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Jack Cole and Plastic ManReview - Jack Cole and Plastic Man
Forms Stretched to Their Limits
by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd
Chronicle Books, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Dec 1st 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 48)

    Jack Cole was the artist responsible for the 1940s comic superhero Plastic Man.  In the 1950s Cole drew humorous sketches for Hugh Hefner's Playboy.  On August 13, 1958, at the age of 43, Cole shot himself in the head, and died soon after.

    For artists who kill themselves, it is inevitable that we see all their creations as the work of someone who committed suicide.  We look for signs of depression, preoccupation with death, and creativitiy associated with mania.  We might also look for signs of a troubled childhood and unhappy adult relationships.  Cole's work provides plenty examples of all of the above.

    Plastic Man can stretch his body into any shape.  He can survive being shot and of course he is able to fight crime and catch criminals.  Most of the Plastic Man stories were published in Police Stories.  His early drawing is rather crude compared to the later work, but it still shows incredible imagination and manages to include  powerful images.  Of course, this was never meant to be high art: the comics sold for 10¢ each.  But the writing and art often combine to make memorable stories.  The villain "Sadly-Sadly" will stay with me for a long time, I suspect: he has such an unhappy face that people are overcome with pity when they see him, and they give him all their money and possessions.  He exaggerates his appearance of sadness to enhance the effect.  This story typifies a skepticism that some have for depression: they think that it is an act, and sad people are just looking sad in order to win pity and sympathy.  Depressed people can even accuse themselves of just putting on an act, and do feel that they deserve any sympathy.

    The idea of a person who can change shape at will was not entirely new: indeed, ancient myths feature gods who have such powers, mainly used for self-disguise.  Plastic Man has a stretchy body, but he cannot change color.  He prefigures Mr Fantastic of Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four.  It's a pretty humorous superpower, and Cole often plays it for comic effect.  The increasing sophistication of the drawing in Cole's work is matched by an apparently increasing serious side; his 1947 cover for a True Crime issue of a murder is quite gruesome.  The notorious story, "Murder, Morphine and Me!", which may have contributed to the perceived need for the creation of a Comics Code because of the intensity of the drawing and its violent imagery, lacks any sign of the humor of Plastic Man.  What it does have is a gritty portrayal of evil and drug addiction.

   The stories don't have the narrative sophistication and psychological depth that marked many Marvel comics in the 1970s, but all of Cole's work reproduced here is nighy imaginative.  The essay on Cole by Art Spiegelman that accomanies the art was originally published in the New Yorker, and is very helpful and well-written.  Four Cole stories are reprinted in full in this book; with browning of the pages, and even the paper has a coarse feel to it, though it is much higher quality than you get in comics; the ink will not come off on your fingers.  It is easy to see why Art Spiegelman so admires the work of Cole: there's a frenzied intensity and weirdness to his drawing that suggests that Cole was a great innovator in comic book art, and than makes his work more interesting than most comic book artwork done today.

    Spiegelman, Kidd, and Chronicle Books have done a wonderful job in putting this book together:  it has a plastic cover, four Jack Cole stories fully reprinted, and numerous pages from other works printed in full color.  The book is a pleasure to read and a pleasure to handle.

© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.


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