Jack Cole & Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits
by Art Spiegelman
A review by Christopher Bolton
Everyone who passed my desk stopped to stare at the cover, their eyes drawn to the red-and-yellow-clad superhero lunging forward, his upper torso and left leg stretched long and flat like a human ribbon. The attraction — Jack Cole and Plastic Man, a book-length essay about the elastic superhero and his creator, written by Art Spiegelman (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus) and designed by graphic artist Chip Kidd. Spiegelman’s insightful commentary covers the highs and extreme lows of the life of Cole and his protagonist, and proves a tribute is long overdue. This gorgeous volume compensates for that neglect in spades.
From 1941 to 1956, Cole chronicled the exploits of Plastic Man in clever words and hyperkinetic pictures. His innovative art style took supreme advantage of his character’s malleability, always contorting Plastic Man into some new configuration, never the same shape twice. The result is a dizzying display of slapstick genius that can be easily missed by a cursory examination. Writes Spiegelman: "If the standard going rate for pictures is still only a thousand words per, most Plastic Man panels are worth at least two or three pictures."
To flip the book’s pages is to be dazzled by a frenetic array of panels and colors. Cole’s mind was as restless as Plastic Man’s amorphous body. The glossy pages of reproduced panels and intricate collages are interspersed with stories from Cole’s comics that have been printed on a stock that faithfully replicates the pulpy paper used in the comics of this period.
Yet, Cole’s personal life was not all slapstick and primary colors. One of Playboy magazine’s most prominent cartoonists, Cole sent his suicide letter to Hugh Hefner. The book reproduces the letter and offers a startling number of panels in which Cole’s characters threaten or attempt suicide. The sight of Plastic Man wailing, "Life isn’t worth living! We’ll end it all right now!" leaves no doubt that Cole made an intensely personal connection with his creation.
It’s difficult to decide which aspect of Jack Cole and Plastic Man is more compelling: Spiegelman’s fine essay, Kidd’s lavish design, or the subjects themselves. Much like the Plastic Man stories, the book demands — and richly rewards — revisiting.