Cartoonist at launch of Mad magazine

Times Staff Writer

Will Elder, one of the original Mad magazine cartoonist-illustrators who helped set the irreverent visual style of the legendary satirical publication in the 1950s and later co-created the long-running “Little Annie Fanny” color cartoon strip in Playboy magazine, has died. He was 86.

Elder died of Parkinson’s disease Thursday in a nursing home in Rockleigh, N.J., said his son-in-law, Gary VandenBergh.

“His artistic ability was unparalleled, but it was the sense of humor that he brought to it that really set him apart,” Hugh Hefner, Playboy publisher and a fan of Elder’s work since “the early days of Mad,” told The Times on Friday. “He was a zany and a lovable one.”

A Bronx-born World War II veteran, Elder was among a handful of cartoonists assembled in 1952 to launch Mad, which was founded by editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William M. Gaines.


Originally a comic book that spoofed other comic books, Mad in 1955 became a magazine satirizing pop culture and American life.

“Will Elder was absolutely brilliant,” Al Jaffee, a writer-cartoonist for Mad since 1958, told The Times on Friday. “He was the star from the beginning; he had a feel for the kind of satire that eventually spread everywhere.”

Mad editor John Ficarra considers Elder to be “one of the funniest artists to ever work for Mad.”

“He really brought a fresh approach to satiric comic illustration,” said Ficarra, who worked with Elder in the ‘80s when the team of Elder and Kurtzman returned to Mad after they both left in 1956.

At Mad, Elder was known for his flawless draftsmanship and his flair for mimicking the visual styles of other comic book artists and drawing ad parodies with photographic precision.

But his trademark was the throwaway sight gags that he inserted into the cartoon panels: visual minutiae that he jokingly called “chicken fat.”

During Elder’s and Kurtzman’s years at Mad in the ‘50s, Ficarra said, Kurtzman would write the stories and do rough pencil-sketches, which Elder would illustrate.

Ficarra said Kurtzman “was known for doing these elaborate layouts, where he’d pencil in what he wanted drawn in every frame and give that to Willie.

“If you think of these panels as sort of a bare Christmas tree, Willie would put on some ornaments, some balls, some tinsel. Then he’d start putting on some things you might not expect to see on a Christmas tree -- a bowling ball, an old sneaker, a frozen TV dinner -- so at the end, these panels would be jam-packed with visuals that were sort of incongruous to what was going on, but it really rewarded readers who paid attention.

“Frequently, I’ve heard from people who say, ‘You really couldn’t read one of Willie’s stories in one sitting.’ You had to go back and reread it several times because you always seemed to miss things.”

While at Mad in the ‘50s, Ficarra said, Elder “did the illustrations for a take-off on Mickey Mouse called Mickey Rodent. He did Starchie instead of Archie. He did Superduperman, which is a real classic. For the people who grew up with Mad at this time period and even afterward, there is real affection for Willie and his artwork.”

Which was, he said, “very subversive.”

“He would do things like in the Superduperman parody, instead of the S shield he had a Good Housekeeping seal. And in the next panel he changed it to something else and then something else. There was constant playing with the reader.”

Ficarra described Elder as being “extremely personable,” with “a very sharp wit.” He also had a reputation as a prankster.

In school, he once whitened his face with chalk dust and shocked his teacher and fellow students by hanging from a cloakroom hook.

While out to lunch with his comic book colleagues, he attempted to pay the cashier with leaves of lettuce that he had stuck in his wallet.

And he once sent his wife a valentine to which he attached the heart of a chicken with an arrow through it.

Jaffee, who met Elder in junior high school in the Bronx, said his friend had something of a “split personality.”

“On the one hand, he was a very serious family-oriented kind of guy,” he said. “But then he could switch over to this other personality, which was antic, frantic and funny.”

The “serious and funny side” of Elder also influenced his painting, said Jaffee, recalling a portrait Elder once painted of his son.

“It was a beautiful painting,” he said. “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.”

Elder was born Wolf William Eisenberg on Sept. 22, 1921. He attended New York’s High School of Music & Art, where he met Kurtzman. He launched his career after serving in the Army during World War II.

While working for Mad in the ‘50s, he also drew for the satirical comic Panic. After he and Kurtzman left Mad in 1956, he worked for a series of humor magazines, Humbug, Help! and Hefner’s short-lived Trump.

Kurtzman and Elder’s “Little Annie Fanny,” a cartoon parody of American life featuring a big-busted blond that Elder painted in a three-dimensional style, ran in Playboy from 1962 to 1988.

“There were occasions when we were working on deadline and the two of them would come and hole up in the Chicago mansion for long weekends to finish the work on ‘Little Annie Fanny,’ ” Hefner recalled. “It was a close collaborative relationship, and I loved the guys.”

Elder is survived by his daughter, Nancy VandenBergh; his son, Martin; his brother, Irving Eisenberg; and two grandchildren.