Will Elder, 86; Zany Cartoonist for Mad and Playboy

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

Will Elder, 86, an early cartoonist for Mad magazine who spent 25 years illustrating Playboy's "Little Annie Fanny" strip, which parodied the magazine's fetish for buxom women, died May 15 at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, N.J. He had Parkinson's disease.

Started in 1952, Mad magazine became a popular antidote to conformity and good taste. With humor ranging from wry to blasphemous, Mad was credited with inspiring generations of satirists, including the Zucker Brothers, creators of the parody "Airplane!" and cartoonist Robert Crumb. It also paved the way for television programs such as "Saturday Night Live."

William Gaines, the first publisher of Mad, once described Mr. Elder as "our only contributor who lived a life as crazy as our magazine."

He was a graduate of Manhattan's High School of Music and Art and helped make maps for the Normandy invasion during World War II. But more important, he had a well-established reputation as an inspired joker.

Among the pranks that earned the young Mr. Elder renown: putting clothes on cattle carcasses from a meat-processing factory, placing them at railroad crossings and screaming to horrified passersby that his friend "Moshe" had been killed.

Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman, a high school classmate of the artist, had tapped Mr. Elder as one of the first staff illustrators. Among a certain set, Mr. Elder became a household name along with Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker and Don Martin.

Mr. Elder's contributions to the comic books included a memorable series of panels featuring the hapless prisoner Melvin Mole. He uses a spoon, a toothpick and finally a nasal hair ("Dig! Dig!") before his inevitable recapture.

Critic J. Hoberman of the Village Voice praised Mr. Elder as the "master of vulgar modernism" and pointed to the artist's mind-bending sight gags that ignored panel boundaries and other rules of the craft.

Mr. Elder skewered everything from comics such as Archie (renamed "Starchie") to Norman Rockwell's depictions of a cheery hearth.

Visual puns were another specialty, such as the red, white and blue beanie he placed atop Wonder Woman's costume in a parody. Mr. Elder called such touches "chicken fat art," explaining, "It's the part of the chicken soup that's bad for you, yet gives the soup its delicious flavor."

The son of Polish immigrants, Wolf William Eisenberg was born Sept. 22, 1921, in Bronx, N.Y.

Over the radio, he grew up admiring the Jewish humor of Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor and George Burns and Gracie Allen. He used humor to disarm neighborhood bullies and command attention as the youngest of five children.

Relatives nicknamed him "Meshugganah Villy," Yiddish for "Crazy Willy." He once blackened the soles of his father's shoes and used a broomstick to "walk" them across the ceiling of his home. Another time, he thwarted an annoying visitor by painting a realistic door and fastening a doorknob, and the woman thrashed away helplessly at the knob.

During World War II, Mr. Elder served in the Army in Europe drawing posters warning of venereal disease before helping draft contour maps of the beaches at Normandy.

Afterward, he and Kurtzman ran an art studio together before they connected with Gaines, who ran the comic book publishing house EC Comics.

The Elder-Kurtzman team collaborated on horror, adventure and war comics before persuading Gaines to underwrite Mad, initially launched to send up superhero comics.

In 1956, Kurtzman left Mad in a financial dispute with Gaines and Mr. Elder followed him to the short-lived magazine, Trump, published by Hugh Hefner. The Elder-Kurtzman partnership continued at Humbug and Help! magazines before Hefner hired them in 1962 to create what became "Little Annie Fanny."

The blonde, cantilevered heroine was a staple of the magazine until 1988. With input by Hefner, Kurtzman contributed the scripts, and Mr. Elder did the drawings. Other artists, including Jaffee, helped on the strip.

Jaffee said Mr. Elder had a serious side that included a passion for poetry, classical music and the old masters. He was said to have legally changed his name to Elder in 1949, because of his admiration for Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the 16th-century Dutch Renaissance painter and printmaker.

He was the subject of a biography, "Will Elder: the Mad Playboy of Art" (2003).

His wife, Jean Strashun Elder, whom he married in 1948, died in 2005.

Survivors include two children, Nancy VandenBergh of Cresskill, N.J., and Martin Elder of the Bronx; a brother; and two grandchildren.

In his living room, Mr. Elder proudly hung a portrait of his young son, but with a difference. He painted the boy in gloomy colors -- blues, greens, purples -- and made it clear from two red dots on the neck that he had been bitten by a vampire.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company