Monday, June 27, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #16: POLICE COMICS #20 (1943)
PLOT-SUMMARY for [“Woozy Winks Detective Agency”]: Plastic Man, battling two criminal magicians named Abba and Dabba, is knocked for a loop when they trigger a TNT explosion. While the hero recovers in the hospital, his sidekick Woozy Winks begins a bumbling search for the crooks. Given their description, Woozy enlists Jack Cole (famed artist of the PLASTIC MAN comics) to sketch the malefactors. Cole ends up following Woozy as the sidekick chases after Abba and Dabba, who seem to possess real magical powers, conjuring a wall out of nothing to frustrate Woozy. Woozy is even more frustrated when Cole postpones the search by knocking off for the day. The next morning Woozy and Cole somehow find the crooks, but Abba and Dabba subdue the would-be detectives. The crooks allow Woozy and Cole a last meal while explaining that their powers aren’t real; that they only manipulate their subjects’ imaginations. Woozy refuses to believe that the imagination is that powerful, at which Dabba tells Woozy and Cole that their meal included human meat. Sidekick and artist faint dead away, after which Dabba says he was just joking to prove a point. The villains leave their hideout with Woozy and Cole tied up. Cole’s publisher pops up out of nowhere and drags Cole back to his drawing-board. Woozy, still tied up, finds a magician’s wand and uses it to burst his bonds. Woozy overtakes Abba and Dabba and tries to use the wand against them. Abba performs a counterspell and Woozy’s magic goes berserk. Inanimate objects like cars and buildings come alive and pursue Woozy. Woozy screams for Plastic Man and runs to the hospital. Plastic Man wakes up, and realizes that he dreamed “Woozy’s” adventure himself, for the real Woozy is at his side, telling him that Abba and Dabba were apprehended after the explosion. Plastic Man laughs uproariously.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: In A.B. Cook’s ZEUS the mythographer observes that the archaic Greeks often conceived certain deities in terms of a dyad in which one figure is “stronger” and the other “weaker.” Such dyads might link immortality with mortality (Castor and Polyxenes) or even male and female (Apollo and Artemis).
Whatever this dyadic archetype signified to the Greeks, in popular entertainment such pairings originated in part as a method to enhance melodramatic tension. Thus a tough hero like Batman or Hawkman is paired with a weaker sidekick, such as a boy (Robin) or a woman (Hawkgirl). The sidekick may be above-average given his or her physical limitations, but nevertheless he or she is usually the first hero to get captured by the bad guys: ergo, tension. A comic sidekick such as Woozy Winks dwells on an even lower level of competence, and usually only aids the hero out of sheer dumb luck.
In “Agency” (my faux-title for an untitled Plastic Man story), creator Jack Cole (as opposed to the story-character Jack Cole) upends the usual pattern of the typical Plastic Man adventure, in which the stretchable sleuth battles nefarious villains and usually triumphs in spite of Woozy’s help. The initial splash-page--not a part of the main story-- suggests that the usual dynamic will obtain, since the panel shows Plastic Man laughing uproariously at Woozy, standing in front of a sign labeled “Woozy Winks Detective Agency,” while Woozy demands to know what’s so funny.
In the actual story, Woozy and Plastic Man change places through the device of dream, which extends the familiar axiom that every creator of fiction *is* all of his characters. Underlining this axiom is the fact that “Agency” is the first Plastic Man story in which artist Cole literally puts himself in the story, descending to the same downgraded level as any other character. In fact, the most competent characters in the story are Plastic Man’s re-imagined versions of his foes Abba and Dabba, who oscillate between being portrayed as clever fakers and as supreme magical adepts. Plastic Man himself, who is usually the super-competent one in typical stories, begins the story by making an atypical blunder, allowing the TNT to hit the ground. It’s the sort of blunder one would expect of Woozy Winks, so it’s no small wonder that for the length of the dream the hero imagines himself as the blundering sidekick.
It’s also significant that the Jack Cole in the story seems even more downgraded than Woozy. In his first appearance Cole is bragging about earning millions as a comics-artist, but when Woozy offers him “a buck-- cash” to do the sketching, Cole rushes to do Woozy’s bidding. However, even though the sketch is the exact image of Abba and Dabba, Woozy is too dim to recognize them and refuses to pay Cole. Thus Cole ends up following Woozy around in the hope of getting a good comics-story out of Woozy’s shenanigans. Cole’s only moment of backbone appears when he delays the action because it’s the end of the “eight-hour day.” But Cole can’t fight crooks the way his hero can, and ends up being tyrannized by his publisher, a figure whose face is never seen.
It’s also interesting that Cole (the artist) pitted the team of “dream-Woozy” and “dream-Cole” against a pair of magicians, since there’s no intrinsic reason that the story couldn’t have been about one villain rather than two. Abba and Dabba, like Plastic Man and Woozy, are a physical mismatch, for Dabba is a big lantern-jawed oaf while Abba is a scrawny guy in a tuxedo (after the fashion of a stage magician, one assumes). Their names plainly derive from the twentieth-century slang-expression “abbadabba.” I've seen various arguments as to the origins of this phrase, meaning "a person or thing of no importance," but it seems likely that Cole is also punning on the use of the much older phrase "abracadabra," which has associations with both archaic ritual magic and modern stage magic.
Whether they practice real or fake magic, though, Abba and Dabba correctly boast to Woozy that they’re “a team you can’t beat,” and by the time the dream ends they’ve definitely thrown Woozy into a tizzy. One suspects, though, that the real versions of Abba and Dabba are far from capable of bringing about even the illusion that an entire city has gone berserk. The real Abba and Dabba are seen for five panels on the story’s second page, and artist Cole significantly avoids letting the reader see their faces. It seems that not showing the face of the publisher within Plastic Man’s dream conveys a sense of potency to that character, while the villains’ lack of faces in the “real world” suggests that Plastic Man’s dreamed versions of the villains are much more formidable than the real ones.
Perhaps the oddest moment in “Agency” is its flirtation with the taboo of cannibalism. Many of Cole’s PLASTIC MAN stories employ sadism and grisly violence, but “Agency” only depicts simple slapstick, except for the weird moment when Plastic Man dreams that his powerful enemies sucker Woozy and Cole into thinking they’ve eaten human flesh. This is certainly a grotesque way to go about proving the power of the imagination, and probably says less about the mental processes of Cole’s character than of Cole himself. Cannibalism, the act of incorporating someone else’s flesh into one’s own flesh, may be the ultimate act of sadism possible, since one has to annihilate another being to do so. Critics should be wary of over-allegorizing such visual stunts, but there’s a loose parallel in “Agency,” since as noted before Plastic Man has made a Woozy-like error and so stands in danger, throughout his dream, of being “absorbed” by the identity of a bumbling sidekick. It’s surely no coincidence that at the conclusion of this identity-bending adventure, the narrator (a talking microphone) steps in to reassure readers that “Plastic Man will be back on his feet next month with a serious story"--or at very least, a story that doesn’t threaten the hero’s own identity so greatly.