Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #243: Betsy and Me by Jack Cole

It's a natural human reaction to try to find meaning in tragedy, or to claim great art was the result of great suffering. Our minds are wired to find connections and turn events into stories, so that's the way we always bend: we want everything to make sense and to be explained somehow.

But the actual world is random and chaotic -- even the parts of it comprised of people's lives and behavior. And so those stories aren't usually true: the tragedy is just a sad thing that happened, for no reason, and suffering is just suffering, sad but everyday and banal. Not all of those stories are lies, exactly, but they're not true, and they distract us from what is true, from the actual hard facts and measured judgements we should be concentrating on.

Jack Cole was a great cartoonist. That much is definitely true: his work on the Plastic Man comic book was groundbreaking, thrilling, funny, and wonderful. And his cartoons for Playboy, a few years later, were witty, sexy, sumptuous, and lovely. And he did kill himself in 1958, very soon after hitting what was considered the peak of a mid-century cartooning career: getting a syndicated newspaper strip of his very own. All those things are facts.

R.C. Harvey, though, wants to turn them into a story in his long and detail-packed introduction to Betsy and Me, a book that collects the entire run of that ill-fated strip. And they're not a story: they're a few high points in a life. Lives are not stories, and we should remember that, no matter how much we want them to be.

And Betsy and Me, at the very best, is the stub of a strip: Cole did two and a half months of strips and then Dwight Parks took over to do about as much more. Cole spent most of his time introducing his cast -- chatty everyman Chester B. Tibbit, his pretty but mostly uncharacterized wife Betsy, and their standard 1950s genius child (glasses, giant round head, occasionally even a beanie) Farley -- with an extended opening sequence describing Chester's courtship of Betsy and the subsequent birth and first few years of Farley. We can't have any idea of what Betsy and Me would be like as a mature strip, because Cole didn't live that long: he was still engaging in a slow setup when he died. (Parks's stuff is a cut below Cole, but only if you pay careful attention: there's no obvious demarcation as when E.C. Segar had to give up Thimble Theatre.)

It's all drawn in a very standard 1950s UPA-derived style, and the gags and situations are equally stereotypically 1950s: Cole has Chester go moony over the birth of his son, then spend a few weeks to buy a car and was just settling the family into the suburbs when he died. Harvey makes a lot of hay about the discrepancy between text and images in Cole's strips, but that strikes me as pure special pleading: this is a very, very talky strip, so there will be some cases where the talk amusingly works against the pictures. But I didn't see any indication that was Cole's main humorous aim in Betsy and Me: most of his gags are vastly more obvious and standard than that. It's just a strip with a lot of words: too many, most of the time.

Betsy and Me is not a great lost strip -- maybe it could have been a great strip, if Cole lived longer, but we will never know that. Cole was certainly capable of greatness. It is a broken stub, in a very common idiom of its time, of interest only because of the circumstances surrounding its creation. Harvey's introduction may be the best part of the book: it provides a reasonable potted history of Cole, with some well-chosen illustrations, and only goes a bit off the rails in its claims for Betsy and Me. But this is really just a book for serious fans of Cole or equally serious students of the mid-century newspaper strip.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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