The 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 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.