Collectors generally agree that Quality Comics, which ran from 1939 to 1956, lived up to its name. Formed by Everett "Busy" Arnold, the company was one of the last small independent studios to hold out against the larger companies like National (now DC). Due to Arnold's reputation for fairness and the decent rates he paid, Quality was able to attract a lot of hefty talent, with the likes of Will (The Spirit) Eisner, Lou (Dollman) Fine, and Reed (The Blackhawks) Crandall gracing the pages of Feature, Military and Police Comics.
And then there was Jack Cole and his Plastic Man.
Born in 1918, Cole had very little formal art training, save for a mail-order course, but his natural abilities at humorous "big-foot" cartooning sufficed to land him a job drawing features at the Harry 'A' Chesler shop (Star Comics, Feature Funnies) in 1937. Working under the pseudonym of "Ralph Johns," Cole worked on comedy strips like Officer Clancy and Peewee Throttle until he landed an editorial position at another company, Your Guide Publishing, writing and drawing adventure strips like Silver Streak and The Claw which impressed Arnold enough to offer the young cartoonist a job at Quality.
The result was perhaps the most surreal and humorous superhero to ever pop up in the panels, Plastic Man. Debuting in Police Comics #1, Summer 1941, the hot collectors item (which is valued at a starting price of $620 to ten times that amount) also featured work by Eisner (Chic Carter) and Crandall (The Firebrand), but undoubtedly owes it's value to Cole's zany creation. From his very start, Plastic Man was a departure from the more staid super-hero tradition, and his only rival in the outrageous humor department was That Big Red Cheese, Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel.
Unlike other superheroes, like Captain America, who had received his powers through legitimate channels, "Plas" (as he was affectionately called) started his career in the panels as a cheap wiseguy, Eel O'Brian, who gained his powers of elasticity after being dunked in a vat of acid. Abandoned by his cronies ("Hey, ya putrid punks! Wait up!!"), the disillusioned Eel was soon fighting crime with amazing new stretching powers, along side his comic relief partner, Woozy Winks (a notorious jail breaker).
With Plas decked out in red bodysuit and aviator sunglasses and the rotund Mr. Winks in a polka-dotted green shirt and straw hat, the two represented a refreshing break from the deadly serious crime fighters of the 1940s. Cole's writing and art styles skipped all over the tightrope between satirical slapstick and adventure, often with the unstated implication that Plas and Woozy were the only sane characters in the strip.
Plastic Man enjoyed a 102 issue stretch at Police Comics and 64 issue run of his own Quality series, which premiered in the summer of 1943, a collector's item priced at $3000 in near-mint condition.
During his adventures at Quality, Plas posed as furniture, kites, boats, parachutes, birdcages, and even satchels of money. Capable of dodging bullets, enveloping crooks, lassoing crooks, stretching over any obstacle, and rolling around like a giant rubber ball, Plas' only weakness was his vulnerability to extreme heat and cold -- but in that event there was always Woozy to the rescue!
In 1954 Cole dropped out of comics to concentrate on freelance gag cartooning, working for prestigious magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers, and had become a regular at Playboy with his series Females by Cole. In May 1958 Cole signed a contract to produce a syndicated comics strip, Betsy and Me, with the Chicago-Sun Times. The strip, a domestic family comedy, immediately sold to 50 papers. Several months later Cole was toasted by Hugh Hefner and other associates at a Playboy party.
By all outward standards, it would seem that the 43-year-old creator had achieved an enviable degree of success all through his long career, and yet on the following day, on August 15, 1958, Jack Cole drove away from home, purchased a .22 pistol and shot himself.
Plastic Man, now owned by DC Comics, continues to frequently appear in comics today. His first Silver Age comeback was in House of Mystery #160 (June 1966), and his new DC series debuted in November 1966, with art by Gil Kane. Since then the character has been drawn by Ramona (Brenda Starr) Fradon, Win (Supergirl) Mortimer, Joe (E-Man) Staton, and Kevin (Jack B. Quick) Nolan, to name just a few, and has generated quite a few collectible items, most recently a DC Direct Plastic Man action figure, issued in 1999 (see Collectible Close Up: DC Direct's Plastic Man by Andy Hooper, CollectingChannel.com Staff). 1999 was also the year that DC Comics reprinted the first 20 Plastic Man Quality stories from Police Comics in a superbly reproduced volume, The Plastic Man Archives, available at a list price of $49.95.
((2/04: As of this update, The Plastic Man Archives are now up the the fifth volume. The comics series was also revived in 2003 and is written and illustrated by Kyle Baker.))
And finally, if you'd like to learn more
about Jack Cole and Plastic Man (along many other Golden Age greats),
there's a wealth of material available in Jim
Steranko's The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 2.