Plastic Man Fights A Gang of Grotesques (1949) – The Strange, Dark Last Comic Book Stories of Jack Cole

Story this post:
”Plastic Man - Wanted Dead or Alive”
Story and art by Jack Cole
Police Comics #95 (October, 1949 – Quality Comics)

Building on his amazing comic book story in Police #94 (to read, see here), Jack Cole delivers another 11-page knock-out. It boggles my mind that these stories haven’t seen the light of day since their original publication, nearly 60 years ago.

As with most comics in the late 1940’s, the page count of Police Comics  dropped a 16-page signature taking a 52-page book down to 36 pages. As a result, the lead Plastic Man stories shrunk from 15 to 11 pages. This was not necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, I suspect the more manageable page count re-opened the series for Cole’s full-scale involvement, effectively taking away a third of the labor that had been required to produce a a four-color adventure of the stretchy sleuth and his rotund Watson. As a result, he was able to enjoy a last stint of producing stories more or less singlehandedly, in the organic method he used in the first half of his comic book career.

All of a sudden, the stories are tighter, have more bite, display about 5 times as much great ideas, and --- best of all – Jack Cole’s talent is at the helm again. Granted, the stories often sink into barely disguised despair, but even then the triumph of Cole’s mastery is astounding to behold, much like listening to a haunting blues song by Robert Johnson… you have to ask yourself “from what otherworldly place did this stuff come?

In Cole’s last golden period of creating his 35 or so Plastic Man stories that appeared sporadically in the 1948-50 issues of Police Comics and Plastic Man, he accomplished some of the oddest, most unique comic book stories ever made, in my opinion.

In this story from Police Comics #95, Cole moves out of the shadows of the last story, in which Plas was very nearly executed for murder into an exercise in seeing how far over-the-top he can go in creating bizarre characters. First and foremost amongst the vast array of grotesque villains is Scowls, a fat midget who dresses in a Mickey Mouse tie and is always drawn with a sparkle on his gleaming bald head.

Cover by Jack Cole and Alex Kotzky

Comic book super hero Plastic Man appears in this rare back issue comic book Police 095-03 Police 095-04 Police 095-05 Police 095-06 Police 095-07 Police 095-08 Police 095-09 Police 095-10 Police 095-11 Police 095-12 Police 095-13

Jack Cole liked drawing bear traps. In Police Comics #22 (1943), he killed off a child abusing crook with a bear trap:

cartoon-man-in-bear-trap

His use of the bear trap to snip at Scowls’ fanny in the splash page of this mini-masterpiece is less dark, but equally as compelling.

Overall, it is Cole’s compositions within each panel that are the star feature of this story. He crowds his panels with 5, 10, 15, even 20 figures. Each one is a real person, with real behavior. In the first panel on page three, for example, Cole draws no less than 11 individual people, all preoccupied in their own, comical way, including the great touch of having one crook pick the pocket of another.

cartoon-crooks-1949

No attention is drawn to this gag, and no further elaboration is made of it. The story does not depend on it. It’s merely there as an extra layer of entertainment. There are at least a dozen of these ‘extras’ in this one story alone. In this aspect, Jack Cole’s work prefigures the famous “chicken fat” style of Will Elder’s Mad and Panic stories that would appear in just few short years later, which were loaded with little gags, puns, and surreal jokes that were completely separate from the plot. This device can also be traced back to the great screwball comic newspaper comic strips, particularly SMOKEY STOVER buy Bill Holman (for an article on on Holman’s influence on Jack Cole, see here).  To my knowledge, this link has not been observed, or studied much at all.

Earlier, I described the extremely bizarre character design of Scowls. His associate, McGoon, is also quite strange, with his elongated torso and total lack of a lower jaw, not to mention the enigmatic “T” shirt he wears. There’s also a crook with a studded metal skull cap, and even a crook with a vaudevillian oversized old-fashioned suit. All of these character designs appeared in earlier Jack Cole stories. Cole is recycling a bit, here.

What makes this story a bit of a tour de force is that, where Jack Cole’s old Plastic Man formula was to feature just one grotesque, Dick Tracy-like villain, here he depicts a whole GANG of bizarre characters.

It’s as though every individual in the story has been shaped by some mysterious force into a weird form of themselves, and then frozen in that form. The only fluid person in the story is Plastic Man. It’s his ability to change and flow like water around the obstacles that makes him superior, and completely deflates the threat of being trapped in an air-tight room deep underground loaded with murderous crooks wielding an arsenal of deadly weapons.

At the end, a wholly amused Woozy brags on Plastic Man, actually explaining to us the importance of being able to change:

“Plas always springs the traps and drags the bait away to the big house.”

