Jan 28, 2012

Jack Cole Playboy Cartoon Rejects Appear in Hefner's College Humor Mag

From 1946 to 1949, Jack Cole's friend and publisher, Hugh Hefner attended the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana. 

Incredibly, Hef earned his Bachelor's degree in just two- and-a-half years by doubling up on his classes. 

Somehow, he also found the time to start a new magazine, rather boldly named Shaft, which became the U of Illinois' humor magazine. An ambitious cartoonist at the time, Hefner published many of his own cartoons in Shaft.  Here's a cover he drew for the January, 1948 issue (courtesy of the University of Illinois archives):

Here's a Hugh Hefner cartoon not from Shaft, but from the college newspaper, the Daily Illini. This example, with its comment on the modern woman, is a primitive form of the sexual cartoon Hefner would develop into its own art form with Jack Cole and others:

During the time he edited Shaft, Hefner introduced a (clothed) Co-Ed of the Month feature, the first version of the famous Playmate of the Month centerfold that would become a staple (or, more accurately, embrace the staples) of Hefner's Playboy magazine.

Hefner graduated in 1949 and went on to create Playboy in 1953 where he quickly attracted Jack Cole's cartoon submissions. As we've recently discovered, in 1954-55, Jack Cole created a number of  magazine cartoons and comic strips that have been mostly forgotten and overlooked. He was in transition from a 16-year career in comic books towards being a star magazine cartoonist and then syndicated comic strip creator. 1954-55 was a period of renewal, and rebirth for Jack Cole.

Sam Henderson wrote a while back that he had a Jack Cole cartoon from the April 1954 issue of  Shaft. Here then, is yet another "lost" Jack Cole cartoon, thanks to Sam Henderson:

In his Magic Whistle blog, which has several covers and cartoons from 1954 issues of Shaft, Henderson speculates that the Jack Cole cartoon may have been a Playboy reject that Hefner passed on to his alma mater. That seems a reasonable assumption. The cartoon, which is funny enough, doesn't seem in the same league as Cole's Playboy work... and of course, it has nothing to do with women or sex. Maybe someday I'll get up the gumption to attempt to contact Mr. Hefner and find out for sure.

Our friend and fellow comics historian, Ger Apeldoorn recently purchased some issues of Charley Jones' Laugh Book Magazine, a bottom-of-the-barrel cartoon/humor magazine. Ger was delighted to discover, nestled among various minor work by unknown and forgotten cartoonists in the July 1955 issue, a terrific full-page Jack Cole cartoon! Many thanks to Ger for kindly sharing this new discovery with this blog. Be sure to check out his amazing blog, The Fabuleous Fifties which is a treasure-trove of comics and information.

Note the tagline at the bottom right of the page, "Jack Cole in Shaft":

This seems to indicate that this cartoon is a reprint from an issue of Shaft, where it originally appeared. At this time, I have no access to the 1954-55 run of Shaft, so I cannot identify the issue in which this cartoon appeared.

Again, the theory that this cartoon is actually a Playboy reject makes sense. Hefner may have purchased it from Cole and then donated it to the University of Illinois, helping both his alma mater and Jack Cole  (who had just lost his house and most of his possessions in a flood). It could even have been a tax write-off! Here's the cartoon, cleaned up:

It's sexual humor, and sophisticated enough for Playboy. But there is a different approach. This is the period that Cole was experimenting and fine-tuning what would become a successful new formula. The cartoon here is very much in the same vein as the dozen Jack Cole cartoons recently discovered in a 1955 issue of Mirth (see my post here).

Perhaps it's simply that the thin, pinched, unhappy woman in this cartoon is much plainer than the typical Jack Cole Playboy women, who Art Spiegelman called "estrogen souuffles who mesmerized the ineffectual saps who lusted after them."

