WOODRING: Sounds great. When you were in New York, did you work up some samples of a syndicated strip and shop them around?
DAVIS: Oh, I did. I did that at Georgia and it was kind of a country boy who was gonna come up and break into pro football or something. It just didn’t go over. It was really badly drawn. I had a job with Coca-Cola in Atlanta before I went to New York, and they paid fabulous prices. It was an instruction manual for drivers. How to deliver Coca-Cola in their trucks, and how to display it and all that bit. They paid real well, and I bought a used car. I had that my last year at Georgia. I went up to New York in it. I saw the New York skyline. It was on a Sunday afternoon. I was nervous. Drove through, got in the tunnel, and I came right out … I think it was down around Lafayette Street even then. Came up through there and went over a bridge and went over into Brooklyn. Went over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I was lost. I finally found the YMCA where my mom had made reservations for me. It was at the Sloan House. I spent one night in there and that was enough. There were a lot of weird people, and I wasn’t used to that. So I got The New York Times and looked up in the apartments to rent and I rented up on 104th street, right off of Broadway, pretty close to Riverside Drive. A little bitty apartment, a room rather, that this woman had. It was not an apartment, but she had an apartment with rooms to let. You shared a bath with a couple of other tenants. I would sit there and draw, try to make drawings to show to people, and go out on Saturdays. I don’t think I could ever do that again, but I did it.
WOODRING: Sounds hard. So you moved to New York without knowing anybody there at all?
DAVIS: Not a soul.
WOODRING: Wow. Was it a big culture shock for you, coming from the South?
DAVIS: It really was in a way, but I enjoyed it. I was on my own, and I still had the G.I. Bill money coming in and could go to school. I’d eat at Haunted Harlots. I think that for a dollar you could get a good meal, a square meal. I would have breakfast on Broadway at this fellow’s cafe that I got to know pretty well. He knew me. It was a great life. It was exciting. I had my automobile stolen. They found it up in Buffalo, N. Y. Had to go up there and get it. Drive it back, and I finally got rid of the car later. Sold it to a fraternity brother who came to New York. But I finally got work.
I had work with the Herald Tribune drawing The Saint. That was Lesley Charteris’ Saint. And Mike Roy was the artist. He would let me ink the backgrounds, and he would do the figures. He’d gotten behind in his work, and I helped him for a while. And then all of a sudden the Herald Tribune folded, and I was out of work. So I had to go down and look for work again, and I went down to the comic books, looked at them, and went down to Lafayette Street with Bill Gaines at EC. They gave me a script right away.
WOODRING: You had drawn up a couple of pages of romance comics to show them.
DAVIS: I tried that, but there was no way that I could make anything look romantic. It was awkward. Bad.
WOODRING: Well, if you say so. I’ve seen those pages. They look good to me.
DAVIS: [Laughs] Well …
WOODRING: Did EC seem particularly right for you when you went in there?
DAVIS: Well, what happened is that they liked my work. What I showed them I liked to draw. That was, I think, a werewolf or something like that. And Al Feldstein gave me a script. And when I took it back in and they liked it, well, that excited me. It was something that flowed fairly easy, it was not a romance thing, and it was something I liked to draw.
DAVIS: Right. I’ve always liked ghost stories. I used to listen on the radio to — oh, God — it used to come out at night, 11-12 o’clock every night. I can’t think of [the name of] the story, but it used to scare the hell out of me. I loved it. I don’t know. That sounds weird.
WOODRING: No it doesn’t. I like those old radio scary stories, too.
DAVIS: With the Boy Scouts and stuff, you’d make up stories around the campfire and try to scare somebody.
WOODRING: Right. Well, you certainly had a knack for doing horror comics.
WOODRING: You said you enjoyed working on them, but you came to wonder later on if they were bad for society.
DAVIS: Well, again, it got pretty gruesome. But it was all in a way a kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing. It was semi-realistic drawings, and it just flowed. I kept turning it in, cranking it out. The magazine kept going and doing well, and the prices would increase for a page, so I was happy. Then all of a sudden they had that big investigation in Washington and that knocked that out. So then along came Mad.
WOODRING: If that investigation hadn’t occurred, and if all the concern about those comics hadn’t arisen, would you have felt OK about doing them?
DAVIS: Yeah. I didn’t really enjoy drawing them. Especially my wife didn’t particularly care for it. I didn’t have any children, then, so I really didn’t feel any responsibility. All I wanted to do then was to make that buck and keep drawing and doing something that I knew that I could do.
WOODRING: When did you get married, by the way?
