Although Jack Cole’s classic Plastic Man comics are deservedly chronicled in a series of beautiful archive editions from DC, another of the great cartoonist’s Golden Age headliners inexplicably remains buried in obscurity.
I’m referring, of course, to the masked crime-fighter known as Midnight.
The character was popular enough to be featured on the cover of 57 consecutive issues of Smash Comics, yet is something of an afterthought today whenever Golden Age buffs discuss Cole’s work.
(It could be due to DC’s apparent disinterest in doing anything at all with the character. Guess the publisher saw no profit in issuing a Midnight archive collection, although it probably would have done at least as well as Seven Soldiers Of Victory reprints …)
Cole himself may not have had great expectations for Midnight. He created the character after Quality publisher Everett M. “Busy” Arnold requested a masked adventurer to replace The Spirit should cartoonist Will Eisner be drafted and killed fighting overseas.
(A world war was raging, remember, and while most of the characters the Eisner & Iger studio created for Quality were owned outright by Arnold, the fabled cartoonist retained the rights to Denny Colt.)
Cole responded with Midnight, and despite the obvious similarities between the two characters the newly minted crime-fighter wasn’t a complete rip-off of The Spirit.
For one thing, Midnight possessed a secret identity: radio announcer Dave Clark. The strip also benefited from Cole’s typically manic style, which operated at a much faster and more humorous pace than the typical Eisner Spirit comic.
Cole also created an unlikely, but wonderfully vivid, supporting cast that included a mad scientist and a talking chimpanzee.
(Some have called the second character an unfortunate substitute for Ebony White, but decades after the fact Gabby the chimp has aged a lot better than The Spirit’s sidekick.)
Cole remained on Midnight for 20 issues before passing the reins to Paul Gustavson, a talented cartoonist who couldn’t quite match his predecessor’s genius but ensured the strip remained entertaining.
Gustavson drew Midnight for four years until Cole returned to the character in 1946. Cole’s later stories demonstrated how far his skills had progressed during his absence, as the artist’s innovative touch extended to oddly shaped panels, word balloons and sound effects that somehow enhanced – rather than distracted from – the breezy whodunits.
The following story, entitled “Masked Mayhem,” originally appeared in Smash Comics #74. It was written and drawn, of course, by the great Jack Cole.