- from Plastic Man #39 (vol. 1)
- writer/artist: uncredited
After the body horror of Those Hands in the last issue, Jack Cole seemed to give his readers a chance to catch their breath with Police Comics #7. For Cole this meant coming up with a story packed with his overflowing imagination — as well as a new criminal organization, spankings, a lifelike scarecrow, and glow-in-the-dark paint.
The story is also fat with action, as you can tell from the opening splash page.
That’s right — the United Crooks of America! An organization that counts only the most nefarious ne’er-do-wells among it members! A democratically minded mob of the creme de la crime! Naturally, Eel O’Brian wants in.
After bowling over the cops at the A.J. Phox Fur Co. (and promising to himself to return the furs later), Eel brings the spoils of his “audition” back to UCA headquarters.
Ha! A corn roast! I’m no expert on the slang of 1942, but somehow that sounds both sarcastic and insulting. And it’s disturbing to see how proud Slug is of both the UCA’s civilized club structure and of being a proficient cop killer. This is the sort of thing I’m talking about when I mention Cole’s ability to pepper his seemingly light-hearted stories with some truly dark elements.
I also love the way Plastic Man gets so much joy out of needling Captain Murphy. Seriously, he’s going to make the guy blow a vessel. But the fun can only last so long before he has to go back undercover to be pledged as a full member of the United Crooks of America.
Can we take a second to raise our glasses to poor ol’ Slim, who’s been the only thug so far to put it together that wherever Eel O’Brian goes, Plastic Man isn’t far behind? Look at those guys in the second-to-last panel — booing someone to their face like that is harsh.
Once the swats and near-drownings are done, Eel is put right to work along with Ape Ellson and Trigger Jones to steal the Swagger gem collection. Luckily, he’s tapped to be the getaway driver, so no one’s around to see him spring into action as Plastic Man!
Cole’s creativity really starts rolling as the series goes on, and it shows in the new ways Plas uses his powers in almost every issue. Plastic Man is having fun, so it’s easy to imagine that Cole was, too. And as Cole’s imagination gets looser so does his drawing style; sharp angles begin to soften as he develops a slightly more cartoony, rubbery look.
I always like to point out Cole’s amazingly strong draftsmanship, and this page is a good example. Look at the way the image in every panel leads the eye to the next, from Trigger in the first panel pointing to the next, to Plastic Man’s downward swoop guiding the reader to the final panel. It shows how much thought Cole was putting into his work on Plastic Man, and it’s wonderful to look at.
Not so wonderful? That acid Trigger has dumped on Plas! The bad guys make their escape, but Plastic Man takes a quick dunk in a rooftop water tank and beats them to the car downstairs. Trigger and Ape dive into the car, only to find Plastic Man and … Eel O’Brian?!
No wonder the cons don’t want to tangle with Plastic Man — he’s totally letting them think he’ll throw them over a cliff from a moving car. Still, back at United Crooks of America headquarters they’ve got Plas outnumbered and they’ve got a plan. It involves a spray gun full of glow-in-the-dark paint. Plastic Man’s plan involves more throwing-people-from-high-places.
Tsk — poor ol’ Slim.
Eeyow! Today is the 75th anniversary of Police Comics #1, and the first appearance of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man!
I could very easily go on and on about this wild, action-packed origin for one of comic’s most unique characters — and I have! — but I think I’ll just sit back and let you all bask in the genius of Cole’s original story and art.
Enjoy this introduction to what might be one of the most inventive comic book characters ever created in its entirety, and be sure to wish a happy anniversary to the one and only Plastic Man!
Police Comics #6 is notable for a couple of reasons: It hints at what the future holds for Plastic Man’s publishing history, and it also marks the point when Jack Cole started moving away from giving Plas simple hoods to beat up and began edging toward more creative concepts and crazier villains (which is saying something). And, buddy, this story is crazy.
But first, this word from our sponsor:
Dang it! Isn’t that always the way? You’re in the middle of a conversation and, bang! — murder. At this point, Plastic Man is fully committed to being a hero, so he rushes to the scene of the crime, where a strange clue is revealed.
And that’s not the only clue, though the cops working the case don’t seem to think it’s a big deal. Luckily, Plastic Man is a little more diligent than the city’s finest, and strikes out to see where it leads.
