31 July 2021

Remembering Will Eisner by Neil Gaiman

Will Eisner's The Spirit

It isn’t yet easy or comfortable for me to write about Will Eisner. He was too important, and writing this reminds me how much I miss my friend Will Eisner. Rereading his stories reminds me that I miss Will Eisner the storyteller, the craftsman, the dreamer, the artist.

When Will died in 2005, he was as respected and as revered around the world as he would let us respect and revere him. He was a teacher and an innovator. He started out so far ahead of the game that it took the rest of the world literally 60 years to catch up.

Will’s life is, in miniature, a history of American comics. He was one of the very first people to run a studio making commercial comic books, but while his contemporaries dreamed of getting out of that ghetto and into more lucrative and respectable places - advertising, perhaps, or illustration, or even fine art - Will had no desire to escape. He was trying to create an artform.

In seven pages - normally less than 60 panels - he could build a short story worthy of O Henry; funny or tragic, sentimental or hardbitten, or simply odd. The work was uniquely comics, existing in the place where the words and the pictures come together, commenting on each other, reinforcing each other. Eisner’s stories were influenced by film, by theatre, by radio, but were ultimately their own medium, created by a man who thought that comics was an artform, and who was proved right.

There are arguments today about whether or not Will was actually the first person to coin the term “graphic novel” for his 1978 book of short stories A Contract With God, the book that kicked off the third act of his creative life. There are far fewer arguments about what he actually did in the 1940s with the The Spirit stories, or about the influence he had on the world of comics throughout his creative life.

I’ll step forward here: I bought my first copy of The Spirit in 1975, in a basement comics shop in south London. I saw it hanging on a wall and knew that, whatever it was, I wanted it. I would have been about 14. Reading it on the train home, I had no idea that the stories I was reading were 30 years old. They were fresher and smarter than anything I’d seen in comics – stories that somehow managed to leave out everything that wasn’t the story, while telling wonderful tales of beautiful women and unfortunate men, of human fallibility and of occasional redemption, stories through which the Spirit would wander, bemused and often beaten up, a McGuffin in a mask and hat. I loved The Spirit then. I loved the choices that Will made, the confidence, the way the art and the story meshed. I read those stories and I wanted to write comics, too.

Two or three years later I stopped reading comics, disappointed and disillusioned by the medium as only a 16-year-old can be, but even then I kept reading The Spirit. I read those stories with unalloyed pleasure and when, as a 25-year-old, I decided it was time to learn how to write comics, I went out and bought Will’s Comics and Sequential Art, and pored over it like a rabbinical student studying his Torah.

And then time went on and all of a sudden, I was writing comics.

After becoming a comics-writing person, I met Will on many occasions, all over the world. I remember watching him receive an award for lifetime achievement in Germany - the thrill of seeing a thousand people on their feet and clapping until their hands hurt and carrying on clapping! He looked modestly embarrassed, while his wife Ann beamed like a lighthouse.

The last time we met was on the north coast of Spain, where the world fades out into a kind of warm autumnal haze. We spent almost a week together - Will and Ann and comics creators Jaime and Koko Hernandez, and me - a tight-knit group of people who spoke no Spanish. One day Ann and Will and I walked down along the edge of the sea. We walked for a couple of miles, talking about the history of comics and the future of the medium, and the people Will had known. It was like a guided tour of the medium we loved. I found myself hoping that when I got to be Will’s age I could be that sharp, that wise, that funny.

This is an edited extract from two essays in A View from the Cheap Seats (2017) by Neil Gaiman.

30 July 2021

The Autobiographical Comics of Spain Rodriguez (No. 89)

The Autobiographical Comics of Spain Rodriguez (1974-2012)

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Spain's early autobiographical comics were macho blustery tales of his motorcycle gang, the Road Vultures. The subject matter alone strongly differentiated Spain from his wimpier colleagues, but what really stood out was Spain's approach to autobiography. While people like Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky and Justin Green were doing cathartic, confessional autobiographical comics, Spain was hardly present in his own stories. Spain's Road Vulture stories, most of which are collected in the book My True Story, are composite portraits of a social group. Comics are particularly well-suited to this somewhat radical form of storytelling. In one panel, you can depict a dozen different things happening at once. And Spain is famous for his incredibly dense panels showing the brawls, dances and games of the Road Vultures - dozens of figures are crammed into these remarkable group shots.

Spain continued his collective biography form in the story Chicago 1968, but over time, he became willing to narrow the focus. In an ongoing series of stories in Blab!, Spain examines his life in the '50s when his two best friends were Fred Toote and Tex. The three are collectively known as the "North Fillmore Intelligentsia". They'e all bored young men out to have fun, each with a burden of sorts - Tex's growth was stunted by a deformed back, Toote is on the verge of completely losing it at any moment, and Spain - Spain's got a vulnerable heart.

Spain's easily wounded romantic nature is shown in his finest story Down at the Kitty Kat. Here Spain perfectly balances the group portrait approach of his earlier stories with the more personal approach seen in the other North Fillmore Intelligentsia stories. The Kitty Kat is where "the pimps, the fags, the whores, the curious, the alcoholic... the blues lovers, Canadian bikers, thrill seekers, junkies, insomniacs, [and] hepcats" would congregate. The North Fillmore Intelligentsia is there and Spain is nursing a broken heart. But the story doesn't linger on that - there are a lot of other interesting things happening at the Kitty Kat, and Spain the author is as interested in them as he is in dwelling on his younger self's dejection.

Spain is able to pull off these group portraits because even when showing a crowd, he shows individuals. Each character, no matter how minor, has a distinctive face, and Spain's ear for dialect helps even further to differentiate the various characters. But for an artist with such a reputation as a tough guy, Spain's greatest achievement is his moving, even tender depictions of the North Fillmore Intelligentsia.

(from 'Spain Rodriguez: Tributes' at TCJ.com, 2012)
Looking through decades of his work over the last few days, I realized that I’d sometimes get lost following the storylines of his comics as well, tho the cadence of the drawings kept me with him, and he sure got the storytelling consistently under control over recent decades in the lifelong and relentless pursuit of his craft. His drawing always reminded me of rock-solid carpentry built out of rough-hewn lumber. Despite his serious chops and his testosterone charged adventure comics influences, his art was just too quirky and filled with too much conviction to veer into the glibness that could’ve found him a comfortable home at a “mainstream” comic company. It’s what made him an underground comix star.

