I Was The Monster They Couldn’t Kill – So I Had To: Jack Cole’s Final Comic Book Story

Story in this post: “The Monster They Couldn’t Kill”
Story and Pencils by Jack Cole, inker unknown
Web of Evil #11 (Feb., 1954 – Quality Comics Publications)

cartoon-monster-destroying-

Jack Cole’s dark and disturbing last published comic book story haunts me. I first read it about 6 months ago, and have read it about a dozen times since. I cannot escape the growing sense that Cole was sending out a personal message in this story: a comment on his 16 year career in comic books, and perhaps a bitter statement about the way the industry had changed. I think Cole drew back the curtain and exposed his own inner psyche in this story. Knowing that he would take his own life in despair just a few years later, this story haunts me.

It’s my own theory that Jack Cole wrote at least 8 of the 16 stories he penciled that appeared in Web of Evil #1-11 (I haven’t seen the first story he did, in Web #1). It seems to me that these stories are all better written and revolve around a character’s psychological breakdown instead of an unexplained supernatural event. A more complete explanation of this theory is available in an earlier posting, here.

monster rocket flame In “The Monster They Couldn’t Kill,” Cole creates the character of a scientist who has a serious lapse in judgment and makes himself the test subject of an experiment involving atomic energy. Cole begins the story brilliantly AFTER the experiment, our first indication that this is – either deliberately or unconsciously – a story reflecting BACK on his career in comics. It seems certain that Cole created this story knowing full well it would be his last, since it was his decision to go work for Hugh Hefner at PLAYBOY.

Even though he was dismissive of his comic book work, there can be no doubt for anyone that has read Jack Cole’s stories that he poured his heart and soul into these stories, and realized on some level that they represented an enormous effort on his part. This was a guy that clearly LOVED comics. “The Monster They Couldn’t Kill,” then, is a window into Cole’s feelings as he closed this chapter of his life.

image: comic book atomic radioactive giant scientist breaks out of train

image: back issue comic book scientists image: comic book scientists at supercomputer in 1953

image: rare comic book page showing giant monster image: page from rare comic book web of evil 11 by Jack Cole

image: radioactive giant man tipping over rocket 1950s image: atomic explosion in comic book page from 1953

The scientist-monster has no voice in this story. Not until the end do we even know for sure that anything of his mind and humanity remain.

Once again, we have Cole’s favorite theme of crazy inventions, which he used over and over in his graphic stories, starting with some of his earliest work on the DICKIE DEAN, BOY INVENTOR stories (1940).

In this story, the focus is not on the invention at all, but the terrible consequence it has had on it’s inventor, and the people around him. We know that Cole himself was an inventor, so if we switch out the scientist with Cole in this scenario, a chilling personal statement about how he may have regarded himself comes into focus.

image-cartoon-monster-scien It’s almost as if Cole is revealing some deep inner part of himself. A grim-faced scientist pulls aside a curtain on page two and we see what this great inventor has become: a giant franciscogoya_saturn_devouring_his_sonidiot, barely recognizable as a human. He wears goggles with slits in them, presumably eye protection from when he irradiated himself.

The goggles and his deformed face and body give him a preternatural look, like something out of a Goya painting. I was struck by the similarity between the post-atomic Dr. Fry and Jack Kirby’s Mole Man villain from his FANTASTIC FOUR stories (which was derived from his 1950’s monster stories):

monster-and-mole-man Cole was a tall man, with thin fingers, and it seems to me he put something of himself into both Plastic Man and Dr. Fry.

The psychological overtones are rampant in this story. I also wonder if Cole was thinking about the comic industry, which had grown so rapidly and which had seemingly morphed maniac-computerinto a world where he was no longer welcome. The industry had grown at a maniac pace. It’s no subtle clue that Cole names the super-computer in the story “Maniac.”

Dr. Fry is a sort of post-atomic age version of Plastic Man, in that his body is deformed by a brand new technology. Going all the way back to Jack Cole’s first adventure story, Little Dynamite, so many of Jack Cole’s stories are about the power – and chaos - that is unleashed when the human body is stretched, deformed, pulled, stunted, or gigantized.

Like Plastic Man, Dr. Fry is a hero, but for different reasons. Dr. Fry’s growth is out of control. Maniac informs us that he will eventually be larger than the earth. In short order, he’s too large for humans to control. He bursts out of a railroad radioactive-monsterfreight car as if it were made of tissue paper. He tears a building down as if it were made of Legos.

But none of this destruction is mindless, as it turns out. Dr. Fry is well aware that he has become the monster they can’t kill… therefore the only solution left in this desperate situation is… suicide. In the last panel of the last story Jack Cole published, the “monster” is praised for taking his own life and sparing those around him. Suicide as heroism.

