In 1936, shortly after moving to New York from his hometown of New Castle, Pennsylvania, Jack Cole landed a job with the Harry “A” Chesler shop, the first-ever art studio set up to supply the newly born comic books with original stories (many of the first comic books were reprints of newspaper comics).
Cole started out at the shop as an assistant, providing inking, backgrounds, and the occasional one-pager, such as this inspired bit of lunacy from the April 1938 issue of Funny Picture Stories (Vol. 2 #7):
I love how INSURANCE IKE dives behind the last panel. Also note that the flood of tears would later be used several times in PLASTIC MAN stories, most notably, the celebrated Sadly Sadly story, created over a decade later.
Jack Cole’s first work in comics embraced what is today known as the ‘screwball’ comic. Exemplars of the screwball strip are SMOKEY STOVER and the great comics of Milt Gross.
Jack Cole’s wholehearted investment in developing a screwball style is especially present in these black and white scans from Funny Pages Vol 3 #10 (Dec. 1939). Note the presence of Cole’s signature in the first page, a rare instance in which Cole acknowledges Christmas in his work:
During this time, Jack Cole actually worked in a room with other artists and writers, including Bob Wood, Martin Filchock, Fred Guardineer, and Charles Biro (of CRIME NEVER PAYS fame). Cole picked up tips and tricks from these artists, and no doubt there was a great deal of cross-pollination that occurred between the hard-working men.
I think Cole, to some extent, may have been influenced by fellow Chesler studio artist Fred Schwab. Take a look at this page, also from Funny Picture Stories Vol. 2 #7 by Fred Schwab (initialed “F.S.” in the 5th panel):
This page contains several qualities that became part of Jack Cole’s style: the breakneck pacing, the full moon framing device, the integration of sound effects into motion lines, and the use of bold patterns. One almost wonders if Cole did the backgrounds and fills on this page.
Here’s another page from the same issue of Funny Picture Stories in which one has to look closely to tell whether this is Schwab or Cole:
This is indeed by Jack Cole. Note the very same pattern used on both INSURANCE IKE’s pants and those of the character shown in panel 5, above. In panel two Cole inserts a rare name-check (Garbo Schwab) to the Chesler artist he must have been most attuned with. I believe that Cole and Schwab may have collaborated on some stories in the 1937-39 Centaur comics.
In this 1938 page, Cole’s bodies are already impossibly and comically distorted, far beyond anything Schwab (or any other Chesler studio artist) attempted. Check out JOE TICKET’s twisted rubbery legs in the last panel – how many times do we see PLASTIC MAN’s body do the same thing?
The Centaur books were a great training ground for a beginning comic book creator. The stories were all pretty short, ranging from 1-5 pages. There was plenty of of room for different styles and different kinds of stories. You can see all the early Centaur artists experimenting and quickly dialing in on what worked best for them.
Cole quickly developed an appealing style and offbeat sense of humor. You can see a sampling of his Centaur pages in my earlier posting, here. As time went on, Cole won more and more of a starring position in the Centaur books, with longer stories in the lead position, and even covers, such as this honey from March, 1939:
Here’s another beautiful gem of a cover that has just surfaced, thanks to the great folks at The Digital Comic Museum:
This cover is from the Vol. 2 #1 issue of Star Ranger Funnies (Jan. 1939). By this time, Cole had arrived as a bigfoot cartoonist. The gag is bizarre (which means interesting) and his execution is supremely confident. Also we see here the early appearance of some devices Cole would use throughout his 16-year career in comics. The lamp beam is something Cole would employ on many covers and splash pages. The polka dot snowstorm is actually a pattern, which Cole used in a great deal of his work to add visual interest.
Another sign that, by 1939, Jack Cole had streaked like a meteor into higher and higher levels of success is seen when we turn the cover of this issue and this early four-page masterpiece of weirdness which Cole signed twice, once as ‘Zeke Cole’ and once with his own name:
Cole worked with funny hillbilly characters a lot in his early years. For example, he had a series called THE HIGRASS TWINS that appeared in 1940 issues of Target Comics (Novelty Press). Ron Goulart’s great biography, FOCUS ON JACK COLE, reprints an earlier “Home In The Ozarks” story, suggesting this was one of Cole’s first series.
