The Will Elder Interview

Originally published in The Comics Journal 243, 2003.

Will Elder (1921-2008) 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.

When Kurtzman left Mad, Elder left with him and followed him into three noble failures: TrumpHumbug 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 PlayboyLittle Annie Fanny was entirely painted in watercolor and tempera — the first and surely the most virtuosic of its kind.

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.

— 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.

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 Game Boys 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.

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.

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.

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.

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