Midnight Episode 4 (second run): Slipping Out of the Superhero Genre

 

Smash Comics 71-01

Story this post:

The Old Lighthouse Keeper
Story and art by Jack Cole
(Possible assist by Alex Kotzky)

Smash Comics #71
June, 1947
Quality Comics

Left: cover by Jack Cole

 

The first Midnight stories in 1941-42 by Jack Cole were imbued with the trappings of the super-hero genre. Much like Batman (and unlike The Spirit, his intended template), Midnight swung from building to building, used fantastic weapons, and seemed to have at least above average punching power.

In Jack Cole’s second run on the series, starting in 1947, his Midnight was less a super-hero than a quasi private detective. The vacuum gun and other great weapons went the way of the dodo.

In “The Old Lighthouse Keeper,” we see Cole putting considerable effort into a densely plotted, Agatha Christie style murder story set in a lighthouse. Much like the twisted stairs leading to the blazing lamp at the top of the lighthouse, Cole’s story takes many turns as Midnight eventually shines the light of truth on the mystery.

This story foreshadows the turn hero comics would take into genre stories. Cole himself would be delivering moody, atmospheric horror-mysteries very similar to this 1947 story in 1952-54. This story’s biggest flaw is that it is too tame… too restrained. In 1949-52, Cole would take a huge leap by creating stories in this form that embrace the Dark Weird as only Cole could.

Page 7 deserves particular attention, with a Herriman-like page layout and unique use of sound effects as art elements.

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Woozy Winks: Four Stories From 1952– Fire, Water, Girls and Suicide

woozy winks and beautiful babe in swimsuit Many issues of the Plastic Man title ran short 4-7 page Woozy Winks stories. Jack Cole appears to have written and drawn about half of these stories, the rest being created by other artists including Bart Tumey, Bill Ward, and Alex Kotzky.

Here’s a quivering quartet of 4-page Woozy stories that display flashes of the genius of Jack Cole.

Overall, the Woozy stories work as lighter fare in the Plastic Man books. Many of the stories have 3 tiers instead of 4, making them breezier. The writing is less complex and bizarre than the Jack Cole PLASTIC MAN stories in the same books. However, even in a light-hearted back-up filler story, Jack Cole could not keep his personal darkness at bay.

Plastic Man #34 (March 1952)

In 1952, Jack Cole changed his art style. Like many comic book artists of that time, Cole moved from a cartoony, screwball style to a more realistic and sober visual approach. This is especially evident in his Angles O’Day stories.

You can see that style in these stories, as well. Cole has a new way of drawing faces and bodies that represents a sort of toned-down caricature style.

Check out the corkscrew-tailed balloon in the splash panel – a sure “tell” that the story comes from the constantly inventive mind of Jack Cole.

Many of the Woozy stories featured Jack Cole babes, usually lusted after and chased relentlessly by the little fat man. In this story, Cole gives Woozy a girlfriend for this one story, but she is as goofy-looking as Woozy!

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Plastic Man #35 (May 1952)

From his earliest days in comics, Jack Cole loved to draw water and fire. The third panel on page one, with the erupting, orgasmic geyser is an image Cole drew over and over in his work, usually as eruption volcanoes or spewing flasks. As are the gracefully waving flames. The middle tier on page two is a particularly great sequence, and contains another “eruption” image.

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Plastic Man #37 (Sept 1952)

Girls, girls, girls! And water again. Cole also loved textile patterns. Woozy’s striped, comically old-fashioned swimsuit works the same visual magic as the prison-striped uniforms of Cole’s early 1940’s Death Patrol stories. But most of all, Woozy in this story resembles Cole’s other great super-hero satire: Burp the Twerp. Check out how Cole letters the word “darrrrling” in the splash panel speech balloon, with shrinking R’s. Wow.  Always growing, Cole began to capture dialects and expressive intonations by varying the size, boldness, and slant of letters in his dialogue ballons.

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Plastic Man 37-17

 

Plastic Man #38 (November 1952)

 This 4-page wonder presents us with yet another comically attempted suicide, a device that Cole – who killed himself in 1958 – disturbingly worked into a great many of his comic book stories. In this story, Woozy suffers extreme mood swings and has to find a reason to live. The script almost works as a philosophical search by the author to find an argument for continuing or ending one’s own existence. Did I say the Woozy stories are fun to read? Gulp!