Spiegelman's observation is a terrific summary of the Jack Cole Playboy cartoon formula: bombshell women wielding extreme sexual power over impotent men. However, in this Shaft cartoon, the man has the power. The sexually frustrated woman has been waiting three days to have sex. The man in this cartoon is not ineffectual, he's just uninterested.  The cartoon has a sadness about it. Here's the cartoon re-organized in a vertical scrolling format:

Thanks again to Sam Henderson and to Ger Apeldoorn for more "lost" Jack Cole cartoons from the mid-fifties!

All text copyright 2012 Paul Tumey

Jan 20, 2012

Insane Comics: 3 Rare Jack Cole Stories From 1938

Presenting 7 pages of rare Jack Cole comics from late 1938!

Funny Pages Volume 2, issue 11 (November, 1938) featured a panoply of Jack Cole's screwball stories. At the time, Cole was working for the Harry "A" Chelser studio in New York. Sometime in 1936, Jack borrowed some money from various merchants in his home town of New Castle, PA and moved to New York to start a career as a cartoonist. After a year of near starvation, Cole connected with the Chesler studio, which was packaging original comic book content to meet the growing demand for comics.

Cole's work of this time is very much influenced by the "screwball" school of newspaper comics, most famously represented by Bill Holman (Smokey Stover), Dr. Seuss, and Gene Ahern (Nut BrothersSquirrel Cage). Here's a typical example of Ahern's Nut Brothers (written and drawn by someone other than Ahern who had left the NEA syndicate about three years earlier). This strip shows the screwball school in fine form around the time Jack Cole entered comics (note the Napoleon hat in panel 3) :

Jack Cole's determined screwball approach is certainly evident in his Nutty Fagin one-pager in Funny Pages Vol. 2, issue 11 (November, 1938):

Note that Jack Cole signs this page "Sassafrass." As far as I know, this is the single occurrence of this particular pen name. Other pen names Jack Cole used were: Richard Bruce, Ralph Johns, and Jake

One thing that strikes me about this page is the bold pattern of the crepe paper bunting that adorns the speaker's podium, and the pattern of polka dots on Fagin's boxer shorts. Over the course of his 16-year career creating hundreds of  comic book stories, Jack Cole would expertly use patterns to add visual appeal to his work over and over.

Another screwball artist that I suspect was a huge influence on Cole was Milt Gross. The energy and zaniness, as well as the sheer love of distorting the human figure that is so evident in Gross' comics must have inspired Jack Cole. Here's a couple of Milt Gross Sunday comics from 1931, when Jack Cole was 16 years old and starting to learn to cartoon.

Next we find a rare example  of Jack Cole drawing the extremely non-PC "Cheerio Minstrels" two-pager series that seems to have been quite popular at the time, judging by how many Centaur comics have it. I think the "cheerio" concept was probably a core idea for Chesler. Here's the cover to one of his earliest publications, a newspaper Sunday magazine insert called Cheerio from January, 1936:

Note that, among the listed comics inside, we have "Cheerio Hotel" (and also "King Kole's Kourt," appearing before Jack Cole joined the studio -- which confirms that Cole's later episodes of the strip were a happy coincidence, and that he was not the originator of the comic). The Cheerio Minstrels  format was always a trio of African Americans singing a song in a sort of comic book version of a vaudeville minstrel routine. Cole's treatment is a shifting filmstrip of insanity:

Observe, if you will, how, in the bottom of page one, Cole pneumatically propels the characters around the panel. This exaggerated movement is another element Cole would develop, particularly in his Plastic Man stories. In fact, Cole recycled the fourth panel on page 2, with the arm amputation with a saw, in his first Woozy Winks story (Police Comics 13):

Last, but far from least, is a zany 4-page story by Jack Cole, Smart Alec, in which the main character is resplendently adorned with reverse polka dot trousers. I particularly love the wonderful 2-panel spread at the bottom of page 3. I don't have a lot to say about this material, but just wanted to share it! Enjoy!

A big thank you to Digital Comics Museum and scanner "dsdaboss" for these marvelous scans!

