Will Elder

Will Elder

MAD Magazine's Yiddishe kup

Will Elder circa 1972. From the Will Elder Estate

It’s a year today since we lost a cultural icon whose name is barely known. Like the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen, Will Elder brought a Yiddish sensibility to American culture. The long-time Englewood resident was the artist who put the mad in MAD Magazine. Along with the late Harvey Kurtzman, another Yiddishe kup, he brought distinctly Yiddish thought processes to the youth of America in the dull 1950s. Meshugge Villy, as he was called by his family growing up, was a seminal figure in infusing American culture with a healthy dose of Jewish humor. And he was my father-in-law.

Born Wolf William Eisenberg on Sept. 22, 1921, young Wolf commanded audiences with his wit, pranks, and gifts of comic artwork. When he didn’t get chosen for stickball games in his Bronx neighborhood, he kept score on a hand-made chalk scoreboard that he drew on the sidewalk. To cure the boredom of endless innings, Will, as he was eventually called, would draw chalk caricatures of the players. This disarmed the neighborhood toughs and kept Will safe from the bullies. “My chalk was mightier then their stick,” Will said.

Even as a boy, he always wanted to surprise people and make them laugh. Every Sunday, family would visit from different parts of the Bronx. Will wasn’t fond of one aunt, Tanta Ruchcha (which Will always said with the most guttural sounds he could muster). She was loud and boisterous and one of those old aunts who loved to pinch the cheeks of children really hard. This annoyed Will no end. He spent a lot of time trying to come up with a joke to play on her. He noticed that when her family visited, she would give Will her coat to put on the bed in his room. The hall that led to the room was very dark. This gave Will an idea. One Sunday, when Tanta Ruchcha started to give Will her coat, he pointed to a new closet at the end of the hall. Tanta Ruchcha looked pleased and walked down the hall to hang up her coat. She pulled on the doorknob, but the door appeared to be stuck. After a couple of minutes fighting with the doorknob, Tanta Ruchcha gave it all she had and pulled as hard as she could. The doorknob flew off, and Tanta Ruchcha landed on her tuchas. Will had painted a realistic-looking closet door on the wall and then affixed a doorknob to it. Looking down the dark hall from the foyer, Tanta Ruchcha fell for Will’s artistic joke – literally. (His family hadn’t noticed what he was up to because he was the youngest, by nine years, of three siblings, and everyone always seemed too busy to notice crazy little Velvele.)

One of Elder’s two books.

Will’s life-long friend and artist Al Jaffee (MAD’s fold-in genius) tells of meeting him in 1935, when they were candidates for the first class of the High School of Music & Art. “I was pulled out of a math class where I was fast asleep,” Jaffee recalls, “and shuffled off to an art room where there were about 50 kids sitting. We were handed a piece of paper and the teacher said simply, ‘Draw something.’ So I drew a picture of the town square that I had recently left in Lithuania; it was the only thing that came to mind. I looked over the shoulder of this little skinny kid sitting in front of me and he was drawing a masterpiece of this Russian peasant, and that was Willie doing the artwork. They collected our papers and then we waited. Eventually, they told everyone to leave except for ‘Jaffee and Eisenberg.’ It was almost like we were copying from each other. I think we both thought this could only mean trouble. Then we were ushered down to the principal’s office, which certainly meant punishment. We were standing in the office waiting to see the principal, and up until that point we hadn’t spoken a word to each other. Willie looks at me and he says, and I will never forget this as long as I live, in this thick Bronx accent, ‘Ya know, I tink der gonna send us ta aht school.'”

Will was known throughout his high school days for outlandish practical jokes and once said, “Every gag, joke, and crazy thing I did in my youth has gone into my work.” Up until MAD, Will was trying to make a living using his art in a variety of ways, from creating his own cartoon for Toytown Comics, “Rufus DeBree the Garbage Man,” to freelance work on the EC horror line of comics like “Tales From the Crypt,” “Weird Science,” and “Weird Fantasy.” “That really wasn’t my cup of tea,” Will said in a 1983 interview. Social and political pressure was mounting against horror comics, so the late Bill Gaines, EC’s publisher, and Kurtzman, editor of EC war comics, came up with the idea to do something funny. “After all,” Kurtzman said, “comic means funny, let’s do something funny.” All the while Will’s manic behavior from Music and Art (where Kurtzman was an admiring underclassman) must have been in the back of Kurtzman’s mind.

When MAD was launched in October of 1952, Will had found his calling, and became the central artist for the parody, gags, and maniacal mayhem that defined MAD’s visual style. His first story for MAD was “GANEFS!” Not many kids in America could fathom what “ganef” meant, and Will and Kurtzman offered no explanation. Kids understood that Will, Kurtzman, Jack Davis, and Wally Wood were offering an alternative view of society – and kids in America were ready. Yiddish had begun to seep into America’s mindset.

