EDIT: this post started as a rough draft for an article for The Cultural Gutter. You can read the finished article here.
This past month, we showed two films that seemingly have little in common: Robert Altman’s neo-noir The Long Goodbye and Woody Allen’s slapstick political parody Bananas.
Obviously, though, they do have something in common. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this post, would I? You could point to the films’ auteur directors, their genre inversions, their shaggy-dog approach to storytelling or their rumpled, sardonic lead characters. But what interests me is their posters, and the man behind those posters: Jack Davis.
Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve seen Jack Davis’ art. If not on a movie poster, then in an issue of Mad Magazine, in an ad, on the internet, somewhere.
You can find a full biography of Davis at Don Markstein’s Toonopedia, or by doing a quick search online, but here are the outlines: Davis started out assisting and interning on newspaper comic strips and doing some illustration work for Coca Cola. He moved to NY, where he found work with the notorious EC Comics, home of Tales from the Crypt, among other horror titles. In fact, “two of [Davis’] panels [from the work he did at EC] were reprinted on the opening page of the art section of anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, as shocking examples of the sort of comic books that were corrupting America’s youth.” The fallout from Wertham’s book effectively killed EC’s horror comics line, but Davis stuck around to work on their sole remaining book: Mad Magazine (then known as Tales Calculated To Drive Yyou Mad).
As Markstein summarizes: “Before long, kids who’d enjoyed [Davis’] EC work grew up and, like those of most other generations, became doctors, lawyers and art directors. The latter proved how badly Davis’s work had corrupted their youth by offering him more and more lucrative, more and more prestigious jobs. Davis has now done dozens of album covers, in all different genres of music, as well as dozens of covers for such high-profile magazines as Time and TV Guide.”
He’s also done a lot of movie posters. With his background drawing chaotic, anarchic crowd scenes and nothing-is-sacred Mad-style humour, he was an ideal fit for the tone and content of many 60s and 70s films. (According to Altman, “I had to prepare audiences for a movie that satirizes Hollywood and the entire Chandler genre. So I went to Mad Magazine, and asked Jack Davis, the artist, to come up with a cartoon approach”.)
That “cartoon approach” has become an indelible part of popular culture. Take a look at these if you don’t believe me:
You can see a whole bunch more of Davis poster designs (at larger sizes) here. Do yourself a favour. Click.