Not Dark Yet, But It’s Gettin’ There: Plastic Man #20

Plastic Man 20-01Before Jack Cole’s last noir period of the Plastic Man stories, he created a brief, but glorious series of stories in which he pushed the cartoony aspect of his work to the limits. These stories pre-figure – and even on occasion surpass -- the famous stories by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Wally Wood in the first 20 issues or so of MAD, with dense, crowded panels and numerous extra jokes in the background.

Plastic Man #20 featured the famous Sadly Sadly story. This story has been reprinted several times, but the other two stories in this issue have never before been reprinted.

In this issue, we see Cole heading full speed into his last comic phase. The pages are dense with gags and infused with a manic energy. The brilliant Woozy Winks story in this issue has strikingly similar visual solutions that Wally Wood would develop for his MAD stories.

Lamp that opening panel with 20 different great dogs all drawn by Cole. Each and every dog is infused with a manic obsession. Funny, scary stuff.

 

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For all the crazy comedy, Cole is also layering on more shadows, and some of the distortions which should be funny, actually come off as grotesque, like gargoyles instead of clowns. The weird black eyes of the villain Ali Badda, in the Oriental quarter story, are disturbing instead of funny. Even Plastic Man’s expressions are distorted in unsettling ways, as though he cannot contain his inner darkness.

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Jack Cole’s Comic Book Career – A Study

