Oct 31, 2013

Dark Plas Halloween 2013: Plastic Man Stakes Out A Vampire!


For the last 3 Halloweens, I've posted about the strange, dark last comic book stories of Jack Cole's career as a comic book artist.

This year, I present to you "The Evil Terror?" from Plastic Man #43 (November, 1953). This 10-page saga fluttering around a bat-winged vampire in the best Universal-Studios-Bela-Lugosi tradition is one of the last Plastic Man stories -- perhaps the very last one -- that Jack Cole appears to have created.

As I've written about earlier, the comic book stories Jack Cole wrote and drew in the early 1950s embraced the horror genre with the same verve and intensity that his 1940s comics embraced screwball humor. A strong argument can be made that Cole's 1950s horror stories reflect the undercurrent of anxiety and terror present in Cold War America. These stories are filled with images of people cowering in shadows, frozen with terror.

At some point in the late 1940's, Cole sat down at his drawing table and drew a three panel sequence (one of the many delights that will be found in The Blighted Eye, the upcoming volume by the legendary comics historian, archivist, and collector Glenn Bray) that represented a startling departure from his popular bigfoot-superhero style employed to great success in his Plastic Man stories. The drawings were realistic, not rubbery. In the sequence, a man and a woman embrace in a passionate kiss. The scene is set in a luxuriant, modern city apartment. The panels are filled with delicious black shadows that define the many objects in the room, the drapery of the character's clothes, and even the strands of their hair. On the extreme right side of the sequence, Cole drew a small caricature of himself and penned a note to his Quality Comics publisher, "Busy" Arnold: "Romantical stuff, huh, Busy? Just wondering if you'd like to give me a trial on a serious strip, for a change? Yes? No? I await! Jack"

Cole, an indefatigable innovator, had become interested in creating a new style of comics, with a more realistic feel. Arnold and his editors did give Cole more serious strips -- but instead of romance, they made Cole the signature artist of their new horror title, Web of Evil, where Cole wrote and drew one or two stories for the first dozen or so issues.Some of those stories are reprinted and discussed on this blog. A new volume collecting some of these stories has just been released from IDW, edited by Craig Yoe.

Cole also transformed his Plastic Man stories from baroque screwball comic operas to nightmarish, anxiety-ridden dramas of dread. It was as if Plas and Woozy suddenly began to know the future held nothing but horror -- and they dreaded it with existential despair. Many readers, including me, have missed that these last Plastic Man stories are sometimes (not always) by Jack Cole (often with others finishing the art and inking). In earlier posts, I have explained why I think that certain of these stories, including the Plastic Man horror stories, which I call "Dark Plas" are indeed the work of Jack Cole.

In "The Evil Terror?" Cole once again invests his masterpiece comics creation with some of his trademark screwball humor. It's as if, for this last effort, he had come full circle from goofy humor comics, to dark parables of horror and dread, and then back to humor. As a creator of sequential graphic narratives, Jack Cole was something akin to a roller coaster speeding across the tracks, veering from side to side from light to dark, humor to horror -- and we see that happening in the span of this story.

As a result, "The Evil Terror?" reads overall like an episode of Scooby Doo. As with the popular animated series, it turns out there is a mundane explanation for the seemingly supernatural element in the adventure. The scene on page 8, where Woozy Winks raids the fridge is a parallel to the pothead Shaggy who is eternally cursed with the munchies.

Nonetheless, the story is filled with potent, masterful images of existential terror that are worth your time to peruse, especially on Halloween!

"The Evil Terror?" by Jack Cole - Plastic Man #43 (November, 1953)

More Dark Plas!

All text copyright 2013 by Paul Tumey.

Aug 25, 2013

It's Jake With Me - Stretching PAST Playboy in 1963

Here's three of Jack Cole's sexy vintage girlie cartoons, signed as "Jake." These were drawn in the mid-fifties, either just before or in the first years that Jack Cole provided cartoons to Playboy magazine.

Cole's mid-fifties "Jake" cartoons are looser than his Playboy material, but no less remarkable for the astonishing visions of feminine beauty they capture. As always, there is a rich subtext in Cole's work, usually built on the chaos in men's souls that these estrogen confections cause.

Cole died in 1958. However, his cartoons continued to appear on the newsstands for years after his death -- usually reprints, but in some cases first publications of stockpiled inventory. I recently grabbed three lovely and funny Jake images from online auctions of 1963 "Humorama" digests.  

The first is a back cover of a February, 1963 Laugh Digest. Cole's original cartoon is done in gray ink washes. The publishers have ham-handedly added in a semi-transparent red in the background and on the flower that sits in the woman's hair. Nonetheless, the gag is funny and the cartoon is fascinating for the portrayal of the terrified soldier. Our brave, tough men could face down commies, but when it comes to lustful beauties in low-cut dresses, that was another matter entirely!

