annie Fanny. When she's taking a bath in front of the cameras, with the screen background of a beach, and her boyfriend comes to visit her at the house, this little young kid always bringing groceries. I remember it like it was yesterday. I don't want to waste your time going over it again.
Image Image

Sequence from Little Annie Fanny, ©2008 Playboy Enterprises.

GROTH: I want you to waste your time going over it. How do you combine tempera and watercolor? When do you use one, and when do you use the other? And why do you use the two?

ELDER: Watercolor covers a broad surface with enough water and a little pigment, as much pigment as will carry the color. Tempera is an opaque medium. If you find that you've gone too heavily on a thing that should be lighter, like Annie's skin, it looked like she had a bad sunburn at one time. I used an electric eraser, because I used to erase it by hand with one of those erasing sticks that you peel away and you have a nub at the end. I bought myself an automatic erasing machine. It does a tremendous amount of work. It brings out highlights. If I put it on the paper and I want the light area to be lightened even moreso, you use the electric eraser on that spot and you have a highlight, without destroying the texture of the illustration board. You've got to get three layers. Three layers would be a good term. Three layers of illustration board laminated together would be a very solid board, because you can erase all you want and you're not going to tear up any of the surface. You have two more, three more surfaces underneath. You can blend it very lightly by holding the erasing machine very lightly so it doesn't leave any fuzz on the top. It's a technique that I just slowly learned to develop. I may sound like I'm building a V-2 rocket. But I'm not, really. It's very simple. Once you apply your style and your time and the experiments, you find you're making a very nice illustration, something that's practical. When I say practical, I mean not time-consuming because that kind of thing can consume a lot of time. The seven or eight pages that you mentioned before were pages because there was room enough for it and they were sort of an introductory set of pages. No one had ever seen this thing before and it got pretty good results. Let me think now. Some of the details are completely lost in my memory bank. That's what happens to banks today. They're closing.

GROTH: This was a pretty radical departure for you, because it was a painted comic strip.

ELDER: Not really. I used to paint portraits of movie stars just to get the feeling of how watercolors should work. It gave me pleasure to see things develop right under my nose. I did that for years. I would make my own cartoon strip and go around the town selling something. I sold a few one-panel gags. It developed slowly from Mad, and along came Harvey. I'm rushing through it because a lot of it is redundant. We would shorten the pages for the simple reason that we wanted to save time. It was taking up too much time. By shortening the number of pages we'd reach our goal.

GROTH: I noticed that virtually from the beginning of the strip that you started getting help from other artists.

ELDER: That was when we realized the pressure that was on us.

GROTH: I assume that's because you were trying to turn out more material than you could do by yourself?

ELDER: Absolutely. I was only human, and so was everybody working around me, I hope. We just had so much time to do it in. Otherwise, it only appeared three or four times a year, and that was a no-no.

GROTH: I think the first artist who helped you was Russ Heath.

ELDER: That's right. I think so.

GROTH: Did you know Russ at the time?

ELDER: Yes. Russ would come up to the Charles William Harvey studio. I met him somewhere, either there or somewhere else at a cartoon meeting, or something. I knew his work. He was good. He was very good with watercolor. A lot of cartoonists don't handle watercolors generally, like Jules Feiffer. Well, they handle brush and stain, but not really watercolor technique, where the body has three dimensions.

GROTH: I thought Heath was the artist who blended most seamlessly with you.

ELDER: Well, he was on-call when we needed him. We said, "Put everything aside, unless it's a deadline that you're working on elsewhere," and he said he'd do that. In fact, we found that a lot of fun. We were out in Chicago where Hefner had his old haunts, his old mansion. We had fun at night. We'd kibbitz and we'd go to a show at night. We'd ruminate and we'd explore the place. It was cavernous, his mansion in Chicago. We'd discuss memories and cartooning and that sort of thing.

Sequence from one of Elder's collaborations with Frank Frazetta on Little Annie Fanny, ©2008 Playboy Enterprises.

GROTH: I thought he was the artist who adapted himself most easily to your style.

ELDER: Frank Frazetta would have been, because Frazetta was an illustrator, if you ask me. A darn good one.

GROTH: But Frazetta's work stands out. You can tell Frazetta's work within the strip, whereas Russ Heath's work sort of blends with yours.

ELDER: Well, you have to look again. Of course, I'm being very unfair.

GROTH: No, no. Go ahead.

ELDER: I see the difference. Most people don't. It doesn't matter if other people see no difference at all. That was fine. We're all happy. If it was an obligation of some kind where I had to do exactly what he did, then the technique would be gone and we would hear from Hefner. He was a stickler on mechanics and illustrations. He knew his stuff. He had some very great artists working for him.

