Saturday, September 21, 2013

Plastic Man Archives Vol. 1 review

  Jack Cole might just have had the most consistently great output of any Golden Age comic book artist. I’ve often cited The Spirit as my favorite comics series of all time and agree that it was the best of the Golden Age (Even though I’m prepared to admit it’s flaws), but unlike Eisner, who took a while to develop his distinctive voice, Cole clearly had developed one already as this first volume shows, and it just kept getting better. I guess the difference is that Eisner’s best Spirit stories were multi-faceted parables of ruin and redemption, while Cole never did anything quite so weighty, instead making his Plastic Man stories all about having fun while telling the wildest stories he could. There’s room for both approaches.

  While there were other distinctively crazy comics at the time, either because of creator eccentricities, tapping into the writings of an infamous weirdo for inspiration, or because of plain old incompetence, the bizarre feel Cole endows Plastic Man and his world with is clearly a meticulously planned and plotted one; it’s controlled chaos, if you will. Much has been said about how the unique appeal of Jack Kirby lay in his ability to come up with so many awesome ideas at once and keep churning them out, yet I’d say that Cole’s work has the same quality, the difference is that he seemed to recognize how ludicrous many of his ideas were, so he was smart enough to play them for comedy (Just wait until I get into some of his crazier plots).

 I’ve seen some reviews call this the weakest volume of the Plastic Man Archives, and that may be true to some extent art-wise, but anyone who reads these stories and says they read like any other comics of the time, well, let’s just say they aren’t someone I’d give too much credit. And only the most unsophisticated reader could read these stories and think the humor is unintentional, even if some of Cole’s initial comedic gimmicks (like Plas talking to the readers at the beginning and end of stories) don’t work.
  Though much can be said about Cole as an artist and a comedian, few have also talked about his skill as a writer, particularly at characterization, and he sticks out there as well. I’d argue that in the character of Plastic Man he created one of the first truly unique anti-heroes in comics. Now obviously, Namor the Submariner predates Plas and took the “anti” part of “anti-hero” to an extreme, but Plastic Man is arguably a more subtle character. Plas doesn’t throw fits of rage and threaten to destroy the world or angst about his lot in his life, no, he’s a true hero and a crime fighter, but he doesn’t play by the rules or try and be a role model either. Plastic Man was a gangster named Eel O’ Brain who gained superpowers and decided, after capturing his old gang members, that it would be more fun to fight crime with his new powers rather than cause it. It’s true that earlier in the origin story he says he wants to atone for his misdeeds (after being tended to by a kindly priest), but it’s obvious that it was the ‘fun’ aspect of catching crooks that really appealed to him (As well as getting back at this particular gang for deserting him). Basically, he was the first bad boy hero in comics. Guys like Wally West, Jack Knight and The Creeper in his original incarnation owe a debt to him.

 Plastic Man wouldn’t be quite so personally motivated or vengeful in later stories, but he still retained a kind of roguish quality. The goggles he wore looked like sunglasses, giving him a rebellious look few other heroes in comics had at the time (There were other heroes who wore goggles, true, but can you honestly say Spy Smasher ever looked as cool as Plas?). Plas also clearly delights in one-upping the police, even though he cooperates with them. He also has little compunctions about killing in self-defense (more than once does he allow gunmen to shoot him so that the bullets bounce back) but never goes out of his way to do it. He also maintained a secret identity as gangster Eel O’ Brian to get the goods on the bad guys. Chew on that for a minute: A superhero with a secret identity as a gangster. No posing as a mild-mannered reporter or foppish playboy here!
 Also, unlike later stretchable superheroes, Plastic Man didn’t just use his stretching powers to reach out and grab things or slide under doors, he used it to transform into all sorts of crazy things. In fact, other than Jimmy Olsen, Plas might be the most frequent cross dresser in comics:
I wonder what kind of Google results this will get me...

