Illustrator Jack Davis' NOT-SO-MAD WORLD

Appreciation: Jack Davis has died at age 91. You may not know his name, but his drawings graced UGA billboards and the covers of MAD magazine and Time, and cartoonists considered him one of the greats

I met Jack Davis in 2001, when he had just won the Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society, which is the cartoonist’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.

He held the honor lightly, grateful for the appreciation but not likely to take himself too seriously. Ten years past retirement age, he was still cranking out illustrations in the studio on the first floor of his sunny St. Simons house.

Davis died Wednesday, July 27, at age 91. According to his aunt, Mildred Mixson of Conyers, he had suffered a stroke.

Here is the story I wrote back then, published on July 15, 2001:

St. Simons Island — Here is a drawing of a gorilla trying to crush Arnold Palmer. On the coat rack is a Frankenstein mask and a Canadian Mountie's uniform. Decorating the walls are original drawings from Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Schulz and other cartoon luminaries. In the floor-to-ceiling shelves are stacks of Mad magazines, boxes of slides from "Mad trips" labeled ''Africa'' and "Tahiti, " reams of penciled roughs -- in short, a bristling database of wild-hair images from the fertile mind of 76-year-old Jack Davis Jr., all neatly classified and organized.

The studio is a bit like the man: deceptively methodical on the outside, bulging with mania on the inside. "People were always surprised that he was an artist, " says his wife, Dena. "They said, 'You look more like you work in a bank.' "

Davis -- St. Simons resident, Atlanta native and Buckhead Boy in excelsis --- is considered one of the greatest illustrators and cartoonists this country has produced in the last century. As a contributor to Mad magazine from its birth in 1952 until the mid-1990s, he brought to life the goofy stories that entertained and informed two generations of wisenheimers.

His artwork has adorned at least 36 Time magazine covers, 80 album covers, scores of movie posters and dozens of dust jackets. In display advertising, his illustrations have hawked countless products, from pizza to athlete's foot cream.

His relaxed but energetic line and his bug-eyed, big-footed characters have become an unmistakable feature of the American visual vernacular.

This spring, the National Cartoonists Society named Davis Cartoonist of the Year, giving him the Reuben Award, the NCS equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for UGA cartoonist Jack Davis

He had already won the group's equally prestigious Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, named after the artist behind the comic strip "Terry and the Pirates, " which in the mid-'40s appeared in 300 newspapers.

"I think Jack is probably the most successful illustrator of any illustrator in history, " says syndicated cartoonist Daryl Cagle, former president of the cartoonists' society, "just in terms of how we illustrators measure success. We measure it by (asking) how big is the job? How many people see it?"

Hundreds of millions have seen Davis' work, which has never been cataloged but which is made up of thousands of pieces. Colleagues say he's had a significant impact on other artists, with a style and sensibility that attracts many imitators.

Davis is quite natty, but his characters are deeply unkempt. They are often homely. Their buttons aren't done, their shoelaces are untied. Little specks flying from their gaping mouths indicate that they spray when they talk, and the flies circling their unwashed heads give testimony to some strong aromas.

Among the wannabes, the bona fide Davis hand is instantly recognizable, down to a drawing's tiniest details. Says fellow Mad artist Sergio Aragones, "Even if you just see a shoe, you know it's a Jack Davis shoe. Very few men can do that."

The shoe is familiar, but the man is not. The celebrity illustrators of the first part of this century -- artists such as Howard Pyle, Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth -- were known coast to coast. But Davis can travel with anonymity in most places, inside Georgia and out.

"I go to cocktail parties and they ask, 'What do you do?' and I say I'm a cartoonist, " explains Davis over a light beer and a bacon-tomato sandwich (no lettuce) at Hampton Plantation, the country club where he plays golf. "They say, 'Oh, what strip do you do?' and I say I don't have a strip. 'Well then, what paper are you with?' and I say I don't do editorial cartoons. So I have to explain it all from the beginning."

In the beginning was "Popeye" -- for inspiration -- followed shortly by "The Katzenjammer Kids" and "Prince Valiant." The young John Burton Davis Jr. devoured these Sunday funnies, spreading them around the living room floor at the family home on Peachtree Road in Buckhead, laboriously copying the characters in his own hand.

