Lipstick Traces: Plastic Man in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow

Published in 1973, Thomas Pynchon's massive novel is widely regarded to be one of the greatest works of 20th century literature. Time Magazine included it in its list of "All-Time Greatest Novels." The book is considered to be a landmark work of what is known as "postmodernist" fiction. It plays with the literary novel form itself, much like Jack Cole's comics played with the form of comics. So, it's no surprise to discover that Cole's Plastic Man pops up here and there in Gravity's Rainbow.

In the edition I have, the Plastic Man references show up in four places, on pages 207, 214, 331, and 751. Here's the first reference, which shows that Pynchon has a fine appreciation of the spirit of Cole's character:



It's interesting, though, to note that Pynchon refers to the character as "Plasticman," condensing the true name of Jack Cole's character, "Plastic Man," into one word. Perhaps this was a strategy to avoid to a copyright lawsuit. The next reference is brief, but once again very much captures the spirit and trappings of Cole's work:




Indeed, Plastic Man, where are you when we need you? A few pages later, Pynchon refers to a "Plasticman sound," which also shows an intuitive grasp of Cole's use of sound effects.


In the last reference, Plastic Man is joined by other golden age superheroes, plus Philip Marlowe, the Lone Ranger and... well... see for yourself:


In late 1971, DC published DC Special #15, a terrific reprint of Jack Cole Plastic man stories. This was my first introduction to Cole's work, and may have been an influence on Pynchon during the writing of Gravity's Rainbow, which was first published in 1973.




The Evolution of the Cole Female: Jack Cole's Early Magazine Cartoons 1938-45

Jack Cole fans know the story about how he left Plastic Man and comic books in 1954 adroitly stretching into a successful new career as Playboy magazine's first signature cartoonist. 


Despite appearances, Jack Cole's mastery of magazine cartoons - a vastly different form than the multi-page comic book story that Cole spent 16 years developing -- did not happen overnight. In fact Cole started out as a magazine cartoonist and continued to sell cartoons to various publications from 1938-45, while he was also developing a career in comic books.

Here's a look at a few of those early magazine cartoons, the result of hours of digging. Many thanks to Ger Apeldoorn, who found four of these rare items and first published them on his Fabulous Fifties blog.



In a 1956 Freelancer article (the first page of which is shown above), Jack Cole wrote about his early efforts as a magazine cartoonist:


"Here a buck -- there a buck --- I tried style after style until I finally sold one cartoon to Gurney Williams, then at Collier's Magazine."


The Freelancer article reprints that cartoon, but without the tagline. After much digging, I've finally located Jack Cole's first sale to Collier's Weekly! Here's the page it appeared on:

Collier's Magazine - August 27, 1938
Jack Cole's first cartoon sale to Collier's
 And here's the cartoon:

Collier's Magazine - August 27, 1938
Jack Cole's first cartoon sale to Collier's

It's important to note that, while this was a big event for Jack, it was not his first sale. By this time, he had already sold over a dozen cartoons to Boy's Life magazine. See my article on Jack Cole's Boy's Life cartoons for nearly 2 dozen delightful early works by the master!

During the 1940s, Gurney Williams -- the cartoon editor that Cole mentioned in his Freelancer article -- was the cartoon editor for Collier's, American Magazine and Woman's Home Companion, paying $40 to $150 for each cartoon. From a staggering stack of some 2000 submissions each week, Williams made a weekly selection of 30 to 50 cartoons, lamenting


"The ot
her day I found myself staring at the millionth cartoon submitted to me since I became humor editor here. I wish it could have been fresh and original. Instead, it showed several ostriches with their heads buried in the sand. Two others stood nearby. Said one to the other: 'Where is everybody?' "  (Time Magazine, August 12, 1946)


A sale to Collier's in 1938 was an auspicious start for any new cartoonist, including Jack Cole. At the time, Gurney Williams was publishing cartoons by such greats as Otto Soglow:

Collier's - Jan 8, 1938 - Otto Soglow


William Steig:

Collier's - Feb 4, 1939 - William Steig


And Charles Addams:

Colliers - June 10, 1939 - Charles Addams

Cole's first sale to Collier's is drawn in a completely different style than his Plastic Man and Playboy work.





It's a loose, fragmented, agitated brush style. The eyeballs of the characters are black raisins. His first Collier's cartoon has an air of freshness about it that went beyond the visual style itself. The joke is genuinely funny and character-driven.  We feel that we know this sweet, old-fashioned dowager personally and find it amusing that she thinks an airmail letter is an adventure. 


It's interesting to note that the man who would become the creator of some of the sexiest cartoons for men's magazines ever drawn started out with a charmingly innocent cartoon featuring an elderly spinster.


