Born in 1914 in New Castle, PA, Jack Cole was first inspired to become a cartoonist during childhood by one of his sister’s suitors, who would draw cartoons for the boy as a bribe to leave them alone. At 15, Cole used his high-school lunch money to enroll in the Charles N. Landon Correspondence School of Cartooning.
Eleven years later, in 1936, emboldened by the sale of a few gag cartoons, Cole and his wife left New Castle and arrived in New York. Cole was eventually hired by Harry “A” Chester to work for $20 a week at one of the many comic-book “sweatshops” scattered throughout the Times Square area. In a few years he had mastered his craft and was the featured artist on Midnight, a virtual clone of Will Eisner’s Spirit.
In late 1940, Cole unveiled Plastic Man, a refreshing departure from the ultra-serious superhero persona—at last, a superman who used his powers with imagination and a sense of play. Cole developed a rubbery amalgam of action, sight-gags, melodrama, comedy, and sex, coupled with a storytelling prowess rivaling that of Eisner himself.
By the mid-1950s, Cole began distancing himself from comics to return to an earlier love, single-page gag cartoons, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Hugh Hefner had launched Playboy in late 1954, and Cole’s first cartoon appeared in its fifth issue. With Hefner’s strong encouragement, Cole developed a luscious sexy painterly technique, establishing the classic Playboy cartooning style that remains to this day.
For Betsy and Me, featuring city dweller Chet Tibbit’s day-to-day stuggles and achievements, Cole stripped his style down to its bare essentials, creating a strip that sparkles with economy, wit, and charm. What gave the strip its edge, however, was Cole’s innovative storytelling. As R.C. Harvey writes in his introduction, “Cole’s storytelling manner was unique: the comedy arose from the pictures’ contradicting the narrative prose. Cole’s fatuous protagonist and narrator would say one thing in the captions accompanying the drawings, but the pictures of his actions showed the opposite, revealing [him] to be a trifle pretentious and wholly delusional.” Harvey’s intro also serves as a biographical sketch and sheds light on the circumstances surrounding Cole’s suicide.