Paul Coker Jr., character and production designer on the timeless Rankin/Bass holiday specials and long-time Mad magazine artist, died at his home in New Mexico on July 23, 2022 after a brief illness. He was 93.

Coker was raised in Lawrence, Kansas, and studied art at the University of Kansas before taking a job as a greeting card designer for Hallmark in the 1950s. His relationship with the company spanned decades as he continued to provide artwork for cards while working on other projects.

During his career Coker worked for Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Pageant, Look, McCall’s, and was an editorial cartoonist for the New York Enquirer. He also contributed to Playboy, but spent most of his career illustrating for Mad magazine, which he joined in 1961. There he became one of The Usual Gang of Idiots, a group of artists who defined the look, feel, and humor of the magazine for years.

An example of Coker's work from Mad.
An example of Coker’s work from Mad.

During his time at Mad he created several popular recurring features, the most recognizable being the “Horrifying Clichés” series. Over the next four decades he illustrated more than 375 articles for the publication.

In the late-1960s, Coker began contributing to the production and character design of Rankin/Bass specials and was responsible for many of the images that Americans now most closely associate with the Christmas season. He has credits on holiday films including Frosty the Snowman, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, among many others.

Heat Miser and Snow Miser
Heat Miser and Snow Miser from 1974’s “The Year Without a Santa Claus”

Although Coker’s name and face may not be instantly recognizable to many, his work certainly is. The most memorable characters created under his watch at Rankin/Bass include Frosty the Snowman, Kris Kringle, the Winter Warlock, Burgermeister Meisterburger, and the Snow and Heat Misers. His distinct artistic style, in both cartooning and animation, is still regularly copied today and many of his characters are sure to endure for generations.

Official Rankin/Bass biographer and historian Rick Goldschmidt, a longtime friend and collaborator of Coker’s, posted a touching tribute to the artist on Facebook.

Coker is survived by his wife of 33 years Rosemary Smithson, stepdaughters Lee Smithson Burd and Carol Smithson.

Pictured at top: “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” Paul Coker Jr.

Jamie Lang

Jamie Lang

Jamie Lang is the Editor-in-Chief of Cartoon Brew.

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