GROTH: Jack Davis's stuff stood out. You can tell Davis's work a mile away.

ELDER: Well, his stuff is line-driven. There's always a line around it. His feet are big. His legs or knees are skinny. I think they're wonderful, but they're not in the right place.

GROTH: It was a little jarring with your style.

ELDER: Perhaps. I hadn't looked at it that way, but maybe you're right. I think the world of Davis. He's a remarkable artist.

GROTH: He's a great artist, but you two are such different stylists.

ELDER: Well, I figure maybe slightly so, in my estimation. I'm not trying to be modest. I think his work is off on his own planet.

GROTH: At the beginning of the strip, Russ Heath helped you a lot. How did that work? Did you two work in the same studio together?

ELDER: We did at times, yes. Because we were experimenting so much it was getting very costly flying out for every mistake that was made. We had a studio up in Hefner's loft. It was a gigantic place. This was in the mansion in Chicago. We'd sit there and we'd goof off occasionally. We had a lot of time, because we were right next door to the studios. We'd finish what we had to. And Hefner would look at it and we waited a half a day for him to finally get around to looking at it. It was sent back. In fact, we hardly saw him at all. Eventually we did get to see him. And when we saw him he said, "Let me point out what I like. This is what I like. This is what I don't like. This is where we can improve. This is where we should leave it alone." He was very, very efficient.

GROTH: And very hands-on. Let me skip back for a second. Where did you live at this point?

ELDER: I was living in New Jersey.

GROTH: And Harvey was in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

ELDER: That's correct.

GROTH: I don't know where Russ Heath lived.

ELDER: Neither did I, but he showed up. That was important.

GROTH: Why did you go to Chicago? In other words, why did you do some of the work in your studio at home and then some of the work in Chicago?

ELDER: Chicago was a place where we could make corrections without losing time traveling back and forth. Hefner could see the thing immediately. He was there in a second if there was an emergency. If we needed help we'd tell him about it. Sometimes we needed his help or we'd never make the deadline in time. So he agreed to that. And it was just a big, convenient time for us to do that.

GROTH: So would you fly to the mansion in Chicago to fine-tune every strip?

ELDER: Not every strip. After a time we were able to handle Annie Fanny and we would send it to Chicago already packaged and ready to be reproduced. And when the editor there, I forgot his name — they had a change of editors over so many years — he would eventually show it to Hef. Hef would then come to the studio and say, "You guys can take this home and finish it off and mail it in," because there was very little to do after all of those corrections. So it was one of those arrangements where we would need him only on very rare occasions.

Sequence from Little Annie Fanny, ©2008 Playboy Enterprises.

GROTH: Can you remember — and I'm talking about the first few years of the strip — what Russ Heath would do and what you would do?

ELDER: I would show Russ the figures I did. There was a big orgy party and a lot of nudity running around. I know those figures were Russ's and they were good. Believe me, they were very good. They were acceptable not only by me but by Hefner and his art director. They looked like those naked balloons, the sex dolls. Their bodies were wrinkle-proof. Smooth. Nice and pink. That's Russ Heath. That's the way I saw it. What I described to you isn't a disadvantage. Do you find anything wrong with it? If I gave you those qualities?


ELDER: That's how I felt most people would react. It seemed to work because no one complained.

GROTH: Frank Frazetta worked on three strips.

ELDER: I don't remember the number, but I'll take your word for it.

GROTH: And, you can tell what he did on the strips. Did he work in your studio? Did he come over to your studio?

ELDER: He would work somewhere else. I believe he had his own studio or something.

GROTH: So for him, for example, you would do your figures and then send the board to him?

ELDER: Right. We had to find a system that worked for all of us. Otherwise, we were wasting somebody's time. I would only do the heads and hair and Annie's body, in fact. I didn't want anybody to touch Annie's body, because it should be the same everywhere. It should be consistent. That's what I aimed for. That's when you've got a lot of figures around — boyfriends, girlfriends, or nightclub people dancing. We'd pass it around and Harvey would point out the areas that should be tackled, like the heads of strange girls with fellows. They could be handled by somebody else. Arnold Roth did a few panels for a story we did on Mexico.

Let's see. Who else? Al Jaffee would throw in his 15 cents. That's the way it went. That was our established technique.

GROTH: Could you go back a bit and tell me when Harvey was writing the strip, did you and he discuss what the topics would be lampooned or who would be —

ELDER: Sure. All of the time. There was a back and forth every summer, spring, fall, whatever. When the weather was conducive to our work. I would tell him I had an idea: Alvin the Mole digs his way through the chair. That was an idea that I discussed with Harvey. I came up with Alvin the Mole. It was very popular for some strange reason. People found it was adorable. I thought it was ugly. But what difference do I make. It's the guy who reads it. He's the one who cares.

