Plastic Man never shows his eyes. True, you see them when he’s out of costume and character, resuming the role of his alter-ego, Eel O’Brien. But the character with which Jack Cole has become most associated never lets you see his eyes.
‘Cartoonists “become” each character in their comics, acting out every gesture and expression’, writes Art Spiegelman in Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits (co-created with Chip Kidd). ‘It’s in this ontological sense that Cole most resembles Plastic Man—as the Spirit of Cartooning’.
One of the most wildly inventive, strangest and mysterious figures in the history of comics, Jack Cole created Plastic Man and debuted the character in a secondary role in the first issue of Police Comics in 1941.
Cole had already launched a successful career in comics by that point, and he would go on in later years to not only ‘climb to the top of the heap in comic books’, as Spiegelman describes, but also to become ‘the star cartoonist for the hottest and hippest “slick” in America’ by illustrating Playboy magazine in the mid to late 1950s. Plus, by 1958 he had a successful syndicated comic strip running in close to fifty newspapers. He was 43 years old.
‘Then he snapped’, Spiegelman writes.
Cole shot himself in the head. His reasons have never been made clear. He left two suicide notes, one addressed to his friend, Hugh Hefner (reprinted in Spiegelman and Kidd’s book). His wife, Dorothy, received the other letter, which was never made public. Adding to the mystery, Dorothy vanished from the public eye soon after.
‘She has long since remarried and disappeared’, writes Paul Gravett in his review of Spiegelman and Kidd’s book. ‘Who knows if she is still alive, or if the note still exists?’
All this lingers in the mind when reading Cole’s infamous 1948 crime comic, ‘Murder, Morphine and Me’. It’s reprinted in Spiegelman and Kidd’s book, and also in Gravett’s 2008 anthology, The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics.
‘For sheer heart-thumping, lip-quivering histrionics, where panels literally quake with shock and dialogue and balloons vibrate with emotion, nothing comes close to Jack Cole’s fever-pitch gem of a confessional’, writes Gravett in his introduction to the tale.
The story appeared in issue number two of True Crime Comics, which Spiegelman describes as ‘a short-lived attempt to cash in on the crime comics then dominating the field’. It takes the form of a first-person account of a woman drawn unwittingly into a world of dope-peddling and violent crime.
But ‘wild man’ Cole uses the framework of a standard true crime melodrama to create ‘one of the most intense and delirious examples that the lurid genre had to offer’, as Spiegelman says.
‘One small panel—so charged that it has tremor lines around it and tilts, almost tumbling off the page—was enshrined as Exhibit A in Dr. Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, the book that triggered the Senate hearings and thereby toppled the industry; it shows a close-up of Mary Kennedy, the dope-dealing protagonist, being stabbed in the eye by a junky with a hypodermic needle’.
Certainly one of the most famous panels in the history of comics, the rest of the issue is tantalizingly rife with echoes of this ‘pierced eyeball’ motif.
The very first image we see is an incredible splash page that features the face of Mary Kennedy (looking like film noir femme fatale Veronica Lake) surrounded by images of violence and tortured souls burning in hell. One of these bare-chested junkies grasps the needle end of a gigantic hypodermic needle than diagonally bisects the page. It can’t be a coincidence that the needle also crosses through the image of the heroine’s eye.
When we first see the present-time version of Mary, she has been aged beyond her years by her encounter with the world of drugs and crime, and the smoke from her cigarette seems to slice through the same eye that also faces the threat of piercing in the famed panel later on the page.
It’s notable that the needle-in-the-eye scene is a dream sequence. It doesn’t even appear that Mary ever partakes of drugs at any point in her tale. She unwittingly helps to sell and traffic drugs, and helps keep the books, but at no point does she become a user, although by the end she looks a little like a long-haired William S. Burroughs.
There are images of ‘sliced’ or ‘pierced’ eyes on nearly every page of the comic. Here are a few examples:
- On page three, a concerned neighbour throws a glass of water on the hysterical heroine, landing right in her eye.
- On page four, as she swoons from her first meeting with the man who will do her wrong, the swirling lines around her head cut through her eyes.
- On page five, her gangster boyfriend hands her a $100 bill, and the image is composed such that it appears to slice her face right under her eye.
- On page six, when she learns her lover is a dope dealer, she seems to be on the verge of scratching her own eyes out.
- On page ten, while they’re both on the run from murderous thugs, her lover wakes her up with a shock when he points his finger at her eye and yell, ‘Bang! You’re dead!’
- The cover of the comic shows a criminal’s face overlaid with jailhouse doors, one of which neatly cuts through one of his eyes.
Spiegelman calls the needle-in-the-eye panel ‘emblematic of the comic book’s visceral power to pass the reader’s analytical defenses and pierce the brain’.
These images are also reminiscent of the legendary razor-meets-eyeball moment in Louis Bunel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 film Un Chien Andalou (a comparison also drawn by Spiegelman), and they seem to anticipate the horizontal and vertical slicing of Saul Bass’s iconic opening credits to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960.
In Film Art, the description of Un Chien Andalou by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson seems equally applicable to much of Jack Cole’s ‘amphetamine-riddled art’ (as described by Spiegelman).
‘Sexual desire and ecstasy, violence, blasphemy, and bizarre humor furnish events that surrealist film form employs with a disregard for conventional narrative’, they write. ‘The hope was that the free form would arouse the deepest impulses of the viewer. Buñuel called Un Chien Andalou ‘a passionate call to murder’.’
Looking through other works by Cole, a similar motif seems to recur. Allowing a certain amount of armchair psychology, the cumulative effect of these motifs seems to mark them as emblematic of a possible ‘call to murder’ within Cole’s mind:
- Spotlight-eyes shine beams of light that cut through the darkness on the splash page that opens the 1944 Plastic Man comic, “The Eyes Have It”.
- The cover of the Plastic Man story “Game of Death” shows Plas poking his head and long needle-like arms out of the eye sockets of a giant skull.
- A panel from Plastic Man #3 in 1946 shows a man contemplating suicide, and he’s pointing a gun at his eye. It’s an eerie presage to Cole’s final act twelve years later.
All of this is only intended to explore the mystery of Cole’s work. If, more than any of his other characters, Cole is Plastic Man, then the unseen eyes suggest that he was keeping a significant aspect of himself hidden.
And if, as Spiegelman describes, the needle-in-the-eye image represents the power of Cole’s medium to breach mental defenses and go straight into the brain, then by hiding/covering his eyes, Cole could be keeping the rest of the world forever outside, away from the part of himself that would eventually lead to his self-destruction.
Or not. Who knows? In their description of surrealist film, Bordwell and Thompson declare: ‘Causality is as evasive as in a dream’.
Borderland Speakeasy appears every alternate Thursday and explores classic horror and mystery reprints (such as the recent EC and Warren Comics archives), along with modern crime (non-superhero) comics.
‘The only thing real is waking up and rubbing your eyes’
Saul Bass’s opening credits to Psycho
Un Chien Andalou