(from 'Spain Rodriguez: Tributes' at TCJ.com, 2012)
I first met Spain in New York in the fall of 1968. He was living with Kim Deitch and doing a one-page strip for a weekly “underground” paper called The East Village Other. Kim was also doing a weekly strip for this paper. Spain had left Buffalo for good, left the world of outlaw bikers behind and embraced the East Village hippie scene, though there was a lot about the hippies that Spain didn’t like. “I ain’t no hippie,” he used to say. His allegiance to radical left-wing politics and his proletarian class identity were stronger and clearer than most of the youths in the hippie subculture, the “counter-culture,” as it was called. His politics were driven by genuine, authentic class anger, class hatred. I liked that about him. It was always clarifying, bracing, to discuss politics, social and cultural issues with him. Plus, he had a sharp sense of humor which leavened that anger. He was not your typical “humor-impaired” leftist, nor was he a dogmatic Marxist, spouting slogans or left-wing terminology. I appreciated those discussions with him, as he helped clarify certain things for me, politics, economics, history. He was well-read, self-educated in these areas.


29 July 2021

Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray (No. 62)

Little Orphan Annie (1924-1968)
by Harold Gray 

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
[This review has been removed at the request of the author.]

Check out The Complete Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray. The blank-eyed orphan was far grittier and moving than the saccharine Annie you know from the damn musical. [It] started in 1924 in a world chillingly like ours: crawling with cake-eaters, greedy bankers and international con men who exploit the hardscrabble working stiffs Annie hangs with when her “Daddy” isn’t around to protect her. The cartoonist, a tightlipped Midwestern Dickens, pushes the virtues of honesty, pluck, and hard work in adventures that can melt the heart of even hard-boiled cynics like I pretend to be.

I remember talking about how much I’d been influenced by Harold Gray, the cartoonist who wrote and drew Little Orphan Annie. That influence has certainly continued, along with being influenced by other cartoonists of the early-to-mid-20th century. In those days, cartoonists tended to draw full characters in the frame and not rely so much on close-ups. Very early on, close-ups were unheard of. At the time of George Herriman, you just didn’t do close-ups. Even Harold Gray, he might do a shot from the waist up, but never a full face in a panel, y’know. For whatever reason, that’s what I respond to. It seems kind of emotionally excessive to really zoom in on a face or a pair of eyes, or things like that. And it probably has a lot to do with my psychological makeup, but I don’t examine that too closely. It’s just a matter of, “Yeah, this is what I respond to, so I want to create similar sorts of work."


28 July 2021

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (No. 56)

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (1988-1996)
by Ben Katchor

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
I don't know if every one of Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer strips is comprised of eight panels, four on the top and four on the bottom, but I suppose they must be. That same drudge-like layout week after week seems all too fitting a reflection of the general mundane surroundings in which the events routinely unfold. Moreover, the plain layout reminds us to look deeply at the content of the strip itself, to recognise that the significance resides not on the surface  but in the constant evolution of minor details that come to light when you care to examine the seemingly quotidian long enough to find real beauty.

Katchor's strip is a celebration of the mundane and the ordinary. Every week he takes his readers into ordinary lives in a quest for the sublime. The breakfast special, the vacant lot, the souvenir program, these are the basis for some of the most spectacular ruminations on like ever to grace the comics page. For make no mistake about it, these are spectacular strips. Katchor's inventive use of the framing, his sketchy, sometimes hesitant lifework and his confident washes conspire to create one of the most visually arresting strips in decades. When his art is combined with his sly, subtle pacing, the result is never overpowering but it can often take your breath away just the same.

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer is, without a doubt in my mind, the most literate, intelligent and consistently important weekly comic strip to have emerged since Feiffer. That so few papers and readers have recognised that fact at this point is only an indicator of how oblivious people become when they fail to search for the significance of what's right in front of their noses.


27 July 2021

Jimbo by Gary Panter (No. 70)

Jimbo (1976-1996)
by Gary Panter

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
When Gary Panter and his signature creation Jimbo are at their best, there is no comics reading experience that compares. But even when they are not at their best, Panter and Jimbo are vitally important to the medium's growth. Panter has been called the closet cartoonist to Picasso, an apt comparison because of the way their approach to art has become as important as the art itself.

Panter's trademark approach, as pointed out by friend Matt Groening, was to mix the techniques and knowledge of fine art and painting with a sort of casual, even crude, cartooning style. He called this kind of drawing "ratty" and in an 1985 interview with Dale Luciano in the Journal went so far as to make a distinction between making marks on the paper and drawing lines: "A line is a tool for making or defining an illusion. A mark is more a thing that exists for and by itself." This was a startling approach in the mid-1970s, even when after the undergrounds' rise comics of many kinds valued slickness in art and presentation.

Panter's stance would be irrelevant if the work that resulted wasn't so compelling and remarkable. The first Jimbo strip appeared in Slash magazine in 1976, although Panter told Luciano the character had been around since 1973. Jimbo's most memorable appearances were in RAW, where Panter's work stuck out even in that crowd, and in the solo volume published by Raw Books. One should read as much Jimbo as possible, because half of what impresses is the range of technique and approached on display - all in the service of some of the most surreal sequences in comics history. Even in the series' latest incarnation, a line of poor-selling comic books from Groening's Zongo line of creator-owned comics, Jimbo fascinates. There, seemingly tossed-off panels and cartoons are slowly revealed to be a vast, complex, and eminently logical epic work, shocking in the artistic bravado of several beautifully drawn sequences. And bonus of all bonuses, that epic is a hilarious, wonderfully loose and insightful story about the awful world in which we live - a fitting vehicle for the last great everyman character of the 20th Century.

Is Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise another mind-blowing, oversized masterpiece from the legendary ink-spattered Gary Panter? I say yes. And I also say: Collect Them All!


26 July 2021

Dick Tracy by Chester Gould (No. 33)

Dick Tracy (1931-1977)
by Chester Gould

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Before Bob Kane's Batman made the quirky villain criminally chic, before Hollywood movies turned trench coats and fedoras into hero's garb and before American detectives (at least the hardboiled sort) were known for brains as well as braun, there was Dick Tracy, the quintessential, as his name announces, "cop's cop".

Strong, savvy, only menacingly silent, he was a classic (and classy) type in the making since his first appearance in the Sunday, October 4, 1931 edition of the Detroit Mirror. Distant cousin to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and influenced by the bloody tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Dick Tracy the comic strip was a response to Al Capone's Chicago, where its creator, Chester Gould, an Oklahoman, was living and working at the time. Initially pitched as "Plainclothes Tracy" to Captain Joe Patterson of The Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate, the character was born to be, according to Gould, "a detective in this country that would hunt [gangsters] up and shoot 'em down."

Despite the efforts of mystery writers like Max Collins or true-to-Gould artists like Mike Lilian, the series today reads like a parody of itself, far removed from its neorealistic, slightly futuristic pulp fiction origins. It's almost a dirty thing to say a comic is less great because it is less than realistic. Yet as George Perry and Alan Aldridge observed of the strips at its best in The Penguin Book of Comics, "The criminals and crimes in Dick Tracy may be wildly exaggerated; his police work is sound and orthodox."

Because a work is ultra realistic, does that make it art or good? No. What makes good art is its truth, its sentiment and the quality of its expression. Once Gould's skills as an illustrator and storyteller grew to transcend his four-panel dailies, so, too, did the iconographic appeal of his creation.

