In the illustration and comics world, it feels like the passing of illustrator Jack Davis is the loss of the last of the great Southern Gentlemen. Added up, his 91 years on this planet contributed countless magazine, book and album covers, advertisements, posters, and comics with a warm style all his own.
Going back to the early 1950s, Davis became an immediate influence on other artists. During the heyday of the classic and very controversial E.C. Comics, other comic companies were swiping full panel layouts from such noted E.C. artists as Wally Wood, Jack Kamen and Graham Ingels. The first underground comix artists of the ‘60s, such as Robert Crumb and Spain Rodriguez, cite the E.C. artists as inspirations. The late comic artist Darwyn Cooke noted that he looked to Davis for inspiration while drawing a run on DC Comics’s Jonah Hex weird western series. And many contemporary comic artists from the alternative scene have cited Davis as an inspiration: Jim Woodring, noted for his intricate, surreal illustrations, cites the 1964 LP cover of Dracula’s Greatest Hits, which Davis illustrated in black and white with expert crosshatching, as something he marveled over when he began drawing. Peter Bagge’s Hate and Neat Stuff have Davis’ gestural zaniness in it, with characters catapulting into space and sprinting for their lives.
An Atlanta native, Davis was born in 1924 with cartooning in his blood. By the age of 12, he had his first work printed in a nationally published comic, the December, 1939 issue of Tip-Top Comics, featuring a three-panel gag strip for which he was paid a dollar.
Right out of high school, he joined the Navy for three years and served until the end of World War II. Like a lot of other cartoonists of the time, he was part of the generation that went to school on the G.I. Bill, enrolling at the University of Georgia in Athens. There he studied art and began honing his craft. A lifetime Georgia football fan, his ties to the school have stuck over the years after drawing the UGA bulldog mascot in its more recognizable character—rough, rugged and grinning with a hint of Southern charm.
A gig with the Coca-Cola company led him to New York, where he found work with E.C. Comics. Williams Gaines’s comic company had the finest talents in the comic business due in part to their pay rates being higher than the other comic companies. By this time Davis was about to get married and start a family, so having a steady paycheck was a top priority. Davis would bring in a completed seven-page story, Gaines would cut him a check on the spot and Davis would go marching off with the next assignment. His versatility and speed made him one of E.C.’s top artists, lending his talents to horror, war, crime and sci-fi stories. In the same month Davis could draw the goriest horror comics the editors would allow in one title, weathered Allied troops and Confederate soldiers in another, and stoic space explorers and clean-cut scientists in the next.
Harvey Kurtzman, artist and editor for two of E.C. Comics’s war titles, was given a new humor book to edit. In the Fall of 1952, the first issue of MAD hit the newsstands, with Davis contributing artwork for a parody of E.C.’s own horror comics. Davis even graced the cover of the second issue, featuring a baseball player hypnotized in midair by a witch against a background of grotesque faces. In addition to illustrating horror, war and sci-fi comics, he was now a regular on the best-selling humor title.
By 1954, Senate hearings were coming down hard on violent comics, and E.C.’s titles were front and center. A lifelong horror and monster fan, Davis was later said to be genuinely upset that his horror comics were being portrayed as nightmare fuel for the children of America. Around this time, Kurtzman was thinking of leaving E.C. unless MAD was upgraded from being a four color comic to a sleek, black and white magazine. The 24th issue of MAD was published in July 1955, with a wider distribution than its comics-sized format and out of the reach of the newly developed Comics Code Authority. Davis’s work moved further away from its comics style and his crosshatching and grey wash skills showcased the style that would eventually land his future illustration jobs. The 27th issue of MAD sported a beautifully watercolored cover by Davis, with the New Years baby walking into an enormous parting crowd of celebrities and politicians.
