Monday, December 22, 2014

Jack Davis, Mad-man, retires!

Jack Davis is a true genius of cartooning. You have seen his work over the past 60 years, and perhaps you haven’t realized it. He did posters for movies like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

He did record album covers, magazine covers for Time and TV Guide, art for bubblegum cards, advertising art, and even storyboards for animated commercials. This issue of Time is an example of his cover art:

Davis came up through the ranks of the art world, spending several years drawing comic books. He went into the field in about 1950, and found work at one of the most legendary comic book companies of them all, EC Comics, where he worked on some of the greatest horror comics ever: Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. Here are two pages scanned from The Vault of Horror #34, where Davis got to draw different types of monsters:

The horror comics died with the Comics Code in 1955, but they were never far from Davis’s heart, or pen and brush. In 1960, for instance, he did these covers for the satirical magazine, Sick. The top is the one he originally submitted, which was rejected. The second is the one that was published:

He also did this cover for a short-lived horror digest, Shock, in 1960, which showed he still had the gift of drawing unsettling images.

In 1957 Davis and some fellow cartoonists started up Humbug magazine, a small-sized Mad competitor. Here are some pages, also from Heritage Auctions, scanned from the original art.

In 1964, Davis did the cover that inaugurated the black-and-white, no Comics Code involved, run of Creepy magazines

The work for satire magazines like Cracked, Humbug, Sick, etc., came after Davis’s initial time at Mad for EC, where, with editor/writer Harvey Kurtzman, Davis helped raise satire to high art. Mad was very successful, and as Davis once later explained it, it was his work there that young advertising art directors remembered. His humble beginnings got him his later successes.

These six pages of “The Countynental” are the original artwork for the story from Mad #14, published in 1953. They were sold by Heritage Auctions. The story is a spoof on the types of TV programming from the early days, done, with clever use of shading sheets called Zip-A-Tone, to simulate the black and white images of early '50s televisions. As for the subject matter, “The Continental” was a suave roué who would invite women into his apartment for drinks and conversation. It was done POV style, the camera becoming the female viewer.

Davis went back to Mad in the 1960s, where he stayed until just a few years ago. He explained when he announced his retirement at age 90 that he could still draw, but his work was not up to his own standards. That is a man who knows when to sit back and just take it easy.

Here are some originals, also sold by Heritage Auctions, from Mad.

The few examples I have shown here cannot begin to show the amount of top notch work Jack Davis did during his fabulous career. All I can add is that I have been looking at and admiring Jack Davis’s artwork since the mid-1950s, and have never lost my sense of wonder at his talent. Happy retirement, Jack!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Other peoples' stuff: buying memories

 I wrote this originally in 2006. With some editing and some updating I am presenting it again.

You walk into any thrift store in America, I don't care what it is, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Thrift Town, whatever, about 95% of what you see will be typical thrift store fare.

By that I mean you'll see the same 1970s stoneware dishes, the same coffee mugs that say, “World's Greatest Fisherman,” the same Andy Williams or Herb Alpert LPs. I go in trying to find something different so I've got a practiced eye at mentally sorting the everyday from the exceptional. My granddaughter, Gabby, went into a thrift store with us last summer, and liked what she saw. She said, “We get to buy other peoples’ stuff!”

Like these photos. A few years ago I went looking for a nice photo frame. I found what I wanted and when I got it home took a good look at it. What I thought was the original advertising print in the frame was actually a school photo of a pretty high school girl.

I don't have any idea who she is, or why her picture was in a thrift store. Stuff like that happens occasionally, and it’s probably some sort of mistake. I could give back the picture, but I don't know who she is.

She is a cutey, though. Maybe 16 or 17-years-old, nice broad forehead, connoting smarts — probably an AP or 4.0 student — pretty brown eyes, nice chin, but an especially pretty smile. Young woman, I'm sure that to this day when you turn that smile on you melt hearts.

I don't know how to date this picture. Probably early ’90s; the moussed hair is a clue.

A couple of years later the same scenario: I’m looking for a frame and come across this picture I call Yankee Baby. What the — ! This one I spotted immediately as a family picture. It even came with a name on the back and maybe someday I’ll google that name and see if I can locate the subject.

The photo appears to be from the late ’40s or early ’50s. I love the Yankee outfit! I tried to sell this on eBay once, shamelessly listing it with the name “Yankees” prominent in the headline. I had no bidders. I guess Yankee fans don't want pictures of babies dressed up like Babe Ruth. To me it gives new meaning to the nickname, “The Bambino.”

