Nov 12, 2009

Machines of Death and Betrayal: A Nightmarish Comic Book World of Lies and No Redemption

Story presented this post:
The Man Who Died Twice
Story and pencils by Jack Cole
Inker unknown
Web of Evil #5 (July, 1953 – Quality Comics)

Note: For more on Jack Cole’s Web of Evil stories, his dark and strange last comic book stories, see my previous posting here.

This clever and disturbing story reads like an inky black film noir story turned inside out.

Or, perhaps more accurately, like a particularly morbid Alfred Hitchcock film. This is a story that David Mamet, the modern-day Hitchcock, could have written and directed. Cole devilishly plays with our expectations. Inserted into a comic book series filled with supernatural horror stories, and appearing on the stands among numerous other comic books that laid out straight horror stories, Cole tricks us into believing that we are reading a supernatural, back-from-the-death horror story.

Starting with Cole’s memorable cover, in which a man grotesquely laughs while strapped into an electric chair, we are both drawn in and duped.

Comic book cover showing death row prisoner being executed in electric chair in Web of Evil 5.

Cole’s story, which as the lead spot in this issue, begins with a ludicrous – but nonetheless compelling -- splash page that in no way reflects the reality of the narrative, as the condemned prisoner, Les Paley, appears to be springing from the electric chair, revitalized by the surges of energy through his body. In the narrative (also false), Paley appears to be executed without incident – certainly there is no bounding up from the chair. Thus, before the plot begins, Cole has primed us for a set of events that actually never transpire. By the time we realize this, he has pulled off the virtuoso feat of delivering something even more engrossing than a man openly defying execution.

Rare back issue comic book page showing prisoner escaping from death row electric chair. Old comic book cartoon drawingsof businessmen shooting guns in Web of Evil 5. Rare old back issue comic book page showing arrest and trial of man in 1953 wearing green suit. Back issue comic book page showing a prinsoner executed in an electric chair in Web of Evil 5. Vintage back issue rare comic page showing a hearse. Baci issue comic book page shows a man with a shaved head Rare vintage back issue comic book page showing a hit and run accident. Old rare back issue comic book page shows a man in a prison uniform in the rain. Rare vintage back issue comic book page showing a man strangling a woman and another man in the 1953 Quality Comics magazine Web of Evil.

Cole’s writing is particularly vivid in this story, as in the narration for the scene of Paley’s execution:

A human body strains as the lightning of legal vengeance smashes through its tissues.”

Cole is not merely being prosaic; his intensity helps to convince us that an execution is actually happening.

A rare back issue comic book page showing an electric chair execution cartoon

In literature and cinema, we find the concept of the unreliable narrator. That is, the person telling the story is lying, for their own purposes. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950 film, STAGE FRIGHT (which Cole may well have seen), the story famously begins with a long flashback sequence in which a woman appears to have committed murder, and a man appears to be seduced into covering up the killing to protect her. It is not until the final minutes of the film that we learn the shocking truth that what we thought was the story turns out to be a deception aimed at both characters within the story, and the viewers. Here, in “The Man Who Died Twice,” Jack Cole reaches new heights of sophistication by seamlessly integrating an unreliable narrator into a linear graphic narrative.

It is not until the last two pages of the 9-page story that we learn the execution was staged to fool both the people watching AND the man being executed. Up until this point, the story plays like a supernatural horror story. Part of the genius of this story lies in that Cole’s ability to convince us a man could actually believe he had died and came back to life.

cartoon-drawng-man-with-sha After Paley’s “resurrection,” rays of heavenly light (also present in his trail scene) stream down on him, suggesting both an unearthly presence, and Paley’s own interior state of mind. His head, shorn for the metal helmet of the electric chair, makes him look saintly, as one who has renounced the pleasures of the physical world.

