Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The One, the Only... Jack Davis!

Jack Davis!
On Sat, Dec 3rd, I had the honor and pleasure, along with Fantagraphics book's Gary Groth, of interviewing one of my all time favorite cartoonist/illustrators, the legendary Jack Davis, as part of the Brooklyn Comics & Graphics Festival, in conjunction with the release of the new deluxe Jack Davis career anthology "Drawing American Pop Culture" (Fantagraphics). Jack is the quintessential laid back Southern gentleman, and true to form, was as delightful, sweet and humble as everyone expected. I chose the images shown for the power point presentation during our discussion of Jack's career, (see link), a daunting task, picking several dozen illustrations hopefully touching all bases of his career, from among the thousands he's created in his seven decades as an illustrator, and Jack happily discussed and reminisced over each drawing, including some he had long forgotten (or had tried to forget!) 

All the images shown for the PPP:

You can listen to our entire interview with Jack here:

Some highlights of our talk: Jack credits his friend, the brilliant EC war comics and MAD editor Harvey Kurtzman as the "greatest, smartest editor" he ever worked for, pushing him in directions that he still credits for his long, astounding success as a comics artist, editorial illustrator, album cover and film poster artist, etc. He also shared fond memories of his old friend, "The Mad Playboy of Art", Will Elder, laughing over many of Elder's practical jokes  (Groth asked Jack if he was ever fell victim to any of Will's pranks? Jack:"Nope!") and recalling he had film footage of Elder swimming in the sand.

Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder,  Playboy Bunny and Jack Davis, mid sixties.
 Jack talked about how much his wife hated the more depraved EC horror comics (Tales from the Crypt) he was creating in the early/mid-fifties (Jack is an admitted Universal classic horror film buff), and that he finally quit drawing "The gruesome stuff" when his kids got a bit older and became more aware of their dad's work. 

He also seemed to welcome the demise of the horror comics trend,  (Gary and I reminded and thanked Jack that his EC horror comics have now warped several generations of children, including ourselves) and sure enough, his later monster images were mostly drawn with lighthearted humor.

I repeatedly questioned Jack as each image popped up if he had ever met or even heard from any of the celebrities/movie stars he had drawn over the years for film posters, album covers, magazine covers, etc and he said no, none, except for one lone encounter with Woody Allen, (Jack had created the poster art for "Bananas"), in an elevator; "Woody wouldn't even look at me". When we showed his Jackson Five "Ebony" cover from 1970, He told of being flown to the Jackson Five's ranch after being hired to design the J5 for their Saturday morning cartoon series, but alas, they were on tour when he got there. He only dealt with their father Joseph and their agents. I asked "You didn't even get to meet... TITO?"

Tito model sheet by Jack Davis
I enquired if Jack was a Howard Stern fan, as he had drawn a popular subway poster depicting the WNBC Howard Stern radio show cast in the early eighties that we also showed. Jack admitted he wasn't a Stern fan, much preferring Imus, (Jack also created an Imus WNBC radio ad, as well as some of his early album covers). 

I told Jack that at the time, Howard was thrilled by the poster and would rave about it on the air, having been a rabid MAD magazine fan in his youth. Howard's mom also hung the poster in her living room for years, a photo of which can be seen in one of Howard's books. Jack was completely unaware of this, (and probably wasn't that much interested).
We asked Jack if he ever watched the movies he was asked to do posters for and he said "rarely". I assured him that among the dozens of films he created posters for, "Horror Hotel", from 1960 and filmed in Britain, was actually a very good, creepy little horror film dealing with a New England witch's coven, though there was absolutely NO image in the film that equaled his frightening poster artwork for it. 

He did admit enjoying "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", especially the fact that Jimmy Durante died at the outset. He said he'd never seen the Jerry Lewis directed "One More Time", his poster image which we showed, nor the prequel "Salt & Pepper" both starring former rat packers Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr., which he also created the poster art for. I told him both films were stunningly wrongheaded, but fascinating just the same, which confused him somewhat.

