From the TCJ Archives

The Will Elder Interview

Will and Harvey's Process

GROTH: In the explanatory text in one of the Mad collections, there's a question posed to Kurtzman: "How closely did the artist follow the tissue overlay?" And Kurtzman replies, "They resented it at first, but we had thrashed that out in the war books."

ELDER: Excuse you for a minute. Except that didn't work for me. He gave me full rein. He knew how wacky I could be, so Kurtzman was very kind to me. He said, "Will, get funny like you usually do. Get funny." And I'd try to.

GROTH: What were these tissue overlays that they refer to? I understand that he laid out the strip, right?

ELDER: Yes. The tissue overlays actually saved a step in the process of doing these satires.

GROTH: Can you explain how that worked?

ELDER: Well, it would be translated from the tracing paper with a drawing on it in pencil onto the illustration board. But what Harv used to do was to pencil on the illustration board and then lift it off with tracing paper. He would rather work on the tracing paper at first and then from the tracing paper onto the illustration board. Do you follow me or am I —

GROTH: Yeah. Now these would be Harvey's drawings on the tracing paper?

ELDER: Harvey's very rough layouts. In other words, he showed us the exact thing that was going on in each panel. What was happening. In other words, basically there was a story behind all of the garbage.

GROTH: And then those rough layouts would be transferred onto the board?

ELDER: Right. Illustration board. I would take a piece of a very thin, ordinary stationery paper and I would blacken one side of it with a very soft pencil. I would slip that between the tracing paper and the illustration board, go over the tracing paper again as to where to put Harvey's layouts on the illustration paper. We would use the blackened page like carbon paper. Now, I don't use the real carbon paper because it has a wax finish and wax and ink do not mix. What I use is a pencil reproduction or drawing on the illustration board because you can always erase it. Wax you can't erase. It will smear, that wax carbon paper. If I'm getting complicated, let me know.

GROTH: I'd be interested to know how much you changed or altered Harvey's layouts.

ELDER: Harvey would be the first one to tell you that, if you think that I'm trying to grab credit from Harvey, on the contrary, we worked as a team and we worked very well. Harvey would be the first to tell you that my gags and my layouts and my rendering made that strip very plausible.

Sequence from "Shermlock Shomes!" in Mad #7

GROTH: Let me ask you if you can remember some specifics. On page five in the first three panels of "Shermlock Shmoes!" you had Holmes and Watson en route to another location. In the first panel they're in a soapbox-derby car. In the second panel they're on a camel and the third panel...


ELDER: Oh, the modes of transportation.

GROTH: That's right. What did Harvey give you to work with and how much did you add to that?

ELDER: If Harvey were here he would tell you just exactly what I would say, and that is that I did most of the gags. In fact, I did almost all of them. Harvey would leave the funny ideas on paper, and I would embellish whatever was there with my own ideas.

GROTH: So with that example, he would have drawn what in those panels?

ELDER: He would draw very rough or very crude placement in each panels. In other words, figures he thinks should have been in an area of the panel, that's what he did. He handed me a sheet of paper the size of a comic-book page, but in this case one and a half to two times up so I could work a lot easier on the details by working on a much larger scale. When I finished the sketches, I would send it to Harvey or meet him. He thought they actually saved the strip, because he said, "I run out of ideas and come to my rescue if you can." I don't want to take all of the credit, but there was a section of my work in almost every panel. Harvey knew that I would handle it. After all, it reflects on all of us if we do good work.

GROTH: The lettering was put in after you penciled it. Were the balloons blocked in before you penciled it?

ELDER: I think so. They were real professionals, and they put the lettering in really tight at times and very well executed. We didn't have to worry about that.

GROTH: In what form did you get the script from Harvey? Was the actual writing on the board you drew on?

ELDER: He would write on there and he would segue with a balloon, so I knew right away it was dialogue.

GROTH: How organic was the collaboration? Did Harvey change things based upon gags you would put in?

ELDER: I would change things. I have a film that we've made. Have you seen it?

GROTH: Well, I've seen one video with you and Harvey in it.

