I know what you’re thinking. “Didn’t DC already collect Jack Cole’s run on Plastic Man?” The answer is well, sort of.
For those who don’t know, Jack Cole is considered one of the true greats of the Golden Age era, alongside folk like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, and with good reason. After spending a number of years at Lev Gleason’s studio on characters like The Claw and the original, boomerang-throwing Daredevil, he created the rubbery, shape-shifting superhero in 1941 for Quality Comics.
Though it started out as a somewhat conventional superhero comic (albeit it rather gruesome as villains met some rather ugly ends), it rather quickly became one of the most visually inventive and utterly dynamic comics on the stands. Influenced no doubt by his friend and occasional boss Eisner, Cole constantly switched up his page layouts, and filled Plas’ world with a host of garish, cartoonish caricatures that would give the cast of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy a run for their money in the ugly department.
He left the series in 1954 for the more lucrative career of gag cartooning for such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and, eventually Playboy. Plastic Man limped along without him until 1956, when his comics were finally cancelled. In 1958 Cole got the much envied spot on the newspaper funnies pages with his fitfully amusing family comic strip Betsy and Me. It only lasted a few months, however, as Cole — for reasons that are still a mystery — committed suicide soon thereafter.
So much for the history lesson. Since his passing, Cole’s stature has only grown, but attempts to collect his work has been fitful at best. Fantagraphics has put out books collecting the Betsy strip and some of his pin-up art, but the most comprehensive attempt so far has been from DC, which, starting in 1998, collected his influential run of Plas stories as part of their ultra-hardcover DC Archives line.
Unfortunately, they only got as far as Volume 8, whether because of poor sales or due to a corporate decision to rethink the whole Archives line is unclear (at least to me). To make matters worse, that final volume ends in April of 1948, leaving a good six years of material uncollected, much of it featuring some of Cole’s best work on the title, when he was at his zaniest and most unrestrained. Later sories like “Sadly Sadly” and “The Plague of Plastic People” feature Cole at his most manic and in many ways hint at the sort of shenanigans Harvey Kurtzman would soon get up to in Mad.
The DC Archive line has been roundly criticized for its garish coloring and scan quality, a criticism I can understand (the stories vary in quality from crisp and lovely to blurry and indistinct), though ultimately it doesn’t bother me as much as I imagine it does some of the more devout historians.
So, since I’ve got those first set of volumes and would hate to break up the set, I guess what I’d like to see is DC finish what they started and complete their Plastic Man run, though preferably in a somewhat more affordable, less high-glossy format. Barring that though, even a simple “Best of Plastic Man” collection would be greatly appreciated. Moreover, let’s bug Hugh Hefner to release a definitive collection of Cole’s Playboy work, and have someone collect all those Daredevil and other stories Cole did. In this alleged golden age of reprints, Cole has been ill-served and it’s about time someone — especially DC — rectified that situation.
For more information about Jack Cole and his work, visit the Cole’s Comics blog.