Jack Davis, American cartoonist, illustrator, and the last surviving artist from the EC horror comics imprint, has died from complications relating to a stroke, The New York Times reports. He was 91.
Born John Burton Davis Jr., Davis was perhaps best known as one of the founding cartoonists for MAD in 1952. He was first published at the age of 12 with a submission for Tip Top Comics. The Atlanta native attended the University of Georgia on the G.I. Bill, where he did art for both the campus newspaper and the bawdy off-campus humor publication Bullsheet. After graduation, Davis remained in his hometown, working as a cartoonist intern at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Eventually, though, the artist made his way to New York in a car paid for with money he made illustrating a Coca-Cola training manual, and began working as an inker on The Saint comic strip.
From there, Davis began working as a Freelancer for William Gaine’s EC Comics. EC Comics was best known for its horror comics, such as Tales From The Crypt, The Vault Of Horror and The Haunt Of Fear, but Davis also contributed work to Crime Supsenstories and Two-Fisted Tales, among others. “I was about ready to give up and go home to Georgia,” Davis told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. “But I went down to Entertaining Comics, where Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines were putting out horror books. They looked at my work and it was horrible and they gave me a job right away.”
Davis took over the Crypt-Keeper stories in 1951, providing a much more wretched, disgusting looking character than Al Feldstein’s previous iteration of the character as well as illustrating the Crypt-keeper’s origin story in “Lower Berth!” (No. 33). Davis himself made a cameo—alongside most of the EC staff—in the Tales From The Crypt story “Kamen’s Kalamity” (No. 31). According to editors Gaines, Feldstein, and Harvey Kurtzman, he was was one of the fastest artists they had on the team.
“Harvey was just a great teacher,” Davis recalled of Kurtzman in a 2011 interview with The A.V. Club. “He taught me to simplify things; he was a great simplifier. He was a good man.” But for all the grue and gore featured in Tales From The Crypt, Davis was never a fan of the more violent tales. “I love horror. I love ghost stories,” Davis explained to The A.V. Club. “But when it comes to illustrating it for thousands and thousands of young people to see it, I don’t go along with it.”
In August of 1952, MAD premiered as a comic book under the EC umbrella, before converting to a magazine in 1955. This relieved MAD from the Comics Code Authority that ultimately doomed Tales From The Crypt. Davis was one of the founders—the “Usual Gang Of Idiots”—of MAD, alongside editor and writer Harvey Kurtzman and fellow artists Wally Wood, Will Elder, and John Severin. “There wasn’t anything Jack couldn’t do,” current MAD editor John Ficarra says in a tribute to Davis on the site. “Front covers, caricatures, sports scenes, monsters—his comedic range was just incredible. His ability to put energy and motion into his drawings, his use of cross-hatching and brush work, and his bold use of color made him truly one of the greats.”
“It was Jack’s immediately recognizable style that revolutionized comic illustration,” adds MAD art director Sam Viviano. That style—distorted, caricatured portrayals of stars with big heads, big smiles, bigger feet and tiny bodies—also graced numerous TV Guide covers and film posters. His work can be seen on marketing materials for classic films such as American Graffiti, The Bad News Bears, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and The Long Goodbye.
Davis got the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World gig thanks to the teenagers who were into MAD in the ’50s growing up and getting jobs on Madison Avenue and Hollywood. “Really, everything stems from MAD magazine,” Davis told The Criterion Collection in 2014. “In a way the picture was a lot like MAD—it had everything in it. They just said put the kitchen sink and everything in there that you can. So I did.”
“I usually did all the backgrounds with pen and ink, and the foreground would be in color with a brush,” Davis told The A.V. Club. “It came from the head.” Davis contributed his final cover to MAD magazine in 1995, featuring Alfred E. Neuman flushing Howard Stern down a toilet. It remains a favorite piece of the shock jock’s.
In 1989, Davis also designed the 25-cent Letter Carriers stamp, and although living persons are not allowed on stamps due to postal policy, one of the caricatures was clearly a self-portrait. Davis is survived by his wife Dena, daughter Kate Davis Lloyd, and son Jack Davis III.