 Overview
Over the course of his 16-year career creating comic book stories, Jack Cole was astonishingly productive. I decided to make a stab at seeing just how productive one of the major creators in comics history actually was.
According to my findings, Jack Cole published approximately 3,600 comic book pages in 16 years, (give or take a couple hundred pages).
These are mostly pages that Cole:
  • Wrote
  • Penciled
  • Lettered
  • Inked
  • Colored (on occasion)
In a word: wow. This output rivals anyone working in the same period in comics, including Simon and Kirby -- and there were TWO of them, or Will Eisner… and he had a whole shop of assistants (including Jack Cole for a brief stint).
The Impact of Plastic Man on Cole’s Career
Slide2
Jack Cole will always be best known for Plastic Man, and that is where roughly two-thirds of his career output in comics lies. Out of a total of approximately 3,681 published pages of comics, 2,404 pages are Plastic Man stories.
However, that leaves  an impressive 1,277 pages of other work including:
… and hundreds of funny and graphically inventive 1-pagers throughout the 1940’s, such as Windy Breeze.
Jack Cole’s work in comics is much more than just Plastic Man, as this blog attempts to show by exploring his lesser-known work.
Methodology
Mind you, these are all very rough numbers.
I arrived at this number by downloading the latest collection of listings of Jack Cole credits by year from the amazing and invaluable resource, the Grand Comics Database.
Next, I scoured each month of every year and listed Cole’s published pages by month and year. For all it’s merit, the Grand Comics Database listing has several errors, which I corrected.
Eventually, I arrived at a rough total for each year. Here’s a chart that illustrates my findings:
Jack Cole’s Published Comic Book Pages 1938-1953
This chart omits 1 known page published in 1937 (Funny Pages Vol2, #1) and lops off Cole’s final 7-page comic book story published in Web of Evil #11 in February, 1954, The Monster They Couldn’t Kill.
After 1946, some of the Plastic Man stories that were published were NOT by Jack Cole at all. Therefore, to determine Cole’s actual page count on the Plastic man material, I referenced Ron Goulart’s book, Focus on Jack Cole (Fantagraphics Books, 1986), which contains a detailed checklist of Police Comics and Plastic Man. In many cases, my own conclusions, based on study of the actual stories, do not agree with Goulart’s, and so I also made adjustments to the page count, using my own findings.
The numbers were harder to estimate in Cole’s final years, because his visual style shifted and it’s my own conclusion that several of the last original stories in the Plastic Man title were written, penciled, and often inked by Cole. Also, after 1947, Cole’s pages were often inked by others. This chart does not distinguish between pages Jack Cole totally created, and ones that others inked. It also counts covers as single pages of comic book art.
The 1943-44 numbers do not take into account Jack Cole’s work ghosting the Spirit stories. This part of Cole’s career is, as of yet, not defined, and therefore could not be included. It would likely add 50-100 pages to the overall numbers to include the Spirit stories Cole wrote and penciled.
It must be stressed that my numbers are not definitive or exact. However, I do think they are within a 10% percent range and therefore can provide useful insight into Cole’s career.
The Peak Years: 1943-47
In looking at a monthly breakdowns of 1943-47, Jack Cole’s peak years of production, we can see what an impact the introduction of a Plastic Man comic book made on Cole’s career.
The first issue of Plastic Man was published in June, 1944. This chart effectively shows Cole’s published page count for that month effectively doubles to an astonishing 56 pages!
Slide3 Plastic Man #1 is pure Jack Cole, cover to cover, and represents one of the crowning achievements of his entire career. The creation of this comic book must have been a huge effort for Cole, and represents his development into a mature, established professional at the top of his form. It certainly put Cole into an even higher level of production and opportunity.
The following year, in 1944, Jack Cole produced 354 pages … an average of almost a page a day!
Jack Cole’s Published Comic Book Pages 1944
Once again, we can see what a huge impact the Plastic Man title made on Cole’s career. This second issue, also the loving work of work Cole cover-to-cover, was even better than the first! During 1944, Cole also created 12 Plastic Man stories in Police Comics that were 15 pages each (an unusually large number of pages given to a comic feature – by comparison, Superman and Batman lead stories ran 10-12 pages).
In this same year, Cole also created the brilliant second run of Death Patrol stories, some Spirit stories ( a probable example of which can be read here), some back-up filler stories (Blimpy and Inkie), the origin and first two adventures of The Barker, and about 45 great one-pagers. Whew! In 1944, Cole was on fire!
Somewhere, it’s been suggested that Cole took on extra work in 1943-7 because many of the top cartoonists (such as Will Eisner) were serving the war effort. It’s also thought that Cole was anticipating getting the call to serve himself (he didn’t) and so wanted to build up a cash reserve for his wife, Dorothy, in case he would be unable to earn for a year or more.
In 1945, Cole’s production dropped down a little as he settled into steady production of the 15-page Plastic Man stories in Police Comics and his regular run of 1-pagers that appeared throughout the Quality titles.
Slide5
In 1946, the Plastic Man title went quarterly. Although issue #4 had to be created by other writers and artists, Cole managed to double his feat of previous years by producing two complete issues (#3 and #5) in one year!
Slide6
Cole’s published work was a mixture of pages in which he did everything, and pages to which he only contributed writing and pencils. Therefore, even though the number is high, Cole’s overall involvement is not as intense. Nonetheless, he produced many brilliant stories in this year. The work in which he was fully involved ranks among some of best comic ever done.
The Thinking Machine (Police Comics 54, May 1946) was the first Plastic Man story to appear in Police Comics that has no involvement from Cole at all. The story, a disappointing effort, was likely drawn by Andre LeBlanc. In 1998, when I thought Cole had written and drawn every Plastic Man story, I won a copy of this comic on eBay. I was quite let down and puzzled by how dull it was. Quite likely, astute Plastic Man readers in 1947 felt the same way.
Slide7
In 1947, Cole duplicated his heroic 1946 feat with two issues of Plastic Man, and bettered it by creating a whole new comic book title featuring his writing and art (with help from Alex Kotzky) called True Crime Comics #2 (there was no number 1).
In looking at the production of 1943-47, we see Cole achieving success with Plastic Man and then, almost as quickly, losing control of his creation and being forced to allow others to create less inspired copies of his work. Perhaps this is one reason Cole took on the creation of a new magazine for a different publisher (Magazine Village).
In any case, the statistics show Cole was at his peak when he made the True Crime stories. In the May, 1947 issue the infamous Murder, Morphine, and Me appeared. One panel from this story was used by the infamous Dr. Fredric Wertham in his scathing attack on comic books, Seduction of the Innocent.
True Crime 02-09
In his book (co-authored by Chip Kidd), Forms Stretched to Their Limits: Jack Cole and Plastic Man, Art Spiegelman astutely writes of this story: “It is also among the most formally sophisticated comics stories I’ve ever seen; all the elements, including the panel shapes and the lettering, are deployed for narrative effect.”
The same could be said of much of Cole’s best work in his peak years. For example, the “trembling” panel effect was used several times in other stories.
However, there can be no doubt that Cole’s work reached a lofty, near superhuman peak with Murder, Morphine and Me. Although the rest of the stories in the book were inked by Alex Kotzky, Cole did everything on this one story… no doubt a pet project.
Certainly this feverish, intense story ranks among the ten most important works in Cole’s career, and one of the stand-out comic book stories of all time. In this story, the unique graphic storytelling vernacular Cole had developed up to this point crystallizes into a thing of beauty. All of his major themes are present in this story: the slippery-ness of identity, the potential for abuse and cruelty that exists, and horrific retribution.
Here then, to close out this article and provide you with something fun to read, is the complete story, in all it’s astonishing glory (thanks to Cole’s Comics supporter Daryl Aylward for the scans).
Murder, Morphine, and Me True Crime Comics Vol.1 #2 (May, 1947)
Writing, pencils, inks, and lettering by Jack Cole