Davis sent off his cartoons to competitions, publishing his first work at age 11 in the December 1936 issue of Tip Top comics. "I think I won a dollar, " he says.

He yearned to be a cartoonist, and even the arrival of World War II wouldn't stop him. After enlisting in the Navy out of North Fulton High School in 1943, he was stationed first in Pensacola, Fla., then at the Agana Naval Air Base in Guam. There he hatched a Sad Sack-like character called Seaman Swabby for a strip called Boondocker that ran weekly in the Navy News.

Back in the United States, Davis enrolled at the University of Georgia, taking plenty of drawing classes and doing poorly in almost every other subject. Gesturing at a Charles Schulz original on his studio wall that features academic underachiever Peppermint Patty, Davis says he felt a certain affinity with that lackluster scholar.

"If it hadn't been for the GI Bill, they would have kicked me out of there, " he says of UGA. Though he never graduated, he would become one of Georgia's most visible alumni.

While his schoolwork was weak, his artwork grew stronger. He helped out artist Ed Dodd by drawing backgrounds for the nature strip "Mark Trail." Winning a summer internship at The Atlanta Journal, he drew sports cartoons and did courtroom sketches at the notorious Refoule trial. The Refoule sketches interested executives at Coca-Cola, who hired him to illustrate a training manual for Coke drivers. This earned him enough cash to buy a car and move to New York, which in 1950 was the mecca for cartoonists and graphic artists.

It was a trying time. While studying at the Arts Students League, he shopped his ideas for cartoon strips; all were rejected. He couldn't get hired at comic book publishers. He missed his fiancee Dena Roquemore, still in school at Georgia. A con artist sold him a fake diamond ring on the street. Someone stole his car.

But he also had a few breaks. He landed a job inking the strip "The Saint" at the New York Herald-Tribune, and when the Tribune folded, he found his way to E.C. Publications, a collection of four-color comic books devoted to war, crime, science fiction and horror.

E.C. editor Al Feldstein describes the transplanted Southerner, with his drawl and his high-top brogans, as a bit like Jed Clampett come to town. "If there was a stalk of hay sticking out of his teeth, it would have been appropriate." But his work was great, and best of all, he was fast. "Oh God, he was fast, " says Feldstein, now retired to a Montana ranch. "I'd give him 10 days to do a job, and I knew he played golf four of those 10 days."

Being fast was a matter of survival, says Davis. When he handed in work, E.C. cut a check on the spot, and gave him the next assignment. The faster he worked, the more money he made.

Davis' grotesque side was a perfect fit for such titles as "Tales From the Crypt, " "Weird Science" and "The Vault of Horror."

In the unofficial competition among E.C. artists to draw the most horrifying images, Davis' ax-murdering husbands and disemboweled baseball players often came out on top. Then, ambitious Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver determined that comic books were a leading cause of juvenile delinquency. During the Kefauver hearings, Davis' artwork was held up as a scurrilous example of material destined to corrupt young people.

Davis was terribly embarrassed by the attention, and once the hearings were over, he burned all his E.C. comics. Today the 10-cent rags sell to collectors for $1,000 apiece, mint.

"I wasn't proud of it, " he says now. "It was tongue-in-cheek horror stuff, but it probably gave some kid nightmares."

The comic book publishers decided to regulate themselves before the government did it for them. Publisher William Gaines folded all of his titles except one, a humor comic started in 1952 by Harvey Kurtzman called Mad. Davis' artwork was in Mad from its first issue, and Gaines quickly transformed Mad from a comic into a magazine, to avoid the strictures of the Comics Code Authority.

When Kurtzman left Mad in 1957 to pursue a Hugh Hefner-financed humor magazine called Trump, Davis went along. But Trump lasted only two issues. Scrambling for work, Davis did gags for Playboy, Esquire and a few short-lived Kurtzman enterprises including Humbug and Help! He also branched into commercial work, drawing display ads for NBC television, Jell-O, Spalding, Mennen and other products.

When he came back to Mad in 1965, he was making better money elsewhere, but he loved the break from the confines of commercial art. "Jack continued to do artwork for me at my lousy rates, " says Feldstein, "even though he was doing album covers and Time magazine covers."

