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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, August 9, 2013


I want to explore in greater depth my assertion in THE DEAD-ALIVE HAND OF THE PAST PT 4 that the late Harvey Pekar was guilty of, among other things, "rhetorical distortions."  Having re-encountered Pekar's simplistic take on Jack Cole's PLASTIC MAN and Will Eisner's SPIRIT, I choose to demonstrate that Pekar had, at best, read carelessly when he claimed that these works were good because they "satirized the costumed-hero idiom to some extent."

On one comics-forum I elaborated:

Take the notion that the best way to do superheroes is to be "unserious" about them. Pekar wasn't the first to claim that Jack Cole's PLASTIC MAN was a parody, or even a satire, of superheroes. Since I've read the first five ARCHIVES collections of the Quality PLASTIC MAN, I beg to differ. Cole and a handful of other raconteurs used a lot more humor in PLASTIC MAN than you might find in certain superhero features. But one can find a fair amount of humor in 1940s BATMAN and SUPERMAN stories too, which were after all dominantly aimed at kids. Now, if Pekar et al wanted to say that the humor in PM was better and more sophisticated, that would be a subjective judgment, but it wouldn't distort the facts. But Cole's PLASTIC MAN is not some MAD sendup of superheroes. Some of the villains are goofy or peculiar, but Cole is serious about the hero's need to bring them to heel, in a way that Kurtzman never could be. There's nothing funny or satirical about the scenes where villains commit cold-blooded murders; IMO Cole wants the reader to see PM deliver justice, just as the writers of BATMAN played to the same theme.

I think it sounds more "respectable" to say that Cole was being "unserious:" then guys like Pekar can claim Cole as one of their own.

On one level it's impossible to disprove Pekar's assertion because it's so spongy and insubstantial.  We don't know what elements of SPIRIT or PLASTIC MAN he considered "satirical," so it's impossible to demonstrate that he misinterpreted those elements.  All I can do is look at what I deem a representative Cole story with the character and show that, while it may possess humor, its primary purpose is not to satirize superheroes.

In the essay RAPT IN PLASTIC, I observed that Cole seemed "fascinated by violent and transgressive materials."  On a superficial level this may sound a great deal like the dominant attitude of the undergrounds that Pekar praises so fulsomely.  However, unlike most underground comics, Cole usually channels this transgressivity into his villains, which is by and large one of the most prominent tropes in "the costumed-hero idiom." 

Take the example of the villain Kra Vashnu, whose one story has been reprinted here by Cole-fan Paul Tumey on his blog Cole's Comics.  There's a certain amount of humor in the story of this mad mentalist, given that he can anticipate Plastic Man's attempts to capture him.  However, I would defy anyone to find satirical intent in this page:

There's not a lot of subtext here.  Kra Vashnu is a mean little twerp, who gruesomely finishes strangling his cheating wife in the first panel of the next page (rendered in shadow to reduce the grue).  EC stories of spousal murder sometimes cracked wise at the American ideals of the happy family and the Gospel of Getting Ahead, but there's only one level to the crime involved here: a murderer must be caught.  Plastic Man investigates, giving Kra the benefit of the doubt up to a point.  When the hero finally has the evidence he needs, he attacks Kra.  Again, there is comedy in the way the villain makes a monkey of the elastic avenger-- but no satire.

Most memorably, Plastic Man turns the tables on the escaping murderer by using his plastic powers to publicize the villain's distinctive face.  He then lures Kra into a second encounter, finds a way around his mental powers, and sends him to jail.  The story ends with a sort of gallows-humor, as Kra foresees the death-sentence, and the hero smugly remarks, "And that's positively the last time Kra Vashnu will perform in public."

As I noted above, it's my finding that Pekar has attempted to see the stretchable superhero story as something more than mere pulp entertainment, the better to claim the excellent work of the artist for the side of the angels.  In my next essay, I'll show why it's much better to find ways of seeing both the angels and the demons in all creators.

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