Dec 14, 2012

Reclaiming History: Jack Cole's Plastic Man

Welcome to a new installment of Reclaiming History, an ongoing series where the Comics Cube! tries to balance out what the history books say and what actually happened! Click here for the archive!

Today, I talk about Jack Cole and Plastic Man!



So whenever I've written one of these Reclaiming History pieces, it's always been driven by a feeling of need. Whether it's Dave Gibbons' contribution to Watchmen or the careers of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Roger Stern or the greatness that is Carl Barks, they all share one common link: they're all things that I think more people should know about.

Until recently, I never thought I'd feel the need to write this article. An article about Jack Cole, maybe, but of his most famous creation, Plastic Man? I didn't think there'd ever be a need. Plas is a true comics icon, someone who even my non-comics-reading coworkers know about. Or, at least, the ones older than me do. See, one of them recently made a crack about Plastic Man, which sent a younger coworker laughing, because she thought that the older coworker totally made that name up. Intrigued, I asked another coworker, also older than me, if she knew who Plastic Man was, and she talked a bit about how much she loved the old cartoon with Plastic Baby. The age gap between the oldest coworker and the youngest is just about 10 years. That's not a huge gap, all things considered, so it's pretty indicative of how quickly perceptions change.


While Jack Cole had a perfectly decent career in comics otherwise, being one of Will Eisner's primary ghost artists on The Spirit and eventually becoming one of the lead cartoonists in Playboy, it's Plastic Man that he'll always be known for. Now despite the narration on the first ever Plastic Man panel (seen above), it's pretty evident just from the cover of Quality Comics' Police Comics #1, in which Plas made his 1941 debut, that hopes for him to succeed weren't that high from a business standpoint. Clearly, publisher Everett "Busy" Arnold thought that the Firebrand would be their breakout character.


Plastic Man is Eel O'Brien, a crook who one day falls into a vat of acid, and then is given a second chance at going straight when a monk in a place called Rest-Haven turns the police away when he's looking for him. He then finds out that falling into the vat of acid has given him the power to stretch his entire body. Inspired by the monk, he decides to use this power to turn over a new leaf and fight crime. So he's kind of like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, except, you know, with stretchy powers and no pants.


Within five issues, Cole's feature would be the lead in Police Comics, and two years later, Plas had his own comic. In their book, Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits, Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd posit that Cole was the overlooked missing link between the sensibilities of Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, and there really is something to that. Like Kurtzman and Eisner, Cole successfully used cartooning and caricatures to quickly establish his characters. His character by nature lends himself more to slapstick than Eisner's Spirit, and is more absurd. However, most people who are only familiar with Plas in passing seem to dismiss him as nothing more than a comedic character and his book nothing more than a comedic book, and in fact, he could be comedic and the book could be funny, but that wasn't always the case. He was a more versatile character than that.

From the start, Plastic Man was played as the straight man, and in his 13th adventure, we are introduced to Woozy Winks, who, aside from the title character, would be the only recurring character throughout the entire run of the series. Woozy is the actual comic relief and comedic sidekick of the series, and that I feel is where a lot of post-Cole treatments of Plastic Man have been at fault. Plas is treated these days as the joke, but he was never funny so much as absurd. Woozy, however, is funny on a semiotic level alone. He is large and has an oafish face. He does not wear professional attire when he goes to hunt crooks; he wears a funny hat and a polka-dot shirt. His wide eyes evoke a sense of innocence, while his posture reveals him to be a bungler. In fact, Woozy would have been dead many times over were it not for Plastic Man, and for the fact that he is The Man Who Nature Protects (Sometimes). Spiegelman says, "His direct forebear was Popeye’s pal Wimpy—another absurdly self-centered glutton with an equally unwarranted high self-regard."


By boiling down what we perceive to be a person’s traits in but a few lines, Cole proved very capable of tapping into the psychology of people in order to evoke the emotions he set out to evoke. He shows his expertise in the 1943 story "The Eyes Have It." In what is essentially a tale of child abuse, Cole introduces two principal characters: Bright Eyes, a child whose eyes have a hypnotic gaze over people, and the Sphinx, who uses Bright Eyes in order to scam people out of money and abuses him in his spare time. Bright Eyes is a cute little boy, with pinchable cheeks and, more importantly, wise, innocent eyes, complete with fine eyelashes and a smooth set of eyebrows. The Sphinx, on the other hand, is noticeably disfigured. His face, narrow like a horse with caved in cheeks, evokes nothing but pure evil and malice, while his eyes, in contrast to Bright Eyes' are slightly more angular and are surrounded by two circles of thick eyebrows, connected just above the bridge of his nose. The combination of all this, including his big ears, is in stark contrast to the innocence and purity that Bright Eyes evokes; the Sphinx quite simply looks malicious and inhuman.

The Sphinx (left) and Bright Eyes (right)

Pretty heavy stuff, especially for a lead who's often considered comedic, but I think that the dissonance is actually the reason it worked so well. Using such exaggerated caricatures in such a heavy story made it even more striking. Plas was a versatile character who could go from very fun to very serious, and as this post points out, his adventures got darker as time went on, which is not surprising considering what eventually happened to Jack Cole. (He killed himself in 1958. The reasons have remained unknown.) It's to Cole's credit that he could take a character like Woozy Winks, add him to a story with such heavy material, and still not have him lose any of his comic charm.