It's also worthwhile to note the details Cole has stuffed into this small, narrow cartoon: the silhouette portraits on the wall that bespeak of a graceful time of the past, the antique grandfather clock, and especially the adorable cat blending into the rug at bottom left -- very similar to one Plastic Man's first tricks:

Police Comics #1, August 1941

Another golden age comic artist, Hal Sherman (known for his early 40s work at DC on Dr. Fate), also had a sale to Collier's around the same time, indicating that the twin trajectories of Jack Cole's careers in magazine cartoons and comic books was not totally unique:


Collier's - March 11, 1939 - Hal Sherman



I've scoured the pages of Collier's Weekly from 1938-1940, and turned up just one more Jack Cole cartoon - one that has been "lost," until now:

Collier's - May 20, 1939 - Jack Cole
Note this cartoon is in the exact same modernistic bush style as Cole's first Collier's sale. Here we have a man, a woman, and a toaster. The woman resembles nothing of the sexy "estrogen souffles" that Cole would become famous creating for Playboy and Humorama (as "Jake"). There is nothing sexy about this woman at all, but it may not be for lack of trying. The decorative hat and veil suggest feminine energy, and foreshadow the filigree touches Cole would use in his Jake and Playboy cartoons. In fact, she seems to be wearing the same old-fashioned clothes as the spinster in the earlier cartoon!

 Evidently - and rightfully so -- Cole thought toasters were funny. he created another toaster joke in 1955:

Mirth, 1955 - Jack Cole

Jumping back in time a little, here's another cartoon sale Jack made in 1938, this time to Judge -- another one of those "buck here, buck there" events:

Note the different signature, which is closer to Cole's Boy's Life cartoons of the period. The art style is a less aggressive version of the loose brushwork. The gag is solid, and... what's this? A nurse? yes, a nurse that once again is nothing close to the sexy nurses and women Jack Cole would later turn out like a man possessed, such as in this 1944 comic book story:

Military Comics 30 - July, 1944 - Jack Cole

Jack Cole was considerably more innocent in his younger years and earlier cartoons. His drawing abilities were evolving rapidly, with uneven results. He leaned toward a goofy, screwball sense of humor in his work, such as in this unidentified delightful Rube-Goldberg-style lunch counter scene:


Or in this pair of cartoons from a 1942 issue of the over-sized Gags magazine, which appear to be chopped up to make room for blocks of copy:



Gags Magazine, 1942 - Jack Cole



Gags Magazine, 1942 - Jack Cole

Even as late as 1945, while he was a master in comic books, Cole was still struggling to master the gag cartoon -- especially the sexually loaded cartoon, as in this example from Judge, which -- oddly -- has the same left-leaning pose as the dental cartoon above!

Judge - December, 1945 - Jack Cole
This may have been Cole's first published wash cartoon. By now, some 7 years after the non-sexy Collier's and Judge cartoons of 1938, Cole has developed a desire to depict sexy women in his work. Yet, he hasn't quite got it. This drawing is too labored over and wooden to be appealing. It contains only hints of the greatness to come. Compare the 1945 Judge cartoon above with this masterful wash composition from sometime in the early 1950's:

Jack Cole 'Jake" cartoon reprinted in 1962 Humorama publication

It's interesting to me, though, to note that Cole hasn't thrown away his desire to draw little swirly filigree abstract designs to suggest sexual excitement and feminine energy, in the same spirit as the woman's veil in his 1939 Collier's cartoon:


It's the same idea we find in the mouth-watering Humorama cartoon above, just done about a thousand times better.

++++

Jack Cole In The News:

Silver Streak 6 on the Auction Block

A key Jack Cole comic is at auction on Ebay. Currently, the bid is $1,000.00. The auction ends Feb 12, 201211:15:10 PST.
http://www.ebay.com/itm/Silver-Streak-6-Classic-Jack-Cole-cover-Origin-Daredevil-Claw-returns-/160730014101


UPDATE: The book sold for $1,447 sheckles!

All text copyright 2012 Paul Tumey



SCREWBALL! A New Tumey Blog!

Announcing: The Masters of SCREWBALL Comics - a new blog by Paul Tumey!


My study of Jack Cole's work and exploration of what I like about it has led me to a parallel exploration of the sub-genre of old comics known as "screwball comics." Cole started out zealously creating wacky SCREWBALL comics and it informed much of his work in the years to follow, including his Plastic Man stories.



My interest in SCREWBALL comics has become so keen that I've decided to start a new blog. Just as with Cole's Comics, I hope that maybe this new blog will help me develop some genuine scholarship and critical structures that will lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of this fascinating form of comics.

But mainly I hope it leads to getting some publisher to pay me money to make them a book! Gawrsh!

Here's a taste of what you'll find there:

The Squirrel Cage by Gene(eeyus) Ahern, 1945

Anyway, I thought the readers of Cole's Comics might like to know about this new blog of mine. You can visit it at www.screwballcomics.blogspot.com. Thanks in advance for visiting, and please let me know what you think!

- Paul Tumey


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