William "Will" Elder (September 22, 1921 – May 15, 2008) was an American illustrator and comic book artist who worked in numerous areas of commercial art, but is best known for a zany cartoon style that helped launch Harvey Kurtzman's Mad comic book in 1952.
Mad publisher Bill Gaines approvingly called Elder "unquestionably the nuttiest guy who ever walked in the doors here." Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner said, "He was a zany, and a lovable one." Longtime Mad writer-cartoonist Al Jaffee called Elder "Absolutely brilliant... he was the star from the beginning. He had a feel for the kind of satire that eventually spread everywhere.
Elder was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2003.
Born Wolf William Eisenberg in the Bronx, New York, Elder was known in his teen years as "Wolfie." He served as a part of the 668th Topographical Engineers of the First Army, as part of the map-making team in advance of the invasion of Normandy. Sometime after returning home, he adopted the name "Will Elder."
When Kurtzman created Mad in 1952, Elder's wacky panels, filled with background gags, immediately attracted attention, first with "Ganefs!" in Mad's debut issue but especially in the second issue with "Mole!" The story depicted the successive efforts of prisoner Melvin Mole to tunnel away from the prison, first with a spoon, then with a toothpick and finally with a nostril hair. The wild exaggeration in this story left such a strong impression that it was often quoted ("Dig! Dig!") and even given a homage years later in a Psychology Today illustration. Elder's device of separate foreground and background actions was referenced by Louis Malle in his film Zazie dans le métro (1960).
According to Al Jaffee, "[Elder] could have been the world's greatest forger." Elder had a chameleon-like talent for mimicking the precise styles of other cartoonists, which made the satiric effect stronger. This ability was showcased in such pieces as "Mickey Rodent!" (a takeoff on Mickey Mouse and Disney in general), "Starchie!" (Archie Comics), "Bringing Back Father!" (George McManus' Bringing Up Father strip), "Gasoline Valley!" (Frank King's Gasoline Alley), and others. Such was Elder's ability that some of these parodies featured specific observations about the source materials' art styles, with Elder switching illustrative gears in midpanel (as in the sequence where "Mickey Rodent" and "Darnold Duck" literally locate the border between Disney cartooning and a more realistic drawing style. Both characters gain an additional finger on each hand as they cross over).
Elder had this to say about his mimickry:
Elder's rampant insertion of background gags set the tone for the comic book, quickly spreading into the panels of his fellow artists and Mad's imitators. Kurtzman described their collaborative process: "I would write a story, and as if by magic, all the empty spaces would get filled in by sub-jokes... he was an inexhaustible source." Monty Python's Terry Gilliam said of Elder, "I don't know if anybody's really worked at that level as intensely as Willy did. And it never seemed to distract from the center." 21st-century Mad cartoonist Evan Dorkin put it more simply: "If God is in the details, Will Elder channeled God.
Elder also drew for EC's other humor comic, Panic. His illustrated version of Clement Clarke Moore's "T'was the Night Before Christmas" included several irreverent images, including a "Just Divorced!" sign hanging on the back of [[Santa Claus]' sleigh. As a result, sales of Panic were banned in the state of Massachusetts. Elder included a self-caricature as he is spun around on Santa Claus' hip when Santa "filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk."
By all accounts, Elder's humor was compulsive. Al Jaffee described a portrait Elder once painted of his son: "It was a beautiful painting. It was all in very somber blues and black tones, very dark and brooding. After he finished it, he couldn't resist putting two little red dots on the kid's neck, as if a vampire had been there. He was always driven by the notion that something should be funny."
While the owners of Archie had taken offense, the owner of Playboy did not. Hugh Hefner, a fan of Kurtzman and "Goodman Beaver", commissioned Kurtzman and Elder to create a similar but more lavish strip for Playboy. The result was Little Annie Fanny. Like Goodman Beaver, Little Annie Fanny was a pure-of-heart innocent; unlike him, she was regularly divested of her clothing. The Annie Fanny series (107 stories in all) was irregularly published in the back of Playboy for more than a quarter of a century from October of 1962 through September of 1988. In 2001, Dark Horse Comics published the trade paperback collections Playboy's Little Annie Fanny, Volume 1" (ISBN 1-56971-519-X) and Playboy's Little Annie Fanny, Volume 2: 1970–1988'' (ISBN 1-56971-520-3).
Elder's advertising art, caricatures, cartoons, illustrations and stories were collected in the 392-page career retrospective, Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art (Fantagraphics, 2003; ISBN 1-56097-603-9). The follow-up book, Chicken Fat (also by Fantagraphics), was published in 2006 and compiles drawings, sketches, cartoons and doodles by Elder, most of which had never been published. A full Fantagraphics collection of "Humbug" is scheduled for publication in 2008.
In one form or another, from paperback to hardcover book to CD-ROM, Elder's seminal work for Mad has been continuously in print since 1954.
Elder died on May 14, 2008 from complications due to Parkinson's disease.