Plastic Man Archives

Of all the Golden Age Archives of early comics DC has made available — Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman — the best read is The Plastic Man Archives. Many of the others have more historical significance to the superhero genre, but Jack Cole’s stories of his stretchable accidental hero are so creative and odd that they’re great reads, even 60 years on.

The Plastic Man Archives cover
The Plastic Man Archives
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The first volume reprints the Plastic Man stories from Police Comics #1-20 (August 1941 – June 1943). His origin is unusual, even for adventure comics: Eel O’Brian was a petty crook, shot and abandoned by his gang. Acid spills into his wound, and he eventually passes out, to be found by a monk. He recovers only to discover that he’s become a human rubber band. The physical change spurs an ethical one, as well, as Eel decides to switch sides and fight crime.

And this is all in three pages. The stories are stuffed with events and excitement. Often described as “wacky” and “zany”, the humor is a big part of the appeal. But Plastic Man’s unique powers — the ability to bend and reshape himself in ever-more-outrageous ways — also result in a story that can only be done well in comics, within the anything-is-possible frame of the drawn page. All the figures are given energy and attitude by Cole, resulting in a vibrant read.

Plastic Man keeps up his Eel identity in order to go undercover when needed, allowing for the tease of life outside the law and a hero who’s not a boring straight arrow. Although he works with the police, the relationship is distinctly adversarial, with the cops calling him a freak and a rat and making bets over whether or not he can bring in the bad guys. There’s a rough morality to these tales, with anyone who tries to attack the rubber hero finding his weapon bouncing back and hurting himself instead.

The villains are increasingly creative. A favorite is Madam Brawn’s training camp for delinquent girls and wannabe molls. It’s an odd story, because all Plastic Man does is get tied up by the women, who then turn away an attacking tank before he lets them skip town. Where guys try to stab or shoot the rubber man, the girls win by sheer force of numbers or by using gas. It’s a shame that they only appear in two stories.

As the series continues, events become more fantastic, such as the man whose detached hands steal for him, or the giant metal eight ball with a gold magnet inside, or the living brain who turns his body into a giant walking on his hands. In the last story in this book, Cole even draws himself in as a supporting character. There’s more imagination on display in this volume than in many other comics, old or new. It’s well worth reading.

There’s a preview available at the publisher’s website.


12 Responses to “Plastic Man Archives”

  1. Jarrett Says:

    The last time I checked Diamond a few weeks ago, the first volume was sadly out of stock. Hopefully this gets reprinted sooner than later…

  2. Johanna Says:

    That’s idiotic. I’ll have to keep an eye on DC’s reprint list now. I had no idea they’d let this go out of print!

  3. David Oakes Says:

    I thought that the Archive format had been completely abandoned in favor the of the Showcase trades.

    (I don’t think I ever read that anywhere, it has just sort of seeped in as “common wisdom”. I would love to be wrong, even if I only own two Archives, JSA and FLASH.)

  4. Johanna Says:

    I’d heard that they were finishing up the Archive program, in terms of not doing more, but I didn’t think that that meant letting them go out of print.

  5. Tucker Stone Says:

    For the longest time, all i had was the first volume of the Plastic Archives–then I got the next six as a wedding present. I’m still plowing through them, but I totally agree with the sentiment that they are the best of what DC’s reprint program has produced, by a country mile.

  6. Beau Karch Says:

    I completely agree with Johanna about Plastic Man. It’s a shame there’s not more of an interest in humor/satirical strips. I’d love to see more Scribbly and Red Tornado reprints from DC, as well as some of the great humor work of Bob Oksner, for example. Alas.

  7. Paul Castiglia Says:

    The original tales by Jack Cole may be the most conistent set of stories ever written for a comic book character – sheer masterpieces of cinematic scope combining action, adventure, suspense, mystery, horror, romance and of course, humor… often if not always in the same story!

    Will Eisner always gets all the kudos as being the most unique talent of the Golden Age, but the truth is, he shares that title with fellow writer-artist Cole.

    I think part of Cole’s lesser standing compared to Eisner in some people’s eyes has to do with Cole’s “bigfoot” cartooning style. Sure, Eisner didn’t draw in a completely realistic style either, but his was a strip still grounded in reality where the conceit of Cole’s stretchable sleuth made the seemingly impossible possible. You can scour every Plastic Man panel and find perfect perspective, anatomy and composition, something that can’t be said for most of Cole’s contempories. AND on top of it all, Cole pushed the boundaries of all three disciplines, coming up with some of the most amazing (yet correctly drawn) visuals ever seen. Genius in the true definition of the word (and not used lightly)!

  8. The Golden Age: Can we stop with the handwringing mid-life crisis heroes, please? « What We’re Reading Now Says:

    [...] The biggest sign that you’ve wasted your time comes when the intellectually curious plot involving Mr. America’s subtle turn to fascism is revealed to be an actual fascistic plot by the Golden Age heroes’ greatest villain, the Ultra Humanite. He’s disguised himself as Mr. America and tricked U.S. citizens into playing into his grab at global domination. Then the heroes get together and beat him up until they win. Any meager attempt at a critique of power and responsibility and how it played into the Atomic Age was done away with in a flourish of Scooby Doo. I’m not sure what we were supposed to learn from reading this. Bad guys always lose and superheroes always win? Why didn’t I just read an actual Golden Age comic that gives me the same message but isn’t gloomy and depressing and over… [...]

  9. The Spirit Archives 23-25 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Plus, Eisner only did the first six weeks before he went into the military, after which it was taken over by Lou Fine, then Jack Cole (Plastic Man). [...]

  10. Plastic Man: The Complete Collection » DVDs Worth Watching Says:

    [...] adventures were chronicled by his creator, the amazing Jack Cole. Primarily a humorist, Cole’s Plastic Man adventures (beginning in the pages of Police Comics in 1941) were wildly funny and amazingly innovative, with [...]

  11. Gabriel Dionisio Says:

    This is a shot in the dark but I used to read this comic when I was a kid in the 70’s right before I got into Breakdancing. if my memory serves me correctly I saw a breakdance scene in on of the plastic man volumes in the late 70’s. Would anybody know what year and volume that happens to be?

  12. Paul Castiglia Says:

    Gabriel, doing some research I came upon this description of an untitled Plastic Man story from ADVENTURE COMICS #477 (November, 1980): “In California, Plastic Man and Woozy take on the totally awesome case of a skateboarding chimp (Surefoot) kidnapped by a roller-skater (Roxanne Roller).”

    Of course, the above has nothing to do with breakdancing but maybe such a scene showed up in the story since other fun physical pastimes like skateboarding and roller skating play roles in it? I have the issue somewhere in storage; if I manage to dig it up I’ll take a look and confirm whether a breakdancing scene appeared in it.

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