Jack Cole was a masterful comic book artist who helped define the golden age of his art form. In the early ’40s he looked at sideshow freaks and a new wonder material that was reshaping the planet and combined them into Plastic Man, a superhero of infinite physical malleability and upright demeanor. Nominally an FBI agent, Plas used his ability to stretch, bend, and mimic animals, vegetables, and minerals to defeat a cavalcade of villains, ranging from hideously sadistic child-killers to a thief so pitifully sad-faced jewelers begged him to take their wares. The plots, however smart or goofy (and often they were both), were overshadowed by the baroque concoctions that emerged from Cole’s drawing board; he made the point, as Spiegelman puts it, that “anything one could dream, one could draw.” Hence Plas, nonchalantly absorbing bullets that simply spike his skin out as though he were a hypertrophied porcupine, or blown up as a blimp surveilling runaway crooks. Hugh Hefner (for whom Cole did lush watercolors of pneumatic babes) called Plastic Man “hallucinogenic.” Thomas Pynchon apparently agreed, and had the priapic antihero of Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop, read Plastic Man comics between such madcap set pieces as throwing custard pies at attacking airplanes.
Spiegelman and Kidd have made a brave decision to use reproductions direct from poorly printed vintage comics. This leads to a serendipitous, homely beauty —panel enlargements reveal nimbuses of cyan and magenta, benday dots floating free of constraining black outlines and moving into the formal anomalies that Warhol would exploit with his degraded screen prints and off-register portraits during the ’60s.
Spiegelman is an ardent proselytizer for comics-as-art, and is at his best explaining why Cole’s manic visuals succeed without going completely over the edge. In one morbidly hard-hitting tale that Cole did for True Crime Comics, Spiegelman delves into how even the shuddering panel borders move the plot to its bullet-riddled and bleak conclusion. In the book’s last chapter, you can feel Spiegelman’s sympathy, but also his frustration, with Cole’s mysterious 1958 suicide.
The book closes with a final, inadvertent tribute to Cole’s genius: The authors have cropped, enlarged, combined, and anamorphicized a hodgepodge of Cole’s work into “A Portfolio of Polymorphously Perverse Plasticity.” It’s kinda fun and inventive, but nowhere near as much as its source. Cole’s primitive tools of pens, brushes, ink, and atrocious printing beat the banal miracles of Photoshop seven ways to Sunday.