Jun 27, 2010

The Origin (of sorts) of Sadly-Sadly in Jack Cole’s last SPIRIT story

Jack Cole’s final SPIRIT section story, Sad Sam’s Last Laugh (Spirit Section June 25, 1944), was an early version of Sadly-Sadly (Plastic Man #20, November 1949), one of his best stories, and once again presents us with his patented mix of gruesome death and funny cartooning.

Cole ghosted THE SPIRIT for about a six-month period, writing and penciling (by my count) 17 stories. “Sad Sam’s Last Laugh” was also Jack Cole’s last Spirit. His Spirit stories, while carefully modeled after the patterns and look creator Will Eisner and first assistant Lou Fine had established, put more emphasis on both physical slapstick humor and death. This last story is remarkable enough to warrant a post of its own, for several reasons, which I’ll cover after you read this wild story, shown here in its 1946 reprint version from THE SPIRIT #5 (Quality Comics):
 SPIRIT 005 043 SPIRIT 005 044 SPIRIT 005 045 SPIRIT 005 046 SPIRIT 005 047 SPIRIT 005 048 SPIRIT 005 049
SPIRIT 005 050
“Let US seriously contemplate suicide, too!” – chilling words to read, considering that Jack Cole took his own about 14 years after writing and drawing this story.

Suicide turns up over and over in Cole’s “comic” book stories. Although he often plays it up for laughs, there is nearly always an undercurrent of sadness. In this story, Sad Eyes Sam rather small-mindedly robs himself of his last day of life merely to cheat his fellow crooks. He accomplishes this by stabbing himself with a surgeon’s scalpel. Cole’s stories are filled with gruesome death and disfigurement, often creatively executed in bizarre fashion.

This story is also one of the earliest instances of what could be called Cole’s Grotesques. The faces of the criminal gang in this story are both comic and bizarre (page 3, panel 2 for example), in the best tradition of cartoonists such as Goya, Daumier, and Hogarth. It is not known that Cole drew upon any of the works of these artists for his own inspiration. We do know that Cole cited Chester Gould’s comic strip, DICK TRACY, as a major influence… and he may have gotten the idea of grotesque criminals from Gould.

In any case, this story features some excellent cartooning, even if the unknown inker did rob Cole’s lines of much of their life and spontaneity.

While Cole, like any great artist, returned to his themes and story settings  over and over, this story is thus far the only instance documented in which he recycles a story concept. The character of Sad Eyes Sam would be reborn about 5 years later as Sadly-Sadly, in one of Jack Cole’s masterpieces, often reprinted, and shown here from it’s original appearance in PLASTIC MAN #20 (November, 1949).

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It is interesting to compare the two stories to see how far Cole developed in just five years. The Sadly-Sadly story is nothing short of breathtakingly brilliant. Keep in mind, though, that Cole was ghosting on the Spirit story, and was obviously holding back to keep the stories looking and feeling similar to the “house” look well established for the wildly successful series.

The Grand Comics Database, a terrific resource and one which I’ve used heavily in developing this work on Jack Cole, lists Joe Millard as the writer for the Sadly-Sadly story. I found this hard to believe when I first read it. Having found this earlier version of the story by Cole, I have even stronger doubts that this classic story was written by anyone other than Cole. It’s too bad no records of who did what at Quality seem to exist.

From December 19, 1943 to June 25, 1944, Jack Cole ghosted 17 Spirit stories, by my count. After careful study of the Spirit Sections, here is my current, annotated, list of stories that Jack Cole wrote and penciled (they were inked by other hands, including Robin King):