DAVIS: Got married in 1950.
WOODRING: So that was just right after you came to New York, or right before?
DAVIS: Yeah. I came up to New York and I looked for work, and would call Dena (my wife) back up and tell her how things were going, and the whole bit. And finally, when I got work with Mad, that’s when I decided we would marry. That’s what happened.
WOODRING: So did she come up to New York to join you?
DAVIS: She came to New York. Both of us came to New York, spent the honeymoon in New York — one night, I think — and that was our honeymoon. And we moved out to Scarsdale in apartments, which we stayed out there for our whole married life in New York. And we loved it. It reminded me a lot of Atlanta. Again, I worked at home. I didn’t have to go in town and work in a studio, or work with somebody looking over my shoulder. I would pick up a script from Mad and come out and do it and take it in. That would be about once a week.
WOODRING: Did they have a bullpen situation there at EC?
DAVIS: No, they had paste-up people. And then you had people who would color, who would come in and color. But most of the stuff was freelance. The only people who were really in there were Al Feldstein, who was an editor, and Bill and the mail people and the people who pasted up the magazine.
WOODRING: I wanted to ask you about that comic called “Foul Play!,” the baseball story where the baseball game was played with severed limbs and guts…
DAVIS: That was the end. [Chuckles.]
WOODRING: That was the end. Did you feel that that was going too far?
DAVIS: Yeah. I really did. I hated to do it, but Al Feldstein was the boss, the editor. Back then I couldn’t feel right to cross him or say, “Wait a minute. I’m not going to do that.” I was kind of afraid. But as you get a little older, and you get a little more confidence in your work and you can pick and choose what you like. Again, like with this Mad, I hated like anything to not keep drawing for Mad, but to me, it just didn’t go along. And I didn’t have to do it. But I thoroughly enjoyed drawing for Mad.
WOODRING: Was that after Bill Gaines died that you quit working for them?
WOODRING: Did you get a lot of fan mail while you were working at EC?
DAVIS: I don’t know why it is, but once your name is in print or in magazines, either people want to be a correspondent or fan, or write letters back and forth. I would get some letters, and I’d take them home and read them and maybe answer some, but if you start doing that, then you’ve got a correspondence going, and I didn’t have time to do it so it kind of petered out. But I still get letters and I appreciate them very much. I try to answer every one of them.
WOODRING: One of the reasons I was asking you about the horror strips, because there is, as you say, always sort of an element of tongue-in-cheek quality to them. Even the real scary ones kind of have a nice bouncy quality of your drawing. But I’m sure you remember Graham Ingels’ work.
WOODRING: I imagine that his horror comics were more frightening than anyone else’s?
DAVIS: I think so. It was really scary. It was kind of an old-fashioned type of telling it, like I said a ghost story. He really had that feel for it. Al Feldstein established the three characters. There was the Old Witch, and the Vault Keeper, and the Crypt Keeper. Everybody kind of had a way of drawing it. I think Johnny Craig drew the Vault Keeper. His was always clean, but to me it was never scary. It was beautifully drawn, but it was never scary. It wasn’t hairy or ugly. My stuff was ugly and not great. But Graham Ingels was an artist.
WOODRING: I used to look at his comics when I was a kid, and to me they almost looked like the product of a diseased mind or something.
DAVIS: [Laughs] Yeah. I never really got to meet him very much unless we happened to be in the office delivering work at the same time. He was a very quiet fellow. I was very quiet, too. I was pretty shy. I don’t know, all of that went out the window. [Woodring laughs.] But I think we were impressed with the people that fed us.
WOODRING: I guess after he worked for EC, Graham Ingels disappeared. He sort of disappeared.
DAVIS: He did. I really don’t know what happened. I think he went to Florida, and I think he was a teacher, and I think he kind of liked to be — not a recluse — but just be himself, be by himself. I don’t know. I have not talked with him or seen him.
WOODRING: Oh, OK, because a few years ago I saw some oil paintings hat he’d done recently, and the subject matter was classic EC horror. It was the Old Witch, and craggy trees, graveyards…
DAVIS: Well, it flows. Just like people play a piano or do certain things. That’s their style. I don’t think it changes. I think there are people who copy other people and their styles change off and on and they can render or do anything, just like somebody else. But Graham was his man, and Wally Wood was his man. I think Wally Wood was influenced by Harold Foster a lot. He, again, was super and I think Johnny Severin was really great. When you look back at the beginning of the Mads, his draftsmanship with guns, cowboys and Indians, was unbelievable. I just didn’t do that. I just slapped stuff out.
