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