(Side note: Cole is also the one responsible for "Murder, Morphine, and Me," which is the story responsible for the infamous panel in which a woman's eye is about to be stabbed with an icepick. It would be one of the most enduring elements of Fredric Wertham's book, Seduction of the Innocent.)



Cole was also just a master of composition and form. The first time we see Plastic Man, he's stretching his arms out from the top of an elevator shaft to capture some crooks from his old gang. We see it from the crooks' perspective, and it looks creepy, just as it must look to them.



A page later, Plas springs a trap on them, and the result is one of the most dynamic pages in a Golden Age comic book. I think one thing you could say about most comics from that era is that a lot of it was static; people still tried figuring out how to convey motion on the page and how to facilitate the movement of a reader's eyes from panel to panel. Cole never had that problem.


What's more, he got even more adept with it as time passed. When Plastic Man sprung into action, his body would almost act like an arrow leading us from one panel to the next. Here's a page that Spiegelman uses as an example.


Now take note of the way Plas's body moves across the page. His head in panel 1 is the first thing you see, and you follow that to his body, which is pointing to the right, leading to the criminal. Moving in the logical direction (more to the right), we see Plastic Man's body, which leads to the criminal's feet kicking us downward and to the left, where Plas's stretched hand "catches" our eye, and we're led to the right again, all the way to panel 4, where we go to the middle of the panel (Plas's head), and circle back down to panel 5 via Plas's hand, and then are guided all the way to Plas's head in panel 6. Or, in visual terms:


In this way, Spiegelman notes that Plastic Man himself is the compositional device that holds the entire page together and ensures that you don't miss a single element of the story. Cole worked often with three-tier grids using the continuous motion of his protagonist to hold the page together. (In my mind, the only other person who can compete with him in doing so is Steve Ditko.) Let's check out some more Plastic Man pages. In this one, note how the storytelling goes from frantic to traditional the moment the action stops.


 And in this one, it's the other way around.


And then there are these. Check out how good Cole was at depicting motion.



Cole was a great artist and satirist who overturned convention and employed a mastery of his craft while telling his stories. Decades after his feature folded, Plastic Man went on to star in a pretty successful cartoon called The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show, which is probably responsible for his reputation as solely a funny character. Still, it bought him some time and kept him in the public's mind, to the point where my coworkers who aren't much older than me know who he is and know he's the stretchy guy.


When Grant Morrison relaunched the Justice League of America in 1997, his original plan was to populate the team with 12 members: 11 icons and his own creation Aztek. Plastic Man was one of those icons. When he revised his plan to make the JLA some sort of modern stand-in for the Greek pantheon, he kept Plastic Man, making him the analogue for Dionysus, despite the fact that the Justice League's stretchy guy had traditionally been Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man. Plastic Man was just, Morrison said, more iconic. And in fact, when Mark Waid took over the book and pared the roster down to just keep it to the icons, he kept Plastic Man on the squad.

But I think as a Filipino, the most telling pieces of evidence as to how prevalent Plastic Man was are two things. First, we have a local superhero, created by Mars Ravelo and Mar Santana, named Lastikman, an alien with the power to stretch. Lastikman first appeared in Aliwan Komiks #60, in 1964.


But I think this one says more. In 1946, komiks legend Larry Alcala created a comedic superhero named Siopawman. To introduce this superhero from a planet made of siopaw, Alcala uses three heroes to set the stage.


Loosely translated, that's:

You admired the one feared by the evil men, Batman! You also grew to believe in the strength and speed of the champion of the oppressed... Superman! You were also shocked at the unbelievable crimefighting skill of Plastic Man!

So not only was Plastic Man not mentioned as a comedic character, but he was popular enough at that point that Alcala thought that putting him next to Superman and Batman would have an effect on the readers!

Plastic Man is a great character, and I think Jack Cole is a significant enough cartoonist that Plastic Man should always be in the public eye. He may not be seen as having a place in today's market, but I think he's one of the most important comic book characters of all time. He is a true comics icon.

To close this article out, here's a What If for you. You may find it weird that a superhero whose sole superpower is stretching is called Plastic Man, since, you know, plastic doesn't really stretch. Well, that's because he was supposed to be called the India Rubber Man, but Busy Arnold convinced Cole to name him Plastic Man, because plastic was being made commercially available for the first time then and was seen as the new miracle substance and felt futuristic. Obviously, that's no longer the case, so would Plastic Man have hit it big if he'd been called the India Rubber Man? Would he have lasted longer as a top hero if his name weren't Plastic Man? Or would there have not been a difference?


I'd like to thank Cole's Comics for a bunch of the pictures here, and Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd's book, Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits, for much of the insight.

Jack Cole would go on to draw cartoons for Playboy before killing himself in 1958. His life was as tragic as Plastic Man's adventures were full of joy. 

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