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Will Elder, one of the defining artists of the early MAD comic and long time collaborator of Harvey Kurtzman, passed away Thursday morning of unspecified causes at the age of 86. Elder had been ill for some time battling Parkinson’s disease and had difficulty signing his name let alone drawing, according to a communication I had recently with a friend of Will’s. It goes without saying that a true pioneer of cartooning left us yesterday.
All cartoonists get asked about who their major influences are, and among the usual suspects it sometimes surprises people when I name Will Elder near the top of my list. The reason for the surprise is that there is almost no similarity in my work and Elder’s… at least not on the surface. His influence for me was more about his humor and his approach to it. He used all manner of tools to create multiple layers of humor in everything he did. He could “sell the gag” like no other, making the written jokes funnier with his storytelling and imparting of the essential information in a way that rang clear with readers. He crammed his panels with multiple background gags and visual humor, some related to the story and some total non-sequiturs, that required readers to reread a story several times to make sure they didn’t miss any gags. That technique, coined the “Chicken Fat School of Art” (apparently so named because in the depression era chicken fat was added to many a dish to make it more filling) became a staple for MAD. More than anything, Elder just drew FUNNY. His drawings all by themselves could make you laugh. He had a way with expression, action and energy that created drawings that were just plain hilarious.
Elder was not only a master cartoonist but also a fantastic illustrator, and some of his best pieces for MAD were the parodies he did of famous magazine and other print ads that were expertly executed in various styles. He could draw anything, and it showed in the composition and layouts of even his more “simple” cartoons.
I often think of Elder’s work when I am laying out parodies or other cartoon art for MAD and other clients. I try to bring the multiple “Chicken Fat” layers of humor especially to my MAD work, but I also try and make my individual illustrations stand on their own in the funny department. If the image itself is funny, then it only makes the humor of the writing and story that much more effective. Elder wrote the book on that, and if I can one day be considered a pale shadow of his skill in cartooning, I will consider myself successful beyond measure.
There will be many, many tributes written on the internet in the comings days. I’d point you to this one by comic writer and blogger extraordinare Mark Evanier, who had the pleasure of interviewing Elder twice, I assume once being for his excellent book “MAD ART”. He also got to meet him in person, something I will never now be able to do. I’d also point you to this article from Journalista!, which has some great stories about Will as well as a lot of links to other tributes and sources of information about his life and work.
Coincidentally, my buddy Keelan Parham sent me this link a few days ago to an about to be released slipcase collection of the complete run of the rare HUMBUG Magazine, which features Elder and Kurtzman, as well as Jack Davis, Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth. A definite must for the bookcase.
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