All text copyright 2012 Paul C. Tumey

Jan 12, 2012

Karswell Posts Key Cole Story - The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1954)

Read the complete story here!

The master of all things comic book and horrorific, Steve Karswell, has posted "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" from Web of Evil #10 (January, 1954) at his always-fun blog, The Horrors Of It All

This is a key Jack Cole story. It was one of his very last comic book stories, and was published as his second-to-last story (for his final published comic book story, see my post on "I Was The Monster They Couldn't Kill" here). 

You can read "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" at Karswell's blog by clicking here

Firstly, there may be a question in some readers' minds as to whether this story actually is by Jack Cole. The Grand Comics Database currently lists the story as being by John Forte (they credit another story in Web of Evil #10 to Cole, "Death's Highway," which is not his work. Karswell has published that story on extensive blog as well, and you can read it by clicking here.)

I feel certain this story was written and penciled by Jack Cole. It is very much "of a piece" with the rest of his Web of Evil work. The title alone is similar to Cole's story from Web of Evil #1, "The Corpse That Wouldn't Die."

There are a number of "Cole-isms" in this story that indicate Cole's work, as well. These include Cole's characteristic sound effects lettering, as we see in this panel from the story (which, by the way, could also serve as a panel from any of his lurid True Crime stories):

Then there's the pervasive scenes of dread and anxiety. I think Cole was channeling Cold War nuclear fear. He went very, very dark at the end of his career. Even in Plastic Man. See my post on "Dark Plas" by clicking here

Lastly, there is the sense of movement in several of the panels. Check out this psycho-sexual portrait of speed and obsession:

The writing is by whoever else wrote the bulk of the Web of Evil stories Cole drew -- whether it's him or someone else. This story has the same dynamic between the twisted, broken individual who is at odds with society as several of the others, such as "Monster of the Mist," and "Killer From Saturn." 

The 16 Web of Evil stories that Jack Cole drew fall into two types: Unexplained Supernatural Events and Psychological Breakdowns.  It seems to me that Jack Cole may have written wrote the stories that fall into the latter category, if not all of them.

In the Unexplained Supernatural Events, characters come against bizarre circumstances, such as severed hands that still seem alive, or magic spells that somehow reanimate the dead . The characters inevitably fall victim to these terrifying phenomena, but no explanation is ever provided for the existence of these mysterious situations. They simply happen. These scripts are sloppy and tedious, and often even Cole’s extraordinary drawings cannot make them more than barely entertaining.

The second category of stories, which I think Cole wrote, and which I call Psychological Breakdowns are better written and have more clever and surprising plot twists.

These stories include:

The Killer From Saturn (Web of Evil #3)
The Man Who Died Twice (Web of Evil #5)
Orgy of Death (Web of Evil #6)
The Spectre’s Face (Web of Evil #6)
Death Prowls the Streets (Web of Evil #8)
A Pact With The Devil (Web of Evil #9)
The Brain That Wouldn't Die (Web of Evil #10)
I Was The Monster They Couldn’t Kill (Web of Evil #11)

In these stories the resulting horrific events are always shown to be result of a character’s mental breakdown. For example, in “The Killer From Saturn,” (which Art Spiegleman asserts is purely Cole’s work), it appears that a wildly frightening alien from outer space has landed in an American city and is murdering its inhabitants without cause or discernable reason. In the end, we learn the monster is actually a slight, timid man who has gone mad, dressing up in a monster costume and killing in a twisted form of revenge and ego gone wild.

In the case of this new find, "The Brain That Wouldn't Die," we learn at the end that Dr. Renard and "the brain" are communicating via thought-waves... maybe. The story puts the reader on a barbed-wire fence. On one side we have the possibility that Dr. Renard's invention is real, and on the other the possibility that he is mad. 

