Blue Ribbon Comics #1 (November 1939, Archie) - Crime on the Run (Story and art by Jack Cole)
Jack Cole's 1947 True Crime comics are fairly well-known. They were examples of a supposed corruptive influence on America's youth in the infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham. The stories were reprinted in the 1980's by Michael Gilbert in Mr. Monster's True Crime #1 and #2. In 2004, one of the True Crime stories was reprinted in Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits by Art Spiegelman and Chipp Kidd.
At the dawn of his career in comics, however. Cole took the "true crime" concept out for several trial runs. It's not yet clear what may have influenced Cole to create his series of gritty, pre-Dragnet police procedurals, but crime was obviously something that fascinated Cole.
Since we've been mining some of Cole's work at Archie, it seems right to continue by sharing the first of two true crime stories he made for Archie's Blue Ribbon Comics. Here, in late 1939, we see the embryonic efforts of Cole to draw realistically. After a year or two of this, he doffed the "realistic" straightjacket and unleashed his glorious natural cartooning ability in the work of the 1940's.
Although the draftsmanship is crude, the story displays Cole's solid sense of graphic design, and has some remarkable panels, such as page 4, panel 6, which almost looks like a woodcut. Perhaps more astutely, however, one can compare the art and tone in this story to the hard-boiled art of Chester Gould in his DICK TRACY strip, a likely influence on Jack Cole.
Quite rightly, Cole (or perhaps an editor) seemed to think that the fact the stories were true would make an impact. In this story, he starts by assuring us the story is taken from records and photographs in "Cleveland police files." It's my guess that Cole, who was cranking out comic pages to survive in New York City, probably did not journey to a Cleveland police station to research the story. More likely, Jack Cole lifted it from a magazine or book, or possibly even made it up.
It's interesting that this crime story, created in 1939, takes place in 1913, making it a historical story as well. Cole went to some lengths to show the cars, horse-drawn wagons, and clothing of the period, which suggests he probably did work from photographs.
In any event, here is CRIME ON THE RUN, in all it's grim glory. In our next post, we'll share the second story in this series.
In his mature work, of which the story from Police Comics #95 (1949) presented here is a prime example, Jack Cole infused nearly every panel with something to indicate motion. He used anatomical distortion, speed lines, multiple images, blurry images, puffs of smoke, and the displacement of objects to suggest motion.
Sometimes, he even used the body of Plastic Man himself, stretched and twisted in reaction to the bullet-like propulsion of another character, as though the very air were being pushed back so forcefully that it pulled Plastic Man's body like a Jello sculpture inhaled by a vacuum cleaner.
At times, the images begin to resemble the deconstructionist/cubist artwork of the early 20th century. Compare the Pablo Picasso painting below, Girl With Dark Hair, and the panel taken from our featured Cole story at the top of this posting.
Jack Cole fan and expert, Art Spiegelman drew a marvellous cover for the April 17, 1999 issue of The New Yorker (which included his landmark essay on Jack Cole, later expanded into the totally awesome book, Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits) which gets at the same point.
Cole's art sometimes transcends the plot, and becomes a surreal excursion into what the world would look like if you could freeze-frame it and then make it two-dimensional. In some of his work from the late 1940's, I can't help but marvel at Jack Cole's miraculous drawings that showed several moments in time in a single panel. One thinks of Marcel Duchamp's famous painting of 1913, Nude Descending a Staircase.
High-falutin' comparisons to famous fine art, aside, the effects of motion and speed in Cole's comic book art are just plain fun to look at. Somehow, by showing the characters of his stories in motion, the stories become even funnier. We get a sense of what the character's body language is saying, which is often in comic contrast to their dialogue. Compare the self-proclaimed mastery of power of the villain's dialogue in the story presented here with his baby-like body movements.
I think Cole might have been a great animated cartoon director, if he had chosen to go that path. In his comic book work, he came to think in terms of motion, not static images stuck in square boxes. By the late 1940's, Cole routinely worked on a lofty level of graphic sophistication that few others have ever touched.
In December of 2008, the perpetually pleasing Pappy's Golden Age Comics Blogzine posted one of the greatest examples of Jack Cole's speed on paper, the Plastic Man story from Police Comics #95 (1949). Thanks, Pappy! View it here.
