Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Goodbye, Jack Davis

Growing up a rabid MAD magazine fan in the 1970s and 80s there were several artists whose work I revered above all others. Men like Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker, George Woodbridge, and Paul Coker were living legends in my eyes. But perhaps the most legendary to me was Jack Davis, who was equally adept at pinpoint caricatures as he was at goofy cartoons. His illustrations seemed to come alive on the page. 

And I seemed to see his work everywhere—not just in MAD. I would spot his work on the front of TV Guide and Time, and on movie posters like the one for "Animal House." Every time I saw his distinctive work on some non-MAD thing I would get excited. It was like a life bonus to see Jack’s work somewhere besides MAD.

When I went to work as an intern at MAD in the summer of 1990 I got to meet a lot of the living legends like Al Jaffee and George Woodbridge, who lived close enough to the editorial office that they would drop off their work in person. But many contributors lived too far for frequent visits and they would send their work via UPS or FedEx. Jack Davis, sadly, fell into this category, as he lived in Georgia, so as a MAD intern I had to settle for hearing his endearing southern drawl on speaker phone from time to time.

Toward the end of my internship I sold my first freelance article to MAD. It was a spoof of the television show “Unsolved Mysteries.” As excited as I was to make the sale, I was even more excited when I was told by the editors they had decided to have Jack Davis illustrate. Actually, excited doesn’t properly capture my reaction—it was more a combination of dumbstruck and delirious. That an artist I idolized from the time I was a small boy would be drawing pictures based on words that I wrote was beyond surreal. And once I saw the actual article in print with our bylines next to each other, I was giddy for a week.
From MAD #304, July 1991
Eventually I did get to meet Jack Davis, who was like a lovable grandpa with an unexpected mischievous streak. It was a little over a year after my internship. I was now working for MAD fulltime and I got to go on the biennial MAD trip. It was a cruise to Bermuda and Jack was there with his wife, Dena. I was awestruck in his presence—not only because of his incredible talent, but also because he towered over me by about a foot. Meeting him was definitely one of the highlights of my MAD career.
Jack Davis Videotaping me Taking a Picture of Him

Interestingly, I would go on to sell about 50 articles to MAD over the next decade-and-a-half, but that first one was the only one Jack illustrated. I was definitely fortunate to have had that opportunity.

When I found out today that Jack passed away at the age of 91, I was saddened, wistful, nostalgic. Jack was an amazing artist and a gracious guy. That I got to have any sort of association with him is an incredible honor. He will be missed.