 Plastic Man’s sidekick Woozy is also a more interesting character than you would believe. For example, how many other sidekicks in comics can you name who debuted as super-powered invincible villains? Most people tend to think of Woozy as a dim-witted innocent, an unnecessary comic relief character in a comedy series, but here in these early stories, even after he reforms and becomes Plas’s sidekick, Woozy is depicted as a much skeevier, amoral character than the loveable oaf he would become.
 Cole’s treatment of gangsters in these stories is also interesting. Most comic book writers depicted gangsters as unintelligent faceless goons, but Cole subverts that by depicting them as smarter than your average comic book crook, just not smart enough to best Plastic Man. The typical plot device was to have Eel O’ Brain join a gang and then capture them as Plastic Man. Naturally, if this was the real world, with O’ Brian never being arrested; you’d think the gangsters would get suspicious of him. And guess what? One of them does get suspicious! Sure, it's just a set-up for a gag about how dumb the other gangsters are for not believing him, but I find it admirable that Cole was willing to lampshade his own series so early on. 
 Cole also depicts the gangsters Eel joins up with, murderers and thieves though they are, as having patriotic tendencies, and in one story Eel O’ Brian rallies some to battle robots created by an axis spy, and the mobsters who join him aren’t treated as cannon fodder, but as sincere patriots. It reminded me of the part in The Rocketeer where the head mobster turns on the villain and says “I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American”.
 Any comic book writer that can make villains as overused as gangsters into comparatively complex figures has a special place in my heart. Even in the most straightforward crime-themed stories the gangsters at least have amusing names like ‘Baldy Bushwhack’ to keep one entertained.
 Still what really makes these stories stand out are the plots. Admirers of Cole have frequently used the terms “crazy”, “surreal”, “fever-dream” or in less polite instances “batshit insane” to describe these stories, and you can see why people would be at a loss for words trying to summarize some of these stories. Highlights include:

-Madam Brawn (This volume’s only recurring villain); an obese female gang leader, creates a ‘reverse reform school’ for girls that teaches them to steal, and they go around taking over rival gangs without impunity because male crooks don’t want to admit they were beaten by women. At one point Madam Brawn has Plastic Man knocked unconscious, then remolds his face to look like Eel O’ Brian’s, forces him to smoke marijuana, puts a gun in his hand, and sends him off shooting randomly while stoned in the hope that he’ll get arrested:
-Plastic Man encounters a man who had been under a curse that forced him to steal uncontrollably. In order to stop himself, he had his own hands cut off, but instead of just laying lifeless, the severed hands are still bound by the curse, and end up crawling around stealing. They even form their own gang:
Best. Line. Ever.
-An evil midget named Hairy Arms abducts men to create a robot army for the Japanese, and his mother asks Plastic Man to stop him. It turns out that Hairy Arms’ mother is just him wearing a fake body. Eel O’ Brian then rallies a bunch of gangsters to defeat him.

 -A 17th century mad scientist named Cyrus Smythe creates a growth potion, resulting in his now giant pet ape strangling him and throwing him into chemicals. The chemicals make Smythe’s brain immortal, but his body dies and rots. Smythe’s disembodied brain grows lonely, and after centuries pass, becomes insane and murderous. Then in modern times, Smythe’s brain accidentally gets transplanted into the body of an American soldier who lost the top of his head in a bombing raid. Smythe then goes to America in the soldier’s body (Now paralyzed from the waist down), recreates his potion, uses it on himself, and then rampages around the city by walking on his hands. Plas defeats him by preying on his opinions on the propriety of modern women’s fashion (seriously).
  Smythe was apparently meant to be a recurring villain, but Cole apparently forgot about him, or probably realized it would be hard to top his debut. I’ve written about this character before, and I still find this story just as crazy two years later.

-A mad scientist rampages across America inside a giant 8-Ball. Plastic Man turns himself into a giant snake to sneak in:
-An evil psychic blackmails a beautiful Hollywood actress....because she's bald.