In his introduction to The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951, Ellery Queen wrote: "Pictorially, Gould has a comic-book genius for drawing grotesquely caricatured faces and heads and for inventing grotesquely Dickensian character-names to match the faces and heads [to wit, The Brow, Flattop, Pruneface, B-B Eyes]. And Gould's plots have all the excitement and suspense of 'thriller' fiction. So Dick Tracy is blood-brother in the royal line of fictional detectives, and an authentic 'first' in the history of the form."

The original procedural detective of fiction, he is as singular creation as his yellow trench coat or two-way wrist radio.

My only thought is to keep my strip faithfully realistic and powerful enough so that it will stand out from the usual run of wishy-washy everyday stuff.

Chester Gould introduced a new hard-hitting type of realism [that] marked a radical and historic departure: the comics were no longer just funny.


25 July 2021

Covering The New Yorker: Eric Drooker

Eric Drooker's drawings and posters are a familiar sight in the global street art movement, and his paintings appear frequently on covers of The New Yorker. Born and raised in New York City, he began to slap his images on the streets as a teenager. Since then, Drooker's reputation as a social critic has grown, and has led to countless editorial illustrations for The Nation, The New York Times, The Progressive etc. His first graphic novel, Flood! A Novel in Pictures won the American Book Award, followed by Blood Song, soon to be a major motion picture. After designing the animation for the film, Howl, he was hired by DreamWorks Animation.

Grand Central Terminal
The New Yorker (20 March 2020)
art by Eric Drooker

TNY: This image evokes the public art created under the Works Progress Administration, during the Great Depression. Has the pandemic changed your notions of what public art should look like in times of crisis?

ERIC DROOKER: I always loved the public art of the nineteen-thirties. I’m drawn not only to the democratic aesthetic of the W.P.A. but to the very concept of public works. During the New Deal, the U.S. government actually hired artists to create grand works in public places. And the experiment was hugely successful; it gave relief to thousands of Americans—and meaning to millions—and helped pull the country out of the Great Depression. In recent decades, concepts such as “public space” and “public health” are often branded as socialist, but many of my images are influenced by the art of that era.

Are there artists whom you turn to for solace in times of upheaval?

Francisco Goya immediately comes to mind; I find myself returning, in times of tumult, to his etchings. Pieter Bruegel, James Baldwin, and, recently, Emil Ferris have helped me through many a long, dark night. And I’m as inspired as the next guy by Bill Shakespeare. He’s thought to have written some of his best plays (“King Lear,” “Macbeth”) while the theatres were closed during an outbreak of bubonic plague.

What has been your main source of news for the pandemic?

I read a wide variety of newspapers, and especially the foreign press, which generally gives a more nuanced, rounded, and relevant picture than U.S. media.

Central Park Row
The New Yorker (12 November 2018)
art by Eric Drooker

You grew up and went to school in New York. Were you often in Central Park?

I lived downtown, and so as a kid spent far more time in Tompkins Square Park, but my family went up to Central Park frequently. I have many vivid memories of exploring it with friends and my little brother.

Has the park changed for you over the decades?

Thankfully, no. The zoo was rebuilt some years ago; a slight improvement, I’d say. (The old zoo of my childhood felt like visiting animals in jail.) Of course, the surrounding metropolis, once so wild and teeming with life, has been tamed, defanged, and now feels utterly suburban. But the park is an oasis frozen in time.

What does fall in New York recall for you?

Fall is my favorite season. The city’s towers are gray and sombre, but once you step into the park the autumn leaves put on their bright, spectacular show.

Who are your influences, in terms of artists who render urban landscapes?

Artistically, I’m in the Ashcan School - the urban lineage of John Sloan, George Bellows, Lynd Ward, Martin Lewis, Edward Hopper, and Rockwell Kent.

Rockaway Beach
The New Yorker (6-13 July 2015)
art by Eric Drooker

I’m attached to Rockaway Beach: school teachers often took us there on class trips. It’s so easy to get to: simply take the A train all the way to the end of the line. Of course, the elevated subway doesn’t literally run in the water, but as a kid it felt that way. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, the entire neighborhood was submerged and thousands became homeless overnight. FEMA and the Red Cross were late to respond; parts of Rockaway remained without electricity for several months. 


Maximising Profit
The New Yorker (10 October 2011)
art by Eric Drooker

There’s this growing crowd of mostly young people down there right now, who camp out. Manhattan Island has become more and more an exclusive place for the super wealthy, or the super corporations - and a hostile place for people to live, not just for the working class, but even for the middle class. The city has become this monolithic cathedral to money.

Coney Island Express
The New Yorker (5 September 2011)
art by Eric Drooker

Coney Island is probably my favorite spot remaining in the city... a surreal dreamland, with its original, ethnic character. It has a seedy, kind of dangerous quality - it’s the underbelly of American culture, the unconscious.

24 July 2021

Jack Cole & Plastic Man: An Appreciation by Art Spiegelman

Jack Cole & Plastic Man:
An Appreciation by Art Spiegelman
(The New Yorker, 19 April 1999)

Disguised as a red, black, and yellow throw rug, our hero cocks one ear up to listen in on two hoods huddled at the table that rests on him. In the next panel he literally hangs out at an art museum, above a label that says “Abstract,” his body now distorted into a red, black, and yellow bebop-Cubist composition, in order to eavesdrop on two cheap gunsels out gallery-hopping. And in the panel after that two molls gossip from tenement windows across an alley while our protean hero continues his stakeout camouflaged as a red, black, and yellow line of laundry flapping between them.

This manic spritz of images appeared in a 1950 issue of Plastic Man, one of the last issues written and drawn by Jack Cole, a tragically short-lived comic-book giant. Plastic Man can be found mainly in those plastic bags collectors use to stash their rare, slow-burning forest fires of newsprint, although DC Comics has at last published The Plastic Man Archives, Volume 1, which at least reprints the first twenty Plastic Man stories, published between 1941 and 1943, when the developing artist was just beginning to stretch. (Incidentally, the reproduction in this de-luxe, $49.95 hardcover stinks - or maybe it simply doesn’t stink enough, managing somehow to look both blurry and shrill. Anyone with a spare twenty-six thousand four hundred and fifty dollars should consider seeking out near-mint copies of the original pulp-paper comic books.) I’m embarrassed to confess to being in love with a superhero comic, but Jack Cole’s Plastic Man belongs high on any adult’s How to Avoid Prozac list, up there with the best of S. J. Perelman, Laurel and Hardy, Damon Runyon, Tex Avery, and the Marx Brothers. Cole’s comics have helped me feel reconciled to the misleading word “comic,” which often keeps my medium of choice from getting any respect.

