Saturday, May 17, 2008
  I was so much Elder (1921-2008) then; I'm younger than that now.

Mad pages ©2008 EC Publications.

Will Elder, one of the great funnymen of the 20th Century, died on Thursday. He could draw anything and make it funny. He took whatever Harvey Kurtzman came up with and carried it one step further.

How influential was Will Elder? Even film directors took a cue from him. In Louis Malle's Zazie dans le métro (1960) one scene is an Elder-style situation translated to live-action comedy with background action upstaging the foreground. Psychology Today once ran an illustration homage to Elder's memorable "Mole!" (Mad #2). In the 1950s, when other comic book publishers attempted to duplicate the success of Mad by spewing forth such titles as Wild, Crazy, Eh! and Madhouse, they focused on Elder's panels and had their cartoonists do chaotic backgrounds filled with silly signs and bad puns. But that only made it clear that they did not see funny the way Elder did.

"Restaurant!" is from Mad #16 (October 1954). When you click on the splash panel to expand it to immense size, amazing details are revealed, and you can also see that he did not cheat. Almost every character has an extreme action or gag. A dog and an open mouth hint at the RCA Victor trademark. Two characters imitate the Kilroy nose pose, famed from WWII when the UK's Chad character was joined with the signature of Quincy, Massachusetts shipyard inspector J.J. Kilroy. Stanley Link's Ching Chow stands framed in the doorway (not unlike being framed by panel borders). On the wall is a giant ad for Bufferin. A woman wears a teapot on her head. The fan blows a man's false teeth from his mouth. Almost like a puzzle, the guy in the pink shirt conceals the scissors he used to clip the girl's hair ribbon to make his tie. The reader becomes aware of panels within panels and stories within stories.

To Elder it was only logical that Terry Lee and Pat Ryan from Terry and the Pirates would go to a Chinese restaurant in the comic book world. And in a real life restaurant, Elder once stood at the cash register and pulled lettuce from his wallet. What those other comic book publishers failed to understand was that Elder viewed life itself as the true theater of the absurd.

Curiously, most of the obits and tributes over the past few days make little or no mention of the superb work the team of Elder and John Severin did in the early 1950s with Severin penciling and Elder inking on stories for EC's two war comics (Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales) and EC's science fiction, notably on two Ray Bradbury stories, "The Million Year Picnic" (Weird Fantasy 21, September 1953) and "King of the Grey Spaces" (Weird Fantasy 19, May 1953).

For more on Elder, take a look at Eddie Hunter's Chicken Fat, a blog named after one of Elder's familiar running gags. For more on Elder's influence, see the journal of William Stout and the Vancouver Art Gallery. The New York Times carried his obituary, "Will Elder, Cartoonist of Satiric Gifts and Overpopulated Scenes, Dies at 86," by William Grimes on Sunday.

Elder influence on Firesign Theatre album cover illustration by William Stout.

In Gary Vandenbergh's film, Will Elder: The Mad Playboy
of Art
(2002), Kurtzman and Elder discuss their working methods.

On last page of "The Raven" (Mad 9), note the panel five lettering error which ignored the balloon stem, prompting an additional error of stem covered by color.

For previous Kurtzman/Elder in Potrzebie go here.
For Gary Groth's interview with Elder, go here.

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Great insight on Elder! and thanks!
I always assumed that Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker took inspiration from Bill Elder for the densely packed humor of their film AIRPLANE! and the POLICE SQUAD TV series.

By the way, did you notice Stanley Link's Ching Chow standing in the doorway of the restaurant?


Amazing site. There's a great exhibit up at the Vancouver Art Gallery over the summer which is all about comics and art and a great place for people to see Elder's influence. http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/the_exhibitions/exhibit_krazy.html

Thanks for input. I've added your info to the Elder article.

I learned of Elder's passing through your blog. He'll be very missed and never replaced. I agree and I'm shocked that his inking team with Severin isn't mentioned more by the obits because I personally see their collaboration as one of the very best of the ink/pencil variety. Ever.

-Mike Hunchback

Yes, they really brought Bradbury to life.

Thanks for this appreciation. Here's mine:

Bhob, thanks so much for this terrific article about Will Elder. His influence on the visual vocabulary of our culture is pervasive.

We'll miss him.
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