Oct 31, 2012

Beautiful Sexy Witch Melts Plastic Man in a Superb Jack Cole Horror Story

In his work, Jack Cole certainly appears to have had certain unconscious dark obsessions. It's these very obsessions, combined with a wildly inventive mind, and a stunning talent for creating visual images that are the foundation of Cole's greatness, both as the creator of Plastic Man stories and as the signature Playboy cartoonist. We see evidence of all these elements, perhaps in their most potent form, in today's "Dark Plas" Halloween post, " The Witch of Wailing Woods," a  little-known, mostly overlooked story from Plastic Man #42 (July, 1953).

The story, like many of Cole's later Plastic Man adventures, is built around a beautiful evil woman. In this case, Cole offers us a gorgeous raven-haired witch named Zelda, clad in a fetching dress that splays the black strands of a spider and its web across her perfectly-formed breasts.

The more I look at this story, the more impressed I am with it. Jack Cole's last comic book stories are among his best, in my opinion -- although it is a far cry from the zany screwball antics for which Cole is best-known. It may be this puzzling and extreme shift in tone that accounts for why these Cole stories remain largely undiscovered and certainly unappreciated by his fans. In many cases, the stylistic and tonal shift is so extreme that the stories, unsigned, are often not identified as Jack Cole's work.

From Plastic Man 43
Admittedly, Cole's last comic book stories, from 1952-54 are dark, twisted, and disturbing -- put simply, they are not nearly as much fun to read as his humor-based work. Why did Jack Cole, a guy who did humor comics so well and so successfully, step into the dark world of monsters, death, dismemberment, and pure evil?

Perhaps Cole and his editors at Quality Comics were attempting to keep pace with the breaking trend of horror comics, led by E.C. with titles like Haunt of Fear and Tales From the Crypt. It's one way to explain why Cole and Quality took a character deeply rooted in humor and slapstick and recast him into one supernatural horror story after another. In the issue that comes after the one in which this witch story appears, Plastic Man and Woozy battle a vampire.

At the  same time Plas and Woozy fought witches, werewolves, and vampires in the pages of the last Plastic Man comics Cole drew, Quality also brought out a new horror title, the sinister-sounding Web of Evil. The star artist at Web of Evil... Jack Cole.

It seems to me that the real story here is not that Cole made such a surprising left-turn from humor to horror in his work, but rather that he did it so well. It's easy to become preoccupied (and repulsed) with the darkness of his last dark comic book stories and miss the extraordinary level of accomplishment in creating sequential graphic narratives that Jack Cole achieved in this work.

Here's a video presentation I've made to analyze and appreciate the splash page of today's story. In looking at this one page alone, we find a high level of design, great inventiveness and craft, and -- of course -- a weirdness and particular shadowy tone unique to Cole's work.

And, without further ado, here's the story. Some notes and observations follow.

Whew! Pretty grim stuff! However, remember, it was in Police Comics 22 that Cole dispenses with a villain by snapping his head in a bear trap.

Upon closer examination, one can find traces of Jack Cole's shadow-side in his earlier work. Given this, it seems to make sense that Cole -- tasked with a new direction from humor to horror -- would be able to embrace it with gusto, as he does in this story, much in the same way Plas embraces the sexy witch.

"The Witch of Wailing Woods" features a woman who is both deeply desirable and extremely deadly. Plastic Man seems drawn to her as a man. He curls around her, extends and grows his body to encircle and embrace her. In one panel, Cole delivers a somewhat tender, sexually charged portrait of Plastic Man and Zelda that resonates with similar panels in his other stories of this period.

Woozy, an incorrigible womanizer, is the very portrait of a man bewitched when he gets close to Zelda. Cole plays it up with a dash of humor and a couple of cartoon sweat drops, but compared to the Tex Avery style wolf takes Cole was drawing just 3 years earlier, this is pretty restrained. 

A real witch (and talented), Zelda seems to be able to use a mixture of spells and voodoo to acquire a certain power to control and destroy both people and inanimate objects. She seems motivated to establish a new business model, by selling her services at a premium, as opposed to simply using her powers to get money. She appears to have no empathy at all, and kills two of her henchmen after making them suffer in agony. In others, Zelda, the beautiful sorceress, is as crazy as a bedbug.

Cole -- in his comic book stories, at least -- appears to be both drawn to and oppressed by beautiful women. In one panel, a man writhes on the ground in torture and gasps, "I can't stand it! She's killing me!"

Throughout the story, Cole uses the bright red body of Plastic Man (is that costume his skin, or actual clothes he's wearing?) to direct the eye through his shadow-drenched, inky-black tableaux.

In my video above, I spoke of how Cole created different visual planes and then broke them with vigorous movement through them in the splash page. Consider the smoke and Plas' left arm, which move away from the planes nearest the reader towards the rear planes.