To underscore this story, similar to the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories that Carl Barks (Cole’s fellow satirist working in comics) was creating around the same time, Cole creates the character of the horse-grinned, foppish, limp-wristed, dandy who was formerly a criminal mastermind. It was his ability to change that gave him his freedom, even though he changed into just another ridiculous caricature.

While the writing in this story is good, it the wholly realized visual art that takes center stage in this adventure. Each panel is a picture that can truly stand on it’s own both compositionally, and as a powerful image in itself. I’ll leave you with a little gallery of three examples of many worth admiring from this exemplary, strange dark late comic book story by the great Jack Cole:

cartoon-of-comic-book-hero- comic-book-gang-of-crooks

plastic-man-bent-by-speed

Plastic Man Goes to the Gas Chamber (1949) – The Strange, Dark Last Comic Book Stories of Jack Cole

Story this post:
”Plastic Man Turns Killer”
Story and art by Jack Cole
Police Comics #94 (September, 1949 – Quality)

Before we begin, I’d like to wish everyone a happy holiday and a new year. I’ve scoured the comic book stories of Jack Cole, but can find no story set at Christmas time, or using a Christmas theme. I guess this just proves that Jack Cole’s concerns were not in the realm of the warm and fuzzy! Now, on to the goodies!

When you think about it, given comic book master Jack Cole’s bent toward death and the tropes of violent crime and execution, it’s a wonder he didn’t create a story like this one sooner.

My guess is that Cole conceived of the series as a light-hearted satire and very deliberately kept it there for years. His dark side crept in plenty in the early stories, but the circumstances were so over-the-top that it was impossible to dwell in the shadows of the early Plastic Man comic book stories – they were just too much fun.

Cover of Police Comics #94 by Jack Cole and Alex Kotzky

Police Comics 094-01

By 1949, however, Jack Cole’s mind seems to have taken a deliberate turn into darker and darker alleyways of human events. In “The Dictator of Dreams,” Police Comics #78, Cole took us on a journey through the interwoven nightmares of four people, in pages loaded with surreal imagery from the more horrific areas of the collective unconscious. (To read this story, please click here).

Sixteen issues later, Cole – working now in an 11-page format instead of the lavish 15-page length he had been given over the last few years, the biggest page count of any continuing comic book hero of this era –- has become even darker, to the point where he begins this grim story with a scene of Plas being horribly executed in a gas chamber.

  Police Comics 094-03 Police Comics 094-04 Police Comics 094-05 Police Comics 094-06 Police Comics 094-07 Police Comics 094-08 Police Comics 094-09 Police Comics 094-10 Police Comics 094-11 Police Comics 094-12 Police Comics 094-13

Jack Cole’s trademark themes of death and shifting identities form the basis of this strange story. Plastic Man’s usual carefree attitude towards life is clouded over when he thinks he has killed someone. (Thanks to reader oeconomist.com for pointing out the frame-up).

In this regard, this story a rarity, and an instance of Cole really pushing the boundaries, as he did in his infamous “Murder, Morphine, and Me” story from 1946 (True Crime #1).  By 1949, the comic book super-hero genre had an unwritten law that no hero could kill a crook, even if it was faked. Even the early Batman was known to occasionally pull out a gun and SHOOT the villain, but that all-too easy solution quickly vanished in favor of extended fist-fights in surreal settings… a much more highly ritualized encounter more suited to the hero myth.

This Plastic Man episode is not without its humorous moments, though. The middle tier on page seven, in which a crowd gawks at Plastic Man on trial is quite funny, with a fat lady standing on a cop’s head in her stocking-clad feet. The crazy ways Woozy shadows the bad guy on page 9 are great comedy.

I’d like to quote from the insightful comments of one reader (Tamfos):

“Plas has reached an alltime high in elastic comedy here, keeping pace with the extreme nature of the storyline. Obviously, this is at least partly due to Cole's style evolving to the point where even the bizarrely malleable antics of the "normal" people seem perfectly acceptable (witness the last panel of page two). Just gorgeous stuff.
And, of course, Cole still can achieve so much in a single panel. Witness panel three on Page Four. Plas is reading, AND attempting to answer the phone, while Woozy slaps Plas's hand away AND answers the phone himself. Any other artist, that's at least two panels.”

The drawings are quite stylized, showing that Cole never stopped growing and changing as an artist. His drawings of the various villains in this story, and even the reofrmed crook who appears at the beginning, are as bizarrely compelling as anything Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) ever did.

