Jack Davis, the prolific Mad magazine illustrator, cartoonist and movie poster artist, has died aged 91.
As a struggling artist in New York in 1950, Davis scored with E.C. Comics, which published a line of horror titles including Tales from the Crypt.
He remained with its editors – William M. Gaines, Albert B. Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman – when they launched Mad in 1952. He contributed to the magazine for the next six decades, including countless portraits of its perpetually grinning mascot Alfred E. Neuman.
Along the way, Davis created numerous covers for TV Guide and Time, and posters for films including American Graffiti and Woody Allen’s Bananas.
Interestingly he only retired last year!
The reason? He just can’t meet his own standards. “I’m not satisfied with the work,” Davis said. “I can still draw, but I just can’t draw like I used to.”
Davis has probably spent more time in America’s living rooms than anyone.Mad was a million-seller when Davis was on the mag, and when he was doingTV Guide covers in the 1970s, the publication boasted a circulation of over 20 million. Yet, Davis was largely unaware of his massive cultural significance. “I never really thought about that, but I guess I’m very blessed, I’ve been very lucky.”
But his luck paled in comparison to his skill. Davis started his career in 1936, when he was only 12; he won $1 as part of a national art contest and saw his work published in Tip Top Comics #9. While still a teen, his cartoons were published in The Yellow Jacket, a humor magazine at Georgia Tech University, where his uncle was a professor. After a stint in the military, Davis caught on with EC Comics in 1950, where he was part of the artistic wave that revolutionized comics with titles like Tales from the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, and Mad.
Whereas Norman Rockwell’s images represented Americana of the 1940s and ’50s with his Boy Scouts and pigtailed girls, Davis’ work epitomized the ’60s and ’70s—the smirking, sardonic face of the emerging counterculture. By the time the Beats and the Hippies (who came of age reading Davis cartoons) took over, he was doing movie posters for Woody Allen’s Bananas, The Long Goodbye, American Graffiti, and others.
“Jack Davis is probably the most versatile artist ever to work the worlds of comic books, illustration, or movie poster art,” Scott Dunbier, a former art dealer and current director of special projects at comic book publisher IDW. “He can work in a humorous style or deadly serious style, historical or modern, anything. His work transcends that of almost any other cartoonist.”
IDW recently published Jack Davis’ EC Stories Artist’s Edition, reprinting some of Davis’ classic stories taken from the original art. Other pieces from the archives may emerge, but at 90 Davis was done producing new work. “I’m just gonna sit on the porch and watch the river go by,” Davis says. “And maybe go fishing once in a while.”