12/19/43 – Death After Death
12/26/43 – Cloak and Coffin
1/2/44 – Killer Ketch (shapeshifting story)
1/16/44 – Ebony’s Inheritance (similar character shows up in other Cole stories, including Midnight Episode 18 , First Run)
1/23/44 – Murder By Magic
1/30/44 – Circumstantial Evidence (suicide, panel in story used as basis for Plastic Man splash)
2/6/44 – Radio Burglars
2/13/44 – Man O’ War
2/20/44 – In The Moorish Section of Central City
3/5/44 – The Charity Ball
3/12/44 – Double Eagle (Aztec Indian later used in Police Comics #75 story, “Case of the Ancient Clues”)
3/19/44 – Skelter and Crabb
3/26/44 – Torchy Tyler
4/23/44 – Rogoff (statue used in “Granite Lady” splash from Plastic Man, also lightning shock bolts used in later work)
4/30/4 – The Voodoo of Dr. Peroo
5/21/44 – Black Marx
6/25/44 – Sad Eye Sam’s Last Laugh (suicide, early version of “Sadly-Sadly” Plastic Man story)

Most of these stories can be found in the 8th volume of the SPIRIT ARCHIVES. This list is presented as a starting point, but it may change as I look at the stories with more attention.

Jun 23, 2010

Libidinous Parrot Relentlessly Pursues Inter-Species Coupling; Crooks Caught: Midnight second run, episode 2

Smash Comics 69-01

Story this post:

“Sinful Sir Nuts”
Story and art by Jack Cole
February, 1946


(Cover by Jack Cole – signed)

The second run Midnight stories, in which Cole returned to his creation after a four-year hiatus were a deep-dish serving of Cole’s graphic brilliance and mastery of the vernacular of comics (a part of that vocabulary he created and refined).

It’s too darn bad that the mid-1940’s Midnight was such a bland character. He had little personality, no super-powers, and lacked the grim drive for vengeance that characterized the stories of the first run, in the early forties. Even the impractical but charming vacuum gun was left behind. Try as he might (and he mightily did try), Cole could only make the Midnight stories about a tenth as fun to read as his Plastic Man series.

Cole worked Midnight into a similar formula as Plastic Man. Namely, that of a sane man surrounded by loonies. However, with Midnight, there were a few misfires that may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but which leeched a great deal of potential out of the series. These misfires included moving Dave Clark’s inventive streak (he invented the vacuum gun) to Doc Wackey and surrounding the hero with a whole family of sidekicks so that no one single character ever got enough air time to develop of as anything more than a two-dimensional figure in the story.

That being said, there is still much to recommend these stories, such as the tight drawings, the wildly inventive page layouts, and the unleashing of a giant bag of techniques only Cole could deliver.

When he returned to the Midnight series in 1946, Cole must have been delighted to have total control over a series after being forced to work with a host of assistants on Plastic Man. He even signed this story on the first page, a sure-fire sign that Cole was 100% invested in this story, which features perhaps the horniest animal in pre-underground comics.

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So, how about that parrot, huh? This pre-code comic book story is invested with bawdy humor that mostly circles around the idea of a parrot convinced sexual relations with a human woman are not only within the realm of possibility, but worth single-mindedly pursuing at any cost. Lustiness aside, the use of a talking parrot as a story device brings to mind “The Pixelated Parrot,” a story by another master of comics, Carl Barks that appeared in 1950 (Four Color Comics 282).

Cole begins the story with a sequence involving death that is typical of his work. In Cole’s universe, even when zany antics are afoot, the grim reaper is never far away. Note how Cole draws the doctor in the first panels of page two. With his restrained posture and buzzard-like stoop, he resembles an undertaker more than a healer.

In this story, Cole careens and propels his characters through space. The wheels of cars and the feet of people rarely touch the ground as they speed from locations to location, sometimes even breaking through the panel borders! On page four, even a sound effect breaks through the panel!

On the bottom tier of page 7, Cole employs his patented “shaky panel” to display the effects of an explosion. Cole used the quivering panel to both convey emotion (as in when a woman cowers in terror when a hypodermic needle threatens her eye in “Murder, Morphine, and Me”) and to show the effects of explosions and bangs.

On page 8, in the best sequence in the story, Cole delightfully plays with sound effects, slyly sending a wolf whistle between a woman’s sexy legs, creating a great visual pun. A couple of panels later, her shriek begins in her mouth. A whole book could be written on what Cole did with sound effects in comics.

Jun 12, 2010

PLASTIC MAN Jan 1950: The Return of the Pointed Exclamation Mark!

