Stretched To His Limits
Jack Cole (1914-1958) during his Playboy years.
Jack Cole’s suicide is one of the unsolved tragedies of American comics, so perhaps rather morbidly I was particularly interested in whether this new biography by Art Spiegelman based on his essay for The New Yorker, would shed any light on why on earth he killed himself. What could have driven Cole, aged 43, in the prime of his cartooning career, celebrated for his sophisticated gag cartoons in Playboy and picking up more and more papers for his own newspaper strip Betsy and Me, to take off one August afternoon in his Chevy station wagon, buy a rifle, and shoot himself in the head? A handful of theories have been circulating ever since, from drug addiction to money troubles, but to my mind Spiegelman in Jack Cole & Plastic Man: Forms Stretched To Their Limits has come as close as anyone to understanding what might have made Cole take his own life, by investigating a major body of evidence, Cole’s comics and cartoons, as much as his life story, in search of clues.
The whole mystery might be clarified instantly, if anyone ever comes forward someday with the suicide note which Jack mailed to his wife Dorothy on the day he died, Wednesday August 13th, 1958, in which he reportedly explained everything. But at the time, the coroner deemed that letter too personal and did not enter it as evidence at the inquest. By way of explanation, all that Dorothy Cole stated was "We had had an argument before." She has long since remarried and disappeared - who knows if she is still alive, or if the note still exists?
Cole’s other suicide letter, mailed to Hugh Hefner, Playboy publishers and his editor and father figure, is reproduced in this biography for the first time, but it is not that revealing. Written in capitals to "Dear Hef", it begins, "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." Cole mentions owing Hef money, but does not seem unduly troubled, as his estate would cover this. Nor was the Playboy lifestyle a direct factor - Cole apparently never partook of the bunny girls or Hefner’s mansion, preferring to work from home. Still, he did spend his last evening alive, the night before, at a Playboy office party, unusually drinking a fair bit, anxious to tell something to art director Art Paul and sadly never getting the chance.
"I ain’t got no bod-eee…"
by Jack Cole
Playboy, January 1958
With no more firsthand information from Cole, Spiegelman pieces his life back together from surviving early drawings, photos and memories from Jack’s youngest brother Dick and insight from admirers and colleagues, including Golden Age peers Gill Fox and Creig Flessel. Jack emerges as "a straight arrow - sort of a Boy Scout:, as Fox remembers him. It seems nobody, except presumably his wife, ever really got close to him. Beneath his friendly public veneer, however, Spiegelman has found a crucial private issue, that Jack was unable to have children. This was a poorly understood problem and a social stigma at the time, and to Spiegelman "impotence - or, rather, the psycholigically linked issue of potency as the power to conceive a child - was key to Cole."
Police Comics, featuring Plastic Man
by Jack Cole
After the psychological freedom of ten years of uninhibited Plastic Man comics, Cole’s talents wound up divided and stretched between his full-page wash cartoons for Playboy, something frothy and sensuous, sometimes surprisingly sombre and fuelled by impotence and loss, and the confines of his cosy suburban family-value strip Betsy and Me. This sit-com about a young couple’s courtship, marriage and setting up home could almost be autobiographical, except that Cole’s alter ego, the ineffectual romantic Chester Tibbet, has a five year-old son, Farley, a genius from birth who tends to show up his father. Considering its significance, I was disappointed that only three dailies are shown here. The whole run has been compiled by Fantagraphics Books in 2007 and a fuller reading underlines Spiegelman’s contention that this strip "reads like a suicide note delivered in daily instalments."
Besty & Me
by Jack Cole
According to Hugh Hefner, "the mystery of his death informs his work" and this is also born out when you read the choice complete stories reprinted here, warts and all, directly from the tanned, show-through pages of the comic books: three Plastic Man tales, one each of "Wun Cloo", "Burp the Twerp" and "Woozy Winks" and the histrionic "Murder, Morphine and Me" from True Crime No. 2 (also reprinted in black and white in The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, end of plug!). Of course, Plastic Man seethes with manic energy, his standout mostly-red outfit grabbing your eyeball across his page and ceaselessly stretching and shape-shifting.
But within these zany frolics there can be angst and morbidity. In "The Eyes Have it" from Police Comics No. 22, for example, Plas rumbles a kidnap racket selling European war orphans to childless American couples desperate to adopt (did the Coles ever consider adoption, one wonders?). Plas rescues the mute "Bright Eyes", a boy straight out of those kitsch Margaret Keane paintings of urchins with big, weepy eyes, who in a crule twist in the gang boss’s own traumatised son. Then in "Sadly-Sadly" from Plastic Man No. 26, a crook uses his heartbreaking expression to make peole gush soda fountains of tears and bend them to his will. If you’ll indulge me mixing my metaphors and nursery rhymes, if a person’s comics, like their eyes, can truly be "a window onto the soul", the our Jack "Old King" Cole as definitely not "a merry old soul."
Plastic Man splash pages
from Police Comics #13 & 18
by Jack Cole
The bald, matter-of-fact newspaper report of a local cartoonist’s deth kicks off a "portfolio of polymorphously perverse plasticity" which concludes this biography. Over nine spreads, Spiegelman and designer Chip Kidd mix and remix panels, balloons, cutups, photos, texts, words, even the index, rotating, enlarging, duplicating them, and tearing the reader along a rollercoaster ride of dementia and death. Their collaged compositions build to a crescendo almost musically, climaxing at an image of Plastic Man’s sweating face and his goggles reflecting Woozy being strangled, the cover detail sliced in two by one huge agonised "No!" But this lone cry is drowned out on the last page by a staccato gunburst of "Yes"es next to a panel of a man being shot, repeated as if part of an endless loop of film, pounding the final, emphatic note.
Not everyone is going to appreciate this finale. To some it will seem too strange or heavy-handed. But on reflection, I realise that, after the formal biography and complete stories, these fractured closing pages from the "scrapbook of a madman" take us inside Cole’s suicidal state of mind, as his life and his cartooning flash before his eyes. It makes a sort of sense for this biography, like Cole himself, to self-destruct.
The Plastic Arts
by Art Spiegelman
The New Yorker, April 17 1999
Art Spiegelman’s profile of the cartoonist Jack Cole, creator of the comic-strip superhero Plastic Man, ran, together with this cover, during a Picasso show at the Guggenheim Museum.
Art Spiegelman is a particularly sympathetic yet determined biographer for Cole, because he has had to deal with suicide in his own family. He recounted his mother’s suicide and his mental problems in his harrowingly honest strip Prisoner on The Hell Planet. This four-page confessional, and his Maus graphic novel that now contains it, offered him at least some catharsis, an outlet to confront his emotions, using his comics as psychotherapy. Cole was around long before underground comix and graphic novels but Spiegelman argues a convincing case that Cole too found some sort of expressive release for his deep anxieties through drawing his comics and cartoons. But sadly in the end this was not enough to prevent him from pulling the trigger.Posted: August 31, 2008
This article originally appeared in Comic Book Marketplace in 2001.