Hah! Noon by Jack Davis
'Hah! Noon!' (From Mad #9, 1954).

Jack Davis was one of the main artists for Mad Magazine. He was one of the few to be present there from the start, when it was still under editorship of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, and to remain part of "the usual gang of idiots" long after Al Feldstein and William M. Gaines had pushed Mad into a different direction. Apart from Mad he also contributed to EC's horror, war and suspense comic books. Davis is renowned for his wild, energetic and chaotic style, which influenced numerous creators of humor comics. His drawings explode with movement, making him perfect for depictions of swarming crowds. He excelled in amusing depictions of sports games, grotesque people and monsters. While not a household name among the general public, his instantly recognizable art still adorned many advertisements, film posters, trading cards, board games, album and magazine covers. In this sense he was arguably one the most visible comic artists in the United States. When he passed away he was the last surviving pioneer artist of both E.C. and Mad's early years. 

Early life 
He was born as John Burton Davis, Jr. in Atlanta, Georgia in 1924.  His first work was published in 1943, in the reader's section of the 32th issue of Tip Top Comics, when Davis was twelve years old. Davis ranked Honoré Daumier, Heinrich Kley, Walt Disney, E.C. Segar, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, Harold Foster, Iggy Frost, George Baker, Bill Mauldin and Hank Ketcham among his main graphic influences. Later in life he also singled out Gary Larson, Bill Watterson, Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant as some of the few modern artists he really appreciated.

In 1941 the United States entered World War Two, causing Davis to enlist in the Navy. During his military training he drew the one-panel gag cartoon 'Seaman Swabby', a bumbling, big-nosed  sailor inspired by George Baker's similar military comic strip 'Sad Sack'. When the young recrute was send off for military service to Guam, Micronesia, he took his comic with him, but under the new title: 'Boondocker'. The first entry was published on 2 December 1945. Davis would draw a new panel every week during the entire nine months he was stationed there.

Two-Fisted Tales by Jack Davis
'Two-Fisted Tales' #25.

After his military service Davis studied art under Lamar Dodd at the University of Georgia. He published in the school paper The Red and the Black, where he rebooted 'Boondocker' into 'Georgiae', turning him into a student who just left the army. Among with some of his fellow students he also created a humor magazine named Bullsheet. It wasn't sold on the campus, which allowed it to use more risqué comedy. His comical caricatures of bulldogs eventually became the offical mascots of the university's American football team for decades to come.

Early comics career
Unfortunately Davis never graduated, but he did find a summer job in 1947 as an assistant to Ed Dodd's newspaper comic 'Mark Trail' in The New York Post. Under encouragement of Dodd, Davis eventually moved to New York City to take some additional drawing lessons at the Art Students League. Despite knowing nobody there, Davis managed to illustrate an instruction manual for Coca-Cola, which resulted in his first well-paid assignment. He also briefly inked Mike Roy's 'The Saint' for The Herald Tribune and drew some comics for the western comic magazine Lucky Star. Already Davis gained a reputation for being a fast artist, which spawned many urban legends. He was seemingly able to whip out drawings while sitting in waiting rooms and used ordinary children's watercolour sets to make paintings. When interviewed by Jim Woodring for the Comics Journal in 2000 Davis confirmed he once made a painting on commission during a camping trip with water from the nearby lake, despite it having mud in it. He also told Woodring he once used a few sips of bourbon in his water colour paintings.

