Monday, May 19, 2008

Mad and Playboy Cartoonist Will Elder Passes On

Will Elder, one of the early cartoonists for Mad and the creator of the long running Playboy comic strip Little Annie Fanny, passed on Wednesday at the age of 86.

Will Elder was born Wolf William Eisenberg in the Bronx on September 22, 1921. While still in grade school he took to drawing caricatures. Alongside fellow future Mad Al Jaffe and Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman, he attended the High School of Music and Art. He studied at the National Academy of Design for only one year before he was draughted to serve in World War II. Eisenwerg served in with the 668th Topographical Engineers, where he was part of the team who made maps in preparation for the invasion of Normandy.

After World War II Wolf William Eisenberg changed his last name to "Elder." He joined with Charles Stern and fellow High School of Music and Art graduate Harvey Kurtzman to form the Charles William Harvey Studio. Operating between 1948 to 1951, the Charles William Harvey Studio provided comics for Prestwood Publications (Prize Comics), Timely, and other publishers. Among the talents who passed through the doors of the studio were Dave Berg, Jules Feiffer, Rene Goscinny, and Russ Heath. It was in 1950 that Elder found himself at EC Comics, inking the art of John Severin. Among the titles the two worked up on were Two Fisted Tales, Weird Fantasy, and Frontline Combat.

When Kurtzman founded Mad at EC in 1952 as a comic book which parodied other comic books, he brought Elder in as one of its founding artists. It was Elder who created many of the early classic parodies in Mad and its sister magazine Panic (which only ran from 1954 to 1956). In fact, it was a story in Panic that brought Elder his first real bout with controversy. The story in question was a parody of "The Night Before Christmas" in which Elder used visual puns (such as animals, including mice, hanging on meat hooks for the line "Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse..."). There was so much uproar over the story that Panic found itself banned in the state of Massachusetts.

In 1956 Harvey Kurtzman and Elder left Mad, not long after it made the transition from comic book to magazine. Together the two would work on three short lived magazines. The first, Trump, was published by Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame. Unfortunately the magazine would only last two issues, although it would not be the last time Elder worked for Hefner. Later that year Elder would again work for Kurtzman on Humbug, a black and white humour magazine about the size of a comic book. It would only last eleven issues. It was in 1960 that Elder joined Harvey Kurtzman on his new magazine Help!, published by James Warren (later famous for horror magazines such as Creepy and Vampirella). The magazine proved to be Kurtzman's most successful after he had left Mad, lasting until 1960. Together for the magazine, Kurtzman and Elder created Goodman Beaver, a wide eyed, overly innocent fellow who would wander into situations of a satirical nature. One of the stories was "Goodman Beaver Goes Playboy," in which Archie and his friends from Archie Comics visit the Playboy Mansion for a night of carousing, smoking, and sex, all presided over by a devilish figure resembling Hugh Hefner. Archie Comics was not amused. They promptly sued and won.

While Archie Comics was not amused, Hugh Hefner certainly was. A fan of both Will Elder and Goodman Beaver, he hired Elder to create a similar comic strip for Playboy. Little Annie Fanny was a wide eyed innocent like Goodman Beaver, although she was extremely well endowed and subject to losing her clothing...often. The comic strip would run in the pages of Playboy from 1952 to 1988.

Elder would later work in commercial illustration. When Kurtzman briefly returned to Mad in the Eighties, Elder would return as well.

There can be no doubt that Will Elder was one of the great comic artists of the Twentieth Century, particularly when it came to humour. His style often involved hidden jokes and sight gags in the background. This would not only leave a lasting impression on Mad, but would influence filmmakers from the Zucker Brothers to Louis Malle. Elder also had an eye for detail. His art, whether from EC Comics or Playboy, was always loving and fully crafted. Elder was also a great, artistic parodist. He could easily duplicate the styles of other comic book artists. His brutal satire of Archie in the early pages of Mad (yes, he nailed Archie and the gang even before that Goodman Beaver story) perfectly caught the look and feel of an Archie comic book. Elder was truly one of the great humour artists of the 20th century.


dennis said...

Dennis thinks he was great.

Jim Marquis said...

I used to love those Little Annie Fanny cartoons. Sexy and funny.

poppedculture said...

I'd love to see those Archie parodies - come on Mercurie, start breaking out the photos to go with your great research.

I recall the Little Annie Fanny strips from sneaking peaks at my dad's Playboys. I was really to young to get it.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Sadly, I've no copies of the Archie parodies. Vintage copies of Mad and Help are beyond my meagre expenses. I do have some old Playboys with Little Annie Fanny, but I am not sure that would be suitable for what I want to stay a fairly family friendly blog! (-:

Unknown said...

You might enjoy this Mr. Media podcast interview with cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who talks about the new collection of his comic strips from the Village Voice, getting his start with Will Eisner on The Spirit, his plays (Little Murders), his movies (Carnal Knowledge, Popeye), the Disney musical adaptation of The Man in the Ceiling, and his forthcoming memoirs.