Jack Cole and Plastic Man
By Andreas C. Knigge

Jack Cole decided to become a cartoonist early in his childhood already. In fact, he would be going to be one of the greatest masters of comic book art, a genius that created one of the most hilarious and unforgotten masterpieces of its time.

When Cole was in his teens, comic magazines weren’t there yet. He grew up with the funny papers and adored strips such as George McManus‘ Bringing Up Father, Rube Goldberg’s Boob McNutt, or Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theater, in which Popeye would show up some years later. (He also was thrilled by silent movies which had a great deal of an influence on his later storytelling.) Newspaper cartoonists were noted stars those days, with big income, big cars and big houses, and Jack decided to become one of them when he was still in school. It wasn‘t fame or fortune he was seeking for (contemporaries always described him as a shy and unpretentious person), but he knew he had to draw. So one day, he asked his father to enroll him in a cartoon correspondence course, and when the answer was „no“, he secretly saved his lunch money every day and what he earned around the neighborhood, until he could afford to subscribe himself to the course from the Landon School of Cartooning.

It’s one of the bizarre details in Cole’s short life that he himself had little appreciation only for what is remembered as his biggest achievement and masterwork today. In the early days of 1958, when his lifelong dream became true and he sold his own daily newspaper strip Betsy and Me to the Chicago Sun-Times Syndicate, he delivered a brief self portrait that read: „Jack Cole was born in 1914 in New Castle, PA. At 15, he took the Landon School of Cartooning mail correspondence course. Highlights of his career thus far are: 1932, a 7,000 mile bicycle trip to California and return. 1933, graduated from high school. 1934, married Dorothy Mahoney. 1934, got a job at American Can Factory and started mailing out cartoons to magazines. 1935, first sale to Boy’s Life. 1936, quit factory, borrowed $500 in small amounts from home town merchants and set out with his wife for New York to find cartoon work. 1937-’54, worked for comic magazines. 1954, freelance cartooning.“

He titled the scetch „The artist’s life (it’s not yet completed)“. Cole was Playboy magazine’s star cartoonist at that time, and a few months later, he would buy a .22 pistol and shoot a bullet in his head. He was 43 then, and what he had mentioned in his third person autobiography with just four words – having worked for comic books – had kept him busy almost half of his lifetime.

When he broke into Manhattan in 1936, Cole had to realize that America‘s publishing capital had not been waiting for him. Trying to sell his cartoons to magazines with little success only, after a year or so he discovered comic books. In 1937, there were not more than about twenty different titles published, and it would take another year before Superman with his first appearences in Action Comics would foam up the still small and shaky industry. But the publishers had switched more and more from reprinting the features from the funny pages to filling their magazines with original material, so there was a fast growing demand for everybody who could hold a pencil. Cole was dropping in the right place at the right time and started working for the sweat shop of Harry „A“ Chesler, who was packaging magazines for the young comic publishers. His salary was $20 a week.

Comic books still didn’t have an own vocabulary or grammar yet, and most of the bullpen artists in the shops were just imitating what their celebrated fellows did in the funny papers. But the guys who would shape the new medium were around already. „There were no traditions and not too many taboos“, the early Batman artist Jerry Robinson remembered later. „There was no past. We were inventing the language of comics, their appearence, their storytelling.“ In the summer of 1940 Will Eisner started to perform new ways of using the page layout and panel formats for his storytelling in his weekly Spirit section. Around half a year later, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were introducing full- and double-page panels in Captain America, and were soon making extensive use of bursting frames to create dynamic effects and tempo. During this time, Cole was still paying his dues as a second banana in the bullpen, grinding out work long forgotten about by now.

But then he came up with one of the most unique heros ever done in comics. Cole had started to work for Everett („Busy“) Arnold’s Quality Comics by the end of 1940, and when the new anthology title Police Comics was launched in August next year, he contributed Plastic Man. It started as a minor creation, printed somewhere in the middle of the book’s first issues between the other features, but took over the covers with number 4 and remained there for the next 99 issues. Then, at the end of 1950, Police Comics changed formula, switching to more hard crime stuff to compete with successful titles like Crime and Punishment, which had swamped the newsstands by the late 40‘ies, and Plastic Man lost one of his homes. His own title, which had been added four times a year in 1943 and had become a bi-monthly recently, continued, but with other hands helping to meet the deadlines, Cole, who didn’t like anyone else touching his work or dealing with his characters, was abandoning his hero. The Plastic Man book lost much of its zany surrealism, mad humor, burlesque freshness and kinetic impact and faded away in late 1956. None of the attempts to revive the character in subsequent years was a considerable success.

Cole’s work for Plastic Man was highly appreciated, and although he was earning up to $50 per page, the highest rate around, plus bonuses of $2,500 when the sales went beyond 200,000 copies, he quit comics in 1954. Also with his second career as a gag cartoonist, he was doing outstandingly well – his Females By Cole for Playboy were merchandised and collected into a book, and later his Betsy and Me sold to nearly fifty newspapers within some weeks time –, but it is the coolest crime-fighter in comics ever for what he is remembered today. His superpower was elasticity, and he never removed his pair of shades – as if he didn’t dare to show his very soul.

Amoung the features you are about to explore in this volume, and which were originally published in 1945 in Police Comics 40-49 and Plastic Man 3, you’ll find two stories in which a poor guy is so desperate that he holds a gun against his head to set end to his life. Both times, Plastic Man stretches into the scene in the very last minute to prevent them from killing themselves. Not so on August 15th, 1958. That day, Jack Cole went out by his car and shot himself. Just like that, and with no word of explanation left.

(The Plastic Man Archives Volume 4, DC New York, N.Y., 2003)

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