The Vault of Horror #30 by Jack Davis
The Vault of Horror #30

EC Comics
In 1951 Davis stumbled upon a copy of EC Comics while walking into a news stand. Inside the issue he read the company's address, which he quickly scribbled down while the store owner wasn't looking. Without any clue what kind of comics EC published Davis applied for a job there and was promptly hired. Chief editor Al Feldstein gave him a story to illustrate. To his surprise the young recrute turned it back in the next day, having drawn everything out in just one night! Because he was so quick and efficient, Feldstein and Kurtzman could always depend on him, making him the most versatile artist of the EC crew. Davis worked for all the EC horror and suspense comic books, including The Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fear, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories and Incredible Science Fiction. He loved horror B-movies and felt completely at ease designing monsters and witches. He was a master in drawing grotesque people, whose heads and limbs always seem a bit out of proportion with the rest of their body. This made Davis, when most of the EC titles folded in 1955 due to the Comics Code, a perfect addition to the company's more humorous magazines MAD and Panic. In the very first issue of Mad (1952), Davis already parodied EC's own horror comics. By the time the next issue came out his artwork graced the cover.

Mad Magazine
Davis liked Mad and illustrated several stories written by Harvey Kurtzman. Among these were his parodies of 'The Lone Ranger' (issue #3, January 1953, and issue #8, December 1953), 'Casey at the Bat' (issue #6, August 1953), 'High Noon' (issue #9, 1954), 'The Barefoot Contessa' (issue #23, May 1955), 'Vera Cruz' (issue #24, July 1955), 'The Dave Garroway Show' (issue #26, November 1955) and 'Gunsmoke' (issue #30, December 1956). One of their most classic spoofs was 'Kane Keen! - Private Eye' (issue #5, June 1953), which ridiculed two radio detective series at the same time, namely 'Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons' and  'Martin Kane, Private Eye'. Equally notable was their take on Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland'  (issue #18, December 1954), in which Davis imitated John Tenniel's classic illustrations. However, the most audacious parody was their spoof of the quiz show 'What's My Line?' (issue #17, November 1954), which featured a daring satire of Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts. Davis also showed his gift for self-mockery when he and Kurtzman spoofed 'Mark Trail' (issue #12, June 1954), the very series Davis once worked on as an assistant. Right from the start Davis was also frequently commissioned with creating parodies of well known advertisements. 

Foul Play, by Jack Davis (1953)
'Foul Play!', one of the all-time classic EC horror stories (The Haunt of Fear #19).

Leaving Mad
In 1957 Davis left MAD to support his colleague Harvey Kurtzman in his attempts to launch similar satirical magazines, such as Trump, Humbug and Help. He additionally did some comics work for Atlas Comics (1958-1963), as well as Hugh Hefner's Playboy, ghosting on 'Little Annie Fanny' stories. Davis also illustrated in magazines like Cracked, Slick, Loco and Crazy. In 1961 he launched his own satirical comic magazine, Yak Yak, for Dell Comics, which only lasted two issues. 

Return to Mad
In 1965 Davis rejoined MAD and would stay there for more than 30 years. He made numerous gag comics, illustrations and spoofs of TV series, such as 'The Lone Ranger' (1953, scripted by Harvey Kurtzman), 'What's My Line?' (1954, scripted by Kurtzman), 'Gunsmoke' (1955, scripted by Kurtzman), 'Hogan's Heroes' (1965, scripted by Larry Siegel), 'Sesame Street' (1971, scripted by Dick DeBartolo), 'Cannon' (1973, with Dick DeBartolo), 'Trapper John M.D.' (1981, scripted by Stan Hart), 'M.A.S.H.' (1981, scripted by Arnie Kogen) and 'Rescue 911' (1991, with Dick DeBartolo). Like many other 'Mad' artists Davis also drew film parodies, such as 'High Noon' (1952, scripted by Kurtzman), 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964, scripted by Lou Silverstone), 'Dr. Zhivago' (1965, scripted by DeBartolo), 'The Bad News Bears' (1976, scripted by Stan Hart), 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981, scripted by Debartolo and  Frank Jacobs), 'E.T.' (1982, scripted by Stan Hart), 'Scarface' (1983, scripted by Larry Siegel) and - for its 300th issue in 1991 - 'Gone With The Wind' (1937, scripted by Stan Hart).

In 1979 he also provided the artwork for both the Mad Magazine Board Game and Card Game. 

Kane Keen!, by Jack Davis 1953
'Kane Keen!' (Mad Magazine, 1953).

