As you might know, if you’ve read my bio here on the Gutter, I’m a partner in Ottawa’s oldest surviving cinema, The Mayfair Theatre.
In August, we showed two films that on the surface have little in common: Robert Altman’s neo-noir The Long Goodbye and Woody Allen’s slapstick political parody Bananas. Obviously, though, they do have something in common, or I wouldn’t be writing this column, would I?
You could point to the films’ auteur directors, their genre inversions, their shaggy-dog approach to storytelling or their rumpled, sarcastic-to-the-verge-of-being-meta lead characters. But what interests me is their posters, and the man behind those posters: Jack Davis.
You can find a full biography of Davis at Don Markstein’s Toonopedia, or by doing a quick search online, but here are the outlines: Davis started out assisting and interning on newspaper comic strips and doing some illustration work for Coca Cola. He moved to NY, where he found work with EC Comics, home of Tales from the Crypt, among other notorious titles. In fact, as Markstein notes, “two of [Davis’] panels [from the work he did at EC] were reprinted on the opening page of the art section of anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, as shocking examples of the sort of comic books that were corrupting America’s youth.”
While Wertham and his book were quickly and widely discredited, the fallout from Seduction of the Innocent (that is, the creation of the Comics Code Authority) effectively killed EC’s horror comics line, but Davis stuck around to work on their sole remaining book: Mad Magazine (then known as Tales Calculated To Drive You Mad).
As Markstein summarizes: “Before long, kids who’d enjoyed [Davis’] EC work grew up and, like those of most other generations, became doctors, lawyers and art directors. The latter proved how badly Davis’s work had corrupted their youth by offering him more and more lucrative, more and more prestigious jobs. Davis has now done dozens of album covers, in all different genres of music, as well as dozens of covers for such high-profile magazines as Time and TV Guide.”
He’s also done a lot of movie posters. With his background drawing chaotic, anarchic crowd scenes and as one of the defining artists of the nothing-is-sacred Mad-style humour, he was an ideal fit for the tone and content of many 60s and 70s films. When it came time to market The Long Goodbye, Altman said, “I had to prepare audiences for a movie that satirizes Hollywood and the entire Chandler genre. So I went to Mad Magazine, and asked Jack Davis, the artist, to come up with a cartoon approach”.
You can take a look at what Davis came up with here (it’s worthwhile clicking to embiggen). It’s definitely, as Altman describes it, a “cartoon approach.” It’s more than just an illustration; it’s a poster you read, that tells a (pretty mad, pretty Mad and pretty meta) story through its overlapping speech bubbles. It’s very self-aware, and takes the movie’s satirizing of Hollywood to the other side of the fourth wall. Like The Long Goodbye itself, it knows its subject better – and pays it better tribute – than those who would play it straight.
Of course, by the time The Long Goodbye came out (1973), Davis’ “cartoon approach” was already well established, not just in Mad, but in numerous high-profile film ad campaigns. He’d done the poster for Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Inspector Clouseau (1968, starring Alan Arkin in the title role – people forget about him), The Party (also ’68), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Bananas (1971) and Five on the Black Hand Side (1973). In ’76, he would do The Big Bus (preceding the Zucker’s disaster movie spoof Airplane! by four years), and the poster for the greatest baseball movie (and one of the best films about America) ever, The Bad News Bears.
(You didn’t think I’d leave you without a link, did you? You can see all the posters listed above, and more, here.)
What’s interesting, looking at Davis’ body of poster work, is that a lot of the films play fast and loose with or lampoon genre conventions (war, detective and even blaxploitation films); depend on pop-cultural knowledge outside their narratives (recognizing the actors, and their associated characters in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Big Bus); or make sacred hamburgers of cherished American institutions (baseball, domino theory, Hollywood).
These are movies for, and by, the Mad Magazine generation. And for that generation, imitation may be flattery.
But parody is love.
What, Ian Driscoll worry?