Recycled: Plastic Man vs. Professor McSneer and the 8-Ball of Death!

Following up on the fairly lighthearted tale of Plastic Man breaking up the criminal organization known as the United Crooks of America, creator Jack Cole gave readers what is — in my opinion — one of the darker stories in his long run. And while a giant 8-ball wreaking havoc across the country sounds silly on its face, it still manages to be surprisingly disturbing.

The story begins, as such stories do, at the top of a volcano.

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I like that Cole implies there is something inherently sinister about about a billiard ball, instead of the fact that billiard ball is 100 feet high. Also, you can tell Professor McSneer is evil because he’s not only drooling, he’s also blowing steam out of his nostrils. That is a bad man.

I’m posting the next page in its entirety, because it’s a good summary of the plot: Not only is Professor McSneer (a name I’ll never get tired of saying) happy to essentially knock whole cities into the side pocket of ruination, he’s also stealing all the gold and silver that happens to be in the 8-ball’s path.

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The next-to-last panels, as well as another upcoming panel, are why this particular story gives me the heebie-jeebies. As we’ve already seen, death isn’t exactly uncommon in the Golden Age world of Plastic Man, but the scale here is almost shocking. Considering this was published about three years before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I can only wonder what Cole thought of the destructive potential of the Atomic Age.

While Professor McSneer chortles over his deadly form of robbery, Plastic Man is one the case! Hitching a ride with a westbound airplane, Plas catches up to the speeding wrecking ball.

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Unable to find a way in, and after taking a couple of potshots from McSneer’s gunsels, Plastic Man borrows a nearby drill and manages to make a tiny hole he can slip in through. Once inside, Plas remembers that criminals are a superstitious, cowardly and becomes … a snake!

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Honestly? That would freak me out, too. (I love the way that one guy in the third panel has just given up and covers his face in his hands — Cole was a master of the little detail.) Plastic Man reveals that he is not actually a snake while holding the bad guys in his pliable grip, and starts figuring out the 8-balls’s mechanism (complete with a handy diagram from Cole — exactly the sort of thing that made me love the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe). Unfortunately, Professor McSneer still has a trick up his dirty sleeve, and Plas finds himself doused in quick-drying cement.

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The 8-ball rolls on to Kansas City! An entire Army regiment is helpless before the murderous billiard ball, squashed under its relentless momentum! But Plastic Man escapes from his cement prison, and he quickly puts the kibosh on the gang with one spectacular punch. Plas races to the control panel, hoping against hope that he’ll be able to stop the 8-ball before it reaches Kansas City. Will he do it?!

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Yay!

Plas is a hero, bringing us to the end of a particularly dark chapter in the Plastic Man casebook.

  • Panels from Police Comics #8 (Plastic Man)
  • Writer/artist: Jack Cole
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Recycled: Plastic Man vs. the United Crooks of America!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?!

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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.

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Tsk — poor ol’ Slim.

  • panels from Police Comics #7 (Plastic Man): Jack Cole, writer/artist

Recycled: Plastic Man vs. Those Hands!

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:

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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What does Plas see? What did the watchman mean when he scrawled, “Those hands” in his own blood? Well, he meant THESE hands.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Recycled: Plastic Man vs. Madam Brawn — ROUND TWO!

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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WHAT?!?

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

Recycled: Plastic Man vs. Madam Brawn!

… and then she said said that she saw him in the food court talking to … wait a minute. Where was I?!

Oh, yeah! We were just about to take a look at the first half of one of my favorite Plastic Man stories!

In Police Comics #4, Plastic Man is pretty much fully formed as a character, having embraced his role as a hero completely. But just because Eel O’Brian isn’t pulling off crimes of the century anymore doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of enterprising bad guys running around — including one of my favorite Plastic Man rogues and his first recurring villain, Madam Brawn!

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Right from the beginning, I love everything about Madam Brawn. She’s running a crime school for women, wears overalls and diamond earrings that look as if they came off a chandelier, and is tough enough to pull it all off. Soon enough, she’s smoking stogies and putting her big plans into motion. She’s the best.

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I’d assume there’s a high bar just to get into Madam Brawn’s School for Delinquent Girls, so I can only imagine how tough the graduates must be. They’re on a hair-trigger and take no guff from anyone! After smacking Lefty Goon’s … goon … around a little, they send the gang leader a message in lipstick, delivered courtesy of the bald-headed lug they just tossed around. (Who claims he was ambushed by “six giants in a dark alley.”)

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Lefty, of course, doesn’t much care for threats or anyone trying to muscle in on his territory. He goes down to Madam Brawn’s farm to warn the “ambitious wench” that she’s playing a dangerous game, and Brawn gives a stern reply.

