This review first ran in The Comics Journal
Betsy and Me
Jack Cole created less than three months of his syndicated newspaper strip *Betsy and Me* before committing suicide in 1958. Inevitably, when you dole out such a factoid to a critic, the pull of “post hoc ergo proctor hoc” is almost irresistible. And, indeed, few have tried to resist it. Art Spiegelman fulsomely declared that *Betsy and Me* “reads like a suicide note delivered in daily installments!” In his introduction to this Fantagraphics collection, R. C. Harvey concurs, suggesting (on the basis of what seems to be virtually no direct evidence) that Cole and his wife desperately wanted children, and that their infertility blighted their marriage. Harvey goes on to argue that “the basic comedy of the strip lay in the contrast between Chet’s romantic vision of life and its actuality. In working up the basic comedy of the strip, Cole was forced, day after day, to confront the laughable difference between appearance and reality…The burden of it was finally too much for Cole to bear….”
From such descriptions, *Betsy and Me* sounds like it should be an agonizingly personal work, a cheerful surface resting atop depths of pain and neuroses — Jack Cole’s *Peanuts*. If that’s what your looking for, though, you’re going to be disappointed. In fact, *Betsy and Me* is an entirely generic sit-com vision of post-war American family life, complete with a bumbling but well-intentioned husband as hero, a wife without any discernable personality as sidekick and a very mildly sarcastic bachelor-friend as foil. The baby-obsession of the early part of the run has no surplus of anxiety that I can detect — it’s cutesy family drama indistinguishable from any number of feel-good family comedies of that time — or, for that matter, of this one. Even the super-intelligent child Farley is a pretty stale gimmick, which is used to make garden-variety egg-head jokes rather than to advance the plot in unexpected ways (as, say, Oliver Wendell Jones did in *Bloom County* a few decades later.) Even the irony which Harvey identifies as central to the strip is pretty weak tea. For instance, we learn that young lovers think that pet endearments (“Poopsy-doo! Cuddle-Boo!”) are cute, while everybody else who hears them does not. What a bitter, satirical genius that Cole was.
The truth is that, of all the great classic comics creators, Cole seems like the one whose work was the *least* personal. If there’s a core to Cole’s work, it’s his refusal to show, or perhaps simply his disinterest in showing, anything of himself. I don’t think it’s an accident that Plastic Man is about a hero who constantly changes shape. Indeed, one of the oddest things about the *Plastic Man* comics is the extent to which they eschew a singular imaginative vision; the sight gags and goofy plots are amazing, but there’s no coherent world to compare to those of, say, Jack Kirby or Winsor McCay. Whether working on genre comics, Playboy gag cartoons, or a family syndicated strip, Cole produced a superior product with wit, charm, and formal mastery, but without anything that could be called personal investment. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why he moved so easily from comic books to one-panel cartoons to strips.
I love Cole’s work, but I have little interest in family sit-com, and *Betsy and Me* is hardly up to the standards of Cole’s greatest efforts, But the skill is still present, and there is certainly lots to like in this book. The variation in layout Cole manages within the (literally) narrow confines of a strip, for example, are simply amazing. In the episode where Farley is born, the first panel is devoted to a nurse whispering into Chet’s right ear. Chet’s face is actually split in half by the panel border, and then the second double-sized extended panel is filled with the giant words “IT’S A BOY” shooting out of Chet’s left ear. My description is clumsy, I fear, but the visual effect is instantly readable and dramatic — it looks like Chet’s head is functioning as a megaphone, and the split-panel makes it seem like the nurse’s whisper has traveled an enormous distance through the empty space between his ears before booming out of the other side.
In other strips the panel sizes expand and contract according to the demands of pacing; sometimes there’s four, sometimes five, sometimes three. There are also often images shoved into the white space between the borders One of the best strips has only two panels: a little unbordered introduction and then a long rectangle in which Farley is three-quarters of the way through writing “Antidisestablishmentarianism” on a fence. The fence is by a lake, and before he finishes Farley is going to run out of space and fall in the water — we see Chet racing to catch him in a panic. Again, the description doesn’t do the gag justice: the idea is fairly funny, but what really takes your breath away is the elegance of the execution, and the way in which such a logistically complicated idea is communicated so clearly and instantaneously. Bushmiller really has nothing on Cole.
You’d think the strip’s clarity and elegance would be compromised by its other main feature — its wordiness. Speech bubbles are so crammed together they sometimes seem ready to choke the characters. To complicate matters further, Chet narrates virtually every strip, so above each speech bubble there’s a little note: “Finally, Farley said” or “Betsy said” or “I said”. Yet Cole is such a deft artist that the clutter isn’t clumsy; instead the clustered verbal rhythms, and the teetering towers of words combine to create lively, rapid-fire humor. This is all the more impressive because none of the dialogue is actually all that funny. Jokes tend to be along the lines of : hey, the car’s not broken, it’s just out of gas! Or: oh no, the pastor decided to visit and our house isn’t clean! It’s as if Howard Hawks did a fast-paced screwball comedy in which, instead of sexual innuendo, witty reversals, and brilliant put-downs, every punchline was taken from the Brady Bunch or Leave It To Beaver.
Which is to say that *Betsy and Me*, like most of Cole’s work, is a triumph of form over content. This is more of a problem in a comic strip than in some other areas. Certainly, Cole’s luscious Playboy panels don’t suffer particularly when the gags are tired — I mean, who’s looking at the gags? With a strip, though, the jokes are indeed the point, and if they aren’t that good, you have a problem. If Cole weren’t the well-known figure he is, it seems unlikely that this particular series would have ever been reprinted. Still, if you’re a fan of Cole in particular or of top-notch cartooning in general, it’s certainly a curiosity worth checking out. Just don’t expect to get a glimpse of the man’s soul.