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Part II - A Conversation With Willy
By Dr. Keith E. Tubbs a.k.a. Mad Doctor
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Mad Doctor - Hello Will, First off I would like to thank you for taking the time to grant us this exclusive interview.
Will Elder - It is my pleasure . I am very flattered you contacted me.
MD- I can’t even begin to count the times your name has come up in a discussion at MadMumblings.com on our forum. I can honestly say without a doubt you have touched many peoples lives with your unique brand of art we all have become familiar with as the "Chicken Fat" style. Where did this term originate? Was there an artist that influenced you in the early days? How would you define "Chicken Fat" to the 3rd generation of comic readers and particularly Mad fans that would like to know how this style is unique in comparison with other styles?
Elder - I don't really recall where we first started referring to, what Harvey called, my "Chatchkies", extra gags, as Chicken Fat. But I think the term just came out of what we both knew were the parts of the strip that gave it more flavor but did very little to advance the storyline. That's what Chicken Fat does...it advances the flavor of the soup and, as we all know now, too much chicken fat will kill you! (Lauging)
MD- (laughs) I guess it could? .....What was it like making the transition from EC's "serious" comics to a funny book like Mad? Did you relish the challenge or was it a genuine labor?
Elder - It was just what I wanted and needed. My serious work at EC was what the genuine labor was. I was always funny and always took pride in being able to make people laugh whether through my art or my penchant for practicle jokes. I think that Harvey designed MAD with me in mind. MAD was me. I think he knew if he could harness my energy we would have a hit.
MD- Did you feel any affection for his parody subjects in the comic-book days (Disney, Archie, Wonder Woman, Popeye, Katzenjammer Kids, the comics in general) or did you share Harvey Kurtzman's glee in dismantling the conventions and cliches of these beloved American icons?
Elder - I think it is important to remember that Harvey and I were alter egos. We came from essentially the same backgrounds and had many of the same childhood experiences just in different parts of the same city. So dismantling conventions was what we both did very well.
MD - Yes, I have heard that you were quite the jokester in school.
Elder - Yes... I had always done that very publically in High School and Harvey was often in the audience watching me do my schtick in the cafeteria before I even knew him.I believe we had a natural affinity because we both were very iconoclastic. I always felt great affection for Harvey's humor and I think that he felt the same of mine. We grew on each other... like a fungus. (Laughs)
MD - I believe if I had to pick one of my favorite Mad comic issues with your work it would be issue #22 from April of 1955. I mean after all they devoted an entire issue just to you! How did you get the honor of having a whole comic book devoted to your work? I imagine you would be very flattered as Mad had never did a whole issue featuring one particular artists work? That issue really stands out in my mind because it really showed your wacky sense of humor.
Elder - Thank you Keith. Issue #22 became mine because Harvey and everyone else was hard at work on other EC projects. We were way behind and we had to stay on schedule and that was a real rush job. We did that in about five seconds, We were running behind and needed something fast so Harvey decided to devote an entire issue to me because I was considered the crazy guy. It was a big mess, but a lot of fun to put together and rather experimental, using painted-on photographs and phony ads and so forth. Kind of a test for the MAD Magazine that followed the comic book version.
MD - One might even speculate that you were truly a founding member of "The usual gang of Idiots"? Was this phrase used openly back then?
Elder - Actually, the phrase "Usual Gang of Idiots" was one of Harvey's I think, but it could have been Bill Gaines also, I don't know, it's been there since almost the very beginning, but I really don't recall the details...
MD - Where did the idea of Melvin Mole come from?
Elder - Me (laughing),. I always liked the idea of a mole digging his way out, getting caught and getting thrown back in...I had hoped it would become kind of a regular series
MD - Ok, lets get a little more into working with Harvey Kurtzman- I know this could be a whole separate interview in itself, because there are so many facets to this question...pre-MAD, MAD, Trump, Little Annie Fanny, the '80s MAD work...why did these gentleman's' hearts, minds and senses of humor fit so seamlessly for half a century?