ELDER: We were on the back porch one summer.

GROTH: Where you're both sitting in chairs?

ELDER: Well, I was sitting in one of those sling chairs, yes. Harvey was in a lounge chair or something. We'd discuss ideas for humor takeoffs and things of that sort. I'd come up with a few ideas and he'd say OK and write it down very crudely as if it were a note. But when it came to that page of that particular panel, I would have to expect from Harvey a layout of very crude figures, if there were figures involved. Or things of transportation. Are they going to Spot... what's his name? The guy from that space program? Spock.

GROTH: Oh, Dr. Spock.

ELDER: Yeah. He roughed it in very, very quick and fast. What I did is I took it from there, looked at Spock in the pages I remember him appearing in, and did a whole thing over from scratch. But at least I was sure of where Harvey wanted the panel to be, or the figures in the panel to be.

GROTH: That was in Little Annie Fanny.

ELDER: That was Little Annie Fanny. Right. The same principle applied to everything I did.

GROTH: How elastic was Harvey in terms of the writing? Did he change things after he saw your drawing?

ELDER: Very rarely did he do that with me. I must brag about that. I'm very proud of it. The fact is, he let me work alone. He knew that I was a nut if I kept quiet and stuck to myself and did my own work without anybody supervising me. Because usually he accepted it when he finally got it.

GROTH: Did you fiddle with the writing at all?

ELDER: Hardly. Very, very rarely did I do that. Hardly.

GROTH: Do you remember if Harvey ever changed the writing after you did a drawing to accommodate your drawing and your gags?

ELDER: He might have. I wasn't aware of it. What I was aware of was turning in the work on my behalf with an illustration.

GROTH: I know you might not remember all of this stuff because they're very, very... I'm getting into some minutiae...

ELDER: Over 50 years ago...

GROTH: In the Holmes story, for example, you have a panel where Sherlock is playing the violin with the mop. One side of the mop is going into Watson's mouth and the other side is splattering against —

ELDER: I vaguely remember that. Yeah.

GROTH: Would Harvey have just drawn Sherlock Holmes with a violin instrument and you created the mop?

ELDER: I don't know. I'm not too sure about that, but I think, as I said earlier, he made the stories less lengthy by the fact he threw it my way and we would meet deadlines. The trick was to get all of the stuff ready for reproduction. He wanted everything to be orderly. Harvey was very meticulous. He wanted everything to be orderly. The fact that we went to Music and Art High School together, he was like my kid brother or vice versa. He figured he'd leave me alone. He would never bother with me. If you notice, there're about four stories in every comic book of Mad. And one of those stories he would keep open for me. Because I would be working on an illustration — for example, an ad parody I did. It was wash and tone. It wasn't exactly black and white or line work. It was a washed advertised fiction of a guy going... Harry Chester was the model in this case. The guy going to the electric chair. Well, there's this young guy with this jockey suit on, I guess you would call it. A young midget. Walking around the lobby of the hotel yelling. But in this case, he was witness to an execution. We had a priest in the background, someone uncuffing Harry Chester, and you see a hand sticking out from the side of the illustration with one of those long matches giving the criminal a chance to have his last smoke. And the chair is in the immediate half-distance. That took time because I wanted to make it look real. By looking real it becomes more convincing as a gag. If I made it crudely, it would look like a gag right from the very get-go. So I would make it almost exactly like the advertisement but a different subject. Nothing like Madison Avenue would put out. We weren't knocking the products, we were knocking the people who were advertising the products.

Let me add one more thing, Gary, if I may? The ad parody with Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly took work. To achieve the concept of that idea took a little time. Rendering took time. A double whammy there, taking so much time, which left me not working on the other stuff, whether it be HumbugMadPanicTrump, whatever magazine I had my work in. You have to make sure that your ideas are not forced but left open for whatever ideas you might come up with. The same thing could be applied to Mad magazine when they had an illustration for an ad where the family, everyone's sitting around drinking beer. That's in Mad magazine. That was one of the later issues. At the time, it was probably coming to an end for us.

