American cartoonist (1914-1958). Born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, Jack loved the newspaper comic strips and dreamed of drawing his own strip someday. He didn't have much formal art training -- just a correspondence course in his teens -- but he drew everything he could. He had his first sale when he was 17 -- he'd bicycled from his hometown to Los Angeles and back again and wrote about the experience for an article (illustrated by the author, of course) in "Boys' Life."

After Cole graduated from high school, he secretly married his childhood sweetheart -- he lived with his parents until his mother learned about the marriage and suggested it was time he moved out. He later moved to New York City to seek work as a cartoonist, and he eventually found work at the Chesler comics factory, producing fill-in comics for small magazines reprinting newspaper funnies -- hence, Cole got in on the ground floor of the new medium that became known as the comic book.

Cole got a lot of work as a freelancer, writing, drawing, and lettering stories for a variety of publishers and creating mostly forgotten characters like Midnight, the Claw, the Comet, and Mantoka. While working for Quality Comics in 1941, Cole created a short feature for Police Comics #1, about a stretchy superhero wearing a red costume and dark goggles. Plastic Man and his tubby pal Woozy Winks soon took over Police Comics and became popular enough to get a book of his own just two years later.

Cole was always a gag cartoonist and doodler at heart, even when he was drawing dramatic comics, so Plastic Man provided him the perfect opportunity to indulge in wild, hyperkinetic, surrealist artwork. Plastic Man, of course, was able to take on any shape imaginable, but even the normal folk in the comic bounce and twist and contort and emote like characters in a Tex Avery cartoon.

Cole's creativity wasn't limited to the comics page either; he created his own Christmas cards and once made a tiny banner advertising Pepsi Cola and carefully glued it to a horsefly's back to play a prank on the other artists at the Quality studio.

Unlike many other comic artists, Cole was not drafted during World War II. He was able to increase his output of comics and made a ton of money. He and his wife were able to buy property and a nice house in New England, but Cole finally burned out on Plastic Man in the early 1950s, moving on to crime comics for a while (his story, "Murder, Morphine and Me," featuring a lurid panel of a woman about to be stabbed in the eye with an awl, was prominently spotlighted in Dr. Fredric Wertham's anti-comics study "Seduction of the Innocent").

Soon, Cole moved on to single-panel gag cartoons and displayed a talent for drawing curvy women that soon got him a regular gig doing cartoons for "Playboy." His lushly painted artwork quickly became one of the magazine's most recognizable features, and he became close friends with Hugh Hefner, who had been a big fan of Plastic Man when he'd been a boy. Cole also began working on a daily strip called "Betsy and Me," a pseudo-autobiographical strip about married life. He drew the strip in the more popular minimalist cartooning style of the time, and "Betsy and Me" was quickly picked up by over 50 papers in just a few months. Cole changed his artistic style often enough -- from the madcap cartooning in "Plastic Man" to the rich painting in "Playboy" to the modernistic sketching of "Betsy and Me" -- that some people couldn't believe that the same guy did all the same cartoons.

And then Cole went out for a drive one afternoon in 1958, mailed letters to his wife and to Hefner, bought a .22 rifle, and killed himself. The coroner chose not to enter the letter to his wife into evidence and noted that the Coles had recently argued, but no reason for Cole's suicide has ever been firmly established. The most plausible speculation suggests that he feared his marriage was going sour.

A final ironic note: There were two Jack Coles at the high school in West Castle, PA, both cartoonists. The guy who created Plastic Man was only a year or two younger than the other. Both married women named Dorothy. The Jack Cole who stayed in New Castle and ran a gas station also committed suicide.

Research from Jack Cole and Plastic Man by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd, (C) 2001

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