Stretching for Dollars

DC Archives: Plastic Man Archives Volume 3, written and illustrated by Jack Cole (1944-45; collected 2001): Another dandy collection of the early adventures of one of the two or three best long-running American comic books of the 1940’s (the others involve The Spirit and Captain Marvel). Jack Cole would go on in the 1950’s to become a cartoonist for magazines like Playboy, disowning pretty much all his comic-book past in the process. But it’s now and probably forever that Plastic Man is what he’s remembered fondly for.

The joy of Plastic Man is that it’s often-anarchic fun rendered in a clean, fluid line. Plastic Man takes stretching to its ultimate extent: he can imitate anything (including women — in that sense he’s a bit like Bugs Bunny, only more convincing), stretch into any shape or to almost any length or size, and easily weather gunfire. Extremes of heat or cold may be able to do him in: the crooks sure try, anyway.

There’s a fine balance in Cole’s work between the hilarious and the grim. People do die in these stories, and the criminals tend to be ruthless — there’s a tiny measure of the Dick Tracy ethos at work here. But everything turns out all right in the end thanks to Plastic Man and his bumbling sidekick Woozy Winks, one of the few comic sidekicks of the 1940’s whom I can stand.

Plastic Man, now owned by Time Warner/DC Comics, has never fared particularly well in hands other than Cole’s. He truly was a singular creation who needed his creator to make his adventures essential reading — unlike the adventures of Batman or Superman, Plastic Man’s 1940’s adventures have never been surpassed by later exploits. The 1940’s have been dubbed ‘The Golden Age of American Comic Books’, but Cole’s Plastic Man stories are one of only a few truly superlative strips of the period (and remain superlative compared to anything else in this sub-genre to this day). Highly recommended.

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