Will Elder, one of the original MAD artists along with creator Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis and Al Jaffe, died yesterday at the age of 86. MAD made a huge impact on me from a young age, as it has done with most cartoonists, I’m sure, and Will Elder was a big part of making that impact happen. Like all of the original MAD artists, Elder was an amazing draftsman, who could seemingly do anything and everything, and although his style was not as distinctive as that of Kurtzman and Davis, his artisitic range was far beyond both of the latter artists. Elder’s satiric instincts were impeccable and he produced some of MAD’s best satires and parodies.
Below is more info about Will Elder as it appeared on the Comics Journal blog.
Recent Memories of Will
Will moved into a nursing home in September of 2005 after the love of his life, Jean, passed away. He had been battling Parkinson’s disease for a number of years and had stopped drawing late in ‘05. He was still a powerful source of uncontrolled laughter for his family and the nurses caring for him. He loved to watch old movies and the Yankees but was mostly concerned with the well-being of his family — Nancy, his daughter; her husband, me (Gary); and Will’s grandchildren Jesse and Lara; and Will’s son Martin. Will was known as a crazy artist who created some of the funniest cartooning of the twentieth century, but he was humble and quiet with his family — but also hysterically funny. He saw humor in almost everything and could diffuse a tense situation with a crack that would send the room into gales of laughter. There was a time recently when an old acquaintance wanted to come by and visit. We knew Will did not really want to see him but the person persisted and we relented. We told Will that this person might show up and he got very, very quiet. We asked, “Will? What are you doing?” He replied, “I’m praying.” “Praying?” we asked dubiously, because Will was not really a praying man. “Yes,” he replied, “Praying he doesn’t show up.” Needless to say we guffawed our way home that day.
A Few Personal Observations About my Father-in-Law
Willie just overdid everything naturally, in his work and in his life: In his work with “chicken fat” and in his personal life with love. He gave of himself in everyway you might imagine when it came to his family. He taught me how to install a hardwood floor. He showed my kids every Marx Brothers movie and every monster movie and every classic movie he knew. He was very musical. He played the mandolin when he was younger. He could dance but he would rarely do it seriously because he felt silly dancing. But even dancing as a comic you could see the raw talent of this guy. He was a natural engineer. He built extremely detailed model homes for a time. He finished his basement better than any contractor could ever imagine. He was gifted and he was something that we rarely see any more: he was humble. He always let others bask in the glory of his work without ever grabbing the spotlight for himself. Will was always: Selfless. Funny. Beautiful. Funny. Humble. Funny. Serious. Funny. Hard working. Funny. Talented. And funny.
Thanks to Will’s Fans
Will Elder has passed away. Many of you have written over the years to say what an influence his work was. You have showered him with loveand appreciation for the laughs he selflessly offered with no expectation of even the slightest reward. He did it because that is who he was — a selfless, giving human being with a wise, old, and hysterically funny soul. Many of you wrote and asked for an original and he always complied when he could. He gave you a signed original because he felt that if you took the time to write and express your love of his work then you certainly deserved, what he would call, a little sketch. I’ve seen what some of those little sketches go for on ebayand I would say that Willie always gavemore than he had to. He taught, he lived life to the fullest and he will be sorely missed by all who knew him as well as all those who knew him only through his work. He was almost as appreciative of your love of his work as you were and are of his work.
I just got off the phone with a cousin of ours and she said it better than I could ever hope to, she said, “Will and Jean were just pure love. No matter how much you gave them you never felt that you gave enough because you always got so much more in return.” She hit the nail on the head, or, as Willie would say, “AND HOW!” I could go on and on and on… but I think you get the idea.
On behalf of Will’s entire family THANK YOU.
– Gary VandenBergh
Still more on Elder: Let me first point you to Will Elder’s Wikipedia page, which has a rather good biography of the artist, as well as his Lambiek page and of course Elder’s homepage, where you can see a videoin which Harvey Kurtzman, Al Jaffee, Terry Gilliam and Jerry Garcia discuss Elder and his work. Scott Edelman has the official press release from DC Comics, current owners of Mad Magazine. Here are news reports from the New York Observer’s Matt Haber and French-language site ActuaBD (Google translation), and here are tributes and remembrances from Tom Richmond, Mark Evanier, Will Pfeifer and Evan Dorkin.
Incidentally: During Will Elder’s run on the ill-fated Help! Magazine — one of three such publications upon which Elder collaborated with Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman following the latter’s exodus from the magazine that made him famous — a story starring Kurtzman and Elder’s naïve leading man Goodman Beaver attracted the ire of Archie Comics for taking their signature characters and grafting Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” onto them. That story was “Goodman Goes Playboy,” and it resulted in waves of lawyers raining upon the strip’s creators, ultimately leading to Kurtzman and Elder handing the copyright to the story over to Archie and signing an agreement promising never to reproduce it again.
Some 40 years or so later, Gary Groth or someone close to him discovered that Archie had forgotten to renew the copyright to the strip, and that it had fallen into the public domain. Armed with a copy of Myron Fass’ underground zine Portzebie Illustrated, which contained a copy of the strip, we reproduced it in The Comics Journal #262 — and here it is again, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder’s “Goodman Goes Playboy,” available either as a PDF file (5.9MB) or, if you’d prefer to use your comics-reader software to read it, as a Zip file(also 5.9MB). Next Friday, we’ll present a copy of Gary Groth’s 2003 interview with Elder for TCJ #254 here on the website, so there’s more Elder on the way, don’t you worry.
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