My dear friend and mentor, Will Elder, a founding artist of MAD Magazine, has died at the age of 86.
Willy’s kindness and decency as a human being was one of the things that gave me hope for our species.
Willy’s work had a profound affect upon me as an artist. He had the rare ability to make funny drawings. That is, his images could provoke out loud laughter even if you did not understand or know their context as related to a story. For examples, pick up some of the MAD reprints and peruse his drawings of Bumble and the Boss or Ramon and the Heap. Then, just try not to laugh.
Willy was also a very underrated writer. Because of his long association with his best buddy Harvey Kurtzman (who became fast friends at Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art), Willy’s writing was invariably overshadowed by Harvey’s brilliance. Although Harvey wrote all of Willy’s stories for MAD, Willy wrote his own stories for E. C.’s sister comic PANIC. I think seeing the opening panel to Willy’s “Captain Izzy and Washt Upps” in PANIC did damage to my creative psyche at some sort of genetic level. It depicts the two comic character stars humbly working on the assembly line of a factory. Their job? One guy bends straight wires into bobby pins and puts them back on the conveyor belt. His partner then bends them back to being straight wires! CRAZY! And get this dialogue from that panel: “I tell you, Washt, this job is getting me down!” Who could think of a situation that loony but the great Willy Elder?
Will Elder was the founder of what Harvey Kurtzman referred to as “The Chicken Fat School of Art.” In addition to telling each main funny story in MAD, Elder thoroughly peppered his panels with what Harvey called “eyeball kicks” — dozens of little visual jokes, gags and humorous signs, some corny, most subtly hilarious. This set a template for the other MAD artists and even eventually influenced the later movie poster art of E. C. alumni Jack Davis and Frank Frazetta, as well as the Firesign Theatre comedy record albums and the Zucker brothers films (such as AIRPLANE!).
In 1972 I drew an ode to the MAD work of Kurtzman, Elder and Wally Wood, called “Motorpsycho!”, when I was working for CYCLE-Toons. Upon its publication I sent a copy to Harvey Kurtzman. To my astonishment I received a letter back from Harvey asking if I would join him and Willy as an assistant on PLAYBOY’s “Little Annie Fanny”.
They flew me out on my first trip to New York. I spent most of my time on the strip working next to Willy in his studio. By 1972, Willy was no longer the practical joking lunatic of his MAD days (MAD‘s publisher, Bill Gaines, once described Elder as “our only contributor who lived a life as crazy as our magazine”). He had grown very thoughtful, kind and philosophical. He treated me like a son, giving me gentle guidance and sharing the many tricks of the trade he had discovered over his long career. Willy was extremely patient with me; probably much more patient with me than I deserved. What he must have thought of this long haired bundle of testosterone, enthusiasm and energy! I tried to hit on his beautiful daughter Nancy, I attempted to add to “Annie” more than what my budding talents were capable of and did what he and Harvey thought were crazy things like driving directly to Harlem my first day in New York.
But as I said, Willy was patient — and wise. His son, Marty, was a teenager at the time. Willy asked me to counsel Marty on drug use, knowing that such advice might be listened to more carefully coming from a peer than from a father. Willy intuitively sensed or recognized the good that was at my core and knew I would say the right things to his son.
I was nuts about Elder’s work and expressed such to Willy. He proudly opened his flat files and showed me pages and pages of his originals. I was knocked out by the methodical precision of his HELP! magazine Goodman Beaver art (Goodman was the precursor to Annie). I told Willy my favorite story and character of his, though, was that insanely funny Melvin Mole tale in MAD #2.
I was only on “Annie” for a couple of stories. Harvey told me I was far too creative for the job (they didn’t really want creativity in that assisting job; I don’t think I was saving them much time, either). He expected great things from me in the future, though. Harvey and I remained the best of friends. We never failed to get together when I was in New York or when he was visiting Los Angeles. Willy was much more of a homebody, though. He was not easily accessible out there in New Jersey and, as a result, we didn’t see each other again for decades.
Two weeks after I had arrived back home from New York to my apartment in Hollywood, a package arrived. I opened it. Inside was a gift from Willy: he had painted a beautiful full figure portrait of Melvin Mole for me.
Many years later and not too long ago, Comic-Con International was convinced to gather up all of the original remaining E. C. comic artists and fly them out as guests. I was assigned the honor of escorting Willy during the con’s awards banquet. By then he had become very frail. When he needed to walk, I took his arm, gently supporting him. At one point he stopped, looked up at me and said, “Bill; now you’re my dad!”
Sons and fathers often don’t say the things to each other that they should. Although Willy was extremely happy to be inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame, he told me the greatest moment of his San Diego trip was when I related to him something his son had told me back in 1972.
Remember when I had that drug talk with Willy’s son? During that conversation Marty and I also talked about Willy. At the banquet I told Willy what Marty had expressed to me during our talk — something he had never directly told his father. Marty said, “I think my dad is the best artist in the whole world.”
So here’s to “the best artist in the whole world” — Willy Elder. The genius in your art will live forever, available as a gift of entertainment and inspiration to all who seek it.
Your friend, colleague, son and father,