Celebrating the Horror and Humor of Jack Davis
Jack Davis was one of a stable of amazing draftsmen who worked for EC Comics in the 1950s, and who would go on to found Mad Magazine, but even among such talented artists as Joe Orlando, Al Williamson, and Wally Wood, Davis was a standout. His endearingly cartoonish style would prove so popular that by the 1970s, his art would be in millions of American homes.
John Burton “Jack” Davis Jr, was born on this day in 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia. His earliest published comics work came at the age of 12 when he had a cartoon published in the reader's page of Tip Top Comics #9 in 1936. He would go on to draw for his high school newspaper and yearbook and then enlist in the Navy, where, serving for three year, he would contribute drawings to the Navy News daily newspaper.
After leaving the Navy, Davis would attend the University of Georgia on the GI Bill, where he not only drew for the student newspaper, but also helped to launch a satirical off-campus publication called Bullsheet, whose “risque jokes and cartoons,” as he called them, somewhat presaged his later work. After graduating, Davis interned at The Atlanta Journal, and spent a summer inking the Mark Trail newspaper strip.
A gig for Coca-Cola in 1949 earned Davis enough money to move up the coast to New York, where he attended the Art Students League of New York and landed more inking work for newspaper comics before launching his own short-lived syndicated strip, Beauregard, a gag strip set in the American Civil War, one of Davis's favored topics. Following a series of rejections from various publishers, Davis was preparing to return to Georgia to be, in his words, “either a forest ranger or a farmer,” but luckily he happened to take his portfolio into the offices of the burgeoning EC Comics, which hired him right away.
Much of Davis's signature work would be done on EC's horror and war lines, for such titles as Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, and Crime Suspenstories. He was perhaps most notable for his work on Tales from the Crypt, where his detailed style revamped editor Al Feldstein's somewhat simplified design of the Cryptkeeper into a spittle-mouthed, wart-faced, large-handed, crag-faced terror who truly earned his position as the most famous horror host in comics history.
Davis would draw the lead Cryptkeeper story in every issue of Crypt following his debut, and would draw the covers for issues #29-46. His work included such seminal stories as “Tain't the Meat, It's the Humanity,” “Fare Tonight Followed by Increasing Clottiness,” the Cryptkeeper origin story “Lower Berth,” and “Foul Play,” a baseball-centric story that would later be singled out by Dr Fredric Wertham.
Davis's moody brushwork, multi-layered layouts, and realistic texture and detail on often exaggerated and expressive figure, combined with his legendary speed and prolificness, made him a star even among the unparalleled field of talent working at EC at the time.
His often exaggerated style and expressive brushwork made him a solid fit for Harvey Kurtzman's Mad, which launched as a comic book at EC in 1952. Davis would contribute to most of the first 30 issues of Mad, as well as its sister publication Panic, competitor Cracked, and Kurtzman's post-EC humor magazines Trump, Humbug, and Help.
With this much experience with humor magazines, it's no real surprise that he launched his own, Yak Yak, for Dell Comics in 1961. He would return to Mad, however, in the mid-'60s, and continue contributing features and cover to the magazine for decades.
It was, perhaps, Davis's work in commercial illustration and advertising that made his work recognizable in households across America. From 1968 to 1981, Davis would draw 23 covers for TV Guide, then the most popular magazine in America, illustrating such famous faces as Andy Griffith, Bob Hope, and the cast of Bonanza. He even designed the animated bug from the famous series of commercials for Raid insecticide.
He also worked in television and film, designing characters for such Rankin/Bass productions as Mad Monster Party, The Coneheads, and The Jackson 5ive, as well as illustrating movie posters for such films as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, and The Bad News Bears, and the cover art for Johnny Cash's album Everybody Loves A Nut. Davis's love of sports would also lead to his designing the mascot for the College of Coastal Georgia and doing a series of famous illustrations for his beloved alma mater, the University of Georgia.
Sadly, Jack Davis passed away in 2016, but his towering legacy of illustration, wit, and homespun charm will endure.