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

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