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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Jack Davis Influenced a Generation of Comics, Movie Posters, and Illustrations

Posted By on Tue, Dec 6, 2011 at 9:30 AM


You might not know Jack Davis' name, but you know his faces. They have appeared in Mad magazine, the Tales from the Crypt comic book, Playboy, numerous covers of Time and TV Guide, and dozens of iconic movie posters and other advertising images.

Davis' faces are elongated, with exaggerated features. They are caricatures, really -- even though saying that seems unfairly reductive. That's because Davis' influence on cartooning, advertising, and commercial art is so huge -- and it is why Fantagraphics is about to release a lavishly designed volume called Drawing American Pop Culture: Jack Davis, a Career Retrospective.

Davis is most closely associated with Mad, going back to the magazine's inception. He is one of the most recognizable of its regular contributors. This is Davis' cover art from the April 1956 issue.

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As a movie-poster artist, Davis inaugurated an influential manner of design for comedies that was characterized by a huge parade of characters bursting with activity and humor. The first of these was the poster image for 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which uses a clever hot air balloon motif to depict this film's enormous cast in its globetrotting hunt for an elusive bag containing $350,000.

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Check out Davis' poster for The Bad News Bears (1976). The art is great -- Walter Matthau's face is a caricaturist's dream -- but the tagline is borderline nuts by our current standards.

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Davis did a ton of illustration work aside from his prolific work as a magazine cover artist. He provided the illustrations for a series of historical books for children published by Random House. This group of images from Meet Abraham Lincoln shows the more realistic side of Davis' style, which is still recognizable even without his usual humorous point of view.

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Davis' influence is visible today, even though commercial art and advertising has veered away from illustration. Still, anyone who pages through current issues of Mad and The New Yorker can see Davis' legacy in the cartooning. Movie poster design right up to today bears the influence of Davis' riotous style -- particularly in the work of Phil Roberts and, to some extent, Drew Struzan.

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This giant gift-book portfolio of Davis' work reflects the high standard of design and archival presentation that is Fantagraphics specialty. Text is kept to a minimum. There is a brief, punchy, informative introduction by fellow illustrator and conceptual designer William Stout, as well as a longer biographical essay at the end of the book by The Comics Journal's Gary Groth. Between these two helpful pieces are nearly 200 pages of uninterrupted artwork. The reproductions are assisted by the book's large 10-by-13-inch trim size. The size is indicative of Davis' influence, and it affords readers a panoramic view of the evolution and contributions of one of this country's most recognizable and influential cartoonists.

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Casey Burchby


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