Click to Enlarge

The Mystique and Mysteries of Jack Cole
From Plastic Man to Playboy and Betsy and Me

No mystery about Jack Cole’s cartooning genius. He was, without question or quibble, a virtuoso at the craft, absolute master of the art. Cole wrote and drew his own material–pencilled, scripted, and inked all of it, most of the time. He is then, the very emblem of cartooning. And in his most remembered creation, Plastic Man, we find, as Art Spiegelman put it in his New Yorker article (April 19, 1999)–an article of superlative insight and understanding–“the embodiment of the comic book form: its exuberant energy, its flexibility, its boyishness, and its only partially subliminated sexuality.” Plastic Man was clearly a unique achievement as well as a superior one.

            One of the mysteries about Jack Cole is: How did he do it? What are the ingredients that make his elastic superhero so remarkable? Can we find the whole in the sum of its parts? Or is it the combination of those ingredients that makes Plastic Man soar in our imaginations while tickling our risibilities? And these questions inevitably rear up every time that DC Comics brings forth yet another of its many tries at reincarnating Cole’s masterwork.

            The most recent of these, released in June 1999, is an unmitigated travesty. To begin with, the drawing style adopted for Plastic Man Special No. 1 is realistic, not bigfoot cartoony, the style Cole deployed in the canonical Plastic Man. The powers at DC make this mistake often. In reviving a vintage funnybook hero from the Golden Age, they immediately discard one of the most distinctive aspects of the character–its appearance. Mistake. The same mistake is usually committed with Fawcett’s Captain Marvel. The powers clearly believe that today’s comic book reader will not accept superheroicism in any visual mode but the realistic. Given the runaway success of the DC books rendered in the simplified “Batman animation style,” it’s difficult to understand the persistence of the obviously wrongheaded notion that superheroes must be drawn in an illustrative manner.

            The next problem with Plastic Man Special is that Ty Templeton’s three stories are just silly. Not funny. Silly. The villains are goofy without being at all amusing. And the clash of the realistic drawings with the unrelenting goofiness of the villainy strains at both ends of the credibility equation: looking like they do, how can they be so slapstick? Slapstick as they are, how can they look so real? One of the secrets in Cole’s successful formula is that his bigfoot style is perfectly suited to the manic humor of the action.

            DC’s earlier attempts at reviving Cole’s elastic champion were somewhat more acceptable. In the first, in 1966, the drawing was not quite bigfoot, but it was close; it certainly wasn’t realistic. But the stories lacked the Cole comic touch–sight gags. The next attempt, which was launched ten years later, was an improvement in the visuals at least. Ramona Fradon captured exactly the look of Plastic Man. Still, it wasn’t Jack Cole: not much in the way of visual comedy. These two revivals of Plas, except for Fradon’s evocative art in the second reincarnation, were calamities. No mystery about the cause of these failures. Jack Cole is dead. But there wasn’t even a discernible gesture at imitating his storytelling technique. At the heart of which, as I’ve strenuously intimated, was the humble sight gag. The incidental funny picture. A little bit of visual hilarity tucked into this panel and that. As Ron Goulart once observed (in Fantagraphics’ Focus Book, Jack Cole), “Cole’s forte lay in his ability to create a sight gag in virtually every panel without disrupting the telling of the story.”

            And Plas’s modus operandi was built on the same kind of visual imagination that foments sight gags. Plas often caught up with the baddies by disguising himself, molding his body into another shape. Sometimes he impersonated a human being, reshaping his visage to resemble that person. But frequently, he took the shape of a piece of furniture or an conveniently positioned object d’art. The fun was in discovering which piece of red furniture in the bad guy’s hideout had black-and-yellow stripes with a yellow diamond–a tell-tale design that duplicated the belt on Plas’s costume.