Elder - As I mentioned, Harvey and I were alter-egos. We came from similar backgrounds and had similar experiences before we even met. I also had something that most other artists that Harvey worked with didn't. I could make Harvey laugh. That, I think, was a very important part of our relationship. We spent hours on Harvey's porch in Mt. Vernon working on Little Annie Fanny stories and we would throw out story ideas and laugh as we developed the stories. It was fun. And in MAD, Harvey never rejected any of my little extras in the story. I think he was much harder on the other artists because my stuff made him laugh. As soon as he laughed I think he forgot that it didn't belong in the story. (Laughter)
MD - Sounds like it was a great working relationship. Even though MAD Magazine was free from the restrictive Comics Code, did you enjoy more creative freedom at other publications (i.e. Trump, Playboy)?
Elder - I had the most freedom at MAD. Humbug was one of my favorites because it was created by the artists and owned by us as well. We were all supposed to keep our own original artwork which was very radical at the time. So I've been very lucky over the years to be able to work with great creative freedom. I had less freedom on Little Annie Fanny because were trying to fit into a more sophisticated format, which was very hard for me.
MD - Coming back with Harvey Kurtzman to MAD in 1985: Any trepidation about returning? Did Al Feldstein's absence help matters? Any friction with Bill Gaines or his allies within the MAD offices? What did he think of the "homecoming" in general?
Elder - The door was always open for me to return to MAD. Al called us often and always wanted us to come back. I got along with Bill Gaines right up until he passed away and he was always a big fan of my work after MAD, and he let me know it. So he was very welcoming when we returned.
MD - Did you follow MAD much after leaving for Trump? Do you pay much attention to MAD now?
Elder - I was always so immersed in my own work that I never really had time to follow too closely. I was always aware of other artists especially if I took an interest in their work. MAD has changed a great deal since the early days.
MD - Do you feel like "part of the Mad family still" or an outsider now a days?
Elder - I feel like the proud Grandpa of the family. It gives me a great sense of pride that the thing that we (Harvey, Jack Davis, Wally Wood and I) created has lasted so long and done so well and has drawn some very talented people to it over the years.
MD - I know there is a lot of your artwork floating around that perhaps dealers are making money off of your name. How do you feel about this? Do you still have any of your original drawings from the Mad days or has most of it snagged by greedy dealers?
Elder - In the early days an artist never had a chance of keeping his own originals. That's just the way it was, we were just happy to be working at our craft and earning enough to pay our bills. Bill Gaines always sent us a royalty check for the art that he would sell at auction and there was never any hard feelings about it, we were "work-for-hire" and we understood that.
MD - I would imagine you wish you still had your hands on some of it now though right?
Elder - Sure, I wish that I could have kept some of those originals and I certainly don't begrudge the art dealers, they have to make a living too.
MD- I have mixed feelings about buying some original art on places like E-bay. In particular when I see a seller offering something that was personally drawn for that person with no real intention to turn around and try and hawk it on a open auction to cash in on that artists generosity especially if the artist drew a picture for free as a personal memento or what not?
Elder - The one thing that did bother me was some of the fans that would send me hard-luck letters about how a piece of original art would make them a little happier and then a year later I would see the art listed at an auction.
MD - Exactly my point... It is just not right.
Elder - Yes, that always bugged me a little because I usually gave sketches and originals pretty freely and I didn't like feeling that people were trying to take advantage of me so they could make a buck off my generosity.
MD - Yeah that is not right at all. I do have a Litho print that you signed for Stabur back in the 80's featuring MAD cover #5 it hangs proudly in my home. Did you make much money by personally signing those litho’s for Stabur?
Elder - I made very little from that endeavor (laughs)
MD - Also there was one that depicts the kids and the grandparents feeding the household pets to a Venus Flytrap plant. Was that actually a Mad parody of say the "Saturday Evening Post? Never the less it is a great Norman Rockwell like painting with a very odd but hilarious twist.
Elder - Actually, I was very disappointed in the Stabur reproduction of my Rockwell parody, which is the one you refer to. You should see it in my book, Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art, it really looks like it's supposed to there. That was going to be the cover of Trump #3, which never went to press because Trump went under.
