The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod              [email protected]

 

Jack Cole Reached the Pinnacle of Cartooning Arts

August 14, 2011

Wildly imaginative, Jack Cole had a sense of humour and timing reaching near-perfection. With an ability to create art ranging from the simple lines of "Betsy and Me," to the non-stop action of "Plastic Man" and to the deeply elegant art of "Females by Cole", Jack Cole was the ultimate professional cartoonist. Though he reached the pinnacle of artistic success when he was relatively young, something just wasn't going right for the inimitable creator. Cole committed suicide at age 43.

 

Artist Jack Cole, Geekscape.net, M. Scherer

He must have been born with unlimited artistic talent, a rare and wonderful trait. Interested in writing, drawing and art, Jack Cole forged his way to the top of cartooning success with only the Landon Correspondence Course in Cartooning as training, a course he tackled at home after school. (That must have been one great course!)

Jack Ralph Cole was born on December 14, 1914 in Newcastle, Pennsylvania. There were six kids in the Cole family, the mom an elementary teacher and the dad a dry-goods store owner. Cole loved cartooning so much that when he was 15, he saved his lunch money for the course by "smugglling sandwiches from home in the hollowed-out pages of a book," said Art Spiegelman in "Forms Stretched to Their Limits" in The New Yorker, April 19, 1999.

Graduating from high school in 1934, Cole immediately married his sweetheart, Dorothy Mahoney. He took a job at the American Can factory to tide over until cartooning picked up. It didn't take long. Borrowing seed funds, the Coles moved to New York City in 1937 to be near publishers.

Cole "started off working for the Chesler shop, turning out funny filler pages for the most part," said Ron Goulart in The Encyclopedia of American Comics: From 1897 to the Present (Promised Land Productions, New York 1990). By the time Cole was 27 years old, "he was also doing fairly serious superhero material, such as The Comet in Pep Comics and Silver Streak and Daredevil in Silver Streak Comics." He was also editor of Les Gleason Publications Group, noted Lambiek's Comiclopedia entry on Jack Cole. (Cole occasionally used the pen name of Ralph Johns to sign his work.)

"Females by Cole," Playboy Magazine

A job as cartoonist at Quality Comics in the 1940s was a stressful position. Employed by the company in 1941, Jack Cole and the other professional artists were under "pressure to produce lots of pages quickly, in a situation that offered little prestige and relatively small rates for the skills involved," stated Spiegelman. And what must have caused some upset was the destruction of their original artworks after publication. Cut into pieces with scissors, the precious comic originals were "routinely destroyed to prevent unauthorized reprinting."

Building on his experience, Cole developed the crime-fighting strip called "Midnight" for Smash Comics. The hero was suave, wearing a suit and hat and a mask. Cole used advanced techniques of long shots and unique angles for his panels, bringing urgency and action to his work. Perhaps the 'Midnight" strip was the build-up to what would become Cole's beloved and rousing character, "Plastic Man."

 

Flexible, stretchable and downright cool, "Plastic Man" made his debut in August 1941, a backup character in Police Comics #1. It wasn't long before "Plastic Man" stole the pages for himself, the hero fresh and captivating. The unique adventure character who could stretch himself into virtually any shape became Cole's claim to fame, earning his own comic book in 1943. Cole drew the strip until 1950, when he had enough of the character. The strip was ghosted by other cartoonists until ended in 1956.

Creating freelance magazine cartoons and illustrations after leaving "Plastic Man," Cole caught the eye of Playboy Magazine founder, Hugh Hefner, in 1954. The magazine newly on magazine racks, Cole began a series called "Females by Cole." The art was strikingly different from his cartoons, with serene elegance, beautiful lines and sultry faces.

Cole's Playboy illustrations were a success, taking up one full page in every issue of the magazine. "Cole soon signed an exclusive contract with Playboy and, in effect, became its defining artist," said Spiegelman. So popular was Cole's watercolour work that "Females by Cole" napkins "were the second Playboy product licenced, right after the cufflinks based on [Art] Paul's famous rabbit logo."

Plastic Man Archives, Vol. 4, Reprinted by DC Comics

 

In 1958, the Chicago Sun-Times Syndicate contacted Cole, asking him to create new comic strips. Living in Chicago to be near the Playboy enterprise, Jack and Dorothy Cole were just settling into their new home when the offer came. Cole was interested, creating a "humourous, slightly autobiographical strip "Betsy and Me" for the publisher. He drew the strip in another completely different style from his other works, the professional able to switch with seeming ease. Debuted in May 1958, in only a few months "Betsy and Me" was appearing in 50 newspapers and counting.

Although Cole was living his dream of cartooning and had reached the pinnacle of success, financially, professionally and artistically, he must have been privately inconsolable. On August 13, 1958, teenagers found Jack Cole in his car suffering from a severe gunshot wound to his head. Rushed to hospital, he was still alive, but died shortly after in arrivall. Cole had mailed two suicide letters that day - one to Hugh Hefner and one to his wife Dorothy.

The reasons for his desperate act have never been revealed, and can only leave fans to wonder.

With an inimitable talent, Jack Cole and his work continue to be admired and dearly missed. Well-deserved awards came much too late for Cole to enjoy. In 1991, he was inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame for comic book creators, and received the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1999.

"Betsy and Me" Comic Strip Collection by Jack Cole, 1958, republished 2007

 
© Susanna McLeod 2011
TheCartoonists.ca