WOODRING: Well, you certainly did a lot of highly detailed work on those Kurtzman war books.
DAVIS: Well, Harvey made us do that. [Laughs.]
DAVIS: Oh, I think so. I think Harvey was a great teacher. He could make things read. I look back over his work, and it was just unbelievable. He was far ahead of himself. Too bad he wasn’t his own man, but he worked with Willy Elder who was so talented. Harvey could have been by himself and done a million different things, but he did what he enjoyed and what he liked. He was good at it, but every time he did something on his own it was just beautiful.
WOODRING: Yeah. I certainly agree. I remember reading an interview with Bill Gaines that said when the EC artists would meet at the office and drop off stories and encountered each other, that you guys would look at each other’s work and enthuse over it. Do you remember doing that?
DAVIS: No, I really don’t. No, we’d just bring work in, get a check and go home.
WOODRING: Oh, OK. Did you socialize very much with the other artists?
DAVIS: Only at parties. Bill would have Christmas parties, and anytime he would do that we’d all get together. But I did socialize a lot with Harvey Kurtzman, because he lived out near where I lived in Westchester. When I first went to New York, Harvey was very nice to me. He and his wife Adele would have me for supper, and that was nice, because I didn’t really know anybody. I didn’t have any place to go. We became very close friends, and it kind of stayed that way.
WOODRING: Great. I’m interested in these Bill Gaines Christmas parties. Were they wild parties or anything like that?
DAVIS: Well, they would usually be in the afternoon, something like that. They’d have it down pretty close to the Bowery. Again, I can’t remember the name of the place. It was an Italian restaurant. Bill would either give out bonuses or little presents. It was just very nice. But I think of all of the things Bill did that was great were the trips — around the world, practically — everywhere but Australia.
WOODRING: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about those a little later on. So was Gaines always really generous?
DAVIS: Always. He was a big man, and just as nice as could be. You just don’t find many people like that. He’d invite Harvey and his wife and my wife and Willy Elder to his apartment and meet his mother and have supper. Just a real good man. He loved Coney Island. We’d go to Coney Island. He’d take the whole group over there.
DAVIS: I remember going up in the Parachute with him one time.
DAVIS: Just Bill Gaines and myself. I think he weighed almost about 300 pounds. Not that much. But you take your shoes off and you start going up in that thing and you kept going up, up, up. Then they cut you loose, and there’s a moment of free fall. You talk about frightening! And here I am with this big heavy man. That was something else. I’ll never forget that.
WOODRING: Yeah, it must have been. I’ve seen pictures of that thing. Kind of like a big umbrella.
DAVIS: But Bill ate things up like that. I think he loved the roller derby.
WOODRING: Roller derby.
DAVIS: Going way back. He’d get tickets for everybody to go to the roller derby.
DAVIS: Yeah. [Chuckles] That was all fake but he enjoyed it.
WOODRING: Huh. Let me backtrack a little tiny bit here. When you started work on the Kurtzman war books … You know, you said that you got along really well with him, but without knowing either of you — you seem like two fairly different kinds of people, from different regions…
DAVIS: Again, Harvey and I had a lot of common things that we liked. We loved Bob and Ray, and we would laugh and I would go to his house, because he was close by, and we would go over the war stories or whatever and draw. We were very close. I don’t know that we were different. He was raised in New York and I was raised down South, but we got along pretty well.
WOODRING: Did your philosophies mesh, about life and politics and all that?
DAVIS: Oh, sure. Yeah. Yeah. And Harvey was pretty much a prude way back and it was kind of a flip-flop for him to do Annie Fanny, but he did it, and that was it.
WOODRING: Did you ever feel hampered by his approach of working everything out to the Nth degree before you worked on it?
DAVIS: No. They were the bosses. And what you did is what they wanted. Harvey had written the stories, and he would practically act them out for you. And he would really draw them, with a sheet of tracing paper over where he wanted it to go. There were some beautiful, beautiful drawings. So all you had to do was pencil and render his sketches. In a way, me getting out and doing my own thing for Mad back then was great, because you were yourself. What I enjoy now is just myself. I get jobs that an art director will lay out, but they leave it up to me. I get some stories that you read, interpret and illustrate. I enjoy doing that.
WOODRING: About Harvey Kurtzman, can you tell me what you think he wanted professionally? Did he want artistic excellence, or money, or fame, or power? What drove him?
DAVIS: That’s a good question because Harvey enjoyed his work. He loved it. I think he may have been just a frustrated teacher because that’s what he sort of wound up doing. Harvey loved to do what he did, and it was a unique thing that he drew. So I don’t think that he was seeking any kind of fame or whatever, but he enjoyed his stuff.