GROTH: Well, you know, in the Frankenstein story you did for Mad...

ELDER: Oh, that was my favorite.

GROTH: Was it?

ELDER: No. The Humbug Frankenstein. I really loved that.

GROTH: But on the Mad one, you have a four-panel sequence where Frankenstein's assistant Bumble is reading a newspaper.

ELDER: Oh, yeah. It shows him marching up that hill at night in the storm. He reaches his castle and falls through a trap door. That's Bumble and Dr. Frankenstein, if you want to call him that. Bumble was a real nogoodnick.

GROTH: And the newspaper he's reading, it has all kinds of...

ELDER: In every language, right. It was authentic. I made sure I got a piece out of the newspaper to write about it.

GROTH: Those are authentic?

ELDER: As far as I know. I won't guarantee it but I tried to get something from the paper and more or less copy it. So if somebody does understand it, it will be a double whammy for him. They'll get a kick out of the funny idea.

GROTH: Some of them looked Asian and Arabic. So that gag was your idea?

ELDER: Yes, it was. All the little things were stemming from my mind and Harvey enjoyed them. In fact, he used to laugh at my stuff. He hardly laughed when we were in that little box office.

GROTH: Since you brought it up, why do you prefer the Frankenstein you did for Humbug?

A page from "Frankenstien and His Monster" (yes, they spelled it "i" before "e") in Humbug #7.

ELDER: It was more realistic and a lot funnier, I think. The humor was more sophisticated. And more or less rendered the way it was, was the style I prefer. The one in Mad was topsy turvy to meet a deadline. But the one that I did for Humbug, I thought had a little more style. I got a letter from two college kids from Rhode Island. I think it was Brown University. They said they were aficionados of Frankenstein's monster by Mary Shelley, the original book's author. He more or less said that that story Frankenstein was the closest thing to the best ideal for Hollywood to take place in. He said it was very accurate. The people in it were very accurate. He said I must have been a fan, too. No. I just did it for the laughs. I didn't do it for any fans or anything. But he thought that they were very sharp and to the point.


GROTH: The Mickey Rodent strip that you did, I was curious as to which artist you based the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck renderings on? Would that have been Floyd Gottfredson's newspaper strip?

ELDER: I had a lot of things laid out before me on the floor of my studio. I saw things that look typically Disney, whoever handled that particular part of it. But I would lay out and I'd say, "If I can get this style, the original style of Mickey with the sharp looking body." I didn't have a crude body like Steamboat Willie. Do you remember that first one?


ELDER: That was far from Steamboat Willie. I would use the best Mickey Mouse figure I could find.

GROTH: Were you aware of the Donald Duck comics, and Carl Barks' work at the time?

ELDER: No. I didn't know Carl Barks at all. I heard of him later after he had left or was retired. Yes, I did use his figures. They were very recognizable, and my gag wouldn't be any good if they weren't recognizable.

GROTH: I thought a real stroke of inspiration in the strip was when Darnold Duck was pointing to your signature and saying, "Look at that signature! It's not Walt Dizzy's style!" And then there were references to the differences in line work between your Donald Duck and the original.

ELDER: That was a lot of my doing, I must say. But Harvey wrote the general theme of the story, the basics. The idea, the general idea, he came up with it. He'd talk to me and say, "Will, I have an idea for Mickey Rodent, Disney's bread and butter. I want to give it the works. See what you can do." He comes back and he says, "I want the story to exemplify the Disney characters. And suddenly this Duck rebels against whatever Disney has done to the fowls of America, the ducks," and then he says, "I have a surprise ending. I'd like to end with a real duck." That was Harvey. What I did in between, like people in the woods or in the beginning splash page, you have people watching one of their friends being dragged off to the police station, handled by police that look like animals — horses, cows, whatever. One of the victims, one of the people who are watching this going on has a little leash. And at the end of the leash there is a little naked man. That was a crazy idea I thought of.

GROTH: I have to ask you about Mad #22, the all-Elder issue. First of all, whose idea was that?