Plastic Man 21 cover comic book

 Story in this post:
”Kra Vashnu”
Story, Pencils, and Inks by Jack Cole
Plastic Man #21
January, 1950
Quality Comics


For a 13 issue run of Plastic Man (issues 17-29), Jack Cole wrote and drew almost all the contents in these issues. In the first story in Plastic Man #21 (Jan. 1950) most of the sound effects are punctuated with a “flat” exclamation mark (on left in illustration below).

plastic man 21 callout5 

But somewhere in the middle of the story, Cole draws a BAM! with a “pointed” exclamation mark (right side of illustration above). It’s even artfully arranged so the “M” breaks it up.

I believe this is important because it is a sign that Jack Cole was re-connecting with his original, pure source of inspiration after a few years of dampened enthusiasm brought on most likely by having other writers and artists forced on him to produce the large number of Plastic Man stories his publisher wanted.

The pointed exclamation mark populated almost all of Jack Cole’s comic book work for the first 6 or 7 years. This was when he wrote, drew and often even lettered his own stories – a highly unusual practice for the time and one which, I believe, allows us to consider his graphic stories as the developing work of a master of the form. In 1950, Cole began to flow the magic of his early work back into his stories, but this time – instead of a talented newcomer – here was an accomplished master employing numerous techniques with an almost casual virtuousity.

plastic man 21 callout4 

As Cole re-connected with his vitality and vision, his work in 1950 became became richer and more complex, developing into what could be called Cole’s “baroque” period. Plastic Man never stretched so outrageously and comically. I can think of no other comics that are as dense with humor and invention as Jack Cole’s 1950 Plastic Man stories.

plastic man 21 callout2

Reading these stories is a jaw-dropping experience for any comics person. In just one page, Cole delivers a dazzling array of brilliant graphic design solutions. His stories have some much kinetic energy they almost vibrate on the page. There is often more than one thing happening in each panel so that it’s necessary to re-read the stories in order to fully engage with them (similar to the way the film Playtime by the inspired filmmaker and comedian Jacques Tati works).

plastic man 21 callout1

In the “Kra Vashnu” story, the sudden and abrupt single appearance of the pointed exclamation mark heralds a new phase of focus and passion by Cole. The story certainly reflects this, with some astonishing panels and art, such as this one (with dialogue removed):

plastic man 21 callout3 which shows quite well Cole’s uncanny ability to draw the less defined “in-between” poses – almost as if he was able in his mind’s eye to freeze the frame of a movie and then draw that. In so doing, Cole’s “freeze-frame” technique delivers some of the most abstract and beautiful art seen in comics.

The “evil magician” plot of “Kra Vashnu” is one that Cole used over and over, starting with his third MIDNIGHT story in March, 1941. Cole revived his first evil magician, CHANG-O, in December, 1941 with “The Return of Chang-O.”

Still, Kra Vashnu is quite a diabolical foil, and his appearance is pleasingly bizarre, with his tattooed forehead, cape, platform shoes, and – strangest of all – his long, unclipped toenails (in one sequence, Woozy tries vainly to clip them).

The story does contain some of Cole’s trademark themes, including doubling (doppelganger) and identity shifting. There is also a vivid misogynistic murder and attempted suicide. In the story’s climax, Plastic Man is seemingly murdered, his corpse resembling a deflated, punctured balloon. All of these violent themes are surrounded with non-stop gags and brilliant art, making it a Jack Cole classic.

Plastic Man’s stretched poses and transformations are particularly brilliant in this story, as well, and worth paying attention to as you read this amazing story, which I have painstakingly digitally restored for your reading enjoyment:

 Plastic Man 21-03 copy Plastic Man 21-04 copy Plastic Man 21-05 copy Plastic Man 21-06 copy Plastic Man 21-07 copy Plastic Man 21-08 copy Plastic Man 21-09 copy Plastic Man 21-10 copy Plastic Man 21-11 Plastic Man 21-12 Plastic Man 21-13 copy Plastic Man 21-14 copy Plastic Man 21-15 copy

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