Jack Burton Davis Jr. was born in Atlanta Georgia on December 2nd, 1924. He grew up in an apartment at 2840 Peachtree Road on the north side of Atlanta in an area known as Buckhead. The only child of Jack and Callie Davis, Jack Jr. expressed an early interest in cartooning and started out laying on the floor reading the Sunday comics, just eating it up and trying to copy them. "The humor just sort of came out of me. Back when I was a kid, we listened to the radio and they had some great stuff on Sunday night like Jack Benny, and then Lum and Abner. You probably don't remember them, but I would imagine what they looked like and what they were doing, and that just made me want of draw them. Seeing cartoons was also a great experience for me. When I first started drawing I would watch Mickey Mouse cartoons and even though they were silent headed do something funny and the idea of capturing that on paper really interested me. We used to go to the S&W Restaurant in Atlanta before you ate they had a projector at your table that showed Mickey Mouse not Donald Duck yet, it was just a black and white reel and you would crank it. That fascinated me so I would come home and try to draw that stuff."
As a boy Jack was in love with the movies, especially cowboy movies. "We would go to the Buckhead Theater, and there would be about a hundred bikes parked out in front. How everybody found their own bikes I don't know. I always liked the Saturday matinees. We couldn't wait for the cartoons, and they were usually Mickey Mouse. And then I loved to watch Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, and Buck Rogers, great cowboys. The other guys like Gene Autry, they were just singers really."
"Since I'm a southern guy from Atlanta, I guess that's got something to do with why I just love 'Gone With The Wind.' I was a boy scout at the time of the world premier I was stationed on the rope line by the Rialto Theater. I got up around five that morning, went to the capitol in Atlanta, got my assignments with all those boys and then we waited all day. Later on the stars came by on their way up to Lowes Grand for the opening. It was quite an experience."
Jack's interest in the comics was inspired by the early work of Harold Foster. He used to do Tarzan for Edgar Rice Burroughs before he got into Prince Valiant. Foster wrote that strip himself, and he must have been a student of English History, because he got the chivalry and all that period detail just right. "I was in Grammar School when Prince Valiant first came out. I wrote Foster a fan letter, and he sent me a full page of Prince Valiant breaking a horse and making a saddle. It had beautiful brushwork and simple lines that knocked me out." To this day Jack laments the loss of that treasured memento.
Unique even in Jack's early efforts was his interest in depicting the human figure and dramatic action. "When I was younger N.C. Wyeth knocked me out with Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans, and Ivanhoe. His action scenes were unbelievable." Comparing the development of Jack's drawing style to A.B. Frost's energetic, fluid character sketches of Bre'r Rabbit it's clear how important an early influence Frost and Joel Chandler Harris had been. In addition to Bre'r Rabbit Jack was fond of Alley Oop and his pal Dinny, and Rolf Winkler's Megul the Giant.
Jack was one of those fortunate young talents who was always encouraged to draw by his parents. His mother, Callie, was a capable portrait artist, watercolorist and devoted mentor, offering encouragement and collecting Jacks efforts in photo albums. "My dad liked to tease and had a great sense of humor, and my mom was just sweet and good. With my mother, everything I did was OK, and it wasn't really. But I believed her, and that kept me going."
"My dad was very skinny. When he was young he broke his nose and his mom set it for him, so he had a hooked nose and he always regretted that. He worked a number of jobs as I recall, so I didn't really experience the depression as a kid. He was a good man. He was a scout master and I was the mascot. He was talented with his hands as well, and could make things with wood. He built me a wooden airplane hanger with a light bulb in it for Christmas one time. To me he was just a great man."
As America dropped into the Great Depression Jack went off to grade school at E. Rivers Elementary School, where he remembers being a "Terrible student, just awful. But I could draw and that saved me. Mother would put me in my room and ask 'Are you studying?' and I'd say Yes ma'am, I'm studying' but I'd be drawing."
On a side note, Jack recalls E. Rivers as a beautiful old building named for Atlanta developer Eretus Rivers. Later on, in 1948, when jack and his lifelong friend Charlie MacMullen were on leave from the Navy they saw it burn down.