            The most recent of the previous attempts at bringing back Plastic Man was a four-issue mini-series in 1988. Plotted by Phil Foglio and Hilary Barta with an assist from Kevin Nowlan and then scripted by Foglio and drawn by Barta (with inks by John Nyberg), it was the most successful in capturing the Cole spirit. Barta’s drawings are a joy. And he sprinkles sight gags profusely across every page. Foglio’s breakdowns (or Barta’s?) time the comedy for best effect (something too few writers seem capable of–but Foglio is also a cartoonist), and the plots themselves are quite acceptable, the villains goofy and goofily rendered. But Barta’s Plastic Man is constantly mugging, reacting to every event like a fugitive from Tex Avery’s funny farm–jaw dropping, eyeballs bulging, and so on. A minuscule quibble, I admit. But Fradon did it better: she knew Cole’s Plastic Man seldom registered any emotion but concern and dedication. He was perfectly straight-faced as the hero of his adventures. He was just about the only straight-faced character around, in fact.

            Everyone says Plastic Man was wacky. And that was the secret to Cole’s success. But Cole’s Plastic Man wasn’t just wacky. In fact, he wasn’t wacky at all. Not ever. Not even in the dim recesses of his beginnings in Police Comics No. 1 (August 1941). And the proof is in DC’s Archive Plastic Man. DC’s Archive Edition volumes are extremely valuable historical documents. For the price. The actual comic books are even more valuable, but who can afford (in the case of the first Plastic Man volume) all the first twenty issues of Police Comics? The Archives project is clearly a gift from DC to the humble comics historian.

            Their historical value is wholly evidentiary. In these books, we have actual evidence on the premises. We can therefore witness in person the histories of certain comic book features as they unfold before us in the Archives. We can watch the development of these features for ourselves, not having to rely on the testimony of others, who, wealthier than we, own the actual comic books whose content is reproduced in this series. Without the Archives books, the more impoverished of us musty scholars would have no access to the evidence we need to construct accurate history. Sure, we can rely upon the testimony of others, but who knows what their biases are? Or how well or badly they perceive the evidence? It’s better to see it for ourselves. And the Archives permit this personal engagement.

            In the tome at hand, we can see, for instance, that the evidence contradicts most of the popular belief about Plastic Man. Cole’s Plastic Man is actually quite sane–very nearly the only sane person in a wacky world, as I said earlier. The stories, though–they’re zany. But that’s because most of the other characters are off-the-wall nutso. But the zaniness wasn’t there at the beginning. And that’s what the evidence now conveniently at hand demonstrates beyond question. The earliest Plastic Man stories were decidedly not exercises in screwball bigfoot comedy.

            With the evidence in front of us, we can see that for at least the first four stories, Cole was telling superhero adventures more-or-less seriously. Some of the characters are a little extreme, but the panels are not festooned with Cole’s telltale sight gags. And the villains, although exaggerated personalities, are not outright bigfoot looney as they eventually became. In fact, it isn’t until Police Comics No. 10, the tenth Plastic Man story, that we find anything approaching the high-flying comedy that Cole is now remembered for. The earlier issues, to be sure, are somewhat humorous, but the humor arises from characters’ reactions to a “rubber man” who can change his facial features to resemble anyone he wishes. This is humor integral to the plot, not gratuitous comedy for the sheer sake of provoking laughter, which is what sight gags and comical appearances aim to do.

            That being the case, what can we make of Will Eisner’s Foreword in which he implies that Plastic Man was concocted as a humorous alternative to the Spirit?

             Jack Cole had come to see him in mid-1941, Eisner says, at the behest of Busy Arnold. Arnold was Eisner’s partner in several comic book properties and in a unique Sunday newspaper supplement, a mini-comic book for which Eisner had created the Spirit in the spring of 1940. World War II was sure to beckon Eisner away from the drawingboard sooner or later, and Arnold wanted to protect his investment in the Sunday supplement. Since Eisner owned the Spirit and might, if inducted into military service, discontinue it, leaving Arnold without a lead feature for the publication, Arnold wanted a back-up feature, something he owned that he could bring in to take the Spirit’s place. He had, Eisner tells us, directed Jack Cole to create this simulacrum, and he had further instructed him to go see Eisner to pick up “some pointers” about how to do the character.