GROTH: At some point a writer by the name of Larry Siegel must have helped write the strip.

ELDER: Yeah. He did the writing. He's a very humorous guy with a straight face.

GROTH: Why was he brought in to do some of the writing?

ELDER: Because Harvey had written a litany of stories, and he subjected them to scrutiny by Hefner and his gang. They didn't like them. They returned them and asked for another way of doing it. Time was being lost because of this back-and-forth business and he needed someone to help him with a humorous story. Larry Siegel was right there at the right time.

GROTH: And the work as it progressed would go back and forth between you and Harvey for a while?

ELDER: Oh yes.

GROTH: And this was before you actually laid paint down. Harvey would do preliminary roughs, and then you would mark them up?

ELDER: Yeah. Harvey laid out every panel for everybody, even the war stories. What I would do then with Harvey is that we'd get together. He knew exactly what to expect from me. He knew that I was a little on the nutty side when I wanted to be. Remember: When I wanted to be. Otherwise, I was a very sane guy. We sort of hit it off with the ideas of making Annie Fanny, the same thing we'd been doing for years. A satire on boxing, a satire on professional football, college football. We hit all of the items that were very much discussed.

GROTH: The strip you did in 1967, "American in Paris," was the first strip you did in a long time all by yourself.

ELDER: That's right.

GROTH: Someone made the decision not to use other artists. How did that decision come about?

ELDER: Let me see, I have to put on my thinking cap.

GROTH: I think that, not to take anything away from any of the other artists, who are all great, but when it's 100 percent Elder, it's a lot more cohesive.

ELDER: It's very kind of you to say that.

Sequence from Little Annie Fanny, ©2008 Playboy Enterprises.

GROTH: Did you feel like the strip wasn't what you wanted it to be with all of the other artists working on it? You preferred it to be 100 percent Elder?

ELDER: Well, it was a relief for me to work free of any other influence. You could say what you just said and get away with it. I would think that working on your own takes a little less pressure off you.

GROTH: It seems like it would be a lot more satisfying to you, as the artist, to do all of the work and have the finished product be 100 percent you.

ELDER: Well, I've done pretty much 80 percent of many, many stories. In fact, I even made my work look like Russ Heath.

GROTH: The whole process of doing Annie Fanny strikes me as being incredibly labor-intensive.

ELDER: You said the magic word.

GROTH: A tremendous amount of —

ELDER: Intensity.

GROTH: The text material in the two Annie volumes describes some the process you guys went through, the editorial channels with Hugh Hefner and back and forth between you and Harvey. I was wondering if that process sort of bleached out some of the fun of doing the strip, destroyed the creative spontaneity?

ELDER: Are you talking about the cartoonist himself?

GROTH: Yeah.

ELDER: Whether he finds any fun in doing what he's been doing so many times. Not really. Yes. I would agree with that.

GROTH: You would?

ELDER: Yes, I would agree with that, because we are all human and creating something is a very energetic and suffocating business. It really is. You try to not only please yourself, but please others who think very much of you. You don't want to let anybody down, and you're getting paid for the darn thing. There are so many factors that are putting pressure on you that you have to react to.

GROTH: The process didn't look like it left a lot of room of the kind of creative discovery that's often so important —

ELDER: Well, one thing... Excuse me for interrupting. That's a good point that you're making. It's a very apt point. And that is, Hefner didn't want anything to resemble Mad magazine. If you understand that, I think you understand the whole process of Annie Fanny. He didn't want any junk or gags around because he used to see my stuff floating around. My stuff was loaded with junk. Not that I cared. That's what they wanted. There wasn't much thinking to be done there. So I had a good time doing what I was doing and it showed. You can always tell when you have a person who has the right enthusiasm for what he's doing; it rubs off on everybody who reads it. When you formulate comic-book clubs and they start writing Christmas cards. I get Christmas cards with about 50 different names on it. I don't know these people, but boy, what fun. Marvelous. It makes you want to do more, but you can't.
GROTH: Did you ever have second thoughts about the sexual content of the strip, because prior to Little Annie Fanny you didn't do any —

ELDER: Was my morality invaded? In a sense, it wasn't. I'm a pretty outgoing guy. I really don't find those things harmful unless it's a physical threat, then I would say something or do something. But generally, it's a fun book. You gotta realize where you are at the time. It's all in fun. It should be full of laughs. It's a satire. It's a parody. It was all of the things that were printed by Jonathan Swift. He was the greatest satirist of his day. He was considered an outlaw because he didn't conform to the rest of society. But his parody was hilarious. We did an awful lot with Gulliver's Travels. Like where does he go to urinate? He creates his own inlet. Anyway, that's how I looked at it.

