That Rough ‘n’ Ready, Red-clad Rubber Band Man…

Reprinted form The Amazing World of DC Comics #16 (Dec. 1977)
©1977 DC Comics

By Larry Herndon • Illustration by W. Argyle Nelson-Smith

Amazing World #16

Ask anyone who read comics during the golden age (the 1940s, folks) which title was the wildest, zaniest, wackiest comic book on the stands, and the winner, hands­down, will be PLASTIC MAN.

Created for Everett M. Arnold's Quality Comics line by the very talented writer/artist Jack Cole, PLASTIC MAN was a unique strip from the very beginning. For one thing, he could mold or stretch his body into any shape desired, an ability that made him an unbeatable crimefighter. He could (and often did) mold himself into a dog, a car, a table, or any number of other things, and use his disguise to foil the unsuspecting crooks, who were convinced they had successfully eluded their red-clad pursuer. And all those super­stretching characters who've come along since then … Elastic Lad, the Elongated Man, Mr. Fantastic, etc., … all owe their beginnings to Jack Cole's human rubberband.

For another (unique) thing, PLASTIC MAN started his comic book life as a crook known as The Eel (a.k.a. Eel O'Brian), but soon became a champion of justice in the finest tradition. Plastic Man's origin has been retold in fan-publications so many times that I'll skip any recapping of how The Eel was shot during a robbery of the Crawford Chemical Works and left behind by his heartless pals; of how the wounded Eel O'Brian was doused with a strange acid while fleeing ; of how he found his way to a secluded mountainside monastery where he discovered that the acid-bath had somehow endowed him with amazing elastic powers that later enable him to capture his ex-pals and turn them over to the law; of how, after having had his outlook on life changed by a kindly monk, the new. Plastic Man decided it was much more interesting (as well as fun!) working FOR the law, instead of against it. Thus was born the career and legend of PLASTIC MAN … but you already KNOW all that, so there's no point in my recapping it for you here, right?

This illustration surrounded the text of the first spread.

The point is: the character started out as a crook and became a hero.

Plastic Man also started out as a second-rate strip and became a Super Star.

When the editors at Quality Comics were assembling the contents for POLICE COMICS #1 (August, 1941), they came up with nine new characters, all of whom would debut in this new title. These nine included such heroes as The Human Bomb, The Mouthpiece, Phantom Lady, Eagle Evans, and others, including, of course, Plastic Man. It was the policy in those days (and still is, today) that you put your strongest character on the book's front cover: give your big star the spotlight, so he'll pull those readers in! With, for example, DETECTIVE COMICS, you can always count on Batman being the cover attraction, no matter what other characters the book might contain as back-up features. The same principle applies to ACTION COMICS and countless other titles that've been published over the years. Your main hero was always front and center in the cover spotlight, and more or less carried the book on his popularity.

So when POLICE COMICS #1 was being assembled, the editorial powers that be at Quality picked as their main cover attraction the one 'n' only … Firebrand!

Quick! How many of you have EVER heard of Firebrand??

Very few of you, I'll bet! And

THAT shows you just how little "charisma" he had and how long he lasted. (For the record, good ol' Firebrand was around for a mere 13 issues.) Poor ol' Plas (as he was affectionately known to fans) was stuck back in the middle of the book with all the other supporting strips, just biding his time.

And sure enough, it wasn’t long before reader response alerted the editors that all those copies of POLICE COMICS were selling because of the stretching shenanigans of their red-garbed rubberband man, and by the time issue #5 rolled around, ol' PLAS was the headline attraction on the covers, a position he was to hold for 97 straight issues! Plastic Man was also soon awarded his own book (in 1943), the first issue being a special one, titled "The Game of Death." In all, Plastic Man would make 102 appearances in POLICE COMICS, and his own magazine would run 64 sues, folding in 1956. Shortly after that, the Quality lineup was purchased by DC Comics … which is why we're discussing Plastic Man in these pages!

As I said, Plastic Man was a very unique hero, and in addition to the other points already covered that contributed to this uniqueness, there was an atmosphere about his stories that was, well, different. Other writers, toiling on this subject in fanzines, have insisted that the Plastic Man tales were strictly parody and comedy, with the stories being mere excuses for the strip's creator to exercise his sense of humor. Well, there was comedy present, to be sure, and a fair amount of parody too, but there was also drama, pathos, and grand adventure, with all these ingredients wrapped up in tightly-plotted stories that never failed to amuse and entertain. It is very difficult to blend humor and drama successfully in the same story, but Jack Cole did it. And HOW this was carried off is what set the strip apart from all the others on the stands.

Cole achieved it by depicting Plastic Man as the ONLY sane person in an insane world, and that is exactly why this was the wackiest comic to ever roll off the four-color presses! PLAS's mind was cool, logical, intelligent, … but everyone else in his world, including the villains he fought and even his partner, WOOZY WINKS, were all slightly bananas!

Did I say "slightly"?? Make that TOTALLY! The strip was like the Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, and The Three Stooges all rolled into one. Even the characters Plastic Man would pass on the street … the so-called "background people" found in every strip, were the oddest assortment of human beings (if that term applies!) you ever saw! These caricatures of the human form sprang from the fertile mind of the strip's writer/artist, Jack Cole, and were an important ingredient contributing to the feeling that Plastic Man's entire world was crazy.

