There’s a case to be made that the most acute chronicler of mid-20th-century American pop culture is the comic-book artist born Wolf William Eisenberg and known as Will Elder—the supreme draftsman and quintessential artist of early Mad. No one leafing through Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art could fail to be impressed by his neutral detachment and uncanny ability to mimic the entire range of American comic-book drawing styles—not to mention print ads and tabloid photographs. In his introduction to this sumptuous volume, Daniel Clowes, himself a virtuoso of the uninflected deadpan, praises Elder for this lack of style: “Unlike virtually all of his peers . . . [Elder] is blissfully free of distracting tics, gimmicks, short-cuts, and flashy techniques.”
What makes his restraint so powerful is the unbridled lunacy of Elder’s subject matter. His best panels are collage-like arrangements of trademarks, media icons, visual puns, and assorted non sequiturs (often in Yinglish). Encouraged by editor Harvey Kurtzman to paste signs or scrawl graffiti in the background of his immaculate compositions, Elder anticipated the world where ads are pasted on pieces of fruit and jockeys sell commercial space on their butts.
A master of vulgar modernism, Elder allows internal objects to tamper with the boundaries of a panel, breaks continuous vistas into consecutive frames, offers visually identical panels with wildly fluctuating details, and otherwise emphasizes the essential serial nature of his medium. He embalms hysteria and annotates it. Whether parodying the nowheresville of Archie comics or Li’l Abner’s Dogpatch, there is always a moment when the veil parts to evoke cramped tenement life. Elder was a product of Depression-era Bronx, and like generational cohort Lenny Bruce, he was born to shpritz—albeit with pictures.
Elder drew for Mad and its sister publication, Panic, in the early ’50s. When Kurtzman left Mad, Elder went with him, producing comparable work for Kurtzman’s three successor magazines: the short-lived but deluxe Trump, the artist-owned Humbug, which lasted 11 issues, and Help!, which debuted in 1960 and struggled on into 1965, bridging Mad and the underground comix of the late ’60s. Hugh Hefner, who published Trump and pulled the plug after two issues, ultimately became Elder’s Medici. Little Annie Fanny, brainstormed by Hefner, written by Kurtzman, and painted by Elder, ran in Playboy for 25 years—the glossiest, most lavish comic strip ever produced, as well as an adolescent fetish to end all fetishes.
Mad Playboy samples the entirety of Elder’s oeuvre, with an especially generous selection of his parody ads, leaving the impression that enough remains to produce another book of comparable quality.