Jun 12, 2010

PLASTIC MAN Jan 1950: The Return of the Pointed Exclamation Mark!

Plastic Man 21 cover comic book

 Story in this post:
”Kra Vashnu”
Story, Pencils, and Inks by Jack Cole
Plastic Man #21
January, 1950
Quality Comics


For a 13 issue run of Plastic Man (issues 17-29), Jack Cole wrote and drew almost all the contents in these issues. In the first story in Plastic Man #21 (Jan. 1950) most of the sound effects are punctuated with a “flat” exclamation mark (on left in illustration below).

plastic man 21 callout5 

But somewhere in the middle of the story, Cole draws a BAM! with a “pointed” exclamation mark (right side of illustration above). It’s even artfully arranged so the “M” breaks it up.

I believe this is important because it is a sign that Jack Cole was re-connecting with his original, pure source of inspiration after a few years of dampened enthusiasm brought on most likely by having other writers and artists forced on him to produce the large number of Plastic Man stories his publisher wanted.

The pointed exclamation mark populated almost all of Jack Cole’s comic book work for the first 6 or 7 years. This was when he wrote, drew and often even lettered his own stories – a highly unusual practice for the time and one which, I believe, allows us to consider his graphic stories as the developing work of a master of the form. In 1950, Cole began to flow the magic of his early work back into his stories, but this time – instead of a talented newcomer – here was an accomplished master employing numerous techniques with an almost casual virtuousity.

plastic man 21 callout4 

As Cole re-connected with his vitality and vision, his work in 1950 became became richer and more complex, developing into what could be called Cole’s “baroque” period. Plastic Man never stretched so outrageously and comically. I can think of no other comics that are as dense with humor and invention as Jack Cole’s 1950 Plastic Man stories.

plastic man 21 callout2

Reading these stories is a jaw-dropping experience for any comics person. In just one page, Cole delivers a dazzling array of brilliant graphic design solutions. His stories have some much kinetic energy they almost vibrate on the page. There is often more than one thing happening in each panel so that it’s necessary to re-read the stories in order to fully engage with them (similar to the way the film Playtime by the inspired filmmaker and comedian Jacques Tati works).

plastic man 21 callout1

In the “Kra Vashnu” story, the sudden and abrupt single appearance of the pointed exclamation mark heralds a new phase of focus and passion by Cole. The story certainly reflects this, with some astonishing panels and art, such as this one (with dialogue removed):

plastic man 21 callout3 which shows quite well Cole’s uncanny ability to draw the less defined “in-between” poses – almost as if he was able in his mind’s eye to freeze the frame of a movie and then draw that. In so doing, Cole’s “freeze-frame” technique delivers some of the most abstract and beautiful art seen in comics.

The “evil magician” plot of “Kra Vashnu” is one that Cole used over and over, starting with his third MIDNIGHT story in March, 1941. Cole revived his first evil magician, CHANG-O, in December, 1941 with “The Return of Chang-O.”

Still, Kra Vashnu is quite a diabolical foil, and his appearance is pleasingly bizarre, with his tattooed forehead, cape, platform shoes, and – strangest of all – his long, unclipped toenails (in one sequence, Woozy tries vainly to clip them).

The story does contain some of Cole’s trademark themes, including doubling (doppelganger) and identity shifting. There is also a vivid misogynistic murder and attempted suicide. In the story’s climax, Plastic Man is seemingly murdered, his corpse resembling a deflated, punctured balloon. All of these violent themes are surrounded with non-stop gags and brilliant art, making it a Jack Cole classic.

Plastic Man’s stretched poses and transformations are particularly brilliant in this story, as well, and worth paying attention to as you read this amazing story, which I have painstakingly digitally restored for your reading enjoyment:

 Plastic Man 21-03 copy Plastic Man 21-04 copy Plastic Man 21-05 copy Plastic Man 21-06 copy Plastic Man 21-07 copy Plastic Man 21-08 copy Plastic Man 21-09 copy Plastic Man 21-10 copy Plastic Man 21-11 Plastic Man 21-12 Plastic Man 21-13 copy Plastic Man 21-14 copy Plastic Man 21-15 copy


  1. Although I have a special affection for the earlier Plastic Man Stories, I would choose this sort of story were I attempting to quickly convey the visual genius of Jack Cole to someone with no prior familiarity.

    Most of this story is a fury of motion, but it is an entirely coherent fury. That fury is made possible by the powers of Plastic Man, but we see nothing like it when most other artists are given this character or one of like ability. Infantino's Elongated Man is banal; Kirby's Mr Fantastic is worse than banal. And even an artist like Gil Kane (hardly given to static imagery) didn't do much with Plastic Man.

  2. As always, astute insights, Daniel. What do you think of the modern day incarnations, such as The Mask, and Hilary Barta and Kyle Baker's versions? To me, no one, including Cole's assistants, could come close to making a decent story out of the character... it was Cole that made Plas work... not the concept. That being said, I'd love to see some modern day talents work on Plastic Man stories. Art Spiegelman, Dan Zettwoch...

  3. To the extent that a property is held by everything, it is one that distinguishes nothing. In his Plastic Man stories, Cole didn't confine plasticity to the principal character, but he limited in other things. Further, Cole's depiction of inanimate objects is very much one of representational reälism, and his characters are at least given detail and solidity, so that anomoly of any sort is more striking. Thus is distinguished Plastic Man himself, giving him meaning and humor. Baker's Plastic Man lives in a world in which everything is highly plastic — everyone and everything morphs an stretches. His Plastic Man is just one more stretchy thing in a stretchy world. And Baker eschews representational reälism, lowering expectations that anything in his world should behave as in the real world.

    I've not more than glanced at the Mask nor seen Barla's Plastic Man. (I gave up active collecting and reading of comic books many years ago, and there are great lacunæ in my familiarity with post-bronze-age work.)

    I think that there are quite a few artists who could do interesting things with Plastic Man. But these are far more likely to work, if at all, as unscheduled one-offs than as sustained efforts.

  4. Plastic man = Art
    The Mask = Piece of crap, and very, very, very, far away from cole´s "touch".

  5. I just now realized I hadn't read this story. Whew! A dark, screwy, neurotic and quite eccentric collision of slapstick cartoon imagery and EC Comics shock moments, this!

    I find the bursts of outright and extreme Avery/Clampett cartooniness both delightful and kinda nutty. They're so at odds with the intended drama of the story. Yet, without them, this would be an ingeniously plotted but workaday funnybook tale.

    It seems that Cole rekindled some of his 1930s cartoon style in these early '50s PLASTIC MAN efforts. They are just little touches, here and there, but they're effective (e.g., the woman who freaks out when she spots Kra Vishnu at the train station).

    The sequence of Plas using himself as a living signboard and blimp is ingenious. Why didn't more superheroes use this obviously fine method of public address?

    One can see cracks in Cole's consciousness starting to form in these early '50s PM stories. Sometimes the darkness of his work reads like a suicide note in installments. Easy to see this after the fact, but at the time, I wonder if this darkness and fatalism registered with any readers.

    Very nice restoration job on this story. It enhanced the reading experience.

  6. Cole's baroque period is a revelation. When I started tracking down late run issues of Smash (I knew Police and Plastic Man would be too pricey) I couldn't believe what I was seeing... Thanks for such a great blog.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...