Ah’d ratha be golfin’
Any conversation about the greatest and most influential cartoonists of the last half century must, at some point, include the name Jack Davis. From the notorious E.C. horror comics of the 1950’s to MAD Magazine to TIME and TV Guide covers, record covers, movie posters, advertising, animation design and even US postage stamps, Davis’s art has entertained, amazed and inspired generations. On Oct. 21st the Comic Art Professional Society will be honoring the legendary master cartoonist with a special award for lifetime achievement. I would be hard pressed to think of a more worthy recipient.
John Burton “Jack” Davis Jr. was born in Atlanta, GA on December 2nd, 1924. An incurable doodler, the young Jack Davis drew on textbooks, writing tablets and anything else he could get his hands on. As a young man he did his share of cartoons for his high school newspaper and school annuals, having developed a love of cartooning and “funny drawin'”. He joined and served in the Navy during World War 2, and they promptly put his talents to work on Navy publications in the P.R. department out of Pensacola, FL. He was eventually shipped off to Guam, but his drawing talents could not be repressed. While there he developed a strip called “Boondocker“, which was published in the Navy News.
Jack returned to the states in 1946 and studied art at the University of Georgia under the G.I. bill. While at U of G he did cartoons and illustrations for the college paper and humor magazine, and spent his summers cartooning for the Atlanta Journal newspaper. He also assisted on the syndicated comic strip “Mark Trail” by Ed Dodd. Eventually a good paying job illustrating a training manual for the Coca-Cola company netted Jack enough money to buy a car and and finance a trip to New York City to pursue bigger and better assignments.
He arrived in New York City, portfolio in hand and confidence high. His car was promptly stolen and a con man swindled him out of his savings… welcome to New York, Jack! Undeterred, Jack spent six months scraping by working for small publishers and the New York Herald Tribune while pounding the pavement in search of more substantial work. Eventually his path led to the door of E.C. Comics. He had found a home, and his artwork had found the perfect creative outlet for it to flourish.
E.C. publisher Bill Gaines and editor Al Feldstein made Jack one of their cornerstone artists. According to Feldstein, Jack’s subtly humorous touch on the gruesome stories in comics like “Tales from the Crypt”, made them more palatable to readers (if not to congressmen). Jack’s natural speed with his art, and the versatility that allowed him to work with equal success on horror, war, crime and humor stories made him almost indispensable. Jack had so much work that he was known to ink pages on the train into Manhattan from his apartment in Westchester, and place them on Bill Gaine’s desk with the ink barely dry.
When Harvey Kurtzman was tapped by Gaines to create MAD, Davis was one of the first artists Kurtzman turned to. Jack did the lead story in MAD #1, a send-up of his own E.C. horror story comic work. Jack continued to work with E.C. until Kurtzman’s departure in 1957. Jack followed Kurtzman to “Trump” and other short lived humor publications. He returned to MAD in 1966, but by then he had become very successful in other venues of freelance. He contributed regularly to MAD doing TV and movie parodies and illustrations for other features, but he also did a great many other jobs for a variety of high profile, high paying clients incluing TIME, LIFE, Esquire, Playboy and TV Guide, movie posters like “The Bad News Bears”, record covers for the likes of Johnny Cash and Jerry Reed, countless advertising jobs and book illustrations, and even animation design for ABC’s “The Jackson 5” and various commercials. Jack was one of the most prolific and recognized illustrators of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
He is also easily one of the most imitated cartoonists in the history of the medium. Many lesser cartoonists made all or part of their living doing “Jack Davis art” on jobs where Jack was either unavailable or the client was unwilling to pay the rates his work and status deserved. Part of the reason there were so many Davis clones was that his artwork was incredibly unique and singularly recognizable, and it was difficult to be influenced by his work without directly aping his style. Jack Davis hands only work in a Jack Davis world, and that means Jack Davis feet and Jack Davis lamp posts and Jack Davis arm chairs… you get the idea. Jack’s style in both pen and ink and his rich, earthy watercolors amazed even his contemporaries. One story goes like this: a fellow successful cartoonist asked Jack how he achieved such an interesting and unique color palette with his watercolors. The inquisitive artist could not seem to get similar colors no matter how he mixed them. Jack admitted that he used pond water when he painted with watercolors… he just trudged on down to the lake, filled up a jar and took it back to the studio.
When I first started working for MAD, both Nick Meglin and Sam Viviano gave me advice about the nature of great cartooning, and it was no surprise that Jack Davis was the example they both cited. The essence of what they told me was that a great cartoonist creates a world populated by people, objects, places and things all seen through their eyes… and all drawn in a way that creates a believable and cohesive world to the viewer. You cannot draw a goofy, cartoony dog peeing on a realistically drawn fire hydrant and convince the viewer they are looking through a window into a cartoonist’s singular world… the juxtaposition of the different looks is confusing. The fire hydrant and the dog need to be drawn in a similar fashion, so they look like they belong together and are seen thorough one set of eyes that see the entire world in their own unique way. “Jack Davis’s drawings of a chair, a car, a person and a cat all look like they were drawn by Jack Davis, and they look like they belong in a Jack Davis world,” Sam told me once. “That is what makes Jack’s world so convincing.”
Jack also taught me something about being a professional illustrator. He understands that, no matter how emotionally invested an artist might be in a particular piece he/she is working on, at the end of the day it’s just a job and that is just another drawing. That sounds cynical or defeatist perhaps, but I think it’s just realistic and putting things in perspective. If I feel myself getting bent out of shape when an art director wants me to change all the things in a piece I think are making it successful and turn in into a piece of crap, I just remember Jack saying how easy it is to let go and start again. “It’s just another drawin'”, he’d say. Great talent makes it seem so easy…
So, CAPS will be honoring Jack on the 21st, with a new award designed by Sergio Aragones and sculpted by Ruben Procopio. They are also presenting him with a book full of original tribute drawings by a large and admiring group of professional cartoonists. My submission’s at the top of the post.
I wish I could be there but I’ll be traveling back from Orlando that day after a week at Disney World with Anna and the kids. I’d have loved to have seen Jack get up there and accept the award with his usual (and genuine) aw-shucks-it’s-just-little-ol-me humility. Jack Davis really is one of the most humble and unassuming people in the world, despite his enormous talent and place in the history of humorous illustration and cartooning. He honestly doesn’t get why people are so worshipful of his art. The great ones never really do, I suspect.
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