Jack Ralph Cole
- August 13
) was an American comic book artist
best-known for creating the popular and highly influential superhero Plastic Man
. He was posthumously inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame
in 1991, and the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame
Early life and career
Born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, Cole — the third of six children of a dry goods-store owner and amateur-entertainer father and a former elementary school-teacher mother — was untrained in art except for the Landon School of Cartooning correspondence course. At age 17, he bicycled solo cross-country to Los Angeles, California, an adventure he recounted in his first professional sale, the self-illustrated non-fiction story "A Boy and His Bike", in the Boy Scouts of America magazine Boys' Life in 1935. By that time, he was back home and working at a factory job for the manufacturer American Can while continuing to draw at night.
In 1936, having married childhood sweetheart Dorothy Mahoney soon after graduating high school, Cole moved with his wife to New York City's Greenwich Village. After spending a year attempting to break in as a magazine/newspaper illustrator, Cole in 1937 began drawing for the studio of the quirkily named Harry "A" Chesler, one of the first comic-book "packagers" who supplied outsourced stories to publishers entering the new medium. There, Cole drew such features as "TNT Todd of the FBI" and "Little Dynamite" for such Centaur Publications comics as Funny Pages and Keen Detective Funnies. He produced such additional features as "Circus", "King Kole's Kourt" (under the pseudonym Geo. Nagle), "Officer Clancy", and "Peewee Throttle" (under the pseudonym Ralph Johns).
Golden Age of Comic Books
Lev Gleason Publications
hired Cole in 1939 to edit Silver Streak Comics
, where one of his first tasks was to revamp the newly created superhero Daredevil
(no relation to Marvel Comics
' same-name character
). Other characters created or worked on by the prolific tyro include MLJ
's The Comet in Pep Comics
— who in short order became the first superhero to be killed — and his replacement, the Hangman.
After becoming an editor at Lev Gleason Publications and revamping Jack Binder's original Golden Age Daredevil in 1940, Cole hired on at Quality Comics. There he worked with future legend Will Eisner, assisting on the writer-artist's signature hero The Spirit — a masked crime-fighter created for a weekly syndicated, newspaper Sunday-supplement, with his adventures reprinted in Quality comics. At the behest of Quality publisher Everett "Busy" Arnold, Cole later created his own satiric, Spirit-style hero, Midnight, in Smash Comics #18 (Jan. 1941). Midnight, the alter ego of radio announcer Dave Clark, wore a similar fedora hat and domino mask, and partnered with a talking monkey — questionably in place of the Spirit's young African-American sidekick, Ebony White. During Eisner's World War II military service, Cole and fellow great Lou Fine were the primary Spirit ghost artists; their stories were reprinted in DC Comics' hardcover collections The Spirit Archives Vols. 5 to 9 (2001-2003), spanning July 1942 - Dec. 1944.
Cole created the infinitely malleable Plastic Man for a backup feature in Quality's Police Comics
#1 (Aug. 1941). While Timely Comics
' quickly forgotten Flexo the Rubber Man had preceded "Plas" as comics' first stretching hero, Cole's character became an immediate hit, and Police Comics
' lead feature with issue #5. As well, Cole's offbeat humor, combined with Plastic Man's ability to take any shape, gave the cartoonist enormous opportunities to experiment with text and graphics in groundbreaking manner — helping to define the medium's visual vocabulary, and making the idiosyncratic character one of the few enduring classics from the Golden Age to modern times. Plastic Man gained his own title in 1943.
By the decade's end, however, Cole's feature was being created entirely by anonymous ghost writers and artists — including Alex Kotzky and John Spranger — despite Cole's name being bannered. Progressively floundering, the comic Plastic Man was cancelled in 1956.
Playboy and a comic strip
Cole's career by that time had taken on another dimension. In 1954, after having drawn slightly risqué, single-panel "good girl art
" cartoons for magazines, using the pen name "Jake
", Cole became the premiere cartoon illustrator for Playboy
. Under his own name, he produced full-page, lavishly watercolored gag 'toons of beautiful but dim girls and rich but equally dim old men. Elaborately finished, they providing the template for similar cartoons in the magazine. Cole's art first appeared in the fifth issue; he would have at least one piece published in Playboy
each month for the rest of his life. So popular was his work that the second item of merchandise ever licensed by Playboy (after cufflinks with the famous rabbit-head logo) was a cocktail-napkin set, "Females by Cole", featuring his cartoons.
In May 1958, Cole realized one of his life's ambitions when he created his own daily syndicated newspaper comic strip, Betsy and Me, which chronicled the domestic adventures of nebbishy Chester Tibbet, his wife Betsy, and their 5-year-old genius son, Farley. By the end of the summer, it was appearing in 50 newspapers.
Not long afterward, Cole committed suicide
. By now living at 703 Silver Lake Road in Cary
, about 40 miles northwest of Chicago
, he told his wife at about two in the afternoon that he was picking up the mail and the newspapers. Driving his Chevrolet station wagon
to Dave Donner's Sport Shop in nearby Crystal Lake
, he purchased a .22 caliber, single-shot Marlin rifle
. He phoned a neighbor between 5:15 and 5:30 p.m. to say what he was doing, and for the neighbor to tell Dorothy. Parked on a gravel
road west of the intersection of Illinois Routes 176 and 14, Cole was found by three boys at approximately 6 p.m., shot in the head but still alive. A McHenry County sheriff
's deputy arrived and called for an ambulance ten minutes later. Cole died at nearby Woodstock Hospital at 6:45 p.m.
That morning, he had mailed two suicide notes, one to Dorothy (who at a coroner's inquest testified that he had given his reasons) and one to his friend and boss, Playboy editor-publisher Hugh Hefner. The letter to his wife was never made public, and the reasons for Cole's suicide have remained unknown. Dorothy never again spoke with her late husband's family nor with Hefner, and remarried approximately a year later.
Cole's story "Murder, Morphine and Me", which he illustrated and probably wrote for publisher Magazine Village
's True Crime Comics
Vol. 1, #2 (May in 1947), became a centerpiece of psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham
's crusade against violent comic books. Wertham, author of the influential study Seduction of the Innocent
, singled out Cole's art for its raw power — pointing in particular to an image of the story's dope-dealing narrator about to be stabbed in the eye with a hypodermic needle
In 2003, writer-artist Art Spiegelman and artist Chip Kidd collaborated on a Cole biography (see "References" below), a portion of which was published in The New Yorker magazine in 1999.
- The Classic Pin Up Art Of Jack Cole, edited by Alex Chum (Fantagraphics Books, 2004) ISBN 1-56097-559-8