One of the best things about Cole’s work, particularly in his Plastic Man stories, is the expressions he gives to people in the background. So often these “extras” have the best reactions, which are usually a mix of comedic and completely realistic. I mean, how else would you react if a stretchy superhero suddenly slipped past your nethers?
Soon enough, Plas has followed the strange trail to a cellar, where he takes a judicious peek through a keyhole the size of a bay window to see …
What does Plas see? What did the watchman mean when he scrawled, “Those hands” in his own blood? Well, he meant THESE hands.
That’s right — the robbery and murder were committed by a pair of disembodied hands which can’t seem to keep their … er, selves … off the loot. Chubby Rankin and his gang seem to be palming the goods for themselves, though, and what’s worse, they’re prepared for a visit from Plastic Man. After Plas knocks his hoods around a little, Chubby shoots Plas with a web of adhesive and sends him tumbling down a long chute into an even deeper basement.
And then things get weird.
Cursed hands that are compelled to steal! A desperate act of self-dismemberment! (I’m willing to overlook how he was able to cut off the second hand!) A very questionable beard! Is it any wonder I love these comics?
After hearing the man’s tragic story (but still saddled with the sticky netting), Plastic Man stretches his way back up the chute to surprise the gang.
One brief fracas later and Plastic Man has the whole gang tangled up in the adhesive. He demands that the gang tell where the hands have gone, but they swear they never know — the hands just leave and always come back with booty. Chubby finally agrees to spray a special solvent on the netting to free them all, but Plas sprays them with more adhesive before setting off after the slippery digits.
In another part of town, the cursed hands are hard at work.
Those have got to be the most bloodthirsty hands I’ve ever seen. Luckily, Plastic Man retraces the cursed hands’ steps, and catches up to Thing 1 and Thing 2. Unfortunately, they refuse to knuckle under.
The hands have the element of surprise and manage to pound on Plastic Man for a while, but Plas gets it together quickly enough to get a grip on the hands and wrestle them into yet another nearby cellar. Then he dispatches them in dramatic, basement-y fashion.
Of course, now Plas has to go back to the old man and explain that his mitts are gone forever because he just fastballed them into a furnace. That’s bound to be awkward.
Well, I guess I can’t argue with that.
There are a few things I really enjoy about this story (besides the obvious). Cole’s visual language is becoming more confident and better defined, and you can see the style that would define his Plastic Man work coming into shape. I especially like the way Cole isn’t afraid to let his influences and interests show; this story is a nice example of Cole drawing on elements from his time doing humor comics, as well as a peek at the horror comics he’d do a decade later.
But, hold on — what did Plastic Man want to talk to us about back when this whole thing started?
By this time Quality Comics was getting ready to not only expand Plastic Man’s page count, but was also moving toward making the character the headliner in Police Comics. About a year later, Quality would launch Plastic Man #1. This was only the his sixth appearance ever, but the publisher must have already known — Plastic Man was a hit.
The last time we saw Plastic Man, he had just run the rough-and-tumble, would-be crime boss Madam Brawn and her gang of delinquent girls out of Windy City — or so he thought. Much to the reader’s surprise, this lawless lady was not to be trusted, and soon she made her move to come back to the city and get her revenge on Plas.
Normally, I would edit the original pages a little to focus on the highlights, but this six-page story from Police Comics #5 is nothing but highlights. And if you pay attention, you can see the characterization writer and artist Jack Cole put into these action-packed panels, moving both Plastic Man and his world forward. With that in mind, here are the complete pages from Part Two of the story featuring my favorite (and the first recurring) Plastic Man foe, Madam Brawn!
We catch up to Madam Brawn making plans to take over the protection racket in Windy City, as well as preparing for her inevitable showdown with Plastic Man by doing a little flexing. Just lamp that muscle!
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — I love everything about Madam Brawn. But I also love her right-hand, Gert, who is such a bad-ass it hurts. Look at her there at the far-right of the last panel and tell me you didn’t just fall for her a little bit. If I were to ever get my wish and DC brought back Plastic Man, and then brought back Madam Brawn as a regular foil for him, Gert would have to be part of that package. Every villain needs a good hench, and Gert would be the best.
And once again, Police Comics is teaching me old-timey slang. This time I had to look up “flit,” at least as it’s used here. The definition that comes up the most is as offensive slang for a gay man, but that came into popular use in the 50s thanks to J.D. Salingers’ The Catcher in the Rye, a good 10 years after this issue of Police was published. After a little more digging, I’m pretty confident in saying that “flit” here is actually referring to Flit, a brand of insecticide that was very well-known at the time, particularly for it’s successful ad campaign and catchphrase, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” (Originally featuring art work by Dr. Seuss!) That campaign ran from 1928 to 1945, well within the time-frame we’re looking at here. Essentially, Madam Brawn is calling Plastic Man an especially troublesome insect.
