Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched To Their Limits! (2001), by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd. Chronicle Books.
The best thing about the Golden Age of Reprints that comics have undergone over the past decade-and-counting is obviously the fact that we've got our history back. For the first time ever, understanding comics via the library of its truly great works rather than a few random snippets pulled from newsstands and back-issue bins is not only possible but downright easy. I think that's something a lot of people who are concerning themselves with comics' future right now overlook: the young kids coming up aren't just part of the translated-manga generation, they're also the first wave of new readers who could pull Frank King and Osamu Tezuka books off the library shelves as a little side dish to their Naruto. A significant awareness of comics history has become possible to achieve without even looking for it. A browse around a well-curated comic shop doesn't just mean they've got Kirby and the Hernandez brothers anymore, it means a casual interaction with a century of aesthetic evolution, comparable perhaps to the way that randomly running through Netflix for something good to watch can give one a startlingly clear portrait of the different phases of world cinema.
So that's cool. I mean, that's fucking amazing. But another invaluable element of the reprint boom has been that it's allowed a whole new kind of comics to exist. I definitely couldn't have gotten the comics education I have without the Golden Age, but even I, a tender lad of 20, think I was just a little too old to really catch the wave perfectly. Not everything of interest was available to me as I got interested in it over the course of the 2000s. What did you do when you got hot to read Prince Valiant or Dick Tracy in 2005? You had to go to the old-school reprints, which at best were unromantic, plainly wrapped tomes that presented the work in low-budget printing on poorly designed pages; and at worst were hideous abominations, recolored, re-sequenced, incomplete, seemingly put together by astigmatics with paste jars for hands. The idea of making a "beautiful book" simply wasn't a consideration when it came to reprinting comics until the turn of the millennium or thereabouts.
It's almost an embarrassing luxury that we can enjoy the complete run of Krazy Kat as designed by Chris Ware, or see Winsor McCay's finest pages at their gargantuan original size. But the presentational/curatorial aspects of reprinting really get important when they're employed not on classic works that are now simply being treated with the respect they deserve, but on the personal obsessions of the books' compilers. Things like the obscure Canadian gag cartoonist Doug Wright being given the best monograph a comics artist's ever gotten courtesy of Seth and Brad MacKay, or Chip Kidd using his obsessive collector's mindset to shine a spotlight on Jiro Kuwata's Batman manga, or Dan Nadel rendering a coherent prehistory for the PictureBox aesthetic, are touchstones for where comics are now just as much as the Complete Peanuts or Fourth World Omnibus books. They share shelf space, after all.
Of all the personally motivated, devotional reprint books released over the past decade, I think the one that blurs the boundaries between curation and actual art most severely and interestingly is the Art Spiegelman/Chip Kidd team-up on Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched To Their Limits. I think a solid argument could be made that the best biographer/book designer teams have done as much for comics in the 2000s as the best writer/artist combos (Chris Ware and Jeet Heer or Morrison and Quitely is a choice I'm not sure I could make, to be quite honest), and Spiegelman and Kidd, both incredible artists as well as top-rank comics ephemeralists, have enough design sense between them to put a book of reprinted panels up there with the very best original-material comics. The book in question is a somewhat loose, ragged collection of parts more than a sleek and coherent whole. It reprints a lengthy Spiegelman essay on Plastic Man creator Jack Cole's tragic life and comic art (both senses of the word) from The New Yorker; it functions as a Plastic Man-focused Kidd design monograph in the Batman Collected mode; and it presents a handful of full-length Cole stories in their glorious, smeary original newsprint form. The book is very much a look at the art of all three men: though Cole is the star of the show, neither Spiegelman nor Kidd do much at all to hide their hand in making him look so good.
