Notes on Cole and the Plastic Arts

Jack Cole, 1914-1958

The Early Years

In 1940, Everett M. Arnold’s Quality Comics publishing was going strong, with Will Eisner’s Spirit in the limelight. The Spirit newsprint strips were being reprinted in Police Comics, to the delight of the public. Eisner was part-owner of the Quality line. In his capacity as editor, he hired Jack Cole to work on a string of titles including “Death Patrol.”

In 1943, a total of fifteen pages per issue of Police Comics were consecrated to Plastic Man. Consider that in the same year, both Superman in Action Comics and Batman in Detective Comics were only given thirteen pages per issue.

Splash for Plastic Man story in Police Comics #11

Also in 1943, Plastic Man was given his own comic, with four stories coming in at a total of 54 pages. The new book was not published by Quality Comics, but by the printer of Vital Books, named Julian Proskauer. During the war, Proskauer got into the comics and paperback business because he suspected he’d make more money at it. Vital published Plastic Man, The Spirit, and Nick Carter.


Cole was producing a higher volume of material with the increased page count. As a consequence, the amount of detail in his work diminished, particularly in terms of his backgrounds and his shading. Cole was receiving the highest page rate of any comic artist at the time, and received more than one bonus to the tune of $2500. Particularly for an artist who didn’t even own the copyright to his work, Cole was doing well for himself financially.

Since Cole had so much work to produce, ghost artists began to help out. The first was Bart Tumey, followed by Alex Kotzky and John Spranger. In the mid-to-late 1940s, superhero comics were decreasing in popularity. Cole worked on a series of short-lived strips in addition to his voluminous output of Plastic Man, and also ghosted the Spirit newspaper strip in the early 1940s. Cole was a logical candidate for the job, since he had worked on a comic called Midnight. Since Eisner owned the rights to The Spirit, Midnight was created as a kind of stand-in, in the event that Eisner was drafted to fight in the war. The two comics coexisted with little tension between their creators. Cole put a humorous and more fantastic spin on his creation, in order that the two series bore little resemblance to one another apart from their masked protagonists, both doffed with fedoras.

Eisner and Cole were in healthy competition with one another. Ron Goulart’s Focus on Jack Cole describes Cole’s being influenced by both Will Eisner and the movies:

“We influenced each other, you know,” Eisner told me. “There was a great deal of give and take, back and forth…We’d talk about timing and rhythm and movement and so forth.” Another of Cole’s influences was movies and he came to see, Eisner believes, that “the camera was the eye.” Equally important was his interest in animation. One area in which Cole definitely competed with Eisner was with logos and splash panels. The Midnight title was almost always part of an elaborate design. The time and attention he was lavishing on his Quality work but right now Cole was having a good time exploring the possibilities of the comic-book page (22).

Part of Cole’s popularity as an artist was due to the dynamic and loopy style that he brought to Plastic Man. Cole was influenced by animated films—in particular Tex Avery cartoons—and brought a more fluid design to comics than what was commonly being practiced at the time.

Crime may not pay, but crime comics do!

The crime comics boom began with Crime Does Not Pay in 1942. Five years later, Jack Cole was hired to edit and draw True Crime Comics. Cole’s first and most notorious story was “Murder, Morphine and Me.” One image in particular from the tale was showcased by Dr. Frederick Wertham in his book, Seduction of the Innocent: a drawing of a young woman being threatened with a hypodermic needle.

Cole’s New Career

In 1954, Cole left comics for good, lured into full time cartooning by Hugh Hefner, the creator of Playboy. Cole’s pinup art has been collected in The Classic Pinup Art of Jack Cole (Fantagraphics, 2004) by Alex Chun.

Resources

Cole’s suicide in 1958 was a tragic and hugely lamented loss to the comics industry. Thankfully, his work is available to the broader public through:

  • DC’s Plastic Man Archives, an eight-volume series of reproductions printed by DC (1999-2006)

  • Ron Goulart’s Focus on Jack Cole (Fantagraphics Books, 1986), which includes excellent biographical information, and an exhaustive list detailing all of Plastic Man’s appearances.

  • Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd’s Jack Cole and Plastic Man (DC Comics, 2001). This volume is lavishly designed, and includes a generous sampling of Cole’s work, reproduced in colour. The text of the book is an expansion of an article initially appearing in The New Yorker, April 19, 1999.

New Yorker cover by Art Spiegelman, April 19, 1999

  • Cole’s Comics: The comic book stories and cartoons of Jack Cole shared and studied. This blog makes me wonder why I ever bothered to read and write about this subject to begin with. Fastidiously researched, it covers every aspect of Jack Cole’s work in a series of exceptional posts, including huge amounts of scanned materials.
  • Jeet Heer’s article, “Jack Cole” published in The Comics Journal,#255.
  • The Classic Pinup Art of Jack Cole (Fantagraphics, 2004) by Alex Chun.

Digital Comic Museum

The Digital Comic Museum is a gold mine for early comics in general, and also for scans of Police Comics featuring Plastic Man among others, as well as the Plastic Man series. The preview function allows you to browse through any comic prior to downloading, once you have a comic book reader installed, and you can download individual pages directly onto your computer as desired.

In addition, the Digital Comic Museum is careful about making sure that any content whose Public Domain status is questionable does not make it onto the site, so as to avoid any liability issues that would give this repository a bad name.

The Return of Plas

Kyle Baker’s Plastic Man on the Lam! (DC Comics, 2003: reprinting four issues of the DC comic series into one volume) takes the best of Jack Cole and makes it at least as good—if not better—with a fresh, vital style that is Baker’s own. The book is replete with sight gags and Chuck Jones-style backdrops that bring a cartoony feel to the book, in much the way that Cole’s originals did as well.

Some of the best examples:

  • a tribute to R. Crumb’s “Stoned Agin,” in the form of Eel O’Brien upon first discovering his plasticity. Through the course of four panels, as he sits at a table resting his hands on his chin, O’Brien’s face begins to slowly melt through his fingertips, with Eel exclaiming in the last panel, “You know what? I bet it was that acid” (with the word “acid” written in Greg Irons-inspired 60s psychedelia rock-poster lettering.
  • a series of seven panels where every second panel, Plastic Man is transforming his face and body into ridiculous shapes, mocking his newly appointed crime-fighting partner from the FBI, Agent Morgan. When she turns around to speak to him, Plas resumes his normal form. Finally Morgan remarks, “You know you squeak when you stretch? You sound like you’re making balloon animals while wearing latex gloves.” The observation brings the sequence to life, since as a reader it is then impossible to view the images without hearing the sound of animal balloons in progress.
  • Plastic Man leaves Chief Bratter’s office as a red hangdog, then transforms into a bicycle and offers Agent Morgan a lift. A few pages later, as the two enter what appears to be a haunted house (with characteristic bats flying in front of a full moon, even though it’s three in the afternoon), Plas transforms into Scooby Doo and jumps into Morgan’s arms. Morgan: “You already did a dog earlier, remember?” Plas: “Rorry.” One panel later, Plas has now assumed the guise of a Mafioso-looking character,  doffed with a fedora. He says, “I adore witt banter, Nora dear. You should attempt some.” To which Morgan responds, “I have no idea who you’re being. Look! Another note!”
  • The Justice League of America appears on the scene upon learner that Eel O’Brien and Plastic Man are one and the same. Batman ruminates:
    ” Plastic Man. A criminal. I hate criminals. It was a criminal who stole my childhood from me that fateful night. My innocence broken and scattered like my mother’s pearls on the cold, filthy pavement of crime alley. It was a criminal who made me what I had to become.” Superman turns to Batman and says: “Batman? Stay with us, buddy.” Batman: “Huh? Oh, yeah. What was the question?”
  • Plastic Man flattening himself on a wall, assuming the form of an elaborate “Plastic Man” graffiti tag as two cops pass by.

A fairly lengthy article with a lot of commentary from Baker can be found in “Baker’s Future in Plastic: Kyle Baker on Plastic Man” on the Newsarama.com website.

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