In March, 1941 Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had the great idea of drawing Captain America punching out Hitler for the cover of Captain America #1. Suddenly, American comic books were relevant.
What they lacked in sophistication, they more than made up for in sheer graphic oomph and patriotic fervor.
Knowing that Hitler and the wartime effort were huge circulation builders, America's comic book publishers rarely missed a chance to direct their super (and non-super) heroes into the fray. From 1941 to 1945, deliberately vicious, almost non-human caricatures of Germans and Japanese people populated hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of American comic books. The altered collage-style comic book cover by Bob Wood (signed) that opens this posting is from Lev Gleason's Daredevil #1 (not by Cole, although it appears that some figures from his stories might have been pasted onto or copied into the cover), one the classic iconic anti-Hitler comics.
Because of their connections to Europe, many of the comic book makers of 1941 were a little ahead of the curve as far as American involvement in stopping Hitler. That first spectacular Hitler punch-out cover of Captain America #1 came out nine months before America entered the War.
Even though he had no European connections, Jack Cole, a Methodist from Pennsylvania, was among the many American cartoonists who created anti-Hitler comics months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Caught in the wake of World War two, even a non-political person would have been galvanized into opinions and action.
Cole was one of the few healthy American cartoonists to escape the draft. One of his brothers, Bob Cole, was in the Coast Guard during WWII, though, as this newspaper clipping shows:
In an interview in Alter Ego #12, Quality editor and Cole's friend and neighbor, Gill Fox states that Cole was not political. Although he may not have discussed politics with his colleagues, Cole clearly had political opinions and social awareness. In a 1940 Mantoka story, Cole writes:
"Our American Indians, during the early days of the United States were robbed of land, possessions and homes by white man's treachery."
The villain of this story is an exploitative mine owner. Keep in mind that Cole was born and raised in a mining town.
Cole's political views were simplistic but heartfelt, based more on a humanistic view of life than a political view. Any reader familiar with his stories knows that he was an idealist. He was not afraid to paint the worst -- and best -- of people.
Cole was a man who raised himself up through the American system by his own talent and toil, and so he knew first-hand the meaning and promise of human potential. He clearly believed in the American system. Where New York born cartoonists like Simon and Kirby, and Will Eisner depicted slums and urban decay, Cole's cities looked like nice places to live, even if they were populated by bizarre criminals.
Despite his humanistic streak, and sympathetic views of the downtrodden, Cole's portrayals of Nazis and Japanese people are virulently racist. No more so than anybody else's of the time, however. In fact, his first treatments of Hitler and the Nazis are fairly light. We can look at Cole's treatments of Hitler, including some rare and previously unknown material for Lev Gleason's slick magazines, and see an evolution in his treatment of Hitler from harmless to heinous.
The first appearance of Hitler in Cole's work was in Silver Streak #2 (July, 1941), in "The Claw Double Crosses Hitler." In this story, Hitler has a two-panel appearance and is almost an object of sympathy, as absolutely evil Claw forces him into a pact:
In this story, Hitler is drawn almost heroically. More than likely, Cole's intent was not to exonerate a dictator, but rather to just make The Claw seem as evil as possible. No doubt Cole, like most of the world, had no idea he was playing with fire. Even the great Charlie Chaplin said later that he would not have made "The Great Dictator," if he had known the depths of the Hitler and Nazi Germany's horrible madness.
About 6 months later, Cole write and draws a story called "War Over Iceland!," in which a comically nutty Nazi commander uses Doc Wackey's crazy invention, the "atom-reversing machine," to turn people into candy. He then licks the frozen, candied humans and delights in their taste. Cole plays it more for laughs than horror, but his story shows he beginning to sense the evil horror in the world. The Nazi's invasion of Iceland, of course, echos the real life invasion into Poland.
Another six months pass, and in June 1942 (Police Comics #9), Cole portrays Hitler and the Nazis as being behind the crazy villain, "Hairy Arms." As Eel O'Brian, Plastic Man leads a gang of criminals into resistance against the Nazis, echoing the 1941 Warner Brothers vehicle starring Humphrey Bogart, "All Through the Night." In one of Cole's typically witty moments during this period, he has a crook yell out, "Nobody can take away our right to free speech and free cash!"
