Nov 1, 2011

A New Unknown Jack Cole Cartoon Before Playboy

The "Unknown Jack Cole" goodies continue to come to light! Yes, your intrepid 'Cole miner,' has emerged from the dark, musty caverns of history into the sunlight with another sparking gem -- a wonderfully clever, forgotten Jack Cole cartoon published in a major mainstream American magazine.

With the discovery of Cole's previously unknown Millie and Terry comic strips, I theorized a few weeks ago that there could be several previously undiscovered Jack Cole cartoons published in 1954-55. This was the time that Cole was in transition from comic books to magazines, and it is now coming to light that he reached out to several markets in this transition, before settling in at Playboy, to become the magazine's first signature cartoonist.

We know about the "Jake" cartoons published in Martin Goodman's Humorama digests, and recently, comics historian and blogger Ger Apeldoorn (see his always fun and enlightening blog here) discovered a previously unknown Jack Cole cartoon in a 1955 issue of Look, a major US magazine at the time. I'm happy to announce and share yet another Cole discovery, this time from a 1954 issue of The Saturday Evening Post!

On February 12th 1954, this small, hastily written item appeared on the front page of the New Castle News, Jack Cole's hometown newspaper:

Many thanks to Alter Ego Magazine (recommended for anyone interested in comics history) for reprinting the article a few years ago ( I think it was provided to them by Jack's brother, Dick Cole). The article reads as follows:

"In the January 23 issue of the Saturday Evening Post you probably noticed an unusual cartoon of a house in which the picture told the story of someone going from floor to floor an turning on the lights.

"The artist's signature in the lower left hand corner was 'Jack Cole.'

"Jack Cole is a New Castle product, son of Mr. and Mrs. DeLace Cole, of 411 Euclid avenue (sic). His home is now in Milford, Conn., but presently he is here in New Castle, called here by the serious illness of his mother.

"Seventeen years ago Jack went to New York City with little more than a few sheets of paper and a burning ambition. His original ideas caught on fast and shortly he was drawing not one but two comic books monthly. (my note: this probably refers to Cole's Plastic Man and Midnight stories, which were the lead features in two comic books, but not the whole comic book, a distinction that was probably lost on the Pennsylvania newspaper writer). Between times, he turned out cartoons good enough for 'Judge' and Colliers. (sic) His first 'Satevepost' was Jan. 23.

He has abandoned the comic book field for free lance (sic) work and more and more his art will undoubtedly be seen in national magazines."

This tiny piece has some interesting information in it. It tells us that at the time that Cole's 16-year career in comic books was collapsing, his mother was probably dying. It must have been a time of great stress for Jack Cole. The article also fails to mention Plastic Man, the primary creation that, over fifty years later, Jack Cole is famous for having created. In all, the article is a nice snapshot of Jack Cole as he transitioned from comic books to magazines. 

Of course, the article also tell us very specifically where to find a Jack Cole cartoon in the pages of one of the top magazines of the day! Here then, is the delightful Jack Cole cartoon that appeared in the January 23, 1954 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, on page 125:

I love that the cartoon has a green outline to set it off in the dense page. This clever cartoon appeared amid spectacular lushly colored advertisements for modernistic new cars, plastic products, and articles about the cold war. The cartoon firmly places Cole's work in the context of 1950's "atomic age" America. The issue also had numerous cartoons, including several by Ted Key (of "Hazel" fame. The cartoon on the page opposite from Cole is by Cavalli, one of the ubiquitous career-cartoonists of the latter half of the 20th century. Amid all this professionalism, we find a little gem that gives us a glimpse into Jack Cole's life at the time.

The 1954 newspaper article above gives us the address of Cole's parents, "411 Euclid Ave." The actual address was 411 East Euclid Avenue. In Jim Steranko's History of Comics Volume 2, he states that Cole's boyhood home was on Euclid Avenue. Therefore, unless the Coles relocated to another house on the same street, here's a satellite image of the house where Jack Cole grew up, as it stands today:

And here is a satellite photograph of the neighborhood where Jack Cole grew up, with the Cole home on Euclid Ave, circled:

Cole lived on the edge of town, almost to the end of the street, and was within walking distance of the large Oak Park Cemetery. One wonders if he explored the city graveyard and if that perhaps fueled his later comic book horror stories. Perhaps he pulled a prank or two there.