The rays come from the funeral director LeMort’s machine which supposedly brought Paley back from the dead and is keeping him alive. Thus, LeMort assumes godlike proportions, with the power to bestow life and to take it away with the flip of a switch. Of course, the resurrection machine is phoney, one of the rare instances in Jack Cole’s work when a crazy invention is a deception instead of the real thing – a sure sign that Cole was undergoing a personal transition tinged with disillusionment.

But Paley’s spiritual redemption is short-lived. “You… you did this for me?” Paley says to Cora, the woman who professes to love him. After a scant few panels, Cora has convinced Paley he must do as the funeral director, Le Mort (translates as “The Dead”) bids him: murder three people.

cartoon-of-man-hit-by-car As he stumbles out to perform his terrible task, fate intervenes, and Paley runs into the path of a speeding car, which hits him and then speeds away (wheels within wheels: we get a momentary glimpse of the drama of the people in the car as the driver is commanded by a passenger to leave the accident since no one saw… another incident of a person being victimized and torn down by their involvement with someone less moral).

After being hit, in a spectacular panel in which his body is contorted like Plastic Man’s, Paley wonders if he is dead or alive. He rushes to the home of the doctor he was planning to kill minutes earlier, but now to ask for help. In an instant, the situation has changed, and just as quickly, it evolves again into something else when the doctor cowers at the sight of Paley and confesses his involvement in faking Paley’s death. The story is staggering and whirling like Paley’s body when it was grazed by the hit-and-run driver. It is a tribute to Cole’s mastery as a graphic storyteller that we are never lost in this convoluted narrative.

Now Paley knows the truth: he is alive, and his beloved Cora is only using him. Driven by cold rage, he exacts his revenge despite being shot nine times by LeMort.

man-and-policeman-faces-car The story, which began as a horror story, seemingly ends as one when the authorities in the last panel are stunned to realize that somehow Paley managed to kill Cora and Le Mort 24 hours after he was executed. While some of the characters in the story continue to be fooled by the brilliant deception, we the reader have come through the mirror, and know the truth. This is a story on a spit; it turns and turns on itself until finally the depths the characters sink to are far more disturbing than hoary supernatural phenomena.

Cole did not call this “The Man Who Came Back From The Dead.” Even though we were fooled, Cole gave us the ending from the start with the fatalistic noir title: “The Man Who Died Twice.” The title works on several levels, since Paley loses all faith and hope when he learns of his betrayal by the woman he loves and his spirit does truly die.

Was this a prefiguring of events that were, or would transpire in Cole’s life? It has been speculated, but never established, that infidelity may have been part of Cole’s reason for taking his own life. © 2009 Paul Tumey


  1. Such a gasping story, Paul! Strange and beautiful like Death! Thanks for bringing it out to us.
    I got surprised by the lyric contents in this Cole's text. There's some parts that seem to acquire an special importance taking the tragic Cole's death into consideration. Mostly when in page one you can read "Then the blackness of night to erase the horror". Reading "Night" as "Death" and "Horror" as "Life", this line could make the Jack Cole reader shiver.
    Later on page 3 the storyteller says "And then, it was night... the last black night before death's dawn". And this sounds really shocking!
    Death throughout the story appears as a liberation, IMHO. And when you realize Cole's describing a horrible world populated by awful people (even the driver and co-driver when knock down Less), this sense takes greatest shape-
    I know this is clearly tendentious as far as I'm concerned, but I think Cole's falling slowly in the myth field and that makes this kind of interpretations easier.
    Anyway, there's a lot of gems hidden here and there in this story! I have a feeling that I could talk about it for hours :) It's a shame English isn't my language!
    (By the way, I hope you know excuse the mistakes I've made here).

  2. Thank you for your insightful comments, Gabriel. The view of death as liberation in this story escaped me until you pointed it out. I agree with you. Art Spiegelman wrote that Cole's last comics work -- his strip "Betsy and Me" -- reads like a suicide note written in installments! Your English is great, by the way!


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