This story is simply wonderful. There is a density of gags presented within a satirical framework that prefigures the Kurtzman/Elder MAD stories of more than a decade later.
It’s interesting how much these pages resemble Basil Wolverton’s great comedy series, POWERHOUSE PEPPER. I doubt there was any influence in either direction. Both creators simply settled on a winning formula and set of visual techniques.
Cole, of course, quickly moved on past this style as he took on serious crime stories and super-heroes. However, in his best creation, PLASTIC MAN, Jack Cole kept a generous helping of the slapstick gag humor that he mastered in his early years at Centaur.
”Out of Gas!”
Story, art, lettering by Jack Cole
Military Comics #30
Quality Comics Group
A shy, gentle man by all accounts, Jack Cole as a creator was a bold extremist.
For all the grimness of the concept of a heroic team that regularly loses members to terrible deaths, Jack Cole’s DEATH PATROL is astonishingly cartoony. Most of Cole’s work is a big, rich mix of the horrible and the hilarious. Next to PLASTIC MAN, the eight stories Cole made in the DEATH PATROL series rank among the craziest blends of death and comedy available in comics, or any other art form.
After creating the series in Military Comics #1, 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 Comics #1, 2, 3, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31.
In this breathless story from Cole’s second run on the series, we are treated to a delightful episode of hen-pecking and cannibalism. It would be absurd to attempt to make sense of this nutty story that seems to stream directly from Cole's subconscious. However, it is worth noting that Cole slipped in some memorable zingers in this 4-page wonder:
“Ah’m sorry boys, but the little woman jus' craves white meat!”
Apologies must be made for the racist content of this story. It's rather startling to encounter undeniably thick veins of racism in the work of an otherwise good-natured (if dark) humorist. Compare this 1944 story to Cole's 1950's CHOP CHOP stories featuring the Blackhawks' own racist portrayal. It helps to bear in mind that Cole's portrayals of non-white people are more or less in line with the culture of his time and were certainly far from the only instances of such treatments in 1940's comic books. For example, consider the well-known comic and racist black boy character, Ebony White, from Will Eisner's SPIRIT series (a character Cole developed in the unknown and under-appreciated FANNIE OGRE story he ghosted in the SPIRIT dailies).
The splash-dash splash page features a roulette wheel of death, an echo of the first story in Plastic Man #1 (June, 1943) from about a year earlier. One cannot help but wonder where the green demon addressing the reader came from -- it's a rare instance of Cole depicting a non-human, imaginary form.
Thus the pedal-to-the-metal story skids to an abrupt halt. Even if Hank's explanation is too hastily accepted, the story still works. Aside from Milt Gross, has there ever been another master of the sequential narrative who naturally worked with such breakneck, helter-skelter pacing?
Other DEATH PATROL stories published in this blog (so far):
Military Comics #1
Military Comics #3
Military Comics #28
Military Comics #31
Story this post:
“Murder Leads to the Classroom”
Story and art by Jack Cole
Smash Comics #70
Quality Comics Publications
Left: Cover by Jack Cole (signed)
In case you missed it, I recently received a great comment from Mike Millard, son of the writer Joe Millard. Joe Millard worked with Jack Cole on THE BARKER and is thought to have penned some PLASTIC MAN stories, as well. See my earlier article on the Joe Millard/Jack Cole connection here.
I wish I could add something to the debate over whether my dad, Joe Millard, was really the writer behind the first of "The Barker" series. I can't. It would certainly have been right up his alley, though since one of his first jobs after cowboying on his father's Minnesota ranch was as advance man for a stunt flying team who hop-scotched across the small town mid-west. I seriously doubt he ever did any Dick Tracy work--although a Pennsylvania newspaper story recounting our mid-forties ownership of some historical property in Quakertown, made that assertion. Dad loved showmanship and the PT Barnums of the world. He started in pulps, moved to comics and then magazines--and the books, sort of 'just happened'. Historical non-fiction was his enduring passion.
Some time back, I also received this very nice note from Joshua Cole, nephew of Jack Cole:
I recently stumbled across your blog about my late, great uncle Jack Cole, and wanted to thank you for the attention which you've devoted to his art.
Just out of curiosity: how did you become interested in his work?
