Betsy and Me

This can be a sad, sad book, if you want it to be.

It's the latest in Fantagraphics' invaluable line of archival projects, a self-contained, 120-page softcover, priced at $14.95. It collects the apparent surviving entirety of a newspaper strip by Jack Cole, the creator of Plastic Man, a pre-Code crime comics icon, and a famed early Playboy gag cartoonist. It was the project Cole had just begun drawing when he killed himself, on August 13, 1958.

Some might deem it impossible to separate this strip from the circumstances surrounding its short lifespan. I'd agree, to a point.

Surely Fantagraphics would be remiss, here in the Golden Age of reprints, to not load this book up with historical context. Hence, right up front we have a 23-page essay by R.C. Harvey. Derived in part from an installment of Harvey's Comicopia column in The Comics Journal (#216, Oct. 1999), it provides not only an introduction to the strip, but a short, heavily illustrated biography of Cole himself, hitting all the expected career highlights. It does an especially nice job of detailing the various transformations of the artist's visual approach, from 'bigfoot' one-pagers and realist crime tales, to the synthesis of the two with the exploits of Plastic Man.

Harvey opines that the key to Cole's original Plas is that he's a fundamentally sane man that contorts himself into mad shapes to confront the innate insanity of the lawless life, the cracked viewpoint of crime conveyed through Cole's gag-happy art - it's a very different take from most modern incarnations, which isolate the character himself as madness incarnate, illustrating to my mind the tug of war between long-lived, idiosyncratic concepts and the desire for coherency in the continuity-heavy, shared-universe superhero comics of recent times. Cole's careful blend of styles defined Plas' whole universe, but the shared universe had to compromise by preserving the Cole's approach only inside Plastic Man himself, forcing him to act as all his world's law and order, its sanity and madness. Talk about changing shape.

Cole didn't stop his development there; his comic book lines perspired into ink wash girlie gag panels for low-down digests, then faded entirely with those famous Playboy watercolors, although he doodled some playful b&w portraits too. It was like he had a new universe in store for each endeavor, or at least a fresh break with the past readied for each go, and Betsy and Me marked yet another visual change, this time for the lucrative word of syndicated newspaper strips. As you can see from this solicitation page, Cole adopted a 'modern' animation-influenced style, occupying a sort of middle ground between the shrinkable simplicity of Charles Schulz's Peanuts and the graphic boldness of Gene Deitch's Terr'ble Thompson.

There's 90 pages of the stuff in this book, including material drawn by Dwight Parks after Cole's death. A number of Sundays appear to be missing, and only two color samples are included - Cole's Lambiek page has a third (scroll down). The reproduction quality varies, with some of the Parks strips looking particularly rough. The legal indicia notes that some strips were taken from scrapbooks at the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library; I suspect this collection is as complete and smooth-looking as possible.

Certainly this small body of work reads nicely. The furious antics of Cole's humorous comic book projects are absent, replaced by a likeably farcical tone. The strip is narrated by Chester B. "Chet" Tibbit, a proud husband and father that simply cannot help but tell the reader all about his family, especially his genius son; much of the in-panel action flashes back to show us what Chet is telling us about. Cole employs an interesting use of words and pictures, often inserting drips of Chet's narration in-panel as unique graphic elements to supplement the usual word balloons (as seen here), reinforcing the 'storytelling' conceit.

Sometimes, Chet's rose-colored words directly contrast with the less beauteous facts of the story. At other times, the pictures act as cartoon symbols for what Chet is narrating. Hell, sometimes Chet just tells us stuff that Cole is already drawing. Even this approach sometimes achieves an odd visual beat through word/picture replication, although it also tends toward redundancy. In its best moments, the strip's construction achieves real graphic power. Take a strip set at the son's birth. When a maternity nurse whispers "It's a boy" into a sleepy Chet's left ear in panel #1, the center of his face cleaved vertically by the panel gutter, the same words explode out of his right ear in panel #2, his whole (right-sided) face awake, the "IT'S A BOY!" expanding the panel to double size.

