by Jeet Heer
The Comics Journal #255 (September 2003).
As an artist Jack Cole was as much of a shape-shifter as his most famous creation, Plastic Man. During his truncated career that ran from the late 1930s until his suicide in 1958, Cole produced a bewildering array of works in wide variety of styles, ranging from the childish vitality of first superhero stories to the urbane manly humor of the early Playboy magazine to the wry domestic wit of his comic strip Betsy and Me. Until fairly recently, Cole's work was reprinted only in a scattershot fashion, which made it even more difficult to get a fix on his career.
One of the great virtues of the series of Plastic Man reprints being released by DC is that they allow us to watch how Cole's art evolved over time. Now in its fourth volume, the Plastic Man Archives demonstrate that even when dealing with the same character, Cole was constantly experimenting and growing as an artist.
The earliest Plastic Man stories that appeared in Police Comics in 1941 turn out to be surprisingly earnest and sober exercises in crime fighting. Eventually Cole would exploit the comic potential inherent in Plastic Man's defining superpower, his ability to stretch his body into almost any absurd shape. Yet in his first few outings Plastic Man was content to simply chase non-descript thieves and hoodlums.
The tone of Plastic Man started loosening up in late 1941 and early 1942 when Cole started introducing much more colorful secondary characters, notably villains like Madam Brawn (Police Comics #4 and 5), the very butch leader of an all-girl gang. Plastic Man himself continued to be a bit of stuffed shirt who was single-mindedly focused on chasing crooks, but some needed comic relief came in the misshapen form of Woozy Winks, a lumpy sidekick who was more interested in chasing skirts than fighting evil.
The buoyant presence of Woozy Winks, a fixture in the series from Police Comics #13 onward, served to counterbalance the increasingly dark and macabre mood of the stories. Perhaps as a result of a wartime atmosphere rife with stories of mass murder, Cole started churning out amazingly morbid tales filled with allusions to child abuse, torture and maimed bodies.
This grisly phase of Cole's career is especially visible in the stories from 1942 and 1943 that can be found in Plastic Man Archives volume 2 and 3. Thus in a story from the summer of 1943, Plastic Man battled a sadomasochist club of blood worshipper who whip each other and indulge in a taste for human sacrifice. In this story, as in so many of Cole's most violent fantasies, the bad guy turns out to be a parent who is willing to destroy their own child.
According to solidly researched books by Ron Goulart and Art Spiegelman, Cole had a reasonably happy childhood and supportive parents, so his obsession with violence inflicted on children is not necessarily rooted in any personal experience. For whatever reason, Cole's imagination was drawn to the pathos of child abuse, where the most innocent of victims are preyed upon by their supposed protectors.
The savage gallows humor of these Plastic Man stories would resurface in the mordant crime comics that Cole started producing in 1947. Yet in Plastic Man itself, Cole had started to shy away from the morbid recesses of his imagination.
The stories that are collected in the Plastic Man Archives Volume 4 are from 1945 and the Spring of 1946 (Police Comics #40-49, Plastic Man #3). They show Cole in a much more light-hearted mood.
One sign of the happier spirit found in these stories is the large number of balding men that litter the pages of this collection. Almost every story in Plastic Man Archives volume 4 has a bald-headed bad guy or comic relief character, usually resembling talking light bulbs or over-sized babies. Because of their bulbous infantalized form, these characters always seem harmless, even when they plot murder and mayhem. Another sign of the triumph of the comic sensibility in Plastic Man is the increasing prominence of Woozy Winks, who becomes the star of his own stories in early 1946..
The plots for the stories in this volume are very simple. They usually involve simply throwing Plastic Man and Woozy Winks into an odd environment (an old-folks home, the artic, a futuristic city) where they have to fight a gang of crooks, who often seem reassuringly incompetent.
What keeps this basic formula interesting is Cole's antic visual humor, which can be seen in the attention he paid to gait and body movement. The characters rarely walk from one spot to the next: they are always bouncing about, prancing, leaping or ricocheting. Because of his focus on the comedy of locomotion, Cole was always focused on getting his characters from one panel to the next, or moving from the top left to the bottom right of the page.
With his focus on panel and page design, Cole's characteristic unit of attention was much smaller than those cartoonists who labored to produce well-crafted and shapely stories (notably Will Eisner, Carl Barks and Harvey Kurtzman). Unlike these other pioneering comic book creators, Cole cared little for the pace and structure of his stories. Plastic Man's adventures tend to ramble haphazardly, starting with a strong momentum that usually dissipates with an abrupt ending.
Whatever weaknesses Cole had in plotting, he remains one of the very few comic book artists from the 1940s who deserves close reading. Now that DC is reprinting his Plastic Man stories in chronological order, we can appreciate how Cole's restless spirit led him to constant artistic reinventions.