Gary and I asked Jack about his working habits (Jack has long been known as the "fastest illustrator in the business") and he explained that his regular routine was to shut himself inside his studio in the morning, turn up either country or bluegrass music, and "get the job done", usually in time for the messenger to pick up the art and to get out onto the golf course by mid-afternoon. Incredible!

Jack discussed receiving his first TIME magazine cover assignment in 1972, depicting Joe Namath surrounded by other football players. He originally sketched "Broadway Joe" surrounded by sexy, bikini-clad ladies, but the art director asked for the last minute change, removing the babaes. At the time, Jack was totally thrilled to  be asked to create a TIME cover ("I thought I REALLY ARRIVED!"), assuming it would be his one and only, little realizing he would go on to create 35 more, becoming the most prolific TIME cover artist of the seventies. He mentioned his proudest moment ever as an artist was receiving a hand written note from then President Ford, thanking him for the"Trying to Fight Back" TIME cover art Jack had just drawn featuring Ford.

He admitted his favorite TV Guide cover of the more than two dozen he created was the Bob Hope Academy Awards cover from 1970. He also discussed creating his very first job for TV Guide in late 1965, an epic, mind-boggling eight page spread showcasing NBC's upcoming 1966 color lineup, Jack's "Sistine Chapel" as we pointed out. I asked him how long that took him to do and he modestly answered "Oh, about a week".

Jack has produced such an overwhelming amount of artwork over the years that  inevitably, he has no memory of working many of the illustrations he's created, including several of the images we showed: the late sixties poster art for the Jerry Lewis film "Way... Way Out" ("did I do that?") and the more recent cover for the Smithereens CD "B-Sides the Beatles".

Our talk with Jack was SRO, many not even able to get in the door and Jack was visibly touched by the crowds and their enthusiastic response for him, almost moved to tears.

Photos by: Gary Dunaier, Al Baca, Jeff Wong, Frank Coleman, Debbie Boyle, Sandy Pitofsky, Ryan Flanders and yours truly. Anyone else I'm forgetting, please let me know.

Thanks to the festival organizers Bill Kartalopoulos, Gabriel Fowler and Dan Nadel. Special thanks to Gary Groth and Jack Davis

Entrance to the Brooklyn comics and Graphics fest in beautiful downtown, hipster infested Williamsburg.

Jack Davis and me, 12/3,  1:20 PM, shortly before out talk (photo by Ryan Flanders of Mad magazine)
I also had a table at the festival, selling my recent books, prints and various PLONSKY artifacts.
"OK... take the picture" L to R: Carol Gardens, famed cartoonist and chairman of PLONSKY Mark Newgarden, me
A partial view of my table and it's wares. Under "Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, "The Richard Deacon microwave cookbook"
One of the happy attendees buying funny books at the convention.
Jack (and his book) dining in NYC with friends the night before the convention, his 87th birthday. Jack did a signing Q&A with Gary Groth at the Strand bookstore and celebrated his birthday with old friends Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth.
Jack signing his new book at the Fantagraphics booth at the festival. The crowds lining up to purchase the book and get his autograph were overwhelming.
Jack Davis signing his new book.
Jack happily greeted and chatted with all.
Jack holding up the recent HUMBUG anthology.
Jack signing for his fans
Jack was thrilled with his new book, an anthology of his career which to my mind is way overdue. And the book is indeed incredible, a worthy retrospective.

