When reading “Murder, Morphine, and Me” (True Crime Comics #2, May 1947), we step right into film noir territory. Jack Cole, probably best known for creating Plastic Man and for being Playboy‘s lead cartoonist in its early years, depicts a melodramatic world where characters are doomed from the start, and tragedy is inevitable. This comic is a poem of deceit, a poem of suffering, a poem of crushed hopes and dreams. And nowhere else this is more evident than in page 6 of the story:
A young woman from Kansas City is seduced by a drug smuggler named Tony in joining his operation. Mary Kennedy narrates her story, hoping it will serve as a cautionary tale, showing “some unthinking souls the foolish folly of crime” (True Crime #2, 1947, p. 14, third panel on row three). Page 6 shows the moment when Mary finds out that the man she loves is actually a criminal who has been using her to deal drugs. This, in my opinion, is the climax of the story, where every emotion, every thought, every word reaches its peak, the truth is revealed, and the cruel reality suddenly takes over poor Mary Kennedy’s life, stabbing her in the heart with its cold, icy dagger of despair.
In this comic, Jack Cole uses the three-by-three formula. The panels are dense. Every single element – the drawings, the lettering, the word and thought balloons – contributes to the narrative, creating the intensity, dynamism, and drama of the scene, making you feel what the young woman feels.
Row one is composed of a single, large panel, illustrating Mary Kennedy’s thoughts and feelings. Her cigarette-smoking lips are seen narrating the story, floating around disembodied like the strange, mocking grim of the Cheshire cat. Our eyes are drawn by a central hallucinatory depiction of Mary’s inner struggle. Imagination blends with memories, as older Mary recalls her younger self remembering her past experiences, which form in her head a “misery-go-round,” with grotesque faces ‘dancing’ around her head. We see things from her point of view: she is confused – and maybe slightly disillusioned. She’s fed up with her life. She’s tired of obeying Tony’s requests – to meet with various dubious and lecherous men, under the pretext that they are Tony’s clients that must be ‘amused.’ She thought her and Tony will live a happy life together, but instead… She begins to see the cracks in the porcelain – but there is still hope in her (“Maybe tomorrow… Maybe Tony’ll take me out — Maybe…”). The emphasis on “Tony” suggests that she still thinks fondly of him.
The trope in the second and third tier is the room, which Cole uses to create an intense, claustrophobic atmosphere. The first panel on row two shows the young woman trying to regain control of her life in an assertive and aggressive manner. The words that stand out are “Money! MONEY!!“, as an indignant response to Tony’s refusal. The second panel is the climax of the page: Tony breaks her heart by telling Mary the truth, showing her who he really is and what he was using her for. The men she was meeting were actually part of the drug dealing network. The third panel presents her in shock, trying to cope with the information she has just received, trying to make sense of what she just heard. The word balloon is all spikey (in contrast to Mary’s word balloon in the first panel, where only the upper half was), and the letters are in boldface. The last sentence (“Tony, how could you??“) is bigger than any other on the page, indicating the complete and utter shock of Mary, making her scream in horror. She now sees the wizard behind the curtain, and there’s no going back.
In the first panel on row three, Mary Kennedy is trying again to regain control of her life, but this time in a submissive, begging manner (the ‘shaking’ word balloon is suggesting a shaky, scared voice). She realizes she doesn’t stand a chance in convincing Tony, but she still clings to hope. Tony, however, destroys every illusion she might have of getting away. In the second panel, she gives up, realizing that there is no hope, and she lets herself fall as she lets her despair take over. In the third panel, while we only ‘hear’ Mary’s desperate and angry cry and her angry pounding on the door, we see two characters who, based on their dialogue, are not friends of Tony, and through them we can guess what Tony’s future might be. Cole uses sound effects (“POUND! POUND! POUND!”) written in large, red letters to draw attention to themselves, so that when we see them, we would imagine hearing them. Mary’s word bubble is now elongated over three quarters of the panel, as if somehow ‘melting’ away in pain. The letters are large, almost as large as in panel three on row two, but the crying sounds (“sob, sob…”) are getting smaller and smaller. With her last breath before surrendering to desperation, Mary Kennedy lashes out one last attack against the man for whom she would have done anything.
“Murder, Morphine, and Me” is a tale about the “drug racket” only at a superficial level. Its true aim is to show the reader how reality can break every illusion a person can have, how it can bring you to desperation, and how sometimes it seems there is no end to the sufferings one has to endure. These essential themes can be seen best in page 6. As in the story, Mary Kennedy begins here in some sort of stupor, the line between dream and reality being very blurred. From a naïve, innocent girl, she transforms, over the course of the comic (and of the page) into an experienced woman, who no longer has any illusions about the world she lives in. Her character arc is as complete in this page as is at the end of the tale. Page 6 of Jack Cole’s “Murder, Morphine, and Me” is a complete microcosm of the comic of which it is a part of, representing it perfectly. And this makes it a true synecdoche.
If you liked this, you can support me on Patreon. Thank you!
For a more in-depth look at Jack Cole’s work, I would recommend Paul Tumey’s blog (http://colescomics.blogspot.com). There you can also read the entire comic that was discussed here.