            Cole, however, was an ethical fellow and was loathe to copy Eisner. Instead of picking Eisner’s brain for “pointers,” he just said he wouldn’t imitate the Spirit. At dinner that evening, the two of them talked “into the night,” and eventually Cole came up with Plastic Man, Eisner reports, “a hilariously funny satirical combination of a superhero and a detective ... a masterpiece of innovation.”

            They met often during 1941, Eisner recalls, and “always giggled at the trick Jack pulled on Busy by producing a weirdly funny Plastic Man instead of the Eisner-type detective Arnold wanted.”

            But, as I said, the evidence contradicts Eisner’s recollection. Plastic Man wasn’t funny at all at first and didn’t get very funny until his tenth appearance, which was almost a year after his August 1941 debut. Besides which, Eisner makes no mention of Midnight. A crime-fighter in a blue suit with a snap-brim hat and a mask, Midnight is clearly the imitation Spirit which Cole had created for Arnold’s Smash Comics. And Midnight debuted in No. 18, dated January-February 1941–six months before the meeting in “mid-1941" that Eisner recounts in his Foreword. Clearly, Eisner’s memory has gone fishing here–as human memory is wont to do. None of us can remember many of the details of our lives in a truly chronological fashion. As I approach my own dotage, for instance, I often forget even the way to get back home. And Eisner is a little older than I am. He’s also a little wiser about the waywardness of memory.

            When I spoke with him about Cole and the creation of Midnight and Plastic Man, Will said: “I learned about memory when I was doing Heart of the Storm [his autobiographical graphic novel about anti-Semitic prejudice]. Your life is a seamless thing, and you try to remember it by recollecting incidents along the way. And sometimes, those incidents don’t quite fit in.”

            I’d become interested in Midnight a couple years ago and started buying copies of vintage Smash Comics. In them, I could see that Midnight was at first as straight-faced a crime fighter as the Spirit was. By July 1942, however, sight gags had begun to slip into the panels in Smash Comics No. 34. Curiously enough, Smash Comics No. 34 appeared on the newsstands at the same time as Police Comics No. 10, which saw the first real demonstration of crackbrained comedy in Plastic Man.

            So now we have a coincidence. And it is too much of a coincidence to be accidental. Clearly, something happened in Cole’s head in the winter of 1941-42 that inspired him to invest his creations with a comedic element that would eventually achieve a manic frenzy of sight gags in both features. What happened, I finally decided, was that Will Eisner got drafted.

            Eisner got his draft notice in late 1941, probably December. His draft board told him he would be inducted in May 1942, about six months hence. He had just launched the daily comic strip version of the Spirit on October 13. His impending stint with the military therefore threatened not only the continuation of the Spirit Sunday supplement but the syndicated strip, too–not to mention several comic book titles that he and Arnold were partners in. Eisner scrambled in the early months of 1942 to arrange for the continuation of all these projects. And to do the Spirit comic strip, he called on Lou Fine–and Jack Cole.

            Cole’s tenure on the comic strip began with the strips released on May 18, 1942, and ended with the August 8 release. Comic strips are produced 4-6 weeks in advance of their publication dates, so Cole probably started work on the strip in early- to mid-April. And that was right about the time that he would have been doing the more humorous Midnight and Plastic Man stories that would be published in the July issues of their respective comic books. Comic books, as we all realize, have cover dates that are a month or more later than their scheduled newsstand appearances, so presumably, both Smash Comics No. 34 and Police Comics No. 10 were on the stands in late May. Assuming that the artwork for comic books in those days had to be completed at least two months prior to publication, that would have Cole doing his stories in March, finishing them by the end of the month. Which was just before he presumably began working on the Spirit comic strip. But when Cole produced these comic book stories is less the object of this digression than when he had a meeting with Eisner.

            My guess is that sometime between Eisner’s receiving his draft notice in December and before Cole did the stories for the July issues of Smash and Police–before mid-March, say–Eisner and Cole had a meeting to discuss the Spirit and how Cole would continue it while Eisner was in the military. And I think this was the meeting and the conversation over dinner that Eisner recalls.

