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Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This month, we’re looking at the career of one of the Golden Age greats, Jack Cole.
In addition to creating Plastic Man (and the original Daredevil), Cole — because he got into comic books right at the start — helped to set the groundwork for the medium for years to come, showing future cartoonists what narrative possibilities the page could hold. After Kirby, Kurtzman and Eisner, he might arguably be the most influential artist of the Golden Age. Though a lot of his early work shows a strong Eisner influence, Cole has a manic, rubbery style which only his most famous creation could match. His figures seemed in a desperate hurry to get from one side of the page to the other and Cole would help them whenever he could with a near-dizzyingset of page compositions. His sense of humor, which eventually shone through the stalwart superhero stuff, prefigured Mad Magazine and Harvey Kurtzman’s by several years, and eventually made him one of the most popular cartoonists at Playboy magazine.
Plus, he’s one of the rare cartoonists to have done it all — comic books, superheroes, horror tales, funny comic strips, gag cartoons — Cole dipped his pen in just about every genre and style the medium offered, and succeeded exceedingly well in each.
I don’t believe I’ve ever recommended a website as a starting point before, but Cole’s Comics, a blog created by one Paul Tumey, offers about as thorough an introduction to the artist as you’re likely to currently get, though you’ll have to do a bit of hunting around. The site isn’t updated all that frequently, but it remains an excellent warehouse of Cole’s material, with samples from just about every period of the artist’s career with Tumey offering intelligent, insightful commentary.
If you feel the need for something to hold in your hands though, the book to get is Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to their Limits by Art Spiegelman (and designed by Chip Kidd). Spiegelman offers a rather good analysis of what makes Cole’s comics so interesting, and he puts together a pretty good sampling of some classic stories, including “Murder. Morphine and Me,” which contains the infamous “injury to the eye” panel. It’s about as close to a “Best of Cole” book we’re going to get for now.
If you’ve got the cash, you should Plastic Man Archives volumes from DC. Unfortunately they’re $50 a pop (assuming you can find them at retail price at this point) and feature that garish coloring job that drives a lot of fans crazy. To make matters worse, the series ground to a halt after Volume 8, meaning that some of Cole’s best work on the series remains uncollected. Still, if you want to find out why Golden Age fans rave so much about Plastic Man, this is the place to go to.
If you do attempt to track down these books, I’d recommend starting with the later volumes and working your way backward, as it took Cole some time to find his footing with the character, and the first few years are rather straightforward action tales, with little of the zany humor Cole would later insert into the comic.
In the 1950s, Cole gag cartoons for a variety of bottom-barrell men’s magazines won him attention and a paycheck at the then burgeoning Playboy magazine, to the point where he became one of their signature cartoonists. Unfortunately, the few collections of his work for that magazine are long out of print and a definitive collection remains but a dream, but you can sample some of his best-known work in Playboy: 50 Years: The Cartoons, which you can often find remaindered at some of the few remaining big bookstore chains in your local mall.
As for those bottom-barrell magazine cartoons, they’re collected in The Classic Pin-up art of Jack Cole, a fitfully amusing book of cartoons highlighting Cole’s skill at drawing lush, curvaceous women. This is more the type of book where you lie back and appreciate the artist’s skill than the gags themselves. His work for Playboy was considerably better and funnier.
In 1958, Cole attained his long-held dream of a daily newspaper comic strip with Betsy and Me, about a befuddled, daydreaming husband and his uber-uber-bright son. Only a few months into the strip, Cole committed suicide, for reasons that are still a mystery to this day. For that reason, many have attempted to see autobiographical allusions in the strip, as though it was a pean to the sort of family he and his wife were unable to have. I’m not sure the strip — which is a charming but rather light and frothy affair — can bear the weight of such a theory, although certainly there is a bit of melancholy tinged in the strip given that Cole took his own life so soon after realizing his career goals.
Several of Cole’s comic book stories can found in a variety of anthologies, like Supermen! and Four Color Fear. Your best bet for tracking down the bulk of Cole’s Golden Age work, however, may be online database sites like the Golden Age Comics or the Digital Comic Museum.
In addition to creating the Spirit knock-off Midnight for Quality Comics, Cole also ghosted on Eisner’s creation for awhile, the results of which can be seen in Vol. 9 of DC’s Collected Spirit series.
You can also try to track down Focus On: Jack Cole, an 78-page Fantagraphics zine by Ron Goulart that Fantagraphics published long ago but allegedly has one of the best biographies of the artist to date.
Cole has been so ill-served by the reprint market that there really is no book or collection that I can tell you to stay away from at this point. Such are the vagaries of comic-book publishing.