The Weekly Standard lost a member of its extended family on July 27, when Jack Davis, one of the great comic illustrators of 20th century America, died in Georgia at age 91.
After drawing for his fellow sailors in the Pacific during World War II and for his fellow students at the University of Georgia, Jack made his way to New York, where he was one of the founding artists at Mad magazine in 1952. The decades that followed saw him rise to the top of his field, turning out scores of magazine covers for the likes of Time and TV Guide during their years of peak influence. His productivity was staggering, with his work reproduced in virtually every printed form imaginable: comic books, hardback and paperback books, movie and other posters, greeting and bubblegum cards, billboards, bus advertising, record album covers, and board games—just to scratch the surface. He even drew for a dozen animated projects, including television ad campaigns for Raid, Gillette, and Lectric Shave, and designed all the characters for an early-'70s Saturday morning cartoon based on the members of the Jackson 5.
A glance back through his colossal output serves to remind the reader how un-p.c. his times truly were—how free they were of doctrinaire outrage and career-preserving self-censorship. Davis women were usually preposterously lithe and curvy, and anybody on the public stage, from flower children and counterculturists to presidents and popes, received an equally broad stroke of his brush. A Mad parody of TV's M*A*S*H begins with Jack in fine form: In a characteristically dense crowd scene, a jeep, from which mail is being distributed to troops, is parked squarely on top of a local, his sandal-clad feet protruding from one end and his broad, conical peasant's hat knocked askew at the other. In Jack's heyday, there even was nothing especially incendiary about depicting oneself in a self-portrait, as this Georgia native did more than once, lightheartedly wearing the uniform of a Confederate soldier.
As would suit a cartoonist, Jack routinely deployed a pointed sense of humor: He illustrated, for instance, the famous poster for the movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and then immediately parodied the film on the pages of Mad. Famously, every figure he drew, whether a celebrity or a generic face that jumped out of his ink jar, was rendered as a wildly elastic creature with tiny wrists and ankles capped by huge feet and hands. As a matter of signature style, however, Jack's work is just as recognizable for its complete lack of malice: Davis caricatures, while funny, were never cruel or dark, leavened for more than seven productive decades by his own manifest civility and trademark geniality.
When The Weekly Standard first contacted him years ago to ask if he would illustrate for us, Jack announced that he was already a subscriber and jokingly wondered why it had taken us so long to call. Old-school to the end, he worked with a real brush and illustration board, forgoing scanners and even email and relying instead on fax machines and his legendary speed. Early one afternoon when we called back to ask for a few revisions to a sketch he'd faxed the evening before, he apologized and said he'd already painted the final art and packed it off for overnight delivery.
Last year, when he'd hit his nineties, Jack declared that he was hanging up his brushes. Like so many in the world of art and illustration, we were saddened at the end of such an illustrious career and made a mental note to return his originals (to which we had grown attached)—and to include in the shipment a few favorite Davis items for him to sign and send back, beginning with a poster for the 1966 movie The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.
As a reminder to do this, a recent email message from him was left open for several weeks on our desktop, showing at the top his latest, characteristic reply: "You made my day. . . . THANKS."
And then came the news that he had died. As the issue you are holding goes to press, the email sits open still. Much as we want not to accept that all these decades of Davis art are over, we can't quite bring ourselves to click on the little red "X" and close it for good.