Many otherwise literate people, even those who have long since crossed the high-low divide and welcomed comic strips like Krazy Kat and Little Nemo into the canon of twentieth-century cultural achievement - right up there next to Picasso’s paintings and Joyce’s novels - remain predisposed against comic books. Of course, most comic books really are junk, just as our parents said, but so is most painting and literature. The lowly comic book has a lot of strikes against it, not least a residual public distaste left over from Senator Kefauver’s nineteen-fifties crime hearings, which scapegoated the whole medium as a species of pornography for tots. The hearings forced a draconian “self-regulating” Comics Code Authority on the publishers; the edict stamped out the reckless excesses of the crime, war, and horror comics (categories that tended to appeal to an older audience of G.I.s and other adults) and left lobotomized superheroes and innocuous funny animals as virtually the only survivors on the newsstands. We’ve committed some of our most censorious follies in the guise of protecting our children.

It’s a tribute to the medium’s appeal that the comic book has bounced back from the grave several times in its history, though the industry has never been as close to death as now. Near-suicidal publishing and marketing decisions - for example, aiming at a narrow collectors’ market rather than reaching out to mainstream audiences - have left the industry in a depressed state. Television almost killed what remained of comics in the mid-fifties; now new computer-generated special-effects technologies have robbed comics of even their near-monopoly on primal visual fantasy. Comic books must reposition themselves - possibly as Art - in order to survive as anything more than part of the feeder system for Hollywood. Otherwise, like vaudeville, they will vanish.

Art? It now seems natural to see Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil or a Howard Hawks Western at MOMA, but a generation of aestheticians like Manny Farber had to show people how to see movies for such programming to become plausible. In a landmark 1962 essay in Film Culture, Farber looked at B movies with a painter’s eyes and championed the neglected genre films he loved. He contrasted “the idea of art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area... shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition” with art made “where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.” This he called a “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art... that goes always forward, eating its own boundaries and likely as not leaves nothing in its path other than signs of eager, industrious unkempt activity.” The comic-book form has always swarmed with termites, never more so than in the Golden Age, which collectors date from the spring of 1938, when Superman first turned the ephemeral periodicals into a major fad, until the devastation brought by the Comics Code, in late 1954. It was a time when comics always travelled below critical radar and offered a direct gateway into the unrestrained dream life of their creators - lurid, violent, funny, and sometimes sublime.

Jack Cole, whose comic-book career started a year before that Golden Age and ended precisely with it, was born in December, 1914, in the small coal-mining and industrial town of New Castle, in western Pennsylvania. His father, a Methodist Sunday-school teacher for twenty years, owned a drygoods store and was a popular local performer, playing the bones in King Cole’s Corn Crackers; his mother had been a grade-school teacher. Jack, the third of six children, was introspective, imaginative, high-spirited, and graced with a pronounced sense of humor. A childhood passion for newspaper strips like Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theater (featuring Popeye), George McManus’s Bringing Up Father, and Rube Goldberg’s Boob McNutt blossomed into a lifelong desire to draw a syndicated strip of his own. His formal art training, beyond copying his favorites to crack their physiognomic code, consisted of mail-order lessons from the Landon School of Cartooning. When he was fifteen, he secretly saved up his school-lunch money to pay for the course, smuggling sandwiches from home in the hollowed-out pages of a book. Two years later, he again proved his strength of character by bicycling alone to Los Angeles and back, a seven-thousand-mile adventure that he later recounted in his first sale, an illustrated feature forBoy’s Life.

After graduating from high school, Cole eloped with his childhood sweetheart, Dorothy Mahoney. Drawing cartoons at night and working at the local American Can factory by day, he remained in his parents’ home until his mother found out about the secret marriage and suggested that he live with his wife. Dick Cole, his youngest brother, still remembers the Pop-Art-before-its-time furniture Jack playfully improvised out of printed tin sheets brought home from his job. American Can, however, clearly didn’t offer him the creative outlet he was searching for, and in 1936, at the age of twenty-two, he quit. Borrowing five hundred dollars from family friends and local merchants, he moved to Greenwich Village with Dorothy to seek his fortune as a cartoonist. In a dutiful letter that he sent home after settling in, he put a positive spin on his career prospects, praising Dorothy’s steadfastness and reassuring his parents that he hadn’t been corrupted by the big city:

"Every kid wants to grow up to be as good as his parents, and I, being no exception have about as high a goal as could be possible to strive for. Have tried to do things as you would do them, but unfortunately I am ruled by my heart rather than my head, and sometimes slip up. (or rather, many times) I have never told you this before, but in case you are interested, I have never taken a drink of beer or liquer yet and never mean to—don’t smoke—cuss some but have never used HIS name in a vain expression."

Though he eventually smoked, drank moderately, and possibly even took God’s name in vain, Cole was always conscientious. In time, he paid his debts to the New Castle folk who sponsored him, although in his first year of trying to break into magazines and newspapers he had whittled his stake down to five cents. According to the comics historian Ron Goulart - whose brief but invaluable Focus on Jack Cole (Fantagraphics; 1986) is the closest the cartoonist has come to having a biography - Cole found himself working for about twenty dollars a week in a factory again: in Harry “A” Chesler’s comic-book “sweatshop,” at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-ninth Street, set up to provide new material for publishers unable to find any newspaper strips worth reprinting. The first ten-cent comic book, Famous Funnies, published in 1934, consisted of reduced-scale color reprints of Mutt and Jeff, The Bungle Family, and other popular syndicated features; 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. Marshall McLuhan has written that every new medium cannibalizes the content of the medium that preceded it (the movies, for example, were once called “photoplays”), and the comic book bears this idea out: pale imitations of Dick Tracy and Mandrake the Magician were the anemic norm until 1938, when the first issue of Action Comics presented a caped Übermensch who fought for Truth, Justice, and the American Way - a crack-brained idea by two Jewish kids from Cleveland that really made the new medium fly. Action! The title nails the basic appeal of the new four-color heroes: Crimson Avengers, Purple Zombies, Green Masks, Blue Beetles, Blue Bolts, Blue Streaks, White Streaks, and Silver Streaks started zipping through the sky, hitting the newsstands and one another.

Cole thrived, first in the Chesler shop and then as a freelancer, working against tight deadlines and learning in print how to take advantage of the flexible panel layouts and dynamic pages that these books demanded. He was an “all-around man,” writing as well as drawing, even lettering and sometimes coloring his own material. He started out doing screwball filler pages and then graduated to the longer and more lucrative “straight” stuff, though even his most illustrative work happily betrayed his roots in loopy-doodle cartooning. His early straight work was crazily bent: Mantoka (a supernaturally empowered Native American medicine man who takes revenge on evil Caucasians), The Comet (whose disintegrating rays shoot out of his eyes whenever he crosses them to melt down bad guys), and, for Silver Streak Comics, “The Claw (the ultimate Yellow Peril, a fanged Asian warlord who can get taller than King Kong when aroused) all displayed a feverish imagination, verve, and a cheerful streak of perverse violence.