The gloves begin to come off in the next issue of Police Comics. Here's How Cole draws Hitler:
This drooling, despising, demonic portrayal from Police Comics #10 (July, 1942) is part of a spectacular Plastic Man splash page that functions as stand-alone editorial cartoon about the power-crazed Axis machine:
However, this sort of drawing was not unusual in American comic book at the time. Consider this splash page from Quality's Smash #43:
The magazine was one of several mainstream "slick" style publications published by Lev Gleason, the publisher of Charles' Biro's comic book Crime Does Not Pay. Gleason also hired Jack Cole in late 1939 to edit his comic book, Silver Streak (named after his new car), where Cole created The Claw, Sliver Streak, Daredevil, The Pirate Prince, and Dickie Dean - Boy Inventor.
By the time of Picture Scoop's publication, Jack Cole had left Lev Gleason, worked briefly for MLJ (Archie) and then moved over to Quality Comics. It's an interesting revelation in itself to see evidence that Cole still dabbled in freelance work during his years in the comic book industry.
Many thanks to the sharp-eyed Darwination at Digital Comics Museum (and be sure to visit his Darwination Scans blog ) who discovered these amazing cartoons, one of which is signed by Cole:
In these lively cartoons, Jack Cole has returned to using wash techniques, as he did with his Boy's Life cartoons, although his technique (and drawing) has improved greatly. About 10 years later, he would publish numerous artful wash cartoons for the Abe Goodman Humorama magazines, among others.
Comics historian and publisher Greg Theakston has meticulously restored hundreds of Jack Cole drawings, and he made the observation, "the guy loved patterns." As has been previously pointed out many times in this blog, Cole used patterns as an art element time and again. Here, in these cartoons, we have the Swastika-patterned wallpaper. Just as the polka dots on Woozy Winks' green blouse catch and direct the eye, so do the patterns in these cartoons. These were illustrations for an article on how comedians were deflating Hitler. Here's the article:
I don't know about you, but for my money, Cole's cartoons are much more entertaining than the comedian's jokes, even the great Danny Kaye's!
Also in October, 1942, Cole's hero Midnight, goes to Hell and rallies the "inmates" there to go back to Earth and conquer the Nazis. Very similar to the Plastic Man story from Police Comics #9. It is clear now that Cole, like most of America, has accepted the necessity of fighting Germany and Japan.
Here's a Jack Cole one-pager from about a year later, in August of 1943, from Police Comics #21. Here, the emphasis is on the people who will lead us OUT of this mess, instead of the evil madman who created it.
There are numerous Jack Cole stories during the early 40's where his characters fight the Germans and Japanese, particularly his Death Patrol and Private Dogtag stories.
In 1944, another Lev Gleason magazine appears, interestingly called True Drime Detective, foreshadowing Cole's 1947 True Crime Comics. As an aside, one wonders: could Jack Cole have designed that logo? Comics scholar Frank Young points out the top part of the logo is well done, but the bottom "Detective" part is sloppy and looks as if another -- lesser skilled -- artist added it on. Perhaps the magazine was going to be called "True Crime," but they added 'Detective" at the last minute, for some reason. In any case, the top part of the logo looks a little Cole-like to me, but we may never know for sure.
You can pick up a scan of the complete True Crime Detective Vol1#1 at the Darwination Scans blog (which has many other terrific items of interest). The back cover of this issue has a terrific lurid ad featuring Hitler that looks as if it could possibly be illustrated by Jack Cole.
I'd love to hear from readers and fellow Jack Cole fans as to whether this ad appears to them to be drawn by Jack Cole.
These are just some of the instances of Jack Cole battling Hitler. Cole was by means a standout patriot in his anti-Hitler/Nazi/Japan propaganda, but he didn't remain silent, either. His comic book stories are filled with moral outage, so it's no surprise that Cole -- a generally non-political person -- would be moved to speak out against the madness that infected the world at the time.
After the war, Cole's work is less obviously topical, but it still kept in pace with the times. As America slid into the repressed, nightmarish, anxiety-ridden age of the Cold War and The Bomb, Cole's work -- like many comics and other vernacular artforms -- was a dark reflection of these changes.
My colleague, Frank Young (see his great blog on John Stanley here) and I have an article in Alter Ego #105, which has just been published. It's an examination of a bizarre Nazi horror story that was published before the Comics Code, and then re-published after the Code, with some absurd changes made to it. Many thanks to editor Roy Thomas and his team for doing such a great presentation and for using much of our original copy, untouched, which first appeared on our Comic Book Attic blog. The issue is a fascinating look at the effect of the Comics Code, and includes some eye-opening examples from Plastic Man, among others. The digital version is only $2.95, and you can download it instantly. Click on the image below to order!
All text copyright 2011 Paul Tumey