Plastic Fanastic

Art Spiegelman pays tribute to a surreal superhero and his comics-crazed creator.

The so-called "Golden Age" of comics in the 1930s and '40s birthed a colorful menagerie of superheroes who muscled their way into American pop culture: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. But none of these costumed crime fighters were as patently bizarre as Jack Cole's creation, Plastic Man.

Garbed in a red rubber wrestling singlet and sporting a huge pair of wickedly cool black goggles, Plastic Man was able to stretch and mutate his body into any form imaginable, which led him into some rather strange (disguising himself as a Modernist painting in an art museum) and kinky (slithering through a bedroom keyhole and impersonating a woman's dress) situations. Along with his lazy slob of a partner, Woozy Winks, the ex-con-turned-crime-fighter "Plas" battled not only an onslaught of kooky villains, but the laws of physics and good taste as well. Bursting with vivid surrealism and colorful subtext, Cole's rubberized id of a character stood out among the more straight-laced do-gooders of the World War II era, but has never enjoyed the iconic status of his contemporaries.

Hopefully, all of that is about to change with the publication of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer/artist Art Spiegelman and hot graphic designer Chip Kidd's eye-poppingly assembled new history of Plastic Man and his creator. In his breathlessly colorful (and unabashedly fannish) commentary, Spiegelman argues that Cole injected a one-of-a-kind surrealism and ingenuity into the comic-book universe, displaying an artistry that lifts his work into the rarified stratosphere of comic art occupied by such greats as Tex Avery and S.J. Perlman.

Although comic-book art has historically been viewed by arbitrators of taste as "trash" (a view shared, strangely enough, by Cole himself), and while Spiegelman freely admits his own discomfort at "being in love with a super-hero comic," one need only to browse through the assortment of vintage Plastic Man panels collected in this affectionate new book to recognize the highly elevated artistry at work behind this particular "trash."

Cole, who had toiled in relative anonymity as a commercial artist throughout the '30s and early '40s before being handed the golden opportunity to create the Plastic Man character in 1945, clearly understood and exploited the dynamic visual potential of the comic book form, in ways that have seldom been equaled. In any one panel of Cole's books, readers will find enough visual information to fill at least three or four pages of a more conventional comic, giving his work a frantically breakneck energy that often literally destroys the edges of the frame.

In fact, the word that repeatedly springs to mind when reading Cole's comics is "hyperactive." Elaborate visual gags, sizzling color motifs and ferociously manic characters stuff each frame to bursting, and in the rubbery form of Plastic Man himself Cole found the perfect embodiment of the old adage "form follows function." Plastic Man's elongated body was often used by Cole as a compositional device, his distended limbs snaking through several separate panels on a single page, cleverly directing both the narrative and the visual flow. Given Cole's penchant for carefully controlled compositional chaos, as well as his barely suppressed sexual hysteria (the erotic possibilities of a virile hero with stretchable body parts was regularly hinted at), the creation of a mutating man unbound by laws of nature fit perfectly into his brand of surrealism.

After Plastic Man had run his course (or at least when Cole tired of him; he left the comic to a team of ghost writers/artists in 1950), Cole completely switched gears and hooked up with an upstart publisher named Hugh Heffner in 1956, providing illustrations for a new men's magazine called After Dark, later to become Playboy. Cole's watercolor renderings of comically exaggerated pinups became a staple of the magazine and, according to Hef, were instrumental in turning Playboy's bachelor-pad aesthetic into a pop-culture phenomenon.

Cole's imprint on American postwar culture was further secured by his inclusion in the infamous 1955 Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency, when his brutally riveting piece for True Crime Comics, tastefully titled "Murder, Morphine and Me" (a hard-boiled slab of sin 'n' vice featuring the ghastly, and oft-criticized, image of a female junkie being poked in the eye with a hypodermic needle, and reprinted in its garish entirety in the new book), was used as ammunition by right-wing politicians in their successful attempt to instate a system of content censorship for comic books, known as the Comic Code.

Cole died under mysterious circumstances in 1958, a victim of a never-explained suicide. Although his inner demons finally drove him over the edge, he managed to channel them for years into some of the most explosively original comic art in the medium's history. Jack Cole and Plastic Man, from its beautifully reproduced artwork and insightful text to its wacky plastic-coated cover, stands as a fitting testament to Cole's vision.

Kudos are in order for Spiegelman, who is often credited with elevating the modern-day graphic novel into a "respectable" art form with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus series, and designer Kidd, who also recently published his first novel, The Cheese Monkeys. Their passion for comic art should introduce Jack Cole and his spaghetti-limbed hero to new generations of comic lovers, and maybe even spark a singlet and goggles fashion revival.

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