• Working with Jack Davis

    By Eric Skillman

    Jack Davis is an illustration legend. The cartooning style he brought to MAD magazine in the fifties as one of its original artists, heavily imitated by those who followed, played a big part in defining its offbeat sensibility. He has drawn and painted countless comic books, gag cartoons, magazine covers, record covers, book covers, and bubblegum cards in a career spanning eight decades. His movie posters are a genre unto themselves—tours de force of cartooning and caricature, with instantly recognizable stars surrounded (but somehow never overwhelmed) by a gaggle of minor characters, sight gags, visual puns, and general chaos. Jack created more than thirty-five of those posters, including ones for Woody Allen’s Bananas, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, and The Bad News Bears. But the most perfect match of style and subject matter in his film poster work was also his major commercial breakthrough: the original theatrical posters for Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

    When it came time to assemble the Criterion release of Mad World, using Jack’s classic art was a no-brainer, and we were thrilled to find the man himself willing to revisit the film and provide new illustrations for the menus and packaging (see a gallery of those images here). Working with Jack was a particular honor and pleasure for me as art director—he is every bit the consummate professional his legend describes. I took advantage of the opportunity to talk with Jack a bit about his experience with Mad World.

    Jack describes the original Mad World job as a turning point in his career. “At the time, I was kind of in limbo from MAD magazine, and not knowing where to go,” he recalls. “I think I’d left MAD, to go with Harvey Kurtzman [the magazine’s founding editor, who left in 1957 to create the short-lived magazines Humbug and Trump]. And that fell apart.”

    But happily, by 1963, some of the teenagers who’d worshiped MAD’s “usual gang of idiots” in 1952 were employed by Madison Avenue and Hollywood, and in a position to offer work to the onetime EC Comics stalwart. Jack doesn’t know who specifically was responsible for bringing his work to the attention of Kramer and the Mad World production, but he has always credited the lasting influence of MAD with opening many doors for him—including this one. “Really, everything stems from MAD magazine,” he says. “My exposure there led to a lot of things . . . In a way, the picture was a lot like MAD—it had everything in it!”

    Jack recalls the original brief for the Mad World job as a simple one: see the movie. “So I went to see the movie” (in an early cut that did not yet contain Saul Bass’s opening credit sequence, the other iconic graphic representation of the film). “And the movie was hilarious; it was unbelievable. And from that, they just said, y’know, put the kitchen sink and everything in there that you can. So I did.”

    That kitchen-sink approach honed at MAD by Kurtzman and artists like Jack, Wally Wood, and Will Elder was something new in movie posters, and Jack soon found himself in high demand. As he humbly puts it, “I’ve cranked out a lot of stuff.”

    These new jobs had the distinct advantage of being much more lucrative than Jack’s work in comics: “I remember going up to United Artists and standing in front of the desk. When they told me how much they’d pay, I said: ‘I’m ready!’ It was a big change. A big difference.”

    The difference wasn’t simply financial; Jack also enjoyed the increased prestige associated with the movie business: “My dad had Parkinson’s disease, and he paid me a visit. He really had not been to New York in—well, ever—and he came out of the station and saw the signboard, very big signboard in Times Square [advertising Mad World]. That was a big thrill. Little old me . . .”

    Jack says he never had any direct contact with Kramer, or indeed with any of the directors or producers he worked for in those years. He recalls one instance, when he was hired to create the poster for another film: “I went out [to Hollywood] to see The Russians Are Coming, to see the movie itself, and sat in the studio with the producers, and they never said a word to me.”

    Nevertheless, Jack’s star continued to rise, and over the next decades he became one of the most successful and widely seen illustrators in the world, regularly featured in Time, TV Guide, and Playboy, to name just a few. Now in semiretirement, Jack lives with his wife on St. Simons Island, Georgia, but happily was able to find time in the midst of promoting his fantastic career retrospective book, Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture, for us. “I enjoyed doing it,” he says. “I’m getting to the stage of my life where I love to do things over.”

    The quality and energy of his new drawings are outstanding—and in keeping with the enthusiasm in the voice mail Jack left me when he accepted the job: “I’m eighty-eight years old and I’m not dead yet!”

    Eric Skillman is a designer and art director at the Criterion Collection.