By the end of 1940, Cole had begun working for Quality Comics, Everett (Busy) Arnold’s newly launched line of publications. Quality became home base for the rest of Cole’s comic-book career. The feel and look of the Quality Comics house style had been established by Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, whose work was to have a major influence on Cole. Eisner, who is now in his eighties and still doing significant comics, had studied painting and hoped to become a theatrical set designer; he was more culturally sophisticated than Cole, who had been shaped mainly by pulps, movies, comic strips, and the other early comic books - which were mostly influenced by more of the same. Cole’s first sustained work for Quality was Midnight, a feature intended by the pragmatic Arnold as a clone of The Spirit - just in case Eisner, who was in the unique position of owning his own character, were to be drafted and die or otherwise leave Quality. Cole learned important lessons in narrative and structural coherence from this apprenticeship, and brought his singular sense of humor and fantasy to the project.

A few months after Midnight came Plastic Man, starting as a minor feature in Police Comics but soon to become the star of that anthology. Inspired by sideshow freaks, Cole planned to call the character the India Rubber Man. Arnold, however, astutely suggested that it might be bouncier to name him after the miracle substance that was reshaping the modern world. In 1943, when Plastic Man expanded into his own book, Cole explained the morphing hero to new readers: “If you should see a man standing on the street and reaching into the top window of a sky-scraper... that’s not astigmatism - it’s Plastic Man!... If you happen upon a gent all bent up like a pretzel... don’t dunk him... it’s Plastic Man! All this and bouncing too, you’ll see when the rubber man and his pal Woozy Winks gamble their lives in - The Game of Death.”

Plastic Man wore a V-necked red rubber leotard accessorized by a wide black-and-yellow striped belt and very cool tinted goggles. He started life as Eel O’Brian, a lowlife gangster accidentally doused by some unnamed acid while committing a robbery. He was saved by a reclusive order of monks who recognized that his villainy was the result of an unhappy childhood. They nursed him back to health and in a memorable couple of panels he discovered his gift.

The acid bath had given him the ability to violate the laws of physics; the monks gave him the will to defend the laws of men, first as part of the police force and later as a special agent for the F.B.I. His F.B.I. chief, sporting one of the most peculiar comb-overs in comics, was the authority figure in Plastic Man’s tiny nuclear family. Nobody knew that Plastic Man and the gangster Eel O’Brian were the same person. His secret identity - as a public enemy he himself was supposed to capture—was too limiting a concept for a hero who could be literally anything he wanted to be. Superman and the tribe that grew from that template have a mere two identities: they’re binary. Plas, as his friends called him, was multiphrenic and illimitable, and soon forgot about being Eel O’Brian.

It says something about Cole’s superego, if not his superhero, that he often cast reformed villains as his principals. Woozy Winks, Plastic Man’s Robin, was hardly a Boy Wonder. He entered the series as a miscreant, the Man Who Can’t Be Harmed, having chosen a life of crime on the basis of a coin toss. Several issues later his powers diminished, so that he became the Man Whom Nature Protects (Sometimes), and he eventually settled in as an all too mortal bungler, a skirt-chaser, and an occasional pickpocket. He was a slovenly, scrotum-cheeked rube in a straw hat and green polka-dot shirt who looked a bit like Alfred Hitchcock. Providing a meatball-shaped counterweight to Plastic Man’s spaghetti, his direct forebear was Popeye’s pal Wimpy. In a more “straight” comic-book reality, Woozy would have provided comic relief.

Naturally enough, Cole resembled both his leads: like Woozy, he was soft-bodied, somewhat dishevelled, and no city slicker; like Plastic Man, he was tall, pointy-nosed, and “very likeable... a straight arrow - sort of a Boy Scout in some ways,” as Gill Fox, Cole’s close friend and his editor at Quality, described him to me.

Cartoonists “become” each character in their comics, acting out every gesture and expression; it’s in this sense that Cole most resembles Plastic Man—as the Spirit of Cartooning. Cole successfully performed the one magic act at the heart of the craft: believing so profoundly in the reality of the world conjured up with lines on paper that, against the odds, the marks gain enough authority to become a real world for the reader. Cole’s world teems with invention, gags, and an amazing number of hyperactive characters tucked into every nook and cranny of a panel. Plastic Man never stretches exactly the same way twice. While Cole’s work is often overloaded with ideas, the drawing is never overwrought; the art displays a Midwesterner’s laconic mastery. What remains most remarkable is his ability to be so fully present in his comic-book work from moment to moment, always following his lines of thought with the same curiosity the reader might have—as astonished as any reader by where they take him.

If the going rate for pictures is still only a thousand words per, most Plastic Man panels are worth at least two or three pictures. 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: Tex Avery on speed! And it’s not just Plastic Man who bounces and twists; any one of Cole’s incidental figures would seem as kinetic as Plastic Man if it were transplanted into someone else’s comic book. Each page is intuitively visualized to form a coherent whole, even though the individual panels form a narrative flood of run-on sentences that breathlessly jump from one page to the next. The art ricochets like a racquetball slammed full force in a closet. Your eye, however, is guided as if it were a skillfully controlled pinball, often by Plastic Man himself acting as a compositional device. His distended body is an arrow pointing out the sights as it hurtles through time. In just a single panel, our hero chases along a footpath in a park, trailing a mugger. Running from the rear of the picture, Plastic Man’s S-curved body echoes the path itself as he loops around one pedestrian in the distance and extends between two lovers about to kiss - lipstick traces are on his elongated neck as he passes them - to swoop up between an old man’s legs like an enormous penis wearing sunglasses and stare into his startled face. Plastic Man had all the crackling intensity of the life force transferred to paper. Pulpier than James Cameron’s Terminator, more frantic than Jim Carrey in The Mask, and less self-conscious than Woody Allen’s Zelig, Plastic Man literally embodied the comic-book form: its exuberant energy, its flexibility, its boyishness, and its only partially sublimated sexuality. Cole’s infinitely malleable hero, Clinton-like in his ability to change shape and squeeze through tiny loopholes, just oozed sex. It was never made explicit - the idea of a hard-core version of Plastic Man boggles the mind - but there was a polymorphously perverse quality to a character who personified Georges Bataille’s notion of the body on the brink of dissolving its borders. Cole let it all hang out as Plastic Man slithered from panel to panel - sometimes shifting from male to female, and freely mutating from erect and hardboiled to soft as a Dali clock.

