Paul Coker Jr., the artist whose Rankin/Bass designs and Mad magazine illustrations charmed children and adults alike, died at his home in New Mexico on July 23 following a brief illness. He was 93. His stepdaughter Lee Smithson Burd confirmed the news to Deadline. “Paul was lucid and had his remarkable sense of humor until the end,” she said.
Coker worked as a character designer or production designer on iconic Rankin/Bass Production stop-motion and animated holiday specials, including Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town, Jack Frost, and Pinocchio’s Christmas. He also oversaw the creation of characters like Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney), Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees), Snow Miser (Dick Shawn), and Heat Miser (George S. Irving).
Even if you didn’t ring in the holidays with Coker’s festive Rankin/Bass designs, there’s a chance you’ve seen some of his other work. After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in drawing and painting, Coker’s got a gig as a designer of greeting cards for Hallmark. In 1961, he became a member of the “Usual Gang of Idiots” who illustrated for Mad magazine. There, he turned figures of speech into monsters with his recurring “Horrifying Cliches” features, and provided artwork for hundreds of other articles. The Mad-man freelanced for other publications, including Playboy (where he created suggestive parodies of the Peanuts comics), Esquire, and Good Housekeeping.
In 2015, the National Cartoonists Society honored Coker’s decades-long career by awarding him the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. Andrew Farago, the curator of the Cartoon Art Museum, was among those who took to Twitter to pay tribute after news of Coker’s death broke. “An incredible cartoonist, and really underrated, in my opinion,” Farago wrote. “So expressive, such economy of line … and such a joy to see his illustrations in MAD over the years.”