Sunday, December 14, 2014

Happy 100th Birthday Jack Cole!

Writer/artist extraordinaire, Jack Cole, creator of Plastic Man, would be 100 years old today! He was born on December 14, 1914 and died on August 13, 1958(1958-08-13) at the tragically young age of 43.

Jack Cole appears on the cover of his Plastic Man #1 (1943) which sports a cover that wonderfully illustrates Cole's sense of the absurd next to his dark morbidity.

Jack Cole started working in comics at Lev Gleason Publications in 1939 on such titles as Daredevil, Silver Streak and The Comet.
At Lev Gleason Jack would work on characters such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, the Claw and the Comet which was a creation of his own.
In 1940 Cole was hired by Quality Comics and worked in the Eisner/Iger Studios on such comics as the Spirit. They eventually asked Cole to create a new hero that closely resembled their popular Spirit. Midnight was his answer.
Here is an early Spirit (Spirit Section #186 Dec. 19, 1943) story done by Cole along side Midnight, the Spirit imitation which first appeared in Smash Comics #18 Jan. 1941
A great example of Cole's use of death and morbidity is his Death Patrol that he created for Quality's Military Comics. In it Cole wanted to have at least one member of the team killed off every issue only to be replaced by a new member next issue.
About the same time Cole created his most famous work for Quality's Police Comics, Plastic Man!
Plastic Man first appeared in Police Comics #1, Aug 1941.
 Plastic Man embodied Cole's interest in macabre crime as well as in wild slap stick humor. It also allowed him to be free to create wildly kinetic comics unrestrained by reality.
In this excerpt from Plastic Man #11, Spring 1948, we can see how Cole wonderfully directed the eye using Plastic Man's stretchy body. It's almost as if Plas'es body is an arrow pointing the direction of the next panel thus moving the readers eye along at a break neck pace.

The madness continues as all heck breaks loose when the villain throws gum down to the unsuspecting city and with it the panels become chaotic as well. And yet the one thread that holds it all together is Plastic Man's stretchy body pointing the way.

The action calms down as a new element is introduced, the sexy secretary and with it the panels become more horizontal and relaxed.

But don't expect them to stay calm for long in a Plastic Man comic as we discover that sexy dish is actually Plastic Man in drag.
 Though Plastic Man is filled with humor, it never gets overly sweet or silly, absurd yes, silly no. Cole has a wonderful way of keeping his comics beautifully balanced between completely crazy and deadly serious.

We see more of Jack Cole's deadly serious side in his True Crime Comics, May 1947.

True Crime Comics #2 and #3 are wonderful examples of Jack Cole's incredible sense of design. Issue #2 has this incredible feeling of being caged in while guns are exploding in the top and bottom of the page while on issue #3 we see more of Cole's kinetic art as the tommy gun bursts through the crook, right at the viewer.
True Crime Comics gave Cole a chance to really let loose with his morbidity.
With Murder, Morphine and Me we see see Jack's stunning ability to design breathtaking pages, as he does here showing Mary with her hypodermic needle looming large over a group of men dead and dying in what appears to be hell fire.

Cole has a way with dramatics as seen in the bottom left of the page as Mary dreams someone is trying to poke her eye out with a needle. Fredric Wertham used this image in his book Seduction of the Innocents to warn parents off those corrupting comics that are turning our kids into juvenile delinquents.

Here we see Cole at his most expressive as images of lascivious men circle around Mary and the pressures of selling drugs and working with criminals gets to her.
 In 1954 Jack Cole left Plastic Man and comics all together possibly because of pressure from people like Fredrick Wertham and the Senate hearings going on against comic books as many pros did at the time. Instead he found lucrative work as a gag cartoonist for Hugh Hefner's Playboy.
Jack Cole's Playboy gag strips would show sexy women in funny situations like the ones above. Panel two's caption reads, "The boss had to lay her off so we are taking a weekly collection to keep her around." and the third caption says, "No thanks - Just looking."
Cole also created a comic strip called Betsy and Me about a middle class man and his family.
On August 13, 1958, at 43 years of age, Jack Cole parked his car and shot himself in the head. Beforehand he had written and mailed suicide notes to his wife and to his employer, Hugh Hefner explaining his motivations but the contents of the letters have never become public. 
Cole was posthumously inducted into the comic book industry's Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1999.
In 2003, writer-artist Art Spiegelman and artist Chip Kidd collaborated on a Cole biography, a portion of which had been published in The New Yorker magazine in 1999.
Jack Cole was simply the best. He had invented a visual language all his own as only the best writer/artist in comics do. 
You are sorely missed Jack Cole.

Jack Cole's Daredevil vs The Claw (Part 1) — Silver Streak Comics #7, January 1941

Jack Cole's True Crime Comics #2 at the Digital Comic Museum

Jack Cole's Comics Blog

A darker, older Jack Cole


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