A Will Elder Documentary

June 18th, 2010 | Posted in MAD Magazine

According to this article on NorthJersey.com, a new documentary on the career of the late, great Will Elder screened at the 2010 Toronto Jewish Film Festival back in April to a “pleasantly surprising” turnout.

“The Mad Playboy of Art” takes a look inside the life and career of Will Elder, one of the principal founding artists for MAD Magazine and long time collaborator with Harvey Kurtzman. The film is being made by Elder’s son-in-law Gary VandenBergh.

From the article:

VandenBergh said that Elder was an artist who set the tone for the visual perspective role at Mad Magazine, a bi-monthly satirical magazine, which began as a comic book. The director said that Elder deserves credit for the magazine’s visual style.

Elder became one of the most influential artists at the magazine and spurred other irreverent magazines and humor featured on “Saturday Night Live,” National Lampoon and “The Onion.”

As huge a fan as I am of Will Elder, it’s a stretch to say Elder alone deserves credit for the magazine’s visual style. While his “chicken fat” technique is one that continues to this day to be a mainstay of MAD art (it’s something I always love to include in my work), I think the visual style of the magazine was as equally set by artists like Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee, Don Martin and George Woodbridge as it was by Elder. Also, Elder was gone with Kurtzman by 1957 and appeared in only 44 total issues while the continued contributions of the previously names artists and many others over hundreds of more issues shaped the evolving MAD into the magazine that peaked in the 1970’s with over 2 million copies per issue sold.

That said, no doubt Elder’s sadly short run in MAD was very influential on the magazine’s future, and his continuing work like “Little Annie Fannie” in Playboy continued to delight and influence cartoonists and illustrators for 30 plus years. A documentary on his career will be at the top of my “must see” list.

VandenBergh says the film screened in Toronto was unfinished, and he needs funding to complete the documentary. Hopefully the exposure he got at the film festival will get him the money he needs to finish and distribute the film.


  1. Anton Emdin says:

    Ooh… I sure hope he finishes the film. What I love about Elder is that he could draw in so many styles (and pull them off beautifully) while still retaining his feel and humour.

  2. Mark says:

    “chicken fat” technique? Could you please go into some more detail about this Tom?

  3. alit says:

    Why did you delete my comment?

    • Tom says:

      Sorry, but I did not approve your comment because your comment was inappropriate. It had nothing to do with this post or a discussion about Will Elder’s documentary. It was a link to (presumably) a piece of your artwork asking me if I thought it was good. If you’d like me to look at or comment on some of your art, please e-mail me privately. Click the mailbox icon on the upper left of ant page on my website for an e-mail link. Please keep in mind I don’t have time to critique every single piece of art someone sends me… That would be a fulltime job.

  4. David Lubin says:

    Tom, I empathize with Mark. Can you ‘splain the “chicken fat” technique?

    • Tom says:

      This was Elder’s term for his habit of cramming every available space in a panel and page with sight gags and other jokes. Signs, background elements, cameos, non-sequitors… he would fill his panels with many layers of humor. In an Elder article you would have to read through it at least twice and scour the panels from edge to edge to be certain you’d found all the extra jokes and gags, and then you could be sure you probably missed a few.

      From Wikipedia: The term “chicken fat” is from a reference to soup preparation. As Elder told an interviewer, “The term just came out of what we both [Kurtzman and Elder] knew were the parts of the strip that gave it more flavor but did very little to advance the storyline. That’s what Chicken Fat does…it advances the flavor of the soup and, as we all know now, too much chicken fat will kill you!”

  5. alit says:

    It is true I’m sorry. I did not know. This onwards 🙂

  6. Jack G. says:

    I think Elder must have got the Chicken Fat idea from Basil Wolverton.
    You can see that kind of thing here.

    Basil Wolverton

    • gary v says:

      Will Elder’s Chicken Fat style was his own. For as long as I knew Will and through our many discussions of his inspirations, Basil Wolverton never came up. The Marx Brothers, Smokey Stover were more his influences than Wolverton…We have, by the way, changed the name of the Documentary to Chicken Fat – you now have an exclusive!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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