Growing up in Georgia, and especially if you end up living in Athens, you have a skewed view of legendary illustrator and comics artist Jack Davis, who died yesterday at the age of 91. The rest of the world knows him for his Time magazine and TV Guide covers, his movie posters, his MAD magazine work, his advertising designs and, of course, his EC Comics illustrations. If you went to the University of Georgia, on the other hand, or you’re just a fan of its football team, Davis is inextricably linked to the Bulldogs. A proud alum of the school, which he went to on the G.I. Bill, Davis contributed illustrations for its football program for years, drawing a new image annually for the souvenir cup sold in the stadium. His work is everywhere in Athens, and if it’s not Davis’ drawings of a Bulldog beating up Gators, Gamecocks, Wildcats and that dang Yellow Jacket, it’s someone imitating his style. It’s easy to get inured to the beauty of his line when it’s staring you in the face all day, every day.
In my day job, I work at the Georgia Museum of Art, which is also in Athens and also part of the university. I’m not a curator there, just a communications person, but I was lucky and enthusiastic and stubborn enough to help with an exhibition of Davis’ original work, which was on display there from November 2012 to January 2013. Local cartoonist and Jack Davis Foundation board member Patrick Dean did the hard work of tracking down a wide range of Davis’ drawings, none of which—somewhat pointedly—included Bulldogs and many of which were borrowed from out of state. The point wasn’t that football is terrible (it’s not), but that Athens needed to wake up and recognize the fact that Davis was far more than his sports-related work.
One important reason art museums exist, especially in the digital age, is to give people a chance to see works of art in person. Being a couple of inches away from Davis’ pencil lines lets you see how fluid and assured his hand was. Even the comic book pages with edits were pretty clean, and some un-inked sketches of Civil War generals were especially notable up close.
Jack Davis’ Cover to MAD Magazine, 1973
We scheduled the exhibition to coincide with football season, not only so that fans could come see it, but so that Davis himself might be able to attend. He still drove up from the Georgia coast a few times a year to go to games and, indeed, he agreed to sign a few books the Sunday after the show opened. When I got there to work the event, the doors to the museum weren’t open yet, but there was a line of people waiting outside them. Davis ended up signing books for almost two hours, graciously chatting with each person in line and drawing the little caricature of himself he often used with his signature. He then went through the exhibition, repeatedly expressing his appreciation (even as we tried to do the same to him), and even answered questions from the audience after a talk by Dean. It was a long day, and he was in his late 80s, but he was never anything but generous, friendly and polite. He was a total class act, and I couldn’t be more pleased that the man seemed to be as fine as his art.