            I phoned Will and tested the theory on him. Always a gentleman–ever candid as well as courteous–he realized at once that his memory was probably faulty (citing his experience with Heart of the Storm as an example). And the more we talked, the more it seemed that my timetable would embrace all the known facts without inherent contradictions.

            “I have no way of denying what you just laid out,” Will said. (On another occasion when confronted by an apparent contradiction in two versions of history, Will said: “One of the reasons I’ve survived in this business is that I don’t deny anything–I just smile and nod.” He smiled and nodded. It’s nice to have a living legend around who is both canny and gracious.)

            “What I remember best about my dinner with Jack Cole,” he continued, “was that he was very straight and honest and ethical and that he didn’t want to produce a copy of the Spirit. He felt badly about that.”

            I supposed that during the dinner, Cole may have mentioned that he was more comfortable doing humorous material. Cole may, at that point, have realized that he could make Midnight different from the Spirit by infusing it with manic comedy. Eisner may have encouraged him in this notion (although Will says he doesn’t remember anything along these lines). In any case, I don’t think there’s any doubt that these two cartooning geniuses talked about their present work as well as the future Spirit comic strip assignment. And that means Cole probably talked about Plastic Man as well as Midnight.

            This sequence accommodates the evidence we have. It permits Midnight and Plastic Man their serious inaugural appearances, and it locates the Eisner-Cole conversation in a time frame that would explain the simultaneous shift in both features from serious crime-fighting to crime-fighting with tongue-in-cheek. And it offers a reason for the meeting: not for Cole to pick up “some pointers” for Midnight, but for him to get some pointers about the Spirit comic strip that he and Lou Fine would continue while Will was away.

            Moreover, this sequence explains why Eisner confused the two humorous Cole creations. Clearly, if Cole was doing both characters at the time he visited Eisner, their conversation would involve both of them. And if the solution to Cole’s uneasiness about the Midnight rip-off was to make Midnight funny and since both Midnight and Plastic Man subsequently turned out funny and since Cole became famous for Plastic Man–Eisner’s memory would, quite logically (quite humanly), lump all these facts together and assert that it was the comical Plastic Man that emerged from their dinner conversation.

            The lesson here, if there is one, is that human memory is more fallible than we usually suppose. Whatever we remember we should confirm with actual evidence of the physical sort. Evidence such as the archival volumes from DC supply. In the Archive Plastic Man, Volume 1, we have a handsomely bound 224-page book that includes the first twenty Plastic Man stories, starting with Police Comics No. 1. In these tales, we find Plas disguising himself more frequently, it seems, than he did later in his career. He often molds his face to resemble other personages. And the disguise he most frequently adopts is that of his real self, the one-time hoodlum named Eel O’Brian. It was as Eel O’Brian that the character achieved his plasticity: Eel and his gang were robbing a chemical plant when a vat of acid fell on Eel, and when he wakes up, he finds that he can stretch himself in any direction and to virtually any length. He then decides (alas, without much credible motivation) to use this new power to fight rather than to commit crime. Henceforth, he allies himself with the city’s police department, and to obtain “inside information” that helps him bring crooks to justice, Plastic Man poses as his former self, Eel O’Brian. And Cole deployed this dodge through most of the first twenty tales.

            Story-by-story, we watch Cole’s style evolve from fairly unabashed straight illustration of the sort he employed when doing Silver Streak and the Claw and Daredevil for Lev Gleason (c. 1939-41) to a more bigfoot manner. As his famous style of drawing emerged, so did a tendency to vary the page layouts, often abandoning conventional grids altogether. And his splash pages were as unconventional and imaginative as Eisner’s in The Spirit–symbolic always, and sometimes mood-setting, too.

