Jack Cole Rediscovers His Muse – The Beginning of the Last “Cartoony” Period of His Comic Book Work

Plastic_Man_014_01 

Story this post:
”A Hard Guy Called Concrete”
Story and pencils by Jack Cole
Inks/Finishes by Alex Kotzky
Plastic Man #14 (Nov. 1948 – Quality)

 

May 1948 saw a big shift in Jack Cole’s involvement with his premier character, Plastic Man. About a year later, something happened, and Jack Cole rediscovered his muse.

After creating the breakthrough PLASTIC MAN comic book story “The Dictator of Dreams” (see here to read) for Police Comics #78 (May 1948), Jack Cole left the title to focus on creating four PLASTIC MAN stories every other month for the Plastic Man comic book. It was a period of lackluster, watered-down work.

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Cole returned to Police Comics about a year and a half later, with a darker sensibility. We’ve presented two of these stories in this blog here (“Plastic Man Goes to the Gas Chamber”), and here (“Plastic Man Wanted: Dead or Alive”).

When Cole made the move over to Plastic Man (which had mostly been the work of others from issue 3 on), the title shifted from a quarterly (four issues per year) to a bi-monthly schedule (6 issues per year).

For about a year, Cole wrote and penciled most of the stories published in Plastic Man #12 -17 while others inked them. Starting with issue 17, Cole began to ink some of his own stories and there followed a golden period in which he reached new heights, working in an over-the-top dense cartoony style that pre-figured the classic MAD stories that would be created in a few years by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder and Wally Wood.

After studying the “cartoony” Plastic Man comic book stories of 1949-51, I have come to feel more strongly than ever that the influence of Jack Cole on the look of the MAD comic book stories was much greater than has previously been understood or acknowledged. If nothing else, he was the first to pave the way for hip satire in comic books. As further posts will show, there is a direct genetic link between the styles of the works.

In 1951, Jack Cole’s comic book stories shifted from the wild cartoony style to a darker, more realistic phase, and then finally a strange, shadowy last period. For now, here’s an early sign of Cole’s re-emergence, from Plastic Man #14.

With finishing inks by the great Alex Kotzky, this story shows signs of Jack Cole re-discovering some of the inspirations of the early, enthusiastic, no-holds-barred work of his early years as a comic book storyteller.  Just the splash page alone shows that Cole has decided to try harder.

Although he never really left his theme of crazy inventions, Cole breathes new life into it in this story. He’s combined the crazy invention theme with his other recurring theme, shapeshifting, or face and identity change. With a simple hypodermic injection a man becomes as hard as concrete, a perfect foil for the rubbery PLASTIC MAN. But, as Cole so often shows us, it is far better to be able to change and adapt than to be strong but inflexible.

Featuring wonderful art and some stand-out sequences, such as when Plas uncoils in a dark room to locate a hiding killer, here is “A Hard Guy Called Concrete,” from Plastic Man #14 (Nov. 1948):

 

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5 comments:

  1. Paul: I so agree wit your regarding Cole's influence on Mad. I think his influence with regard to all comics is often overlooked - he was always, it seems, at least a decade ahead in all aspects of comic art; but in particular with Mad. I can really see Cole in Elder's dark-tinged satires for that magazine especially. -- Mykal

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  2. Hey Paul,

    issue 3 of PLASTIC MAN sure looks like Cole's work to me. I think issue 4 marks the beginning of the blah ghost-heavy period for that title. It's a disappointing stretch of issues, those Cole-less comix!

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  3. Frank yes, you're right. PLASTIC MAN has Cole all over it. The sentence shoudl state that PM wasmostly the work of other from issue 4 to issue 17. I stand corrected, SAH!

    Mykal, as always, I thank you for your thoughtful and encouraging comments. It's interesting to consider Cole made have had more of an influence on his contemporaries than has been understood. I see a lot o flinks betwene his approach to humor and Kurtzman's. They are among the very few comics masters (perhaps the ONLY two!) who chose to develop humorous one-page series (Kurtzman's Hey Looks, and Cole's Windy Breeze, Burp the Twerp, etc.). One of my working premises for analying Cole's work is that he invented some of the vernacular of graphic narratives that is commonly used today (and also invented some things that few if any others ever used).

    Lastly, a big THANK YOU to Scott, who made a gratifyingly kind donation to this blog.

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  4. I have just been noticing the resemblance between early Cole and early Mad myself. I just finished reading the 1st 11 issues of Police Comics and Plastic Man just shines like a star among the--for time--really good art of the title. Quality certainly lives up to it's name. The last 2 I read reprint the first 2 Eisner Spirits and Will Eisner wasn't quite to where he would be in a few years but Cole is there already, his genius and talent are much more developed. If I wanted to look for influences on Cole, I see a lot of animated cartoon influences--all the way from Max Fleischer to Tex Avery.

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