Will Elder died this month. He was one of the geniuses behind the miracle of Mad Magazine, working closely with its founder Harvey Kurtzman, turning Kurtzman's savage satires of American popular culture into amazing visual equivalents.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of Mad to the generations of kids who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties and found in it an antidote to the oppressive onslaught of the official corporate culture. I can still remember my first encounter with the magazine in the late Fifties, when I was eight or nine. The issue I saw featured an insert of full-color package labels that could be pasted over real package labels, turning a jar of baby food, for example, into a container for some sort of toxic waste.
Consumer culture in the Fifties had an aura of religious sanctity, identified with all that was good about America — to savage it so mercilessly was to encourage an interior critique of that culture, to free the spirit from its spell. Mad Magazine didn't inspire laughter so much as exhilaration, the exhilaration of free thought. It was Mad Magazine that represented all that was truly good about America.
Elder's meticulous, obsessive attention to detail lifted Mad from the realm of mere sarcastic attitude into the realm of serious social criticism. Elder both loved and hated the official culture he mocked, and that gave his visions real power.
If you click on the image above (or here) you can see a larger version of it — the better to appreciate its fanatical draftsmanship. Elder expended extraordinary energies of commitment and passion to shove his subversive visions in your face.
(With thanks to Potrzebie for the image, which is © 2008 EC Publications.)