            Issue-by-issue of Police Comics, we watch the popularity of the character grow. The evidence is in the number of pages allotted to Plastic Man. At first, he got six pages--at the back of the book. But by No. 9, Plas takes up 9 pages--now in front; and in No. 14, he’s up to 13 pages. In No. 19, he gets 15 pages. Other evidence of the increasing popularity of the character includes the cover (by No. 5, Plastic Man displaces the Firebrand as the character featured on the cover, a position Plas will enjoy for the rest of the run of the book) and some of the editorial content itself. No. 6 presents us with a splash page graph that charts Plastic Man’s growing fame: “Up, up, up goes Plastic Man’s popularity,” it trumpets. And at the end of this issue’s story, Plastic Man asks readers if they’d like his stories to be increased from six pages to nine. Three issues later, as we’ve seen, the readers have evidently voted for more pages.

            In this archival tome, we also meet Plas’ incorrigible companion, Woozy Winks. Short, tubby, and with a funny haircut and a bulbous schnoze, Woozy bows on stage in No. 13 as a petty criminal. He is reformed under the influence of Plastic Man, and he then fulfills the role of sidekick for the rest of Plas’s career. Woozy is probably the catalyst that completes the feature’s transition from serious to comic. Cole was already easing into his manic mode, but with Woozy as a cast member, he now has a regular character who lends himself to slapstick comedy. Woozy’s presence in a panel is almost always the occasion for a sight gag: he’ll be making a funny face, or fiddling with a prop, or stumbling, or falling over. All humorous pictures, all sight gags.

            Plastic Man’s plasticity is vital in virtually every tale. In the earliest ones, Cole explores various ways that his hero might be injured or killed, and we discover, as a consequence, that Plastic Man is more-or-less invulnerable. Plas’s singular ability lends itself easily to humorous treatments: the criminals he captures, for instance, are usually astonished (in comical exaggeration) at the outrageousness of his flexibility stunts. By No. 4, the crooks are often cartoony types–exaggerated caricatures of human visages and forms. From this kind of sight gag, others surely developed. By No. 10, as I’ve said, Cole was beginning to indulge himself in the kind of visual comedy for which he was celebrated among his peers.

            But, to return to our topic–Jack Cole’s masterful performance–sight gags are only a minor key manifestation of Cole’s cartooning genius. His claim to that nimbus rests more firmly upon his having created masterworks in three of cartooning’s modes. In comic books, Cole created Plastic Man, a hilarious yoking of super-power to comedy, sight gags to crime-fighting. And Cole repeated this accomplishment in Midnight, whose stories, like Plastic Man’s, are brimming with sight gags and other kinds of madcap lunacy. (Here, the comedy probably got a boost from Midnight’s adopting a pet monkey who talks. And he picked up other silly sidekicks as time went by. Over at Cole’s alma mater, Gleason, Crimebuster also had a pet monkey, Squeeks, beginning in April 1942, at least six months after Midnight’s Gabby showed up. Evidently Gleason’s editor/writer Charles Biro was taking a leaf from Cole’s book.)

            But Cole worked in straight, serious illustration in comic books, too. His first superhero effort was the Comet in Pep Comics No. 1 (January 1940). But he also did a supervillain, The Claw, for Silver Streak Comics No. 1 (December 1939), which he also edited until 1941. And he did the second story starring Gleason’s new costumed hero, Daredevil, in Silver Streak No. 7 (January 1941). Cole had a hand in horror comics, too. He produced the scandalous “Murder, Morphine and Me” for True Crime Comics No. 2 (May 1947), which included a panel reproduced in Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent as an illustration of the “injury to the eye” motif that Wertham found so prevalent in comic books. Finally, in the early 1950s, before leaving comic books for good, Cole did Angles O’Day, a light-hearted albeit realistically rendered detective feature, in Ken Shannon Nos. 1-9 (October 1951- c. March 1953). Plastic Man alone would have been enough to earn Cole the laurels he wears in the history of comics. But Cole didn’t stop with comic books.

            In the mid-1950s as the comic book industry began its slide into the doldrums, Cole started doing single-panel gag cartoons for magazines--men’s magazines mostly, and mostly those little digest-sized productions from Humorama. Then he was discovered by Hugh Hefner.

            Cole submitted rough sketches of cartoons to Hefner even before the first issue of Playboy. “There had been some publicity about the magazine,” Hefner told writer Hal Higdon. Presumably, Cole read these advance notices about Stag Party (as Playboy was called in the planning stages) and saw another market for cartoon sales.