The Alfred E. Neuman character was later discovered by Kurtzman when he saw an ad for a painless dentist in Arizona with the line “What me worry?” underneath. The face struck him and he was captivated by the kid’s silly look. Will loved it too, and painted the first Alfred E. Neuman for MAD. Alfred has appeared in every issue since.

Will was also known for his tchachkies, all the mishegas he put into every panel of his art. Background gags filled the panels. A multitude of jokes and signs, plays on words, recurring sight gags – just gags upon gags upon gags – kept readers coming back to see if they had missed anything. The readership exploded. “I don’t think that anyone ever worked on that level before Willie,” commented film director Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame, “and it never seemed to distract from the center.” Will called all those background gags “chicken fat” (also the name of his second book). “It’s the part of the soup that’s bad for you but tastes so good,” he said. And what is chicken fat? Schmaltz! Look at any Elder panel and there will surely be a healthy dose of Yiddish sensibility in there. In a panel of GANEFS!, a bad guy is seen reading a newspaper in Hebrew, at a time when most Americans could not identify the characters as Hebrew. In many of his later stories the turn of a visual gag in the background comes from a distinctly Yiddishe kup.

Elder’s first story for MAD was called “GANEFS!” although not many readers knew that the word meant “thieves.”

American kids didn’t know it but Will and Kurtzman were hitting them over the head with Jewish humor. This was the way they thought about the world, and America’s youth, ready to question established values and mores, ate it up.

Thanks to Bill Gaines, Kurtzman, Will, the aforementioned comedians, and a handful of others, American humor had been set down a path where Yiddish sensibilities were never very far from the surface. This sensibility is at the core of what followed: “Saturday Night Live,” “National Lampoon,” “Airplane,” and “Police Academy,” right up to “The Simpsons,” “Superbad,” and many of today’s youth-targeted comedies. Comedy in America owes much of its origins to this little center of kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn who came here from Eastern Europe with their families and their Yiddish worldview.

Will brought this perspective to new heights in MAD and PANIC for EC publications. Both Bill Gaines and Al Jaffee have referred to Will as “the Marx Brothers on paper.” Jaffee said that Will was “like an explosion on the page.” It took only one issue before PANIC was banned in Massachusetts because of Will’s irreverent take on Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem “The Night Before Christmas.” The only thing Will changed about the poem was the visuals, which he made dark and hilarious. Will’s brazen, classic Yiddish style could be found in all the humor magazines – like TRUMP, HUMBUG, and HELP! – of the 1950s. The Hugh Hefner-financed fiasco TRUMP was slick and high-browed, the thinking man’s MAD. It lasted only two issues but contained some beautiful art and satire. Will had done the cover art for issue No. 3, which was never published but remains a high point of his ability as an artist with a funny view of the world. The art was a parody of Norman Rockwell’s work that Will signed “Rockwill Elder.” It is a dead-ringer Rockwell painting, except for the subject: Grandma and Grandpa on a Sunday afternoon in the hothouse – feeding frogs and birds to carnivorous plants! Some have called this Elder’s masterpiece.

Who else but a Jewish kid from the Bronx could fearlessly take such bold aim at established cultural icons like Moore and Rockwell? Will couldn’t believe that people were getting upset by his work. He said later, “I didn’t think that anybody would take the stuff I was doing at the time seriously, but apparently there are people who read things into things that I never even really considered. I was just having fun with the subject matter.”

Al Jaffee said, “He could have been the world’s greatest forger. He just had such a great eye for color-matching and detail.” Will felt that while his ability to mimic was important it was not the whole story, “I’m not an imitator per se, but through imitation I found an avenue of expression. If you can make a copy that is almost perfect and then at the last minute make the viewer realize that it’s a fake, that in itself is surprisingly funny.”

Will set the bar very high for advertising parody at MAD, TRUMP, and HUMBUG, using a watercolor technique that was photographic in its quality. People today would be hard-pressed to achieve his exacting style without a computer. “Will did not use a camera or a computer, no, he used his lily white little hands.” said Jaffee. “If you were to measure the amount of paint on Willie’s brush,” he went on, “it would be 1 percent paint and 99 percent water.”

Will had hit his stride. He was parodying everything he saw, movies, comics, advertising, television, and all with the unique view of an outsider seeing hypocrisies of the world from a perspective that could only come from beyond the mainstream. “We weren’t mean,” Will said. “We did it with a sense of purpose. We were pointing out to the kids the inequalities and the falsehoods of things that they were being told were true. We weren’t making fun just for the sake of making fun, we were being iconoclasts. We were knocking things that took themselves too seriously, but we saw the reality and pointed it out.”

