Black Light: The World of L. B. Cole
By L. B. Cole (with a biography of the artist by Bill Schelly)
Paperback, 272 pages $39.99, Fantagraphics Books
Editor’s Note: We’re big fans of both Bill Schelly and artist L.B. Cole here on Comics Bulletin. Bill has compiled a collection of art by Cole; we asked Bill to share his thoughts on the book and some of his favorite pieces from it.
In the beginning, the American comic book descended from newspaper comic strips, except for one thing: comic books had covers. The history of the form is partly about the design and development of those all-important covers, which vie for the attention of newsstand browsers. A few artists became known as “cover specialists.” One of the foremost was Leonard Brandt Cole.
His covers are notable for what he called their “poster colors”—brilliant primaries often over black backgrounds—and an over-the-top sense of the bizarre mixed with whimsy. Black Light: The World of L. B. Cole features nearly all of them (about 350). Here are some of my favorites, shown chronologically.
Contact Comics #3 (November 1944) Aviation Press
Aviation comic books were popular during World War II. Cole, who was a licensed pilot, was especially skillful at drawing artfully acrobatic airplanes, such as on this superbly designed cover for Contact Comics. It’s his second with an all-black background, which became his trademark. They stood out on newsstands amid hundreds of other titles that presented browsers with a confusing riot of colors.
Mask #1 (February-March 1945) Rural Home
For an example of Cole at his most bizarre, you need look no farther than Mask #1, which hit newsstands during World War II. What reader was Cole hoping to attract with this? No type in particular. He just wanted to grab the eye of a potential customer. I’m betting this did the trick. Again, note the black background.
Suspense #8 (June 1945) Continental Magazines
Mr. Nobody, whose face looms behind the tortured figures in a skull-faced spider’s web, was Continental’s version of The Shadow. He tended to make sonorous, self-important pronouncements such as, “Whenever crime takes root and starts to flourish … remember this … that even if you think that nobody is watching you … I am there – in the shadows, alone!” Again, this isn’t like most other comic book covers published during World War II, which tended to veer toward the patriotic.
Catman #31 (June 1946) Continental Magazines
What I love most about this, one of L. B. Cole’s most iconic covers, is the snow effect. Note how the white “snowflakes” only appear over the blacks, not Catman’s or Kitten’s costumes. I like its circular design, and his portrayal of the ravenous wolves. Cole loved drawing animals, and he included them on covers whenever he could. He didn’t do many super hero covers, but this and the other Catman covers demonstrate that he was quite able in that genre.
Holiday Comics #5 (January 1952) Star Comics
Okay, so I’m a sucker for Cole’s “snow covers.” Here’s another one, his beautiful, if somewhat busy, treatment for Holiday Comics. This time, the snowflakes aren’t restricted to the black areas. Note the frenetic band down the left hand side. This was probably done because he knew that it would show even if much of the rest of the cover was overlapped by other books. More individual issues appeared in 1952—a total of 3,150 separate comic books—than any other year in the 1950s. (By 1959, the number plummeted to about 1,500 issues.)
Shocking Mystery Cases #51 (November 1952) Star Comics
As far as is known, Leonard Cole didn’t take LSD or other hallucinogenic drugs, but some of his covers do share certain characteristics with the psychedelic art that emerged in the late 1960s. A number of them feature a swirling/pinwheel design, such as this one on Shocking Mystery Cases. The most widespread psychedelic aspect of Cole’s work is his penchant for placing bright colors in eye-catching, even eye-irritating, juxtaposition.
Confessions of Love #14 (February 1953) Star Comics
“Flames of torment” leapt within the narrator of “My Fateful Love,” though she scarcely needed to confess her discomfort considering the incendiary imagery provided by Cole. The faces and figures on his romance comic book covers have a verisimilitude that suggests he used photo-reference for the work, though always in service of his cover designs. It should be noted that he was a co-owner of Star Comics, so he had complete editorial freedom to create the kind of covers that he felt would sell comics. Too bad the interiors of the Star Comics were so mediocre. (He drew few interior stories.)
Tales from the Tomb #1 (October 1962) Dell Comics
Only two publishers refused to submit their comic books to the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s, Dell and Gilberton (Classics Illustrated, etc.). When Western Publishing started their Gold Key imprint in 1962, there were three. In any case, Tales from the Tomb, with its spooky Cole cover, could never have passed the Code. Indeed, it incited many complaints from parents. Didn’t they want their kiddies reading “Nightmare stories of ghosts, ghouls and other grisly … ‘things’”?
These are just a taste of the wonderful cover reproductions that make up most, but not all, of Black Light. Cole did spectacular work in most comic book genres: crime, horror, Western, romance, science fiction, jungle, funny animal and more. The book includes numerous examples of his paperback covers, his commissioned pieces, his animal artwork, and more. But L. B. Cole will be best remembered for his eye-catching, masterfully designed and often bizarre comic book covers. We’ll never see his like again.