Born in New Castle, Pennsylvania on December 14, 1914, Jack Ralph Cole was one of five children of Delace and Cora Cole. He took to art and humor at an early age, reading the popular comic strips in the newspapers and drawing many of his own. As a teenager he took a mail order cartooning course, and by 1935 he'd made his first sale: a cartoon to BOY'S LIFE MAGAZINE. Shortly thereafter, the young Cole (along with his new wife, Dorothy) were off to New York City, where he soon found himself working at the Harry A. Chesler Studio as an art assistant. One job led to another and then another, and by 1940 Jack Cole had moved over to Everett Arnold’s brand new Quality Comics group, where he did such serious strips as MIDNIGHT and QUICKSILVER, along with various humorous one-pagers like SLAP HAPPY PAPPY. And then came Plastic Man … and the world was never the same again!

Cole drew the strip with an obvious, loving affection, something that had not been as evident in his previous comic book work. His zany sense of humor personified itself in the strip, with riotous insanity running rampant through every panel. Plastic Man exploded on the scene with a force that would not be denied, and not only did he soon get the cover spot on POLICE COMICS, he was also moved to the front of the book, so he could lead off every issue!

The strip was frantic slapstick, low humor and large doses of action, all dished up in Jack Cole's electrifying style, and the readers ate it up. Cole even poked fun at himself in one adventure wherein Plas battled the ancient god of mischief, Eloc. Spelled backwards, "Eloc" becomes "Cole" … Somehow it seems very appropriate that Cole considered himself a master mischief-maker!

But the ultimate in humor and self-parody occurred in POLICE COMICS #20, when Cole drew himself into the strip! Jack portrayed himself as a skinny figure with wide eyes, a very sharp nose, and a voice that stuttered like Porky Pig! At one point in the story, Jack and Woozy Winks have been captured by the villains and when they question Cole, he talks so much that they are finally forced to tie him up and stuff a gag in his mouth to shut him up! One page later, Cole is rescued by his publisher ("M-m-might-a known it … t-that guy c-could f-find me ANYWHERE!") who drags him back to his drawing board! All things considered, it's probably the wildest PLASTIC MAN adventure Cole ever did!

I suppose PLAS' partner, Woozy Winks, deserves a few words at this point. However, since Woozy is my favorite comic sidekick of all time, I simply CAN'T confine myself to just a FEW words! Indeed, I could easily do an entire article on the renown, rotund Mr. Winks …

Like his elastic friend, Woozy started his comic book life as a crook. He made his first appearance in POLICE COMICS #13, when he rescued a drowning mystic who'd fallen into the drink. In gratitude, the man bestowed the power of nature's protection on his fat rescuer and thereafter nature (in the form of a tornado, windstorm, earthquake, or whatever) would protect him. Woozy mulled over what to do with his new power and finally decided to toss a coin to determine a course between good or evil. Fate decreed that evil won and Mr. Winks was soon off on a crime spree-only to be promptly dumped in jail by Plas. Yet with his unusual power, no jail could hold him for long, so Plastic Man struck a bargain with him: if he'd go straight, they'd join together as partners to wage war on criminals. Woozy agreed and thus the lovable butterball (who looked a great deal like Alfred Hitchcock!) became the trusted sidekick and friend of the red-clad rubberman. Even after Woozy's power later faded and was forgotten, they still made a great team.

Woozy had a knack for finding trouble and often got himself (and, ultimately, his partner) involved in every kind of wild adventure imaginable! Mr. Winks considered himself a lady-killer supreme, and every time he'd spot a good­looking, sexy young thing (and Cole was GOOD at drawing good­looking, sexy young things!). He'd go into a drooling fit and start making a play for a date. As it usually turned out, the girl already HAD a boyfriend (7 feet, 9 inches tall, built like a gorilla … you know the type!) who also, incidentally, just happened to be the crook Plas was after. Or sometimes, just for the sake of varying the theme, the girl herself would be revealed to be the main villain … in which case she'd flirt with poor ol' Woozy in order to lead both he and Plas to their doom.

Our heroes always triumphed, of course, and the redoubtable Woozy would promptly swear off women for the rest of his life … or until he spotted the NEXT good-looking, sexy young thing … which was usually next issue! But, despite the theme being used again and again, Cole kept it fresh and interesting,_ and even did stories in which·Woozy would rescue Plas, proving that the bumbling sidekick was good for more than merely getting them into trouble. Woozy even got his own strip, which ran in PLASTIC MAN COMICS for many issues, and the character remains, for me, the epitome of the term "comic sidekick."