A trademark of Davis' style is the use of crosshatching and water colors, usually grey when published in the black-and-white pages of MAD. He drew grimy, disheveled caricatures and was a master in depicting mayhem, chaos and trashy environments. His clown-foot characters always seem to be nervous, hasty and unable to remain in the panels they were drawn in. With his instantly humorous style and passion for westerns, horror and sports games Davis was a natural for illustrating bubble gum cards, display advertising, movie posters and album covers. Among his most notable film posters are those for 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' (1963), 'Bananas' (1971), 'The Long Goodbye' (1973) and 'American Graffiti' (1973). He designed covers for comedy records by Spike Jones, Bob & Ray, Jonathan Winters, John Zacherle and Weird "Al" Yankovic, as well as record sleeves of more serious artists, such as Harry Arnold & His Orchestra's 'The Jazztone Mystery Band' (1957) and Johnny Cash's 'Everybody Loves A Nut' (1966). Jim Woodring claimed that Davis' design of the record 'Dracula's Greatest Hits' (1964) by Gene Moss was an early graphic inspiration.

Crapper John MD by Jack Davis
'Crapper John M.D.' (Mad #221, 1981)

Davis was also requested to do covers and illustrations for TV Guide, Time and Esquire and provided character designs for the animation company Rankin-Bass, particularly the cult film 'Mad Monster Party' (1967) - which was scripted by Harvey Kurtzman - as well as the TV cartoon series 'The King Kong Show' (1966-1969), 'The Jackson Five' (1970-1971) and 'Coneheads' (1981). Davis continued to do some comics in the horror genre for the magazines of Warren Publishing in the 1970s. Between 1970 and 1974 he drew a sports comic named 'Super Fan', scripted by Nick Meglin, which appeared in the monthly American football magazine Pro Quarterback. It tells the story of Y.A. Schmickle, a geeky boy who becomes a champion thanks to a magic spell. The comic satirizes much of early 1970s culture and society, while many well known American football players of the day have a cameo. When the comic strip was published in  paperback format legendary sports journalist Howard Cosell wrote the foreword.

In 1985 Jack Davis was given an Inkpot Award. The National Cartoonists' Society gave him both the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, as well as the Reuben Award for Best Cartoonist of the Year in 2000.

On 16 December 2014, at the age of 90, Jack Davis announced his retirement from drawing, because he 'couldn't meet his own standards anymore'. He  died on 27 July 2016 in Athens, Georgia, at the age of 91. At the time of his death he was the last cartoonist of Mad's pioneering years under Kurtzman's editorial command (1952-1956) to still be alive. 

Legacy and influence
Jack Davis' zany and nervous drawing style was an inspiration to many artists, including Morris, Terry Gilliam, Art Spiegelman, Theo van den BoogaardEver Meulen, Jean-Louis LejeunePeter Bagge, Jim Woodring, Bernie Wrightson, Darwyn Cooke, Phil Hester, Everett PeckFrançois Walthéry, Jean-Claude Mézières, GotlibEric HeuvelAdam Zyglis and Rick Meyerowitz (whose poster for the film 'Animal House' (1978) is often mistaken for Jack Davis' art). On the cover of Mad issue #339 (September 1995) Davis drew Mad's mascot Alfred E. Neuman plunging radio host Howard Stern out of a toilet. Stern was thrilled when he saw the cover and called it "my greatest career highlight", especially since he was a huge fan of Davis' work since childhood: "I think he was one of the greatest artists ever. I worshipped the guy when I was a kid." Stern invited Mad editors Nick Meglin and John Ficarra over on his show to express his gratitude. In an interview with CNN, conducted by Todd Leopold on 26 February 2009, Matt Groening said that both Jack Kirby and Jack Davis were heroes of his, whom he met personally: "They're definitely part of my pantheon of great artists."

Two-Fisted Tales cover by Jack Davis

Series and books by Jack Davis in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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