Page from the all-Elder Mad #22

ELDER: Oh, I have a confession. That issue was a fill-in. There wasn't anything going on that week. Davis didn't have a complete story or was starting on a story. Wally Wood was the same. I think he was ill or something and just never had time to look forward for another story. It was a filler issue. It had to be done.


GROTH: So it was done out of desperation?

ELDER: Harvey approached me and said, "How would you like to do the whole book?" I said, "Wait a minute. That's a job." I said, "Well, what if it's just one of you guys." Then he pointed toward me. I said, "This is going to be tough." Now that I'm looking back, it paid off as far as people liking my work and making me feel wanted.

GROTH: I guess that explains why you didn't draw the whole thing.

ELDER: Yeah. I left in some commercial ads. Typical ads, and then I would render something in there that would catch your eye, something that was completely outrageous. I was a kid that was yelling for attention when I had these stories.

GROTH: I assume Harvey wrote it?

ELDER: Yes, he did.

GROTH: And you compiled all of the photographs and doctored them?

ELDER: Well, the mechanics were something that I handled. The ideas I would embellish it with many more ideas than Harvey had laid out, because he was thinking only of getting the book done. It's a question of timing. I had more time to do these things than Harvey did.

GROTH: Now, it is somewhat autobiographical. It is embellished, but I noticed some things that were accurate. So Harvey must have taken some things from your life and then embellished them wildly.

ELDER: One thing I want to make clear is that Harvey and I were alter-egos at work. There was a very magical chemistry that was formulated by the two of us. We were successful in our renderings of the ideas from the very beginning. It worked. Everything we did seemed to gel. I was very lucky to have him as a friend and a collaborator.

GROTH: Did you guys work more closely on this particular autobiographical piece, or did he just write the whole thing and hand it to you?

ELDER: He handed it to me, because it was too much of a job for me. I was doing other things. I was freelancing, I believe, if nothing else, maybe on Panic. I really don't know. I know I was busy getting things together. I tried to contribute whatever I could to help the thing along.

GROTH: Why do you think you were chosen rather than Davis or Wood or —

ELDER: Because he thought I was funny.

GROTH: I guess you had a funnier life.

ELDER: Well, I was a practical joker. Being a practical joker gives me the fortitude and weaponry of doing mischief to anybody. If you do it to your friends, and they happen to know you did it, they can take it quite easily. But you don't do it with people you don't know. It could be dangerous.

GROTH: At some point, you were working for Panic and Mad at the same time because Feldstein could no longer do all of the writing. And he brought in a writer by the name of Jack Mendelsohn.

ELDER: Yes. Jack used to like the radio personalities.

GROTH: How did you like working with him?

ELDER: I never knew he was doing it, frankly.

GROTH: [Astonished.] Huh.

ELDER: I knew later on, but not at the time. I thought he was a good gag man. But he had sent an inquiry to some kind of magazine that contacted me and wanted to know exactly what you want to know: How come Jack took over and what sort of a writer was he? I said I didn't know. Jack says to the magazine, "I don't have to do anything for Will. He's funny enough." He never even told me that he was writing this stuff for me. So I got a very fine critique from Mendelson, if that means anything.

GROTH: So when you did the Panic work, would you simply pick up a script from the offices?

ELDER: I'd go into the office or he'd mail out another script. I'd look over it and tell him what I thought. Al Feldstein never really called me direct except later on in our careers if he wanted me to fill in a gap. But he would call once in a while. When he did, it meant he had a story for me to work on or to think about.

GROTH: Were you living in Manhattan when you were doing the EC work?

ELDER: No. I lived in New Brunswick [N.J.]. I'm back to where I started. I think I lived on Liberty Road in Englewood, N.J. I finally came around to living in New Brunswick.

GROTH: I see. So you didn't notice any stylistic differences between Feldstein and Mendelson?

ELDER: I knew that Al was sort of slacking off. And I felt that the job was too great to do that. You have to hold onto the reins and get things organized.

GROTH: Since you were such a chameleon doing all the satirical stuff —

ELDER: That's a good word.

