Ken Shannon 1-9 (1951-53 Quality Comics)
Angles O'Day stories written and drawn by Jack Cole
Also available as a 39-page PDF download from this site by right-clicking here and choosing "save target as."
Here, we present the complete series of 9 rare stories by Jack Cole, all featuring the same "not so special investigator," Angles O'Day. If you haven't seen these stories before, then you are in for a real treat! In these back-up filler stories, Jack Cole quietly created a kind of urban comic book Americana, similar to the writings of William Saroyan and John Steinbeck and only matched in pre-1960 comic books by Sheldon Mayer’s SCRIBBLY.
Although Cole’s art styles through the series is as fluid and erratic as ever, moving from beautiful line cartoons to dark, shadowy horror, his writing sustains and develops an appealing cast of characters, making these forgotten stories a buried gems from the Cole mine.
While Cole’s art style is radically different from his Plastic Man work, it's my assessment that he wrote, penciled, inked, and even lettered these stories. They are, like so many of his creations, a labor of love by one of the most talented people to ever work in comics.
The stories were back-ups in the otherwise drab bi-monthly Quality series Ken Shannon, issues 1 through 9, appearing October, 1951 through February, 1953. Cole's most famous creation, Plastic Man, was 10 years old when he invented Angles and the rich cast of characters that populate his world. About a year after the last Angles O'Day story appeared, Cole left comics forever, moving into his lush, sexy gag comics for Playboy magazine starting in 1954, and then his syndicated newspaper comic strip, BESTY AND ME in 1956.
In 1951-53, when these stories were published, Cole -- who never stopped learning or innovating in the art of creative organization of words and pictures -- was arguably at the height of his craft and ability as a comic book story writer and artist.
The first three Angles O'Day stories run five pages each in length. Starting with Ken Shannon #4, the stories were reduced to only 4 pages.
Cole could pack more action, humor, and plot into a 4-5 page story than most good artists could generate in a 20-page story. In fact, he made a lot of back up features like this. Cole had earlier created short back-up stories featuring DEATH SQUAD and CHOP CHOP in Military Comics. And, leave us not forget the very first PLASTIC MAN stories appeared as similarly short back-up features in Police Comics presenting a light-hearted look at super-heroes. He seemed to actually enjoy the creative freedom that being out of the limelight afforded, and tried out various new directions in these lost gems. He would often create something new, such as SILVER STREAK, or THE BARKER, blaze a brilliant path in a few stories, and then dash off to explore new ideas.
The nine consecutive bi-monthly ANGLES O'DAY stories represent one of the longer runs Cole sustained on a back up feature.
Perhaps the success of an earlier back-up character was in part what inspired Cole to pour so much into a tiny series buried in a mediocre title built around a bland, cliche-ridden private detective character. Maybe Cole thought Angles might catch on the way Plas had. Certainly, after reading these stories, one could easily envision an Angles O'Day comic book. It probably would have read something like Daniel Clowes' 1980's surreal detective comic book, LLOYD LEWELLYN.
Angles O’Day’s face is all angles -- protruding forehead, pointy nose, massive overbite, and stalactite chin. This is all set underneath a curvy blonde pompadour, suggesting a certain vanity and comical blindness to his own clownish appearance. His very name proposes a hustler who knows all the angles, and his body presents us with a guy who will unabashedly poke his nose into anything.
There are some fascinating similarities between Angles O'Day and Plastic Man. Angles O'Day is more or less Plas without the sunglasses and the stretch. Like Plas, Angles is unflappable. He is never discouraged, and he never doubts his own version of reality, or his abilities. He is always grinning and cracking-wise. Just as Plastic Man is actually a reformed criminal, Angles has a whiff of the rogue about him, as he sponges money and favors off people when he is down on his luck. More significantly, just like Plastic Man and every other Jack Cole hero, Angles is a decent, moral man who operates in an immoral world. Thus, in the fourth story, when Angles has a windfall, he astonishes and delights a crowd of debtors by happily paying them off.
Then there's the sidekicks. Angles' loyal friend and partner is Shagmore, a short, shaggy, unshaven youth in desperate need of a haircut. Like Plastic Man's partner, Woozy Winks, Shagmore is loyal to the core; a stalwart companion. Also like Woozy, his comical -- and unsavory -- appearance stands in sharp contrast to the smartly-dressed and groomed Angles. In the Plastic Man stories, Cole made much of the lovingly competitive relationship between Plas and Woozy, and with a few deft brushstrokes here, he accomplishes the seemingly impossible... creating broadly humorous characters in a 4-5 page throwaway backup that seem to possess genuine humanity.
