Seek The Boy and Find The Man or The Ugly Truth About Will Elder

I used to get told off when I was young for reading in class.

The small library at my primary school in Cambridgeshire was based in my home room, and it stored treasures. Almost a full shelf of the alcove tucked in one corner of that room was dedicated to French editions of TitTin and Asterix books. Presumably it was an attempt to get yer average kid interested in a foreign language. They never worked that way for me.

Nowadays I’d call the books bandes desinees, but back then they were utterly indescribable. Beautiful, magical, huge impenetrable works that made sense only in the sense of their visual storytelling, because I was eight, and French may as well have been Klingon to me. The experience was all about the interplay of picture and text in the purest possible sense. The closest I’ve been to that feeling since is reading some of Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso’s work in Zap reprints, where they would abandon narrative clarity in favour of the sheer panel-to-panel rush of tumbling pictures. Too add to the effect, their speech bubbles would frequently be filled with heiroglyphs, or squiggles. I had a twinge of nostalgia in reading those works, although I’d never seen them before, and I blame that on my early TinTin readings. I found joy in the knowing and simultaneous not knowing what was happening.

I couldn’t leave those books alone. Lunchtime, breaktime, there I was, the quiet, bookish spectacled child (no change there, I’m afraid), hunkered in a corner, buried in an Asterix. It became an addiction. So I was regularly pulled up for having a copy of Asterix Et Les Britons (imagine the headmangling I took for seeing English habits through a French lens, in a language I didn’t understand, and being too shy to ask why all the British warriors stopped fighting at four o’clock for cups of l’eau chaud) or Les Tresor Des Red Rackham open on my lap when I was supposed to be concentrating on my maths.

Which explains two things. My enduring love of comics, and my inability to add up without using my fingers.

Thinking about it, I was grokking those books rather than reading them. Scuse the Heinlein.

The other source of comicy goodness when I was little came from my Uncle Doug. I will, with his permission, talk more about my Heavy Metal Uncle at a later date, but for now let’s just discuss his exquisite good taste. Doug had a cupboard full of carefully boxed Corgi Bond cars, which I and my brother gleefully trashed in frantic reenactments of the car chases from Goldfinger. Doug had a cupboard full of mid-60’s TinTin reprints, which I snorted. They were familiar and strange at the same time. Guns suddenly went Bang instead of PAN. Snowy’s bark was just that, instead of the AIIIooo that Herge had written for him.

But this was just the core of the motherlode. He also had a pile of Marvel and Mad annuals, and it was these that well and truly spun my head the wrong way on it’s thread. Early adventures of the Avengers and Iron Man were snarfed next to the exquisite parodies and appalling jokes of Mort Drucker, Don Martin, Wally Wood and (yes, finally, we get to the point) Will Elder.

The news last week that Will had died at the age of ninety-five dried something up in me. I would spend hours poring over the insanely detailed artwork he would regularly fire off for Mad. Here’s an example that seems to be popping up quite a bit in the backwash of the announcement: RESTAURANT.

He was an extraordinary draughtsman, an amazing storyteller, and to my mind should be lauded with the guy I frequently used to mix him up with, Will Eisner. Through such errors are other great connections made. It should be pointed out, though, that you only assert that Will Elder created The Spirit to a comics-literate crowd once. Believe me, the memory still brings a flush up my collar.

Will Elder’s work was a gateway to some serious influences on my creative life, and fostered an enduring love in clean, cartoony and complex illustration. It’s a heartcracker that he’s gone, but I’m forever grateful for the path on which he put me.

Hey Will, how’s yer ma?

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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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