 And those are just the tip of the crazy iceberg that is Plastic Man’s universe. Even the stories that aren’t all that funny or strange have something to offer, like an interactive murder mystery, a fairly standard espionage story narrated by the embodiment of winter itself, a strangely poignant tale about a bunch of wanted crooks working for a mad scientist, or a meta story featuring Cole himself (Cole depicts himself as a stuttering geek).

 Also, although Cole's style isn't as fully developed as it would later become, he still produces some striking splash pages:
 If there’s a downside to these stories, it lies in the black humor and violence. While much of the violence it is too cartoonish and surreal to be taken seriously, the constant emphasis on mutilation and the malleability of the body, as well as the very high body counts in some of these stories, can begin to take on a morbid air if one reads too many in a row. I love black comedy as much as anyone, but when you factor in Cole’s well-documented emotional disorders and eventual suicide, it sort of gets to you.

 Still, this is a volume every serious comics reader should own a copy of. Even some fairly muddy art reproduction can't spoil the fun. 5/5.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mad Archives Vol. 1 Review:

*Major Spoilers*
  If I was asked to pick the three most influential comic books in the history of American pop culture, I might futz around a bit on what my pick for #2 would be (My #1 pick would definitely be Action Comics #1 just for getting this whole medium rolling after nearly a decade of indifference), but my choice for #3 would, without question, be Mad #1 (Yes, I know the full title was originally Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad) from 1952.
  It’s not that there weren’t humor/parody magazines before, even in comic book format, but the specific influence Mad Magazine has held on American humor can’t be overstated. There were the imitator magazines like Cracked (Now a website and one of the most frequently visited sites on the internet, although I’m really starting to hate the smug “editorials”) and National Lampoon (Now known more for its movies like Animal House and the Griswold series than the magazine itself), TV shows like Saturday Night Live, the films of Mel Brooks, Mad’s own series Mad TV and even a recent animated version (If you want my opinion though, the best of the Mad-inspired TV shows was Comedy Central’s short-lived Shorties Watchin’ Shorties, which featured animated interpretations of stand-up routines. The routines sucked, but the sight gags were brilliant). The influence that the magazine had on the 60’s and 70’s underground comics can be seen just by looking at the early Kurtzman covers.

  Thus, with Mad being America’s number one source for parodies for several decades, one might be a tad surprised to learn that the earliest issues didn’t feature parodies of movies, books, film, etc. The earliest issues instead focused on parodying entire genres. To modern readers used to seeing Mad parody whatever the hot subject of the moment is, this approach may seem odd and unfocused, more slapstick-y than satirical. At the same time, considering that just about every longtime reader has their opinion on when the magazine was at its funniest, maybe that reaction is just a generational thing. One could also argue that these broad, unspecific parodies give these stories a timeless feel, so that whatever generation you were born in you can appreciate them. I talk about horror a lot on this blog, but I also have strong opinions on comedy; and I’m of the opinion that good slapstick (and similar broad forms of comedy) should be able to transcend eras.

 And these early Mad stories certainly do hold up simply as broad comedy pieces! While some of the earliest stories and recurring gags aren’t as funny as the writers thought they were (Harvey Kurtzman apparently thought it was the height of hilarity to name just about every character ‘Melvin’, even having a whole issue where the artists sign their names as Melvin, in fact, I’m surprised they didn’t choose that name for Alfred E. Neuman), there are enough sight gags, gross-out scenes and surreal moments that play with the medium to keep one entertained.
  Certainly the justly celebrated “Mole!” by Bill Elder from the second issue is a masterpiece of slapstick and black comedy, as the titular tunneler keeps finding different ways to tunnel out of prison using everything from a spoon, to his fingernails, to one of his nose hairs:
It’s the greatest Chuck Jones cartoon Chuck Jones never made.

  Elder’s Dragnet parody “Dragged Net!” is also hilarious, not for the overly-broad parody, but just for the sequence of the Friday analogue(s) grilling a suspect and their disgusted reactions toward him as he gorges himself, as well as the ever-changing Borscht sign in the background:
 You can totally see how underground-ers like Crumb and Kim Dietch picked up some of their stylistic cues from Elder.

