Paul Coker, Cartoonist at Mad for Almost Six Decades, Dies at 93
Paul Coker, a cartoonist who was best known for using monsters to parody clichés in Mad magazine over many decades and for creating the look of animated television characters, like Frosty the Snowman, died on July 23 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 93.
The death was confirmed by his stepdaughter Lee Smithson Burd.
Mr. Coker was part of an elite group of artists at Mad — including Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee and Jack Davis — who brought a vibrant and varied look to the magazine’s silly and satirical view of politics, war, movies, television and pop culture.
“Paul was capable of whimsical but beautiful artwork that always had a bit of subversion to it,” John Ficarra, a former Mad editor, said in a phone interview. “He did phenomenal pen-and-ink work, and as he grew older he learned to simplify his work without losing its sparkle and charm.”
Mr. Coker collaborated with the writer Phil Hahn, and later with others, for over 50 years to produce the recurring feature “Horrifying Clichés,” which mocked overused phrases by illustrating them with monsters and other creatures.
The drawing for “Curbing a voracious appetite” showed a man in a black coat walking a gigantic monster on a leash to do his necessary business. “Escaping the doldrums” depicted a frightened man running from a family of monsters, presumably named the Doldrums, who stand in a castle doorway. For “Lodging a complaint,” an innkeeper showed a dungeonlike room to a compliant monster who carries a suitcase covered with stickers showing his previous travels.
“What a great way to earn a living!” Mr. Coker wrote in the introduction to “The Mad Monster Book of Horrifying Clichés” (2002). Describing how he had conceived the illustration for “Dropping a hint,” he wrote that he chose a medieval setting because it allowed for the dropping to be done from a “castle tower window or a rickety old bridge or from a very high wall into a snake-filled moat.” (He ended up going with the window.) And, he added, the hint “can be any kind of imaginary creature with a terrified expression.”
Add some distant mountains, clouds, a few birds and trees, he wrote, “and you’ve just horrified a cliche!”
Mr. Coker’s illustrations, done in collaboration with various writers, appeared in 372 issues, among the most by any Mad artist. His work included features like “You Know You’re Getting Old When …” and “Honest Greeting Cards,” as well as parodies of “Star Trek” (“Star Blecch VI: The Uninspired Continuation”) and the TV series “Frasier” (“Flakier”). He contributed to Mad until 2018, a year before it ceased publication, 67 years after its first issue, in 1952.
Sam Viviano, a former art director of Mad, said that one of his treasures was a subscription ad drawn by Mr. Coker that depicted a mailman climbing a ladder to deliver a copy of the magazine to an eager rajah sitting under a canopy atop a blanket-draped elephant.
“The filigree on the blanket is just eye-popping,” Mr. Viviano said.
Paul Allan Coker Jr. was born on March 5, 1929, in Lawrence, Kan., to Paul and Bernice (Rutherford) Coker. He was first published around the age of 12, a cartoon for The Open Road for Boys, a magazine about outdoor life. He studied painting and drawing at the University of Kansas, where he contributed artwork to the student newspaper. He graduated in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree.
After serving in the Navy, Mr. Coker went to work for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo. In 1961 he moved to New York City, where he called on the offices of Mad.
“I just walked in off the streets of New York with my portfolio,” he told The Kansas City Star in 1978. “I had a vague idea of what the magazine was doing, but I certainly had never bought a copy.”
He began working for the magazine as a freelancer almost immediately, with his first two pieces appearing in the January and March 1961 issues.
While continuing to work for Hallmark and Mad, Mr. Coker struck up a relationship with Rankin/Bass Productions, which was famous for animated children’s specials, like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964) and “The Little Drummer Boy” (1968).
After being hired by Arthur Rankin Jr., half of the company’s producing partnership, he read the script for “Frosty the Snowman” and sketched Frosty’s onscreen look.
“So I came up with the concept of a jolly snowman and put a top hat on him with a little flower in the hatband, a corncob pipe, coal eyes,” Mr. Coker told the North American Precis Syndicate in 2001. “I added a scarf and broom to give him humanlike characteristics.”
Mr. Rankin and his partner, Jules Bass, approved the drawing, had storyboards developed and sent them to Japan to be animated. The completed cartoon, first shown in 1969, became a holiday perennial.
As the production and character designer for many subsequent Rankin/Bass cartoons, nearly all of which used stop-motion animation, Mr. Coker spent about a decade designing characters like Frosty, Kris Kringle, the Winter Warlock and Burgermeister Meisterburger (from “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”), as well as the Snow and Heat Misers (from “The Year Without a Santa Claus”).
He also contributed to Esquire, Good Housekeeping and other magazines. A 1965 cartoon for Playboy was a “Peanuts” parody: Lucy approaches Charlie Brown with news that her picture is in a “famous national magazine.” When she flips it open to the centerfold (which the reader doesn’t see), Charlie Brown shouts, “Hugh Hefner, you’ve gone too far with this wholesome girl-next-door business!!!”
In 2015, Mr. Coker received the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonists Society.
In addition to his stepdaughter Lee, he is survived by his wife, Rosemary Smithson; another stepdaughter, Carol Smithson; and two step-grandchildren.
Dick DeBartolo, a longtime Mad writer who collaborated frequently with Mr. Coker, said in an interview that “Horrifying Cliches” helped him visualize certain ideas.
“‘Nursing a grudge’ didn’t bring up a thought of anything, but you’ve said it a million times,” he said, referring to one of Mr. Coker’s cartoons — actually called “Burying a grudge” — in which a man digs a green monster’s grave. “But Paul drew so cleverly, you say, ‘Oh, that’s what a grudge looks like.’”