I did respond but Joshua declined on writing back. In any case, it’s a true honor to hear from him and Mike Millard. Thanks, guys! And now, on with the show!
This story, set in a classroom, is a lesson in the distinctive style that Jack Cole had developed by 1947, after about 10 years of working in the comic book form.
An artist’s “style” is generally thought to be the collection of formal elements present in the artist’s work that makes it stand out as something unique. The Wikipedia discussion of style in art, interestingly, uses the painter Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book dots as an example of style. This is interesting because I think that comic book stories are among the most heavily stylized art forms.
Part of Jack Cole’s value as a artist, even today, is his inspired invention and refinement of numerous formal elements that help make up the very language of the form.
“Murder Leads to the Classroom,” while a fairly lackluster story in terms of plot and character (one wonders if Cole had editorial direction to make the Midnight stories less crazy than his Plastic Man farragoes?), is filled to the brim with brilliant graphic inventions that are a part of the distinctive Jack Cole style. These include:
- Intricate page layouts that combine narrow vertical and horizontal panels (throughout story).
- Panels that are shaped like the key objects they contain (such as the dagger-shaped panel of a stabbing on page 3)
- Panels that tilt into the action and seem to be curling off the page, with drop shadows underneath (page 7)
- Integration of sound effects as part of the art, instead of sitting in open spaces or on top of the art, as was usually done. Also note that Cole himself typically drew all of his own sound effects. In most comic book stories of this, and later periods, the sound effects are part of the job of the letterer. (page 6, panel 3)
- Panels that seem to quiver and shake whenever a character is particularly terrified or excited (page 6, panel 2)
- Extreme shifts in camera angles from the highest heights to worm’s-eye views (page 4, lower tier)
- The tails of speech balloons originating in character’s throats to indicate an involuntary sound, or speaking emphatically (page 11, top tier)
There are many more recurring stylistic elements in Jack Cole’s work (see my earlier article on Cole-isms), but these are some of the most obvious items.
One might also note that Cole’s stories often contain graphic depictions of cruelty and violence (a brutal stabbing in this particular story) and sexy women as main characters (the fetching schoolteacher in this story) or as eye-candy in the background (page 2, panel 1).
Cole’s stories are also frequently are filled with manic action as his characters sprint, speed, and zoom through space (his roaring cars usually had at least two wheels off the ground). A peak example is this Midnight story from November, 1942.
One last note on this story: In the opening splash, a kid has a comic book hidden in a text book. Later on, a student is reading a book called “The Bloody Knife” (page 7). These elements show that Cole was not unaware of of the possible influence his adult-oriented comics may have had on the younger generation.
While the majority of the 1940’s and 50’s “true” crime comics stressed action, violence, and character studies, Jack Cole had a different take on the form, with stories that featured plenty of action but were driven by deep, dark, and disturbing psychological pain.
Though he only created 13 true crime stories, Jack Cole’s two Tommy gun bursts of creativity in this form, in 1939-40, and 1947-48, grazed the genre and left an indelible mark.
The American crime comic book genre is often said to have begun in 1942, with the start of Crime Does Not Pay, published by Lev Gleason and edited by Charles Biro.
Three years prior, starting in early 1939, Jack Cole wrote and drew 6 “true” crime comic book stories. These included:
- “Little Dynamite” (Feb. 1939)
- 2 Crime On The Run stories (1939, 1940)
- 3 Manhunters stories (1939-1940)
While this body of work is probably too small to credit Cole with invention of the genre (consider also the numerous pulp-inspired crime comics of 1936-39) , which peaked in American comics in the late 1940’s and is still going strong to this day, I think it’s safe to say that Cole was certainly one of the co-creators of the “true crime” comic book genre.
By the way, the man who is usually credited with inventing the true crime comic book, Charles Biro, worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Jack Cole at the Harry “A” Chesler studio in 1936-39. In 1939, both of these seminal creators moved to the MLJ shop, where Cole created his Crime on the Run and Manhunters series.
In 1939, Jack Cole also edited the historically important Lev Gleason title, Silver Streak Comics (named after the Pontiac Silver Streak car, which one of the publishers owned). While at Lev Gleason, Cole created, among others, the characters of Silver Streak and Daredevil.
