Stretch of the Imagination: A Birthday Tribute to the Genius of Jack Cole
For a modern reader, the comics of the Golden Age — those superhero comics that came out between the late '30s and early '50s — are not always the most accessible reads. The clunky exposition, crude art, and formulaic plots of many of these comics often fail to impress fans more familiar with comics that appear on the surface to be more sophisticated.
However, the comics of Jack Cole — born on this day in 1914 — do not fit this description. Cole's magnum opus, his nearly decade-long run as writer/artist on his creation, Plastic Man, was easily twenty years ahead of its time and feels just as fresh today as it did in the '40s.
Most Golden Age comics, even the ones we look back fondly on, like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman, William Moulton Marston and HG Peter's Wonder Woman, or Otto Binder and CC Beck's Captain Marvel, tend to have storytelling based on grids and rectangular panels. For Cole, the page was an open canvas, ripe for experimentation both graphically and narratively. His ability to use layout and composition as a storytelling tool is unrivaled except by other, more acknowledged masters such as Jack Kirby and Will Eisner.
Cole's characters have a verve and sense of animation that set him far above the pack of his contemporaries, with expressive faces and varied body types that serve as shorthand for the conveyance of character. This at a time when Superman's glasses disguise was plausible because every Shuster man was square-jawed and squinty. Not bad for a guy whose only art education was a correspondence course in cartooning.
But Cole was a writer, too. His comics are filled to bursting with an offbeat humor that not only separates Plastic Man from his contemporaries, but helps keep his comics feeling fresh and fun seventy years later. Additionally, Cole uses the elastic properties of his titular hero narratively as well, allowing Plas's near limitless potential to fuel stories, scenarios, and plot twists.
Modern interpretations of Plastic Man often portray him as a clownish figure whose mercurial nature serves as a contrast to the more even-tempered or severe heroes of the Justice League like Superman or Batman. Yet Cole's Plas was most frequently the straight man of his feature, surrounded by a colorful cast of characters that included his bumbling but ultimately reliable sidekick, Woozy Winks, and villains like Sadly Sadly, whose face looks so sad that anyone who looked at him burst into tears.
Cole's other comics work included revitalizing Lev Gleason's original Golden Age Daredevil character, serving as ghost artist for Will Eisner on The Spirit during World War II, and introducing The Comet in Pep Comics, primarily noteworthy for being the first superhero to be killed.
His most notable non-Plastic Man work, however, are his full-page “good girl” gag cartoons that he contributed to Playboy in the '50s. This feature came to be known as “Females by Cole” and was one of the most popular elements of the early years of the magazine. Indeed, a cocktail napkin set featuring his cartoons were the second ever piece of licensed Playboy merchandise.
Cole took his own life in 1958 under rather mysterious circumstances (you should read this biography of Cole for more information on this bizarre series of events), but his work has lived on, both in reprints and in the work of creators influenced by him, such as Art Spiegelman, Grant Morrison, Frank Miller, Kyle Baker, and Alex Ross.
In a just future, Jack Cole's work will rightfully be mentioned in the same breath as other undisputed masters as Kirby, Eisner, Wally Wood, and Alex Toth. It's not a stretch to name him one of the greatest of all time.