Jack Cole kept finding new ways to stretch Plastic Man’s body. In this story, made after 9 years of working with this character, Cole ends with the tour de force image of Plastic Man holding his own head, perhaps a macabre echo of the execution that was narrowly avoided!

The Barker, Part 3: The Klaus Nordling Connection, and a Surprise Late-Career Return to Early Form

There’s a lot of cross-over between the careers and styles of Jack Cole and Klaus Nordling. “Thin Man,” one of Nordling’s earliest stories (from August, 1940) not only vaguely resembles Jack Cole’s work of the same period, but it also presents the origin of a character who can stretch his body, pre-dating Plastic Man by a full year.

From Mystic Comics #4 (August, 1940, Timely)

 Mystic Comics 4_Page_20 Mystic Comics 4_Page_21 Mystic Comics 4_Page_22 Mystic Comics 4_Page_23 Mystic Comics 4_Page_24Mystic Comics 4_Page_27 Mystic Comics 4_Page_25 Mystic Comics 4_Page_26

The story, when compared with Cole’s Plastic Man origin story from Police Comics #1,  is a good illustration of both the similarity and the difference between the two men’s approaches. Both stories are solid and imaginative, but Cole started with a crook and made him go good, turning the superhero myth inside out and establishing a sly tone of satire and self-parody that made Cole’s Plas stories a cultural landmark.

By the way, the THIN MAN didn’t catch on and the character was gone by issue 5, appearing only once. (He was brought back in the 1970’s)

At his best, Nordling matches Cole’s nothing-held-back commitment to the story. Just as Cole’s stories can transport you to a world all their own, the best of Nordling’s stories – especially the longer ones - are equally atmospheric.

Klaus Nordling was a Finnish-American writer-artist who worked in comics from the 40’s through the 70’s. He broke in through Will Eisner’s studio, and became one of Quality Comics’ best writer-artists.

His best-known feature was LADY LUCK, which appeared in various Spirit sections, as a back up in various Quality comics, and eventually in its own title (here Nordling hit a peak with long, funny, off-beat stories and a personal investment that matches the way Cole wrote and drew Plastic Man and Woozy Winks).

For more information on Nordling, read the Wikipedia article on him.

Nordling took over THE BARKER, the colorful feature in National Comics that Jack Cole and writer Joe Millard created (see earlier posts here and here) with the series’ third story. His style was similarly cartoony to Cole’s, and his sense of humor and imagination made him a natural to take a world Cole designed and flesh it out. He kept Cole’s character designs, right down to Col. Lane’s checkered vest. But he also layered on his own rich cast of oddballs.

Building on the Millard-penned BARKER story from National #43 (see here), in the fourth-ever Barker story, Nordling plays his own broadly comical riff on the mythical carnie story about a small town crook who tries to get the upper hand on the travelling carnival.

From National Comics 45 (Dec. 1944 – Quality)

 nat45p01 nat45p02 nat45p03 nat45p04 nat45p05 nat45p06 nat45p07 nat45p08 nat45p09 nat45p10 nat45p11

The lisping, crooked mayor is particularly pungent in this story. Like Cole, Nordling built whole stories around strange, cartoony villains. Both men were likely heavily influenced in this by Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy stories, which splintered the human psyche into a bevy of bizarre bad guys.

Nordling wrote and drew BARKER stories from National Comics #44 to #67. In Autumn, 1946 the character got his own comic, starting with The Barker #1. Most of the 15-issue run was written and drawn by Nordling, although clearly other hands were involved. For over 30 years, each annual edition of Overstreet’s Comic Book Price Guide has listed Jack Cole as one of these hands. Here is the listing from the 39th edition of Overstreet’s:

overstreet_barker

How poetic it seems that Jack Cole contributed the first and last appearance of this wonderful character. The lead story in The Barker #15 has a definite dark, psycho-comics Cole feel, as inky black dark waters literally drag the characters down. Also, there’s a drawing of a sexy drenched damsel that barks (if you will) Cole’s touch:

comic book frog and sexy girl 

It’s unclear if Cole penciled the whole story and Nordling inked it. The inking is so black and unlike Nordling’s airy feel that I almost want to say that Cole is inking Nordling’s pencils! Why this would be, I have no idea. I actually think Nordling had nothing to do with this story and more likely one of Cole’s tried-and-true assistants, such as Alex Kotzky or John Spranger did a lot of the inking and finishes. I think it’s very likely that Cole wrote this story, as it has dark overtones, typical of his later work. See for yourself:

From The Barker #15 (December, 1949 – Quality)

Barker 15-03 Barker 15-04 Barker 15-05 Barker 15-06 Barker 15-07 Barker 15-08 Barker 15-09 Barker 15-10 Barker 15-11 Barker 15-12 Barker 15-13 Barker 15-14 Barker 15-15

It’s interesting to reflect that Jack Cole was probably ghosting here for a fellow artist who got into deadline trouble. The same thing happened with Cole when Plastic Man became a monthly comic and other writers and artists were brought in to meet the demand that Cole, as prolific as he was, could not keep up by himself. Perhaps there was a deadline crunch and Cole, always scouting around for more work, and the original artist, after all, may have been asked to help out in an ironic twist.