That can be a problematic approach in the wrong hands: when reprints designed to showcase the work of an artist become more about who's doing the showcasing than the work itself, the exercise can begin to feel a little pointless. The saving grace of the Plastic Man book is that both Spiegelman and Kidd are as worthy of the consumer's consideration as Cole himself is, and speaking in comics-historical terms, may both end up being more important. Furthermore, Cole's cartoony, kool-aid-surrealist aesthetic is the directing force behind every page of the the book. Kidd chops and resequences Cole's pages and panels like a pointillist mixmaster, but such was the non sequitur quality of Cole's best Plastic Man work that Kidd's barrages of disconnected images, blown up and shrunken down and barely even chronological, make at least as much visual/cognitive sense as reading the full stories. The artist's early gag cartoons barrel into a vivid gallery of seemingly random Plastic Man excerpts; his later work on lurid crime comics blurs into his final years as the first of the classic Playboy illustrators. If the reader wants to catch their breath, they'd better put the book down, because everything about Kidd's presentation pushes forward at increasingly dangerous speeds. There's always a discomfort that comes with seeing the work of a long-dead artist reinterpreted and given a new and modern logic by eager admirers, but just as Chris Ware on the Walt & Skeezix reprints is by far the most talented "art assistant" that Frank King ever had, so too is Kidd a far better "editor" of Cole's work than any of the profit-oriented shop bosses the artist labored under in his funnybook-making years.
Kidd's dream-logic, scissor-happy organization of the mass of illustrations that run alongside Spiegelman's text is more than just gorgeous design, more even than a perfect evocation of its subject's aesthetic. Once Cole's macabre, almost completely unexplained death at his own hands has been detailed (complete with a scan of the suicide note he sent to his boss, Hugh Hefner), and Spiegelman's incisive yet expansive narrative has wound to its conclusion, Kidd takes a blistering solo on the book's last few pages, which are subtitled "A Portfolio of Polymorphously Perverse Plasticity". On these pages the narrative threads holding together the images' sequencing disappears completely, as does the necessity for any of the historian's fidelity to the original artwork. Kidd cuts loose in page after page of harsh-noise collaging, layering details of glamor-girl watercolors on top of digitally distended Plastic Man panels, slapping bits of newspaper obituary, bombastic Golden Age comic book lettering, and suicide note over it all with an unhinged vigor that borders on ferocity. It's a man's career transmuted into a pure Dadaist image-assault, and if such a treatment would be all wrong for a book about pretty much any other cartoonist (Cole's contemporary Will Eisner, say, or his spiritual predecessor Lyonel Feininger), it's a perfect final representation for the irrepressibly bizarre but commercially restricted Cole.
But no matter its charm, it would be a travesty if Kidd's cut-up eulogizing were the only view into Cole's art afforded to readers. So many books on comics artists present panels, production art, single pages in such volume that they never get around to showing the reason why their subjects really mattered: the comics themselves. Here, though, the three full-length Plastic Man stories, epic crime comic, and smattering of short strips reprinted provide a fascinating look at the real thing. Page after page of Cole's cleanly inked, kinetically cartooned, utterly bizarre stories testify to the accuracy of Kidd's design scheme: Cole was on some weird shit, and no denying it. The first story conjures up a genuine pathos with its detailing of an orphan's tragic life, but it's built up into something much more interesting by the deeply strange, out of nowhere plot elements the whole thing hangs itself on. The villain runs his nefarious schemes from a boat perfectly camouflaged to look like the water around it. The orphan's father abused him not with the standard beatings, but with a handy hive full of bees. Plastic Man forces an apprehended gangster to suckle at a gas-pump's nozzle. None of this is rendered with anything but the broadest comedic touch, the smiling wink of farce. Combined with the heartfelt tale of the orphan boy's plight, the story reaches an unstable, immensely enjoyable place between: neither joking nor serious, not earnest or sarcastic. An honest depiction of something very, very bizarre.