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After Lefty gets a right for his trouble (and a broken arm), the gang is chased off by Brawn’s attack dogs and they don’t stop running until they get back to their hideout. Smarting from the beating and the complete disregard she’s shown them, Lefty hatches a plan to rout her from her farm and out of his hair.

Naturally, it involves stolen Army tanks.

Luckily, Eel O’Brian is hanging around the hideout, and soon Plastic Man is on his way to Madam Brawn’s farm to try and stop what he’s sure will be a massacre!

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Madam Brawn might appreciate the warning, but she doesn’t need Plastic Man’s help — her own gang soon has Plas in literal knots, and it’s time for the Brawn blitz!

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Hoo boy — one thing you’d don’t want to do is tick off Madam Brawn. The story has given us an idea of how rough-and-tumble she is, but what does she do when she’s pushed too far?

She pulls the pin out of a grenade with her teeth and LETS YOU HAVE IT.

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Is it any wonder I love Madam Brawn so much? And she’s really a perfect foil for Plastic Man — a powerful woman who has immersed herself in a life of crime as much as Plas has tried to pull himself out of it. She’s tough, smart, and as solid as Plas is pliable. I’ve said it before, but I’d like to see what Gail Simone or Jeff Parker could do with Plastic Man, and I would love to see them bring Madam Brawn back as a permanent part of his rogue’s gallery.

Back in our story, Plastic Man has managed to free himself, but it’s too late; Brawn and her ladies of mayhem have wiped out Lefty Goon and his entire mob. And not just beaten up or run off — they’re all dead, killed at the hardened hands of Brawn’s delinquent girls. In spite of this, Plas refuses to fight her. He’s a gentleman, after all.

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Once Madam Brawn tires herself out, Plas offers her a way out — after all, the slaughter was all in self-defense, right? Er … anyway, they come to an agreement: If Brawn and her gang leave town forever, Plas won’t arrest them all for illegal possession of firearms. Realizing she’s not in position to negotiate, Madam Brawn agrees to Plastic Man’s terms … or does she?!

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And boy, does she have plans. But we’ll have to wait until next time to find out how this story ends!

Police Comics #4 (Plastic Man): Jack Cole, writer/artist

Recycled: Plastic Man vs. the pinball racket!

While comic books may not be the best resource for historical accuracy, they can still be fertile ground for buried time capsules that, dug up and dusted off, uncover a look at what life was like for the comics’ creators. Take for example this Plastic Man story from Police Comics #3, published in 1941 and at a time when pinball machines were illegal in cities across the country. (Considered a form of gambling, pinball would be banned in places like New York City, Chicago and L.A. until the mid-1970s!)

Personally, I think Plas probably enjoyed a little time playing the silver ball, but this time he uses his criminal alter ego to drop in on Baldy Bushwack, an underworld chum who’s also running the biggest pinball racket in town.

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Yeah, I don’t know what that accent’s all about. Honestly, I’m not even sure what Baldy’s background is supposed to be and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with his life of crime, so let’s chalk it up to a quirk. In any case, Baldy has a great big personality and appears to get a kick out of being a crook — he’s pretty great.

Eel can’t believe how blatantly Baldy is running his operation, and asks how he keeps the heat off. Turns out it’s a surprisingly bold move.

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Of course, Eel O’Brian hot footing it out of the pinball arcade means Plastic Man is on the case. Which is a good thing, because Captain Murphy is going nuts trying to figure out how the pinball racket keeps slipping through his fingers. In fact, he’s so desperate that he’s willing to give Plastic Man a crack at solving the mystery, even though he hates the thought of that almost as much as the thought of losing the racket again. So when Plas offers him a bet, Murphy jumps at the chance.

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Plastic Man can easily spot a tail and quickly gives the cops the slip by stretching up the side of a building and letting them think his legs are water pipes. From there it’s on to the arcade, where unfortunately for Plas Baldy’s heard everything and has a surprise waiting for him.

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That’s got to be the greatest sledgehammer gag in history.

But you don’t become the kingpin of the biggest pinball racket around by thinking small, so Baldy figures that where a sledgehammer failed, a steamroller should do the trick. It’s a train of thought that gives us a fantastic sequence that squeezes suspense, humor and action into just one page.

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Soon enough, the bad guys decide they’ve had enough and make a run for it. But Plastic Man isn’t letting them off that easy, and we get to see Plas use his arm as a lasso for the first time. Meanwhile, Captain Murphy is sweatin’ as the prospect of losing Plastic Man gets more and more certain with every tick of the clock — five minutes … one minute … !

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That Captain Murphy — what a softy. THE END.

Police Comics #3 (Plastic Man): Jack Cole, writer/artist

Recycled: Plastic Man vs. Dopey Joe’s opium ring!

