A review of Classic Pin-up Art of Jack Cole edited by Alex Chun

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Classic Pin-up Art of Jack Cole
Edited by Alex Chun
Fantagraphics Books, April 2010 
ISBN-13: 978-1-60699-284-5

Jack Cole was a brilliant artist and one of the most significant figures in American comics. He invented Plastic Man, a sublimely weird superhero, writing the stories and drawing and inking the panels all by his lonesome, from 1941 to 1945. True it is that, in a far-off time, to be plastic and supremely malleable was considered a power and a virtue. Conformist America, where art thou?

Behind an anodyne facade, mind, dark and disturbing beasts lurked; and Cole captured some of the era’s sleazy underbelly in ‘Murder, Morphine and Me’, a story that he drew for the first issue of True Crime Comics in May 1947. (Chun calls it issue 2 in the introduction to this book, but it was in fact the first issue. It just says issue 2 on the cover.) It is shocking to read this particular story even now, and the image of the syringe held before a woman’s eye, needle poised and ready to strike and pierce, retains its harrowing force.

The book under review collects together some of the risqué cartoons that Cole placed in various men’s magazines in the 1950s, after exasperatedly leaving the comics industry. Some of these cartoons appeared in one magazine that, amongst a host of mostly forgotten titles, is still in existence today: Playboy, which Cole joined in 1953.

In essence, these are single panel cartoons, beautifully composed and drawn as you would expect, accompanied by a gag or punchline. They are pleasing to look at and vaguely amusing, to be sure, but there is none of the surreal, chaotic, rollercoaster quality to be found in Cole’s comic book art. There is nothing too objectionable either, unless you regard cheesecake as commodification – which you’re perfectly entitled to do, of course.

We are in the pre-feminist world of saucy seaside postcards and Mad Men (the TV series) or perhaps simply a world of mad men, inchoate playboys who are infinitely malleable and plastic.

Jack Cole found steady work at Playboy, working there until the fateful day when he killed himself. Chun includes all the details, and he even tells you the calibre of gun that was used. Cole was only 43 years old when he chose to end his life, an awful waste of a gorgeous talent. What is it Patchen wrote? ‘There are so many little dyings that it doesn’t matter which of them is death.’

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com