Betsy and Me

By Jack Cole & Dwight Parks (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-156097-878-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Classic Madcap Mirth and Melodrama… 9/10

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American comics’ Golden Age. Before moving into mature magazine and gag markets he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. It was a glittering career of distinction which Cole was clearly embarrassed by and unhappy with.

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as The Comet, Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest contribution and lasting creation was zany Malleable Marvel Plastic Man who (with indispensable sidekick/gadfly Woozy Winks) quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era.

In 1954 Cole quit comics for the lucrative and prestigious field of magazine cartooning, swiftly becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began regularly running in Playboy from the fifth issue.

Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me which began publication on Monday May 26th. Something about reaching the cartoonist’s Promised Land clearly did not meet with the infamously private Cole’s expectations and, on August 13th 1958, at the peak of his prowess and success, he took his own life.

The reasons – although highly speculated upon ever since – remain unknown.

The strip was handed to commercial cartoonist Dwight Parks who continued it until the editorial decision was made to end it. The last daily was published on Saturday, December 27th.

That great loss to the future of the industry and artform has for years clouded a greater truth: whatever his demons, Jack Cole was a master of comedy and narrative art in all its forms and Betsy and Me was, in its own niche, every bit as great as his glamour illustration and comicbook endeavours.

This mostly monochrome paperback – also available digitally – collects those long-lost newspaper efforts in a welcoming package which begins with the captivating solicitation page designed to entice new papers to buy the strip.

Then biography, history, context and analysis come courtesy of historian R. C. Harvey’s introductory essay ‘The Last of Jack Cole: His Life and Art and Why They Both Ended with Betsy and Me’. The heavily illustrated article also offers possible insights into Cole’s motivations, state of mind and possible reasons for suicide, before this superb collection of what should have been Cole’s greatest legacy opens…

Utilising a stripped-down minimalist style that was the astute acme of its time, this domestic comedy is recounted as a fireside tale by homely working stiff Chester B. Tibbit. He recalls and reminisces with unseen readers who daily learn of his romancing of and marriage to Betsy, his downtrodden life as a floorwalker at the Meyers department store and plodding climb up the ladder of middle class aspiration.

The move from apartment to house, the trepidatious purchase of consumer benchmarks such as white goods and even an automobile (in the most generous sense of the term), and the inevitable addition of a child are all gradually covered in a manner most wry and deliciously sardonic. All the laughs stem from an old cartoonist’s trick: the rose-tinted self-deluding narrative says one thing whilst the pictures tell the grim sordid truth, even when Chester can’t see it himself…

His admired and adored bosses are bullying martinets, his friends are shallow, fair-weather self-servers, Betsy isn’t a quiet, obedient little woman and his son is…

Well, the truth is that infant Farley actually is a genius: rude, brusque, impatient and utterly beyond the intellectual capabilities of his terrified, long-suffering parents. Even from his earliest moments in the crib the kid is the smartest one in the house – and that includes financially and emotionally…

The strips follow the traditional developmental path of courtship, marriage, home-making and child-rearing but always Cole’s needle-sharp social observations and uncontrollable whimsy are seditiously at work. At Meyers’ the infant blackmails his father’s superiors so they stop picking on the little nebbish and when Farley starts school he organises a student revolt…

The toddler even masters judo to protect his bewildered guardians from marauding criminals and spars continually with mooching, predatory Gus, a confirmed bachelor always hanging around Betsy with attentions that are clear to everyone but Chester…

Over the course of the summer of 1958 Betsy and Me steadily grew in quality, scope and popularity. When Cole died on August 13th he had submitted strips for a full month ahead. His last daily ran on September 7th and the final Sunday on September 21st.

Dwight Parks took over and whereas the pared-down artistic style remained, the uneasy edgy satire was lost in favour of more comfortable themes such as the new house being a broken-down money pit, interfering neighbours, kindergarten woes, dieting and “keeping up with the Joneses”: the stuff of TV sitcoms such as I Love Lucy

Critics have debated ever since Cole’s passing about whether, given time, Betsy and Me (or even a successor strip) would have cemented the brilliant raconteur as a master of all forms of graphic narrative or whether he had finally overreached himself. We’ll never know, but at least you can read what remains and judge for yourself.

And you really should.
© 2007 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2007 R. C. Harvey.

3 Replies to “Betsy and Me”

  1. Dear Win, RE:
    Paul Gordeaux’s scripted Bonnie and Clyde comic strip as featured in the
    French newspaper France-Soir in the early 1960s.
    Can you suggest a source that shows these strips and or gives details of the illustrator(s)?
    Thank you Richard

  2. Hi Richard,

    I’m afraid you’ve pretty much stumped me there.
    I’ve no access to or knowledge of any book or site collecting the strip, and other than the superb Lambiek Comiclopedia, there’s not even much on Gordeaux or his most frequent illustrators, Jean Ache, Regino Bernard, Uderzo, Jacques Pecnard, Jean Effel and other spendid artists on both ‘Le Crime ne Paie Pas’ and ‘Les Amours Célèbres’.
    If pushed , I’d say Jacques Taillefer was prime candidate for the art on B&C, but where to go from there I have no idea.
    Perhaps contacting the cultural department of the French Embassy might garner a few useful leads?
    Good luck with the search

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