In 1941, Cole left his editorship at Gleason to begin a long career as Quality Comics’ star writer-artist. Upon his departure from Gleason, none other than Charles Biro stepped into Cole’s shoes as editor. beginning his 16-year career with the publisher. Biro is noted for steering his titles away from super-hero fantasies towards what he called “illustories,” which were meant to represent more realistic and “true” events.
It is probably impossible to say for sure whether Jack Cole influenced Charles Biro with his early stories, or whether Charles Biro may have given Cole the idea when they worked closely together, very likely sitting next to each in various studios in Manhattan.
In May, 1947, Cole returned to both editing and crime comics when he put together two issues of True Crime Comics (numbers 2 and 3 – there was no #1) for Arthur Bernhard, the owner of Magazine Village and partner to Lev Gleason in the time Cole worked as editor there (and also the gentleman who owned the Pontiac car that the Silver Streak book was named after… perhaps because he hoped the book’s profits would help pay for the car!).
I imagine a lunch conversation at an automat between Berhard and Chelser going something like this:
Bernhard: I got an idea for a new series, capitalize on the crime craze.
Chesler: Yeah, now that the war’s over, super-heroes are on the way out.
Bernhard: I got the printing and distribution all lined. Even got a killer title, heh. Just need a solid guy to write and draw the comics and edit them.
Chesler: What about Cole? You know he came up with the crime angle a few years before Biro.
Bernhard: Yeah, I remember. Guy’s good, that’s for sure. But he’s got a sweet gig over at Quality.
Chesler: He’s starting to work with assistants now, like Caniff and Eisner and those boys do. If the price was right, he might go for it.
Berhhard: (puffing cigar) I could make him the editor, have him do his Jack Cole thing on one story in the book and then write and layout the others that his assistants could handle. Yeah.. could work. It would be fantastic to get Cole… he’d make one of the best comic books ever… I’d be able to buy a second Silver Streak!
And so Cole did make some truly great comics for Bernhard. I’ve already shared probably the best story of the two books, Murder, Morphine, and Me in an earlier post. Here is another story from True Crime Comics #2, “James Kent.”
For the extremely short periods he worked as an editor, Jack Cole made a big mark with some nifty ideas. When he was an editor for Lev Gleason, he pioneered the idea of superhero cross-over stories, an idea which made Marvel Comics rich in the 1960’s. With True Crime Comics, Cole began the series with terrific idea, offering a cash reward for information leading to the arrest of the criminal depicted on the inside story. What kid, and even adult at the time could resist such a come-on? Cole bundled this brilliant, P.T. Barnum stunt into a stunning, eye-catching cover:
By the way, a Canadian reprint was issued a year or two later, with a partially re-drawn cover:
The cover is hardly an improvement, with a clumsy redrawing of Cole’s outstanding logo which brilliantly includes a black-and-white photo of a real policeman, enhancing the “true story” angle.
I did a little research, and could find no evidence of the criminal depicted in the story, and as far as I know, the publisher never published the winner of the reward money (if, indeed, it was ever awarded).
We do, however, get a terrific story that was written and partially penciled by Jack Cole (and most likely finished and inked by Alex Kotzky). The story leads off with a brilliant first page design using typography and iconic symbols to draw you into the story as both a reader and a sleuth… it’s impossible to look at this page and NOT read it.
One of the faithful followers of this blog (who has a fascinating blog of his own which just published newly discovered underground sex art by Superman artist and co-creator Joe Shuster ) has made me aware that Cole’s post-war stories often explore the dynamics of mob mentality, and the individual against collective society. In this story, a man commits an antisocial act – murder – which isolates him from his fellow human beings. For reasons unknown, however, James Kent is already isolated and cut out of the pack before he murders:
Cole’s brilliance as a graphic storyteller shines through in this panel. There are 10 people shown in this one panel alone. They are organized into two groups (the Greek chorus in the bar and the rich dude and his sluts), and two individuals who stand as polar opposites: the law and the crook. The organization of these ten people, and the accompanying brilliant dialogue shows us (instead of telling, which would be boring) very clearly that James Kent is already ostracized from society by his poverty mentality and self-victimizing anger.