I don't know how long Cole could have kept such an approach up. Parks sure didn't seem to know what to do with it - as carefully as he mimics Cole's drawings, his constructions fall squarely into show-and-tell territory. He also lacked Cole's sometimes nasty sense of humor - one early strip is based around Chet & Betsy (his wife, she of the title) cooing over their baby, as their landlady confides increasingly horrible secrets to them. "Oh! My poor back is killing me!" "To think - my own daughter is a fence!" "Jim beat me with a coal shovel last night!" Chet's narration assures us that she was just buoyant with the new baby around. Even a simple drawings of a crowd jostling into a theater under a big sign reading "MOVIES ARE BETTER THAN EVER" carries a nice satirical edge. Cole could have gone places with just that.

But, we'll never know. The book doesn't let you forget that.

That's because books like this, when lavished with the care that's standard for the Golden Age, are never just containers. They select a tone, and apply it to the collected work. Their design, their educational features, their being directs the reading eye into a mist of history that soaks the vision.

Chris Ware's fragile panels on the covers of Drawn & Quarterly's Walt & Skeezix books broadcast Gasoline Alley's sensitivity; coupled with the many photos of Frank King and his family, and Jeet Heer's probing, studied essays, a sense of wistful delicacy and private depth prevails. In contrast, Jacob Covey's design on Fantagraphics' initial Popeye hardcover brims with big images and loud colors and asskicking - with that die-cut cover, Popeye might as well have punched your goddamned face right through the motherfucking book, because that's the kind of party E.C. Segar throws. In a wry and learned way. Jules Feiffer's & Bill Blackbeard's essays accordingly focus on bad behavior and popular history.

Betsy and Me, the book, is distanced and quietly mournful. Adam Grano's cover design places Cole's bright characters against a buff-shaded background, their bodies framed by a red rectangle, as if we're looking at a photo of people that long ago went away. As I mentioned above, Harvey's essay covers Jack Cole in abridged cradle-to-grave style, and the grave gets much attention in the end. Why did Cole shoot himself? In running down the possibilities, Harvey draws a logical comparison between the idealized-realistic narration-visual aesthetic of some of the strips and the possible secret pain underneath Cole's life. Just as Chet adored his wife and beamed at the birth of his brilliant son, Cole's marital life was strained, and he and his wife could not conceive a child:

"The burden of it was finally too much for Cole to bear: that last argument with his wife on the day of his death no doubt dismantled whatever pretense had sustained him, a pretense that his comedy in the strip had taught him was fallacious and therefore silly - and laughable. He could no longer stand to see himself as the butt of the joke.

"We'll never know for sure. The mystery remains."

So hypothesizes Harvey. With this reading in mind, certain strips take on double meanings. The sample included on the book's back cover illustrates, in cartoon symbols, the sheer joy Chet feels upon the birth of his child. Exploding like a nuclear bomb. Soaring like a jet. Growing to the size of a skyscraper. What did Cole imagine? Surely Fantagraphics wants us to wonder. A strip depicting Chet's learning that his loving wife is pregnant ends with the weeping man exclaiming "My Betsy!" on his knees with his eyes clenched shut before the knitting woman, a halo over her head and an angel's wings out her back. It's the most tragic thing in the world.

But, it's also fizzy and romantic, and sentimental. And I think there's a risk with a book like this, an admirable and informative book, to let the sadness behind this material permeate everything, so strongly is it broadcast by the collection's contours. This isn't a sad strip; it's sometimes very funny, and often lively in its fascination with words and pictures, and always interesting with its peeks into the urban-to-suburban culture of some young families of the day. It doesn't need to be viewed as a loss, or an unwitting suicide note in funnies form, to paraphrase Art Spiegelman. It can be, and I'm glad to be given the chance, but it doesn't need to be.

It's up to the reader. The reader can easily excerpt a work as tiny as this away from its surrounding presentation. Look at the comic as a comic. Enjoy its life. Know the history, but don't let its sad details paralyze you with morbidity, or satisfy you with only the doomy 'importance' of it. That will do this work no favors. That will make it seem only tinny and futile, while its mechanics are sweet and engaged. You'll get to the end and think: "Why so little? Why so quick?" You'll know, but that needn't defeat the aspect of joy that got Cole up to the apex to begin with.