WOODRING: Well, he certainly went on a limb enough times to do his own stuff.
DAVIS: He did. And I think the problem with him and Bill kind of got out of my realm. I don’t know really kind of what happened there. I think Harvey wanted a good piece of Mad because he made Mad go and originated it and the whole thing. And Bill was the publisher, and so it was kind of sad that they parted. But that’s life, and life goes on.
WOODRING: Right. Would you describe those years at EC as being full of fun, or tension? Were there a lot of rivalries?
DAVIS: No. It was fun, and like I said, I enjoyed what I was doing. And I would get behind and I’d have to work overnight or something to get it in. I’d always worry that Al Feldstein or somebody wouldn’t like my work, so you had a little tension there. And you just did your best. But no, the whole thing was just great. Life is not easy, but this was pleasant. It was good. It could have been worse.
WOODRING: Some of the comics that you did for Feldstein seem to be relatively hastily done.
DAVIS: Well, it was.
WOODRING: But I can’t think of any of the ones that you did for Kurtzman that weren’t just perfect and polished.
DAVIS: Well, I think I look back at some of the stuff, and I did do some hurried stuff for Harvey. But I know that Harvey didn’t like for me to do that because he was so particular. I think probably sometimes if he thought something wasn’t right, he’d tell Bill. And then Bill would come tell me and say, “Jack, let’s tighten up here and do a little better.” And I’d do that. But I didn’t know that Harvey had gone in there and said that.
WOODRING: In the end, Kurtzman got what he wanted out of you.
DAVIS: Oh, sure. I guess. And Harvey liked my work. When you see other people, that was a compliment. We got along great. We went to Europe together, on a trip by ourselves with our wives.
WOODRING: Oh, really.
DAVIS: That was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it.
WOODRING: I’ll bet. Can you describe your working relationship with Feldstein?
DAVIS: Well, Al was — you met your deadlines. He wanted your stuff to be in there and he was very business-like. I was never really, really close with Al, but I liked Al and he liked me. It just wasn’t as close as with Harvey.
WOODRING: Would he make a lot of suggestions about how to do the story?
DAVIS: No, he wouldn’t. Al would sort of pretty much leave it up to you. He would … I would sit down and read the script to myself, and then if there were any questions or something, Al would tell me about it. It was all lettered and laid out.
WOODRING: Let’s focus on Mad here for a minute. You worked on Mad as well as the other EC titles from between like 1952 and ‘54. Did you prefer working on Mad to the other titles?
DAVIS: Yeah. Oh yeah. I loved Mad. It was wacky, it was crazy, and every story was a little different. It was sort of right up my alley. I’ve always loved to kind of kid people or joke or something. It was humor. And I love humor. Good humor.
WOODRING: Well your style was so perfectly suited to those stories that people still love them. Our son was raised on the old Mad Magazine reprints that we have around the house. It’s amazing how well they hold up. They’re not dated at all; they’re just still great.
DAVIS: Isn’t that something?
WOODRING: It is. It’s amazing. It seems to me that a lot of the Mad artists had a real sympathy with what Harvey Kurtzman was trying to do, and they just worked hand-in-glove with him so that the whole book had this really cohesive feeling.
DAVIS: Well, again, he sat down with every story and walked it all the way through to you. He practically acted out every expression. You sat there and listened to him, and if he’s telling the story, you walk away and say, “That’s the way it’s gotta be.”
DAVIS: You go there to just pick it up, but you sat down with Harvey, and he said, “Here comes the guy charging at you, shooting at you,” the whole thing, and it was good.
WOODRING: I guess that’s the way Walt Disney used to work, too.
WOODRING: Was Kurtzman always on the lookout for new artists, do you think, or was he satisfied with you guys?
DAVIS: I think Harvey was pretty much settled in with the original Mad group. And then when Mad began to grow and get bigger, and right there at the end, I think he was bringing in a lot of outside talent who were very good. But again, that became more of a kind of a conglomerate kind of a magazine. With us, it was kind of a family thing. Towards the end there, it started going a little different way, but I think the Mad that did come out was still a family. Like you’ve got Al Jaffee and Bob Clarke and all of the people who helped put it out because three people I don’t think could have turned it out.
WOODRING: Was Harvey Kurtzman very critical of your work, of everybody’s work?
DAVIS: He was and he wasn’t. Again, Harvey was a kind of a perfectionist, and if he didn’t like it or something like that, he’d say, “Well now, we can change this.” He did it nicely.