Illustrated by Will Elder. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2017. 216pp, $29.99.

The Will Elder story is legendary in the history of comic art, but with the passage of generations, the legend is in danger of receding into a distant past of less-than-iconic popular art. Elder, like most of the brilliant artists who emerged within a temporarily booming comic book industry of the later 1940s, did not script his own work, or find himself a late life celebrity in graphic novels. Worse in some ways, in collaboration with his near-lifelong workmate Harvey Kurtzman, he turned from wildly creative satire to drawing “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy, over several decades, with blue pencil editor Hugh Hefner further limiting a limited protagonist-titillator. It was a living, with health benefits.

But Elder (born Wolf Elder Eisenberg, 1921) had genius days, or rather genius decades, and the millions of readers who have delved Mad Comics reprints in paperbacks endlessly reprinted since later 1950s have encountered the consistent, voluminous best of his work. As Mad founder and savant Kurtzman put it, Elder would get a free hand with the schmaltz method of strip completion: he could smear around as many details as came to mind while he was working furiously from scripts, very often Kurtzman’s scripts and sometimes outlined figures. Intermittently, these included Yiddish phrases, Lower East Side scenes and most poignantly, Elder’s own mother, caricatured for humor.

It is easy to get ahead of this story, because Kurtzman and Elder – they both went to the High School and Music and Art, a year apart, in the later 1930s, commuting by subway from the blue collar Bronx – had no idea of what a sensation they were to become. Both were instinctive artists and both were jokers, although Elder was about the most fanatical practical joker around. They both went to war and served as artists. Both came back with uncertain aspirations, and after some fumbling, together formed an unsuccessful comics studio with several friends.

And then, as legend goes, college boy William M. Gaines was swept up in the aftermath of his father’s sudden death in a boating accident. The elder Gaines, one of the founders of the comic book industry, left a middling company, Educational Comics, that Bill and his mother decided to keep going, how they did not know. Due substantially to Kurtzman and Albert Feldstein but also to Gaines’ shrewd instincts, the “EC” line emerged with a vitality that no one could have anticipated. The comic art itself exceeded existing standards, often by a dramatic margin. The stories produced across several genres had dramatically superior scriptwriting as well as art, sometimes (as in historical comics) reflecting scrupulous research of a kind otherwise unknown to the stereotype-throwing comics world. And then there was the political or quasi-political undertone, humane rather than outright radical but deeply suspicious of the rich and the powerful, the threat of contemporary repression, and at moments, militantly anti-racist.

The Million Year Picnic offers a treasure trove of Elder’s work outside the direct domain of Kurtzman’s scripts and editing, a considerable chunk of it outside the realm of satire. A Foreword by Larry Stark and an Afterword by S.C. Ringgenberg lead us through details of these stories, offering also a bit more biographical material. (Those who want the definitive version will find it in Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art, from the same publishers, 2003.) Here, we get a taste of EC’s science fiction, horror and crime comics, most notably the strip of the book’s title, adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story, depicting the aftermath of an atomic war…on Mars. It closes with a stern warning of what will happen to human civilization if the then-current rush toward violence is not somehow curbed. In other words, EC and the comic book world at large, at its best, with Elder as, quite literally, an “illustrator.” The rest of the book takes a different shape, and requires a little backstory. Mad Comics, first appearing in 1952, were so successful as to spawn a handful of imitators – a strategy typical for the comics field in those boom times. EC itself launched its own imitation of Mad: Panic, which substituted for Kurtzman’s guiding hand the efforts of Al Feldstein, destined to take over Mad Magazine when Kurtzman quit in 1955, after a dispute with Gaines over creative control.

The result was not quite up to Kurtzman-Mad standards, a little more cliché-ridden or less topical with current material, but it was full of wonderful humor, none better than stories with Elder’s art. Among newspaper strips that still survive, The Heart of Juliet Jones becomes a hapless “Heartaches of Juliet’s Groans”; Rex Morgan MD becomes “RX Migrane, M.D.” and shows up to work in his underwear, pursued frantically by his secretary; Dick Tracy becomes “Trick Dacy” whose notoriously razor-sharp nose slices up his wife’s face; and Phantom, who is retitled “The Phansom,” turns out to be female, a joke funnier then than now. Elder also memorably takes on L’il Abner, Joe Palooka and Captain Easy, with sight gags all the way. Words cannot describe those sight gags, but the ceaselessness of them may be the main point. Elder bears down, with pungent panel after panel, each nearly overwhelming in its hilarious details. We readers cannot get away from the sheer intensity of Elder’s work, nor do we wish to get away.

Will (or Willie, as he was widely and cheerfully known) Elder took the later Playboy work in stride or at least seemed to. He had a satisfying family life on Long Island, and drove up to Westchester to see Kurtzman on weekends, certain that he had a collaborator until his old friend’s cancer and passing left Elder alone, in a deep sense. Perhaps he spent leisure looking back on the golden years at Mad, and his own fine work in the failed efforts of Kurtzman to create other satirical magazines (Trump, Humbug and Help!) during the decade after 1955. The feckless and apparently naïvely confident consumer America satirized with such panache in the 1950s did not continue in later decades anyway, as hipness gradually overtook the emerging gentility. Elder passed in 2008, having done his work.##

Paul Buhle is now working on the Eugene V. Debs Comic, with artist Noah van Sciver.


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