Friday 8 January 2010

Dr Feelgood - Plastic Sam - Russ Heath - Harvey Kurtzman - Plastic Man - Jack Cole, Etc, Etc, Ad Ininitum ... (Part 2)

Well to round off yesterday's blog, the inspirational source for much of yesterday's creative artistry was none other than Plastic Man, a wonderfully wacky creation by yet another exemplar of creative drive and all out determination. Jack Cole was born the third of six children in 1914, his father who was a dry goods storekeeper was also something of an amateur entertainer and his mother prior to child rearing duties had been a secondary school teacher.

Cole evidently inherited his father's love of the absurd and was by all accounts a fun guy to be around, he was also very driven and at the age of fifteen having determined to commit himself to a life as a successful newspaper cartoonist and seeing no possibility of attending an art college he hollowed out a schoolbook so that he could smuggle into school homemade sandwiches enabling him to save up his dinner money to undertake a correspondence course at the Landon School of Cartooning.

As further evidence of his exceptional independence and overall restlessness some two years later he undertook a three thousand mile bicycle trip from his home in New Castle Pennsylvania to the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games. By the time he arrived there he was so wiped out both fiscally and physically that he couldn't attend the games but instead booked himself into a cheap hotel until funds and clothing arrived from home. At which point he unceremoniously consigned the battered and disintegrating bike to the depths of the Pacific and bought himself a new one so he could cycle back home to a hero's welcome.

By the age of twenty he had married his childhood sweetheart and was working at the local American Can Factory. But the dream was still alive and emboldened by some successful forays as a freelance cartoonist and with some borrowed money from hometown sponsors he set out for New York City determined to become a cartoonist.

Needless to say it wasn't going to be quite as easy as the ever exuberant Cole believed but he did eventually land work with one of the studios servicing the still nascent comic book industry creating one page fillers which his humorous style of drawing was tailor made for. His tenure at the Chesler Studio brought him to the attention of Everett "Busy" Arnold - yes the same Everett Arnold that had snapped up Reed Crandall (see The Reed Crandall Legacy posting). Cole was rapidly hived off to Arnold's studio where he joined the illustrious alumni who were the creative force behind Arnold's Quality line of comic books.

Arnold as well as being a sharp businessman was possessed of a truly fatalistic view of the world in general and the comic book business in particular to the extent that he would regularly take a pair of scissors to his creator's artwork once it had seen print for fear that it should be "pirated" by his competitors. One of Cole's first assignments with Arnold was to address yet another of Arnold's burgeoning concerns, he was assigned to create a clone of one of the studio's most successful characters Will Eisner's The Spirit. Eisner despite his youth was as business savvy as Arnold and had ensured that the copyright remained with him. Arnold fearful that Eisner a) might fall under a truck b) might defect or c) and this most plausibly be drafted, wanted a fallback doppleganger and Midnight as the character was called was just what was required.

Under a lessor talent Midnight would have just been a pallid imitation but Cole injected the strip with his zany and irreverent energy, which imbued the series with it's own distinctive charm, in fact it's arguable that Midnight was more aesthetically successful than Cole's subsequent ghosting of the Spirit after the inevitable occurred and Eisner was finally drafted.

But I'm beating about the bush a bit here, as the strip that truly epitomized Cole's genius was a character that started life as yet another modest back up feature in Quality's Police Comics. Plastic Man was undoubtedly Cole's tour de force and within it's rapidly expanding page count as it went from six to twelve to fifteen pages long with Cole's earnings soaring concomitantly we see comic art at it's most inventive and inspirational - really even Harvey Kurtzman's "Plastic Sam" couldn't add that much extra to what Cole had already achieved in the previous decade.

Cole's work throughout the forties is a joy to behold but he was definitely still determined to explore new avenues and to this end he commenced creating stylish and sexy watercolors for the men's leisure market where his work appeared in magazines under the pseudonym of "Jake".

One of the purchasers of "Jake's" watercolors was a young publisher and lover of comics (especially Plastic Man) Hugh Hefner. Unaware that Jake was in fact Cole he solicited material from Cole for a new magazine he was working on under the provisional title of "Stag Party".

Cole became one of Playboy's premier contributors and enjoyed a regular place in Hefner's rapidly expanding empire. But he still nurtured the as yet unfulfilled ambition of creating a successful syndicated newspaper strip. In early 1958 he penciled several weeks worth of a new daily and Sunday comic strip with the title "Betsy and Me", which concerned the domestic trials and tribulations of a department store floorwalker and his wife Betsy with their five year old son Farley.

After delivering another assignment to the Playboy offices he took himself off to The Chicago Sun-Times syndicate and promptly sold the strip without letting on that he was a famous Playboy cartoonist or that he had been one of the most successful comic artists of the 1940's. Lifetime's ambition finally achieved! He returned to the Playboy offices for an impromptu office party.

One morning a few months later, he wrote two letters, one for Hefner and one for his wife and then drove to a neighborhood store where he purchased a .22 calibre pistol. He then took himself to a lakeside beach near Chicago and ended his life. The letter to Hefner has since been in circulation the contents of the letter to his wife with whom he'd had an argument that morning remain a mystery, the coroner deciding that the details contained were too personal to be revealed. Consequently the reasons for his suicide are still subject to debate and conjecture today.

But his work as they say lives on. More information on this truly amazing artist can be found at Paul Tumey's excellent Cole's Comics Blog here .


  1. Wonderful post, I have seen a couple of old crime stories he did despite his cartoony style he could still convey real drama and suspense.

  2. I definitely agree James, in fact I've driven myself nuts trying to locate my copy of "Murder, Morphine and Me". There's a reprint in the Spiegleman Cole biography but it's pretty much unusable.

    I'll continue the search ...

  3. Thats one of the ones I have read it's in the Mammoth book ofbest crime comics. I will try to dig it out

  4. Nice one James - that sounds like another book I need to add to the already sagging shelves.