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.

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