Angle's headquarters is Popo's Pool Parlor, run by Angle's disapproving but nonetheless supporting friend Popo -- a heavy-set Italian whose dialogue Cole writes with lyrical rhythms and comic intensity: "A rotten egg he is and this I'm saying out loud! Look at me! Do I let him boss me? Do I jump through his hoop? No! Not Popo! Here's a MAN! HERE'S HERCULES! (tiny print) Here's his socks!" Popo is a rather unique creation in the Cole canon, a sort of grumpy father figure that bears only the slightest resemblance to any other other creation, Plastic Man's boss being perhaps the most similar. One secondary character for a minor 4-page backup would be more than sufficient. Here, Cole has created two rich supporting characters.
Just as Plastic Man was a semi-serious, semi-satircial treatment of the super-hero genre, Angles O'Day is a half-parody of private eye stories. In "Bored to Death" (Ken Shannon #8), in a typical Cole inversion, our intrepid hero has captured three tough crooks who certainly act guilty... but no one knows what they've done... so they go free in the last panel, as O'Day begs them to confess, and a bystander ends the story with:"That's our boy! The only guy in the world who can get stuck with three criminals and no crime!"
In addition to the numerous Plastic Man stories he wrote, Cole was no stranger to the world of crime comics. Some of his earliest comics were "true crime" stories (some reprinted here on this blog), and through the 1940's, he regularly wrote and drew the non-pc detective parody 1-pager series WUN CLOO. At Quality publisher "Busy" Arnold's request, Cole also created MIDNIGHT, a wild re-imagining of Will Eisner's private eye here The Spirit. And of course there's the remarkable stories he wrote and drew for True Crime Comics (1947). In his 1999 New Yorker essay on Jack Cole (later expanded into his great book on Cole, Jack Cole and Plastic man, Forms Stretched to Their Limits), Art Speigelman wrote that Cole's crime stories point out the continuum between his manic humor and plain old mania."
In these 9 Angles O'Day stories, there is ample trademark Cole mania. People die. Lots of people. In the first story, a sexy woman seems to be brutally run over by a car. She actually was shot in the leg with a pellet of frozen poison from an ice-cold rifle. Chester Gould, anyone? We never even see the woman's face, except in the remarkable splash panel that introduces the story. In the last story, which could be a stand-alone horror story, a painter supernaturally kills by altering people's portraits.
Still, when compared to Cole's other comics, the Angles O'Day stories seem toned down several notches. There's more humor than mania, more joshing than jabbing, and more misunderstandings than murders. The art, as well, is a shade less exuberant than much of Cole's Quality work (and Ken Shannon was a Quality title). In fact, at first glance, it appears hard to believe Cole, the creator of the vibrant Plastic Man, had anything to do with these stories. A closer examination reveals several Cole-isms. There's the women... sexy, alluring, and many of them have the very specific kind of face that many of Cole's comic book women have.
We also have the lettering on the sound effects. Cole was fond of a certain style of fat, blocky, neo-art deco font to depict sounds. Often the words are distorted, with smaller letters on one end, to suggest a sound coming or going. And then there's the exclamation point. Ah. One of Cole's signatures. In the sound effects, and even in the very speech balloons, you can see that particular exclamation point: a slender, jaunty inverted triangle, with a fat, prefectly round dot on the bottom. It shouldn't work, but it does. The point on the top part of the mark is something almost no one in comics did... simply because it doesn't seem right. It separates the mark into two distinct symbols. But isn't that the point? It's an exclamation, and it's saying "HEY! Something's disconnected here." Cole's craft extended right down to his lettering. The very placement of the speech balloons, the variation of the size and font style within the balloons is a lesson in itself.
Then there's the Cole crowd. Cole invested many of his stories with hundreds of anonymous, and yet singular, people in the background. Where most artists would draw a storefront in the background with maybe one bystander, Cole would draw a crowd. Look at page three, panel five of the first Angles O'Day story. In addition to a storefront and a car, there are 11 people in that one small panel. And every person is unique and comical. They are all reacting in a believable way to the action. Each person in the background of a Cole story could have their own comic book series.
In story number eight, Cole must have spent hours extra creating the crowd of boozing party-people in the Pink Doily Cafe. Sometimes, these poses seem almost painterly, like something out of Breughel the Elder. Cole's insanely unnecessary, and therefore delightful, background figures are, at times, outdone only by Bill Elder's dense "chicken fat" backgrounds in his Mad and Panic stories.
All this, poured into a back up feature that only a very few comic book fans even remember, despite Cole's posthumous fame. Whether he was trying for a new success in comics, a comeback of sorts, one thing is made clear by reading these stories: Jack Cole loved comics and he loved his characters.
I am grateful to the unknown people who scanned their copies of the comics and made them available to others. Thank you. I am also appreciative of Comicsworld, the incredible website where I found these comics. If you haven't yet discovered this site, check it out!
And now, here are the stories. And don't forget, you can download these as a self-contained, perhaps more readable PDF, by right-clicking here and choosing "save target as."
Ken Shannon #1 (October, 1951)