It was during Will’s work on a Candide-inspired innocent, Goodman Beaver, in HELP magazine, that Hugh Hefner approached Kurtzman with an offer. Kurtzman and Will were to create a female version of this Candide character and thus Little Annie Fanny was born. The story that attracted Hefner’s attention was called “Goodman Goes Playboy.” This story caught the ire of Archie comics since it used spitting-image parodies of the Archie gang who sell their souls to the devil (Hefner) and partake in a Roman style orgy. Hefner loved the satire even though he and Playboy were the real target of the parody. The vehicle of the satire, Archie Comics, took great exception to the tarnishing of their wholesome heroes and sued Kurtzman and Will. The story was recently published in “The Comics Journal” by Fantagraphics Books Inc., also Will’s publisher and distributor of his two books, “Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art” and “Chicken Fat, Drawings, Sketches, Cartoons and Doodles.” Fantagraphics Books also just released the complete HUMBUG reprint and has plans for a Goodman Beaver reprint as well.

With wife, Jean, 1986 Gary Vandenbergh

Once Will and Kurtzman came up with “Little Annie Fanny,” they tried to maintain their satirical edge. But Playboy wanted Annie’s clothes off in every strip so the satire was compromised. “Little Annie Fanny” was slicker, with less of the Elder Chicken Fat, but Will did bring his watercolor technique to levels never before seen in comics. He was more than a comic book artist – he was a true painterly artist, albeit an insanely funny one. The satire in “Little Annie Fanny” has received criticism for not having the sharpness and social relevance of their earlier work. But Will used his incredible attention to detail, color, and composition to make this the most polished comic ever created. Each panel was a small painting. He also added whatever chicken fat he could get away with. To Will, this was an opportunity to excel in his raison d’etre, painting, and not get too involved with the ongoing battles between two controlling story editors, additional cartoon editors, and others charged with getting the strip published.

The exacting caricatures of the celebrities of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the perfection of an unmatched watercolor technique, became the heart of the project for Will. “Annie” paid well, and Will had two kids to send to college plus all the financial demands of a suburban family lifestyle. It was a steady gig for Will and Kurtzman for 28 years, and this gave Will the time he needed to focus on his true love, fine art. Because of all the revisions and rewrites on “Annie,” this turned out to be significant amounts of time. Will had grown from Meshugge Villy to an accomplished serious artist. In a 1983 interview, Kurtzman said, “Will’s popularity in high school was achieved through Will the clown, and what happened was that Will doesn’t need the gimmicks anymore. He can stand on his own feet, he doesn’t have to play the clown role, his humor has gone into his work and into his brush and his pen.”

During this time, Jaffee visited Will’s family in Englewood and noticed a particularly interesting oil painting. Jaffee said, “It was a dark kind of eerie portrait of his son. Very lugubrious tones, purples and blues, nothing really warm in the tones and really kind of creepy. As I looked at it closer I noticed there were two warm spots on the neck. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at but then I realized that Will had painted Dracula’s fang marks on his son’s neck and I thought, ‘This guy can never be serious; here he has painted this beautiful portrait and he puts Dracula’s fangs on the neck!'” Will’s need to comically shock and surprise could not be repressed.

The clown vanished but was never far from the surface. He was funny every day with the ones he loved, not because he was trying to be funny, just because that’s who he was. Not a day went by in his later years that he didn’t make someone laugh or do a double take at a bit of insightful, wise humor that came out of his mouth. He was a naturally funny man. He was an artist who gave selflessly and expected nothing in return. He was humble and reserved. He knew what his contribution was, and he trusted that time and history would celebrate what he had done. He gave the world a unique view and way to laugh at the ridiculous and the serious and to question what didn’t make sense. He offered wisdom and insight from his pencil, pen, and brush. He made readers think through his distinctly Yiddish filter. He became a very learned man because he researched every drawing he did for accuracy and historical context. “He pays attention to details that most of us would slough off,” Jaffee concludes. He read, he shared his knowledge, and he made the world a better, funnier place by being in it.

Besides being very proud of his professional contributions, he was also proud of the fact that he was one of “The Secret Six” from World War II. These were the six mapmakers who were the only soldiers, besides the generals, who knew the exact location of the Normandy invasion. They were charged with making scale topographical maps of the invasion site and Will did it with the same pride and humility that he did everything throughout his life.

There was only one thing he loved more than his art and that was his family. His wife, Jeanie, was the love of his life. She was the perfect “straight man” to Will’s clowning. She was funny in her own right, and they were the perfect warm, wonderful comic team. His daughter, son, and grandchildren were the true lights of his life. He was always content when his family was close by. He spent much of his time in his later years sharing his wisdom, insight, and knowledge of comedy and cinema with his grandchildren. He made sure they appreciated the true masters of cinema and art and he did it with his unique joie de vivre. They don’t make them like Will Elder anymore, but luckily there are his books to reference and a documentary called – what else? – “Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art” is scheduled to be completed at the end of this year. Villy, ve miss you and thank you for your contribution from your meshugge little Yiddishe kup!

read more: