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An Unpublished 1940 Sub-Zero Cover by Jack Cole

Here's a super-cool rare piece of previously unpublished early superhero art by Jack Cole that provides a small revelation about his early career.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The files and archives of old comics publishers are probably filled with unpublished cover roughs.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Jack Cole's unpublished cover rough for Sub-Zero Man.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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