Robot 6

Comics College | Jack Cole

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.

Why he’s important

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.

Where to start

Jack Cole and Plastic Man

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.

From there you should read

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.

Further reading

The Pin-Up Art of Jack Cole

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.

Ancillary material

Betsy and Me

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.

Avoid

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.

Next month: Adrian Tomine

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Comments

8 Comments

sequential fart

July 30, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Great suggestions as always. One more to add: ‘DC Special #15′ from 1971 is worth looking for in back-issue bins as it reprints five golden-age PM stories.

Nice rundown! Not sure what plans DC has for continuing Plastic Man reprints … wish someone could pick up the slack on his non-Plas public domain material like all that crime and horror.

Question: What source was used to identify Cole work in Spirit Archives Volume 9? The credits at the Grand Comics Database (comics.org) list no Cole pieces in that volume, but instead show the bulk of his work on the character to be in Volume 8.

nice article on cole. too bad dc stopped reprinting his plastic man work at volume eight. but maybe if plastic man shows up in the ndcu dc could always revisit finishing the material as for his for his other material to bad including his public domain stuff its sitting there unseen by new fans.

Jack Cole = Genius. One more book to recommend: THE BEST OF JACK COLE, published by Greg Theakston/Pure Imagination in 2006. All public domain stories, reprinted in black-and-white, and well worth the money if you can find a copy.

Sure hope someone does a Plastic-Man mini for the new DCnU, one of my al time fave characters…

Great stuff; I just got into Cole recently, through the Spiegelman/Kidd book. His work is amazing and I’m surprised I got this far without running across it.

Also appreciate the link to Digital Comic Museum; it really is a great resource for Cole’s work and many others’.

Terrific article! I had to create a website for my Computer 101 class for college last semester, and one of my pages was an examination on Jack Cole and his works, with an emphasis on his Plastic Man/Playboy creations. I have every book mentioned in this article on my bookshelf, and I’m working on getting the various PM issues online. His was a talent that works on many levels, and his personal life was as fascinating as his creative life.

When collecting many of the DC Hardcover Collections, one of the best discoveries was finding out about Plastic Man. He had been appearing in Justice League of America at the time, and it was one of those rare Golden Age comics that ligitimately can make you laugh, even today. I got the first three volumes, and it’s really cool to read the adventures of such an underdog hero – from a notoriously underdog creator. Jack Cole’s story is both inspiring and tragic – as his suicide cast a dark shadow over his entire body of work. But, then again, his work shines the brightest when you cast back that dark shadow, and shine a light on the forgotten artistic treasures he created during his lifetime.

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