Normally, these reviews of Plastic Man’s past appearances would consist of particular panels with a summary of details from the story to fill in the blanks, but in this case I’m giving you full pages from Police Comics #2 because, brother, there is a lot going on.

How Plastic Man joins the police! Opium! Canada! Casual racism! Bullets fly! Corruption at the highest levels! And all that in just six pages — I’m sure I’ll be saying this a lot, but there’s a ton of story in these relatively short features.

Our story picks up with Plastic Man visiting police headquarters, where he has a proposal for the chief: If Plas can break up the opium racket in town, he’ll be made a full member of the force. The chief calls his bluff, then raises the bet to one opium gang and that notorious gangster, Eel O’Brian. Whoops.

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Back on the street as Eel, Plastic Man quickly hooks up with drug smuggler Dopey Joe. His old pal is happy to bring Eel in on the scam, and reveals the fairly gruesome way the smuggling ring is bringing opium in from Canada. It ain’t pretty, though Eel does get to drive a fancy car.

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I love the way Jack Cole emphasized Plastic Man’s “man of a thousand faces” bit — it’s something that was lost with later iterations. Even more than the shapeshifting, I think it really shows Plas’ cleverness and ability to think on his feet. He’s no dummy.

After following the car and seeing a complicated, high-speed exchange go down, Plas follows one of the drivers and sees an equally complicated drop take place. Changing his face once again, Plastic Man pretends to be a dope addict and tries to shake his way into an opium den. Which, of course, is filled with awful caricatures of Asians.

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I have to admit, seeing these kinds of images is always difficult for me — I feel embarrassed, uncomfortable and often a little pissed. But I also understand that when these sorts of things pop up in Golden Age comics, it’s almost always a matter of ignorance and insensitivity on the creator’s part rather than overt racism. I don’t like it, but I understand it in the context of who created it, and what society was like at the time. I certainly don’t believe Cole was a racist, and I like to believe that he never would have depicted people in this way if he’d been around in more modern times.

But the way Plastic Man rounds up the opium thugs … Christ, Jack.

There are a couple things I like about this page, though. I really dig the way Plastic Man seems to already be well-known to the criminal underground, and I like how comfortable Plas seems to be with his powers. Did the story jump forward in time a bit? It seems likely, but Cole did it in a way that felt natural and unobtrusive. And for the record, I had to look up the definition of “flivver,” but it makes total sense.

Next, Plastic Man zooms back to Ottawa, hot-bed of trans-border crime. He confronts the crooked funeral director, and we learn two things; Plastic Man’s base of operations is Boston, and he’s bulletproof! The funeral director learns that, too, but it doesn’t do him much good since he catches his own slugs on the rebound. By the way, you’ll be surprised to see how many times the bad guys will mistake Plas’ arms for snakes in later stories — not to mention how many times Plas will call criminals “dogs,” which I find weirdly endearing.

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Ug! In short order Plastic Man snatches the fancy lady from the earlier drop, throttles a chauffeur, and sets Dopey up for a police raid while keeping his Eel O’Brian persona intact. He also manages to find out that there’s a boss above Dopey Joe, and gets his phone number to boot. That’s all in one page, guys.

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In our final page, Plas tracks down the big boss and finds out he’s someone with plenty of power and influence. This doesn’t slow Plastic Man down a bit, though, and soon he’s slipping through keyholes, teaching a new meaning to the term “head-butt,” and setting bad guys spinning — literally.

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And with the opium ring cracked, Plastic Man is welcomed onto the police force — even if he didn’t manage to bring in that slippery Eel O’Brian. THE END.

I really enjoy this story, for a number of reasons, but they all mainly come under the umbrella of characteristics and devices that would become classic Plastic Man tropes. The way Plastic Man is shown using his power is amazingly creative, with Plas going into action in a new way on almost every page. This really shows Cole’s unique imagination at work.

In particular, I like the snappy patter that runs throughout this story, from the sneering bad guys to Plastic Man’s own blend of rat-a-tat wiseguy lingo and righteous lawman pronouncements. And as I’ve said before, Plas is getting an obvious kick from busting criminals — he likes being a hero, and that is incredibly engaging. His affability, especially when he’s dealing with his former cohorts, is off the charts and makes him instantly likeable.

It’s not hard to see why Plas was such a success with readers right from the start; at the time, and for a long time after, there was nothing else on the stands quite like Plastic Man.

Police Comics #2 (Plastic Man): Jack Cole, writer/artist

Recycled: A review of The Origin of Plastic Man!

In the late Spring of 1941, Plastic Man stretched out of the mind of genius Jack Cole and onto the pages of Police Comics #1, where in just short six pages he would go from notorious criminal to happy-go-lucky hero thanks to a stray bullet, some unknown acid and the kindness of a local monk.

And that’s just the beginning.