GROTH: One of your trademarks is what has been called your eye pops. All of the stuff in the background that —

ELDER: All of the color jumping out at you at once and stuff like that?

GROTH: Well, all of the little gags in the background, which you started in Mad and continued in Little Annie Fanny, although I kind of get the impression you were reined in a little bit.

ELDER: Oh, yes. I had to control my... Excuse me. I have this coughing jag coming up. I have to suppress it. Where's that .38 caliber? That's OK. I'm getting better. I think Gary Groth is having an influence on me. His influence is: Don't cough. Are you listening?

GROTH: I'm here.

ELDER: OK. I never did say in a pinch... Ow! I was going to say... Where were we?

Sequence from Little Annie Fanny, ©2008 Playboy Enterprises.

GROTH: Eye pops.

ELDER: Eye pops. Those funny little gadgets lying around, little gags. I just had fun with it, Gary. I didn't care what anybody else said. I even got away with it working for Playboy and they were pretty much against a thing like that. That was high-school stuff to them. They wanted something button-down, necktie business. College stuff.

GROTH: I think that stuff added immeasurably to the strip, though.

ELDER: You captured the audience. You're bringing them into the fold. You're increasing your popularity by having that acceptable. I think Hefner came to know that after the competition got in there with Penthouse.

GROTH: As the strip progressed, and of course a lot of the strip was a parody of popular culture —

ELDER: Counterculture.

GROTH: Yeah. I assume you paid a lot of attention to pop culture in the '60s and '70s. As the strip progressed and you got older, did you feel a little more divorced from pop culture?

ELDER: Not at all. I would have lost that ability to make up my mind as to what I was going to do with my life. No one was going to tell me what to do, especially if it's my work and it's harmless work. That's how I feel.

GROTH: Were you as engaged in pop culture as you got older? I know, for example, that I'm less engaged in pop culture than your average 20 year old is, or at least the same kind of culture.

ELDER: In that case it's like a there-goes-the-neighborhood thing. No, that didn't bother me at all, because if you look for it, you find yourself reading it. And if you read it, it's a lot of fun regardless of what kinds of gadgets you've got flying around. That's a very good question. I must commend you on that.

That's how a commercial business is formulated. They will print things that will capture the widest audience available and be held responsible for making popular work.

GROTH: In the '60s you would have been in your 40s?

ELDER: That's right.

GROTH: Were you a fan of the Beatles?

ELDER: No, I wasn't. I felt that they had to prove themselves a little more than what I heard. You can't judge people by overnight success, or what may appear to be an overnight success. You have to give them a little time and latitude. You have to give them the experience, maybe in 15 to 20 years, which is impossible to do, because you're judging for the moment.

GROTH: But you and Kurtzman did two strips with the Beatles, so you had to sort of familiarize yourself with them.

ELDER: Yeah. I think Jaffee did the Beatles. One of the boys, one of the artists did the Beatles. I don't know what his attitude was toward them. If you're going to do a satire, we discussed the subject matter: What are we going to do today, boy? Who do we destroy? We sat around a circle like an old Indian dance figuring out who was our next victim. We figured, "How about the Beatles?" They had just come over from Europe and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and they're perfect targets. And someone else would pop up and say, "But we are the targets. You destroy the target you become the target, so be careful, boys." And that was a tough one. Anyway, we decided to go ahead and pull hard and make as many gags with them as possible. They loved it. They absolutely loved it because they're tired of all of the wonderful comments that people handed them, all trite.

GROTH: Especially in the first 10 years or so of the strip you really rummaged through pop culture to create characters like Phil Silvers and Terry-Thomas.

ELDER: Right. Terry-Thomas and Phil Silvers. They were wonderful examples of characters that we used.

GROTH: It seemed that some caricatures you took particular pleasure in — Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni. You got Sean Connery dead on.

ELDER: Yeah. I did all of those, most of the characters because I was quite easy with them. I could handle them very well, I found out.

GROTH: Did you use a lot of photo reference?

ELDER: Well, yes we did. Magazine references, photo references. You have to. There isn't an artist today who doesn't use a photograph. Degas was one of the first to use them in his work. His horses, ballet stars — Degas used photographs all of the time.

GROTH: You were in your 40's in the 1960s and a lot of the Annie Fanny stuff was parodying the hippies and the counterculture and so on. What was your feeling about all of that?

ELDER: I felt that you had to keep up with the times, because you're trying to hold onto this audience that you've captured.