Cole gives us clues to this twist with visual foreshadowing. Look at how he visually combines Dr. Renard and the brain in this panel from page 4:

What gives "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" depth beyond the standard comic book horror story is the way Cole's imagery encourages us to consider the story as a metaphor for the self. It raises Phil Dickian questions about reality and what it means to be human. Is a brain in a jar a human being?

Jack Cole’s Web of Evil stories pulled the title out of a standard horror realm, and stretched the series into crime and science fiction as well. Instead of a horror story, Cole would write a crime story as if it were a horror story, playing with reader expectations.

These stories of people cracking under stress poignantly foreshadow the final outcome of Jack Cole’s life. After completing these stories, Cole not only left a dying industry for good, but also referred to his brilliant and accomplished career in demeaning terms. It seems likely there were hard feelings for Cole under the surface. In one story, which may or no be true, Cole is said to have taken his portfolio to DC (National) and was rejected. 

"The Brain That Wouldn't Die" as most readers will know, is the title of a very similar movie released in 1962. One wonders if Cole's horrific brain-in-a-jar imagery in this story inspired them.

Another interesting aspect to this story is that it is about a crazy inventor. From his 1939 "Dickie Dean" stories onward, Jack Cole populated his comic book work with brilliant, and often cracked, inventors. It's an archetype that Cole -- an inventor himself -- identified with, I think.

It's also worth noting that the inventor character in "The Brain That Wouldn't Die," Dr. Renard, is a Cold War version of Cole's longest-running inventor character, Doc Wackey, from his 40 or so Midnight stories published in Smash Comics. Physically, they are dead-ringers for each other:

The story ends perfectly, with the wildly protesting "talking" brain casually dropped into an incinerator to be destroyed. Is this how Jack Cole, after beating his brains out for 16 years in comic books felt?

The surname of the main character in "The Brain That Wouldn't Die," Renard, is a French-German name that means "strong decision." Perhaps Cole's choice of  the name, "Renard," was, consciously or not, an indication that he was making his own strong decision to leave comic books, Plastic Man, and Woozy behind.

By the time this story was published, Cole had left Quality Comics. After that, the only work in comics he found was touching up stories for post-code publication as an assistant to Marc Swayze at Charlton Comics in Derby Connecticut.  That's a little like hiring Ernest Hemmingway to write supermarket signs. No wonder Cole left after three weeks, never to work in the comic book industry again.

I am totally psyched to see this story appear here. Thanks, Karswell!

Note: The Grand Comics Database, which I love, has a few errors around Cole's work, which is understandable since a clear understanding of the different phases of his work is only just now coming into focus. I am working as an indexer/error tracker at that site to correct the errors, but it is a slow process. I'll add this correction to my list!

All text copyright 2012 Paul Tumey

Jan 9, 2012

Jack Cole's King Kola Ads 1941-42

For all his talent and ambition, it's strange that Jack Cole didn't create more advertising art.  Here's two rare 1941 ads with Jack Cole art -- perhaps the only examples of advertising art in his entire career.The ads are from late 1941 and early 1942 books published by Harry "A" Chesler, Cole's first employer in comic books. The ads are for a product called "King Kola."

King Kola was supposedly made by the King Cole Beverage Company. A  little research on the Web turns up this tidbit, from a collection of 1941 copyright notices:

Thus, King Cola equals Harry Chesler, the comic book publisher!

A similar cola caper is much more well-known. In 1941, the grandiose comic book publisher Victor Fox began to promote a cola of his own, called "Kooba Cola." Here's the back cover of an unidentified Fox comic, circa 1941:

Fox pitched the cola hard, with interior ads and schemes:

What is brilliant and delightfully screwed up about all this is that the product was never manufactured! Fox, who owned the brand, was using his publications to create demand for a product that didn't exist. He planned to license the brand to a manufacturer, thinking the pre-loaded demand would make the licensing deal attractive. As far as we know, no manufacturer took him up on the deal.

