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Cole, Jack

Jack Cole

Personal

Born December 14, 1914, in New Castle, PA; died August 15, 1958, in Cary, IL, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound; married Dorothy Mahoney. Education: Completed correspondence course from Landon School of Cartooning, 1937.

Career

Illustrator for Harry A. Chesler, 1934-38; editor, New Friday Comics, 1939-40; Quality Comics, Stamford, CT, assistant to Will Eisner, 1940-41, illustrator and writer of Plastic Man comic book series, 1943-56; Playboy, Chicago, IL, illustrator of monthly feature, "Females by Cole," 1955-58; Chicago Sun-Times Syndicate, Chicago, creator of comic strip Betsy and Me, 1958.

Writings

Playboy's Females, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1965.

Flashback Golden Age Comic Reprints #33, Funnies Publishing (Rapids City, IL), 1976.

(Illustrator) Ron Goulart, editor, Comics: The Golden Age #2, New Media Publishing (Tampa, FL), 1984.

The Plastic Man Archives, DC Comics (New York, NY), Volume 1, 1999, Volume 2, 2000, Volume 3, 2001, Volume 4, 2002, Volume 5, 2003, Volume 6, 2004.

The Classic Pin-Up Art of Jack Cole, edited by Alex Chun, Fantagraphics Books (Seattle, WA), 2004.

DC Comics Rareities Archives, Volume 1, DC Comics (New York, NY), 2004.

Also contributor to Plastic Man Lost Annual #1, DC Comics (New York, NY). Illustrator, under pseudonym Ralph Johns, of comic strips Peewee Throttle and Officer Clancy, in the 1930s. Contributor of cartoons and articles to Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Judge, Boy's Life, and other publications.

Sidelights

Comic book artist Jack Cole is best remembered for his character Plastic Man, one of the most popular superheroes of the 1940s. But "Cole was one of those virtuosos who could do vastly different styles," according to Donald Swan in Once Upon a Dime. He is also remembered for painting voluptuous pin-up girls for the early Playboy magazine. These were done in watercolors and oils. His final creation was the syndicated comic strip Betsy and Me, which was about a young couple and their infant son. Despite his many varied accomplishments as an artist, in some ways Cole's real-life story overshadows anything he created.

A Coal Town Upbringing

Born in the coal town of New Castle, Pennsylvania, in 1914, Cole enjoyed a stable childhood. His father taught Sunday school at the local Methodist church

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and ran a dry goods store. His mother was a former grade school teacher. One of six children in the family, Jack was fascinated by the newspaper comic strips of his childhood, including Popeye, Bringing Up Father, and Boob McNutt. He spent many hours tracing and redrawing the comics himself, hoping to learn the secrets of the craft. At the age of fifteen, Cole saved enough money to take a correspondence course in cartooning, something he did not mention to his parents, who would have thought the idea a waste of time. It was the only formal art training he ever received. At the age of seventeen, he bicycled alone from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles and back, a seven-thousand-mile round trip. Cole later wrote and sold the story of his adventure to Boy's Life magazine.

After graduating from high school, Cole secretly eloped and married his sweetheart, Dorothy Mahoney. But he continued to live with his parents for several months. When his mother found out about the marriage, she insisted he go and live with his new wife instead. Cole was working in a can company at the time and drawing cartoons at night, hoping to sell them to magazines. But after several years of failure, he decided to take a gamble on his future. He borrowed five hundred dollars from friends, family, and local merchants to finance a move to New York City, where he would spend all of his time trying to become a successful magazine artist. The gamble paid off. Within a year, he found work as an illustrator with Harry A. Chesler. Cole eventually paid off everyone who had helped to finance his dream.

The first comic books were published in the 1930s. They were simply reprints of popular newspaper comic strips cut and pasted into magazine-size pages. Publishers soon found that the demand for the books was great and the supply of existing comic strip material was limited. Chesler's workshop wrote and drew fresh material that could be sold in the new comic book format. According to Art Spiegelman in an article for the New Yorker, "green-kid cartoonists worked elbow to elbow with old pulp illustrators, down-on-their-luck painters, and other has-beens and never-wases to pioneer a new art form at cut rates that could compete with the low-priced syndicate retreads." Cole worked by writing, illustrating, lettering, and coloring for the comic books the workshop turned out. Among the characters he created for Chesler were the supernatural Indian medicine man Mantoka, the evil Asian warlord the Claw, who could grow into a giant of towering danger, and the Comet, whose deathray eyes could disintegrate evildoers. After a brief stint as an editor with New Friday Comics, where he wrote and drew for the characters Silver Streak and Daredevil, Cole moved on to Quality Comics in 1940. Here he worked for Will Eisner, creator of the Spirit. Cole drew that character's daily comic strip for a year when Eisner was drafted into the army.

Introduces Plastic Man

In late 1941, Cole introduced a new kind of comic book superhero in Police Comics #1. Dubbed Plastic Man, the character could twist and stretch his body into any imaginable shape with ease. He had begun life as a two-bit burglar named "Eel" O'Brien. While breaking into a factory one night, O'Brien fell into a vat of strange acid and was severely burned. He was saved by a band of monks, who nursed him back to health and led him away from a life of crime. When O'Brien realizes that the acid bath has given him the remarkable ability to twist his body into any form he wants, he decides to use his new powers to fight crime. Plastic Man, dressed in what Spiegelman called "a V-necked red rubber leotard accessorized by a wide black-and-yellow striped belt and very cool tinted goggles," began his crime-fighting career. By 1943, the character had grown so popular with readers that Cole was given his own comic book featuring the malleable character.