February 1963 - Back cover of Laugh Digest

A Cole classic appeared on the cover of a Humorama digest dated September 1963, making two very good points:
September, 1963 
Everything in this clever composition (again clumsily colored by someone other than Cole) points to the woman's breasts: the gaze of the three figures, her arm and legs, and even the sign in the background. A looser Cole composition, with a typically offbeat gag, appeared on the first page of a Humorama digest dated December, 1963:

December 1963 - Laugh Digest

This cartoon is supposed to feel a little looser, to help convey the gyrations and jounces of the dancer. Look at the study in contrast Cole gives us between the sexy dancer and the sexless women of charity. The dancer is all curves and decorative patterns -- the charity workers are sagging lines and dull costumes. The joke is read and felt in a second, as it should be.

The editor(s) of these pulpy, sex-drenched digests appear to have valued their stock of Jack Cole cartoons, judging by their prime placements on covers, back covers, and splash pages. Even five years after his death, Jack Cole was "Jake" with the public.

Thanks for stopping by. Be sure to check out my column at The Comics Journal, Framed! -- in which I pull together some of this blog's work on Jack Cole as well discuss many other interesting things.

- Paul Tumey

Aug 6, 2013

Jack Cole's 1938 Screwball Comics

One spring morning in 1938, Jack Cole walked the 10 or 15 blocks from his Greenwich Village apartment to a broken down old five-story warehouse on West 23rd. On the street, trucks rattled by, and dozens of other people were entering similar buildings to run tiny little factories that made everything from clothes to hardware. The factory Cole reported to, the Harry "A" Chesler Shop, made comic books.

He took the rickety elevator up to the fourth floor, said good morning to his boss, Harry Chesler, who at at a desk just outside the elevator. Chesler, a stout, round-faced man, was wearing a vest with a watch chain, a derby, and smoking a cigar.  Cole walked past him into the large rented room in which several artists were already hard at work, hunched over their drawing boards. "Good morning Fred. Bob. Charlie." Cole greeted a few of his colleagues and sat down to work.

This is how I imagine the scenario of Cole's first months drawing comics. He had moved to New York City in late 1937 or early 1938 with his wife, Dorothy. Cole had come to New York to establish himself as a magazine gag cartoonist. He had managed to break in to several top markets, most notably Collier's and Judge. And he was selling regularly to Boy's Life. But his progress was too slow and he was running out of money and time. He very likely answered an ad in the New York Times, and found himself working for Harry "A" Chesler, an entrepreneur who hired artists to create comic book stories that he then sold to publishers.

Over his first few months at the Chesler Studio in early 1938, Cole began to develop into a comic book artist, moving from gaga panels and spot illustrations to one- and two-page sequential narratives. In spring or early summer of 1938, Chesler was hired by Quality COmics (Cole's future employer) to produce an advertising giveaway book for them. the book, The Cocomalt Big Book of Comics, was printed around August 1938, and featured several of Cole's early pages. It's possible that Cole was even hired by Chesler to be the art director of the book, which could account for the use of so much of his material as compared to other artists.

Cocomalt was a powdery vitamin additive to milk. Mothers in the 1930's and 40's were urged to save their children from malnutrition with a steady diet of the "sunlight vitamin." The product vanished from the shelves of American grocery markets sometime in the 1950's, well before I landed on this crazy lump of coal we call Earth. Reportedly, Cocomalt was as hard to mix with milk as oil with water.

Nevertheless, it must have been a popular product, due, if nothing else, to a hefty advertising budget. Cocomalt sponsored radio shows, buried cool Buck Rogers paper ray guns in the canisters of powder, and gave away numerous free premiums.

The Cocomalt Big Book of Comics was one such premium, published in 1938, and by Quality Publications (although no publisher, or month is listed anywhere on the book). The cover of the book is by Charles Biro, and features radio star Joe Penner. I'm just guessing here, but probably Cocomalt sponsored Penner's radio show.

When I wrote about this book a few years ago, I missed some of Cole's art in the book, and attributed work done by others to him. After years of study, I've developed a better "eye" for Cole's art, and can now correct the record.

Cole's first page in the book is a one-pager called "Insurance Ike." It appears that Cole did not create this character, since there are earlier episodes published before Cole joined the Chesler shop. This page is filled with Cole's life. The dialogue Ike has with his reflection in the mirror may have been a reflection of how Cole was feeling about his life at the time, as he struggled to make it as a cartoonist.

I've written more on this page and Cole's 1938 work  in my latest column, Framed! for The Comics Journal. You can find it here.

In his next page, Cole draws radio comedian Joe Penner. The first panel is a pun in Penner's name. In true screwball comics fashion, Cole uses a lot of funny background signs in this page. The cigar smoking duck sidekick in panel two is a winner -- one wishes Cole had used this character more.

Cole's next contribution in the Cocomalt book is a two-page King Kole's Kourt. Despite the play on Cole's name, this was a series that Chesler had run since 1935, long before Jack Cole came along. Again, the subject matter Cole chooses is concerned with meeting expenses.

I missed this years ago, but Cole provides some great illustrations for three pages of sheet music. The song is co-written by Joe Penner. This may be the only instance of Cole providing spot art for sheet music.There are lots of great screwball gags worked into the art, including inverted coo coo calls from cuckoo birds.

Cole also leans on his experience creating magazine gag panels. In the "Myrth-Parade" one-pager, he contributes three gags:  panels two, three, and six. Panel six features an early sexy girl. Panel one appears to  be by Bob Wood, and panel five is by Fred Schwab. Panel four may be a collaboration between Jack Cole and Fred Schwab.

Cole's last contribution to The Cocomal Big Book of Comics is another gag panel. The fourth panel in this page is by Cole, with the other panels being by other Chesler artists (that's Fred Schwab in panel two).

It's intriguing to think that the Cocomalt Big Book of Comics was Cole's first editing job, but we probably will never really know for sure. What we can be sure of is that, within a few months of joining the Harry "A" Chesler shop, Cole was already standing out with comics that were highly original and invested with manic comic energy.

For more about Jack Cole's 1938 work with Chesler, see my new Comics Journal article, The Lost Comics of Jack Cole - Part Two (1938).

Thanks for reading,
Paul Tumey

Jul 1, 2013

Announcements: New Cole Article at The Comics Journal, Upcoming Books

As of today, July 1, 2013, I have a new column at the online magazine, The Comics Journal. Co-editors Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler very kindly responded to my query ("Hey guys, want some writing?") and then patiently waited four months for me to produce something.

I'm kicking off the new column with a four-part series called "The Lost Comics of Jack Cole." The first part (1931-8) can be read here.

This long piece includes 36 cartoons, comics, photos, and rare images -- 16 of which never made it onto this blog.

But, more than that, I've discovered that putting all these little bits and pieces of the "lost" Jack Cole together into a chronological framework sheds light on the life and career of this secretive, influential 20th century master of pop culture. I hope you'll check it out and leave a comment there to encourage the editors to run more stuff like this.

One the reasons Dan and Tim had to wait four months for this piece was that, around the time they hired me, I landed a wonderful opportunity to write an essay for the upcoming 500 foot long by 300 foot wide Sunday Press book, Society Is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy At The Dawn of the Newspaper Comic Strip (1896-1915). My essay in the book is called "Mule Kicks: The Roots of Screwball Comics." I also was a contributing editor, helping out publisher and editor Peter Maresca on researching and writing about 50 mini-biographies of cartoonists represented in this amazing book. It's due out around August 1 and might even make an early appearance at the San Diego Con -- look for it -- it's gonna be a REVELATION. Here's the cover:

Coming around August 1, 2013 from Sunday Press

Just when I finished up the Sunday Press project, Abrams ComicArts editor Charlie Kochman kicked his work on The Art of Rube Goldberg into overdrive. I actually worked day and night for a short while on this with him (I am co-editor of the volume). This book, a huge coffee table art book on the Great Cartoonist will have a slew of original essays from greats like Al Jaffe, Brian Walker, Peter Maresca (my publisher/editor at Sunday Press), Carl Linich, and best of all - from Rube's talented, funny grand-daughter, Jennifer George (who put the whole book together). I've got an essay in the book, as well. You can check it out on Amazon here, and here's the cover art:

And now, since you've been kind enuff to read through all this shameless self-promotion, here's an actual piece of rare Cole art. Even though this ran in a 1944 Chesler publication called Punch Comics, it was clearly done much earlier -- probably in 1938 or 1939 when he was working as a staff artist at the Chesler Shop. It may have been published in some as yet unidentified comic (if so, probably a Centaur publication), or it may have been something Cole did which was kept in inventory. In any case, it's pretty swell -- a whole, artfully designed page of gag cartoons around the theme of travel trailers!

Punch Comics #9 (Harry "A" Chesler, July 1944)

More soon!

Thanks for Reading,
Paul "O'Brian" Tumey

Mar 16, 2013

An Unpublished 1940 Sub-Zero Cover by Jack Cole

Here's a super-cool rare piece of previously unpublished early superhero art by Jack Cole that provides a small revelation about his early career. It's a cover rough featuring Sub-Zero Man, a character that Jack Cole is not known to have ever drawn.

"What's a cover rough?" You may be asking.