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Dan Tootin 1941-46: A Selection of Jack Cole’s Madcap Masterpiece

hit12 A liquid that can make a mountain out of a mole hill. A chemist that can jump into a microscope and battle germs. A spaceship made from a giant loaf of bread. These are just a few of the astonishing imaginative leaps Jack Cole took in his unknown series of one-pagers featuring DAN TOOTIN – THE MADCAP CHEMIST.

Of the five one-page series Jack Cole wrote and drew in the 1940’s, DAN TOOTIN ( a play on the phrase “Darn Tootin” which means “you’re right.”) comes the closest to matching the brilliance of his most famous creation, PLASTIC MAN.

DAN TOOTIN is a pure Jack Cole creation. Cole inherited some of the one-pager series (such as WINDY BREEZE and SLAP HAPPY PAPPY) and was forced to work within the constraints of another artist’s basic premise. With DAN TOOTIN, Cole let loose and the result is a staggering stream of surreal bon bons.

Brilliant inventors regularly appear in Cole’s work from the early series DICKIE DEAN, BOY HOOD INVENTOR, to Doc Wackey in Midnight, to various characters in PLASTIC MAN, to “The Monster They Couldn’t Kill,” his very last comic book story. In DAN TOOTIN, Jack Cole immerses himself in the world of a magical chemist.

The series had its own visual flavor, often with sophisticated coloring and playful typography.

The series appeared in most issues of Hit Comics 9-46, as well as a few other places. Here is a selection of this remarkable series, presented in chronological order:

Hit Comics #9 (March 1941)
The first appearance in the series is already invested with great originality and creativity. Cole adds a small 5th tier to depict a hilarious Jeckyl and Hyde transformation. This page has the same energy of the first PLASTIC MAN story.

Dan Tootin Hit 9 Mar 41

Hit Comics #10 (April, 1941)
Most of the examples of this series I have are from low-quality micofiche scans. However, given the rarity of these brilliant pages, it seems worthwhile to publish them.

Dan Tootin Hit 10 April 41

 

Hit Comics #12 (June 1941)
In a word, WOW. Beautiful coloring (surely Cole colored this page), elegant visual gags (blank verse, indeed), lovely drawings, and a fantastic capper gag.

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Hit Comics #13 (July, 1941)
This page is fabulously lyrical with the conceit of escape into a giant loaf of bread. I’m reminded of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (which also resembles the amazing Cole story from Police Comics #10 in which a a criminal gang roams the world in a giant 8-ball).  “A world of your own made of bread. Hop on and sail away from this wicked earth.” At its best, Cole’s work operates on multiple levels of comedy and tragedy all at once.

Dan Tootin Hit 13 July 41

 

Hit Comics #16 (October 1941)

Check out that accordion-fold smash in panel 7, and the foreshortned foot in the last panel. Cole often drew the bottoms of shoes.

Dan Tootin Hit 16 Oct 41

 

Hit Comics #19 (Jan 1942)
Panel 7 made me laugh out loud.

Dan Tootin Hit 19 Jan 42

 

Hit Comics #20 (Feb 1942)

Dan Tootin Hit 20 Feb 42

 

Hit Comics #25 (Dec 1942)

Cole’s writing, always good, is particularly brilliant in this page. Not only does he use wild slang and outrageous puns, but he makes it rhyme, rivaling Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear. Cole is was most likely influenced by the greatest newspaper screwball strip of all time, SMOKEY STOVER (see my article on this connection here).

Dan Tootin Hit 25 Dec 42

 

Hit Comics #26 (Jan 1943)

Dan Tootin Hit 26 Jan 43

 

Hit Comics #27 (April 1943)
A rare early use in comics of the multiple-tailed speech balloon, a device that Little Lulu master John Stanley would use to great effect in his work.

Dan Tootin Hit 27 April 43

 

Hit Comics #29 (Sept 1943)
The last panel makes me think of Robert Crumb!

Dan Tootin Hit 29 Sept 43

 

Hit Comics #30 (Nov 1943)
The impossibly buck-toothed weeper is a patented Cole caricature that shows up in some of his PLASTIC MAN stories.

Dan Tootin Hit 30 Nov 43

 

Hit Comics #34 (Winter 1944)
One of numerous references to suicide that appear in Jack Cole’s comics. This page has an edge to it. Cole’s style has evolved, and so has the tone. 

Dan Tootin Hit 34 Winter 44

 

Hit Comics #37 (Autumn 1945)
This story, in which a character humorously comments on his own actions as he performs them is very Kurtzman-like.

Dan Tootin Hit 37 Autumn 45

 

Hit Comics #39

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Hit Comics #46 (May 1947)
The last Dan Tootin to appear in Hit Comics is a beauty in both layout and writing. Cole really sunk his, um, TEETH into this page.

