Wacky Plak postcards of Jack Davis
I was fishing through a box lot of small items from auction when I saw six strange-looking cards whose fronts were make-believe wooden planks. The images looked like caricatures and the wording was oversized.
The cards were very cartoonish, down to the jokes on the front of each of them. On the back, they resembled postcards with a place for an address and a stamp, along with the words “Wacky Plak.” I started to read them, and they made me chuckle.
They reminded me of the types of greeting cards I give to friends, because they were light-hearted and meant to make you laugh. Like those greeting cards, these were also full of fun and energy:
“The Marines build men … and even they couldn’t help you.”
“To be seen, stand up. To be heard, speak up. To be appreciated, shut up.”
I had never seen these types of cards at auction before, and was therefore curious about them. I learned that they were made as a series of 88 by Topps, better known for its baseball cards, in 1959. Several sites described them as trading cards and postcards, but they offered very little additional information on them.
What I found most interesting about the cards was the maker. He was identified as Jack Davis, an illustrator whose work is more closely associated with the wacky MAD magazine. Davis’ name was not familiar to me, but I soon recognized the MAD-ness in the images on the cards.
Davis is considered a giant among illustrators, a southern gentleman who in his own environs is just as well known for his work with the Georgia Bulldogs (or dawgs), the mascot of his alma mater, the University of Georgia in Athens. The Georgia Museum of Art in that city will be wrapping up an exhibit next month called “Beyond the Bulldog: Jack Davis” that showcases the breadth of work.
The MAD illustrations are just a tip of the iceberg of his artwork. Davis has done album covers (The Dells vs the Dramatics” as NBA players), movie posters (“It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” “The Producers”), comic books (“Tales from the Crypt”), books and magazines (Ebony, Esquire, Time), and advertising campaigns (Ford, Purina, Michelob, the U.S. Post Office).
He created the Wacky Plak cards in the middle of all of the other work he was doing back in the 1950s: monster tattoos, squirting pens, lunchbox covers and restaurant placemats (unfortunately, none of those were among a collection of placemats I came across at auction once).
Born in Atlanta, Davis started cartooning early, submitting his first to a comics publication at the age of 12. He did illustrations for his high school yearbook, and later for the university newspaper and a humor magazine “Bullsheet” that he co-founded. Moving to New York, he studied at the Art Students League and walked the streets looking for work at the comic syndicates, he said in a Wall Street Journal interview in 2011.
He was about to give up when he went to the offices of EC Comics. There, he found his landing spot, making a name for himself for both his talent and his speed. He and several other artists worked as freelancers for the company for years – “I would go in for that almighty check, go home and do the work, bring it in and get another check and pick up another story,” Davis said in the newspaper interview.
The launch of MAD in 1952 cemented the relationship, and he illustrated the first issue of the satire magazine. Along the way, he also illustrated other comic and humor magazines, and created a humor magazine for Dell comics.
His illustration of the Jackson 5 for their 1970s Saturday morning cartoon found its way onto the cover of the September 1971 issue of Ebony magazine. In a 2011 blog post interview, he was asked about his encounter with the brothers.
He was flown to the family’s ranch, he said, but, alas, they were on tour and he didn’t get to meet them. He also did individual drawings of the Jacksons. The magazine credited the illustration “Courtesy Motown Records.” Davis apparently produced artwork for some album covers for the label, including Billy Preston and Syreeta’s “Fast Break.”
During the newspaper interview, he said that he had just completed a book on Don Quixote. “It’s fantastic,” said Davis, who turned 88 this month. “I mean, it’ll probably never sell, but I sure enjoyed drawing it.”
Looking at his illustrations and the Wacky Plak cards, I understood his joy. He seemed to have had so much fun creating all of them.
As for the cards, they seemed to be selling briskly on eBay. Complete sets of 88 sold for $100 to $305 (this series by someone who had collected them 50 years ago), incomplete sets were selling for up to $100, while some full sets were not selling. Singles or handfuls of cards were selling for as low as 99 cents.