The great caricaturist and comics artist Jack Davis died yesterday at age 91. He was an important contributor to Mad magazine, a frequent and notable artist for a lot of advertising and many newsstand magazines covers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s — and also the man who drew perhaps the single most objectionable comic book of the 1950’s in the eyes of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, known popularly in some circles as “the Wertham commission.”
That story, “Foul Play!” ran in the May-June 1953 issue of The Haunt of Fear. It concerned a baseball team that decides, after it’s been cheated of its victory, to avenge the death of a teammate by murdering his killer and playing baseball on his remains: intestines form the baselines, lungs and liver form the bases, his heart becomes home plate, and of course his severed head is used as the ball.
One can see why, in 1953, at a time when juvenile delinquency seemed like a craze that needed to be stopped, this caught some attention. The story was written up in Dr. Frederick Wertham’s book, “Seduction of the Innocent” the following year, and ultimately led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, as well as a lot of comic-book burning. (More about that in a minute.)
(And if you’d like to read that notorious story, click here.)
In 1982, twenty-nine years after “Foul Play!” was published, I had the occasion to interview Jack Davis. I’d gotten the assignment from The Comics Journal, where I was doing a lot of writing at the time. I was living in New Jersey then, so a friend and I drove to upstate New York to visit Mr. Davis in his home. A Georgia native, Jack Davis proved to be rather a quiet man of genteel Southern manners — and a pleasant but somewhat dull interview. At this point in my writing life, and somewhat influenced by the snotty tone of the magazine I was writing for, I had gotten the hang of agitating people to spark up an interview. I’d gotten into a real argument with legendary Batman and Green Lantern writer Denny O’Neil (which led to a strong interview, as well as a brief friendship) and I would go on to provoke people in a variety of ways for several years in many other publications. But Mr. Davis was too nice for my shenanigans, and someone who would be impossible to provoke, and, however informative about his artistic process, not altogether terribly interesting. And, frankly, although I’d read many of those incendiary EC comics from years before, and issues of Mad, I was the wrong guy to conduct an interview that would reveal the previously uncovered aspects of his career and his history; we touched on a lot of it, but at age 20 I just wasn’t well-informed.
Throughout the 1980s, The Comics Journal printed everything I wrote for them — except that interview. They didn’t run it, and I didn’t blame them. And because they didn’t run it, they didn’t pay me. But, again, I understood. It wasn’t interesting on its own and wasn’t fitting as a piece into a larger editorial theme.
Then in the early 1990s, five years after I’d moved to Los Angeles, someone I’d gone to college with told me that the magazine had (finally) run the interview, and that he’d read it. I couldn’t believe it. The magazine hadn’t sent me a copy, or paid me. (And, in late 2008, after they kept republishing some of my other pieces without permission or pay, I sued them. They finally paid me, and sent me published copies.) I couldn’t get the issue anywhere, and my friend had lost his. I called the publisher, Fantagraphics, and asked for a copy, and was assured that one would be sent. It wasn’t. I wrote to them as well. This went on for a while… and then, finally, I gave up.
Then, today, I got an email from someone at Fantagraphics, asking if they could reprint the interview online, now that Jack Davis had died. I said sure — if they send me a copy. Even a scan. Something! It’s been in (and out) of print for almost 25 years and I still hadn’t seen it — now I’d just like to see it. So, I responded that yes, they can post it, but I want them to send me a copy, because their content is hidden behind a paywall. (Meaning that once again they’ll be making some money, however little, without paying me.)
I figured that I now know what it took for me to see the interview: for the interviewee to die.
But just now, on a whim, I checked the “settlement package” that my attorney sent to me in January 2009, forwarding from Fantagraphics copies of the book they’d reprinted me in, as well as a check — and found, tucked in there, two xerox copies of the interview with Jack Davis. So I’ve actually had it, at least in a xerox form, for seven years. I just now read it, eagerly.
For 30 years, I’ve remembered only one moment in our interview that had real spark in it. I had asked Mr. Davis about “Foul Play!” and the Senate hearings into comic books. He told me they were televised. (I hadn’t realized that.) And that after listening to the testimony, he had gotten up and turned off the television, and he and his wife took all of his comic books — all of the published copies of his work — into the back yard and put them into a pile. And burned them.
He burned all of his work.
Of course I asked him why, and he said something like, “Because my art was contributing to juvenile delinquency. It was wrong.”
That, to me, was the heart of the interview. Here was a workaday artist, a man who drew on assignment, who’d made most of his career in commercial art, who’d brushed up close with the sort of art that actually provokes a reaction — and he’d recoiled, rejected that experience, and turned away. I pressed for more details — how did his peers feel about that? Did he have more feelings about it? What did his wife say? Did they tell their friends and family? And so forth. But he wouldn’t say any more about it. When he’d burned those comics, he’d left provocation and controversy — the things that some of us actively seek in art — behind for good.
I just checked the published interview. Three times. It’s not in there. Somehow it didn’t make it into print.
Thirty years of waiting, and it’s not there.
I’m wondering if the only record that we have that Jack Davis, an important comics artist in the history of the medium, burnt his own work in his back yard because he felt complicit in harming America’s youth… is this very piece you’re reading.