GROTH: You did seem to take particular relish in using Richard Nixon's image. Was he a particular favorite of yours?

ELDER: Let me think about it. As far as the political figures were concerned...

GROTH: He would often appear in the Annie strips, and there was one —

ELDER: I also featured the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson. Do you remember at the fair, they had these animatronics, these machines that looked like humans. They'd bow and they'd bend their heads slightly. As you keep walking down you see JFK bowing. And they spy Annie Fanny and Lyndon Johnson's pants drop. I still find that funny. And Kennedy's hair falls off his head, that big bun that he carries. We had a ball with that.
Image Image

A Little Annie Fanny poster done on commission, as reprinted in Chicken Fat; ©1984 Playboy Enterprises.

GROTH: You did an Annie strip titled "Nude Therapy," in May 1970. You'd been doing the strip Annie Fanny for eight years. And the painting changed somewhat from the previous ones. In a letter to Hefner, Kurtzman wrote, "The art is a big breakthrough. Will abandoned his nitpicking technique and the work is faster and I think much better, more to the point." Do you remember that?

ELDER: I do, but not too well, because I'd been handling different techniques to find an avenue of expression that took less time.

GROTH: Do you remember making a conscious decision to change your technique to accommodate the production schedule? It sounded like that's why you changed your technique.

ELDER: That's a very good observation. I'd say that's exactly right.

GROTH: Was that personally preferable for you or was that a decision that you made just because you had to speed up?

ELDER: I think a combination of the two would be more accurate.

GROTH: One of the amazing things about Annie Fanny is that you maintained the cartoony quality even with that incredibly meticulous painting. I think that's hard to succeed at.

ELDER: That's due to the fact that I had to find the place where I could make this thing work faster. You have to make cuts. You make cuts here and you make cuts there, like my butcher. You get something that looks like it's red. It's a piece of scrap. Knowing what I'm doing in the shortest amount of time is ideal. I tried to come to that but it didn't work. It didn't work enough. It worked, but not enough.

GROTH: One thing that I noticed was that in the '80s I thought that the painterly quality of the strip changed and what I guess I would call the surface polish of it diminished considerably.

ELDER: I know what you mean.

GROTH: It became a little rougher. Was that a deliberate decision?

ELDER: I call it hasty. We worked fast and we didn't care as much. There's a reason for it, because you're getting tired and it sapped you of all of your energy — not only your physical energy, but your mental energy — to come up with something new and different and as funny as the last one, or funnier. People were expecting a lot and we tried to give them a lot.

GROTH: Twenty-six years of back-breaking labor. So it was really because you were getting a little tired and —

ELDER: And they expected more from us and we'd already gone through the same thing. It took us that many years to get established. We could not only depend on Playboy magazine. We could quit or continue as we were and give them the same quality. The strange thing is, they accepted us quitting. Maybe they were getting tired, too.

GROTH: Did you and Harvey jointly make the decision to stop doing the strip?

ELDER: I just think it died. It dried up and died. I don't know. We made this decision. We just saw it right in front of us. We saw there was no enthusiasm any longer. I don't think we like to say, "This is the end," because that means finality, the finish of everything. We didn't want to do that. You never know if you get called back when you needed to be. So you don't burn your bridges behind you.

GROTH: When you stopped painting the strip in '88, that had to have been an enormous decision for you and a big change in your life.

ELDER: Like giving up a member of the family. It was something you did every day and you enjoyed going to work and the people around you were pleased with it. They laughed. They had fun reading it. It's hard to have those things disappear. The worst part about it is that it happened slowly, which was upsetting.

GROTH: After you quit the strip, what did you do?

ELDER: Freelance work. I'm not too sure whether it was something monumental that I did. It was something more like a paid favor.

GROTH: Did you feel like you could go into semi-retirement?

ELDER: Yeah, I could because the opportunities were there. All of the amenities were taken care of. I had all of the physical attributes of stopping and enjoying life a little.

GROTH: You and Harvey did a brief stint back at Mad in the '80s.

ELDER: Yeah. That's one of the things I meant when I said other work. I'm glad you pointed that out.

GROTH: How did you feel about going back to Mad?

ELDER: It was nice to be asked. It's always nice to be asked. Harvey and I, we worked together because we took the pressure off each other. If he had to work alone, or myself, we'd add another two weeks to the job. You don't get work if you're a little late on your job. Some of these people you're contending with are fast workers. It's amazing and very discouraging. They work fast and they're used to working that way. We just couldn't do anything more than just one thing at a time. There was one thing that we did a thing on the hospital scene, all of the things that can go wrong in a hospital. That's the last thing I remember. There was another one about Wheel of Fortune, with Vanna White. We did a satire on that. That was fun because it was simple. We showed her and the master of ceremonies performing in front of a tourist or a guest. That was easily done. Anything like that is always acceptable. We could do things like that. But even that became less lucrative and interesting.