            “There was nothing in the original batch of roughs that seemed appropriate,” Hefner recalled, “but I liked his style even in the pencil sketches. I also remembered his work from Plastic Man.”

            Hefner returned the cartoons with an encouraging note, and when Cole submitted another batch of roughs a few weeks later, Hefner bought several. Cole debuted in Playboy with the fifth issue, and before long, his work set the standard. For Playboy, Cole produced gorgeous full-page watercolor cartoons in glowing color, deploying a masterful painterly technique that soon defined what a Playboy cartoon should look like. This was no small achievement. Cole had worked almost exclusively with the linear drawing methods of comic books: solid, unbroken line drawings. But for his full-page cartoons at Playboy, he abandoned lines altogether, painting his pictures with no outlines at all. And he was quickly a master of the technique. Not that he gave up line. For the same magazine, he created a series of satirical psychological portraits called “Females by Cole,” and these were done in a sketchy style with a slap-dash brush stroke. Here, and in his watercolors, he deployed an authentic representation of the female form–the pear-shape. Real women are pear-shaped: they’re broad towards the bottom. And Cole was possibly the first girlie cartoonist to recognize this in his rendering of sexy women.

            His work for Playboy would have been enough–by itself–to qualify him for a place in the pantheon of the ink-fingered fraternity. But Cole wasn’t finished yet.

            He, like many cartoonists of his generation, had always apparently had his heart set on doing a syndicated comic strip. That’s where the big money was in cartooning, and Cole and all his colleagues of the day knew it. So while doing Playboy cartoons, he conjured up a candidate for a comic strip and successfully sold it into syndication early in 1958; it began May 26. Once again, Cole proved himself an innovator. And once again, he changed his drawing style dramatically.

            Betsy and Me, the strip in question, was drawn in the ultra-modern abstract style made popular earlier in the decade by UPA animated cartoons (Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoing-boing, etc.). More significantly, the storytelling manner Cole employed was a complete departure from the usual funny paper fashion. The comedy arose from the pictures’ contradicting the content of the prose. Cole’s fatuous hero would be telling us one thing in the narrative captions of the strips, but the pictures of the guy’s actions would show us just the opposite, revealing him as a trifle pretentious and wholly delusional. But harmless withal. A visual-verbal tour de force.

            The strip ran for only two-and-a-half months before Cole killed himself.

            Jack Cole’s suicide has been one of the inexplicable events in the history of cartooning.  Why would a cartoonist who had achieved what most cartoonists most long for–national syndication of a comic strip–suddenly and suicidally gave it up. It’s still a mystery, although there have been various conjectures about it.

            Spiegelman opines that Cole “died of growing up.” When Cole “traded in Plastic Man’s silly putty for Playboy’s silicone, he also traded away the innocent and omnidirectional sexuality of infancy for the mere heterosexuality of adolescence.” The next step in Cole’s maturation was Betsy and Me, which was about marriage and family and making a living–grown-up stuff. “Me” was Chet Tibbit, the one with delusions; Betsy was his dutiful and loving wife. And they had a five-year-old son, Farley, who was an unabashed genius. Here, we must point out that Cole and his wife, Dorothy, were childless after 24 years of marriage. But Cole loved children. Noting this, Spiegelman remarks that “Cole’s heartbreaking ‘fantasy’ about a loving couple doting on their brilliant little boy ... reads like a suicide note delivered in daily installments!” This is not as much of a leap of logic as might be supposed. In the first strip in which Chet Tibbit appears, he stutters–exactly as the “Jack Cole” character does in the Woozy Winks origin tale in Police Comics No. 13. Cole himself did not stutter, but his alter egos did. Spiegelman continues: “As he climbed his ladder of success, up from the primal mulch of the comic books, he finally arrived at air that was too thin to breathe: Jack Cole, a comics genius, died of growing up.” Or, to put it a little more prosaically, Cole killed himself because he could not live up to the expectations he had for himself as an adult.

