Jack Davis

2005 Hall of Fame Inductee: Jack Davis

To me, Jack Davis is to humorous illustration what Joe Di Maggio was to baseball. And now, the induction of Davis to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame makes the similarity to Di Maggio that much more evident. Both grew up as shy, tall, lanky, modest young men who realized early on that they wanted to do what they loved to do most and then dedicated themselves to that end. Both knew the best place for them to showcase their talent was New York and that’s where their effort eventually took them. Davis married his childhood sweetheart, Dena; Di Maggio later married the nation’s sweetheart, Marilyn. And both Davis and Di Maggio rose to the top of their respective fields, drawing and center.

Perhaps the most important similarity between these men is how many young people they have destroyed! Their talents are so natural that they make it seem as though what they do is easy and accessible to all. If you ever watched either of them at work in their respective professions, you’d say, “Hell, I can do that!” Well, the horrible truth about that level of natural talent is that when translated into the language of reality, it becomes, “Sorry, but no, you can’t do that!” The best advice you can offer students of either game is, “Stay in school and, in addition to that special thing you love, learn how to do something that makes you a living, like accounting! And if you’re talented enough, bright enough, dedicated, and most of all, original enough, maybe someday you, too, will be enshrined in the illustrators or Baseball Hall of Fame. If not, hey, the Accountant’s Hall of Fame isn’t so bad. Your name right up there with Harold Burkheimer who never in 56 years of ledger work forgot to carry the three into the next column! How’s that for a Hall of Fame stat? There’s no way hitting safely in 56 straight games as Di Maggio did, or doing a full-color MAD magazine in 56 minutes as David did, can top that!

This isn’t a negative attitude; it’s a realistic one. Natural talent, like Davis’s or Di Maggio’s can neither be taught nor learned. It’s either there or it ain’t. If it’s there, hard work can help expand and develop it. If it ain’t, even Davis and Di Maggio can’t teacher you how to get it. These guys are the worst teachers you can have because they don’t know what they do. They haven’t a clue! The Yankees hired Di Maggio as a batting coach after he retired, but there hasn’t been one Baseball Hall of Famer who can point to him and say, “He taught me everything I know!” These young rookies would stand around the batting cage and Joe would say, “You gotta keep your eye on the ball and if the pitch is over the plate, you swing at it and watch it sail!” Thanks a lot, Joe! Now that I know the secret , give me a bat and stand back…

And Jack Davis? The truth is he can’t help but draw funny. It just pours out of him. His advice to young art students who idolize his work? “You take a pencil and a clean sheet of paper and you draw the figure doin’ something crazy and then you put an expression like this on his face and then you ink it! The art directors love it!” Thanks a lot, Jack. Now that I know his secret, give me a brush and bottle of ink and stand back…

But that’s where the similarity ends. Sports and creativity are worlds apart, especially since an abundance of natural talent in sports will just about guarantee a successful career. Bat.300, hit 40 home runs, post 22 game totally subjective and an abundance of natural talent guarantees nothing if it doesn’t fit the needs or taste of art directors, producers, gallery owners, etc. However great your talent, you have to earn your success as Jack Davis did.

The artist was born in 1926 in Atlanta, Georgia. With a minimal of formal art training at the University of Georgia and a year of evening classes at the Art Students League in New York City, Davis was able to secure work assisting comic strip feature artists by doing backgrounds and inking. His facile brushwork was expressive in its thick and thin variations and, more important, fast. For him, working with pen was far too arduous and time consuming in the comic art profession, a world known for tough deadlines and payment based on quantity as much as quality. He was able to master his dense crosshatching, invariably a pen technique, with a brush that held more ink, which meant “Less time spent dipping.” Davis’s ability to turn out great work in little time became legend in the industry and he was often referred to as the “fastest brush in the South.” Once his reputation was established and his illustration horizons expanded into more profitable assignments, Davis enjoyed working with pen and ink as well, combining it with brush and experimenting with different color media for various effects that maintained his foundational line work.

From his early beginnings as a comic artist, this distinguished southern gentleman was the antithesis of everything he captured on paper. Always fighting an internal war with the E.C. Comics horror stories brought him his initial commercial success, but which he did only because he had to, Davis found a happier niche when MAD magazine’s creator, Harvey Kurtzman, assigned him the lead story in MAD #1, a comic magazine spoof of the publisher’s own horror stories that Davis felt so uncomfortable drawing. More of the same followed in MAD #2 with Davis’s cover and lead-off story, but here the artists got to draw one of his two favorite subjects: sports. His good fortune didn’t end there- MAD #3 offered him a chance at drawing his other favorite subject: Westerns. Davis’s rendition of “The Lone Ranger” in that issue can arguably be considered his launching pad into graphic parody.

Davis approaches his drawing of the human for with a unique balance between exaggeration and credibility. This lends more humor to the work than if the emphasis were focused on plausible reality alone. The figure looks correct, and yet, well, no human anatomy is capable of that action! A Davis drawing of a wide receiver reaching into the air to snag a pass makes a photo of a player doing the same thing look comparatively earthbound. Even in drawings loaded with accurate detail (a common occurrence in much of Davis’s work), the artist’s involvement with the feel of the subject always takes precedence over the objective reality.

Davis approaches caricature in the same manner. With an observant eye for the features which project the likeness most, the artist exaggerates here, underplays there, adds subtle changes to the expression and somehow the subject’s personality emerges as much as resemblance.

Davis’s talent has been showcased in many of MAD’s film and television satires as well as covers and illustrations for TV Guide, TIME magazine, more than eighty books, record album covers, and over fifty movie posters. Many examples of his art are included in two books of his work published by Stabur Press: the hardcover edition, The Art of Jack Davis by Han Harrison in 1987 and the softcover edition, Some of My Good Stuff, compiled by Hank Harrison in 1990.

Davis was honored by the National Cartoonists Society with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and then again in 2001 when the same organization voted him in the prestigious Reuben Award, the “Oscar” of the cartooning world.

And now the Society of Illustrator Hall of Fame. Jack Davis has been in a state of disbelief since he got the letter telling him he was elected by his peers for this great tribute. Like Joe Di Maggio, the natural place to be honored for his enormous natural talent. If there were a Hall of Fame for decent, warm, and generous people in the world, Jack Davis would be enshrined there as well.

Nick Meglin
from an address delivered at the Society of Illustrators President’s Dinner on June 23, 2005.