Jack and Betsy and Me

Jack and Betsy and Me

In the spring of 1958 another of Jack Cole's dreams came true. He began doing a newspaper strip of his own, Betsy and Me, for the Chicago Sun-Times Syndicate. It started running nationally on May 28, and on August 13 Cole killed himself. The entire run of his quirky and innovative strip consists of just 90 dailies and a handful of Sunday pages. RON GOULART examines its brief but legendary run.

Except for the suicide, Jack Cole's life was outwardly the stuff of which Jimmy Stewart movies are made. He was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, in 1914, took the Landon School of Cartooning correspondence course and went to work in the American Can factory. But one of his dreams was to become a successful magazine cartoonist, and in 1935 he succeeded in selling his first gag cartoon to Boy's Life. By that time he'd already married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Mahoney, and in 1936, borrowing $500 from some hometown merchants who believed in his talent, Cole and his young wife moved to New York.

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Cole, who worked in a broad, slapstick style early in his career, found it difficult to crack the slick magazines. However, the newborn comic-book industry was on the verge of blossoming. Cole, to pay the rent, started working for the funny books. Initially he did funny filler pages, but by 1940 he was doing mostly more or less straight superhero stuff. He wrote and drew adventures of such characters as the original Daredevil, the villainous Claw, Silver Streak, Midnight, Death Patrol, The Comet and his best known and most successful creation, Plastic Man. Throughout the 1940s, Cole was also producing funny stuff on the side in the form of one-page fillers. These included such clowns as Wun Cloo, Dan Tootin, Windy Breeze and Burp the Twerp, a mock Superman. For most of his humor pages he used the pen name Ralph Johns.

Despite his success in comic books—Cole supposedly got among the highest page rates in the field—he never gave up his dream of becoming a full-time gag cartoonist. Using the alias Jake, he'd started submitting mildly sexy cartoons to low-paying digest humor magazines. Then Playboy came along. Hugh Hefner, a cartoonist himself and a fan of Plastic Man, had put together the early issues of his new girlie magazine in his Chicago apartment. By the time Cole submitted cartoons, Playboy was doing very well. Hefner was delighted with the work Cole did, encouraging him to do full-page gags in watercolor. The reader response to Cole's stuff was enthusiastic, coming mostly from readers who'd never heard of his comic-book work.

In 1955, Hefner suggested that Cole move to the Chicago area. The cartoonist was less than enthusiastic, but the money was very good, so he and his wife uprooted and settled, eventually, in Cary, Illinois, some 40 miles out of Chicago. His Playboy success continued. His black-and-white drawings, which often ran under the title "Females, by Cole," were collected in a book, reproduced on cocktail napkins and otherwise merchandised. He was also assigned four- and five-page spreads in the magazine, where he used the impressive full-color watercolor technique he'd developed. When he was invited to come back to comic books, he turned down the offer. He told the publisher that he "was going to be the best damn cartoonist" in the gag field.

Cole had also long dreamed of doing a comic strip. The closest he'd come to that goal previously was when he ghosted a few weeks of Will Eisner's The Spirit in the 1940s. Early in 1958, he sold Betsy and Me to the Chicago Sun-Times Syndicate, part of the Marshall Field empire. The syndicate loved the strip and offered Cole a contract within a few days of his initial submission. Dorothy Portugais was an editor there and she has said that theirs was the first place Cole tried the strip. In a scene that would've fit in a Frank Capra movie, Cole had simply walked in off the street one day after a visit to Playboy. He had about five or six weeks of penciled strips and two or three finished ones. Nobody up there had ever heard of him and they didn't find out until after they'd signed him up—since Cole never mentioned it—that he was a veteran with nearly 20 years in comic books and was one of Hefner's star cartoonists.

The strip was in the young-married-couple category, yet unlike anything else in that genre. Cole used a simplified style, reminiscent of the drawing in the UPA animated cartoons. His focal character was Chester B. Tibbit, a young man with an egg-shaped head, who worked as a department store floorwalker. Cole's layout and narrative tricks, the unorthodox approaches he developed, are all in evidence in the strips that follow. Chester would begin many of the strips sitting in his living room and talking directly to the reader—"It all began a few years ago. I'll never forget the day I met Betsy. Let's see...was it June or August?" Chester had a tendency to romanticize, and many times the gag was built on the contrast between what he was telling the reader in his voice-over narration and what was actually going on in the panels. There was a loose continuity linking the dailies—the Sunday pages offered unrelated incidents in the Tibbit saga. Cole devoted the first two-plus months to introducing his characters, detailing how Chester and Betsy first met, courted and got married. Next came the birth of their son and accounts of how he grew from babyhood to the age of 5. As promised on the first day, their son Farley was a genius, and that became evident even before he could talk or walk.

On Monday, August 4, Chester told his readers, "I guess by now you have a pretty good picture of our Farley," and the story line moved into the present. Betsy and Me then followed the Tibbits as they bought their first car and then planned to move to the suburbs. In the final Cole daily, Betsy and Chet are seen signing up for a brand-new tract house in Sunken Hills.

The strip, if you don't get too serious about it, can be interpreted as loosely autobiographical. Although Cole and his wife were childless—"no Farley of his own" is how he put it in a third-person biography he provided the syndicate—they had, for instance, gone through the ordeal of hunting for a new home when they resettled in the Chicago area. "After a near month of hotels and house hunting," Cole had written to a friend, "bought a place about 40 miles from Chicago. That's as near as I want to be to the joint. He offered me a staff job but I prefer to work at home." It's also possible that Cole sometimes felt as hapless working for Playboy as Chester did walking floors at the department store. According to Portugais, the new strip was successful from the first and continued to pick up papers throughout its short run. She saw Cole every week, had lunch with him on several occasions. She was fond of him and thought he was a pleasant, easygoing man. And then "he just went out and shot himself. Just like that."

An example of Cole's Playboy cartooning.

On the morning of August 13 Cole drove to a store in Cary and bought a .22 pistol. Getting back in the car, he drove for a while more. Then he stopped and shot himself in the head. Supposedly Cole left a note explaining that no one was to blame for his suicide.

Cole's final Betsy and Me daily was dated September 7; the last Sunday, September 21.

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