Aug 30, 2009

The Playboy Years (1954-58)

Jack Cole's first cartoon for Playboy appeared in the 5th issue in 1954. After that, Cole had at least one cartoon or illustration (sometimes several) in every issue of Playboy until his death in 1958.

Topless blonde in red polka dot bikini sunbathes on beach in this Playboy cartoon
Just as so many of Jack Cole's comic book characters, including PLASTIC MAN are shapeshifters, so too was the artist in Jack Cole. Few people have ever gone so sucessfully from the medium of telling stories in the specific graphic form known as comic books to working as a painter of vivid, gorgeous single image gag cartoons.

When Cole was first accepted into the Playboy fold, publisher Hugh Hefner did not make the connection with his work as the creator of PLASTIC MAN, a comic book that Hefner -- a cartoonist himself -- had enjoyed and admired.

Sexy cartoon of drunk woman in see-through lingerie celebrating New Year with champagne
Cole's Playboy cartoons set the standard look and feel for the thousands of cartoons the magazine would subsequently publish. In the cartoon (reprinted below) in which a majorette owns up to marching in a parade minus her panties, we see the embryonic sexual innocent that Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder would create a few years later, in their Playboy LITTLE ANNIE FANNY stories, also elaborately painted.

Playboy cartoon showing man watching strip tease dance

Cole's work in his men's magazine cartoons extended his own artistic discussion of what Elvis Costello once called "The Mystery Dance," or the magic, mystery, and misery of sex. It is this investigation into sex as the fulcrum of innocence and corruption, virility and impotence that connects Jack Cole's comic book work and his adult magazine work. Some of the cartoons even wistfully present us with lost virility, a theme that arose in his late 40's work, and discussed elsewhere in this blog, here. One cannot help but wonder just how happy Jack Cole was with his own life, considering that he chose to end it after a short career of creating these images.

His Playboy cartoons are thus both beautiful to look at, and difficult to process. There is often a good, strong "gag" joke, but there is also more subtly present an E.C.-style "choke, gasp, good Lord," reaction as well.

Playboy cartoon of woman in see through wrap in bathroom drinking and smoking cigaretteIn several of the Playboy cartoons, one can easily recognize the "Cole woman" from his comic book stories. His women are both sexy and intimidating. They possess idealized soft, curvy, fertile bodies. And yet they either have a disarming innocence, or a shrewd, world-weary glint from behind their mascara-coated eyelashes. You cannot miss the Cole woman's face. It's mysteriously appealing and repelling at the same time. Here is yet another thing about Jack Cole's work that lifts it into greatness.

Original art, published in Playboy August 1957
Sold for $5,975.00 at a 2003 Christie's auction
Caption: Your wife? And all the while I thought it was TV!

Vintage rare classic old Playboy cartoon of man seducing woman in bed

Lastly, in some of Cole's Playboy cartoons, he includes tClassic Playboy cartoon drawing of artist painting clothes on beautiful sexy topless redhead female model.he artist, as well. In one memorable cartoon, a stunning, erotic nude model giggles when the artist presses his brush into her painted image. Without reading too much into it, it seems Cole was interested in what his role as an artist was in the midst of this unfolding of sexual liberation.

Below are 18 cartoons by Cole from a feature on Jack Cole's Playboy cartoons that ran in an unknown issue of Playboy.

Sexy Playboy cartoons by artist Jack Cole are shown in this rar eold magazine page
Sexy woman at beach, sexy drum majorette are shown in old Playboy cartoons
Beautiful sexy naked model and painter in vintage classic Playboy magazien cartoon
Classic cartoon of Uncle Sam having sex with Pocahontas in vintage Playboy magazine page
Sexy women in bra and panties are shown in rare vintage Playboy cartoons
Sexy women in harem in classic Playboy cartoon by Jack Cole

Aug 29, 2009

Burp The Twerp and Toon Treasury - Recent Books With Jack Cole Work

Editor's Note: For more kid's comics as can be found in THE TOON TREASURY, be sure to check out Cole's Comics follower Mykal Banta's The Big Blog of Kid's Comics!

We are living in the golden age of comic book reprints, my friends. Aside from digital versions of comics opening up entirely new areas of appreciation and study of old comics (such as this blog), many fine reprint books have been published in the last couple of years.

If you are in your mid-40's and grew up in the United States, then you'll probably get a little involuntary surge of excitement when I say: 100 Page Super Spectacular. These amazing wedges of mostly golden age reprints that DC Comics published in the 1970's were where I first got my interest in golden age comics. A stray Lou Fine BLACK CONDOR, an Eisner BLACKHAWK, and yes... even a Jack Cole PLASTIC MAN. Ah, those first heady exposures to the weird, wacky, great comics of the past!

