Monday, February 18, 2008
Stripper's Guide Bookshelf: Betsy and Me
Betsy and Me by Jack Cole
Introduction by R.C. Harvey
Fantagraphics Books, 2007
$14.95 softcover, 120 pages
Every biographer seems to be in agreement that Jack Cole's fondest professional desire was to author a syndicated newspaper comic strip. For Cole his classic Plastic Man comic books and Playboy magazine cartoons were never more than waypoints on a road that he hoped would end not at Oz but with a syndicate contract.
Other than a short stint ghosting Will Eisner's Spirit daily comic strip, Betsy and Me was Jack Cole's first, and as it turned out, only syndicated offering. The strip was offered by Field Enterprises, the syndication arm of the Chicago Sun-Times. Field had a rather pathetic track record for selling strips -- the syndicate (not to mention the newspaper) were said to be kept afloat mainly on the back of Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon, a bestselling strip in these years. This gives us the first inkling that Betsy and Me was not cut out to join the pantheon of Cole's greatest creations. Since Cole's reputation was well-known his syndicate submissions would not have had to wallow in slush piles, so we can safely assume that Betsy and Me was given a serious look at any syndicate to which he submitted. Signing up with Field probably indicates that there were no takers among the strongest syndicates.
Betsy and Me is a departure, and not a good one, for Cole. His reputation was made with the looney antics and superbly executed art of Plastic Man, and his stature grew in the 50s with his magnificent painterly Playboy cartoons. But Betsy and Me is in no way emblematic of either of his previous successes. Unlike the Playboy cartoons it is not risque or titillating, neither does it exhibit the loopy sensibilities of his Plastic Man. With this strip Cole is not adding a new chapter to his biography and inventiveness; Betsy and Me is formulaic, conventional and drawn in a fad style of the day unworthy of Cole's talents.
Betsy and Me rehashes the most overdone subject matter in comic strips -- the family sitcom. That's okay -- many great strips have worked within that hoary formula. But Cole's actors are pure stereotypes - Chet is the dimwitted dad and Betsy the cipher of a wife, both with bland personalities that have no originality, in fact no definition, at all. The kid, Farley, does have a hook but it's one that's been done a dozen times before -- he's a boy genius.
With a cast of characters straight off the assembly line, Cole takes his one stab at originality in the way the strip is built. Chet narrates most of the strips in the past tense, often framing the action by introducing the strip's subject in the first panel, then narrating the ensuing gag. Sometimes the commentary is cute, other times it consists of a lot of "he said"s and "she said"s surrounding the panels. Cole was so enamored of this motif that sometimes he doesn't bother with a gag at all -- the presence of the narration itself is, at least to Cole's thinking, funny enough. And it is a cute idea, just not that cute. The narration also has the problem of making the strip far too type-dense. In these tiny 4-column strips the addition of narration leaves darn little room for art. The result is unattractive and uninviting.
In a generously long and informative introduction punctuated with sample art from Cole's better efforts, R.C. Harvey rehearses Cole's life story. Cole's mysterious suicide, which took place bare months after the introduction of this strip, is discussed at length. The consensus opinion of Cole's biographers is that the suicide was a result of long-standing troubles in Cole's marriage. No one seems to have considered the possibility that Betsy and Me could have played some role. After all, this was supposedly Cole's fondest desire. Why would he kill himself after finally getting that syndicate contract he'd dreamed about for years? Well, if you'll forgive the conceit I'm going to indulge in some amateur psychoanalysis.
After working at Playboy, with its leisurely monthly deadlines, Cole was once again under the gun as he'd not been in a long time. The stress of producing a comic strip seven days a week is well-known, and not something that Cole was used to. He was probably working harder and longer hours than ever before, and all that toil spent on a strip that was not selling well at all. Betsy and Me had a tiny client list and no rosy prospects for improving. Worse still, Cole couldn't have helped but realize by then that his strip idea wasn't very strong. And this was not like comic books or magazine gags -- he couldn't just dump the concept and come up with something better. He had a syndicate contract that obligated him to continue beating this dead horse until the syndicate told him to stop -- they could keep the strip limping along for years. Granted he could break the contract but that would do a lot of damage to his professional standing.
I'm not saying that Cole killed himself only because of Betsy and Me, of course, but I think it could have been an important influence. Cole might have seen this as his only way out from a terrible situation, a shattered dream, of his own making. Just my two cents.
Fans of Jack Cole, and aren't we all, will want the book if only for its curiosity value. But be forewarned that there is little of the Cole we know and love to be found herein. The book is also far from a complete reprinting of the strip, despite the claim on the back cover. R.C. Harvey cites Jeffrey Lindenblatt and myself for the running dates of the strip, but the information he gives is long out of date. My research has since determined that Betsy and Me ran until December 27 1958 on the daily, December 21 on the Sunday, not December 10 and November 23 as listed in the intro. It will matter little for Cole fans because Dwight Parks had taken over the strip back in September, so these final months, of which the last is missing from the book, are a pastiche of Cole. On the other hand, the Cole material is also incomplete, and that's less forgiveable. By my count 8 Cole Sunday strips are missing, including the whole first month, and 13 Parks Sundays. Two of the Cole Sundays are printed in color (the rest are in black and white), but these two are the third-page incomplete versions of the strip.
I am glad you tackled this. Although your amateur analysis doesn't sound weird, I guess the main reason people suggest a more personal reason for Cole's suicide is the fact that the note to his wife was kept in the family and mentioned at the coroner's trail but noit entered into the records. Somehow, I think that if the note would have said 'he couldn't take it anymore', the contents would have been made public.
I am looking for people who have the missing Cole sundays (at least) to find a home for them in a magazine or on a weblog somewhere. Anyone who has any, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for writing this thoughtful review. But I'm not convinced by the linkage between working on "Betsy and Me" and Cole's suicide. The fact is that the one real piece of evidence we have on this matter -- the letter Cole wrote to Hefner right before the suicide and republished in the Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd book on Cole -- speaks about a personal issue (not wanting to go on hurting those close to Cole). Given this evidence, anything else seems pure conjecture. Jeet Heer
As I said in the review, I was throwing out Betsy and Me as a possible contributing factor; I can't imagine anyone would off themselves if that was the only reason. I was just struck that other biographers hadn't even mentioned it as a possibility.
You can find the missing Sundays in the Washington Star microfilm. Not in particularly reproducible shape, tho.
Of course the hype that it was Jack Cole meant that it had to be great to meet expectations, unfortunately it wasn't.
I have since found more of Parks' sundays, but not the last two you mention or the last month of dailies. All who wojuld like to see those (in a por state, due to the microfgiche origin should have alook at my site.