Blue Ribbon Comics #2 (December 1939, Archie) - Knight Off (1 page) Story and art by Jack Cole
Every so often in our extended study of Jack Cole, it will prove insightful to consider what his influences might have been.
The greatest screwball comedy strip of all time, SMOKEY STOVER by Bill Holman, began appearing in newspapers in 1935. That was the year Jack Cole left his home town in Pennsylvania for the urban canyons of Manhattan to seek fortune and fame as a comic strip artist. Much like Cole's early work, the Smokey Stover dailies and sundays were jam-packed with gags. Some of the gags were visual puns, some were verbal, and some were just pulled out of the ether, such as the repeated use of the word "foo." Holman, shown below, was a true master of the form and it seems very likely Cole was influenced by his work.
It may be that Holman, who was 11 years older than Cole, blazed a path into fast-paced screwy satire on which Cole followed, paved, painted, and installed street signs.
Smokey Stover was a fireman, and often the strips involved the characters frantically running to put out a fire, exchanging vaudeville-style jokes as they zipped along. You got your money's worth with Smokey Stover, since Holman often stuffed his pages with jokes. I count 13 jokes in this 6-panel sunday strip, taken from Four Color #64 (Dell, no date on the issue), one of several Four Color issues devoted entirely to reprints of Holman's work.
Compare to Jack Cole's zany one-pager below, from Blue Ribbon Comics #2 (Dec 1939, Archie). Cole contributed 17 pages to the first issue of Blue Ribbon, and 6 pages in the third issue, before moving on to bigger and better things. He only had one page in Blue Ribbon #2, but what a page! Aside from what must surely be one of the strangest panel layouts of 1939, what strikes me is the strong similarities with Smokey Stover. Our characters are running with Holman hoses to put out a fire, the knight inexplicably has a weather vane on his head, and there's a flash fire of jokes.
If you'd like to see more of Bill Holman's brilliant work, be sure to visit http://www.smokey-stover.com/, created by his nephew, Victor Paul, and loaded with great Holman comics. Here now a little gem by Jack Cole, no doubt inspired by the wacky work of comics master Bill Holman.
Target Comics Vol.1 #1 (Feb. 1940, Novelty Press) - Higrass Twins (4 pages, Cole story and art)
Target Comics Vol.1 #2 (March 1940, Novelty Press) - Higrass Twins (4 pages, Cole story and art)
Target Comics Vol.1 #4 (May 1940, Novelty Press) - Higrass Twins ( 3 pages, Cole story and art)
In the first four issues of Novelty Press' long-running Target Comics, Jack Cole contributed a wacky humorous filler he called THE HIGRASS TWINS. Here, we present the stories from issues 1, 2, and 4. If anyone should happen to find Cole's story from Target Comics Vol. 1 #3, please email me and I'll post it on this blog.
Cole's work on The Higrass Twins is slapdash, but also brilliant and funny. The setting and characters are drawn on the folk stereotypes of rural country people sometimes called "hillbillies." Cole's ear for dialogue is especially keen and funny here with such words as "fokes" (folks), "thut" (that), and "we-uns." In one memorable piece of dialogue, one of the twins says "Thuh nerve uv some polepussys!!" (polecats).
Jack Cole was in good company in Target Comics. These early issues of Target Comics also featured a western hero by Bill Everett, a creepy superhero by Carl Burgos, and an eclectic mix of subjects into which Cole's hillbilly stories seemed to be just another part of a patchwork quilt of concepts. Later issues of Target Comics would feature Basil Wolverton's brilliant SPACEHAWK stories.
Cole must have thought hillbillies were funny, because he used the setting in several Plastic Man stories, and drew most of the 1-pager fillers of the hillybilly-themed SLAP-HAPPY PAPPY in Quality's Crack Comics (although his friend Gil Fox created the character, and authored the first few stories).
In the sadly long-out-of-print History of Comics, Volume 2 (1972), Jim Steranko devoted an entire chapter to Jack Cole. It remains one of the most well-researched and detailed pieces on Cole. In this essay, Steranko, referring to the character of Woozy Winks, writes "Here was Cole as he felt others saw him: an unsophisticated, foot-shuffling country yokel..."
I think, in the Higrass Twins stories, Cole is traveling the same psychological territory. He invites us to chuckle at the coarse ways and ignorant misunderstandings of the backwoods bumpkins in this series, and -- a small towner hustling in the big city, himself -- he makes sure the twins win out in the end.
