I was hooked on MAD Magazine in the Third Grade, when a classmate brought in a copy of the June 1979 issue for Show and Tell. With that monthly fix came an explosive introduction to some of the best American humorous illustration, including the masterful work of Jack Davis.
But like most, I’d seen his work before then, but hadn’t really paid any attention to the artist. Many of you comics readers have seen this single-page ad, which appeared in most comics of the early 1970s:
While Jack Davis covers on MAD were rare (Norman Mingo drew most of the covers), he did appear in almost every issue, somewhere in the middle. He had a great sense of caricature, but was relegated behind Mort Drucker (movies) and Angelo Torres (tv shows) in the magazine. (Although, to be fair, many of the contributors were expert caricaturists.) Sometimes he would get a feature article, like the wonderful, trope-filled “Arbor Day” slasher spoof. (Which called back to his “Hoohah!”, the first article to appear in the first issue of MAD.) Also like many of those “idiots”, he was also an expert at crowd scenes and “chicken fat”, as seen in this cover from April 1986:
His “Sistine Chapel”, without a doubt, is this septych he did for NBC, which ran as an eight-page pull-out ad in TV Guide! Johnny Carson! Bill Cosby! Walt Disney! Bob Hope! Flipper!
He was a popular illustrator, and I always got a thrill when I saw his work outside of MAD. I guess it validated my reading the magazine, and maybe it validated the artistic merits of comics in general.
One of my favorite Davis pieces was “Reality Street”, which I discovered in one of the many reprint paperbacks available everywhere in the 1980s.
Like many of the Usual Gang of Idiots, he had his signature pieces…
- The “Six Minutes” investigations, which used “Sixty Minutes” to spoof many industries. (Here’s the original art to one story, sold by Heritage Auctions in 2014.)
- MAD Primers (which we never had in school). Davis was a master of spot illustrations, a perfect pairing with text-heavy articles.
- Poetry, such as “The Jogger“, and numerous “Casey at the Bat” parodies
He even satirized his own work, such as the “Reality Street” picture above (which pays homage to a promotional CTW piece he drew in 1969), and his iconic “Mad Mad…World” movie poster…
…which MAD satirized for their paperback collection!
Lesser known is that he, like MAD colleague Paul Coker, did design work for Rankin-Bass, for the cult classic “Mad Monster Party” (co-written by Harvey Kurtzman!), and the cartoon “The King Kong Show” (produced in Japan!).
(That’s Frankenstein’s nephew, Felix, and Frankenstein’s very capable assistant, Francesca. They’re even more amazing when animated in stop-motion!)
There’s lots more I could show, but it would take an exhibition (or a catalog raisonne) to show his talent as an illustrator. Comics, covers, movie posters, trading cards, album covers, advertising, postage stamps, production design… each would be worthy of a separate post. I encourage you to search Google… it will be time well spent!
For a better sample of Davis’ complete oeuvre, Drew Friedman published this Jack Davis retrospective in 2011.
His skill and humor will be missed, but there are many who were influenced by his work.
I’ve been writing for The Beat since July of 2010.
I’ve been reading comics since 1974, collecting since 1984, and spreading the graphic novel gospel since 1994.
I’m a bookseller, a librarian, an amateur scholar, a cool uncle, and a comics evangelist.
Ask me anything!