And then the thug-monster's two arms move him the opposite direction, from the rear, to the front. When we step back and look at this composition, we see that all the elements swirl around the central figure of the luscious wicked witch. the smoke curls around her, as does Plastic Man's arm. She is the catalyst of this composition, as she is the catalyst of this story. So, the splash page is symbolic and perfectly in resonance with the story the will follow. This strikes me as pretty sophisticated and accomplished art, in any medium. Cole uses this multi-dimensional, depth-of-field technique in several standout panels within the story itself:

As the story reaches climax (cough cough) Cole makes his panels more dense.

While the story may be somewhat hackneyed and cliche-ridden, and the horrific nature of the visuals may be something of a turn off when one expects to see Cole's funny stuff, I maintain that his last comic books have great merit and encourage all readers to seek them out. I leave you with one of my favorite panels in the story. After drawing Plastic Man in exceptional volume and intensity for over decade, Cole had a unique feel for what a man who had a rubber body would actually look like in our reality, and in this panel, he delivers a beautiful and surprising image, that is both funny and challenging. 

This was one of Jack Cole's last Plastic Man stories. It's a shame that, having achieved this high level of expertise, and being so talented, he didn't stay in the field and make more comic book stories. 

Somewhat like Plastic Man in this panel, Cole's soul and emotional health may not have been up to its normal resiliency. The field he had worked so hard in for 15 years was rapidly changing and edging him out. Even though he was artistically successful (perhaps more than anyone realized until recently), his shift from humor to horror wasn't doing the trick. Like Plas, he knew he had to do something fast. A few months later, he submitted some gag cartoons to a new men's magazine, called Playboy, and made another virtuoso shift in artistic approach, from horror comics to sexy cartoons. This time, his work was noticed and celebrated -- but sadly, it seemed to make little difference to a man who must have still had the darkness we see in his last comic book stories locked up inside.

Happy Halloween 2012,
Paul Tumey


All text copyright 2012 by Paul Tumey

Oct 16, 2012

Three Strange Early Jack Cole Cartoons - 15 Years before Playboy!

Here's a NEW Jack Cole find -- three very early bizarre, death-crime-and-punishment oriented gag cartoons from the pages of Lev Gleason's Picture Scoop Volume 1, #4 (April, 1943). 

The magazine was one of several mainstream "slick" style publications published by Lev Gleason, the publisher of Charles' Biro's comic book Crime Does Not Pay. Gleason also hired Jack Cole in late 1939 to edit his comic book,Silver Streak (named after his new car), where Cole created The Claw, Sliver Streak, Daredevil, The Pirate Prince, and Dickie Dean - Boy Inventor.

By the time of Picture Scoop's publication, Jack Cole had left Lev Gleason, worked briefly for MLJ (Archie) and then moved over to Quality Comics in 1941. In an earlier article (which you can read here), we looked at some original anti-Hitler cartoons from issue one of Picture Scoop

The cover of Picture Scoop #4 (April, 1943)

Many thanks to Darwination   please be sure to visit his Darwination Scans Blog  for many scans of amazing old magazines and ephemera) for scanning this magazine and making finds such as this possible.

The Cole cartoons all bear his late 30's magazine gag cartoon signature that we see in the 1936-40 Boy's Life cartoons (you can read over 20 of the cartoons and my article here -- check it out folks, this is one of the best achievements of this blog!)

The subject matter of these is too grim for the Boy's Life scouting market, so they must have been done for some other market. I'm thinking Cole may have targeted a crime or police stories magazine, since these feature cops, albeit doing pretty morbid acts!

By 1943, Cole's style was very different, and it had been three long years since he had worked for Gleason... so I am thinking he pulled these out of a drawer of his rejects and sold them to his former boss. I suspect these cartoons were done in the late 1930's, probably 1937 or 1938.

In any event, here's the cartoons, in order from strange...

... stranger... (note: colored blue to make it more readable):

... and downright dark!

It seems that even in the first years of his career, Cole was fascinated with death. It's this mordant, elemental bent that raises Cole's cartoons up as noteworthy.

The cartoons appear in a spread in the magazine, and one wonders if the red tinting of the two "off-color" gags is to decrease their impact:

Three early Jack Cole cartoons share space with others in Picture Scoop #4
I don't know who the other cartoonists are in this spread, but this gives you a good look at how distinctively screwball Cole's style was, even in the early years.

And speaking of Screwball Comics, here's a FREE SNEAK PREVIEW of the latest exciting development at my other blog, The Masters of Screwball Comics. This is the stuff that influenced Jack Cole, Harvey Kurtzman, and other major American cartoonists. 

Here's page one of the special "GONE TO THE DOGS" issue of my faux newspaper Screwball Sunday Comics Supplement. If you like what you see there's lots more -- just click here and get ready to guffaw!

Screwily Yours,
Paul Tumey

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