Most of the plots are as twisted and swervy as Plastic Man himself. They’re convincing enough in their mad, moment-to-moment flow, but they’re as hard to reconstruct and as elusive as dreams, with their vividly improvised incidents. Gender-bending and cross-dressing were the least of it. In a 1942 story, Plastic Man is swallowed whole by one Cyrus Smythe, a seventeenth-century mad doctor whose brain has been transplanted into a dying Army pilot’s body. Smythe, who has learned how to grow hundreds of feet tall, but who must walk on his hands since the body he possesses is paralyzed from the waist down, chokes to death when Plastic Man climbs out of his stomach to lodge himself in the giant’s windpipe. The early stories, while bizarre, don’t feel psychopathic, sadistic, or even particularly mean-spirited in Cole’s telling. In his postwar period, the Plastic Man stories are totally nuts in a different way, prefiguring the idea-per-minute vaudeville zaniness of the early MAD comics. In all his stories, heavily populated by shape-changing villains, mad scientists, and monsters, as well as by more mundane murderers, con men, and saboteurs, Cole demonstrates the termite go-for-broke quality that made his friend Gill Fox exclaim admiringly, “That’s Jack, he’d let his mind go anywhere!”

Gill Fox told me that he remembers starring in an 8-mm. home movie that Cole shot sometime in the early forties, after Jack and Dorothy became his neighbors in Stamford, Connecticut, in order to be closer to Quality’s studio there. Cole’s improvised film scenario, about an ambitious young comic-book artist fighting a deadline, had Fox dragging his drawing table into the bathroom, pulling his pants down, and continuing to work while seated on the toilet. Cole was always behind schedule, a procrastinator and a perfectionist who took pride in his craft and managed to turn out his monthly quota only by working for punishing all-night stretches. Fox recalls a sweltering summer day in the Quality studio that has become legendary among his generation of comic-book artists: Only the nasty buzz of horseflies broke the silence of cartoonists sweating at their desks over some exceptionally brutal deadline when a disturbance broke their concentration. Something was fluttering and streaking by above their heads. All work stopped until they caught what turned out to be one very angry horsefly hauling a long tissue-paper banner with the words “Drink Pepsi Cola!” that Cole had patiently lettered and glued to the insect’s back. A genius at work!

Creig Flessel, an intimate colleague of Cole’s, visited the Quality offices around that time, wanting to observe an old letterer there who could ink in text balloons perfectly without pencilling. He noticed Busy Arnold with large scissors at a near-by desk cutting old Plastic Man originals to ribbons: “I nudged Jack and pointed it out to him, and he just shrugged sheepishly.” After the art was used, Arnold routinely destroyed it to prevent unauthorized reprinting. The disposability of the art was a given, but it makes Cole’s pride in his craft seem downright existential!

The pressure to produce lots of pages quickly, in a situation that offered little prestige and relatively small rates for the skills involved, took its toll. “A number of the artists I knew back then cracked,” says Fox, who still draws a Sunday feature for the Herald Press, in New Britain, Connecticut. “Al Bryant, who drew Doll Man, drove himself into an abutment on the Long Island Expressway shortly after a nervous breakdown. Another guy at Quality, a writer, threw himself in front of a subway, but somehow survived.” John Spranger, an exceptionally gifted artist who assisted on Plastic Man in the postwar years, had a severe breakdown; Bob Wood, like many of the other artists, drank heavily. It was a tough business, making funny books, but Cole flourished in that environment.

At the start of the Second World War, Cole doubled his workload to put money aside for Dorothy in case he got drafted. Although he never had children, and was apparently in good health, he wasn’t taken. As one of the best cartoonists left on the home front at a moment when publishers were selling all the comics their newsprint rations let them print, Cole made out well. He even briefly ghosted the daily newspaper version of The Spirit when Will Eisner got drafted. By the end of the war, Cole was getting the top rate for comic books (about thirty-five dollars per page) as well as occasional bonuses of up to twenty-five hundred dollars when his books broke the two-hundred-thousand point. He and Dorothy bought property and settled into a series of houses in New England. “Their Stamford place was a fourteen-room mansion that had once belonged to the Masked Marvel, a famous pool shark,” Flessel told me. “Dorothy was horrified by the cold marble tiles when she first saw the house, so Jack put in some wall-to-wall carpeting. It must have set him back plenty, but he absolutely doted on his wife.” Flessel remembers Cole with great affection as an acute, thoughtful, and gentle guy, a “pussycat,” with a screwy smile and an irrepressible streak of humor. When I visited the Flessels’ Long Island home, he conjured up one small Jacques Tati-like moment when the Coles were leaving after a weekend visit there in the mid-forties: Stooping to get behind the wheel of his pint-sized car, the oversized Cole knocked his homburg to the ground. He scooped it up while shutting the car door, then casually put the hat back on top of the roof and drove off waving.

Cole worked at home, sending in his popular fifteen-page lead stories for Police Comics every month, as well as material for his Plastic Man solo title and occasional humor pieces for other comics. Fox has said, “Jack insisted on doing everything himself... He didn’t even clear his plot lines with anyone. The only thing we did was copy-read for mistakes.” Cole was elated to get his own book; but when he was told that it would mean having assistants and ghosts do some of the stories he burst into tears. (Neither Flessel nor Fox could verify what might be an apocryphal story, but both independently said it sounded like the Cole they knew.) The problem of Cole’s ghosts and assistants plagues anyone who admires his work. Since some of his assistants - most notably his worshipful friend Alex Kotzky and John Spranger - were very skillful mimics, and since Cole didn’t always sign his own art, the “forgeries” are sometimes as hard to spot as Plastic Man himself in disguise. When the characters tilt and sway, unable to hold themselves upright at a mere ninety degrees, when that extra blaze of invention - a few more ideas than any sane artist would dare squeeze into a panel - shines through, one can surmise that one is in the hands of the master. Plastic Man was totally ghosted after 1950, when Cole reached his giddiest heights before burning out on the character. The ghosts who remained behind lost their inspiration, but the buoyant originality of the basic concept kept Plastic Man afloat through 1956. Subsequent attempts to revive the character haven’t been especially distinguished, nor have imitations that recycle the notion of a stretchable hero, though the character’s virtual DNA lives on in the leader of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, a “straight” Plastic Man with way too much starch.

In 1947, Cole hired Alex Kotzky to help him package True Crime Comics, a new publisher’s short-lived attempt to cash in on the crime comics then dominating the field; a story in the second issue, Murder, Morphine and Me, has become notorious as one of the most intense and delirious examples that the lurid genre had to offer. One small panel - so charged that it has tremor lines around it and tilts, almost tumbling off the page - was enshrined as Exhibit A in Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, the book that triggered the Senate hearings and thereby toppled the industry: it shows a closeup of Mary Kennedy, the dope-dealing protagonist, being stabbed in the eye by a junkie with a hypodermic needle. I concede that this isn’t Mother Goose, but I find the panel (part of a dream sequence, incidentally) emblematic of the comic book’s visceral power to pass the reader’s analytical defenses and pierce the brain. Dr. Wertham, on the other hand, focussed on the depraved image as an example of “the injury-to-the-eye motif... [that] shows perhaps the true color of crime comics better than anything else. It has no counterpart in any other literature of the world, for children or adults.” I suspect that Dr. Wertham never saw Buñuel and Dali’s “Un Chien Andalou” (the 1929 film shocker that featured a closeup of a woman’s eye getting slashed by a razor), but that it had made a strong impression on Cole. On the other hand, Cole’s True Crime capers point out the continuum between his manic humor and plain old mania. As Kotzky recalled, “Jack was a wild man mentally.”