Davis, by then married to Dena, settled in the gray flannel suburbs of Westchester County, where they raised two children, Jack III and Katie. The Davises lived a fairly straight-arrow existence, though none of their son's friends would believe that.

"People would drive slowly past our house thinking some crazy person lived there, " says Jack Davis III, an Atlanta architect who designed his parents' spacious St. Simons home. So he'd make up stories just to satisfy their curiosity. "I'd tell them we didn't have to wear clothes until we were teenagers."

The place was littered with the elder Davis' work -- except for his work on the Playboy cartoon Little Annie Fannie, for which he drew the backgrounds. Dena didn't approve.

The father's career took a step upward when he created the poster for the 1963 Stanley Kramer movie "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, " placing his fevered vision before the eyes of millions.

The illustration is vintage Davis. More than a hundred characters stampede across the canvas, in a teeming mosh pit of humanity sprinkled with horses, dogs, bicycles, airplanes and other conveyances. There are dozens of recognizable caricatures in the crowd, including Spencer Tracy, Phil Silvers and Ethel Merman.

For the movie opening, "He brought us all into (Manhattan) in our Ford Country Squire station wagon, " remembers Jack III. "It was on Broadway, this billboard, four or five stories tall, with all these people chasing Spencer Tracy. That was quite a moment."

Not all the moments are memorable. Davis has illustrated many a forgettable ad for trade and in-flight magazines, selling rental cars and motel rooms. Describing a piece he was brainstorming last month for an energy industry publication, he said the story was intolerably dull, but -- what the heck -- a man's gotta eat.

"He cranks it out as fast as they need it to be cranked out, " says Hank Harrison, a Texas writer who has edited two large-format picture books on Davis, both out of print. "He doesn't put it all in a personal museum, he doesn't worry about that, he just goes on to the next piece."

Davis also doesn't worry about his blunders. He even frames some of them. On his studio wall is a caricature of Chris Evert drawn for a George Dickel ad campaign. Minor detail: Her racket is in the wrong hand. Evert didn't mind, because Davis turned her from a tennis star into a really stacked tennis star. She autographed the picture: "Thanks for making me a lefty and busty!!!"

Davis didn't move back to Georgia for almost 40 years, but cut him and he'd bleed UGA red (and India ink black). He'd return regularly for the Georgia-Florida game and has sketched hundreds of Dawg characters and other artwork for University of Georgia program covers, media guides and billboards. "He's been a Bulldog through and through, " says athletic director Vince Dooley.

Davis draws his Georgia work for free --- or perhaps for a few tickets to the big game. In appreciation, the Athletic Association helped fund the Jack Davis Distinguished Visiting Artist Lecture series at the school, which will bring caricaturist David Levine to Georgia for a presentation next spring.

His Winsor & Newton brushes and Croquill pens seem suited to Southern characters, which may be why his artwork has graced books by such Southern humorists as William Price Fox, Lewis Grizzard and Robert Steed. Having Davis illustrate his books, says Steed, "is like having Picasso do your Christmas cards."

The Davises became fond of St. Simons after spending many summers in nearby Sea Island. They moved back to Georgia in 1989, building a house on the once empty, now built up northern end of St. Simons. They share their home with Too-Too, a white miniature poodle who greets visitors with the ferocity of a killer cotton swab.

This setting, with its elegant, ancient live oaks and Spanish moss, seems all wrong. Davis' spotless Lowcountry home, his University of Georgia polo shirt, even his taste in dogs, radiate conventionality. But when the artist invites you back to his sun-washed studio, stuffed with mementos of a lifetime of Madness, the inner Jack Davis begins to emerge.

Davis' drafting table looks across the Hampton River toward Little St. Simons and the Sapelo Lighthouse. Porpoises swim up to the seawall in his back yard and wood storks land in his palmettos. After half a lifetime in the Northern wilderness, he is home.

Not really retired, he's just working slightly slower. "I want to get better, " he says, looking pleased to be parking his easel in a land where Poss' barbecue is always close at hand.

"I just sit over here by myself and look out at the river, " says the artist, with a dreamlike smile. "I listen to my country music and -- just float away."


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