In the cartoon and comics biz, a "rough" is simply a preliminary version of a finished piece of art. It's done to give the publisher an idea of where the artist is headed with the piece, and allows for adjustments to be made. This is a common practice, even today. It saves the artist time, and it makes sure the publisher gets what they want.

The files and archives of old comics publishers are probably filled with unpublished cover roughs. At some point in the past, the comics historian and writer Ron Goulart appears to have gotten access to the files for a 1940s  comics packager called Funnies, Inc., and he photocopied from these files a rare, previously unknown cover rough by Jack Cole.  As you may know, Ron wrote Focus on Jack Cole (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 1986)

Decades later, Ron Goulart put the photocopy (which was never published) up for sale on ebay, and I bought it to share with the world's Jack Cole fans. Feel free to thank me. :) Here's the art:

Jack Cole's unpublished cover rough for Sub-Zero Man. January 1940
(From the collection of Paul Tumey)

Ah, that beautiful pointed exclamation mark!

Information on the art identifies it as a cover rough and tells us it was drawn by Jack Cole for Novelty Press. The art has a date stamp of  January 15, 1940. We know that Jack Cole wrote and drew a few comic book stories for Novelty Press that were published in the early 1940s. These stories appeared in Target Comics Volume 1, Number 1 through Volume 1, Number 4 (the January, 1940 through May, 1940 issues). The stories were "bigfoot" style humor features called The Higrass Twins.

The splash page of Jack Cole's HiGrass Twins story from Target Comics Volume 1, Number 1 (January, 1940)

It's interesting to know that Cole was also developing a superhero feature for packager Funnies, Inc. (who sold to Novelty Press -- confusing, isn't it?).  Also in early 1940, he created a superhero for MLJ called The Comet. Note how similar the pose is in this splash panel below to the Sub-Zero Man's pose above.

Jack Cole's second Comet story, from Pep Comics #2, MLJ - February, 1940)

Clearly, around this time, Cole was developing his own approach to an exciting visual depiction of a superhero in flight. His early solutions are almost pornographic, with his characters wearing skin-tight suits that reveal every curve and muscle of their taut buttocks. Despite his name, Jack Cole's Sub-Zero Man is well, kinda hot.

It's also interesting to compare the Sub-Zero art with the black and white ink wash cartoons Cole published in Boy's Life magazine in early 1940:

In 1939 and 1940, Cole had developed a commercially viable black and white ink wash technique, that included using white paint on top of the black ink to indicate sound and motion. Both his superhero and his humor cartoon work of this period vividly depict bodies flying through the air. His work of this period was an important stepping stone to his creation of Plastic Man, his masterpiece.

However, the newly surfaced 1940 Sub-Zero cover art raises as many unanswered questions as it answers. The biggest question is: did Jack Cole create the character of Sub-Zero Man? Did he also create a Sub-Zero story to accompany this cover?

Even though no Cole-drawn Sub-Zero stories exist, the character was indeed published in Novelty Press comics, a few months after the date of this art. The first appearance was in Blue Bolt Volume 1, Number 1 (June, 1940), which featured work by Joe Simon (of Simon and Kirby). Here's the first Sub-Zero story, signed by a "Larry Antonette." Even though the finished art is not by Cole, it does have the feel of his early superhero work, with manic energy, huge natural disasters, vindictive heroes, and bizarre fates for wrong-doers. See what you think:

I'm sure that Mr. Mason Moray, the eminent panelologist, could shed some light on aritst Antonette's life and career -- he seems to know reams of information about the obscure creative talents that worked in 1940s American comics. But, the really interesting artist to work on Sub-Zero is Golden Age great Bill Everett. 

Bill Everett's first Sub-Zero story from Blue Bolt Vol. 1, Number 5 (October, 1940)
Did you catch the similarity between the names of Sub-Zero and Everett's most famous creation: The Sub-mariner (first published in October, 1939 -- eight months prior to Sub-Zero's first appearance). And how about this: another feature in Blue Bolt was called Dick Cole -- and Jack Cole's brother was named Dick. Is any of this connected? Was it an in-joke? Did Cole write some early superhero material for Funnies, Inc. that was later developed by others? 

We know Jack Cole was prolific, ambitious, and hard-working -- so could there be yet more unpublished early Jack Cole art out there, somewhere?

At this point, these questions must go unanswered.

But, we can certainly appreciate the raw, primal ZOOM power of Cole's lost Golden Age superhero comic book cover!

'Till Next Time,
Paul Tumey

So where did Jack Cole get his screwball sensibility from? Be sure to check out my other blog, The Masters of Screwball Comics, where you can read the very Cole-like Dinky Dinkerton comic strip by the forgotten Art Huhta!

All text copyright 2013 Paul Tumey

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