The Will Elder Interview


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.

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?

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

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. 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.

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.]

A page from "Eti Quette" in Trump #2

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.

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