Of our dozen or so readers here you’re probably wondering why the heck I’ve listed The Plastic Man Archives: Volume 1 as my current book of choice? Well it’s a simple answer, golden age Plastic Man comics are simply amazing. These are adventures from the time before the comic book code so you’re given unbridled creativity with a stronger basis in reality. Yes, it’s still about a man who has all the properties of India Rubber but there’s also a seedy underworld he deals with where people get maimed and die on a regular basis.
The short history is that Plastic Man debuted in Police Comics in 1941. He was created by Jack Cole who among other works, ghosted for Will Eisner for a little while on The Spirit, worked for Playboy creating Females, by Cole as well as finally getting his own newspaper comic strip Betsy and Me. He committed suicide rather suddenly in 1958 and nobody knows why. Ultimately, he’s best known for his Plastic Man work for which he wrote, drew and inked the stories.
I had no idea what to expect, to be honest. My only prior exposure to any work that was relatively contemporary was to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, which I found to be ahead of its time in many ways and came up with eleven reasons for new comers to comics to read it. However, this is about Plastic Man where the art and stories are rough around the edges, especially compared to today’s exacting standards and hyper-realistic bent we see in a lot of photorealistic works. But these pages have life because they aren’t trying to imitate life rather than be an exploration and interpretation of it. They are alive with ideas and energy that you just don’t see that much these days.
Take for instance this story where this Rosie O’Donell looking woman is using her farm to create an all-female gang to take over Mammoth City. Yes, it’s called Mammoth City, which on it’s own is more genius than anything Hollywood produced this summer. Anyway, here’s two panels where we get to see hilariously dated slang and leggy women boxing.
I wonder if Russ Meyer read Plastic Man? Heffner did.
Inevitably Rosie O’Donell’s gang of beautiful yet unbeatable women take over the criminal underworld. And the gangsters respond in the only way conceivable. That’s right, they steal a bunch of tanks from the local army base and raid the farm. Only it doesn’t work out so well and they all die. But what I want to know is how lax was security at the tank base that a bunch of guys in brightly colored zoot-suits could take a bunch of tanks, drive them across the city and countryside during world war two? I guess the army was more occupied with foreign invaders or overseas.
When the women capture Plastic Man they do the only logical thing a self-respecting female crime syndicate can do – smoke him up on reefer until he goes on a murderous rampage.
But don’t worry, a couple of Snickers bars later he chills, listens to some zepplin and is ready to strike back. Okay, not really. He listened to some far out jazz. Okay, still not really. What actually happens is he gets shot in the head a few times but since he’s rubber it just sort of bounces off him and knocks some sense into him until he realizes what happens. It all ends our nicely with Plastic Man pushing Rosie O’Donnell over onto a spike. This all happens in ten pages.
There’s countless other stories about Plastic Man taking on corrupt gangsters, heck he even busts an opium smuggling ring that originates in Ottawa. What follows is most likely where the idea for Bruce McDonald’s Highway 61 germinated.That’s right they’re smuggling opium across the border in corpses. And when the hell did we line the border with obelisks? Damn, I know NOTHING about Canadian history. Plastic Man manages to not only round up all the players but he gets a confession out of the ringleader by winding his arm around the guy and spinning him like a top until he confesses.
Riddled throughout this collection are various forms of dated orientalism with swamis and natives being these unknown and misunderstood cultural artifacts. One man gets a curse put on his hands that need to continuously steal. The guy cuts them off but they continue to steal on their own until Plastic Man throws them into an incinerator. There is also this wondrous bit of surreality with a giant 8-ball vehicle not only destroying cities but acting as a magnet that attracts all forms of valuables.Seriously, back then supervillains had a sense of flare. It wasn’t so much to just reek havoc, you had to confuse the bloody hell out of your unsuspecting victims. You just want Rat Fink to be driving this thing. And in case you’re wondering, the best way to stop a rampaging sphere painted like an eight-ball is to mold yourself into a snake and bite someone in the neck.
But as the stories continued and the war heated up in Europe comics weren’t wont to be left on the sidelines. Oh no, pretty much every comic had the heroes guarding the home front and encouraging the loyal citizenry to be ever vigilant and to buy war bonds. Heck, when faced with ratzi criminals using robots, Plastic Man manages to use the patriotism of his fellow gangsters to keep the home fires burning.
Holy crap, that dude got shot through the head by a nazi robot! But seriously, who doesn’t get excited by the promise of a fight between gangsters and nazi robots? Yep, these stories have it all and are wrapped up before most of today’s comic book stories even get warmed up. And while I know there are a lot of problems with these older stories – racial stereotypes are pretty horrific and I’m totally unsure how to interpret the roles of the women, when they even appear – I also feel we’re lacking something in today’s comic market. The utter density and pace without losing track of the plot or action in the stories is remarkable. Maybe it’s just all the anti-smoking information we have that robs us of costumed crime fighters using pipes to make a last minute escape. There you go folks. Plastic Man. Totally fucking awesome. Put that in your pipe and smoke it – or follow Plastic Man’s lead and put that in the pipe of some random evil scientist who is trying to flood you in his hidden underground lab and smoke it.