The Plastic Man stories have a wacky, surreal edge to them, partly because the character's abilities are so strange and partly because Cole's sense of humor and wild imagination led to eccentric plots. As Gordon Flagg noted in Booklist, "the inherently absurd nature of [Plastic Man's] powers lent itself to lighthearted treatment." In a typical story, Plastic Man might assume the flat shape of a rug to secretly listen in on a criminal's conversation and then disguise himself as laundry hanging on a clothesline to keep an eye on where that criminal goes, often in the span of a few panels. He could also stretch his arm across a room to grab a gangster's gun or roll into a ball and bounce down the street after someone. Donald Swan in Once Upon a Dime declared that Cole "found incredibly inventive ways to use Plastic Man's body."

While Plastic Man himself is a frantic, ever-changing character, the artwork depicting his adventures is just as giddy. According to Spiegelman, "each panel seems to swallow several separate instants of time whole, as if the page were made up of small screens with different, though related, films whizzing by at forty-eight frames a second. Cole's is an amphetamine-riddled art…. The art ricochets like a racquetball slammed full force in a closet." "Breaking the boundaries of biology and physics on a panel-by-panel basis," Adam Messano wrote in Well Red Press, "Cole injected his Plastic Man stories with a hyper reality so rapidly and frequently changing that even today's super special effects features would have trouble competing. Making use of exaggerated features in many characters, dramatically rotated camera angles, and bright colors on every page make the early Plastic Man stories a visual explosion far beyond the initial simplicity Cole's art style deceptively implies." A critic for Publishers Weekly summed up: Cole was "graphically inventive and prone to wild flights of surreal visual hilarity."

Crime Comics and Pin-Up Girls

With the success of Plastic Man, Cole enjoyed financial stability. He and his wife moved into a 14-room mansion in Stamford, Connecticut. But he still continued to do outside work as well. In 1947 he was asked to head up a line of true-crime comics with Alex Kotzky. Together the two men created a series of dark and graphically violent stories, including what Swan labeled "Cole's sexy noir classic Murder, Morphine and Me.'" Spiegelman called that story "one of the most intense and delirious examples that the lurid genre had to offer." The rising concern over violence in comic books was spurred on by Cole's story, which included a female character being stabbed in the eye with a hypodermic needle. The New York State Legislature cited the story as an example for why comic books needed to be censored. A critic for Publishers Weekly explained that Cole "was instrumental in creating the irresistibly lurid crime and horror comic books that provoked the anti-comics hysteria" of the 1950s. In the end, the comics industry created the Comics Code Authority to keep extreme violence out of the medium.

If you enjoy the works of Jack Cole

If you enjoy the works of Jack Cole, you may also want to check out the following:

The works of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman; Bob Kane, the creator of Batman; and Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit.

By the mid-1950s, Cole had moved away from comic book work. He found success selling one-panel cartoon gags to such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. With the launch of Playboy magazine, Cole found a new and lucrative market for his cartoons. In addition, Playboy editor Hugh Hefner hired him to contribute a watercolor of a pin-up girl for each monthly issue of the magazine. These works, considered audacious and sophisticated at the time, are "absolute puritan now," according to Kathy LaFollett in the Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society Authors and Editors. They have been collected in The Classic Pin-Up Art of Jack Cole.

A Tragic Conclusion

In 1958 Cole was approached by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate to develop a comic strip. The result was Betsy and Me, a humorous daily strip centering on the efforts of a young couple to raise their five-year-old son, Farley. Swan explained that the strip "was minimalist like Peanuts" and "a droll domestic situation comedy." Betsy and Me was soon appearing in some fifty newspapers nationwide. But it would be the last creative project for Cole. On August 15, 1958, Cole left his house, telling his wife that he was going to buy a newspaper. He instead went to a local sporting goods store and purchased a rifle. Several hours later he was discovered in his car, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Although he mailed two letters the day of his suicide, one to his wife and one to Hefner, the reason for his suicide is still unclear.

Cole is best remembered today for his creation of Plastic Man, a wildly inventive character whose exploits can still delight and entertain. Sonneveld believed that Cole and his art were inseparable. In his art, "the enigma of Cole is unraveled, and what is left is a portrait of an artist ahead of his time coupled with a man trying to make sense of his circumstance." Reviewing a volume in The Plastic Man Archives, a series from DC Comics which is republishing all of Cole's Plastic Man comic books, Gordon Flagg commented that "Cole's inventiveness and graphic skill shine out."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Goulart, Ron, Focus on Jack Cole, Fantagraphics Books (Seattle, WA), 1986.

Spiegelman, Art, and Chip Kidd, Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 2001.

PERIODICALS

Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX), September 6, 2001, Joe Gross, review of Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits, p. 8.

Booklist, December 1, 2003, Gordon Flagg, review of Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits, p. 656; February 15, 2005, Gordon Flagg, review of The Plastic Man Archives: Volume 6, p. 1071.

New Yorker, April 19, 1999, Art Spiegelman, "Forms Stretched to Their Limits."

Once Upon A Dime, winter, 1991, Donald Swan, "Jack Cole: A Life in Four Colors"; fall, 2001, Stephen Sonneveld, "The Popular Imagination: Jack Cole and Plastic Man."

Publishers Weekly, September 3, 2001, review of Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits, p. 67.

ONLINE

Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society Authors and Editors, http://liheliso.com/ (July 12, 2004), Kathy LaFollett, review of The Classic Pin-Up Art of Jack Cole.

Well Red Press, http://wellredpress.com/ (October 27, 2004), Adam Messano, "Spread Too Thin."

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