MD - The illustrations in your book are indeed fantastic! The other print which is from Mad shows everyone, including the family dog, drinking beer. I have that one framed along with the others. It is amazing to see the larger poster sized print and all the fine detail in comparison to how it appeared in Mad.
I can only imagine how very time consuming it was for you to actually sign a total of 1,500 prints counting them up all together for stabur?
Elder - (laughs) I signed every last one of those prints with my own hand. I didn't have the same machine that Rumsfeld uses to sign his letters.
MD - Ok fair enough Will, I am sure that I have bombed you with enough questions
for one afternoon. Is there anything else you would like to tell all your fans
that may be reading this interview?
MD - Will, how can we all as fans be of some help and really show our gratitude for all that you have done to inspire us? I mean it is one thing to give verbal praise to an artist we admire but is there something more that we can all do individually to honor you today?
Elder - I guess I would just encourage everyone to go to my website, www.willelder.net, we will be updating it periodically and offering posters for sale and even a copy of a short film that was shown at the ComicCon in San Diego in 2000. Thank you.
MD - Will it has been great! In closing I would again like to thank you for granting all of us at Mad Mumblings this wonderful interview. It was the intention of all the moderators to make the month January of 2005 officially Will Elder month. It is our late Christmas gift to all our members by providing this exclusive interview with you during the holidays. I know they will all really appreciate this for years to come. I wish you a long and happy life filled with joy knowing that you are loved by so many people. Have a wonderful holiday and God Bless you Will.
Will Elder - Thank you... thank you very much and Happy Holidays to you and all of your readers.
* Final Notes - This interview was conducted right before Christmas and was intended at one point to be published online before New Years; However, I took advantage of the added time over the holidays to properly transcribe and copy edit the interview down to a reasonable format. It is not hard to get carried away when given the opportunity to speak with whom, I consider a Mad legend. So many questions come to mind yet there is so little time to address them all. It really was a thrill having the chance to make contact with Will and organizing this whole event over a course of six weeks. I would like to personally thank Gary VandenBergh who was an instrumental force in making this whole interview possible as well his personal dedication and support to the entire Elder family. Also I would like to thank contributing writer, Adam Cooke ("Canucklehead") for his direct input throughout the interview process. Adam supplied many of the key questions I addressed Will during the interview. I believe he deserves props for the wonderful intro to this feature as well. To the Mad Mumblers, your comments regarding this feature are greatly appreciated. I am sure Will would love to hear some of the mumblers comments about this feature as well his effect in your life from reading Mad.
Mad Mumblings wishes to pay special tribute to Will Elder this month by providing you the readers a chance to express your own thoughts on his life long body of work in art and humor.
I encourage everyone to purchase Will Elder’s "The MAD Playboy of Art" as it is a remarkable book that covers Elder’s career in great detail. I will be providing updated reports from the Elder camp as new projects develop. I can say now that there is a follow up book in the makings right now and it will be a must have for your Mad library. More details on that later...
- In the April 1956 Issue # 27 Mad offered the first 5 x7 portrait of the "What, Me Worry?" kid for those readers that sent in only 15 cents ! The lucky buyers would receive the first rendition of the now famous portrait in B&W. The artist that did these first portraits in Mad was none other than Will Elder. Yes that’s right Kiddies, Willy was actually the first artist to draw this goofy grinned kid for Mad only a few months before Norman Mingo did he own rendition in color adding his own style in Issue #30. Thus, Alfred E. Neuman was born. The original Portrait’s that Will designed are very hard to find these days and worth lots and lots of money as it was only offered in a couple issues before the Mingo version replaced it.
Stay Tuned as we at Mad Mumblings will be providing more Willy Trivia the whole month of January.
Copyright © 2005 Dr. Keith E. Tubbs
Formated and published by Boris A. Zharekhin
of E.C. Publications Inc. unless otherwise noted.
Elder & Jaffee HS picture courtesy of Will Elder archives.
MAD Mumblings © 2005