I primarily know Jack Cole’s work through the short biographical book “Jack Cole and Plastic Man” by Art Spiegelman. Cole’s skillfully drawn elastic crime-fighter stuck with me to the present. It was with interest, then, that I picked up a copy of Betsy and Me, the comic strip Cole drew for a few short months until he took his own life.
In the introduction, Jack Cole comes across as a real artist. His many styles include gag comics, watercolors done for Playboy, the saga of Plastic Man, and finally the restrained comic strip Betsy and Me. Even in the small black & white reproductions, you can tell Cole was able to change his style to suit any occasion.
As is still the case for many a cartoonist, having a syndicated comic strip was Cole’s pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow, the gig he strove for his entire professional life. The central question you ask as you read Betsy and Me, then, is why did Cole kill himself so shortly after achieving his dream? The answers, of course, probably have more to do with his private life than the demands and constraints of a daily comic strip. I know the job is hard, but it isn’t worth your life. Nevertheless, I looked for clues to his untimely demise in those little panels.
What strikes me most about Betsy and Me is its incredible banality. After such a diverse career, Cole really had to settle. The central characters are a husband, his wife, and their precocious (and of course genius) son. The strip begins with the father narrating his courtship with Betsy. Soon afterwards, she becomes pregnant. Then they buy a car. Then they move out of the city and into the suburbs. I am not making this up.
Our ideals have changed since Betsy and Me graced the newspapers. Looking at a strip drawn in 1958 from the perspective of 2008, it’s easy to laugh at how people have changed. I can’t help but note, however, that almost all the ideals embodied in Betsy and Me are the complete opposite of my own. It was like I was reading the mirror image of my own aspirations. I can’t help but wonder if a cartoonist, even a cartoonist in the 50’s, would have wanted something at least similar to what I want today. Have the times changed that much?
Maybe cartooning was simply a job to Cole. He did it well and it paid the bills. From today’s perspective, when cartooning jobs are so rare, and paying ones are all but mythical, I find it almost incomprehensible that Cole would idealize the life of a man with nothing interesting going for him.
The art of Betsy and Me is simple, true. In the great comic strip tradition, there is more going on with the drawings than is shown. Much has to be inferred when you have so little space to tell a story. Although backgrounds are all but nonexistent, and the panels are sometimes just talking heads, there is great care invested in defining each character. Betsy’s Madonna-like calm is a contrast to Chet’s worry. Farley, their son, is pompous and even cynical. Their assortment of married friends may be interchangeable, but they all behave like you would expect from characters in their situations. Cole knew how to infer a lot in a little space.
While it is easy to write off Betsy and Me as a historical curiosity, a footnote to the adventures of Plastic Man, there is still much to learn from it. It is a time capsule for the period. The drawing style is understated and well-executed. Finally, it is the last message from a man who was a notable (if not highly noted) cartoonist.
Cole’s final comic strip.