In any case, the way the extraordinary splash page (no pun intended!) works as both an intro to the story by showing a vignette of the climax and as a kind of symbolic picture of the power of the sub-conscious, suggests that Jack Cole wrote and drew this story. In this respect, the story feels very much like Cole’s multi-level Web of Evil stories of the early 1950’s.

Dickie-streak5_callout2The use of water as a compelling visual and symbolic device reminds me of a great 1940 story Cole did with his semi-autobiographical character DICKIE DEAN (see here) in which the drawings of water have the same inky-black darkness as the images in the above Barker story.

The note at the bottom of the above Overstreet’s entry for The Barker is intriguing: “Cole art in some issues.” I’ve scoured several issues of the Barker and one story does stand out for it’s dark atmosphere, jam-packed story, and general weirdness. I think it’s a lost Jack Cole gem.

from The Barker #6 (Winter, 1948 – Quality Comics)

bark06p34story3 bark06p35

bark06p37 bark06p38 bark06p39bark06p36    bark06p40 bark06p41 bark06p42 bark06p43 bark06p44 bark06p45 bark06p46 bark06p47

Why these two stories are signed by Klaus Nordling when Cole worked on them is a mystery. Perhaps there’s a clue in this quote from Quality editor Gill Fox about Nordling:

“Nordling was a little guy. Good-looking. And involved in local theatre. He had a very vivid imagination and was a good writer. In later years I'd send some work in his direction. But if you did something for him, he'd think you wanted something back. We got to know each other socially, but he still mistrusted people. Even me.”

Perhaps there had been a promise to Nordling to “brand” the Barker stories with his name as he built a career. Or, perhaps the editor of the book wanted to avoid conflict. Or… perhaps I am wrong and this is all the work Nordling, but after studying the comic book stories of Jack Cole intensely for the last eight months, these stories feel like Cole to me, even though it’s hard to be 100% certain.

This is a pretty clever story, you’ll probably agree. I think there’s a case to made for this being a Cole script and pencils with Klaus Nordling providing the inking and finishes. Just the imagery of the carnival setting up on the side of hill in front of a deserted ghost town alone is enough to convince me. Here’s yet another of those weird, veiled stories in which Cole’s sub-conscious seems to be saying something is not right. I get this sense very strongly in the beautifully cinematic night-time scenes, like this one:

barker_tilt

We also get Cole’s core theme of shape-changing when Carnie Callahan (The Barker) disguises himself as a western owl hoot. And there’s the doppelganger theme that Cole toyed with throughout his career, when the performers of one circus go to battle with their alter egos who work for the rival circus.

The pacing, the richness of ideas, and the sheer quantity of ideas feel very much like a typical overstuffed Jack Cole story. In fact, this story is really quite a lost gem. The old western towns have a palpable presence. When you read the story, you can feel the “Cole magic.”

Whenever Cole set a story in the old west it was always vivid. Perhaps that’s due to his own vivid impression gained by biking through the western desert of the United States when he was only 18. See my article about his epic bike trip here.

The story also has several instances of some of Jack Cole’s oft-used graphic devices, or “Cole-isms,” as I call them (see here). One such Cole-ism is depicting a crowd in a very interesting way in which each person is more realized than a comic book artist of this era would typically bother with. You can see this in the night-scene panel above.

Also silhouetting the tents, banners, and circus roustabouts is very typical of Cole’s work. Lastly, his use of a full moon in story, 5 times times by my count, is something Cole’s drawings are filled with.

barker_moon

This is a very special story. In this story, Cole returned to his earlier style and also recovered, for the span of these 14 pages, the youthful exuberance and astonishing energy of his best early 1940’s graphic narratives. This story feels like the early MIDNIGHT, QUICKSILVER, and PLASTIC MAN stories.

Jack Cole would soon hit a wall in comics, as he personally became burned out and as the industry changed rapidly and classified him as too old-school for their needs. He would become a major magazine cartoonist and then create his own successful syndicated newspaper strip (Betsy and Me).

But back in early 1948, Cole somehow brought back some of the style and energy of his early 1940’s work, and created a lost gem in the back pages of an obscure comic.

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