Jack Cole took his own life on August 13, 1958, just about four years after he wrote and drew “The Monster They Couldn’t Kill.”  He wrote two suicide notes, bought a hand gun, and drove to a road outside of town and shot himself in the head. Sadly, two children on bikes found him, still alive. He died later that day in a hospital.

It has never been clear why this enormously talented and powerful creator ended his life so early, in the prime of his life. His last comic book story, perhaps, holds a clue.

Copyright 2009, Paul C. Tumey

9 comments:

  1. art speigelman's 'jack cole and plastic man' - great book, offers further insight into cole's life and untimely death.

    thanks for posting both the story and your analysis!

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  2. That's a good point. We've mentioned Spiegelman and Kidd's book several times on this blog and highly recommend it. Incredibly, it is out of print, but used copies can be found for sale on Amazon, and many libraries still have copies (sadly, the Seattle Public Library system does NOT have copies in circulation as of this time!). Thanks for mentioning this!

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  3. A lot to say about this story, especially when you consider it's Cole's last for comics -- a fact of which I was not aware until I read your post.

    Certainly Plas was Cole's greatest and most lucrative creation for comics, so it's hard not to see this distended antagonist/protagonist as related. Unlike his well adjusted cousin, though, Fry's transformation doesn't leave him better off, but worse. Eel O'Brian was a criminal who became a hero after the accident, while Fry was a great man who became a monster. Dig a little deeper and you find something even more interesting. While Plas is physically (and for the purposes of narration, visually) the craziest element of any story he's in, mentally he's always the sanest, most grounded man in what almost always proves to be a crazy world. Fry on the other hand has become the stupidest, most unpredictable creature in a very sane and sober world.

    Draw your own conclusions as to what that might mean in relation to Cole's career.

    Excellent post, Paul.

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  4. Congratulations on your blog here, one of my favourites!

    I discovered Cole and Plasticman through Art Spiegelman's book on him and I can only agree that Jack Cole deserves a position at the top of Comicdom.

    Though I am very sympathetic to your serious approach to the media of comics - and Jack Cole's creations, and your latest posting is a fine example of this, but I can't help feeling that there's a danger of getting a bit too "Freudian" - meaning a (psycho-) analytical approach to Cole's work (which was also the way I felt about Spiegelman's book at the end)

    Obvoiusly Cole had major problems in his life since he chose to kill himself, but after all he also seems to have been a mild mannered down to earth type of person from an all-American middleclass background, who just happened to work in a industry mainly aimed at pre-adolescent boys who demanded action, horror, gore and explosions if they were to hand over their pocket money!

    would that type of man really harbour a wealth of inner demons?

    Wallace Wood's suicide has generated less debate that Cole's - was it because Wood's problems (like his alcohol abuse) were well known?, or because he was more outspoken about his bitterness and lacking enthusiasm for the comic-book industry?

    Apparently Cole had none of these vices...
    so maybe he just "snapped" due to a serious personal trauma (which has remained unknown to his fans - generating an air of deep mystery) and made a decision about killing himself he might not have made the week before?

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  5. Anybody who commits suicide has (or had, if you will) a "wealth of inner demons." Nobody ever just "snaps." That's an invention of pop-culture media. If one focuses any scrutiny on people who have supposedly just "snapped," one always finds a "wealth of inner demons." Always. Humans are all complicated.

    Whether that sort of thing comes out in a cartoonist's work is another matter, but I think it's safe to say that a man who kills himself is profoundly unhappy. Almost a truism, I would have thought.

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  6. I agree that there is a danger in this -- or any analysis of a creator's works -- of becoming too psychoanalytical.

    For that reason, this post is one of the very few in which I have mentioned Jack Cole's tragic suicide in relation to his work. I think only 3 posts out of 54 on this blog so far even mention his suicide.

    I prefer to focus as much as possible on th emerits of the work itself. However, in some cases, such as Cole's strange dark last comic book stories, I think it is valid to consider how these stories may prefigure his sad decision to end his own life. I have been careful not to dwell too much on this.

    My interest in Jack Cole is not his suicide (as mysterious as it is), but his great graphic stories, his inventiveness, his unique humor, and his exuberant embracing of the form of graphic storytelling.

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  7. thanks for your replies Paul Tumey and Tamfos,

    -I almost feel obliged to repeat that this blog is one of my favourites and your treatment of Cole's work as the creations of a great artist is a pleasure to read, especially your postings on his very early work which was completely unknown to me.

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  8. Thank you Anonymous for the great comments and for letting me know that you like this blog. It means a great deal to me.

    ReplyDelete

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