Will Elder was one of the greats. With Harvey Hurtzman, he defined the humor and design sense of MAD Magazine, Help!, Humbug, and co-created Little Annie Fanny with Kurtzman. Together, this team was perhaps the most potent and influential force in American satire, and certainly in American satirical comics, until R. Crumb came along. (Crumb, by the way, has openly acknowledged Kurtzman and Elder’s influence in shaping his own work.) Elder was capable of mimicking almost any cartooning style and infusing it with his own sense of slapstick, high level of detail, and gags. His panels are full to bursting with asides, obscure visual jokes, art parodies, and strange riffs. There are usually no fewer than five jokes in a single panel of his art.
As with any profligate artist, his work sometimes seems overstuffed. His visual approach reflected the kitchen-sink, anything-goes, working-class conditions of his native Bronx, and there wasn’t a gag–good or bad–that he wouldn’t try to cram into the background. For a fascinating look at how comics collaboration actually works, read the appendices for Dark Horse’s two collections of Little Annie Fanny. Kurtzman wrote and sketched it, Elder painted it, and you can see in Kurtzman’s notes that he’s constantly reining in Elder’s impulses and nixing Elder’s add-ons to the script. Elder loved laughs, sure, but he also loved yuks, and his worst work reflects more of the latter than the former.
Even at his most groan-inducing, however, Elder was never just a prolific hack. Little Annie Fanny, which satirized the culture promoted by the magazine in which it appeared (Playboy–it’s hard to tell if Hugh Hefner got the joke), is a work of astonishing loveliness. Painted in full-color by Elder, its lushness and rich detail make it a joy to read, and not just because Annie spends more time out of her clothes than in them. He deftly parodies everything from Pop Art to psychedelia to Abstract Expressionism, while maintaining a look that’s distinctly “cartoony” and easily readable. Even with a depth of field that’s more realistic and less flat than what typically appeared on the comics page, Elder’s style was as zippy and energetic as a Carl Barks comic or a Chuck Jones cartoon. In short, the level of realism and detail in his work didn’t hinder its readability. His work was breathtaking but only after you’d stepped back from laughing at it.
Elder brought that level of detail and invention to almost all of his comics and illustrations. As this retrospective volume proves, he was one of the most gifted draftsmen that comics has ever seen. I miss him already.
The New York Times, always late to the game, hasn’t gotten around to publishing an obituary yet, but other tributes are pouring in. Here is a reproduction of Elder’s cover of MAD #5 (June/July 1953) and a signature story from that issue. The Comics Journal reprints “Goodman Goes Playboy,” which spoofs the magazine and Archie, and got Kurtzman and Elder into legal trouble with the latter. (The duo would refine and sex up the naive Goodman Beaver character with their Little Annie Fanny.) Tom Spurgeon provides an informative, appreciative obituary.