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‘MAD’ Genius Behind Magazine’s Art Featured In Ringling College Exhibit

A cartoon of artist Jack Davis fishing
Self portrait of Jack Davis on St. Simons, early 1980's, watercolor and ink on board. CREDIT: Jack Davis Family Estate

A career retrospective from one of the founding cartoonists of MAD magazine has come to Sarasota. The Ringling College of Art & Designexhibition is a showcase of American pop culture told in ink, marker, colored pencils and watercolor.

Jack Davis may not be a household name, but odds are you've seen the artist’s work. The cartoonist illustrated pictures for MAD magazine, dozens of movie posters and album covers and even for bubble gum trading cards.

Alex Murawski, co-curator of the exhibit, said Davis was also the go-to illustrator for publications from Playboy to Time magazine.

"He said when he was a kid, he used to like listening to radio programs and he would sit around and imagine how he would draw these stories,” said Murawski. 

Florida Gator fighting Georgia Bulldog cartoon.
Credit Jack Davis Family Estate
Georgia vs. Florida Football, Ink, watercolor, gouache.

Davis' career began when the Georgia-born artist arrived in New York City in 1950, a golden age of illustration when artists could find work at one of the city's 20 daily newspapers, at magazines and in advertising.

Davis did it all.

His first gig was drawing monsters for EC Comicswhich produced titles like “The Vault of Horror” and “Tales from the Crypt.” These 10-cent horror comic books were hugely popular with teenage boys, but Davis' work in the genre was short-lived.

That's because of a 1950s-era Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency which created a comic code to enforce rules about acceptable content. 

When that regulation was enacted, EC's horror line folded and Davis went to work for another of the company's titles, MAD. The creators didn't intend to change the content of the comic, so they skirted the code by changing the name to MAD magazine.

Davis was one of the original "usual gang of idiots," the nickname the crew at the magazine gave themselves. Murawski said even among MAD's star lineup of cartoonists, Jack Davis stood out.

Cartoon of Jimmy Carter
Credit Jack Davis Family Estate
Jimmy Carter, Mad magazine, 1978, watercolor and ink on board.

"Jack's was the most alive,” he noted of the artist's cartoons. “There was the most energy and the most action. His compositions are just visual parties."

Davis produced more than 1,200 pages of work for MAD.

From its debut, the satire magazine specialized in parodies of politics and pop culture. It peaked in circulation at 2 million in the mid-1970s. MAD's mascot, the gap-toothed, shaggy haired Alfred E. Neuman,even coined an iconic catchphrase for the baby boomer generation—‘What, me worry?’

In July, MAD announcedthat after 67 years, the magazine would cut circulation and no longer be sold on newsstands. It's now only available in comic book shops and for subscribers, but all future material will be repurposed from the archives.

Tim Jaeger, a co-curator of the exhibit and director of galleries at Ringling College of Art & Design, says the Davis show was planned well before the announcement of MAD's demise.

“It’s sad to see MAD go off the shelves but it's wonderful to preserve the legacy and work of such a prolific artist and to expose his work to a new generation,” he said.

The exhibit features close to 50 artworks from Davis' long career.

Cartoon of GOP elephant after a knockout.
Credit Jack Davis Family Estate
Elephant Preliminary for Time magazine Cover, Ink, watercolor, gouache.

There are original illustrations from Time magazine and TV Guide, sea creatures and ghoulish characters from his horror comic career and, of course, his colorful and exuberant drawings for MAD.  

Sprinkled in the middle of the exhibition are rare memorabilia such as the MAD board game and letters from various other illustrators, political figures and TV personalities, all thanking Davis for how he contributed to the industry.

Also positioned throughout the gallery are large-scale floor to ceiling replicas of some of the cartoonist's work. Jaeger says this design element serves a purpose.

"When you blow it up that large, you can really see the gestural marks of him laying down the ink and watercolor and even the groove of the paper itself," said Jaeger. "I think that lends to a greater appreciation of what's really happening within the work and of the quality of it." 

Jaeger adds that because MAD and other magazines are no longer publishing on paper and readers are gravitating online, these hand-drawn illustrations are becoming something of a lost art. 

Davis died in 2016 at age 91. 

“So this exhibition of course, is about Jack Davis, and all of the things he created," said Jaeger. "But it's also about his ability and how well he could draw.”

On Thursday, Nov. 14 from 6-8pm, the Stulberg Gallery at Ringling College of Art & Design is hosting a free panel discussion on Jack Davis with noted illustrators from MAD and National Lampoon.

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