Dan Tootin Hit 46 May 47

 

All Humor #15 (August 1949)
There may be others, but this is the only non-Hit Comics example of the series I have found. This story is a companion piece the Cole’s amazing PLASTIC MAN dream story from Police Comics #89 (April 1949)

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Slap Happy Pappy – A Selection

SHP_07_crack11 During the 1940's, Jack Cole created 400 to 500 one-page funny episodes that appeared in the pages of various Quality Comics titles. This is a major part of Cole's work in comics and deserves attention as such.

These one-pagers (on rare occasion, two-pagers) featured a handful of characters, some of which Cole invented and some of which others created and Cole later took over. In his great 1986 book, Focus on Jack Cole, comics historian and science fiction author Ron Goulart calls this material "out-and-out funny stuff," and I agree.

I once dismissed Cole's one-pagers as filler fluff, but a more systematic study of these has led to a sincere appreciation for this material. Jack Cole's one-pagers are usually very inventive graphically, extremely well-written, and downright funny.


I think Cole found probably found an outlet in these that partially satisfied his earliest yearnings to become a syndicated cartoonist. In a way, these monthly one-pagers functioned as a sort of regular comic strip. In fact, one could regard this work as a precursor to Jack Cole's 1950's syndicated comic strip, BETSY AND ME.

Aside from brief runs of Cuthbert, Fuzzy, and Poison Ivy, there were five main characters in Cole's stable of Quality Comics one-pagers:

  • Burp the Twerp (Police Comics)
  • Dan Tootin (Hit Comics)
  • Slap Happy Pappy (Crack Comics)
  • Windy Breeze (National Comics)
  • Wun Cloo (Smash Comics)

When you consider that Jack Cole wrote, drew, and lettered 5 one-pagers a month for most of a 6-year stretch from 1941 to 1947, it's almost as if Cole single-handedly created his own Sunday comics section every month!

And this was on top of monthly creating PLASTIC MAN and MIDNIGHT stories, the various back-up stories scattered all over the pages of Quality comics, and several covers!

Even though several of Cole’s early humor comics centered on hillbilly humor (such as Home In The Ozarks) , quality staffer and editor Gill Fox actually created the Slap Happy Pappy strip. Fox’s pages ran in Crack Comics 1-8. Here’s a selection of Gill Fox’s enjoyable pages, which shows off his precise line and clear writing style (it’s no wonder Quality publisher Busy Arnold made Fox editor):

Crack Comics # 1 (May 1940)

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Crack Comics 3 (July 1940)

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Crack Comics 6 (Oct 1940)

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Jack Cole’s first entry in the series shows him working closely from Gill Fox’s character designs, although Cole has injected his screwball, surreal humor into the strip. Note that Cole is using his pen name “Ralph Johns.”

Crack Comics 9 (Jan 1941)

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Crack Comics 11 (March 1941)

Fox’s character design is still in play, but Cole has begin to use his own wild page layouts and artful titling (a la Eisner’s SPIRIT splashes). It’s outrageous that Cole would design new title art for a ONE page strip. Amazing!

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Crack Comics 14 (July 1941)

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Crack Comics 22 (March 1942)

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Crack Comics 23 (April 1942)

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Crack Comics 26 (Nov 1942))

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Crack Comics 30 (August 1942)

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Crack Comics 36 (Winter 1944)

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Crack Comics 40 (Winter 1945)

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Crack Comics 41 (Spring 1946)

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Crack Comics 46 (Jan 1947)
A bizarre gag based on spousal abuse, with just gorgeous cartooning chops – the essence of Cole, weirdness mixed with virtuoso technique. This page was reprinted in Plastic Man #18 (July 1949)

Crack Comics 46-18

 

Crack Comics 47 (March 1947)
One of Cole’s last Slap Happy Pappy 1-pagers and it’ a doozey. Beautiful, crisp drawings,  satisfying dense page layout (check out that thin horizontal borderless second tier), and sexy girls.

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Plastic Man #17 (May 1949)
Very likely a reprint from some earlier, as yet undiscovered publication, or a page that was probably created in 1947 and unpublished until a slot was found in 1949. A fine example of Cole’s nested jokes technique in which puns are wrapped inside of a larger joke. In this page, the meta-gag is that Pappy mistakes his own ignorance for shrewdness!

Plastic Man 17-23

Note: I just discovered a new FUZZY one-pager at the end of the Clap Happy Pappy run! I’ve added it to the FUZZY posting, here.

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