In 1936, at the tender age of twelve, Jack was already taking steps toward his dream of becoming a comic illustrator. He entered and won a national cartoon contest, received one dollar and got his winning four panel cartoon printed in Tip-Top Comics. At about the same time he had cartoons published in The Yellow Jacket, the Georgia Tech humor magazine. "My uncle, Emory Lower, was a professor of biology at Georgia Tech, and he would tutor athletes there. That impressed me, so I would ride over to Tech with him. While he'd be going over their papers and trying to help them, one of his students who was the editor of the Yellow Jacket would have me do a couple of cartoons in exchange for a workers pass to the Tech football games. That was great. After the game I would run down on the field with all these guys my uncle tutored. They'd put an arm around me and boy I felt like a big shot." It was at this point that Jack started experimenting with the bold, ink drawing techniques that would sustain him throughout his professional career. To this day his preferred drawing tools are a #3 round brush and a bottle of India ink.
Between 1940 and 1943, while attending North Fulton High School, Jack's drawings were regular features in the school paper. In his senior year he illustrated the entire North Fulton Hi-Ways Annual, his classmates describing him as An unusual combination: Artist and Basketball Star. His prevailing sin: Spelling. And his personality in one word: Shy. He was still, by his own admission, a reluctant scholar. "When it came time to graduate from high school I had a very nice English teacher who gave me an extra credit, bless her heart, and that's what got me out of school and into the Navy."
After graduation Jack spent the next four years in the service. "I joined the Navy because Ididn't want to dig ditches or hit the dirt, and Iliked the uniforms. His first posting was at Pensacola Naval Air Station where he created "Seaman Swabby" for the Gosport Weekly, the base newspaper. A not very bright seamen second class, Swabby had a knack for winding up in ridiculous situations. Two years later, while he was stationed on Guam somebody suggested that "Seaman Swabby" looked a lot like Ol' Boondocker, a pet dog that lived in Jack's hut, and the name stuck. So from December 2, 1945, until he left Guam nine months later, Jack's "Boondocker" was a daily feature of the Navy News. In 1961 Jack reincarnated these characters for a comic strip about a civil war foot soldier named "Beauregard" that was picked up for a short time by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate. That effort represented his one short lived success with the sort of syndicated daily strip he imagined himself doing as a boy.
Fresh out of the Navy in 1946, Jack enrolled at the University of Georgia, where he studied art under Lamar Dodd. While there he worked as staff artist for the campus newspaper, the Red and Black, as well as publishing The Bull Sheet, a slightly risque off campus humor magazine. Jack recalls working as The Bull Sheet's staff artist and editor, and the paper being successful to the point that "We finally had to call the whole thing off. It got to be business and just took up too much time."
He also contributed a advertising art and a four panel cartoon strip entitled The Bulldog for another campus humor magazine, The Georgia Cracker, that was launched through efforts of Dean Tate and the Student Veterans' Organization. The Cracker staff knew about Jack's work because of a cartooning award he received from the Atlanta Journal Constitution for a portait of Lena The Hyena. Lena was a character in Al Capp's Lil' Abner strip that was so ugly he couldn't bring himself to draw her face. So as a publicity stunt Capp had newspapers sponsor contests to see who could draw the ugliest Lena. While Jack was the winner in Atlanta, The ultimate prize went to Basil Wolverton, who would later go on to work with Jack at Mad Magazine.
There were moments when Jack was not drawing. "I'd gotten out of the Navy on the GI Bill and got the gratuity, money for books and tuition. I was an Atlanta boy, and didn't know anybody from Macon or Savannah or Americus, so going to Georgia was a great experience for me. Georgia Tech at the time was all male, and Georgia was co-ed with a beautiful campus, so that's where I went. I had great years at SAE house, and I'll never forget that." The personal high point of his years at Georgia would have to be his meeting and falling for the lovely Dena Roquemore, his future bride.
