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Comic Retros Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture and Tony Millionaire’s 500 Portraits

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Comic Retros: Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture and Tony Millionaire’s 500 Portraits

In time for Christmas, Fantagraphics Books has released two new thick and fancy illustrator retrospectives. One is a coffee-table book about the career of Jack Davis, the other a smaller volume with the portraits of Tony Millionaire.

If you’re unfamiliar with comics and cartooning, neither of those names may mean much to you. Jack Davis was one of the most well-known and well-paid cartoonists in the world during the 1960s and 1970s. His career started in the 1950s, drawing for EC Comics, and then Mad, Trump, and Humbug magazines. Davis then worked on LP covers and movie posters and made it big with his drawing for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963. And in the 1970s he did dozens of covers for TV Guide and Time.

Davis is best known for watercolor drawings that cram a group of characters into a frantic and grotesque and exaggerated pose. You can see this in his posters for The Long Goodbye, Bananas, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture: A Career Retrospective shows work from all the periods of Davis’s career—from the first strip he published in 1938 (when he was 14 years old), to his years in college at the University of Georgia and during a tour with the Navy in the Pacific, to his time in New York City with Harvey Kurtzman, Stan Lee, and other comic world big shots, and then to his corporate commercial work for album and book and magazine covers. There’s two biographical essays about Davis, as well as fond tributes from fellow cartoonists like Peter Bagge, Spain, and Jim Woodring.

Even though he did mainstream work, rarely wrote his own comics, and didn’t have a deep and unified artistic philosophy, the consensus is that Davis was just so graceful with his pen and his brush and with making a human being come to be on a piece of paper that he was a master illustrator of the 20th century. I don’t know if I totally agree with that, or if I have the illustrator’s eyes with which to see what makes this guy so special. Davis often drew monsters (a version of Frankenstein’s monster is one of his most famous images), but even in those works there’s no mood or feeling of monstrosity, of the world being a hideous and horrifying place (the mood you do feel looking at the illustrations of Goya or Bosch or R. Crumb). It may be that the mood in Davis’s drawings is that the world is a more or less okay and happy place to be and that society is fine the way it is. That mood leaves me cold and makes me bored, and I wouldn’t recommend Drawing American Pop Culture to anyone who’s not already a fan of Davis or who isn’t already into illustration and comics.

Tony Millionaire, on the other hand, is a couple of generations younger than Davis and is a minor star in the world of underground comics. He began drawing his lewd and depraved and occasionally charming comic strip Maakies in the early 1990s. Many of his portraits appear today in The Believer magazine, alongside those of Charles Burns.

Millionaire’s comic strips do have the passion and the discontent that’s missing from Davis’s drawings. Maakies is like a cute nightmare or an adorable carcass. It’s too obsessed at times with genitals and alcohol for my tastes, but it has its moments, when it points its finger right at something disgusting, absurd, and true.

Unfortunately, 500 Portraits has almost none of the twisted and weird and funny stuff from the comic strips. The book is just a lot of black-and-white portraits, of contemporary people (Michael Pollan, Slavoj Žižek, Werner Herzog, and so on) and dead people (J.P. Morgan, Malcolm X, Eugene O’Neill, and so on). The book also has a few short passages written by Millionaire about his life as an artist and the methods with which he draws. They’re rude and funny, but brief.

As with Drawing American Pop Culture, I can’t recommend 500 Portraits to someone who’s not already a fan of the artist. Both books are impressive and nice-looking, but their many, many drawings just left me with little to think about, little to chew on, little to savor, once I closed the covers and moved on with my life.

Fantagraphics Books released Jack Davis’s Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture: A Career Retrospective (to purchase it, click here) on December 12 and Tony Millionaire’s 500 Portraits (to purchase it, click here) on December 15.