The first story, from Target Comics Vol. 1 #1 (Feb. 1940) centers on the infantalism of adults (something that I now know some adults find fetishistic sexual pleasure in, thanks to the Internet!). The twins are brought by competing storks (shades of George Herriman) and mature into full-grown adult men, but are duped into believing they are still infants by their hillbilly parents. One day, Pappy decides to play a grand joke on the twins and tell them they are grown up. Maw gets so mad, she then diapers and infantilizes the grey-bearded pappy!
The second Higrass Twins story, from Target Comics Vol. 1 #2 (March 1940) story plays off the idea that drinking moonshine will make you see double.
We'll have more Comet tails and some comet-tary on these INSANE stories in a future posting here in this blog. In the meantime, make like a you-know-what and streak over to this great blog and the two jaw-dropping Jack Cole stories posted here.
Military Comics #28 (April 1944) - Death Patrol (Story and art by Jack Cole)
Here is a delightful little gem from Jack Cole's second run on the Death Patrol series he created in 1941. Note the continued use of the theme of face-changing and identity shifting (see the earlier entry in this blog, 'The Eel-Like Slipperiness of Indentity") with the Japanese woman disguised in make-up. When she kisses a man, her false face transfers to his... so two people are altered, with one kiss.
One big difference between 1941 Cole and 1944 Cole is well-displayed here: sex has entered the scene.
The pace flies by and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt appears as a character. It's as though Cole wrote an 8-page story and eliminated every other panel to get it down to four pages. Enjoy!
Military Comics #1 (August 1941) - "Death Patrol" Story and Art by Jack Cole
The first appearances of BLACKHAWK and the DEATH PATROL were in Military Comics#1. It is sometimes said that Death Patrol was a parody of Blackhawk, as Cole's MIDNIGHT (Smash Comics) was a parody of THE SPIRIT, and as PLASTIC MAN was a parody of all superheroes. This is actually not the case.
At the 1999 San Diego Comic-Con, Will Eisner was asked which came first, BLACKHAWK or DEATH PATROL. He replied, "If my memory serves me, Death Patrol was first. It was not as well-done. [Jack] Cole couldn't draw realistic figures the way Chuck Cuidera could and it was half-humor and half-satire. Blackhawk began as a serious adventure."
A subsequent conversation between Eisner and the panel attendees stated that publisher "Busy" Arnold got a look at Cole's Death Patrol and decided it was a good enough idea to render straight. So, in a way, Jack Cole set out to satirize miltary stories, but it was not at Blackhawk that he took aim.
Blackhawk won the cover and the lead-off position in Mikitary #1, and kept both through the comic's run. At issue 44, the title was changed to "Modern Comics," because the war had ended.
One of the more striking themes in Cole's work is a pre-occupation with death and morbidity. The grim premise of his new series was that one of the members of the team would die each story. Cole stayed with the series for 3 episodes, through Military #3.
Perhaps this is because in August 1941, both Death Patrol and Plastic Man made their debuts, and Cole may have decided to focus more on Plas, which seemed more likely to win him the cover and lead spot in Police Comics.
Like Plastic Man, Jack Cole's Death Patrol is a breathless wonder of genuine boyish exuberance, Fleischer-studio subterranean sub-subconscious symbolism, and humor worthy of Harvey Kurtzman. In fact, Kurtzman's Mad parody of Blackhawk has always reminded me of Jack Cole's Death Patrol stories.
Cole returned to the series in March, 1944 with Military #27. Now the stories were four pages in length, instead of six. In all, Cole did 8 Death Patrol stories, in Military #1, 2, 3, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31.
Here is the first story. It's quite brilliant... full of camraderie, zany humor, and appeallingly eccentric characters, and Cole's trademark mastery of comic book design. Note how he uses the bottom half of page 1 and the top half of page 2 to show twin stories happening simultaneously.
Jack Cole has a field day with the black-and-white stripes of the escaped prisoner's uniforms, creating some very pleasing op-art effects as they group together and run around on the pages. Amusingly, the new uniforms they demand and are given at the end of this first story are revealed in the second story to be just like the striped prisoner suits, only they are tailored, with colllars. It's my guess Cole knew a good thing when he saw it and was reluctant to let go of such a great visual device.