For kids that came of age in a post-WWII America, fun was a privilege doled out sparingly by parents that witnessed the horrors of war and a catastrophic economic depression. But at least one man born and raised in this period of scarcity transformed these cultural anxieties into a body of work that was full of life, untampered joy and a pinch of satire. That man was Jack Davis, a trailblazing illustrator whose iconic work in Mad Magazine, TIME Magazine and TV Guide gave permission to a generation of youngsters to pursue careers as cartoonists, caricaturists and illustrators at a time when the words “career” and “art” were seen as incompatible.

Four of these former youngsters, each of them now with heads of hair in various stages of decay, formed a panel at Ringling College of Art + Design’s Jack Davis exhibit this past November and spoke at length about their relationship with the man and the artist, sharing personal anecdotes and insights into how Davis helped lead them to fruitful and decorated careers as artists. The discussion waxed nostalgic, diverged into silly and made the case for Jack Davis as a giant in the world of American art.

“I think Jack is up there with Norman Rockwell in recognizability,” says Mayer at the outset of the discussion. For Mayer, Davis’s work was an enormous part of his youth that helped shape his cultural literacy. “I overheard someone say, ‘Oh my God, I grew up with this stuff,’” he says, though many never knew that all of the famous caricatures of political figures, celebrities, athletes or historic moments were illustrated by the same person. Still, some made it a point to familiarize themselves with the man behind the kinetic illustrations, and Meyerowitz is among them.

“I discovered Jack before Mad Magazine came out in ’53,” says Meyerowitz, who admired a lot of Davis’s early work with EC Comics, a comics publisher from the 1940s that specialized in horror and crime. “Those comics allowed me to want to draw all the craziness in my head,” he jokes. For Meyerowitz and his peers, the reputation of comics as perverters of America’s youth accounted for their magnetism, attracting budding subversives like a light bulb in a dark room. The same spirit of taboo followed Davis to Mad Magazine, where he would have the freedom to depict his subject matter satirically. “It came out of a sense of revolutionary foment,” says Murawski, who believes Davis’s work in Mad helped define a generation of dissidents. “It was about being critical while having fun.” 

However, following the congressional hearings of 1954 on comics’ impact on juvenile delinquency, Davis allegedly burned much of his horror work from EC for fear he was being targeted. Mad Magazine and Davis’s career survived the hearings, of course, and his work would go on to elevate his stature as one of the most eminent and sought-after illustrators of his day. “By the time I met Jack in 1987, he had made cartooning legit,” says Viviano, who at the time was an up-and-coming illustrator in a field that Davis helped to invent. Viviano recalled how his mother would not accept the viability of a career in illustration until he bought his first apartment. “Then she finally got off my back,” quips Viviano.

And Davis’s technique was a huge factor in the way he helped legitimize cartooning. “Before Jack, illustration was straight oil-painting and literal representations,” says Murawski. Davis managed to use his savant-level skills with watercolors and pen to editorialize his depictions. That technique, though employed in illustrations that were always outlandish, still resulted in images that felt natural and believable, asserts Murawski. “People under-appreciate how sophisticated his work was,” says Viviano.

Davis had it all: style, technique, boundless creativity, a great sense of humor and a willingness to put his nose to the grindstone. “I’ve never met an artist that lived and breathed his art like Jack,” says Murawski. “He even looked like his art.” And even though Davis affected each of the panelists differently, they all agree that his work is as relevant today as it was when it was first published. “Jack’s work is like a party,” says Murawski, “and everyone’s always invited.”


The panel was hosted by the Ringling College of Art + Design as part of the “Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture” exhibit this past fall at the Lois and David Stulberg Gallery. The panelists consisted of Rick Meyerowitz, American author and artist best known for his work in National Lampoon magazine; illustrator Bill Mayer, an RCAD graduate who has been commissioned by giants like Coca-Cola and DreamWorks; Alex Murawski, illustrator and professor emeritus at the University of Georgia Lamar Dodd School of Art; and Sam Viviano, caricaturist and former art director of Mad Magazine.