When Jack Cole lived in New Castle, it had a population of about 35,000 people. Today, the town has a smaller population, around 25,000. In Cole's day, New Castle hit the peak of its prosperity. In 1954, Cole may have seen a few changes upon his return to his hometown. Here's a photo of Castle Motors in the mid-fifties, a New Castle car dealership that stuffed their vehicles with appealing female radio and TV performers and drove them around town to attract attention:

Interestingly, New Castle is often referred to as a "little New York City," because of its diverse ethnicity. The town is famous in part for its chili dogs, which were developed by Greek immigrant restaurant-owners who lived there. Perhaps, in some ways, when Cole moved from New Castle to New York in 1936, he was already familiar with a city that has a diverse population.

It's difficult to tell for sure from the steep angle of the photo of the Cole home above, but the house appears to be very similar to the one in Cole's Saturday Evening Post cartoon. The Cole family, with six kids, would have needed a large house. Here is an image from a modern promotional film on New Castle real estate that shows the typical style of the town's residential architecture:

Again, very similar to Cole's cartoon:

Perhaps the comical incident Cole depicts in the cartoon actually occurred in his house. Perhaps he looked out from his bedroom window and saw lights going on and off in a house across the street. 

Years earlier, Cole put New Castle and some personal details into his comic book work. The first stories of his early 1939-40 comic book series, Dickie Dean (read the stories here), are set in New Castle. The character's name, no doubt, refers to Jack's brother, Dick Cole. Jack also used the pen name "Richard Bruce" for his 1940 comic book story, "Mantoka" (read it here). In the second Dickie Dean story, Cole writes,"Living in the small city of New Castle, PA is one who can truly be called "genius."

In his introduction to the 2007 collection of Cole's "Betsy and Me" comic strips, historian and author R.C. Harvey mentions that the "nimbus of genius" surrounds Cole's work. There's a bit of brilliance in the Saturday Evening Post cartoon. By no means the first -- or last -- to do so, Cole nonetheless combined sequential cartooning with gag cartooning. In effect, his Post cartoon is a one-page, 8-panel comic strip. 

However, while Cole's comic book one-pagers (and he created hundreds of these!) were stuffed with extra comic details, this cartoon is sparse. Knowing the cartoon would be published at a much smaller size than a comic book page, Cole simplified the image, stripping it of anything but the most essential details so that the repeated house images would read clearly at a postage stamp size. The high light and dark contrast of the house with lighted windows works perfectly for the format. The cartoon is a series of 8 almost identical images, and the key is to discover not only the differences between the images, but the pattern of increasing and then decreasing lights, as they are turned on and then off. 

We don't need to see the people inside to get the joke. In fact, it's considerably funnier if we don't see the people. This is very similar to how the comedy of Laurel and Hardy works. We see a shot of Stan with a ladder. We see a shot of Oliver bending over. We see a shot of Stan turning around with the ladder. We hear "Ohhh!" We see Ollie on the floor covered in paint.

Speaking of film comedy, when I first saw Jack Cole's Saturday Evening Post cartoon, I was reminded of a similar sequence in the amazing Jacques Tati film, "Mon Oncle," in which lighted windows in a silhouetted house react to noises. 

Tati's film came out four years after Cole's Post cartoon. Did Tati see the cartoon? Did Jack Cole influence Jacques Tati? Probably this is merely an instance of two comic geniuses arriving at a similar gag.

An essential part of the genius of Jack Cole's cartoons is how well form follows function, while still allowing for Cole's unique and personal voice. His drawings here are perfect for the medium and totally get the gag/story across.

I can picture the mature husband and wife in their pajamas in the upstairs bedroom. I can see the scornful look on the wife's face as she tells the husband who has just searched the house to see the source of the noise that he was just imagining things. I can see the slightly sheepish look on the husband's face. Not to make too much of it, but it seems to me this is ultimately is yet another Jack Cole cartoon about impotence. Heartbreaking, when you consider how magnificently gifted Cole was, and the courage and competence of his mid-fifties career change. Where many men might have found an safer but less artistic income source, Cole went for it -- and scored. It's admirable.

Here is the cartoon reorganized into a vertical strip, just for fun:

All text copyright 2011 Paul Tumey

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  1. Great find! And thanks for the referral. It's Apeldoorn, by the way. We Dutch are funny that way. We spell our names in our own language.

    The other new information in that article is the fact that Cole sold a cartoon or possibly more to Collier's. I have never seen that, although I have combed through quite a few issues. Any idea what period that would have been?

  2. Hi Ger,

    I've corrected the spelling of your name. Gee... SOME day I'll get it right!

    Cole had a cartoon in Collier's in 1938, at least. It's reprinted in the Freelancer article that is found in my article on Cole's Boy's Life cartoons:

    There could more at Collier's, though...

  3. This blog seems to be really good, which is really very much interesting as well as informative too.


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