In Memory of Jack Davis

A Closer Look at One of Jack Davis’s War Covers for EC

I met Jack Davis a couple of times at comics conventions. He was a kind, gentle man who happened to have single-handedly invented one of the most important comic art styles, a style particularly influential with humorous illustrators. His work appeared in Mad from issue #1, that is to say when it was a comic book, and continued in the magazine size Mad that made him famous and secured him a long career as a cartoonist. He died yesterday at 91, but was still working just a few years ago.

Jack Davis comparisonThe versatility of jack’s style in humour not only served him well at Mad, but for numerous TV Guide covers, record covers, movie posters, and humorous advertisements. Art directors who grew up on Mad loved to show how “with it” they were by hiring this master cartoonist.

But his humorous work only shows one side of this comics genius. For EC, the publisher of Mad, he also produced horror, shock, and war stories in which his cartoonish style takes on a strange sort of naturalism. I have attached an image of a Davis cover I dearly love. Not traditional horror, but certainly it reflects the horrors of war. At first I was annoyed that the only decent copy of this cover I could find was paired with a later homage cover. The homage, I think most people will see immediately is considerably below the quality of the original. I don’t know the artist here, and my apologies to whoever it is, but this is Jack Davis at his best, and few artists could ever hope to equal that. Let’s look at why that is.

Davis’ style is more cartoony than the homage, the hands, fingers, nose, and ears are more rounded; they are outlined with thick black lines. Indeed, Davis uses those thick outlines throughout his drawing. The homage uses thinner lines and tries for a more naturalistic rendering. Fingers and nose and ears are less rounded; the heavy outlines are not brought in. And yet the two feel exactly the opposite: Davis we sense is more naturalistic, and the homage more artificial.

Both images give us two figures: the head and hand only of the soldier on the right who is standing very near to us. Just behind him we get three-quarters of the figure of a second soldier. In both covers, the nearer figure holds a cigarette. In the homage, the fingers are split apart — and, to be honest, drawn rather awkwardly. In Davis’ version the hand holding the cigarette has all four fingers pressed together. As we recreate the moment Davis has given us, we see the nearer soldier bringing his cigarette toward his mouth, then freezing when he hears the “shots from the hill.” His hand doesn’t shake, his reaction is quick, “douse that light.” He’s been under fire before. His face is a map of long, hard experience. Davis’ drawing of this soldier is visually stable, a sort of quiet stop emphasized by the highlights rimming the figure (the work of brilliant colorist, Marie Severin).

The second figure is a sudden and tragic opposite to the soldier standing nearer to us. His face shows utter surprise. His body twists in a motion we know is anything but still. Where the shadows on the closer figure were made with those beautiful small arcs that Davis used as a kind of alternate approach to stippling, creating quick, but effective chiaroscuro (light to dark) effects, the shadows on the second figure are sharp, angular, even explosive. Where the highlights on the first figure had served to emphasize its sudden stillness, there is only one significant highlight on the second figure, the glow of the cigarette lighter — it shines on the second figure, spotlighting the contortion of motion caused by the bullet that has struck and, we don’t doubt, killed the second soldier.

In the homage, the second figure lacks the full distortion of movement and seems almost more still than the first figure with its awkwardly splayed fingers. The face is obstructed by the ray of light (a laser beam?) that has struck and appears to sever the top of the head. Davis doesn’t actually show us the bullet or even the path the bullet took. We know the bullet has struck the second soldier because we see its effect. Less explicit, more impactful. Most importantly, in Davis’ version: we see the full face of the second soldier. We read his surprise, and more importantly, his humanity in that face.

Davis and, we should add, Harvey Kurtzman, who designed the page and wrote the dialogue, give us two human beings. People we can read. A story whose complexity belies the abundant clarity of the single image in which it is told. Everything in this image, Kurtzman’s exquisite design, Severin’s intelligent coloring, and Davis’ extraordinary rendering, is purposeful, and in service to the intention of the comic — the only true anti-war comic book. DC used to include in their war comics the slogan, “Make war no more.” But they never got anywhere near the anti-war imagery that Kurtzman gave us. And this cover drawn by Davis is one of the most iconic images from Two-Fisted Tales.

This, as much as the great humour work, is why I and other comics collectors will deeply mourn the passing of this gentle man. Rest in peace, Jack Davis.