May 30, 2009

The Eel-Like Slipperiness of Identity

Stories featured in this blog:

Blue Ribbon 1 (November 1939 M.L.J.) – IMA Slooth “Secret Agent B.O. “(3 pages)

Rocket Comics 2 (April 1940, Hillman) – The Defender “The Man With A Thousand Faces” (6 pages)

Welcome! If you’re here, I’m gonna assume you already know the basics about Jack Cole, creator of Plastic Man. If you don’t, then hop over to amazon and order Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits, by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd. This is the single best source of information and analysis of Cole’s work.

Also, I'd like to thank my buddy, the comic book writer, artist, and scholar Frank Young, for his support and encouragement on this blog. I was inspired by his great blog dedicated to the work of comic book giant John Stanley called Stanley Stories.

It seems appropriate to begin with some of Cole’s earliest work in comics, and one of his most unique and powerful themes.

Before he landed at Quality Comics, where he published most of his comic book work, Cole worked for Centaur, Novelty, Lev Gleason, Hilman and Archie (MLJ). Future entries of this blog will share and consider much of Cole’s “early period” pre-Plastic Man work.

Cole was one of the principal architects of the language of comic book art. He also was perhaps its greatest innovator. A creative dynamo, Cole invented dozens of techniques in comics, both as an artist and as a writer. Sometimes, these inventions were used only once or twice and forgotten about. Other times, he would return to an invention over and over, refining and polishing it throughout the course of his 19-year career in comics from 1936 to 1955.

One such invention is the image of a character re-arranging his face. Typically, superheroes disguised their identities with masks, hoods, helmets, and eyeglasses (in the case of Superman). Cole pulled this key part of superhero comics inside out, and had many of his heroes actually re-arrange their facial features with their own hands! Instant plastic surgery! Not only that, but his heroes changed identities not to protect themselves, but to outfox the crooks.

This became one of the main themes of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man stories, used over and over. In fact, it was the very erasure of a criminal’s identity -- that occurred when a guard shot him and he crashed into a vat of acid -- that allowed for the birth of a new hero. Jack Cole named the criminal “The Eel” in the first story, suggesting that he was, by his nature, a slippery fellow. In the very first Plastic man story, The Eel has slipped away into eternity, and the being in his place has no fixed identity. Or, to put it more precisely, he now has every identity. Here is the sequence, from Police Comics #1 (August, 1941):
And here, in the second Plastic Man story, another instance of changing face and identity:

In the third Plastic Man story, this ability is used to frame the character. Being able to rearrange the features of his face (and therefore, identity) IS the essence of Plastic Man:

Later on, this device gets used in numerous bizarre and amusing ways. Plas can be anybody he cares to be… perhaps the greatest super-power of all. Here are just a few examples:

About a year before he created Plastic man, Cole used this device in a fascinating 3-page story that appeared in Blue Ribbon Comics #1 (November 1939, M.L.J.). This could be the first example of the face-changing theme in Cole’s work, but not having seen all the early material of Cole, I cannot be sure.

In some ways, this story is a blueprint for the Plastic Man stories to come. It moves at an insanely fast pace, it’s crammed with gags, and the heroine appears to enjoy traveling in eccentric (and therefore highly entertaining) means. Most significantly, even though our hero(ine) is wacky, the world around her has gone completely insane… which was the modus operandi of the Plastic Man stories. What’s striking is that, almost from the very inception of the super hero, Cole understood the heroes were every bit as nutty as the villains. Oh yeah… and check out page 2, panel 2. Our heroine changes her face and identify in a very familiar way. Here's the story, interestingly printed in one and two colors. (Click on the image to make it larger. You can also right-click and choose to save the art to your computer).

In contrast to the IMA SLOOTH story above, next we have a completely serious, although far from sober presentation of the idea. The face-changing idea must have really appealed to Cole. In the story below, he makes it the central theme and power of a new crime-fighting hero, THE DEFENDER.

Meet Bob Larson, a hero who, like Eel O’Brian , was mutilated. Larson created a mask that not only hides his horribly disfigured face (which we never see) but more importantly gives him “the ability to change his facial appearance at will.” The story appeared in in Rocket Comics #2, November 1940 (Hilman).

The title lasted only 3 issues, and as far as is known, Cole’s Defender only appeared once, in the second issue. Too bad, since this is truly a whacked-out creation. In this story alone, we get a hero with a magic mask who also owns his own plane and can hypnotize criminals. The crooks have possession of an invisible plane (pre Wonder Woman) and the panels of them flying through the cloudy skies sitting down are in themselves vastly amusing to anyone who has absorbed the thousands of images of superheroes gracefully flying in the pose of an Olympic diver. (Cole re-used this device in Plastic Man #1, with Woozy Winks driving an invisible jeep). At the climax of the story, on page 6, panel 5, Cole draws yet again that haunting image of a hero re-arranging his facial features with their hands.

Then, the hero murders the crooks.

To say anymore would spoil this amazing, insane story. Except to say that his layout and drawing in this extremely obscure piece are heavenly. Look at this splash. Or the use of slender vertical and horizontal panels... wow!

Now, Alex Toth has written (in Alter Ego #25) that he heard Cole wrote his stories as he pencilled them, and did not work from scripts. Note the more crammed and wordy last two pages of this story. Having created many comics myself using the write-as-you-draw method, I can attest to the fact that sometimes you end up with some very dense pages at the end, as you wrap up the loose ends of the story. This story would tend to lend validity to the idea that Cole wrote as he drew, and that he got much better at pacing as time went on.

In any case, there are many strokes of brilliance here, such as the last panel on page 2, with a view of a man running to escape a falling building, shot from directly under the man's body! This type of "camera angle" was quite inventive for this period in comics. Heck, it's cool even by today's standards, I think! Here, then, is Jack Cole’s 39th (or so) published comic book story. Enjoy!


  1. Great stuff, Paul! Thanks for doing this. This will be a great addition to the world of comix blogging. Your analyses and info on Cole's stories is of great interest, and well-written.
    We're both fortunate to have chosen comix creators who were super-prolific, and who worked in many different genres/styles, for our blogs. It's sometimes hardest to choose exactly what aspect of John Stanley to discuss. I predict you're gonna have the same "problem" with Jack Cole--but what a problem!
    I hope this blog is widely read and appreciated. I'll post about it on Stanley Stories.



  2. Thanks, Frank. I always find the things you chose to focus on about John Stnaley to be very interesting!

  3. This is a great blog. I hope you have more soon. I am a big Plastic Man fan.

  4. In the last story above, Cole was actually using elements of a story of the pulp hero the Avenger. A later adaptation has been reproduced at Grantbridge Street.

  5. Excellent observation, oeconomist! As I recall, The Avenger had a putty-like face that allowed him to mold his features in any way he wished. A little research shows that he appeared in the pulps from 1939 to 1943. WHen his wife and young daghter are killed in a tragic airplane accident, The Avenger's hair and face turn white, and his face bcomes paralyzed. In Cole's stories, as far as I know, the face-changing ability is due to a physical, noit an emotional injury (if any explanation at all is offered). Nonetheless, the grim tone of The Avenger's origins lingers with The Defender, and carries on through to the origin story of Plastic Man. It's very likely Cole read the stories, which were on the newstands when he was creating the strips posted in this entry. Thanks for this invaluable insight!


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