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Jack Cole & Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limitsby Art Spiegelman
Disguised as a red, black, and yellow throw rug, our hero cocks one ear up to listen in on two hoods huddled at the table that rests on him. In the next panel he literally hangs out at an art museum, above a label that reads "Abstract," his body now distorted into a red, black, and yellow bebop-cubist composition in order to eavesdrop on two cheap gunsels out gallery-hopping. And in the panel after that, two molls gossip from tenement windows across an alley while our protean hero continues his stakeout camouflaged as a red, black, and yellow line of laundry flapping between them.
This manic spritz of images appeared in a 1950 issue of Plastic Man, one of the last written and drawn by Jack Cole, a tragically short-lived comic book giant. Plastic Man, like most of Cole's achievements, can be found mainly in those plastic bags collectors use to stash their rare slow-burning forest fires of newsprint. Although I'm slightly embarrassed to confess to being in love with a super-hero comic, Jack Cole's Plastic Man belongs high on any adult's How to Avoid Prozac list, up there with the best of S. J. Perelman, Laurel and Hardy, Damon Runyon, Tex Avery, and the Marx Brothers. Cole's comics have helped me feel reconciled to the misleading word "comic," which often keeps my medium of choice from getting any respect.
Many otherwise literate people, even those who have long since crossed the high-low divide and welcomed comic strips like Krazy Kat and Little Nemo into the canon of twentieth-century cultural achievement right up there next to Picasso's paintings and Joyce's novels remain predisposed against comic books. Of course most comic books really are junk, just like our parents said, but so is most painting and fiction. The lowly comic book has a lot of strikes against it, not least a residual public distaste left over from Senator Estes Kefauver's 1950s crime hearings on juvenile delinquency, which scape-goated the whole medium as a species of pornography for tots. The hearings forced a draconian "self-regulating" Comics Code Authority on the publishers; the edict stamped out the reckless excesses of the crime, war, and horror comics (categories that tended to appeal to an older audience of G.I.s and other adults), and left lobotomized super heroes and innocuous funny animals as virtually the only survivors on the newsstands. We've often committed some of our most censorious follies in the guise of protecting our children.
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