Part of the charm of Cole’s work was his ability to mix “bigfoot” cartooning with more “realistic” styles. In the panel above, the steam coming out from under Kent’s hat is a cartoony effect in an otherwise naturalistic drawing. This panel is also wonderful for the “Greek chorus” of barflies. Their dialogue (written by Cole) is terrific: “Oh boy! Free fuel!” Wonderful stuff. This aspect of the story is very similar to the rich, Saroyan-like characters that inhabit the bar in Cole’s Angles O’Day stories.
Of course, if it’s a Jack Cole story, then it’s almost always gonna have a sexy woman in it. In this, we get Sadie, a golddigger who later seems to redeem herself by astutely catching on to Kent’s scheme to unknowingly use her for an alibi. Cole’s depiction of Sadie has a vivid and disturbing quality to it, as though her callous and cruel treatment of Kent is somehow to blame for his crimes… because a man’s heart can only stand so much.
Much like Biro did in his crime comics, Cole uses a moralistic narrator. In this case, a cop, who allows us to vicariously experience the thrill of the crime and still feel insulated and ‘safe” from it. In the above tier of panels, note how Cole masterfully uses the 3 speech balloon tails to emphasize the reach of the “long arm” of the law. Also, note that in this sequence, the policeman’s dialogue transforms from reserved, scalloped-edged thought balloons to jagged-edged shouting speech balloons. That last balloon looks like a whirling buzz saw!
By the story’s end, even though he has escaped from prison, Kent has not escaped justice… because his own conscience and isolation from the world has become a living hell for him. By the end of the story, he cannot escape the eyes of society (and of God?):
Like every great artist, Cole used certain themes and elements over and over, perhaps unconsciously. About four years earlier, Jack Cole wrote and drew one of his best (and most disturbing) comic book stories, which appeared in Police Comics #22 (Sept. 1943). It used the theme of eyes in an intriguingly different way. It was titled, appropriately enough, “The Eyes Have It.” Notice the similar use of eyes in the amazing splash from that story:
In fact, Cole makes the sweet eyes of a child (affectionately nicknamed Bright Eyes) the centerpiece of his Plastic Man story. The story has been reprinted in Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd’s (sadly out of print) great book on Jack Cole and his work, Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits. However, if you’ve never read this amazing Plastic Man story, one of Cole’s very best, then fasten your seat belt, and read on:
In both “The Eyes Have It” (1943) and “James Kent” (1947), eyes are used as symbol of how justice is achieved by shining the light of day on horrible secrets.
The 1947 James Kent story concludes with the words: “Eyes, eyes everywhere!” and the 1943 Plastic Man story concludes with the words: “Those eyes!” In one case, the eyes are revealing the truth about a murderer, and in another case,the eyes reveal the strength and courage of a sweet spirit.
In the 1943, the terrible secret involves heart-wrenching child abuse (a motif that crops up elsewhere in Cole’s work), and in the 1947 story a man is hiding the fact that he is a murderer and an escaped convict. Both stories hint at even deeper secrets. We don’t know why “The Sphinx” chooses to abuse his child. Indeed, his very name suggest an ancient secret., And, in the case of James Kent, we don’t know what earlier in his life history led him to the miserable, isolated state we find him in when the story begins. Is perhaps James Kent, “Bright Eyes” as an adult in the “real” world?
In any case, Cole’s work certainly embraced some dark aspects of the human psyche. While it’s obvious that Cole, who took his own life in 1958 for unknown reasons, must have had a secret or two of his own tucked away that will likely never be revealed, it’s no mystery that Cole was drawn to and fascinated by crime stories, inventing two ambitious crime series at the dawn of his career, years before the form took root. It could be argued that many of the stories in his famous super-hero series, Plastic Man, were as much dark crime stories as they were heroic journeys.
Cole only created one more true crime comic book story after the two issues of True Crime Comics, a 10-page story about a rabid murderer in a bizarre, pseudo-modern modern West populated by cows and Cadillacs, (possibly an outtake from the True Crime series), which appeared in 1948, in Western Killers #61 (Fox).
Much like his take on the horror genre, with his mid-fifties Web of Evil stories, Jack Cole invested his crime comic book stories with a psychological bent, putting them years ahead of their time.
All text Copyright 2010 Paul Tumey