Family pictures are so intensely personal. They mean something to the family, very little to anyone else. Still, I like the subjects in both these pictures. As a former school district employee, I saw hundreds of high school girls every day and I didn’t take much notice because there were so many of them. But there is something about the frozen moment aspect of a photograph, the attention to the subject that school photos specialize in, as well as that pretty smile that draws me back to her picture.

I've already talked about how many Baby Boomers there are in this country, and the little Yankee Boy looks like he fit in with my generation. Maybe the scenario is something like this: his mom took him to the photo studio and proudly put him on a stool and told him to look at the birdie and smile. Awwwwww, how cute he looks, she thought. Then years later she’s dead, he’s an executive with IBM living in Hong Kong; someone cleans out her stuff, selling it in an estate sale. The new owner looks at this picture along with the van load of other stuff he got at the sale, says, “What the hell do I do with this?” He tosses it in his junk box. From there the picture makes its way into the donation pile at my local thrift store, and ultimately I buy someone else’s memory for 50¢.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The coincidence: Me, The New Yorker, Mindy Kaling and J.D. Salinger

Are there such things as coincidences? Yes. They happen to me on occasion. But I have never known what they mean, if anything.

Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño said, “Coincidence obeys no laws and if it does we don't know what they are.” If you go to the Internet you get a couple of dozen quotes about coincidences, a lot of which contradict each other. Some people see coincidences as part of a grand plan of God’s, others as interesting, yet random happenstance.

What I know about coincidences and me is that they come to me out of the blue. I may go months without noticing anything particularly coincidental, and then get a surprise.

The surprise happened to me yesterday morning. I have been reading a book, About Town, The New Yorker and the World It Made by Ben Yagoda. In a section about author J.D. Salinger I read that Salinger , “. . . wisely chose not to reprint [his story] “Hapworth”* in book form, and as a result many libraries’ bound New Yorker volume containing the June 19, 1965, issue is missing pages 32 to 113, their removal effected by some fanatic devotee of the author’s.”

 The famous issue.

I put the book down and read my newspaper. With the paper is a supplement magazine, American Profile, that comes out on Monday. In an article called “Christmas Memories of the Stars” I read a quote by actress Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) of a favorite gift: “I am a huge J.D. Salinger fan. I had a boyfriend who gave me all the uncollected J.D. Salinger stories that were published in magazines but were not compiled into book collections. That was a nice Christmas present.”

Now that I resoundingly claim as a coincidence.  It also explained who had been cutting up the New Yorker!

Did anyone ever ask Salinger how he felt about coincidences? Or cutting up the New Yorker, for that matter?

Because of the aforementioned unknown nature of coincidences it could be months or years before I am surprised by another. As to whether a coincidence means anything, I will leave that for someone else to figure out.

*The story, “Hapworth 16, 1924” is, as I write this, available in both the New Yorker archives (you have to be a subscriber to the magazine to read their archives) and a convenient PDF at If you click on the link and get an error then the link has been taken down. Sorry, but it wasn’t me who did it.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

War by remote control

Look out below!

“The Unblinking Stare” by Steve Coll in the New Yorker for November 24, 2014, is a chilling reminder that there are places in the world where the United States is an angry god — sending death from the skies to those sinners who have incurred its wrath. As described by Coll in the article:
“Being attacked by a drone is not the same as being bombed by a jet. With drones, there is typically a much longer prelude to violence. Above North Waziristan [Pakistan tribal area], drones circled for hours, or even days, before striking. People below looked up to watch the machines, hovering at about twenty thousand feet, capable of unleashing fire at any moment, like dragon’s breath. “Drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more,” Malik Jalal, a tribal leader in North Waziristan, told me. “They turned the people into psychiatric patients. The F-16s might be less accurate, but they come and go.”
All I have to do is use my imagination and think what it would do to me if I saw a drone in the sky over my house. Psychiatric patient, indeed.

The idea of a pilotless aircraft able to attack enemy forces is not new. It was shown in this page from the January 9, 1956 Life magazine. Despite being attached by a wire, even the wingless craft shown here seems fairly sophisticated. I don’t know how far this particular project went, or if there were other projects before it that led to the one in the photo. I can surmise that for decades the American military has been working on just such a project. Right now a pilot can sit at a location in the United States and fly a craft halfway around the world. It then can be then used to bring death and destruction. As with all weapons, sometimes it takes out the innocent as well as the guilty.