11 comments

  • By Brown
    January 22, 2014
    07:59 PM

    Thanks for the insight Mr. Skillman. I always enjoy reading about your process especially when it comes to working with comic book artists. Davis sounds like a class act.
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  • By Chris Anderson
    January 22, 2014
    10:51 PM

    His work on E.C.'s horror comics helped blend horror & humor many years before hollywood even got close. Jack Davis is LEGENDARY in all forms of entertainment!
    Reply
  • By Brown
    January 22, 2014
    11:28 PM

    Agreed! Outside of Criterion, imagine that attention to detail in poster design in today's market.
    Reply
  • By Rev. Syung Myung Me/Kittysneezes.com
    January 23, 2014
    03:52 PM

    Thank you very much for this interview -- Jack Davis is a national treasure.
    Reply
  • By Matt K.
    January 23, 2014
    03:53 PM

    (derp, that was me)
    Reply
  • By John Walker
    January 23, 2014
    05:10 PM

    Great Interview. Jack is truly a legend. :)
    Reply
  • By Randy
    January 23, 2014
    10:07 PM

    There were 8 of us there, so that simply means 8 shares... We're never going to get anywhere listening to this old bag. LOL
    Reply
  • By Vance Leavy
    January 24, 2014
    12:13 PM

    I have chills from reading your post. Well done. My wife and I do a University of Georgia football and fan publication called Bulldawg Illustrated and Jack has done covers for if for all 11 years. And without question, he is a true southern gentleman and just a super person.
    Reply
  • By Ray Rappisi Jr
    January 31, 2014
    11:18 PM

    Jack Davis is a living legend and should be mentioned with the greatest artist of his generation.
    Reply
  • By MR ED
    February 01, 2014
    09:49 PM

    Thank You So Much Jack Davis,Eric And Criterion This Is A Milestone In Releases We Felt Cheated With The Cheep Earlier Versions '' Keep Your VHS Copies They Contain Three Panel Segments And Are Longer. This Version Is A Long Time Coming Thank You So Much! Criterion Should Release More Cinerama Projects There Where, So Many
    Reply
  • By Bruce Handler
    April 11, 2014
    09:27 AM

    I also had the pleasure to work with Jack on a number of toy packaging projects in the late 1970s'. As many New York kids, we all were reading Mad magazine and when I attended the High School of Art and Design in NYC, I spent many hours after school at Mad's Madison Ave office talking to the various employees, art director, and even stepping into Bill Gaines office while he was scribbling on some papers. Before he tossed me out and said I would enjoy hanging around the bullpen. There I met several freelance artists delivery finished assignments and making some minor touch-ups at the office. Back to Jack. In 1977, I was newly married and out of work. My expertise was package design and I took a job in toy packaging, which I felt was nearly at the bottom of design at the time. Looking back, I was thrilled to be working and paying the bills. The big opportunity came when I designed the graphics for an LJN toy entitled, "Silly Sammy the Seagull. Jack was the artist I had in mind. A few calls and I reached Jack's office number in Scarsdale and we talked for a few minutes and set-up an appointment that week. I arrived at his home early in the morning as agreed and his wife answered the door and showed me in. Jack came downstairs in his bathrobe and long white socks, and we walked across through the back of his house to an old horse carriage in the back that was his studio. We discussed the client approved layout and my small budget of $750. Jack agreed to it and that was for the box and product labels. After reviewing the design, I realized I didn't have any money left for the product lettering. As I started to panic, Jack said he would do the lettering to and I was relieved. We diid a few more projects during that time and I used to run into Jack at Thompson Art supply store in White Plains. When I became the Design Director at Nestle, Jack did some community work for United Way and Nestle and I paid him back with a case of chocolate bars. That was the last time we did anything together and that was in 1985. I had some original work from jack and my days in toy packaging and as the years went by, I started collecting and building on what Jack had given me to where I have a nice collection that represents various styles and years of work. I,m proud of a series of 8 Time cover roughs Jack did for Watergate. They show his thinking and quick style. I have to say Jack is a gentleman, easy going and a great conservative. Many don't realize that Jack has donated so much of his work to help others. I know for a fact that when there was a fire at his church, Jack framed and donated 20 original pieces of art for the fundraiser. He did the same for me with United Way. When at the art store, he would give advice to those who knew who he was. Always had time for others and a really humble person who I had the honor to work with for a short period of my career.
    Reply

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