Will Elder (1921-2008)

Will Elder, whose “chicken fat” style of art defined the look and attitude of MAD magazine, died yesterday at age 86.

Elder’s style was gloriously and vibrantly cartoony, and always crammed with wacky details and winking side jokes that made every panel worth a second, third, or tenth look. Plus, he could ape almost any other style — his parodies of cartoons like Archie or Mickey Mouse were dead-on — without losing his unique sense of self. Whether he was doing Disney or Bushmiller, or lampooning Dragnet (“How’s your Mom, Ed?”) or Sherlock Holmes, there was never any doubt whose pencil it was.

Part of what made Elder so much fun was that nothing was sacred. Everything was fair game. That got Elder – and MAD – in trouble every once in a while, though often for baffling reasons. (His parody of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” for example, earned the wrath of conservative critics for daring to lampoon an American institution.) David Hajdu does a nice job with Elder in his book The Ten-Cent Plague, and I’ll quote a bit of it here:

The sound of his name to those who knew him well, such as his former schoolmates and fellow cartoonists, Al Jaffee (who met Elder in eighth grade, when they were both being tested for admission to the High School of Music and Art), John Severin, and David Gantz, was a cue for grin and a round of ‘Crazy Willy’ stories: the time, when he was a kid in the Bronx, when Elder took discarded pieces of beef carcasses from a meat-processing plant, arranged them in old clothes on the railroad tracks, and started screaming that his friend Moishe had been killed; or the time, when he was in high school, that he smeared chalk dust on his face and pretended to be hanging in the coat closet; or, when he went to lunch with some friends from EC [Comics] and tried to pay the cashier with leaves of lettuce that he had in his wallet. His humor was almost aggressively madcap, startling, often dark, and silly.

Thanks for everything, Will. The world is a little less silly today, darn it.

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