Jack Davis, along with Will Elder and Wally Wood, formed a triumvirate of great comics artists who worked with demented genius comic writer Harvey Kurtzman to create some of the funniest and best drawn humor comics ever created, the Mad comic books from the middle of the last century.
If you have never seen reprints of the Mad comics from the ’50s and your picture of Mad is from the current day magazine, you have no idea what you’re missing. In reaching for a comparison I was tempted to say that it’s like comparing the warmed over yogurt of the past decade’s Saturday Night Live shows to the comic brilliance of that show’s hilarious and ground breaking first three seasons, but a more apt comparison might be the unmatched comic genius of Ernie Kovacs, whose surreal and incredibly imaginative skit comedy established a standard for television comedy that has never been matched.
Similarly, the genius of the original mad comics has never been matched, although it has been the inspiration for subsequent generations of irreverent, “thumbed nose in the face of society” comics like the underground comix of the sixties, independents of the ’80s and many of the more adventurous web comics of the 90’s and beyond.
Davis, although not possessed of Wood’s level of draftsmanship or Elder’s manic sense of comic detail and command of facial expression, was the one who stretched the limits of comic drawing to a previously unknown degree. His outlandishly loopy characters, drawn with a flurry of energetic lines, projected an incredible sense of comic movement and riotous glee in their impossible contortions.
In addition to his terrific Mad work, which kept up into the comic’s transition into a black and white magazine (the first few years of which maintained a high level of the original quality), Davis worked with Kurtzman subsequently in his other humor magazines, Help, Trump and Humbug and assisted Kurtzman and Elder on Playboy’s Little Annie Fannie (see my post on Elder). Davis became known for his wonderfully fun portrayals of monsters and did work for all of E.C’s horror comics, as well as humorous monsters for posters and trading cards. There is a web archive of his monster trading card series You’ll Die Laughing.
Davis also did work for Mad imitators like Cracked, Crazy and Panic, as well as creating artwork (usually with caricatures) for movie posters and magazines like TV Guide, Time and Esquire as well as a roster of advertising clients.
Davis received the National Cartoonist’s Society’s Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, their Ruben Award for Best Cartoonist of the Year in 2000, and was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame (The Eisner Award) in 2003 and The Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2005.
Art of Jack Davis is out of print, but you can still find it used. You can also find his horror comics work in reprints of the EC Comics like The EC Archives: Shock Suspenstories Volume 1 (and similar titles) and his wonderful Mad stuff in Mad About the Fifties, along with brilliant work by Wood and Elder.