Unabridged Sports Clichés (Mad #499, 2009)

Paul Coker, Jr., usually shortened to Paul Coker, is one of "the usual gang of idiots" at Mad Magazine. He is known for his loose, scratchy and simple drawing style, which almost feels childlike at first glance but is far more structured than it looks. He is one of Mad's veterans, having joined the publication in 1961 and still going strong fifty-five years later. He created such recurring features like 'A Mad Look Through the Microscope' (1961), 'The Sights and Sounds of the U.S.A.' (1964) and his most famous series 'Horrifying Clichés' (1964-2012). Outside of this magazine he also drew short-lived daily gag comics, 'Lancelot' (1970-1971) and 'Horace and Buggy' (1971). Coker furthermore designed various characters for the animation company Rankin/Bass Productions.

Paul Coker was born in 1929 in Lawrence, Kansas. He was about twelve when he published his first cartoon in the cartoon contest feature of the magazine The Open Road for Boys. He majored in drawing and painting at the University of Kansas. While he made illustrated contributions for the student paper he preferred drawing advertisements since these at least were better paid. Coker started off as an designer of greeting cards for Hallmark in the 1950s and 1960s, often in collaboration with writer Phil Hahn. He also worked for Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Pageant, Look, McCall's and became an editorial cartoonist for the New York Enquirer in 1957. Coker also contributed to Hugh Hefner's Playboy, where he created both erotic cartoons as well as parodies of other comics, like Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts'.


Paul Coker's Peanuts parody

1961 turned out to be the turning point in Coker's career. That year he was discovered by Harvey Kurtzman, who published two stories in his satirical magazine Help!. The first one appeared in its sixth issue and was an illustrated account of Coker's trip to Havana, Cuba named: 'Inside Coker, Inside Cuba'. Contrary to what one might assume from an eyewitness report to Castro's Cuba published in a U.S. satirical magazine, it had no overly political tone. It reads more like a vacation report, particularly regarding local women. The only hint at the dictatorship is a brief discussion of the political situation and the local "ubitiquitous police force". Far more critical was 'Backstage on Broadway' from Help's seventh issue, in which Coker ilustrates a funny backstage theatre report of the musical 'Gypsy' starring Ethel Merman.

Inside Coker, Inside Cuba
Inside Coker, Inside Cuba

The same year Coker also made his debut in the 60th issue of Mad Magazine, where Phil Hahn was also a frequent contributor. He mostly illustrated scripts by such regulars as as Phil Hahn, Frank Jacobs, Larry Siegel, Arnie Kogen, Harry Purvis, Ronald Axe, Sol Weinstein, Stan Hart, George Hart, Chris Hart, Donald D. Shandler, Duck Edwing, Jack Hanrahan, E. Nelson Bridwell, May Sakami, George Woodbridge, Dick DeBartolo, William Garvin, Dean Norman, Neal Barbera, Frank Ridgeway, Jack Kent, E. Nelson Bridwell, Earle Doud, Al Jaffee, Jack Rickard, Don Martin, Tom Koch, Gloria L. Rich, Sy Reit, Lou Silverstone, Ronnie Nathan, Paul Peter Porges, Sergio Aragonés, M.S. Pinkham, Don Epstein, Max Brandel, Barbara Nell King, Don Reilly, Frank Jacobs, Marilyn d'Amico, Marilyn Ippolito, Ed Danko, Dennis Snee, Tommy Moore, Barry Liebmann, John Ficarrra, Mark Dressler, Charlie Kadau, Joe Raiola, Elizabeth Swain, Desmond Devlin, Lawrence Bush, Mike Snider, John Prete, Christopher Allen, Floyd Kemske, Dan Birtcher, William T. Raschendorfer, Vincent Deporter, Russ Cooper and Frank Santopadre.

Like many of his colleagues, Coker occasionally illustrated film and TV parodies. Based on scripts by Dick DeBartolo he spoofed such movies like 'Arachnaphobia' (issue #301, March 1991), 'Star Trek V' and 'VI' (issue #83, September 1992), 'Star Trek: First Contact' (issue #352, December 1996) and 'Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World' (issue #361, September 1997). Together with Stan Hart he lampooned 'Casper' (issue #340, October 1995) and Arnie Kogen wrote the parody of 'Twister' (issue #349, September 1996). In the field of television he and DeBartolo tackled the sitcoms 'Frasier' (issue #329, July 1994) and 'Sabrina: Teenage Witch' (issue #381, May 1999), while Coker and Josh Gordon ridiculed 'Caroline In The City' (issue #345, May 1996).


Flakier (Mad #329)

Oddly enough Coker never illustrated any of Mad's covers. But he was their official advertisement illustrator. He illustrated many ads to promote readers' subscriptions. They usually showed someone trying to commit suicide in an absurd fashion, while the banner asked: "Why kill yourself? Just because you missed the latest issue of Mad?" The rest of the ad then explained how readers could get a monthly or yearly subscription. Coker drew his first ad in this vein for issue #85 (April 1964) and his final one for the 208th issue (July 1979). From 1973 on many gags were thought up by Duck Edwing. Another typical subscription ad featured someone receiving an issue in an unusual place, accompanied by the slogan: "Why not have the next issue sent directly to your home?" (issue #122, October 1968). From 1968 on Coker also designed the covers of many of Mad's paperbacks.