For years, for decades since, we haven't had nearly enough reprints to satisfy those yearnings to read more and more of the great old comics. And then, all of sudden, we've got an absolute FLOOD of the stuff! Truth be told, the vast array of old comics follow the late author Theodore Sturgeon's law: all art is 90% crap and 10% great.

So the next step is not to just mechanically reprint, reprint, reprint... but to add something of value. To sift out extraordinary comic book stories and put them into a structure that says something about their inherent value and connection to similar story forms. To present the material on the printed page in a way that is both true to the original presentation, but also somehow enhances it. These, I would submit, are the goals of any good to great comic book reprint collection.

And that's precisely what Toon Treasury: Classic Children's Comics, the new book created by Art Spiegelman and Francois Mouly does. I cannot recommend this magnificent volume enough. It collects stand-out comic book stories into a framework that is both organic and illuminating.

Great stories by Carl Barks, John Stanley, the criminally underappreciated Sheldon Mayer, Walt Kelly, Basil Wolverton, Harvey Kurtzman, and George Carlson are woven into a continuum that leads you to more obscure, but just as enjoyable works such as INTELLECTUAL AMOS, FOX AND CROW, and GERALD McBOING BOING.

This thick tome weighs over 3 pounds and has 350 pages of comics. The retouching is excellent, preserving a sense of the original printed works, and yet enhancing the vitality of the images. The printing is some of the best I've seen in comic book reprint book and it's printed on non-glossy paper, to my everlasting appreciation. Reprinting artwork that was originally presented on porus, pulpy paper onto shiny, glossy pages is a tragic mis-representation and an extremely stupid artistic choice. Thankfully, some of the modern comic book reprints, including this one, use a soft, non-coated paper stock.

The Toon Treasury is a bargain at $40.00, but right now (late August, 2009), it is an incredible deal as it can be ordered on Amazon for only $26.40, and you get FREE shipping!

On a personal note, the book has my name (Paul Tumey) in the acknowledgements. My pal, Frank Young (Stanley Stories), served as one of the advisors to the book that Spiegelman wisely recruited. Here's how my name got in this project:

It all began when my parents in Louisiana passed on, about 3 years ago. My mom died from a lingering illness just after Thanksgiving and my father went from an unexpected heart attack the day after Christmas. So here I was, in early January 2006, sifting through my parents' possessions. They rented, and so I only had a couple of weeks to deal with their stuff.

Before it all got packed up, sold, thrown out, and mailed to my home in Seattle, I decided to spend one night there by myself, with everything as it was when my parents last were alive. It was a little creepy, as they had both passed on in the very room I was sleeping in. In my father's bedroom, I found a stack of old comic books by his bedside, mostly old issues of Little Lulu and Tubby.

I settled down on an air mattress on the floor, totally alone in the dead of a Lousiana night to read some of these comics that my mother had bought when she was a kid, in Ponchatula, Lousiana.

I came across an eerie, oddly poetic TUBBY story called "The Guest in The Ghost Hotel." In the story, Tubby is trapped in a pool of quicksand. When night falls, an old hotel rises up underneath Tubby, as it does every night. He finds himself on the roof of it, and he climbs down into the hotel through an open window. Inside, he encounters ghosts living in the rooms. He is relentlessly pursued by the proprietor, an angel of Death, to register and become a permenant resident. The whole story is a minor masterpiece, and totally unlike anything you'd expect to find in a funny kid's comic.

I shared this story, which was written and drawn by John Stanley, with my friend, Frank Young, and he was instrumental in it's inclusion in the Toon Treasury. In fact, the story was scanned from my own copy of Tubby #7, the very copy I found in my parent's apartment. My friend Frank Young also put this amazing story on his Stanley Stories blog, with some excellent critical comment here.

Aside from my own minor involvement, there is another reason I am mentioning the book in this blog, and that is it reprints Jack Cole! For the first time I know of, Cole's weird and wonderful BURP THE TWERP one-pagers see the light of day in a quality reprint book. There are only 3, but they are great ones, from Police Comics # 35, 38, and 46.

The beautiful thing about this book is that it will almost certainly turn a whole new generation on to the greatness of the form. I am so looking forward to receiving my contributor's copy (hint, hint Abrams!) and sharing it with my 9-year old son.