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FANNIE OGRE – Jack Cole’s Great Lost SPIRIT Story (1942)

THE SPIRIT first appeared as a weekly comic book insert. It was so successful that a daily newspaper strip soon followed. SPIRIT creator Will Eisner wrote and drew the first six weeks of the strip. When the wartime effort drafted Eisner into military service, Jack Cole took over the strip. In August, 1942, Cole left the strip to create a new back-up feature in the pages of Police Comics, a little thing called PLASTIC MAN.
A couple of years later, in 1944, Jack Cole wrote and penciled some of the SPIRIT Sunday comic book insert stories, which can be found here and here.
 fannie ogre
Cole’s work on the SPIRIT DAILIES runs from May 18, 1942 to August 8, 1942, and covers a complete storyline, start to finish. In this post, we share the complete story, which features the proto-typical Chester Gould/Jack Cole comic strip femme fatale, FANNIE OGRE.
There are several “tells” in the artwork itself that this sequence was mostly penciled, inked, and even lettered by Cole. The artwork strongly resembles his MIDNIGHT (which was created as a SPIRIT duplicate) stories of the same period, and uses many of the same characteristic visual elements, including:
  • Decorative patterns
  • Pointed exclamation marks
  • Distinctive lettering (so that the simple sentence “Oh ho! Do I!” has a wealth of nuance and tonality)
  • Extreme camera angle
  • Funnel-shaped sound effects
  • Speed lines and clouds that include the speed sound effects of “zip!”
  • Beams of light slashing through darkness, usually with pointillism effects at the edges
Many of these devices can be spotted in the following two strips:
The Spirit dailies by Jack Cole_call outs copy
Aside from the art, the storytelling is classic Cole. In the example shown above, we have a casual graphic description of torture and dismemberment, with a comic edge!
After an introductory bit of comic business with Spirit assistant Ebony and his con-man cousin Scallywag, Cole teasingly introduces the grotesque figure of FANNIE ORGE, a youthful, shapely woman with a horribly wrinkled face… sort of a female Prune Face (Cole borrowed a lot from Chester Gould’s DICK TRACY, and never more so than in this early newspaper strip effort).
Cole’s graphic stories were filled with crazy inventions, and this story is no exception. A jar of magical beauty cream erases FANNIE’s wrinkles, bringing Cole’s core theme of shapeshifting and identity/face change to the fore.
When he created the character of PLASTIC MAN, Cole had the inspiration of tweaking the superhero origin story by making the non-super self a crook and then having the hero keep the identity of the criminal (for a while, at least). This same playfulness around the conventions of the crime-fighter hero story is evident in FANNIE ORGE, when she extracts a promise from THE SPIRIT to lay off crime-fighting until August 1 (co-incidentally PLASTIC MAN’s birth date, roughly).
The story ends with, yes, you guessed it.. a suicide. For a man who ended his life in suicide, it is haunting that so many of Jack Cole’s comic book stories include suicide. More people killed, or attempted to kill themselves in Jack Cole’s “funny” comic book stories than in any other series in the history of comics and, possibly literature.
fannie ogre suicide
FANNIE ORGE’s death is almost an exact copy of the ending of the classic 4th MIDNIGHT story, written and drawn by Jack Cole about 8 months earlier, with the silhouette of the plunging figure and the clock tower tolling the death knell. Ask not for whom the bell tolls… it tolls for thee.
With the exception of Cole’s last work on his newspaper comic strip Betsy and Me, this story represents the longest sustained graphic narrative of his career, at roughly the equivalent of 24 pages in comic book format (the longest PLASTIC MAN stories were 15 pages in length).
It is interesting to note how Cole’s treatment of Ebony prefigures PLASTIC MAN’s sidekick, Woozy Winks. This story is the missing link between Ebony White and Woozy Winks, and shows the creative cross-pollination that happened between Jack Cole and Will Eisner.
A disclaimer is also necessary here. Cole’s depiction of Black Americans (thousands of which were off fighting for the United States in World War Two when this story was created) is inexcusable. We present this work here not to put anyone down, but to look at the artistic development of an important figure in American art.
I hope you enjoy FANNIE OGRE, a lost classic dug up for you from the Cole-mine!
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