MAD magazine, and Rankin Bass legendary artist Paul Coker passed away recently. MAD writer, Desmond Devlin spoke about him in an online update, better than I could, so I will repost his words here:
by Desmond Devlin
“PAUL COKER, JR, 1929-2022
When I started at MAD, the first four artists to illustrate pieces I’d written were George Woodbridge, Don Martin, Paul Coker Jr, and Jack Davis. It was like writing for Mount Rushmore. Now, with the death of Paul Coker Jr, they’re all gone.
Coker lived in Kansas; I only met him twice. First time, on the final MAD Trip to Monte Carlo. And then decades later on a great day at the MAD offices. Paul was one of a gaggle of sit-down interviewees at an all-day filming session for the long-gestating MAD documentary, along with Tom Bunk, Teresa Burns Parkhurst, Irving Schild, some guy named Tom Richmond, Drew Friedman, and others. My dopey remarks were already in the can, but I showed up anyway just to hang out, because come on!
It was dusk by the time shooting wrapped up, and editor John Ficarra asked Paul if he’d like to go out for dinner. Coker politely declined, because he had other plans. There was a live model session that evening at the Art Students League. And he thought it would be useful to stop by and get in some sketching practice. He was 84 years old.
That speaks to the meticulousness and dedication behind those light, airy lines of his. Being that free and natural takes hard work.
What a beautiful style. Look at how Coker spotted his blacks. Look at how he used empty space.
And more than anything, look at those facial expressions and body language. That was Paul’s un-secret weapon.
He might draw a brute erupting in fury — arms arching like a whip, angry teeth bared in a huge black cave of a mouth. Followed immediately by a delicate deadpan face with tiny pursed lips, crushed with disappointment. And then, someone giving someone else the skeptical, one-lidded side-eye.
That mastery of underplay and overplay was like a gratifying combination of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery reaction shots. Coker could depict obsequiousness in just five perfectly placed lines. He could do smug confidence in four.
Paul also had a habit of drawing his straight lines in segments. His door frames, his furniture, his curtains were full of little hiccups and ink divots. Even his inanimate objects had individual verve.
Although Coker had a signature drawing style, he could tweak his approach depending on the assignment. “MAD’s Handy Glossary to the War on Terror” had some rough jokes about a rougher reality, and he illustrated that article in a scruffier style that suggested the miasma of the Iraq War. There was one goofy Bulgarian face in the middle of it all, but it underlined the gag and reinforced the satire. A true collaborator, not just serving the script but elevating it.
Paul’s 57 years of MAD contributions are the fifth-most by anyone. And he had other prolific careers in advertising, greeting cards, and television.
As everybody knows, Paul designed the characters for more than 50 Rankin/Bass episodes and holiday specials. He gave Frosty the Snowman his appearance, and that’s the one they’ve been showing in the tweets and obituaries. But I liked the way he drew the bad guys even better: the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser, Irontail, Professor Hinkle, the Winter Warlock, Burgermeister Meisterburger.
It was a rite of passage for a generation of kids to rewatch those holiday specials and suddenly realize, “Hey! That’s the same guy who draws for MAD!”
Now, just to make this whole post about me… I mean, in order to make it relevant to this site… here is my own circa 2010 local political cartoon that paid homage to Paul Coker Jr.’s staple MAD Magazine feature, “Horrifying Clichés” but with local city council members and issues illustrated in it.