Another top-notch and highly recommended reprint book that has considerably more Jack Cole work in it is Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 by Greg Sadowski.

Like Toon Treasury, this book is a well-chosen, and superbly presented collection. In addition to great early work by Will Eisner, Basil Wolverton, Fred Guardineer (a personal favorite of mine), and Bill Everett, we get a great big helping of nicely reprinted early superhero stories by Jack Cole. With 36 of the book's 175 pages of reprints, Cole's work gets more attention than any other artist in the book. There is a great COMET story, an amazing SILVER STREAK story, and perhaps THE stand out story of Cole's early pre-Quality work: "The Claw Battles Daredevil."

Currently, this treasure sells for only $16.49 on Amazon.


Jack Cole's BURP THE TWERP was a fascinating character. A superhero himself, he was a parody of the formula, being a pudgy bald man, with a shaving brush mustache. Like PLASTIC MAN, Burp was able to alter his form, seemingly at will. He had an endless supply of startling super powers.

During his 12 or so years at Quality Comics, Jack Cole contributed an estimated 400-500 one-page comic stories. I've read that he often liked to warm up to creating a PLASTIC MAN story by first creating one of these one-pagers. They are often filled with graphic invention and fresh energy, and deserve to be considered on their own as a major part of the body of the work of this comics master.

For the most part, a character stayed in a single comic. SLAP HAPPY PAPPY in Crack Comics, DAN TOOTIN' in Hit Comics, WINDY BREEZE in National Comics, WUN CLOO in Smash Comics, and BURP THE TWERP in Police Comics.

We'll look at all these comics in later postings. For now, here's three of BURP THE TWERP's appearances in comics other than Police.

National Comics #65 (April 1948)

Blackhawk Comics #24 (April, 1949)

Blackhawk Comics #25 (June, 1949)

Aug 27, 2009

Is This Cole? (Spirit Section, Feb. 6 1944)

Story presented in this post:
"Radio Burglars"
Spirit Section 193 - February 6, 1944

I'm delighted to share with you this wonderful story, recently sent to me by fellow comics scholar and Jack Cole-miner, Darryl Aylward. Darryl writes that he strongly believes this story was drawn and perhaps written by Jack Cole.

I tend to agree, and will share some thoughts on that. But first, take a look for yourself:

Welcome back.

Jack Cole ghosted for Will Eisner while he served in the military during World War II. It's known that Cole wrote and drew the "Fannie Ogre" sequence in the mid-1943 daily SPIRIT comic strip (which we'll publish in a future posting on this blog!).

According to comics publisher, scholar, and SPIRIT expert Cat Yronwode's research, Jack Cole wrote and pencilled some of the Spirit Sunday Section stories from December 19, 1943 (section number 186) to Aug 13, 1944 (section number 220). See Yronwode's checklist, here.

The date of the SPIRIT story posted above, February 6, 1944, fits within this framework, increasing the probability that Jack Cole wrote and pencilled this story.

I shared this story with my lifelong friend and fellow comics scholar, Frank Young (check out his groundbreaking blog on John Stanley, Stanley Stories), and here's what he had to say:

Just read this... it's definitely Cole's writing... looks like his pencils. The crook characters have that kooky Cole look. The second panel on page one, the frantic physical action in the splash page, Dolan's fatalism at story's end, Ebony's Woozy Winks-ish actions, and the fact that the story is actually clever, readable and amusing all point the way to Mr. Cole's involvement.

I wish he'd done the finishes on the pencils. Robin King and/or Joe Kubert probably provided the inks. The look is just too slick--it takes away from the vitality of Cole's artwork. Still, it's a fine story. Eisner could have done no better.

I totally agree with Frank's points, and sentiment. I've read (and re-read) most of the Eisner SPIRIT stories, and I must say this one ranks as one of the funniest and most enjoyable SPIRIT stories I've ever read, to my surprise. Giving one of the crooks a gourmet obsession with stolen food spices up (pun intended) the standard generic SPIRIT petty thief.

And this panel made me laugh out loud:

It's genuinely funny that the sanguine criminal mastermind who has just pulled off a sucessful crime is kicked back reading a book called "Crime Doesn't Pay." This could also be a rare in-joke by Jack Cole, as this was also the title of a popular comic book, edited by his old pal from the Harry Chesler shop days, Charles Biro.

This story is filled with Cole-isms. For instance, the last panel of page 5 features our heros silouhetted in a profile of left-to-right movement against an enormous full moon, a visual motif Cole often used.

The panel also shows THE SPIRIT and EBONY's shadows on the grass, also a farily common visual device in Cole's pre-1945 work.

