Plastic Man was one of the real stars of the Quality Comics lineup of superheroes in comics' Golden Age (1938–1954), thanks to the madcap genius of his creator, Jack Cole. Cole had led a colorful life, including cycling across America at the age of eighteen, before deciding to dedicate himself to his true passion of cartooning and moving to New York in 1935. After a fitful start as a gag cartoonist, he found himself in at the beginning of the nascent comics explosion, working for Centaur Publishing and Lev Gleason Publications before being head-hunted by Quality Comics owner Everett
Busy Arnold. In mid-1941, Arnold asked Cole to create a new hero for Quality's upcoming new Police Comics title—something in the tradition of Will Eisner's Spirit. But Cole responded with his own sort of super-detective, a hero who always got his man in his own way: Plastic Man.
In August 1941, the first issue of Police Comics introduced an unsuspecting public to a disreputable hoodlum called Eel O'Brian, hard at work cracking a safe at the Crawford Chemical Works. Disturbed by a guard, O'Brian and his gang flee the building, but a stray bullet hits a large chemical vat, showering the thief with acid. Injured and desperate, O'Brian runs for miles before reaching a mountain retreat called Rest-Haven, where he is tended to by kind monks who shield him from the police. Inspired by their trust in him, he decides to turn over a new leaf and vows to change his ways. Only then does he discover that the acid has affected his body in such a way that he can now stretch it into any shape he can think of. Thrilled by that discovery (
Great guns!! I'm strechin' like a rubber-band!), he dons a red bodysuit, trimmed with a yellow belt and topped off with wraparound sunglasses, and begins his new life's work as a crime fighter.
Under Cole's infinitely creative direction, Plastic Man soon developed into one of the wittiest, most inventive superheroes on the stands. Originally Cole wanted to call his hero the India Rubber Man, but was persuaded by Arnold to take advantage of the consumer's new fixation with plastic, which advertisers had just termed the
miracle material and which was quickly making its way into dozens of new household products. Plastic Man—or Plas, as his friends referred to him—could stretch himself into any shape or size. He could roll himself into a ball, roll off a skyscraper and bounce right back up off the street below. He could make himself into a giant sail and fly through the air, and he was so pliable that bullets just bounced right off him. He could disguise himself as a chair, a boat, a lasso, a bag full of money, a blimp, a net—in fact, anything that Cole's fertile mind could dream up. Plas could also change his features to impersonate anyone, from a beautiful woman to Adolf Hitler himself. But while he was seemingly invulnerable enough to withstand being flattened by a steamroller, he was badly affected by intense heat (which caused him to melt) and cold (which stiffened him like a board).
Traditional superheroics—the battle between good and evil—were hardly the strip's principal concerns. Rather, Cole used Plastic Man's adventures as excuses to showcase his zany brand of humor. As an artist he had an outwardly simple style but was able to animate his characters with a manic zeal, and each panel was crammed with weird characters, slapstick gags, or Plastic Man's increasingly bizarre contortions. Even today, when many of the strips from this era appear quaint or crude, Cole's Plastic Man seems fresh, vibrant, and hilarious.
Feeling the need for a sidekick for his
stretchable sleuth, Cole introduced the polka-dot-shirted, rotund Woozy Winks in Police Comics #13 (November 1942), and the strip rose to even greater heights of lunacy. Having rescued a drowning swami, Woozy was rewarded with the gift of invulnerability to become
the man who cannot be harmed, and he decided to use his great gift for evil by turning to crime. When Plas tried to stop him, the great crime fighter was attacked by lightning, giant hailstones and instantly sprouting trees, but he finally defeated the indolent thief by making him feel guilty:
Think of your mother—what would she say if she knew about your crime career? The newly contrite, if barely repentant, Woozy instantly became Plas' ever-present crime-busting companion and comic foil, a bumbling, always ravenous, leering, cynical layabout who naturally stole the hearts of his devoted readers.
Plastic Man soon became the cover star of Police Comics and starred in the title for 102 issues, only being ousted when the title was revamped into a true-crime comic in 1950. Plas was also given his own comic in 1943, and this flourished until Arnold sold the whole company to DC Comics thirteen years later. The in-demand Cole was co-opted into helping out on The Spirit newspaper feature when that series' creator, Will Eisner, was drafted, which meant that he soon needed help of his own to keep up production of his beloved Plastic Man. By all accounts, Cole was heartbroken that he could not handle all the work on his own, but various Quality staffers, including Gwenn Hansen and Bill Woolfolk on scripts and artists Al Bryant, Gill Fox, and Charles Nicholas, all pitched in.
Cole was at his peak after World War II. His kinetic style was now more fluid than ever and each page overflowed with sight-gags and increasingly bizarre characters. Plastic Man (who was by now an FBI agent) never developed a regular cast of bad guys but Cole delighted in inventing ever more eccentric and bizarre wrongdoers for his hero to dispatch. Among many peculiar fellows, Cole created Bladdo the Super Hypnotist, the Sinister Six, Amorpho, Abba and Dabba, and Wriggles Enright—in fact, each story could boast someone memorable. But as successful and creative as his work on the strip was, Cole always craved more and had been moonlighting as a gag cartoonist for years, finally leaving the strip in 1954. Freed from his comics workload, Cole soon found fame and wealth as the leading cartoonist in the newly launched Playboy magazine, and a few years later began work on the newspaper strip Baby and Me. Tragically, the intense and complex Cole killed himself at the height of his success, in 1958, for reasons that have never been clear, thus robbing comics of one of its true giants.
In 1956, while DC was keen to keep publishing such newly purchased Quality titles as Blackhawk and GI Combat, they inexplicably chose to ignore Plastic Man, and the character was soon forgotten by the company. Indeed, it was not until a decade later, when DC was approached by an agency wanting to use the hero in a magazine advertisement, that anyone in the company realized that it owned the character at all. After a tryout in the
Dial 'H' for Hero strip, DC revived Plas for a new series in 1966, but without Cole's inspiration the comic was a disastrous mélange of tired TV parodies and camp superheroics. A decade later, in 1976, DC tried again, with art by the Cole acolyte Ramona Fradon, and produced a very attractive series that nevertheless never quite realized the heights of the strip's golden years. This was followed by a 1980 run in Adventure Comics, with art by Joe Staton, which was probably the truest to Cole's original vision of any of the revivals and was prompted by the unexpected arrival of a Plastic Man TV series (titled The Plastic Man Comedy-Adventure Show, which ran on ABC in 1979–1980 for a total of thirty-two episodes.)
These ill-fated attempts illustrate a pattern in which DC would resurrect Plastic Man each decade (for example, in 1988 and 1999) for a well-crafted miniseries or one-shot, which singularly failed to find an audience. DC's most recent attempt at a series, in late 2003, involved the left-field talents of the inventive Kyle Baker and might yet prove to be successful. Over the years, however, the company has met with greater success when it has used the hero as a bit-player in its superhero universe, teaming him with Batman numerous times in titles such as The Brave and the Bold or inducting him into the Justice League of America. In fact, in a 2002 JLA storyline, it was revealed that Plastic Man had a long-lost son!
In addition to the well-received series by Baker, DC has tried to keep the character in the public eye with occasional reprints of the strip's glory years, culminating in a series of hardbacked
archives, collecting Plastic Man strips from his very first appearance onward. Another late-breaking development was the publication in 2001 of the trade paperback Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd. Though the hero may not regain the level of popularity and acclaim he enjoyed in the 1940s, the revival of interest in Cole and his flexible hero is a long overdue and welcome acknowledgment.