The New York State Legislature thought enough of Murder, Morphine and Me to reprint eight pages of blowups and excerpts in its 1951 report on comic books and censorship. As a young teen in the arid comic-book landscape of the early sixties, I stumbled onto this report in Manhattan’s Donnell Library. It was my first exposure to Cole, and I checked the report out repeatedly. The story included ethnically stereotyped Scandinavians and Italians, lingerie shots of Mary Kennedy, and more gangland gunplay than there is in a John Woo Hong Kong action flick, all delivered with Cole’s signature velocity. It is also among the most formally sophisticated comics stories I’ve ever seen; all the elements, including the panel shapes and the lettering, are deployed for narrative effect. When Mary, working as a hash-slinger, spills coffee on Tony, seated at her lunch counter, it’s love at first sight. Through two progressive closeups, moving from profiles of their faces to their twitching lips, they exchange a machine-gun volley of speech balloons with dialogue worthy of James M. Cain. Tony departs (“Be seein’ ya, honey eyes”), leaving Mary almost swooning, her heart banging against her chest like a five-hundred-pound canary trying to break out of its cage. (Cole’s body language is priceless.)

Cole’s last comic-book work was for Web of Evil, Quality’s entry into the horror comics of the early fifties. Unlike most of his output, these horror comics, often scripted and barbarically inked by others, look as if they were done for the money. One noteworthy tale, clearly by Cole, The Killer from Saturn, is about a serial murderer from outer space who terrorizes the city but turns out to be a mousy municipal window clerk who has gone postal. Wearing an imposing monster costume and stilts, he takes revenge on those who abused him. He’s put in a mental institution where, in the closing panel, two detectives outside the barred door peer in at the pathetic wimp who still insists that he’s the omnipotent killer from Saturn. One cop says, “He always will be... up here... where he can safely kill... in his imagination.” The story, laced with fifties psychological jargon, seems to be Cole’s hymn to the power of fantasy and the need to keep that power contained.

If Cole was through with comics, comics were also through with him. Searching for work in the fifties, he is said to have brought his portfolio to DC Comics, one of the few publishers that survived past 1954, and was summarily turned away. As early as the mid-forties, he had been preparing to leave the field, more out of ambition and restlessness than remorse. He began to put much of his energy into reshaping himself as a gag cartoonist, selling occasional drawings to the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and Judge. A knack for drawing genuinely sexy women made his cartoons, signed “Jake,” a fixture of the down-market girlie-cartoon and pin-up magazines. Cole was struggling as a mid-echelon gag cartoonist at the end of 1953 when he submitted a batch of gags to Stag Party, a planned men’s magazine that announced its need for cartoons in trade journals. Cole’s drawings began appearing in the fifth issue of the magazine, after it was launched as Playboy. At least one full-page drawing by him appeared in Playboy every month thereafter for the rest of his life.

Hugh Hefner had grown up reading and loving Plastic Man, and, in a phone interview, described it to me as “the most hallucinogenic comic book of its time.” At first, Hefner, a self-confessed failed cartoonist, didn’t realize that he was working with that Jack Cole; indeed, the deft and sophisticated gag cartoons that appeared in Playboy, often in confidently applied, rich watercolor, bore almost no stylistic resemblance to Cole’s brash comic-book art. Hefner remembers receiving the first submission, and though there was nothing he could use in that first batch, he said, “I loved the free and loose line, the quality of even those first pencil roughs, and I wrote a letter strongly encouraging him to send more. One of the things I tried to do was, like The New Yorker, develop a stable of artists closely associated with my magazine.”

Cole soon signed an exclusive contract with Playboy and, in effect, became its defining artist - its Peter Arno. Playboy’s first art editor, Art Paul, told me, “Cole helped give the magazine its visual identity. Unlike Gardner Rea and Eldon Dedini, who came from Esquire, Cole was a Playboy product.” In fact, Females by Cole cocktail napkins were the second product Playboy licensed, right after the cufflinks based on Paul’s famous rabbit logo. The Females, horny derivations of William Steig’s symbolic drawings, were breezy black-and-white brush impressions of women’s psychological states. Cole came up with the concept for the ongoing feature; Hefner, as the very hands-on cartoon editor, worked closely with him.

In 1955, on Hefner’s first trip to New York after launching Playboy, he visited Cole’s home in New Milford. The Coles had just resettled there after floods destroyed their house in Winsted, Connecticut, laying waste to most of their furniture and possessions. Hefner urged Cole to move to the Midwest, and he reluctantly agreed. He wrote to Gill Fox, “Middle of January the boss is moving us to Chicago. Swore I’d never leave these old hills, but he’s dangled so much green bait what’re you going to do? The sad part is leaving old friends.” Though Hefner offered Cole a staff job, he preferred to work at home, and, at the beginning of 1956, settled into what he called that “pool table of a state,” buying a place in the town of Cary, Illinois, about forty miles northwest of Chicago. Hefner was twelve years younger than Cole, and yet, he told me, “My heroes were now working for me - but as Cole’s editor, of course, I was the father figure.”

Hefner points out that Cole was still drawing fantasies for Playboy. Cole’s goddesses were estrogen soufflés who mesmerized the ineffectual saps who lusted after them. The stacked night-club chanteuse who sings “I ain’t got no bodeee...” in one of his oft-reprinted color cartoons makes Marilyn Monroe, whom she’s modelled on, look hardboiled. Cole had climbed to the top of the heap in comic books, even if he looked back on it as a dung heap; now he was the star cartoonist for the hottest and hippest “slick” in America.

In the hierarchy of the applied arts, the comic book has been near the bottom - above only tattoo art and sign painting - and every commercial artist has been as aware of these unspoken aesthetic ranks as any American who isn’t white has been of race. The gag cartoon, being a self-contained, single-image composition and therefore a distant cousin of painting, has been seen as more worthy. The comic strip - because of the fame and great fortune it can bring, and because this is America, where such things have mattered most - has been at the pinnacle. Early in 1958, unbeknownst to Hefner, Cole drew up several weeks’ worth of a newspaper strip called Betsy and Me and walked the samples over to Field Enterprises’ Chicago Sun-Times syndicate after a meeting at Playboy. Cole, like Plastic Man, had changed his appearance: Betsy and Me was drawn in the then ultra-modernistic, minimalist fifties style that looked like nothing he had done before. The complex ongoing “voice-over” narration by nebbish-husband Chester Tibbet about family life with his wife, Betsy, and their five-year-old boy genius, Farley, actually has a formal connection to the inventive narration in Murder, Morphine and Me. The mature verbal sophistication Cole demonstrates in Betsy and Me may be a by-product of the cultivated milieu he encountered through Playboy. The syndicate knew nothing about Cole’s other careers, but found the feature fresh and exciting. The strip was launched that May and was appearing in nearly fifty newspapers by the summer; the forty-three-year-old cartoonist’s childhood ambition for a successful strip of his own was finally being realized. Then Cole snapped.