GROTH: Did you essentially make the decision to not do any more commercial work?

ELDER: I would say I gently bowed out. I've had a lot of it before, and I don't want to sound precious, but I don't think that they really have anything for me.

A sketch of the artist's daughter at play, ©1960 Will Elder.

GROTH: In the '90s, did you do a lot of work for yourself? Paintings and ...

ELDER: That was another thing that took up my time, painting. I just love doing oil paintings and watercolors when we travel.

GROTH: It seems to me like that would be enormously fulfilling.

ELDER: It is, because I've picked up a lot of the techniques I was using on Annie Fanny. And when I apply them to oils... I've been working with watercolors for half a century. I think I was able to handle the oils, and I've been doing it for a long time, on and off. I have oil paintings from back in the 1950s and '60s. I used to paint a little later than that and it was just fun, something entirely different for a change.

GROTH: Do you prefer painting in oil?

ELDER: I do, for the simple reason that if you make a lot of mistakes you can correct them very easily. You can paint heavy white over black. You couldn't do that in watercolor. You have to put the blacks in first and leave the white part of the illustration board that shows within your white section in a color painting.

GROTH: You've told me that your brushstrokes aren't as precise as they were —

ELDER: Well, I have a slight tendency toward Parkinsons. I have a Parkinson's syndrome. Not a disease yet, I hope. But there's a slight tremor. It comes every now and then; it's not constant. I'm taking care of it through some kinds of pills, whatever they're handing me. It makes me unsteady in very fine work. In fact, at times it's so bad that I could make a milkshake for you in no time.

GROTH: Well, I assume with age your hand becomes a little less steady.

ELDER: Yeah. I'm not a young man any longer. Things change. Your body changes, your attitude changes. Everything changes.

GROTH: Of course, Al Hirschfeld kept a pretty tight line even...

ELDER: How old was he? 98, 99?

GROTH: Ninety-nine.

ELDER: Oh, boy.

GROTH: So you've got about 16 years or so to go?

ELDER: You're very kind.

GROTH: I don't know if I or Gary [Vandenbergh, Elder's son-in-law] told you, but we're using the Norman Rockwell piece for the cover of our catalog.

ELDER: Yeah. That's nice. That's my pièce de résistance. I really worked my butt off because I enjoyed every minute of it, not knowing that it was hard work. I went through every step of the illustrator's phase, and that is to slowly apply that on tracing paper, as I mentioned before, onto illustration board — very, very carefully, in full detail. It took three months from start to finish.

GROTH: What did you do it for?

ELDER: That was supposed to be the third issue of Trump.

GROTH: Looking back over 26 years of Annie Fanny, how do you feel about it?

ELDER: We did over 100 stories. When someone mentioned that to me, I almost collapsed. One hundred stories. That's one for every two months. Half of a century, I mean. Anyway, I would say that working on Mad had more or less prepared me for a larger career than I ever expected. I never expected so much. It shows you that you have to hold onto an ideal purpose. You may just wander around forever like a satellite.

GROTH: Were you able to make a good living?

ELDER: I would say fair. Nothing sensational. It depends on how large you like to live.

GROTH: Well, you don't look like an extravagant spender.

ELDER: Tell it to my son. He'd like to hear something like that. By the way, another thing I'd like to add. May I add it?

GROTH: Absolutely. The tape's running.

landscape painting of the home Elder had built in Englewood, New Jersey, taken from Chicken Fat; ©2006 Will Elder.

ELDER: I found that working at Mad — which was a big part of my life — and Humbug, Trump, Little Annie Fanny and did I say anything else? I hate to leave something out.

GROTH: Help!

ELDER: Help! Yes. But I wasn't generally a part of it, maybe that's a freelance way of putting it. Otherwise I did very little work for them. But I felt that working all of those years on those magazines gave me the confidence and the thrust of doing something periodically that, to me, is perfection. And to improve my technique, no matter what it is, and to make it as artistic as possible and in good taste, if that's available all over those years, and to come up with a thing like Goodman Beaver. Goodman Beaver has all of the qualities that I wish I had done much earlier. But it took those earlier magazines and periodicals to give me the thrust that I had in later years. So I must pay my gratitude to those magazines even though I didn't make a living at it.

GROTH: It seems to me that you did the work that you did, not because of the financial remuneration but because you felt compelled to do the best work that you could.

ELDER: Right. Exactly right. To me, the work was important. You are your work. What you do is your work.