            But this interpretation, however accurate it may be in poetic parlance, lacks the analytical precision of thorough explanation. It seems clear, though, that Cole’s suicide was somehow related to his relationship with his wife. And perhaps, to their childlessness. Spiegelman agrees, saying “impotence ... was the key to Cole.”

            Clay Geerdes, reporter and photographer of the underground until his death a couple years ago, explored the question thoroughly, obtaining a copy of the coroner’s report (as did Spiegelman) and, even, maps of the area around Cary, Illinois, where Cole killed himself. The proximity to Playboy (headquartered in Chicago, 40 miles away) was a factor in Cole’s fatal decision, Geerdes believed. The Coles had been persuaded to move from Connecticut to Illinois by Hefner after they’d lost most of their household possessions in a flood in 1955. “I convinced him to move to Chicago,” Hefner told Higdon, “so that we could work more closely together. Jack had been born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and the joke was that we had brought Cole from New Castle.”

            “This move,” Geerdes wrote, “meant that Dorothy had to leave all her family and friends behind, that she would be living among strangers in a small town, that she would get lonely and resentful, particularly after she began to hear about the lifestyle at the Playboy Mansion [which had just recently opened] where Cole and the other cartoonists were invited without their wives.”

            Cole didn’t quite fit into this crowd, Hefner recalled: “Jack was this sweet, conservative guy, who was very devoted to his wife--and yet he created these incredible women [in his Playboy cartoons]! And when he created his comic strip, it revolved around a typically suburban couple, who had a supersmart child. He hardly fit the Playboy pattern.”

            Or, as he told Spiegelman, Cole “was no Shel Silverstein.”

            Geerdes concurred, but he gives the circumstance a telling spin: “Though there is no evidence to indicate Cole was a womanizer, it is not difficult to surmise the type of arguments that went on between [husband and wife] as a result of Jack being around Hefner’s bunnies. Dottie was middle-aged and childless and, while Jack was getting a lot of ego-boosting from his cronies, she was feeling like anything but a success.”

            Before he shot himself in the head with a .22 caliber Marlin rifle on August 13, 1958, Cole wrote three suicide notes. He mailed two of them: one to Hefner, one to his wife. The third was scrawled on a tablet that was found on the front seat of his car next to his body when he was discovered on a gravel country road near Crystal Lake. The note on the car seat was addressed to whoever found Cole and asked that a neighbor be informed of his death first so his wife would have someone to be with her when she received the news. It concludes with an aside to Dottie: “Please forgive me, hon.” In the note to Hefner, Cole tells his editor not to blame himself for what Cole is doing. “I cannot go on living with myself and hurting those dear to me,” he added. Curiously, the note to his wife has never been made public. At the coroner’s inquest, Dorothy testified that in the letter her husband explained why he was taking his own life, but when a juror asked if the letter would be admitted as evidence, the coroner responded: “The letter was a very personal letter. I read it myself. We just wanted to bring it out that far.”

            The letter, in other words, would not be made part of the record.

            So what was in the letter? We’ll never know, of course, but Dorothy testified that she and Jack had argued just before he left the house that afternoon, saying he was going to pick up the mail but actually buying the rifle that he used to kill himself.

            In one of our conversations on the subject, Geerdes speculated that the argument may have been one that the couple had often. He supposed that Dorothy may have taunted Cole frequently about his Playboy connections–the bunnies, the palpable embonpoint of his cartoon women, the sexual ambiance of the Mansion–saying, in effect, You think you’re a big deal with women, but you can’t even get me pregnant.

            In short, she raised doubts about his manhood.

            Wrote Geerdes: “We have to question who Cole thought he was killing when he fired that shot. Why would he shoot a successful cartoonist who had finally made the jump from comic book trash to a syndicated strip? No, Cole was killing the husband of Dorothy, the man who had given her no children. Pills or poison would not have made the statement Cole wanted to make with his death. He killed himself in a masculine way.” Thus, the manner of his dying would affirm his manhood.

            The last daily Betsy and Me by Cole was published September 6; the last Cole Sunday, September 14. (Higdon was among the cartoonists who tried out to continue the strip; he didn’t make it. But neither did whoever was selected: the strip expired shortly after the death of its creator.)