Shortly after MAD’s new format as a magazine, Kurztman was contacted by Playboy’s own Hugh Hefner, and the two discussed working together. After Gaines had refused to turn over his half of the company he’d inherited from his father to Kurtzman, Kurtzman not only walked from MAD, but left with some of their top talents as well. Jack Davis’s loyalties rested with Kurtzman, so he left MAD with a half a dozen other artists to work on the project Kurztman had been hatching with Hefner. In 1957, the first issue of Trump hit the stands. Despite strong sales, it was cancelled by the second issue. Davis stood by Kurtzman’s other ill-fated but solid humor publications, Humbug and Help, and while he was still in a contract with Hefner, contributed to backgrounds and other art duties for Kurtzman and Will Elder’s “Little Annie Fanny” comic for Playboy, as well as full-color single page gag cartoons for the magazine. After kids at school had told Jack’s children that their father worked for a “dirty magazine,” Jack related the story back to Hefner, who sympathized and released him from his contract in the mid 60’s. By the late 50’s, Jack Davis had illustrated a lot of novelty and country album covers for RCA Records. His first album cover for Harry Arnold & His Orchestra’s 1957 album The Jazztone Mystery Band utilizes his tight black and white crosshatching skills, and most of his other RCA album covers showcased his watercolor work, with its rich, muddy tones.
Around this time too, he’d drawn lobby cards and illustrations for a couple of smaller films, until 1963 when he landed the job that would change the course of the rest of his career. Davis illustrated the movie poster for Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, staring damn near every movie star that was popular in the early 60’s. The iconic horizontal poster showed the planet Earth cracking open and the entire cast spilling out in a rush after a running suitcase full of cash. This was not only the start of a career drawing dozens of movie posters for top studios; it also landed him back at MAD magazine.
In 1965, MAD editor Al Feldstein collected a best-of paperback entitled Its a World, World, World World Mad sporting a cover parodying the poster Davis had illustrated. He’d go on to work for the magazine another 30 years.
By the mid ‘60s, Davis was beginning to get steady work in the commercial art field. Paychecks drawing comics at Dell and a brief stint at Marvel drawing western titles paled in comparison to what he was being paid for album covers and movie posters. By the late 60’s and early 70’s, he was getting regular assignments illustrating covers for Time magazine and TV Guide, which is where a lot of people recognize his art from outside of MAD. It is hard to imagine anyone who was alive in the ‘70s and ‘80s who didn’t set eyes on something Davis illustrated. Movie posters, spot illustrations for periodicals big and small, book covers, bubble gum cards, collegiate sports memorabilia, animation; you name it. If you were a kid reading comics during this era, there’s a good chance you saw Davis’s ad for Slim Jim featuring a werewolf or Dracula, or his Spalding Basketball ad staring Rick Barry and Dr. J shooting hoops.
After Davis left Mad in the mid 90’s and took on fewer jobs, he never fully retired. He would still illustrate Bulldawg-related work for the University of Georgia or the occasional comic cover. In 1998, the University of Georgia’s graphic design department started the Jack Davis Visiting Artist Lecture Series, where acclaimed illustrators would visit the school for a couple of days with Davis usually in attendance for the lecture and dinner on the last day. Two of the lecture guests had worked with Davis before: Humbug artist Arnold Roth had visited in 2004 and Sergio Aragonés in 2009—the latter resulting in a sweet story about the MAD staff visiting his parents Mexico. Sergio’s mother cooked dinner outside on a grill while it was drizzling rain, so Davis went outside with her and held an umbrella over her while she cooked.
The first year of the lectures, Davis stopped by the graphics classes and told stories of his career, showed off sketches and artwork, and signed books for students and fans. After the lectures, which were open to the public, he’d stay behind and continue to sign memorabilia and chatting with people. A true gentleman till the end.
A few years ago, he finally announced he was retiring from taking on any new projects for good, just happy to live out his retirement on St. Simons Island. A foundation was started in his name, whose aim was to educate people on the full scope of his career and a scholarship was set up through the University of Georgia as well. His influence on a generation or two of illustrators and cartoonists as well the everyday general public who saw his work in so many publications over the decades cannot be measured. The world will not see the likes of another artist such as Jack Davis again.