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The Classic Pin-Up Art of Jack Cole
Edited by Alex Chun
Published by Fantagraphics Books; $19.95 USD

This is not comics, strictly speaking. I suppose it is, in the "Family Circus" sense -- that is to say most of the art here is in the form of one-panel strips with an accompanying punchline. Never been much of a fan of that format, so for me this is a book that rises or falls pretty much based on the art of Jack Cole, most noted in comics circles for his work on Plastic Man in the 1940s.

The cover is striking, inviting, a gorgeous piece that demonstrates Cole's mastery of the human female, and his sublime skill at shading. At once, the cover dispelled any reservations about Cole's value as an artist and intrigued me enough to give this a chance.

The Classic Pin-Up Art of Jack Cole separates Cole's strips into a number of categories -- Line Art, Washes, and Originals. The Line Art section holds the least interest, being mostly unimaginative tits-and-ass gags with little in the art to help them rise above their humble origins.

One strip, on page 27, stopped me in my tracks, though. In addition to being an interesting (for its time) comment on the power of female sexuality and self-determination, the strip's artwork transcends most of the rest in this section. In the foreground a barely-dressed young woman reflects on the benefits of having two boyfriends, while a friend listens, reclining in the background. The figure work on the subject of the strip is astonishing, from her wildly unkempt hair to (most vivid of all), the tiny rolls of her stomach as she bends forward slightly to arrange her hair. The image is utterly arresting, masterfully capturing the curves and valleys of the human form and the humanity of the character in just a few confident splashes of ink. It reminds me of nothing so much as David Mazzucchelli's transcendent inkwork in Rubber Blanket and elsewhere. This one strip on this one page is proof alone that Cole had a huge gift, however little it might have been in evidence in his mass-produced superhero comics work.

The Washes section of the book is its biggest disappointment, especially after the magnificent reproduction in evidence on the cover. Most of the strips here seem to be scanned in from the printed versions, and while Cole's exceptional skill at depicting beautiful women is clearly presented, the deeper aesthetic delight of his wash work is impaired by the reproduction in this section.

Despite that, the section is far from a total loss. See page 46, for example, as Cole depicts a brunette reclining on the beach while a pair of gentlemen look on. The angle of the strip is extraordinary, as if the viewer is right in front of the woman, perhaps down on his knees. Her thighs are the dominant element in the image, massive in proportion to the other elements in the strip, but feeling just right for the camera angle and thoroughly convincing as a depiction of an actual human woman.

The best part of the book is the final section, dedicated to high-resolution reproductions of the original art of some of Cole's strips. It's here where the volume absolutely shines, where the linework becomes crystal clear and where the reader is utterly convinced that Cole had mastered drawing and especially enhhancing those drawings with sublimely restrained ink wash. Sensual shadows play across the limbs, bellies and breasts of Cole's gorgeous, commanding women, demanding critical inspection but rendering critique all but irrelevant in the presence of such artistic mastery. These women move and breathe as they slink through this section, alive by turns with wit, innocence, sensuality and vibrance. In the final image of the book, a woman is firmly in control of the situation, just as Cole fully controls his reader here by presenting images so alive and fully realized that you could pore over each image for many long minutes before realizing just how captivated you have become.

A lot of the gags here will no doubt fall flat for modern readers, and at least one was incomprehensible to me. These were created decades ago and differences in dress, language and society are more difficult to see past in some strips than in others. It should also be noted that these are, essentially, pin-ups of sexy dames showing off their wares. The easily offended might be, well, easily offended.

That said, editor Alex Chun supplies a lengthy, informative introduction that provides a rich history of Cole's career as a pin-up cartoonist. The intro provides a welcome context for what turns out to be an extraordinary volume that documents an important segment in the career of one of the most noted and singular artists of the Golden Age and provides readers with an invaluable selection of some of the most stunning pin-up art of all time. Grade: 4.5/5

-- Alan David Doane



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