GROTH: — I'm curious to know what you think is the most purely Elder-esque strip you did during that period.

ELDER: That's very hard because there was so much involved in every story and I want to... it's like asking which was my favorite. I guess the ones that were most me were the ones where I had the most freedom. Harvey gave me that freedom on every strip, he gave me a good layout to follow and then just let me go and I liked that. There were almost no changes and I just got to be me on every story. I think all the ones I did with Harvey allowed me to shine through because I didn't have to work on the layout also, I could just start in with the jokes, the gags, all my funnies. With Al, I had to do a lot of extra work because I had to first tighten up the layouts before I could start to do my stuff, so it was different and also a very long time ago. I liked doing the Marx Brothers, "The Night at the Castle," where Groucho is walking toward the beautiful maid [from Humbug]. That was a lot of hard work, but I enjoyed it. Because especially if I do the Marx Brothers it's because of the fact that Bill Gaines always thought I was the Marx Brothers in cartoon form. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn't. But I certainly enjoyed them. You could get away with murder portraying the Marx Brothers. Everything they did was acceptable, because they were loony to begin with.

GROTH: Speaking of the Marx Brothers, were you aware of how much sexuality was in your strips, which was unusual for the time? I mean, there was an undercurrent of sexuality throughout a lot of your satiric work.

ELDER: Well, the same thing applied to the Marx Brothers. You always found Harpo chasing the women.

GROTH: That's why it occurred to me.

ELDER: In fact, that one picture they made, Monkey Business, they're on board a ship and he chases this woman up and down the stairs. And he continues to chase her all over the place.

GROTH: And then when he got distracted with another woman, he just turned from the first woman he was chasing and started chasing the second...

ELDER: And then there's a very buxom, sexy gal. He brings her some ice and stuff out of college, in the football team. He brings in the ice and they all jump on this girl and hug the hell out of her. Chico, Harpo and Groucho — they all jump on this girl. And they start ogling her every time they see her. Or make an innuendo type of gag.

GROTH: You had to draw these sexy girls, and we're talking about the 1950s. Were you aware that this sort of content was a little outré by the standards of comics at the time?

ELDER: Yes, I was. In fact, I figured out, what makes for humor? At least, American humor, because if you took this to China, they wouldn't know what you were talking about. Humor depends on the neighborhood it's born in. It was typically American to ogle these women because of the Hollywood movies. There was always a sense of sexuality or sensuality in all of the movies I've seen. But then you have all of these beautiful movie queens. Marilyn Monroe is the first one I think of. I was wild about her, too. She had something that no other sweetheart had. I used to call them sweethearts. Betty Grable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. You always had these sex queens.

GROTH: You were there at the end of Kurtzman's run on Mad. At that point you were pretty close with Harvey, I assume?

ELDER: Yeah. We were good friends to begin with besides being collaborators.

GROTH: My understanding is that Harvey was getting frustrated working for Gaines and that he demanded 51 percent of Mad.

ELDER: Yeah. I thought that was kind of strange.

GROTH: And Gaines refused to give it to him but he did offer to give him some percentage, I think it was 10 percent.

ELDER: Oh, yeah.

GROTH: And Harvey refused it. I'm wondering how much in the loop you were about these negotiations and if you conferred with Harvey, if Harvey sought your advice.

ELDER: Well, what I'm about to tell you, you're the second guy I've spoken about this with. That's the wrong way to put it, but anyway. I spoke to someone else about that, and I thought I made a mistake, but I don't think that I did make a mistake. I know he's not here to defend himself, so I don't have to be as careful. I'm not trying to be cowardly about it or be a first-class villain, but the fact remains I was involved indirectly, not directly. I figured he was leaving because something happened. I didn't know why he was leaving. If there was a gap in our means of working together, I'd like to know about it and be prepared about it. But I thought he moved too fast.

GROTH: Harvey?

ELDER: He might have moved a little better a couple of years from that particular period. But he moved too fast and he wanted too much. I think that was a mistake. Harvey deserved a lot of credit, but that's no way to seek it.