  Elder was definitely the most pure comedian of the first “gang of idiots” to work on Mad, but Jack Davis and Wally Wood are also pretty great, and their backgrounds in certain genres like horror and science fiction gave their parodies of such genres an authentic quality. Davis’s monsters in Tales from the Crypt et al always had a goofy-looking quality to them, so his horror spoofs worked perfectly. The story “Hex!” in the second issue is actually a little creepy in some parts, notably the scene with the witch appearing in a silent panel holding up her contract:
 Then again, Davis always seemed to enjoy drawing the Crypt Keeper doing silly things in the opening splash pages more than he did the horrific stuff anyway, so it seems natural he'd take to this.

  Wood’s background in science fiction also enhances the sci-fi parodies in the first and second issue as well. They may be intended for comedy, but they have more thought put into them than pretty much any issue of Planet Comics or some-such. How many other comics of the time would feature such a scathing indictment of the 50’s way of life?
 John Severin tends to get the short-stick when Mad creators are discussed (The introduction in this volume calls him and his artwork “conservative”), and his style does look somewhat restrained in comparison to the others, but I have to say I’ve always liked him. And hey, other people must have found his drawings funny, because he would end up becoming chief artist over at Cracked well into the 80s. His penchant for playing everything completely straight works well for some stories:
 As for the writing, it too is gold. Kurtzman could be surprisingly ruthless in his parodies without becoming unpleasant or just mean. While many (including Alan Moore) praise the Superman parody from the fourth issue as his finest hour, what with its satirizing of the Superman/Captain Marvel lawsuit and the stalker-like overtones of Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane, I have to say my favorite story in this volume is the Robin Hood parody from the same issue, illustrated by John Severin. Years before Monty Python’s Dennis Moore sketch and the John Cleese cameo in Time Bandits, Kurtzman and Severin deliver an absolutely savage deconstruction of the Robin Hood mythos, showing just what a frightening, selfish backstabber a person like Robin Hood would probably have been like if he were real.
 The Terry and the Pirates spoof is also brilliant, mocking how the once risqué adventure strip had devolved into an incredibly conservative military strip whose “pirates” title was then completely meaningless. Wally Wood plays up all of Caniff’s racial stereotypes and habit of ignoring once-prominent supporting characters for all it’s worth.
 I also love this “biography” of William Gaines:
 How much do you wanna bet that the anti-comics crusaders of the time read that and actually believed it?

 This archive volume also reprints the original letter columns, and it’s interesting to see how much of a critical success Mad was almost immediately, even though I’ve read several sources saying that the comic did miserably up until the fourth issue. A lot of Wertham supporters and Comics Journal-types are fond of saying that the claim that comics were read by all ages back in the 50s is a lie, yet these letters show that an impressive range of people were reading comics, there are letters from everyone from college professors, marines, a flight crew and even artillery men serving in Korea!
 There was also quite an amount of criticism too, much of it from soccer mom types. In one letter a woman berates the creators of Mad and says from now on she’ll make sure her kids only read ‘kiddie’ comics like Donald Duck and Little Lulu to keep the comics from subverting their minds. Pretty funny when you consider the adult reverence those comics are now held in, precisely for being so subversive. Interestingly enough, there’s also a positive letter from a college age fan that mentions Lulu, and he refers to it as an “intellectual” comic along with Pogo. Who knew that John Stanley’s cult following went so far back?
There were also trolls:
 The Mad Archives Vol. 1 has some of the best work the EC crew ever did, and thus, the publishers seem to have really gone out of their way to make sure the art reproduction is fine. Since DC owns Mad, these archives are of higher quality than pretty much any of their normal superhero archives. And it deserves every bit of the attention lavished upon it. Decades later, these comics still not only have a kick to them, but are still damn funny at times. 5/5.