Earlier in this article I mentioned the unique elements that made Plastic Man so different from the other union-suited heroes on the newsstands, and I would be negligent if I failed to discuss how Plas battled crime, because it was, perhaps, his most unique feature. Most comic book heroes just wade into the bad guys, fists swinging and every man for himself … but not so with Plas. Oh, occasionally he'd try a slug-fest with the baddies, but usually the synthetic sleuth would merely shape himself into some object (a roast turkey, a table, a chair, a jack-in-the-box, a carpet, a house, et al) and spring on the unsuspecting villains with a suddenness that left them befuddled and (co-incidentally) wrapped up in the hero's rubbery arms. The net result was that the crooks often trapped themselves. Plas was a pretty tough customer; bullets merely bounced off his elastic body, leaving him unharmed. And if he got tossed off a building, he'd just bounce right back! About the only problem PLAS had were those caused by extremes of heat or cold; a frigid blast would turn him brittle as an ice cube, or a blazing inferno would reduce his rubbery body to a gooey, soggy mess. Quit wits (and an occasional assist from Woozy) would soon rescue Plas from his predicament, however, and he'd be bouncing along again after the villains like the proverbial "bouncing rubber ball." (Rolling himself into a ball was one of his favorite tricks.)

Cole's style on the strip was fresh and constantly inventive, employing such innovative layout tricks as tilted panels with unusual perspectives and angles that would do a Hollywood cameraman proud. In the words of noted fan historian Howard Keltner, "Jack Cole and Plastic Man were made for each other!" Even after twelve years of doing the strip, Cole's work was still fresh, inventive, and even downright inspired.

But all good things must, alas, come to an end. And what was ending in the early 1950s was the first great super-hero boom, a phenomenon that had seen literally hundreds of costumed crimebusters crowding the stands. Now, they were dropping like flies, being replaced with true crime and horror comics, and those super-heroes who managed to survive did so, for the most part, by changing into quasi-horror titles. PLASTIC MAN was no exception. Soon he was battling ghostly night-riders, invisible invaders in flying saucers, gigantic ants, vampire bats, and who knows what else, doing his best to capture the attention of the new readers who wanted terror on every page. A perfect example of this blatant appeal to the horror fans is the cover of PLASTIC MAN #37 (Sept., 1952) which shows Plas and Woozy struggling against an invasion of king-size ants. The cover blurb is done in appropriately spooky-styled lettering and screams "The Eerie Horror of the Gigantic Ants! "

With the appeal for horror fans, we had a different Plastic Man. Gone was the sly, sophisticated humor and innocent insanity of earlier tales-and gone too, was Jack Cole. Other artists and writers had taken over the book, turning Plas and Woozy into mere shadows of their former selves. Cole continued doing the PLASTIC MAN strip in POLICE COMICS up until the end (#102), but he'd lost control of his character's own book due to changing readers' tastes. Soon thereafter he quit comics entirely and moved to Illinois, where he continued doing cartoons for PLAYBOY MAGAZINE, something he'd been doing since its early issues. (See? I told you Cole was good at drawing good-looking, sexy young things!!) And, in Illinois, Jack was able to work towards something that had been a life long goal: selling a syndicated comic strip.

The year 1958 saw his dream realized when a newspaper syndicate in Chicago accepted his newly-created BETSY AND ME strip and Cole was off and running again. Then, unexpectedly, the sensitive genius who was Jack Cole took his own life in August of that same year … with no apparent reason for the act. Thus the curtain came down on the creator of one of comicdom's most memorable characters.

But, unlike real life, fictional characters can be born again. In 1966, DC's HOUSE OF MYSTERY was running the DIAL H FOR HERO strip, featuring the adventures of young Robby Reed, who had a telephone-dial device that would, when he dialed the letters H-E-R-0, turn him into a superhero. (To change back to Robby Reed, he simply dialed 0-R-E-H, … in case you're wondering …) During the course of Robby's adventures, he was turned into dozens of heroes, all of them a bit gimmicky and ranging in quality from inspired to just so-so.

But in issue #160 (July, 1966), Robby dialed the magic letters and, ZAP, was turned into Plastic Man! He had the same costume, the same powers, the works. Drawn by Jim Mooney, Plas stretched and bounced his way through the story … and right into his own book, the first issue of which was dated Nov.–Dec. 1966!

It lasted only ten issues. And it tried. It really did, folks, but the humor just didn't quite come off and left us with a diluted effort that had two strikes against it before it even began. I think the timing was wrong for a funny super-hero; the mid-60s was a time of turmoil and unrest in the country, and comic readers simply weren't looking for humor. The PLASTIC MAN of this revived version was revealed to actually be the SON of the original red-clad hero, and the entire concept just didn't cut it.

But you can't keep a good man down, especially one that can bounce right back at you like a rubber ball! The fourth version of Plastic Man was reborn in the 1970's, conceptually sound, and blessed with good scripts from Steve Skeates and John Albano, and matching artwork by Ramona Fradon. This Plastic Man recaptured much of the fun and flavor of the original, and even brought back ol' Woozy. Now it too is gone, but with a character like Plastic Man, as versatile as he is pliable, he's bound to pop up (in one shape or another) again!

And when he does, I'd like to think that Plas's creator, Jack Cole, is somewhere up there in Comic Book Valhalla, laughing and enjoying Plastic Man's adventures right along with all the rest of us. He was a unique talent who created a unique hero, and they BOTH entertained millions of readers.


Plastic Man

Amazing World of DC Comics #16: ""