Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Late Great Jack Davis

Jack Davis, the legendary cartoonist and caricaturist known for his work for E.C. Comics, Mad Magazine, TV Guide, and Time, died today at the age of 91. The cause was complications from a stroke.

Jack Davis was born on December 2 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia. He took to art when he was very young. When he was twelve one of his cartoons was published on the reader's page of  Tip Top Comics #9 (December 1936). In high school he provided art for the school paper. After graduating high school he joined the United States Navy and served in Guam. While in service he contributed the comic strip Boondocker to The Navy Times. Following his stint in the Navy he enrolled in the University of Georgia. He drew cartoons for the campus newspaper and also contributed to a local humour magazine titled Bullsheet. In the late Forties he spent one summer inking the newspaper strip Mark Trail.

Following his graduation from the University of Georgia, Jack Davis worked as an intern cartoonist at The Atlanta Journal. It was in 1949 that he illustrated an in-house booklet for Coca-Cola. He used the money from that job to move to New York City. Once there he enrolled at the Art Students League. From 1949 to 1950 Mr. Davis worked as an inker on The Saint comic strip. He illustrated his own short lived comic strip, Beauregard, which was carried by the McClure Syndicate.

The opening page of "Foul Play"
It was in 1950 that Jack Davis began doing freelance work for E.C. Comics, who at the time were making the move into horror, crime, and war comic books. Mr. Davis worked on many of E.C.'s most popular comic books, including Tales from the Crypt, Frontline Combat, The Haunt of Fear, Two-Fisted Tales, The Vault of Horror, and Crime Suspenstories, among others. Among other things he revamped Al Feldstein's original Crypt Keepr, making the character much more complex looking. Perhaps the best known story that he illustrated was "Foul Play", from Haunt of Fear #19 (May-June 1953). It gained notoriety after being referenced in Fredric Wertham's attack on comic books Seduction of the Innocent. Among the other stories illustrated by Mr. Davis was an adaption of Ray Bradbury's story "Black Ferris" in The Haunt of Fear #18 (April 1953), "Tain't the Meat, It's the Humanity" from Tales from the Crypt #32 (October-November 1952), "Death of Some Salesman" from The Haunt of Fear #15 (September-October 1952), and "Country Clubbing!" from The Haunt of Fear  #23 (January-February 1954).

When Mad was launched by E.C. in 1952, Jack Davis was among its original contributors. Jack Davis remained with Mad for its first thirty issues, seeing it through its transition from comic book to a more traditional magazine format. He also worked on E.C.'s other humour comic book, Panic. Afterwards Jack Davis would contribute to other humour magazines launched by Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman, including Trump, Humbug, and Help!. He even did work for Mad's rival Cracked. Harvey Kurtzman returned to Mad in the mid-Sixties, and continued to contribute to the magazine for the remainder of his career.

In addition to E.C. Comics, Jack Davis also illustrated Western comic books for the company later known as Marvel Comics in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In 1959 Jack Davis illustrated humorous bubblegum cards under the title "Wacky Plak" for Topps Chewing Gum Company. In 1961 he wrote, illustrated, and edited the comic book, Yak Yak, for Dell Comics.  He later contributed to Warren Publishing's black and white magazine Creepy, including the cover of its first issue published in late 1964.

An ad for The Monkees from fall 1966
Of course, Jack Davis worked in other media besides comic books and comic strips. In fact, he is perhaps as famous for his many magazine covers as he is for his work with E.C. Comics. In 1965 he illustrated the eight page preview of NBC's fall 1965 line-up for TV Guide's fall preview issue. For the 1966-1967 season Jack Davis would again provide illustrations for many of NBC's shows. Beginning with the July 13-19 1968 issue of TV Guide Jack Davis began illustrating covers for the magazine. He would illustrate 22 more covers for TV Guide between 1968 and 1981. Jack Davis also provided Time with a number of covers beginning with the October 16 1972 issue. Over the years Jack Davis provided artwork for several magazines, including Favourite Filmland Westerns, Playboy, Esquire, and others. He also illustrated covers for books, including The Beverly Hillbillies Book of Country Humour, The Belle of Catscratch by Richard Meade and Jay Rutledge, Watching TV by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik, and many of the books by Art Buchwald, among others.