In addition to his class work and extra-curricular activities at Georgia, Jack kept himself busy drawing weekly sports features and current events spots for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also found time to work in Atlanta as assistant to Ed Dodd, the creator of the syndicated comic strip Mark Trail. Recognizing his ability Dodd encouraged Jack to continue his studies at the Art Student's League in New York where he had studied. While Jack did follow his mentor's advice, he was initially crushed by the suggestion. His youthful dream was to someday take over the Mark Trail strip and continue to work in his home town of Atlanta. At about this time, Jack did his first work for the Georgia Bulldogs: the front and back covers of the 1948 Georgia at a Glance Media Guide featuring a contemplative Coach Butts.
Like boot camp for illustrators, the endless flood of work helped Jack polish his skills to the point that when he got his first major commercial assignment illustrating Here's How, a training manual for Coca Cola route drivers, he was ready. "Tom Ham was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution who went to work as a copywriter with Coca Cola. He was aware of my work with the paper and in 1949 when the Here's How project came about he was the one who recommended me for the job." It was the perfect vehicle for his budding talents as a draftsman and humorist. While this certainly was a pivotal moment in his career, Jack has never had a good word to say about this or any his early work. To him it was all "grotesque" and his seminal work for Coca Cola was no exception.
Nevertheless, this was the job that financed Jack's move to the Big Apple. Once there Jack attended night classes at the Art Student's League while hunting for cartooning work during the day. "I thought I was going to go up there, get syndicated, come back to Georgia and draw Mark Trail or something like that, but it just didn't work out that way."
In a classic example of the country boy gone to the city Jack found himself In a small apartment, a vacant room really, on West 104th street. "I was engaged to Dena and bought a wedding ring from a guy in Times Square that, as it turned out, wasn't worth a dollar. I had my car stolen too, but I hung in there." Jack spent his days walking around Manhattan with his portfolio in "A tailor made blue suit that looked horrible when you got it out in the sunlight, and cordovan wing tip shoes that didn't fit and gave me ingrown toenails. I would go into the city with all my artwork to visit the comics syndicates but it was no good. They'd say 'Leave your work here and come back next week.' Well I just couldn't afford to do that. I needed what little work I had to show to other agencies."
Just when he was about to give up Jack answered and ad at the Art Students' League for work inking The Saint for the Herald Tribune, keeping his hopes of a career in cartooning alive. While this initially seemed to be the break he needed, Jack left Herald after a short time and was looking for work again. "Then when I found E.C. (Entertaining Comics) I was about ready to go home. I been to all the syndicates, all the advertising agencies, and then I looked at the news stands with all those comic books, and there was one I hadn't been to with offices across from the police station on Lafeyette Street, in Little Italy. So I went over there, up a rickety elevator and down the hall to the last office door, went in and showed 'em my work. I had some cowboy stuff, "Sasparilla" and some other gruesome characters but they said 'Man this is good!' They gave me a story with a werewolf bit and when I brought it back the next morning they said 'Fantastic!' and gave me another one right there on the spot. That was my introduction to Bill Gaines and E. C. It was 1950, and that was the year Dena and I got married."
Over the next six years Jack would do the work that would define his career as an artist. Working with editor Harvey Kurtzman and artists Will Elder, Wally Wood and Basil Wolverton at the then notorious, now critically acclaimed E.C. Comics, cemented Jack's reputation among fellow cartoonists.
Jack joined MAD Magazine and the Usual Gang of Idiots in 1952 with "Hoohah!," the lead story in MAD #1. It was a chance to spoof what Jack always considered grotesque horror topics he was uncomfortable doing for E.C. MAD also gave Jack the opportunity to create humorous send ups of sports and western themes, his favorite subjects. His "Lone Stranger" is notable as an early foray into the world of pop culture satire. By the middle of the decade Jack's career was taking off, his work in demand for magazines, record albums, movie posters and advertising. Jack Davis had arrived! In the decades that followed he would create iconic graphic images touching every aspect of American culture. Along with his personal success, he would become a trail blazer for generations of artists who followed in his wake.