TCJ ARCHIVE

The Will Elder Interview

Pranks

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?

GROTH: Yes.

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.

Young Elder and a train.

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.

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.

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.

Wartime

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.

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!”

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

A Rufus De Bree splash page.

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.

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.

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.

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