The origin of Plastic Man begins with his alter ego, safecracker Eel O’Brian who is working with the Skizzle Shanks gang to rob the Crawford Chemical Works. But whether through overconfidence or Shanks’ poor planning, a guard gets the drop on the hoods.

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I love the carnival barker hyperbole of that intro and the way it tells just enough to hook the reader — not to mention that wonderfully composed splash at the top (complete with inspiration for the name of this blog!). I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again (and again and again); I’m always impressed by the way that simple costume design is so iconic that it has been virtually unchanged in 74 years. Jack Cole: Genius.

You can also see how, right from the start, Plastic Man was a funny comic that wasn’t a humor comic. In other words, it wasn’t telling jokes or trying to put vaudeville on the page — it was just funny with small asides and character reactions. I don’t know which I like more in that last panel, Eel calling them putrid punks or that cheerful, “Adios, Eel!” But, boy, does Eel look mad.

After taking a couple of bullets, getting drenched in acid and then being abandoned by his cohorts, Eel staggers away from the scene and into the nearby foothills. He manages to lose the cops, but soon collapses, overcome by the strain and the acid seeping into his wound. When he wakes up the next morning he finds himself in Rest-Haven, a monastic mountain retreat where a brother tells Eel that he has been taking care of him since he was found on the trail earlier. More amazingly, the brother tells Eel he turned away the police who came looking for him that morning.

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Is there any other superhero whose origin is based almost completely on kindness? I assume there must be, but I can’t think of one. Eel O’Brian’s whole life is turned around because someone told him, “Hey, I see something in you, something good … something you’ve lost sight of in yourself. You deserve a chance.” That’s amazing. And keep in mind that Eel hasn’t discovered his powers yet; as far as he knows, he’s still just a regular joe.

One more thing: Take a look at that last panel. Cole was already toying with perspective, shadow and “camera” angles, bringing a cinematic flair to his work. We’ll see this come out full-force in later stories, but it’s neat to see it sneaking in here.

Oh, and that thing I said about Eel not realizing he’s changed from hard-nosed crook to man of rubber? Well, a quick stretch of his arms reveals he’s got more of a reach than he did the day before, and after pulling his face like putty, he comes to a quick decision.

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I’m totally entering every room with “Hi, punks!” from now on. These panels go a long way in showing how clever Eel really is — not only did he have the foresight to go back to his gang acting as he just wanted his cut of the Crawford job, but he’s quick enough to insist on being the get-away driver and putting a plan into action. Also, there’s a rabbit.

As the rest of the gang goes into the building to grab the bank messenger, Eel sees his chance to change his clothes AND his face. The gang quickly grabs the money and start to make their way out of the elevator’s escape hatch. Unfortunately for them, they’re about to get a helping hand.

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A couple of things to note, here. First, as the reader can see, this is before Plastic Man realized he was bulletproof, otherwise those wiseguys would’ve gotten it right there on that ladder. And secondly, this is Plastic Man’s first official shape-change! Granted, he just made himself look like a rug, but changing shape to disguise himself as some innocuous object would become a hallmark of the character. It also leads us to these fantastic panels.

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Oh, man — that one guy screaming “Eek!” just kills me.

Plastic Man quickly dispatches two of the thugs, but the other two manage to slip past him and make their way to the roof. As they shimmy down a rope along the side of the building, they realize they aren’t getting anywhere — Plas is pulling the rope up! (Plastic Man seems to have greater-than-normal strength … something that never really comes up otherwise, but how else would he be able to lift and move things at all those angles?) Soon enough it’s a brawl, but the first two crooks manage to make there way to the roof and …

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Whoops! Luckily, as I said Plastic Man is a quick thinker, and even though he’s new to these powers and this is his first time fighting crime, being thrown off a 20-story roof doesn’t even slow him down.

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And so ends the action-packed, six-page origin story of Plastic Man! It’s one of my favorite origins of all time, full of excitement, redemption and fun. Cole’s art is already a marvel to look at with a dynamism that’s sharp even as the art appears — deceptively — simple. (Seriously, go back and look at those panels again, check out those angles and points of view. Then bask in the glory that is Eel’s shit-eating grin in panel five.) And something that doesn’t get mentioned often enough is Cole’s dialogue, which feels realistic and gloriously kooky at the same time.

(And that “hitting th’ pipe” crack? Don’t think that’s the last time you’ll see opium referenced in this book.)

Finally, the last panel’s caption box tells the reader everything they need to know and gives us Cole’s final twist: Plastic Man has launched his crime-fighting career, but this time his old identity will be the mask. Instead of being Eel O’Brian changing into Plastic Man, he’ll dedicate himself to being Plastic Man, with his old life as Eel being the real disguise.

Now that’s an origin story.