            We can make too much of the so-called “evidence” of a cartoonist’s state of mind that might be found in his work. Spiegelman notes that many of Cole’s Playboy cartoons dealt, in one way or another, with impotence. And in Smash Comics No. 36 (October 1942), Midnight goes to hell, where he meets the Devil, who confesses, “Contrary to popular belief, the real evil force is my wife! I merely carry out her wishes.” We can make too much of such things, as I said. But it would be naive to ignore these matters altogether.

            Still, the mystery of Cole’s suicide remains. An inexplicable tragedy.

            But the mystery of Cole’s artistry as a cartooning genius, while elusive, is not as difficult to uncover. As Larry Herdon once wrote (in Amazing World of DC Comics No. 16), Cole mixed comedy with drama, pathos, and headlong action and added a dash of parody. He successfully blended humor and drama by making Plastic Man the only sane person in an otherwise insane universe.

            Almost but not quite.

            The key to Cole’s achievement is bigfoot cartoon style. And that’s what made Plas’s world seem so wacky. Everyone but Plas in the strip wasn’t crazy. Many were, but many were quite as sane as anyone with a criminal mind can be. It was the bigfoot art and manner that made them seem comic. Zany as many of the people looked, most of them took themselves seriously, and the crooks plotted their crimes as cannily as criminals in any other comic book. They were not–in themselves as individual personalities–comic characters. Woozy alone filled that bill. (But even he was capable of an occasional serious and productive action.)

            The parody in Cole’s Plastic Man stories was not the parody of superheroics or crime fighting. It was the criminal mind that was parodied. If his villains’ actions seemed slightly loony, it was because the criminals’ personalities were wholly defined by their law-breaking purposes. Obsessive. To the normal reader, obsessiveness quickly escalates to insanity. Hence, wacky. The personalities of most comic book villains are similarly obsessive. Doctor Doom, Luther, the Joker. They don’t appear as daffy lunatics, though, because they’re realistically rendered. Cole underscored his message–indeed, made his parody’s moral point–by making many of his criminals insanely comic in appearance. Hence, only madmen seem to seek a life of crime.

            But even this does not lay Cole’s Plastic Man secret bare. In the second revival of the title in 1976 (Ramona Fradon’s), the writers have obviously bought into Herndon’s analysis. And because he came close to nailing down Cole’s secret, this version of Plas was the best rejuvenation to-date. But there the pursuit of pure zaniness produced crooks whose criminal intent itself is laughable. Thus, we have comedy without parody, the icing without the cake. Many of the ingredients are there, all right. But the uniqueness of Cole’s achievement came not so much from the ingredients as from the mixture itself. And the secret of the proper proportions cannot be so readily discovered as both Herndon and I pretend.

            The mystique of Cole’s Plastic Man is still mostly veiled in shadow. But we can reasonably speculate that the mystique had its roots in Cole’s graphic imagination and moral vision–and found its ideal expression in his ability to make visual and narrative capital out of a bigfoot cartoon style and his hero’s pliable propensities. In short, secret is quite simply that Cole was a cartoonist. Not a writer. Not an artist. But a cartoonist, who, in my view, is a storyteller who conjures up his visions in a perfect blend of words and pictures, effecting by creative instinct a mutual dependency in which neither the words nor the pictures makes as much sense alone without the other as they do together. That’s probably why the Foglio-Barta reincarnation is the most successful: both principal members of the creative team are cartoonists.

            That’s why committees of writers, artists and editors don’t usually produce works of genius: they don’t think like a single creative intelligence brimming with talent. That’s what made Jack Cole a virtuoso genius in the medium. And that’s why we so seldom see the equal of his oeuvre. Jack Cole, no matter how much we may wish it, cannot be replaced by committee. He’s dead, and that’s why we can’t seem to get Plastic Man right anymore.

            Now, here’s a short gallery of Cole’s oeuvre: a page of Plastic Man, a Playboy cartoon, and a couple Betsy and Me strips.

Return to Harv's Hindsights