Jack and Gary Groth entering the Union Pool to begin our talk.
L to R: DF, Jack Davis, Gary Groth, beginning our talk on stage at the Union Pool in Williamsburg (under the BQE).
On stage with Jack 
At first Jack wasn't thrilled that this early sixties cover of SICK magazine, as well as a cover he did for CRACKED magazine were shown, but then he openly discussed taking on cover assignments for the two MAD imitation mags during his "lean years" before...
...the "Game Changer"...
We showed the incredible poster art Jack created for "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in 1963. Jack admitted it was the job that "changed everything for me". after that achievement, Jack became the "go to" guy for film comedy poster art throughout the sixties and seventies. When MAD decided to cleverly parody " It's a M,M,M,M W" for this paperback cover in early 1964, the logical choice was to hire Jack Davis himself to create the wraparound art. This was Jack's triumphant return to MAD, after leaving with Harvey Kurtzman eight years earlier to launch the ill-fated TRUMP magazine for Hugh Hefner.
The monster magazine ad for the 6 foot tall Frankenstein monster poster Jack created in the mid-sixties. I told Jack how proud I was for him at the time that the ad actually stated "drawn by Jack Davis". It hung in my boyhood bedroom for years.
Jack drew this cover image of Jewish comedian Myron Cohen for this double concert album. I asked if he had enjoyed Myron Cohen's comedy? Jack: "Yep!".  I asked if he was a fan of the corny country comedian/singers "Homer & Jethro" since he had created so many of their album covers. Jack: "...not really". He also admitted he wasn't really a fan of Spike Jones' music, despite illustrating several of his album covers.

Jack was at first surprised to see this image he created as a private gift for MAD publisher William M. Gaines showing Gaines getting an oriental sponge bath, until I reminded him it appeared in the paperback edition of MAD writer Frank Jacobs' biography: "The MAD world of William M. Gaines".

discussing Jack's Howard Stern poster
Jack actually didn't remember drawing this recent Smithereens CD cover. I pointed out that that was  drummer and huge Jack Davis fan Dennis Diken, second from right.

after the talk, Jack posed with my old friend Sandy Pitofsky
Jack had an unexpected and emotional reunion with the late Will Elder's daughter Nancy, her husband/filmmaker Gary Vandenbergh (who's filming a documentary about Elder), and their two kids at the festival.
Will Rogers never met a man he didn't like. I never met a man (or woman) who didn't like Jack Davis or his artwork. Jack left the convention a little early as he was getting a bit tired, and also wanted to get back to his hotel room in Manhattan to see his wife and to watch his beloved UGA Bull Dogs vs LSU football game at four PM (Sadly for Jack, his Bull Dogs lost)


  1. My God. How many of us has this man influenced? Me for sure. Thanks for sharing, Drew.

  2. Unless my eyes are deceiving me, the guy identified as "One of the happy attendees buying funny books at the convention" is Matt Groening, isn't it?

  3. Are you kidding? Why would someone as rich and famous as Matt Groening be caught dead at a comics festival in Brooklyn?

  4. Very nicely done. I'm sorry I missed the event, but then I miss all events. Thank goodness you were there to capture it for the rest of us.

  5. Man... Jack Davis, Howard Stern.. What, you think you're better than me?

  6. Wow! I missed him two years ago at the SENCS event in Asheville, and again at the SCAD MAD event last month in Savannah, and could not make it to Brooklyn for this, but thanks Drew for the thorough recap (with lots pictures for those of us who can't read too long without getting distracted) and tribute to an icon. I just got the CREEPY archives vol. 1 hardcover and was once again marveling over Jack's always recognizable and prolific style. (If only I could have been there for him to sign it).

  7. I'm pleased to see that you like three of my photos enough to use them here (the photos captioned "Jack Davis signing the new book," "Jack happily greeted and chatted with all," and "Jack signing for his fans," but I did want to point out that you forgot to give me a photographer's credit for those images, which came from my BCGF photoset on Flickr (

  8. Gary, sorry for the oversight. Your credit has been added.

  9. I met the great Jack Davis at SVA once in the '80s. I remember thinking he looked like character actor Edward Andrews - who's also from Georgia. (Baby-boomers may remember Andrews from '60s TV sitcoms like "Bewitched." He usually played a businessman or banker, or some kind of military brass.) A well-deserved tribute to a giant of comic art; I wish I coulda been there.

  10. Hola feliz tarde. Me dirijo a usted para solicitar ayuda con una caricatura que tengo firmada por Jack Davis. Me gustaria saber si es original o replica asi conocere su valor. NO ME INTERESA VENDER SOLO OBTENER CONOCIMIENTO.

  11. Great post Drew. I'm kicking myself for missing this!

  12. Thanks for posting this. Having met him a few times before , he struck me as a little quiet so it's great that you got this much out of him!