GROTH: Let me just ask you a question based on that, because it seems to me in the '50s and '60s and maybe into the '70s it must have been a little frustrating, because it doesn't seem to me that you were being as appreciated as you should have been at that time.

ELDER: That's like someone who is looking for some sort of a handout — a handout meaning a lot of praise. We all want something for nothing.

GROTH: Recognition, I guess, is what I meant. It seems to me that you weren't recognized as much as an artist of your caliber should have been.

ELDER: Well, it's nice to be told that. Don't kid yourself. I'm appreciative of that idea. But I didn't think so at the time. If I did, I would have corrected my path.

GROTH: You didn't really care about that at the time?

ELDER: No, I didn't care. If I put a line down on a white blank piece of paper, I didn't say to myself, "This is going to get them crazy. They'll love this." I think, like anyone else, artists are obligated. They're obligated people, not only to themselves, but to whoever is paying them or admiring them or expecting something from their work.

GROTH: But ultimately you're saying that you're obligated to yourself. You have to set your own standards and abide by them.

ELDER: I agree with that.

GROTH: It seems to me that you didn't see your work from a careerist perspecitve, adopting the prevailing commercial standards and going no further.

ELDER: I wasn't a go-getter. I wasn't really aggressive enough. There are some people who have everything. Their work and their aggression and their entire being manifests itself in the fact that they are what they are because they made people think they are.

GROTH: What strikes me as remarkable, Will, is that you didn't do the quality of work that you did either for financial reasons or for strictly commercial reasons, for good reviews and praise. You did it —

ELDER: I did more than 30 paintings, fine-art paintings and a few watercolors that... Have you ever seen the watercolor of my nephew Stanley?

GROTH: Was it hanging on the wall in your home?

ELDER: Yeah. It was on the wall. It's something I'm very proud of. You don't believe I'm capable of doing anything like that after being a cartoonist for so many years. But being a cartoonist prepared me for what I am now.

GROTH: Well, it's unusual, you know. Because I think a lot of artists need praise.

ELDER: Like DeKooning. You ever hear about William DeKooning? A big bag of egotism. He always challenged people. I like abstract art if it has all of the qualities that I'm looking for. His doesn't happen to have the qualities that I like. Picasso I like. Matisse I like. But not DeKooning.

GROTH: What qualities do you look for?

ELDER: Color balance. Good line. Composition. All of those things. If it envelops you with brilliant colors.

GROTH: Picasso was a brilliant, versatile artist. In some ways he was almost close to a cartoonist.

ELDER: That's true. I never thought of it that way.

GROTH: In the elasticity of his line, his ability to exaggerate.

ELDER: Well, Matisse has him over a barrel in many of Matisse's work. They're both equally good. I think they are. Anyway, that's off my chest.

GROTH: Well, for what it's worth, I know you're widely admired today.

ELDER: Well, Crumb at one time said — this is from sources I know nothing about — Crumb said that he's gotten everything he needed from me. That son of a gun.

GROTH: I know he admires you a lot. I've talked to him about you.

ELDER: That's good to know. I don't find that insulting. Anybody who flatters you with such kind words is worth knowing.

GROTH: I think the interview's wrapped up.

ELDER: Make me look... Don't make me look mediocre. Anything but mediocre.

GROTH: You'll look fabulous.

ELDER: And my year of birth has been wrong in the books.

GROTH: Will, it's 1921, right?

ELDER: Twenty-one, right. I'm getting to be an old man. Only in numbers. Not with enjoying things I enjoyed when I was 20 years old.

A Selected Bibliography

As far as I'm concerned, Kurtzman-era Mad's reputation as one of the best comics of the 20th century is owed entirely to Will Elder's work. Kurtzman's satire has not aged well, but Elder's ingenious eye-pops and virtuso drawing are forever young. I hate to compare great cartoonists like Wally Wood, Jack Davis and John Severin to Zeppo Marx, but reading the comic-book Mads is like watching a Paramount Marx Brothers movie; after a while, you start fast-forwarding through the "Zeppo" material to get to the prime "Groucho, Chico and Harpo" stuff, like Elder's strip parodies and advertisements. I find the only way to tell Elder's Mad work from his Panic stories is to look for the tell-tale Leroy lettering, since the gap between Kurtzman's satire and Al Feldstein's and Jack Mendelsohn's parodies is so small that who wrote and edited Elder's work is almost incidental. It's generally more rewarding to read an Elder-drawn story out of the corner of your eye and focus on the funny and often stunning art; it produces an effect that Elder's comedy idols achieved when they threw their scripts on the floor (or out the window) and ad libbed around, over and straight through the writer's story.

