Here’s the problem with superhero comics: They’re inherently stupid. But here’s the great thing about superhero comics: They’re inherently stupid. Yep. Superhero comics are stupid. Most of the people who disagree with this statement miss the point just as much as a lot of the people who agree with it.
This isn’t a case of a guy bashing superheroes because he’s too cool for school (Although I really am too cool for school — I got a biker jacket and everything). I’m simply against the “bold new direction” they’ve been heading in since the late 80′s, where mainstream superheroes have gone “realistic.” Seems to me all that’s done is erode the fanbase. But in typical comics fashion, we stick to our guns. It’s like watching Stalin’s Five-Year Plan in action. The Bold New Direction: Still crazy after all these years.
To answer the rhetorical question no one asked: Yes, there is a place in comics for “grown-up” superheroes. I have no problem with something like WILDC.A.T.S being more “grown up,” because it was honestly never for kids to begin with; but does a character like, say, Green Arrow really improve when thrust into adult situations? I could’ve picked any number of heroes, and I’m not necessarily trying to pick on Archer-boy, but he’s the first one that came to mind, so let’s just use him:
Green Arrow used to be a guy who shot plungers and boxing gloves from a bow. Now he’s an earnest tough guy with an acute social conscience who no longer shoots arrows with whoopee cushions and chattering teeth attached to them. Why forsake one for the other? Why suck out all the charm and the one thing that distinguishes him from Hawkeye? Why can’t Green Arrow be an earnest social crusader who shoots arrows with wax lips as tips? Does that really make it less feasible than, you know, a blind guy with radioactive radar sense who hangs out with a guy named Foggy?
Fact of the matter is, a guy shooting an arrow with a giant Whack-a-Mole mallet on the end of it is fun. It’s a Hell of a lot more fun than, say, fighting terrorism or prison rape, which seems to be what a lot superhero comics are about these days. Stop it and go back to the escapist action-adventure of your heroes Stan and Jack. Does anyone not remember WATCHMEN, and how superheroes in a “real-world” setting turned them into pathetic losers that helped forge Nixon’s dictatorship? It’s like all anyone got from that comic was “Shit yeah! Rorschach fucks bitches up hardcore! High five!”
“Stupid” isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. The Ramones sang some of the stupidest songs in human existence (Seriously, “Beat On the Brat” isn’t exactly “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”) and they were about as super bad-ass as they come. CADDYSHACK is about as stupid as it gets, and I’d still rather watch that than THE ENGLISH PATIENT any day of the week.
Fact of the matter is, you’re supposed to grow up with Superman. You’re supposed to grow up with Spider-Man. You’re supposed to grow up with G.I. Joe. Not the other way around. If it gets to a point where traditional superhero comics don’t suit your grown-up sensibilities, then you should probably move on. Let some other kids who don’t have the same hang-ups you do play with them for a while.
Plastic Man will never join the Grim ‘n’ Gritty Hall of Fame. First off, the name Plastic Man doesn’t strike fear into your heart like the hardcore monikers Hawkripper or Bonebasher Blyleven. He’s got a cohort named Woozy Winks who looks like William Frawley’s ugly cousin. He transmogrifies himself into curvy molls to seduce unwitting gangsters like Bugs Bunny cock-blocking Yosemite Sam. Simply put, Plastic Man was tailor-made for comics. Animation couldn’t reproduce the oddball charm of Jack Cole’s wild sight gags and he doesn’t seem to have the Dirty Harry action movie-envy of his juiced-up, lantern-jawed peers. He’s pure funnybooks through and through and thank God for that.
Containing Plastic Man’s first appearances from POLICE COMICS numbers 1-20, this beautifully constructed hardcover contains stories that are almost 65 years old, yet still feels fresher than most of the comics out today. Granted, some of this is because it comes from a different time that most of our generation has no real concept of, but a great majority of this is because of the fact that Jack Cole was a master of his craft with a keen sense of humor and oddball storytelling sensibility that hits all the right notes even in this day and age.
Cole wrote six page stories (later 15, as Plas’s popularity grew) that packed more fun than your average decompressed story arcs of today. This is because Plas shared space in an anthology title filled with mostly obscure characters only recognizable because they were in the KINGDOM COME cover gallery. Plastic Man was, in fact, so popular, Will Eisner’s Spirit seemingly played second fiddle to him, judging by the covers (Plastic Man is featured prominently, with the Spirit in the background saying “Don’t forget me! I’m the Spirit!”).
These stories serve as time capsules to a bygone era when kids wore those cool newsboy caps, Germans were vehemently pro-war, and all cops were Irishmen. They also capture a time when comics were much more innocent, even when tackling real-life issues such as war, corruption, and street crime.
There’s a sense of whimsy and playfulness that’s lacking in modern superhero comics, where the past glories of 1986 hang heavy like a dulling wine. Who could resist the madcap charms of the ultra-butch Madame Brawn and her Crime School For Delinquent Girls? What kind of genius creates a paraplegic giant (Who walks on his hands!) with the brain of a mad Restoration-era English scientist implanted in his skull? How can anyone not want to read a tale entitled (Oh, don’t act so offended — seeing how you laugh at William Hung) “Satan’s Son Sells Out to the Japs”?
Part of the fun of old super-duper comics is the wonderfully inventive ways they got around the superhero / alter ego paradigm (“Gosh, Lois! I wish I could’ve been there!”) and Plastic Man has some of the most fun with this dilemma. Eel O’Brien is a crook wanted by the cops, while his alter-ego Plastic Man works for the police department, using the info gathered as O’Brien to fight crime. The ingenuity Cole uses to work out of the dilemma of Plastic Man having to capture O’Brien is sure to bring a smile to anyone’s face. This entire comic is like a wink and a nudge from an old pal pulling your leg, such as when a red herring is dropped with the caption “Who do you think is guilty? Write your deductions below and check up later…”
The inclusion of Woozy Winks in later issues only adds to the fun. Lazy, amoral, and immensely likeable, Winks is the only oddball that can turn Plastic Man into the straight-man of a comedy duo. A resourceful pickpocket immune to injury because of his connection to Mother Nature, Winks is more of a partner than a sidekick, as more often than not, he ends up saving the day.
The pure silliness of this comic is absolutely infectious. Absurd bits such as a story narrated by the North Wind and wacky plots featuring haunted house murder mysteries almost seem as if Cole was commenting on the emptiness of the genre. It’s generally accepted that Stan Lee pioneered the self-referential captions, but here was Cole doing it 20 years earlier. This was a man so ahead of his time, these stories almost seem like a modern cartoonist doing a parody of golden age comics.
There are sections of this comic that don’t exactly err to the side of political correctness, and this is even after excluding the shared covers with The Spirit and his pal Ebony. Some of these stories disparage Asians, American Indians, and the aforementioned Madame Brawn smacks of a lesbian stereotype; but these were different times and although that doesn’t excuse these images, keep in mind that men such as Herge, Jack Kirby, and Osamu Tezuka also practiced in ugly stereotyping.
These comics are our shared past, and ignoring or dismissing them would be inconceivable. Jack Cole was one of the pioneers of this medium and deserves his due. THE PLASTIC MAN ARCHIVES is a true gem and an important part our comic book culture that deserves to be read.