The similarity in brushwork between the 1941 Midnight panel and the panel from this 1944 story seems to suggest that perhaps Cole had a hand in inking part of this story, as well. It would be difficult to indicate this effect in pencils, which is mostly achieved through short brushstrokes.

Another tip-off that Jack Cole pencilled this story is the expert use of bold pattern as a design element. Jack Cole loved to visually enrich his comic book pages with colorful, high-contrast patterns. Perhaps his most famous use of this visual trope is the black polka dots on WOOZY WINKS' green shirt. Here is an almost random selection of stories from early 1944, when this story appeared:

This concludes my own thoughts about this story. Thank you, Darryl, for finding and sharing this story. What do YOU think about the SPIRIT story in this post, dear reader, is this Cole?

Aug 23, 2009

PLASTIC MAN 1949 - Is it better to be real and impotent, or fake and powerful?

Story presented in this post:
Neanderthal Man (Story, pencils and inks by Jack Cole)
Plastic Man #19 (September, 1949 - Quality Comics Publications)

After sporadic absences from the Plastic Man stories in 1946 to mid-1949, when he focused on getting his career as a magazine gag cartoonist off the ground, Jack Cole returned to his fertile laboratory of invention and delivered one more year of psychotic comedy.

By this time Jack Cole's art had reached the highest levels of sophistication within the form of graphic storytelling. Every panel was brilliant in the way it served up sight gags and yet propelled the story forward.

Neanderthal Man is one of the stand-out stories from that glorious last run, appearing in Plastic Man #19 (Sept. 1949 - Quality Comics). Cole liked this story so much that he even drew a special cover for it, a rare occurence as he more often would create generic covers unconnected with the interior stories.

Plastic Man #19 cover by Jack Cole

Walt Whitman once wrote: "You are so much sunshine to the square inch." In this 1949 Jack Cole classic, you would be hard put to find more FUN to the square inch.

In this story, Cole explores the themes of virility and impotence, wholeness and fragmentation that would be the subject of so many of his 1950's Playboy cartoons.

He plays with this theme by contrasting the hulking, simple-minded, virile prehistoric "mountain of muscle" caveman with the astoundingly puny but brainy MR. FRAIL. Read on; more comments to follow.

Plastic Man has no wife or children. We never see his mother or father, and don't know if he has sisters or brothers. He is completely and totally alone in the world, similar to the alien from Krypton, SUPERMAN. After the first year or so of his crime-fighting life, Plastic Man abandons his alter-ego, Eel O'Brian.

And yet, he is the most whole character in the stories. The only sane person in world of good and evil lunatics.

So many of Cole's stories are about characters trying to improve their lives by changing forms. As we are exploring in this blog, shapeshifting was perhaps the central theme of Jack Cole's graphic stories.

The character of the artic explorer/hustler CARL AKENS has, of course, changed his form into the neanderthal man. But he can't maintain it. Eventually, he finds it necessary to don a delightfully ridiculous suit (which reminds me of John Stanley's BADDY from his MELVIN MONSTER stories) and allow the fake caveman to suspiciously become a little smarter. As he does this, the flacid MR.FRAIL fights for his life and discovers the caveman is not as strong as he should be, and Carl Aken's desperate scheme unwinds.

This breathlessly told story of the appearance of power (Akens) vs. actual power (Plastic Man) is told in an astounding series of funny and inventive images. Plastic Man is stretched and shaped into so many things in this story that it's dizzying.

In the world of Jack Cole's comics, it is only Plastic Man that is allowed to shape-change without negative consequence. In this story, Cole distorts Plas more than ever, perhaps to counterpoint all the phony shape-changers.

Even good old WOOZY WINKS attempts to change his form through body-building. As he often did, Cole could have brought one of his sexy women on stage to swoon over the muscular caveman, but he doesn't because his focus is on sorting out what true strength is in the world at large, not just as it plays out in sexual politics.

In the end, it is fat, lazy Woozy who defeats the bad guy. After discovering the caveman sham, Woozy is back to his rotund, indulgent self and the message seems to be a less potent but authentic self is powerful enough when faced against fake virility... or something like that. My head hurts! Till next time, fellow Cole -miners!

Aug 22, 2009

MIDNIGHT 4 (1941) - A Jack Cole Classic

Story presented in this post:
"Midnight - Gabby, The Talking Monkey" (Story and art by Jack Cole)

Smash Comics #21
(April 1944 - Quality Comics Publications)

In his fourth Midnight story, Jack Cole found a new mastery of the recently born graphic storytelling form, and created one of the best stories of his career.

