From the TCJ Archives

The Will Elder Interview

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.

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 —

Sequence from Little Annie Fanny

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?

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.

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.

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.

Landscape painting of the home Elder had built in Englewood, New Jersey

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 Parkinson's. 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.

ELDER: I found that working at Mad — which was a big part of my life — and HumbugTrump, 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.