The other two Plastic Man stories go even further into the void, eschewing some of the deep emotion of the first story for broad, manic cartoon dynamism. Cole's art reaches an almost impossibly hallucinatory peak in "Plague of Plastic People", in which every citizen of an entire city is given Plastic Man's stretchy, transfigurative powers. With the necessity for drawing accurate human figures erased, Cole goes hog wild, tossing out panel after panel of tire-shaped children, tangling intertwined lovers, Pinocchio-nosed housewives, and random rubbery limbs filling the sky with an origin at points unseen. It's utter chaos, but a chaos so self-consistent and amusingly drawn that is feels not only safe, but inviting. Cole had an unmatched genius for creating strangeness, but just as important was his ability to make everything seem fun and light in the classic superhero tradition. In any other artist's hands, these Plastic Man stories would be mind-bruisingly alien, terrifying vistas of senselessness. Cole makes them so entertaining and funny that even the weirdest shapes assumed and blackest punishments meted out by Plastic Man carry a genuine warmth, an intangible but certain sense of benevolence.
That warmth is what makes the final Cole comic reprinted, a ghastly sex-drugs-'n'-murder crime story (later ballyhooed into a national menace by Fredric Wertham) so shocking. The same formal breathlessness and illogical rush is there, but instead of leading to laugh after bewildered laugh, it sucks the reader into an inescapable downward spiral, the cliche "life of crime" rendered with such vividity and attention to detail that it practically sweats off the pages. The inclusion of the story alongside the lighter Plastic Man material is an elegant statement-in-comics of the path Spiegelman's narrative skillfully traverses. The biography of Cole is streamlined and effective, never getting bogged down in minutiae but providing enough context to describe a highly dramatic arc and make readers feel that something wasn't quite right with Cole long before the revelation of his suicide. It's richly anecdotal, occasionally downright broad writing, well suited to its subject, actually earning the often overused superlative "tragicomic".
Where Spiegelman gets expansive is where it counts, in his criticism of Cole's comics work. Spiegelman digs deep into what makes Cole's pages read as crackerjack action comics amid all the zaniness without ever losing sight of his uninitiated New Yorker/Chronicle Books audience or failing to draw a broader conclusion about Cole's life or overall aesthetic from the particulars of a single sequence. To the wider public, Spiegelman will always be one thing above all: Maus, the comic you can find on your aunt and uncle's bookshelf. But inside the world of the medium, his status as a connoisseur of comics (as exercised in his editing/compiling of Raw and Arcade, not to mention his world-beating Comics Journal and Comic Art Magazine interviews and parodic takes on everything from Dick Tracy to comics focused high-low art shows) may actually beat out even Maus in terms of influence. Spiegelman the comics enthusiast is the one we get here, in fine form. He diagrams the narrative flow of single pages, delivers hits of solid panel-by-panel analysis, draws comparisons between Cole and everyone from Eisner to Gil Kane to Jack Kirby, solidly placing him in the context of a larger tradition, and waxes theoretic about comics' disappearing "near monopoly on primal visual fantasy" and Cole's understanding "that in comics anything one could dream one could draw". It's impossible to come out of it without a renewed appreciation of the unique power of comics -- for a new reader drawn in by Spiegelman's name (or their New Yorker subscription) I could see it being downright revelatory. As a comics critic, Spiegelman's sharper than just about anyone else, and the extended passages of a master of the medium engaged in deep, focused long-form criticism of another master's work are just about unprecedented.
More than just a reprint book, Forms Stretched To Their Limits is a display, a guided tour of its subject's art and the influence that work had on its better-known compilers' own work. It's not a formula that's easy to replicate: put simply, most reprint makers aren't as interesting or talented as either Spielgelman or Kidd, and the personal, art-from-art approach only works if the new art is as good as the old and the persons referring to themselves have interesting things to say. Beside that, though, most work by comics' great artists, no matter the genre or cartooning idiom, carries an element of purity, a spark that can be all too easily destroyed by presenting anything but what was originally intended. But like his rubbery hero, Cole's work is more malleable, adaptable to new forms, almost inviting to the new-millennium meddlers cutting through it with designer's scissors and biographical glare. Cole's work is effectively formless, in the end, its every square inch charged with the same level of ersatz impact, indilutible. It's a unique, fascinating quality, one that can only be brought out by changing it, by putting it to unintended uses, by doing to it what would ruin most other great comics. As a collaboration between biographer, designer, and original artist, this book is unmatched. As a comics reprint it has peers, but it's unique and brilliant enough to have no clear betters.