We here at Comics Bulletin mourn the passing of the great Jack Davis this week. As part of our tribute to the great cartoonist, we re-present Jason Sacks’ essay on some of Davis’s greatest work at E.C. Comics.
Of all of E.C.’s frontline cartoonists, perhaps none has had the success away from comics that the great Jack Davis has had. After the E.C. Comics line died and horror comics in general breathed their last after the institution of the draconian Comics Code, Davis landed on his feet perhaps better than any of the other great cartoonists that Bill Gaines employed. Davis moved over to work with Harvey Kurtzman on nearly all of his post-MAD series, but more importantly than that, he moved into a lucrative painting career, creating movie posters and book covers in such great numbers that it’s occasionally shocking to run into a humorous movie poster from the 1970s that does nothave a poster by Davis
But in this column we look at the work that the great E.C. artists created for that legendary line of titles, and thus here we’re taking a visual look at the material that Fantagraphics has reprinted in ‘Tain’t the Meat… It’s the Humanity and Other Stories by Jack Davis, one of their wonderful collection of black-and-white reprints of classic E.C. Comics.
Before I start on the visual display and analysis of Davis’s work, I thought it would be fun to tell the story of how Davis got his job drawing at E.C. See, Jack Davis wasn’t a star at the time that he was hired by America’s most prestigious horror comic publisher. Instead, the lanky Southerner was wandering through the streets of New York collecting rejection slips from all the comics publishers when he stumbled across an E.C. book on a newsstand. Knowing nothing about the comics that E.C. published, Davis brought three romance pages to editor Al Feldstein’s desk as samples of his work.
But nevermind that E.C.’s comics were as far from romance as they possibly could be: Feldstein hired Davis on the spot, and he received one assignment after the next from his editor, who thoroughly appreciated Davis’s professionalism and speed. Feldstein reflected years later, “I don’t know where Davis had been before he came to see us, but I really can’t believe that no one hired him. Eventually Davis produced 120 stories for the line in all genres; this current volume collects 24 stories from his run on Tales from the Crypt.
The earliest stories in this collection honestly feel a bit generic, like most of the other horror comics from the era. Also, the full horrific flower of Davis’s style hadn’t quite emerged by this time. The faces in the early panels in this page look derivative, and the horror of the bottom two panels seems a bit emasculated, but the story has raw noir energy.
The second story, “Bats in My Belfry” is a very stupid little horror story, but notice how well Davis sells the werewolf face above?
“Drawn and Quartered” is a cross between “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” and the arrogant Westerner trope, but Davis gives hints of his future glory with the depiction of the contrast between nasty Max Moor and the wrinkled old voodoo priest.
By the time we get to “Well-Cooked Hams” we start to get more prime Jack Davis. This story has a glorious first page and some terribly and nasty evil things happen to the main characters, but the thing I love most about this story is its wonderfully noir feel. Notice how the characters’ faces on this page seem half shrouded in darkness, giving them a look that matches their bleak futures.
“Bargain in Death” is a stupid graverobbers story, but this splash page is spectacular and exactly the sort of thing for which Davis would justifiably become very well known. I love how the evil creatures seem to be spilling out of the page, ready to jump into your lap and completely fuck you up.
In “Grounds … for Horror” we get a spectacular story of abusive parents, with the first extremely gory ending for an EC story – at least in this book. Davis does a sensational job of conveying the evil of the father in these panels, drawing him with great swathes of black and with dramatic composition as a way of showing the outsized fear that the kid feels for his father. Every time I look at the scene of the dad with the wire brush thrust towards his child, I’d swear he’s about to use the thing to scrub his son’s arm. That little image alone is as scary as any you’d find at E.C.
The next eight-pager, “Gas-tly Prospects” is a strange tale with a dead prospector at its heart and all kinds of wild animals at its center. This story shows how Davis still was a bit uncomfortable drawing animals – as you can see from the images above, the creatures look a bit like wild cats, but not like any creatures ever actually seen in nature. Somehow their lack of realism doesn’t just seem acceptable for the story but somehow seems like a good aesthetic choice since their unreality somehow emphasizes the strangeness of the tale being told.
After the strange wildcats we get what might be one of the most nihilistic stories of the entire nihilistic E.C. run. On this climactic page of “Survival… or Death”, the classic E.C. revenge trope isn’t just visited upon the two sailors who had tortured rats earlier in the story; instead, revenge comes for all the sailors on this ship, innocent and guilty alike. The open bottom of the final panel accentuates the terror of the men who are about to drown at sea. Clearly Davis is really beginning to find his way now.
“‘Taint the Meat” is a fascinating story, not so much for the gorgeous Davis art (I love how the Crypt Keeper comments on every page on the story unfolding beneath her, and the image on this page of her smelling a flower is priceless) but because of the portrait it gives us of an America in which World War II, with its resulting complicated systems of meat rations and other managing of shortages, was fresh on everybody’s minds. Our protagonist in this story is a happy war profiteer, the lowest form of life, and readers of the time were likely quite overjoyed to see him receive his appropriate comeuppance.
If “Lower Berth”‘s depiction of two sideshow freaks – a lost female mummy and a two-headed boy – falling in love is ridiculous in the extreme, at least Davis draws the creatures with obvious TLC. It may look stupid, but at least this story is fun.
