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Working with Jack Davis

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!”

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