Mar 11, 2010

Plastic Man Fights His Greatest Enemies: Grannies and Boy Scouts!

Sexy lady sits on money bags Plastic man 16 cover Jack Cole

Story this post:
”Say It Ain’t So, Plas!”

Writing, Pencils, Inks by Jack Cole
Inks/Finishes possibly by Alex Kotzky

Plastic Man 16
March 1949- Quality Comics
Left: Cover by Jack Cole

As we come up on marking our first year, this blog just exceeded 50,000 page impressions. It’s great to see such interest in the work of Jack Cole. Thanks, everyone!

Item: Thanks to the great guys over at Golden Age Comics, I’ve been able to locate the third CUTHBERT 1-pager. If you’d like to read these demented, wicked funny 1-pagers by Cole, see my earlier posting here, which includes the newly found example from The Spirit #5. For those of you who don’t wish to click away, here’th the new CUTHBERT, ish a good ‘un!

SPIRIT 005 010

In this post, I continue with a selection and analysis of the best of the later Jack Cole PLASTIC MAN stories.

In my post on the great Concrete story from Plastic Man 14, we saw that Jack Cole was re-investing in both comic books and in his star character, PLASTIC MAN. The late 40’s were a spotty period for Cole as he was developing a shadow career as a magazine gag cartoonist, and no doubt struggled with the involvement of other writers and artists stretching his vision of PLASTIC MAN from a beautiful satire to a mediocre, unfunny and dull series of stories. In 1949, Cole rallied and returned to form, delivering a series of delightful, brilliant stories.

The second story in Plastic Man 16 is one such delight.

In typical Cole fashion, three criminals plot out how to murder PLASTIC MAN. Look what happens at the bottom tier of page 3:


This pre-Kurtzman sequence comically demonstrates “no honor among thieves,” as they pick each other’s pockets. All the while, involved in an intense discussion… almost stealing by reflex. This tier would be funny enough, but turn the page and here’s what you get:


Is this great, or what? Leave us not mention the crook with a crazy hairdo, or the other crook inexplicably attired in a fez… Wiggles and Goofy. It’s DICK TRACY on acid!

These panels are smaller, the first two of the top tier of three on page 4. Smaller panels mean shorter time… Cole has set the gag up with larger (more time) panels, and then delivered the punch line with smaller, faster units… comic timing in sequential graphic narrative: a textbook example, and super fun to read!

Without further ado, here’s the story, starting with a terrific splash page in which Cole delivers a cinematic crane shot of blissful comedic chaos:

 1_Plastic Man fights Boy Scouts issue 16 Jack Cole 2_Plastic Man car chase issue 16 Jack Cole 3_Plastic Man car wreck issue 16 Jack Cole 4_Plastic Man and pickpockets  issue 16 Jack Cole 5_Plastic Man issue 16 Jack Cole 6_Plastic Man fights old ladies issue16 Jack Cole (2) 7_Plastic Man fights old ladies issue16 Jack Cole 8_Plastic Man fights boy scouts  issue16 Jack Cole 9_Plastic Man in disguise  issue16 Jack Cole 10_Plastic Man crazy crooks  issue16 Jack Cole (2) 11_Plastic Man crazy crooks  issue16 Jack Cole

There are several interesting aspects to this story. First, is the great cartooning. More than ever before, Cole is evolving from a master at depicting speed on paper into a wizard of time itself.

Consider pages two and three, the car chase sequence. The sequence consists of 12 panels, six to a page. The first 9 panels are hyper-kinetic cartooning, as forms are pulled, stretched, elongated, compressed, and blurred in a high-speed, high-stakes chase. These panels are smaller, and have less detail… so they go by faster.

cartoon-car-wreck Then, in panel 10, time seems to slow down… right when the car crashes into it’s own sound effect. Plastic Man’s body is frozen in time, suspended in the air. The last two panels, such as the one shown above,  are the largest in the sequence, filled with detail. These are almost painterly in their studied composition and density of detail. They are moments, frozen in time. This freeze-frame effect would, in 5 years, become a key part of Jack Cole’s Playboy cartoons (see my post “A Moment Frozen In Time”).

Another interesting aspect to this story is the matter-of-fact inclusion of the possibility of death at almost every turn in the plot. We start with a sequence in which it seems that Plastic Man might perish, then move into a sequence where criminals plot his murder, and finally, Plas himself stages a mock-suicide. Considering that Cole took his own life less than a decade after he created this story, such signals are hard to to take as just random plot elements. Cole’s comic book stories became darker and stranger as time went on.

plastic-man-dazedEven with the specter of Death hovering, this story is extremely satirical and funny. Cole writes a great reversal of the hero myth by making Plastic Man’s greatest enemies not the criminals in the story, but self-righteous old ladies and boy scouts. This story is very similar to the great, often reprinted, “Plastic Man Products” story that would appear in the next issue, Plastic Man 17. Plastic Man has to fight a crazed mob in that story, as well.

In fact, the last great period of Cole’s comic book stories seems to rest largely on the depiction of the individual against the mob. This new theme occurs over and over, right through his last Web of Evil stories.

Lastly, this story can be seen as a pre-cursor to the Harvey Kurtzman Mad comic book stories. Whether or not there was a direct influence, it’s hard to say. But perhaps it was just something in the air at the time. As post-WWII America slid into the conformity and quiet desperation of the early 1950’s, American pop artists such as Jack Cole and Harvey Kurtzman responded by poking holes in revered institutions and suggesting we take a closer look and think for ourselves.

Aside from the satire, this story also prefigures Mad in the amazing amount of “chicken fat” cartooning… that is, little bits of business that have little or nothing to do with moving the plot forward, but add a delightful dimension to the story, such as the pickpocket sequence described at the beginning of this article.

This forgotten story appeared quietly on the scene, and was muffled by the pages of lesser stories that Cole may have had his hand in, but in which his brilliance was considerably watered-down. I’m happy to pluck this brilliant gem out and share it. Enjoy!

Announcement: I have started a new blog, TUMEYLAND, in which I’m sharing some of my writings, songs, art and comics.

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