Chicken Fat: Drawings, Sketches, Cartoons and Doodles

By Will Elder (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-704-9 (PB)

Wolf William Eisenberg was born in The Bronx on September 22nd 1921, and you probably have never heard of him. He became a cartoonist, illustrator and commercial artist after changing his name to Will Elder.

Tragically, for many of you, that name won’t ring any bells either, even though he was one of the funniest and most influential cartoonists of the 20th century. Another of those slum kids who changed comics, “Wolfie” studied at New York’s High School of Music and Art – as did future comrades in comedy Al Jaffee, Al Feldstein, John Severin & Harvey Kurtzman.

An artist of astounding versatility, he served in WWII as part of the 668th Engineer Company (Topographical) of the US First Army, instrumental in assuring the success of the Normandy landings. After returning to America, he changed his name and set up the Charles William Harvey Studio with Charles Stern and Kurtzman, operating as a comics shop providing strips and other material for Prize Comics and other publishers.

Elder inked old pal John Severin at EC, and in 1952 when Kurtzman created satire comic Mad, he became a regular contributor of pencils and inks. The spoofs and parodies he crafted for the landmark comic book and sister publication Panic were jam-packed with a host of eye-popping background gags and off-camera shtick, all contributing to the manic energy of the work. He called those extras “chicken fat” and to learn why you should pick up this slim yet satisfying companion collection to comprehensive bio-tome Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art. On offer here is a delightful peek at his working process (and outrageous, never-suppressed sense of humour) through roughs, sketches, architectural studies, test runs and abortive strip projects (such as The Inspector, Luke Warm and Adverse Anthony) for numerous clients over the decades, rendered in every medium from loose pencils to charcoal portraits to fully painted finished works, all supplemented by a fulsome Foreword from his son-in-law Gary Vandenbergh and even art from his grandson and successor Jesse Vandenbergh.

A certified touchstone for budding artists, here you’ll see technical illustrations and colour studies, landscapes and murals, as well as candid photos. There are EC model sheets, pop studies confirming Elder’s status as a cultural sponge and perfect mimic of other artist’s styles – a gift Jaffe claimed could have made the cartoonist the “world’s greatest forger”…

Straight magazine illustration lies with a host of sketch research on hundreds of subjects but what most comes out is a never-ending parade of gags and jests, many of which turned up in general interest magazines such as Pageant or Playboy. Elder loved to laugh and he had a very broad and earthy sense of humour so be careful to always swallow what you’re drinking before turning pages here…

As a jobbing cartoonist, Elder was always looking for the next gig and included here are a wonderful assortment of mock – and racy – sci fi pulp covers, star caricatures, political portraits, Time and Newsweek cover roughs and a section devoted to his and Kurtzman’s Goodman Beaver and scathing satirical masterpiece Little Annie Fanny – which Elder limned for 24 years, as well  as wealth of spoofs starring the great and good of comics and the media from Dick Tracy to Popeye to Prince Charles and Lady Diana

A visual tour de force, this is a perfect illustration of how and why cartoonists are and why we’re so lucky to have them.

All material, unless otherwise noted, is © 2006 Will Elder. Little Annie Fanny © 2006 Playboy Enterprises, Inc. Text © 2006 Gary Vandenbergh. All rights reserved.