Meanwhile, Plastic Man is palling around at the police station (what a difference a few issues make!) when he receives a mysterious card.
That card is nuts. I also like the idea that Plas has already become well-known and beloved enough that a kid on the street wants an autograph.
After being alerted to a band of female pirates robbing an ocean liner, Plastic Man legs it to the docks and keeps on going, chasing after the pirates in one of Cole’s increasingly creative uses of Plas’ powers.
Brawn and her girls are as clever as they are brutal, figuring out a way to get around Plastic Man’s shapeshifting powers while using that ability to wipe out a boatload of cops. “See ’em splatter”? Welcome to comics 13 years before the Comics Code Authority, kids!
As if stretchable sleuths and murderous, muscle-bound molls weren’t enough, this is where things start to get … weird. Because not only does Madam Brawn’s plan include making Plastic Man look like notorious gangster Eel O’Brian, she also decides to set him on a wild rampage with the help of a little something known as “marijuana.”
I know it’s wrong, but I think Eel’s shooting spree is hilarious. Not only does it play up the ridiculous notion of the ramped-up dope fiend — a big nod, no doubt, to Reefer Madness, which premiered just five years before this comic was published — but Cole’s dialogue is wonderful. Whee, I’m a killer! Yipee!
Another thing I like about this page is the reminder of the line Plastic Man is walking. Just a couple of pages ago he was joking around with cops just like these, and now they’re shooting at him — Plas is a victim of his success at pulling off a dual identity, and his own despicable past. Also, that third panel in the second row is gorgeous, with its artful blend of angle, color, and shadow; Eel is concealed, just as his motives are by shooting over the officers’ heads. Finally, I’m just really charmed by Eel’s legs stretching beyond the limits of his pants, revealing what’s steadily becoming his true identity.
Confusion drives this whole page: The cops don’t know that Eel O’Brian is Plastic Man, Madam Brawn doesn’t understand why Plastic Man would shoot at the cops, and Plastic Man wonders if Madam Brawn knows that he’s also Eel O’Brian! But after trying to run him over doesn’t work, Brawn is sure of one thing — it’s time to skedaddle, and uses the firefight to make her getaway. But one quick-change later, Plastic Man makes like a human periscope and spots the gang’s car … where Madam Brawn has one more surprise waiting for him.
I’m not sure what was supposed to be so special about those shades, but they don’t seem to be anything a well-tossed brick can’t handle. Plastic Man spots the crew back on the water, and is able to reach out from the dock to snatch Madam Brawn from the boat. Enraged, Brawn tells Plas she’s going to kill him with her bare hands and Plas informs her that, as far as he’s concerned, she’s no lady and pops her one.
With tragic results.
When I read this the first time, I literally gasped. It’s not as if there wasn’t plenty of mayhem and death in this series already — or even in this same story — but it still shocked me when Madam Brawn met her death at the hands of a Plastic punch and poor woodworking. And then, in an odd act of mercy, Plastic Man reveals to Brawn that he is also Eel O’Brian!
If that’s not the perfect set-up for the return of Madam Brawn (who, let’s say, actually survives and now knows Plastic Man’s secret identity), I don’t know what is.
Police Comics #5 (Plastic Man): Jack Cole, writer/artist
When Woozy Winks made his first appearance in Police Comics #13, he already shared something in common with Plastic Man: When fate (or in this case, a wizard with less than stellar swimming skills) gives him extraordinary powers, he’s faced with the choice of whether to use his new abilities for good or evil.
One flip of the coin later and Woozy is a one-man crime spree, stealing and destroying precious sculptures while protected from the long arm of Plastic Man by nature itself! Of course, Woozy partners up with Plas by the end of this story, but in an interesting twist it’s mostly because he’s got a score to settle with Eel O’Brian. (We’ll take a longer look at the whole story in a future review. Naturally, it’s crazy. There’s a trained panther.)
Before any of that happens, though, I’d like to point out that Woozy is TOTALLY GOING TO CUT THAT GUY’S ARM OFF.
panel from Police Comics #13
writer/artist: Jack Cole