I’ve commented here that for all the plaudits given to Jack Cole’s PLASTIC MAN, it’s rarely acknowledged that in a formal sense, many of the stories are not well-written.
This isn’t entirely a disadvantage from a pluralist creative vantage point. Some creators are at their best when they’re channeling the random associations of what Jung termed “fantasy thinking,” rather than constructing the sort of “well-wrought urns” generally prized by elitist criticism. Much if not all of Cole’s best work is characterized by a delirious pleasure in transgressivism, often, as noted here, in a passion for scenarios of sadism and murder. In the earliest adventures of Cole’s stretchable sleuth, the hero battles such demented menaces as a gigantic, city-destroying eight-ball, a cripple-legged giant who walks on his hands, and a mad scientist named “Hairy Arms,” whose torso is so shriveled that he appears to be all head, legs, and (of course) arms.
Viewed as mythic texts, most Plastic Man stories are like free-floating archetypes that have no firm associations linked to them. On occasion, as with the story I analyzed here, he used his symbolic constructions to produce a consummate psychological myth. But Cole's PM story for POLICE COMICS#16—incidentally, the fourth story in which Cole partnered Plastic Man with comedy-relief Woozy Winks—rates as inconsummate for the way it raises symbolic questions but doesn’t answer them.
The splash page is quite in keeping with my quasi-Sadean reading of Cole: the reader sees a head-shot of Plastic Man, sweating profusely as he’s besieged by tiny green devils telling him to “kill” and “murder.” This is a foregrounding of how the hero will go berserk at the story’s end.
When the story proper opens, Plastic Man is first seen in disguise, having used his shape-changing power to become the image of a Native American. Woozy is telling him that it seems “silly” for the hero to investigate rumors of a modern Indian uprising. Plastic Man demurs, claiming that he won’t countenance “revolt against the U.S.A.”—though he thinks that he can break up the possible rebellion if he can undermine the Indians’ chief, known as “Great Warrior.”
Obviously, even for the time, this is not a particularly progressive view of White America’s checkered history with the country’s aboriginal peoples. But I’m not inquiring into Cole’s political mentality, which I suspect was conservative. Rather, I’m investigating the way his symbolic discourse slip-slides all over the place.
That night the “powwow” commences, and Chief Great Warrior is indeed trying to incite the other tribesmen to make war upon “the accursed whites” at a time when “the nation is busy with foreign wars.” The hero-- sort of an “Indian Rubber Man” (heh)—shows up to denounce the chief. The chief wants to know why those assembled should listen to a total stranger. Plastic Man promptly morphs himself into a totem pole, and almost all of the Indians—except for Great Warrior—instantly believe that “the Great Spirit” has come into their midst to denounce their chief. Great Warrior even correctly figures out that the impostor is really the modern-day crusader Plastic Man, but his people act as if he’s “mad” to consider the possibility that their talking totem pole is just a well-documented superhero playing on their superstitions. Because his own people don’t believe him, Great Warrior jumps into a quicksand bog and dies while promising to curse his enemies from the grave. Plastic Man, who has resumed his Indian disguise, lets Great Warrior perish, while marveling that the dying chief doesn’t cast any reflection in the bog. (Ordinarily one wouldn’t expect to see a reflection in a bog, though Cole renders the mire as if it was clear water.)
For the next six pages, the curse takes effect through Will Hawes, a random white man in Plastic Man’s home city. Cole gives the reader no clue as to why Great Warrior’s dead spirit—now seeming more like that of a shaman than of a chief—shows up in Hawes’ mirror and hypnotizes “ordinary, inconspicuous Will Hawes.” Perhaps the mere fact that he’s an ordinary white guy makes him the ideal pawn to carry out a reign of terror: setting bombs and other traps (most sadistically, a box that shoots poison needles into its victim). Hawes kills two persons in authority—the mayor and the police commissioner—and tries to blow up Plastic Man and Woozy Winks as well, though they both survive thanks to their respective powers. Hawes finally confesses to the cops, who don’t believe his story of an “Indian in the mirror.” However, Great Warrior belatedly decides to pick on the man who arguably brought about his death. He appears, once more in reflection-form, to both Woozy and Plastic Man. Great Warrior promptly hypnotizes Plastic Man into becoming a one-man army, attacking the city (though unlike Hawes, the hero isn’t seen causing any deaths). The cops don’t believe Woozy’s story about the ghostly Indian chief, but they do manage to corral Plastic Man.
Cole left himself less than a full page to return his hero to his status quo, and he does so with one of the worst “cheats” in the history of comics. Woozy shows up at the police station with the son of Great Warrior, who has not been mentioned, any more than there’s any clue about how Woozy found him. With all the cops watching, the son summons the spirit of Great Warrior to appear in a mirror, vowing to live “a life of shame” (whatever that is) if his father does not clear “the innocent name of Plastic Man.” Great Warrior is so vexed by the threat of shame to his family that he shows up, makes a verbal confession of all crimes to the dumbfounded cops, and then disappears forever (presumably exculpating Will Hawes as well, though he isn’t mentioned).
What we’re left with is a extremely mixed message. On one hand, the Indians are kept on the reservation, thus keeping them from having an effect on the American power structure. On the other, though Cole evinces absolutely no sympathy for the Indians’ complaints, he does show that same power structure being assailed by the supernatural power of Great Warrior, even though the ghost chooses to act through white “sleeper agents.” During the U.S.A’s involvement in World War II, pop fiction often displayed narrative tropes in which foreign agents successfully masqueraded as “real Americans”—a trope taken to its most demented limits in the 1942 film BLACK DRAGONS, which involved Japanese spies being surgically transformed into Caucasians. Unlike many of Cole’s crazy-ass tales, this story feels as though the author might be trying to work out some personal demons about American political history—but if so, the story of Great Warrior fails in that respect.