In late 1941, Harry "A" Chesler made the move from packaging comics to publishing his own. He launched four titles: Yankee, Dynamic, Punch, and Scoop. He must have seen what Fox was doing, and thought it a great idea. Chesler seems filled with ambition in 1941. he named his cola after the hoary nursery rhyme figure, Old King Cole. For years, a 2-4 page comic series had come out of his shop called "King Kole's Kourt." This series was sometimes drawn by Jack Cole, bit he didn't create it -- despite the obvious connection with his name, and other artists worked on it seemingly randomly. Here's a couple of examples of Cole's work on the series. You can see the similarity between the cartooning style in these pages and the King Kola ads.

By Jack Cole. Blue Ribbon Comics #1 (MLJ/Archie, Nov 1939) 

By Jack Cole. CoCoMalt Big Book of Comics (1938)

As far as I can tell, there were only two house ads created for "King Kola." Here's the first, appearing on the inside front cover of Yankee Comics #2:

The art, though unsigned, is unmistakably by Jack Cole. It has Cole's exaggerated perspectives and frantic energy. The comic over-reaction of the doctor and the skinny patient wearing saggy socks held up by garters is pure Jack Cole. It's the humor of impotence he would soon wield in Plastic Man. The name on bag, 'Doc Smith," may be a tribute to science fiction writer E.E. "Doc" Smith, who had published his highly popular "Lensman" series in 1941-42 pulps (and we know Cole read and enjoyed the pulps). 

I don't think the lettering in the speech balloon is by Jack Cole. We do often see a jagged edged balloon in his work, but the lettering isn't his style. It's my guess he left it blank so Chesler could fill in whatever slogan he decided upon.

This advertising art is more polished than Cole's usual comic book art, and he may have lavished time on it. Perhaps he was paid well for the art, and that was a motivation. Here  it is looking even better in color, from the back cover of Dynamic Comics #2 (circa 1942):

One wonders if Jack Cole himself colored this ad. It's got a certain something to it. Here's the second King Kola ad, this one from the back cover of Yankee Comics #3 (1942), also with nice coloring:

Again, the ad is unsigned, but there's no doubt in my mind this is art by Jack Cole. The gasoline splash drops, the cartoony figures, the lettering, and the overall tight composition. The concept of a gag cartoon approach is also very much Jack Cole, who jam-packed his work with creative ideas. In this case, the very idea of drawing a service station team swarming over a customer and car is so very much like Cole. 

The ads appeared long after Jack Cole had left Harry Chesler's studio and was working at Quality Comics. In fact, it's entirely possible that Jack Cole drew the art for these ads close to the same time he created the first Plastic Man story (which was published in August 1941). However, maybe Chesler lined up the ads earlier than this, perhaps even when Cole worked for him. We know from the copyright notice that he filed the paperwork on October 1, 1940, about a year before he rolled the ads out.

As far as I can tell, King Kola was never manufactured. After these two ads, it seems that Chesler dropped the scheme. Still, we can't be certain. Here's a collector's photo in which the middle bottle of King Kola is dated from 1939. 

The bottles look very different from the one in the ad, and I doubt that this is Chesler's product.

In fact, one wonders if Chelser really intended to sell the licensing at all, since his ad so clearly defined the look of the bottle. It seems odd that he would pick such a distinctive-looking bottle instead of letting a manufacturer/distributor design the packaging.Could it be that Harry Chesler planned to make the cola himself? Or, perhaps he was merely running fictituous ads in his magazine to perhaps attract other advertisers. One wonders if he was onto Fox's scheme, or if he saw soft drink ads suddenly appearing on Fox's comics and thought, "Hey, if he can get an advertiser to go for a full page color ad, so can I!"

In any case, whatever the true story of King Cola may be...

These are rare examples of Jack Cole advertising art and delightful to peruse. Perhaps, if he had lived longer, Jack might have been lured into the lucrative world of advertising, as many of his peers were in the late 1950s, early 1960s. The mind reels...
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