Jack Davis, 1924-2016

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Image from americanartarchives.com.

Jack Davis, one of the cornerstones of Mad magazine’s “Usual Gang of Idiots,” died Wednesday. He was 91.

Davis was an incredibly vivid, amazingly versatile artist. His ties with Mad parent EC Publications, headed by the irrepressible William M. Gaines, predated Mad’s founding: Davis was one of the primary artists for EC’s horror comics. His work had an energy to it that belied its origins as ink on paper.

I wasn’t initially a Jack Davis fan. When I started reading Mad as a 10-year-old in 1975, I was a Mort Drucker boy.

Drucker was Mad’s primary movie parody artist and caricaturist, and his caricatures featured finely tuned lines with just enough whimsy — weird cameos, self-aware signs — he won me over right away. (I’m still a big fan.)

But Davis? His work seemed to sprawl all over the place, as if he was as intent on speed as accuracy. The hands and feet he drew always seemed gleefully lumpy and worn. His people looked loose and unwashed, as if they’d just rolled out of bed. (It was like comparing Norman Mingo’s precise Alfred E. Neuman with Jack Rickard’s looser model.)

That glee: He just couldn’t hide his laughter from his work.

Which is what won me over — that, and seeing his work outside of Mad.

In Mad, Davis was one of many distinctive comedic artists. But his zest really showed up in the covers of Time and TV Guide he did. Take a look at this one, with Nixon and his crew entangled in phone lines and headsets, done during the rise of Watergate:

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How can you complain about such energy? It’s brilliant.

I met Davis in 2011 when I attended a gathering at the Savannah College and Art and Design paying tribute to Mad’s artistry. He had grown frail, a lanky man who walked with a cane when he walked at all. But he still had a twinkle in his eye as he joined a panel with other Mad names, including Al Jaffee and Sergio Aragones, listening to stories about Gaines’ wacky (and inconsistently parsimonious) ways and how the magazine became central to American humor.

Jaffee called Davis an “absolute master.”

Savannah wasn’t far from Davis’ residence on Georgia’s coast. Indeed, the artist was a native of the state who attended the University of Georgia (as many people around here will remind you) and never shed his ties. He provided work for a documentary on UGA’s bulldog mascot. When he died, it was on Georgia’s St. Simons Island.

Damn Good Dog titles from Nowhere Productions Athens, GA on Vimeo.

But let’s face it: Davis’ real home was in the pages of a magazine — or, better yet, the cover. “There wasn’t anything Jack couldn’t do,” said Mad editor John Ficarra in a tribute.

It’s our loss.

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