A Frankenstein’s monster of sorts appears in “Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall”, with its series of scenes that seem to come right from an awesomely cheesy old B-movie. This story works really well in black and white rather than its original color due to Davis’s gorgeously moody atmospherics and wonderful use of forced perspective. And look at the lovely classic Davis depictions of the monster. How iconic is that image?
“By the Fright of the Silvery Moon” is an interesting twist versus expectations. From the title you might imagine this as a werewolf story, but the real horror of the tale comes from the story of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. In its story of angry, suspicious townspeople, this tale reminds of the best Twilight Zone stories. Here we see the wonderful way that Davis draws people worried about their lives. Notice how subtle the work is on the faces of the villagers and how powerful these panels build upon themselves.
In “Fair Tonight, Followed by Increased Clottyness” we follow the adventures of a lonely taxi driver, forced to drive through a town terrified by a serial killer on the loose. Once again this story is very wordy, but this scene on page 6 of the story has a completely terrifying mood. This moody and episodic tale is rendered spellbinding by Davis’s art. Rain and fog enhance the feeling of horror, once again with a noir feel due to Davis’s adroit brushwork.
Again and again, we see how wonderfully Davis “casts” his stories, with characters that have distinctive faces and complicated inner lives. That element is essential in a story like “Dead Right”, the tale of a prank gone terribly wrong. These nasty men aren’t evil as much as they just seem bored and uncaring about the lives of others – perfect E.C. villains.
An old chest is the “protagonist” of “Tight Grip”, an oddly old-fashioned seeming choice even for comics that were created 60 years ago. Despite the strangeness of the story, though, Davis does amazing things with perspective and even better things with classic E.C. gore.
“Undertaking Palor” is another tale that focuses on kids as its main protagonists. Davis isn’t well known for the way he draws children, but the boys in this story have an innocence and emotionalism that makes them compelling witnesses for the crime.
Another classic Davis splash graces “Food for Thought,” and behind that page roils a story of murder and revenge among circus freaks full of almost operatic emotions, gorgeously illustrated with deep, deep blacks. And again notice the wonderfully noir opening. Davis sure loves to enhance his drama with some beautiful ink blacks, doesn’t he?
“Operation Friendship”, another tale of old friends messing up each other’s lives, has a very odd subtext of fear of homosexuality that makes the story fascinating to read today. Though there are allusions to a Platonic friendship, methinks the protagonists of this story doth protest too much – especially since the story involves a man taking revenge against his friend because the friend has gotten married. The last page of this story is bizarre but oh so gloriously fun. This is easily the most sadistically dark story in this book, a horrifyingly brutal tale of jealousy with a charming twist gloriously drawn by Davis.
I kept wondering why anybody would ever journey to Transylvania all throughout “Concerto for Violin and Werewolf,” which is a pretty big plot flaw, but the splash page and final pages of this story are absolutely gorgeous. Just look at how he draws the feral werewolves, fangs bared and practically salivating at the sight of their intended victim.
More trademark atmospherics highlight “Four-Way Split”, the story of a man haunted by dreams of his execution after he has killed his former business partner. Maybe most interesting for me are the deep, almost Wally Wood style backgrounds in this story – look how at the depth of field on the fuselage of this airplane.
“Forever Ambergris” is yet another text-heavy E.C. tale (there’s a good essay to be written about the incredibly verbose narration of these classic stories) but notice how nice the storytelling is on the early pages of this story, how wonderfully the camera zooms in on the narrator.
But occasionally E.C delivered a story that isn’t overwhelmed by text. And when that happened, as with the best of the Harvey Kurtzman war stories, the results could be spectacular. “Telescope” has all the drama and bravura storytelling of the work that Davis drew for Kurtzman, the story of the horrors that are visited upon a man shipwrecked on a desert island. In contrast with some of the more overly contrived E.C. horror stories, the gritty naturalism of this story is wonderfully compelling. And the relative paucity of the EC typeset text in this story allows Davis’s art to really open up here, for practically the first time in this book, and display an energy that we often don’t see in the more text-heavy tales.
Maybe the most shockingly beautiful splash page in the whole book is for “Upon Reflection”, a rare splash that features all of E.C.’s famous “Ghoul-lunatic” narrators in one place, as well as a charmingly postmodern tableau. Behind the splash is another story of a town full of panic about a werewolf loose in a town, again highlighted by some outstanding “casting” and noir atmospherics.
The final story in this collection is a long-lost classic. “The Trophy” was already seen earlier in this book, this time rendered in 3-D and now reprinted for the first time ever. This is pure joy for an E.C. fan or lover of Jack Davis’s art; the painstaking restoration of the art gives the reader a chance to contrast Davis’s choices in this story with his choices in the earlier version while also delivering a work that works sensationally well on its own terms.
So, 24 tales that will make you scream in horror and glory in shocking thrills. We get zombies and vampires, scheming couples and many, many werewolves. Some of the stories are overly wordy, but Jack Davis’s unerring instinct for delivering gorgeously atmospheric horror shines through. Davis was perhaps the backbone of the E.C. line because of his phenomenal speed and powerful linework. He may be best known among many fans due to his long career working on film posters and advertising, but true E.C. fan-addicts know that Davis’s horror stories are a virtual clinic on creating powerful artwork illustrating some sensationalistic stories. Again and again, Davis’s art elevates the story that he illustrates, giving heft and energy and verisimilitude to the work that he delivers.
There is a vitality and energy to these stories, an often almost playful glee at delivering complex yarns that still keep the reader on the edge of his seat. No wonder his art is still studied and relevant, sixty years after it first appeared.