The month that Smash Comics #21 came out, Silver Streak Comics #9 (Lev Gleason) also sold off the stands, with 18 pages by Cole. The 10th issue of Silver Streak would contain his last work on that title and for Lev Gleason. These were stories Cole had created months earlier. By April, 1941, he had moved on to greener pastures, having been recruited to Quality Comics a few months earlier.

Smash Comics #21 (April 1941) Not by Cole.

Cole must have been excited and uplifted by this step up. His first stories for Quality were a series of beautiful, tightly plotted and superbly realized 5-page MIDNIGHT adventures. Not only had Cole discovered a newfound confidence in his writing and art, but he also had begin to combine screwball comedy, crime stories, and superhero comics into a new, highly entertaining mixture.

In an earlier post, we looked at the first three MIDNIGHT episodes. With an analysis to follow, here is the landmark fourth adventure of Midnight, an early masterpiece by Jack Cole:

The closing sentence, with it's weird mix of sincerity and satire, in some ways, sums up what the magic of Jack Cole's pre-war stories were all about: "And with a talking monkey, Midnight brings a new weapon into action against the forces of evil."

There are several ways this story represents a stand-out in Cole's work. First, the artwork is particularly graceful and well-realized. Panels such as this Will Eisner-esque sewer scene are rich with detail, vibrating with dynamic poses, and move the story forward beautifully.

In fact, the entire page is a tour de force of design, elegantly moving the reader through the story in a dense, rich series of up and down curves that work left to right, in three tiers (click to study a larger version):

The red lines and arrows show how Cole used his character's poses, and props such as the waterfront dock pilings, to create design elements that resulted in an extremely clear communication of movement on the page. The speedboat, with it's triangular shape, serves as almost an arrow in itself, directing us first down into the bottom tier, and then onto the next page.

This page also contains a DICK TRACY moment, in which Cole stops the manic chase for a beat to give us an information diagram that introduces Midnight's new weapon. The suction cup gun is a crazy invention that would never work in real life, but as we have seen Cole -- an inventor himself -- was quite fond of putting fantastic devices into his stories.

Here's another beautiful panel, demonstrating how Cole's art often used patterns as a design device. I love how there are two sets of shadows in this composition, visually suggesting a connection between the two characters that would come to pass (Midnight will adopt the woman's pet/child when she dies). This is literal foreshadowing, and innovative graphic storytelling!

Another hallmark of Cole's graphic storytelling is the masterful use of sound effects as graphic devices. Look at how the sound effects in this panel point to the action like arrows. Also notice Cole has thrown a pair of white eyes in the blackness, Gabby's eyes. The panel is a great illustration of Cole's newfound combination of action-adventure and comedy, which he would employ to great effect in his PLASTIC MAN stories.

Towards the end of the story, Cole creates a lovely silhouette with a full moon backfrop, something he was quite fond of during this period. Also, very appropriate, as Midnight's early adventures take place in the, um, dead of night. Midnight's pose is also characteristic of Cole's early hero work. The sideview-running pose was something Cole created and used often, until he began to think in more three-dimensional terms in his PLASTIC MAN stories. For example, here is a comparison with Cole's splash page from Silver Streak #4 (May 1940 - Lev Gleason):

Jack Cole's stories also often included a woman. The women in his early hero stories were usually typical damsels in distress. The women in his later stories were sexy villains. The woman in this story, who shares the last name of another Cole creation, Angles O'Day, is rather unique, being a talented scientist who invents a way to give Gabby the monkey the power of human speech. Cole even draws her differently, with her hair chastely pulled back in a bun, and often with her face and body partially obscured. At the risk of being too psychoanalytical, one could say the inventor-female in this story is a shadow of Jack Cole himself.

This story would not rank as a Jack Cole classic unless somebody dies in a bizarre way that vengefully corrects an injustice. In this case, the man who kills the woman scientist is impaled on a church steeple. One can safely assume that Cole didn't stop to think too hard about the socio-religious implications he had made with this climactic ending. Part of the appeal of Cole's comics (and much of golden age comics) is the streaming flow of imagery and symbolism from the collective unconscious.

Incidentally, this church clocktower is the very one which Midnight swung into action across in the stunning opening page if this story. Cole has brought the reader full-circle, and provided a deeply satisfying poetic ending as the clock tolls midnight.

I hope you enjoyed this analysis of a true Jack Cole classic in which justice is served at (and by) midnight!
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