Jack Davis would also illustrate several movie posters. His very first movie poster was for the 1957 film The Smallest Show on Earth. He created art for the movie Sergeants 3 (1962) that was not used for its poster, but was used in much of the promotional material for the film. Possibly the most famous poster and promotional art he created for a film was his work for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Over the years Jack Davis would create posters for several films, including The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), The Impossible Years (1968), Viva Max! (1969),  Bananas (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), American Graffiti (1973), The Bank Shot (1974), and many others.

One of the posters for It's a Mad, Mad,
Mad, Mad World
Jack Davis not only created posters and promotional art for films, but he also contributed to both television programmes and films produced by Rankin/Bass. He was responsible for the character design of Rankin/Bass's Saturday morning cartoon King Kong (which debuted in 1966). He was also responsible for the character design for the Rankin/Bass feature film Mad Monster Party (1967). He also contributed character designs to the Rankin/Bass Saturday morning cartoon Jackson 5ive (1971). He also provided character designs for the TV special The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye: The Emperor's New Clothes (1972) and the animated pilot The Conheads (1983).

Jack Davis also illustrated the covers of several record albums, starting with the back cover art of Alfredito and His Orchestra's Crazy Titles For Dancing Cha-Cha and Merengue in 1958. Over the years Mr. Davis illustrated the covers of such albums as Bob and Ray's Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular (1958), Johnny Cash's Everybody Loves a Nut (1966), several Ben Colder albums, The Best of The Cowsills, The Greatest of The Guess Who, and many others. Jack Davis also did a good deal of advertising art. In addition to his work for NBC cited above, he also illustrated advertisements for Ralston Purina, Spalding, Slim Jim,  Michelob, and others. In 1989 he designed a stamp celebrating letter carriers for the United States Postal Service, sneaking in a self portrait of himself. He also created the bee mascot for Bee-Line Bus System that runs from Westchester County, New York to New York City.

Jack Davis also did a good deal of work for his alma mater, the University of Georgia. Over the years he did many illustrations of UGA bulldogs. He also designed the mascot for the College of Coastal Georgia, Captain Jack.

A bit of Jack Davis's Georgia Bulldog art
Quite simply Jack Davis was one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th Century. Short of Al Hirschfeld he might have been the greatest caricaturist of all time. While he was fully capable of beautifully rendered, realistic work (and much of his art for E.C. Comics and Marvel Comics was in such a style), for the most part Mr. Davis concerned himself little with realism. His work on E.C.'s horror titles tended to be very dark and rough-hewn, with a great deal of contrast. His work for Mad, as well as most of his later work, was more whimsical. The people in his artwork would have oversized heads, hands, and feet, with skinny legs. Jack Davis was highly influential, and many imitated his styles. During his time with E.C. many competing horror comic book publishers (particularly Harvey) tried to mimic his style in their magazines. It is safe to say that every single humour magazine published since Mad has featured art that was obviously inspired by Jack Davis. Even in the field of movie posters he was highly imitated. Many of the movie posters illustrated by Frank Frazetta, best known for his more realistic sword and sorcery work, were obviously inspired by Jack Davis.

Given the extremely high quality of Jack Davis's work, what made him all the more remarkable is that he was highly prolific. Jack Davis didn't simply work for Mad. He didn't simply create movie posters. He also illustrated magazine covers, album covers, paperback covers, and much more. Jack Davis did so much that to discuss every single of his works would take a very large book indeed. Of course, Mr. Davis was able to get so much done because he was capable of producing high quality work in a very short amount of time. William M. Gaines, Albert B. Feldstein, and Harvey Kurtzman of E.C. Comics all said that Jack Davis was the fastest artist at the company. He was known for being able to produce three pages, fully pencilled and inked, in one day. Given the speed with which Jack Davis was worked, it was perhaps no surprise that he would be very prolific.

Despite the fact that he was well known for his work on E.C.'s horror titles (including such graphic stories as "Foul Play") and he was a fan of ghost stories and horror, Jack Davis did not particularly care for the sort of gore that E.C. often published. In some respects this should not surprise many who met him, as Jack Davis appeared to be a truly gentle soul. When meeting fans he was known for being friendly, gracious, and polite. Jack Davis was one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th Century, but he was also a warm, friendly human being and a true Southern gentleman.

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