On Tuesday evening, August 12, 1958, he went to a party at Playboy’s offices. According to Hefner’s private journal, Cole “was seemingly in the best of spirits.” Art Paul told me that Cole, who was habitually temperate, drank a bit more than usual at the gathering, and seemed somewhat overexcited. Cole told him he had something he needed to say - the art editor found this exceptional, since they weren’t intimate, and work-related issues tended to be taken up directly with Hefner - but someone interrupted, and the conversation never took place. The next morning, Cole greeted a neighbor, a railroad conductor he’d known since moving to Cary, who noticed nothing out of the ordinary. At around 2 p.m., Cole told Dorothy he was going out for the mail and the papers. He took their Chevy station wagon, and at around five showed up at Dave Donner’s sport shop, in nearby Crystal Lake. He bought a .22-calibre, single-shot Marlin rifle. Between five-fifteen and five-thirty, he phoned the same neighbor he’d seen earlier and, after apologizing for the imposition, asked him to tell Dorothy that he was going to end it all. Then he hung up. At around 6 p.m., on a gravel road a few miles from his home, three boys found Cole slumped behind the wheel of his car: a bullet wound in his head, the rifle in his lap, and a note on a tablet next to him. He was still alive. At six-ten, a McHenry County Deputy Sheriff, who had been notified of the suicide threat, showed up. The deputy called an ambulance, but Cole died in the hospital at 6:45 p.m. without having regained consciousness. Cole’s note said, “To whom it may concern: Please notify my dear wife, Dorothy Cole, 703 Silver Lake Road, Cary, Illinois, but first tell a neighbor so someone will be with her when she receives the news. Thank you. Jack Cole. Please forgive me, hon.” Cole’s body was carried back to New Castle, and he was buried there on August 16th.

On the day he killed himself, Cole had mailed two letters, which were received the next morning; one was to his wife, the other was to Hugh Hefner. The letter to Hefner reads:

Dear Hef: When you read this I shall be dead. I cannot go on living with myself and hurting those dear to me. What I do has nothing to do with you. You have been the best guy I’ve ever worked for in all these years. I’m only sorry I leave owing you so much, but dear Dorothy will repay you when the estate is settled. I wish you nothing but the best in the years to come. Also my best regards to Pat, Art, Ray, Joe, etc. etc. and all the other fine folks at Playboy. Thanks again for everything, Heffer. You’re a good boy. Kindest regards, Jack

At the inquest, the coroner asked Dorothy about the letter Cole sent to her. She testified that in it he explained why he killed himself. The coroner was able to establish that Cole had never been under a doctor’s care for any nervous condition and then asked Dorothy if she knew of any reason he might have had for taking his life. Dorothy answered only, “We had had an argument before.” When a juror asked if the letter would be entered as evidence, the coroner said, “The letter was a very personal letter. I read it myself. We just wanted to bring it out that far.” After Cole’s death, Dorothy did not maintain contact with her husband’s family or friends. Hefner, too, lost track of her, though he knows that “she remarried about a year or so after.”

Speculating about a suicide’s motives at least keeps a dialogue alive with that conversation-stopper of a corpse. It also drives a thin wooden stake of rational explanation through the corpse’s heart - to punish the dead for their rebuke to the living. The handful of people who care about Cole or his work have speculated as wildly about his suicide as any school class puzzling over E. A. Robinson’s chestnut, “Richard Cory.” Baseless rumors about money problems, terminal illness, substance abuse—more plots than could fill a True Crime comic book—have hovered over Cole’s death. Did he suffer from manic-depression? Cole was never diagnosed, but, like Plastic Man, he had his ups and downs. Dick Cole recalls that as a young man his brother once came home furious after an argument with his fiancée, Dorothy, his hands all bloody from pummelling every tree he’d walked past. Insofar as these things run in families, Cole’s uncle, his father’s brother, Frank, had a breakdown and committed suicide a short time after Jack moved to New York. Cole’s association with Playboy, especially, has fuelled prurient gossip about swinging affairs and infidelities. When I asked Hefner if Cole took part in the Playboy life style, he chuckled: “He was no Shel Silverstein.” If Cole’s last letter to Dorothy had some sordid confession or salacious details, they remain unknown, since the coroner, Theron Ehorn, was no Kenneth Starr. As a result of his discretion, the big question marks that hang over all suicides can’t be dispelled with much more precision than to say that something had gone wrong in the Coles’ twenty-four-year-long marriage, and Jack Cole blamed himself. As Hefner told me, “It’s an unresolved mystery. His end is as inconclusive as a Somerset Maugham story.”

Was Cole “unbalanced”? Of course: it goes with the suicide’s job description. Jacques Rigaut, a Dada artist who shot himself in 1929, once said that “suicide is a vocation”; it’s at least one hell of a career move - look at Sylvia Plath! - and it turns one toward an artist’s work as if to a career résumé. “The mystery of his death informs the work,” as Hefner put it. Suicide does indeed figure in many of Cole’s comic-book stories, like 1948’s Mr. Morbid, wherein a criminal perfumer concocts an essence of misery (one whiff and you knock yourself off), but most of Cole’s cronies used suicide as a plot device without going on to self-destruct. More to the point may be the astonishing number of his Playboy cartoons that have impotence as their subtext. Putting aside limp jokes about Plastic Man’s inability to get it up, impotence - or, rather, the psychologically linked issue of potency as the power to conceive a child - was key to Cole. All who knew Cole told me that he doted on kids. Jack and Dorothy’s childlessness cast a poignant shadow on their isolated lives.

Hefner, who still misses the man and his work, has published several reprint tributes to Cole over the years. One Playboy classic shows a middle-aged milquetoast stretched out on an analyst’s couch. “In the beginning,” he recounts wistfully, “I created the heavens and the earth…” Although Cole looked back on his own beginnings in the comics with disenchantment, dismissing the “comics mags” in a letter to a friend as being “for the birds,” he did have the power to soar and create worlds there, with barely an editor to shackle him.

Plastic Man was a stream of consciousness, allowing Cole’s id the license to ooze freely, and in its bounces and lurches Cole found grace and balance. When he 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. Sublimating further, he squeezed his creativity into ever smaller boxes: his two-dimensional newspaper strip is as sexless as any other nineteen-fifties sitcom. Cole’s heartbreaking “fantasy” about a loving couple doting on their brilliant little boy - it reads like a suicide note delivered in daily installments! 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.

ⓒ Art Spiegelman