August 3, 2016

Jack Davis, Prolific Illustrator of Mad Magazine, Dies at 91

Art Notes

A self-portrait by Davis.

From celebrity caricatures to sports illustrations to narrative comics, legendary artist Jack Davis, who died Wednesday, July 27 at the age of 91, touched on nearly every aspect of American pop culture over the span of his 60-year career. Whether portraying a haunted house’s monster, a Civil War soldier or a Wild West cowboy, his iconic images reveal a sense of humor and lightheartedness indicative of his own personality and Southern charm.

Inarguably one of the most successful artists to have ever called Athens home, Davis is internationally recognized for his popular illustrations in EC Comics and Mad magazine. His career spanned several mediums, ranging from movie posters, advertising designs and animation to cover art for books, records and publications such as Time magazine, TV Guide and Playboy

After serving in the Navy during World War II, spending part of his time drawing for a base newspaper in Guam, the Atlanta native returned to his home state and enrolled in the University of Georgia on the G.I. Bill. While studying under Lamar Dodd, he illustrated for the student-run newspaper The Red & Black and an off-campus humor publication named Bullsheet. With the encouragement of his instructors, he relocated to New York City to finish school at the Art Students League and pursue a career as a professional artist. 


MAD Magazine #27 cover art

Quickly settling into the city as a freelance cartoonist, Davis’ first major break was in 1950 as a contributor to EC Comics, which specialized in horror, sci-fi, humor and war comics. Davis brought nightmarish and otherworldly characters to life through the pages of Tales From the Crypt, Incredible Science Fiction, Frontline Combat, The Haunt of Fear and many other titles.

Feeling the pressure of mounting public criticism concerning the content of comic books and their potentially harmful effects on children—this was during the ’50s, after all—EC Comics owner William Gaines and editors Albert Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman decided to launch the satirical Mad in 1952. Naturally, they brought Davis along as a founding artist and member of the lovingly nicknamed “Usual Gang of Idiots.” 

Davis contributed to the first 30 issues of Mad, returning in the mid-’60s to contribute long-term over several decades. In addition to portraits of the publication’s grinning mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, his popular parodies included characters from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gone With the Wind and The Lone Ranger. His cartoons became well-loved for their rare element of controlled chaos, full of motion, bold colors and larger-than-life personalities. 


Sic 'em!

Many Athenians—particularly football fans—were introduced to Davis through his depictions of the Georgia Bulldogs, which frequently starred Uga brawling with opposing team mascots or celebrating victories. He produced hundreds of images for the athletics department over the years, and his caricatures have become ingrained into the visual culture of UGA football. 

Davis is extraordinary in the way that his seemingly separate bodies of work, each supported by its own loyal following, are ultimately able to bridge gaps between the distinct audiences they attract. His Bulldog caricatures are silly and charming enough to make any football anti-fan reconsider her love for the game, and his action-packed illustrations—whether spooky or comedic—are alluring enough to catch the eye of anyone unaware of the beauty in comics.

The true extent of his artistry as an illustrator was highlighted in “Beyond the Bulldog: Jack Davis,” a 2012 exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art guest-curated by Patrick Dean, the former Flagpole comic artist who recently eulogized Davis for Playboy. Coinciding with the football season, yet intentionally excluding Bulldog imagery in order to introduce sports fans to lesser-known works, the exhibition focused on early comics and humor pieces. The majority of pieces were black-and-white, revealing the artist’s meticulousness and skill in crosshatching.


Photo Credit: Patrick Dean

Jack Davis at "Beyond the Bulldog: Jack Davis," a 2012 exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art.

Established in 1998, the Jack Davis Distinguished Visiting Artist program at UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art has honored the artist by inviting other professional illustrators to campus for annual lectures. Additionally, a fundraising campaign for the Jack Davis Scholarship, which intends to support a student focusing in illustration, is currently underway at The Jack Davis Foundation, a nonprofit established to develop an archive and support exhibitions, announced its discontinuation back in February, but still offers a plethora of archival material to peruse online

Filmmaker Erica McCarthy, who splits her time between Athens and Austin, TX, has made several wonderful short videos about Davis available on Vimeo through her account for Nowhere Productions. Who is Jack Davis? is a short biography narrated by the cartoonist himself, and Animating Uga shadows the artist at work through various time lapses. The title sequence for Damn Good Dog, a documentary about Uga, features fun animated illustrations.

Davis was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the National Cartoonists Society in 1996, and was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame at the Museum of American Illustration in New York in 2005. He has been one of the most influential comic artists in the past half-century, and his work will continue to inspire and inform the style of others for decades to come.