Friday, October 09, 2015

Number 1798: Plastic Man dreams

Scroggs, with the furry Popeye arms, is the villain of “The Dictator of Dreams” who has the power to insert himself into the dreams of others. He's not the only character in the history of comics to have that ability, but he is a Plastic Man villain, and that gives his powers over dreams a comic élan.

The Grand Comics Database gives Jack Cole credit for both writing and drawing this story for Police Comics #78 (1948), although he did not sign it. If Cole did it (and it looks like he had a lot to do with it, even if he had help), then why not sign it, as he had done in earlier days? I don’t know, but around the time he left comics they were under heavy criticism, so maybe he wanted to take his name out, and not be identified with comic books when he went into another career. After he left comic books Cole was able to change his style of drawing to make him more mainstream, for magazines (Playboy) and newspapers (his comic strip, “Betsy and Me”). To us comic book fans, the work we know him for is what he did with such brilliance, style and flair in the forties and early fifties, before departing comic books, and unfortunately, life.


Daniel [] said...

Well, that gender-bender had more bend — and more stretch — that usual.

It was pretty clear with the eleventh page that Our Heroes would either redirect the machine or shuffle sleeping quarters, and clear with 12:4 that Plastic Man was appearing in drag. But I don't think that I'd seen him pose as a woman in any other story; and having him pose as a strikingly beautiful woman makes this twist especially effective. (I might have been uncomfortable with it had I read it as a child!)

Once again, we have Cole giving wide-set eyes to a woman whom he wants to be seen as especially beautiful. (He carried this device over into his later work for other magazines, including Playboy.) And he skirted acceptability with that transluscent nightgown.

A feature common to many comic-book stories, across various writers, is that characters voice their every thought aloud when they do not believe themselves to be observed. Heroes and villains often betray themselves in this way.

Characters also often voice their thoughts aloud in radio, on stage, in talkies, and on television, thought they less often do this to their disadvantage. I wonder to what extent having fictional characters do this has influenced real-life behavior. (It's a question with testable answers, if someone ever cares to pay for the research.)

Ryan Anthony said...

For The Comics Journal, Paul Tumey wrote a couple of interesting, lengthy articles in 2013 on Cole's early years, the first on 1931-1937 and the second on 1938. In it, Tumey states, "It has also been difficult to write authoritatively about Jack Cole’s early comic book work because it is often misidentified. In various databases and references, including The Grand Comics Database, and Overstreet’s Comic Book Price Guide, work done by other artists is credited to Cole, while other pages by Cole are not identified as such." I think it's pretty clear that today's piece is definitely Cole; the story is quite satisfying and the art and compositions are innovative. Cole's choice to let the villain go unpunished seemed odd to me, since this was the guy who wrote the first superhero to be killed off, the ultra-violent Comet. But, as the articles I linked to above show, his early work was almost exclusively big-foot comedy.

It is astounding that Cole wrote in his bio that he "worked for 11 years in comic books" and never mentioned Plastic Man. His lifelong ambition was to produce a newspaper comic, and all he managed was a few months of an unimpressive domestic strip (I reviewed Betsy and Me for Amazon) before ending his life. Why the suicide, everyone still wants to know? The mild-mannered Cole wasn't a drinker and he didn't appear to have mental issues. Hugh Hefner, who received one of the two letters Cole penned before pulling the trigger, suggested to writer Donald Swan that it had something to do with the strain in his marriage because of the couple's childless status. R.C. Harvey wrote something similar in his hefty introduction to the Betsy and Me collection. Would it have made any difference to this brilliant cartoonist if he had known how admired he was or would be for his stellar comics work? After all, he was posthumously inducted into both the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame (1991) and Will Eisner Hall of Fame (1999). Unfortunately, we'll never know.

Pappy said...

Ryan, as I think I have mentioned before, some comic book features, even those attributed to a specific artist, probably weren't done solo. Cole probably did a lot of the work on this story, but it could be that other hands did backgrounds, or inking, etc. It was well known, even among the public at the time, that their favorite newspaper comic strip cartoonists used assistants, so why not favorite comic book artists? We may never know, since those artists are now deceased.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact causes of an individual suicide without more evidence. (As I understand, his suicide note has never been made public.) My guess is that ability to be funny aside, Cole may have had clinical depression all his life. People often try to figure out why someone chooses suicide, but it may have made perfect sense to Cole to kill himself, no matter how other people perceived him or how much it surprised others.

Pappy said...

Daniel, I have seen other stories where Plastic Man transforms himself into a woman.

Which reminds me, I read recently that among others, Bruce Jenner was considered for the role of Superman (which went to the then-unknown Christopher Reeve). Had the part gone to Jenner it would have made the conversation about his transformation to Caitlyn Jenner that much more interesting.

The thinking-out-loud you mention is why superheroes usually have to have a companion to talk to. Me, I talk back to the television.

Kirk said...

I know the character of Jimmy Olsen was created originally for the radio and not the comic book because in the latter you could have Superman talking out loud and it would seem natural in that context. On radio, however, it would have seemed vary strange. The popularity of the radio show led to more people picking up the comic book, and of course they wondered where Jimmy was. So he ended up there as well.

Pappy said...

Kirk, thank you for reminding me. In retrospect I think Jimmy was a more interesting character to me than Superman when I was reading those comics in the late '50s-early '60s. I suppose it had something to do with all of the incredible situations Jimmy got himself into. Those Super-Turtle Olsen stories, I call them. When extraordinary things happened to Superman you could say, "Yeah, but he's a superhero, so he's extraordinary even while being 'ordinary.'" On the other hand Jimmy was just some cub reporter with a bad love life...yet he had a little buzzer on his watch and as soon as he was in trouble he could hit that buzzer and Superman would show up. I used to think, "What if Superman is sitting on the toilet when that buzzer goes off?" When Superman was talking to Jimmy, he was often talking to him while flying him around. Pretty cool, I thought.

J_D_La_Rue_67 said...

To me it's mostly Cole, especially in the splash panel and when the slaves destroy the factory I see his art. But of course I'm no expert.
It WAS quite strange seeing PM as a beautiful woman. I always thought he was a funny Reed Richards and now he turns into a Skrull!
Also, the fact that he and Woozy sleep in the same room (Ugh!) made me think of Laurel & Hardy. I've always seen Laurel & Hardy just as two kids sleeping in the same room, sometimes in the same bed, in a perfectly innocent way. The sleepover thing, you know. My brother sees it differently, but that's his problem.
I talk back loud to an old Muscovy Duck whom I've befriended, who lives in a wooden house on a stream near my home (my town is crossed by a net of artificial streams). He's a Silent Duck, so my secrets and whimsical thoughts are safe with him. Here, I write back loud.

Anonymous said...

I certainly enjoyed this dream adventure. Better than the dream movie with actor Leonardo Dicaprio, Inception. This comic book story was satisfying as well as funny. My memory of the Inception movie has those things not so much. Oh, well. Once again, thanks, Pappy.