As an artist for Mad, Coker is best known for several recurring features. From issue #88 (July 1964) onwards, Frank Jacobs and Larry Siegel wrote 'The Sights and Sounds of the U.S.A.' Each episode offered a sardonic look at various American locations, including New York City, Hollywood, Las Vegas, Washington D.C., Chicago, Miami Beach, Ft. Worth and a general small town. It gave Coker the opportunity to draw recognizable and detailed hotspots in American cities and towns, but give them a not so flattering portrayal. The final episode was published in issue #95 (June 1965).


A Mad Look Through the Microscope (Mad #61)

Yet Coker was at his best when he could draw animals and monsters. In issue #61 (March 1961) Phil Hahn launched the series 'A Mad Look Through the Microscope', which featured germs, bacteria and diseases in satirical situations. Four episodes were published, of which Coker and Bob Clarke illustrated two each. In issue #85 (March 1964) Hahn created 'Mad Beastlies' in which words and expressions with an animal name in them were given a literal illustration by Coker. For instance, a "dogma" would be depicted as dog dressed as a mother while a "navigator" was an alligator in navy uniform. This idea was pushed a step further with Hahn's 'Horrifying Clichés' series in issue #103 (June 1966). It featured literal visualisations of popular idioms, proverbs and expressions represented by goofy-looking monsters. For example: "letting out an insane cackle", "drowning your sorrows" and "hammering out a compromise". The series was quite popular and kept running for decades, becoming Coker's most famous contribution to Mad. Apart from Hahn writers like Jack Hanrahan, E. Nelson Bridwell, George Woodbridge, May Sakami, Neal Barbara, Barbara Nell King, Frank Jacobs and Nick Meglin also came up with ideas. Appearing at irregular intervals the final installment was published in issue #518 (December 2012).


Horrifying Clichés

In the mid 1990s Russ Cooper created another recurring feature for which Coker provided the illustrations. 'Only a Republican/Democrat Could Possibly Believe...' was a satirical look at the often contradictive beliefs and opinions of supporters of the U.S. Democratic and Republican Party. The first episode debuted in issue #335 (May 1995). Typically both sides are ridiculed within the same article, often by comparing their attitudes regarding a hot issue.

At the time Paul Coker was famous enough to be targeted too whenever magazines decided to satirize Mad Magazine as a whole. The radio amateur magazine 73 Magazine spoofed Mad in a special issue published in April 1967. Coker's 'Horrifying Clichés' feature was lampooned by Wayne Pierce. In 1971 National Lampoon Magazine also featured a special ridiculing Mad. Once again 'Horrifying Clichés' was satirized but this time in a more perfect stylistic parody, created by Ralph Reese.


Lancelot

Paul Coker also had a career outside Mad. In the early 1970s he co-created two short-lived newspaper comics. One of them was 'Lancelot' (Newspaper Enterprise Association, 1970-1972), scripted by Frank "Penn" Ridgeway. It featured the antics of a lazy husband who lets his wife do all the hard work. Duck Edwing wrote the gags for 'Horace and Buggy' (McNaught Syndicate, 1971), another daily gag comic illustrated by Coker, but about insects. This series only lasted about six months. Coker furthermore illustrated greeting cards for Hallmark and advertisements for Travelogue Magazine and the appliance company York Machinery & Supply. He livened up the pages of Mimi Sheraton's 'The Seducer's Cookbook' (1962), which explained how food and etiquette can ignite passion between couples. Another book illustrated by him was Fred Beck's '89 Years In A Sand Trap' (1965), a humorous look at golf.


From: The Seducer's Cookbook

Coker played a significant part in the success of the stop-motion animation company Rankin/Bass. Their founder, Arthur Rankin Jr., hired him in 1966 on the basis of his work for Hallmark and Mad, particularly the holiday-themed illustrations. Soon Coker became character, background and production designer for Rankin/Bass' animated films and TV specials. His first project was the feature film 'The Wacky World of Mother Goose' (1967), based on classic English nursery rhymes and fairy tales by Charles Perrault. He furthermore worked on their Christmas TV specials 'Frosty the Snowman' (1969), 'Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town' (1970), 'The Year Without a Santa Claus' (1974), 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' (1974), 'Frosty's Winter Wonderland' (1976), 'Rudolph's Shiny New Year' (1976), 'Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey' (1977), 'The Stingiest Man in Town' (1978), 'Jack Frost' (1979), 'Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas In July' (1979), 'Pinocchio's Christmas' (1980), 'The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold' (1981), 'Santa, Baby' (2001) and the Easter specials 'Here Comes Peter Cottontail' (1971), 'The First Easter Rabbit' (1976) and 'The Easter Bunny Is Comin' To Town' (1977). Among his non-holiday related TV specials were 'Cricket on the Hearth' (1967), 'The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye: The Emperor's New Clothes' (1972), 'Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters' (1972), 'The Red Baron' (1970) and the animated TV series 'The Reluctant Dragon & Mr. Toad Show' (1970). Coker was also responsible for the design of Rankin/Bass' advertisements, film posters and the covers of their soundtrack albums. Another Mad regular who worked for this studio was Jack Davis.

Horrifying Clich├ęs, by Paul Coker Jr.

In the early 2000s Coker returned to animation when he designed characters and props for the episode 'Parents/Embarrassment' of Greg Miller's animated TV series 'Whatever Happened to Robot Jones?' (2002-2003) on Cartoon Network. In 2016 Paul Coker received the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. His work was an influence on artists like Peter Bagge, John Kricfalusi, Didier Comès, Tad Carpenter, Chris Sharp, Bill Watterson, Peter Kuper, Scott Nickel, Lance Hansen, Danny Hellman and David Apatoff. In an interview with Nick Gazin for www.vice.com Peter Bagge described Coker's work as "a fine blend between cute and garish."


From: 89 Years In A Sand Trap

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