A collection of just Elder's EC humor work would be the absolute cat's ass, but the slipcased, hardcover Russ Cochran-published collections of Mad (four volumes, originally retailed for $85 in the '80s) and Panic (two volumes, $55) would be a fine addition to any comics library. They're out of print, naturally. DC recently reprinted the first six issues of Mad in their Archives series (ISBN: 1563898160, $49.95). It's a nice package, but you have to wish that they had started with issues #24-29, the first six magazine-sized issues (comprising the last five issues of Kurtzman's editorial tenure and the first of Feldstein's run), which I believe have never been properly reprinted. The first volume is magazine-sized, which I hope implies that we'll see that material get the Archive treatment in volume five. The eight-issue series Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad series reprinted all 23 comic-book issues and some of Kurtzman and Elder's '80s Mad work in color, and are fairly easy to find for cover price ($4.99 {Cheap!}) or less.

The two issues of Trump and the 11 Humbugs are about as easy to find these days as Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, but I've found them in used bookstores and antique shops, usually for cheap since almost no one knows what treasures they are. The Zeppo-to-Groucho ratio is much better in these magazines than in the EC books, which makes the abscence of an archival reprint of both all the more unfortunate.

In one of his books, Kurtzman confessed that he put less time into Help!, per page, than anything else he had done. It shows in the issues I've seen. The irony is that the magazine that editor Kurtzman phoned in is the same one that published the very best of Kurtzman and Elder's collaborations, the only one where writer Kurtzman's effort match that of his partner: the Goodman Beaver stories are a rare and exceptional example of actual comics satire (as compared to parody). The Executive's Comic Book paperback collection is hard to find and not worth the search. The Kitchen Sink-published Goodman Beaver (160-page paperback, ISBN: 0878160086, $9.95) boasts of greatly enlarged reproduction of the paperback-sized art and a great introduction, but a 36-page magazine-sized reprint of the Goodman stories as they were drawn for Help! would be the best way to present this material — so many of Elder's running gags on a given page are lost when the individiual panels are spread over multiple pages — but, a collection without the long-suppressed-by-Archie "Goodman Goes Playboy," the best of the best by the best, is like a Marx Brothers film set that doesn't have A Night at the Opera.

The satire in most of Little Annie Fanny has not aged well at all, but Elder's painted art is a thing to behold. The two Dark Horse-published collections (Vol. 1, ISBN: 156971519X; Vol. 2, ISBN: 1569715203, $24.95 each) are handsomely packaged and smartly annotated by Denis Kitchen.

I have yet to see a page of the upcoming Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art (Fantagraphics Books, ISBN: 1560975601, $49.95 to be published October 2003), but a full-color art book of Elder's work sounds pretty great to me.
— Milo George

Will Elder's Top 10:

Charlie Chaplin; Buster Keaton; The Marx Brothers; Laurel & Hardy or Danny Kaye; Jack Benny; Johnny Carson; Jonathan Winters; Carol Burnett, Sid Caesar; Lucille Ball

Hal Foster; E.C. Segar; Al Capp; "Walt Disney" (Donald Duck); Roy Crane; Hal Foster; Alex Raymond; Bob Montana; Milton Caniff; George McManus

Van Gogh; Cézanne; Velazquez; Monet; Holbein; Rockwell; Bruegel; Remington; N.C. Wyeth; Leyendecker

Gershwin; Delius; Mozart; Beethoven; Samuel Barber; Rodgers and Hart; Jerome Kern; Cole Porter; Chopin; Berlin

Film Stars
James Cagney; Spencer Tracy; Marilyn Monroe; Rod Steiger; Clark Gable; Eleanor Powell; Fred Astaire; Gene Kelly; James Stewart; Cary Grant

Classical Music Pieces
Symphony Fantastic (H. Berlioz); Beethoven's 3rd Symphony; Four Seasons (Vivaldi); The Planets (Von Holst); Adagio For Strings (Samuel Barber); Concerto in F (Gershwin); anything by Louis Moreau Gottschalk; Candide (Bernstein); Firebird (Stravinsky); Faust (Charles Gounod)

Citizen Kane; Ben Hur; The Wizard of Oz; The Song of Bernadette; San Francisco; Shane; The Treasure of Sierra Madre; 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Night at the Opera; Modern Times

1 comment:

Bob Andelman said...

You might enjoy this Mr. Media podcast interview with cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who talks about the new collection of his comic strips from the Village Voice, getting his start with Will Eisner on The Spirit, his plays (Little Murders), his movies (Carnal Knowledge, Popeye), the Disney musical adaptation of The Man in the Ceiling, and his forthcoming memoirs.