Monday, July 11, 2016

I Sing the Body Elastic

The sharp-eyed and thrifty producers of comic books rarely permitted a long-running, profitable superhero concept to remain abandoned for long.
Thus, within a handful of years, the lightning-born magical superman concept passed from Fawcett’s Captain Marvel to Marvel’s Thor, and the shrinking crime-fighter concept from Quality Comics’ Doll Man to Marvel’s Ant-Man and DC’s Atom.
And then there was Quality Comics’ immensely popular Plastic Man, created by writer-artist Jack Cole for Police Comics 1 (Aug. 1941). DC Comics acquired the character when Quality Comics was shut down in 1956, but unlike Blackhawk, they did not continue publishing him.
Nevertheless, by 1961 three new versions of the stretchable superhero had already been created — Elastic Lad in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen 31 (1958), Elongated Man in Flash 112 (1960) and Mr. Fantastic in Fantastic Four 1 (1961).
A crime-fighter who is essentially made of chewing gum stretches the already absurd concept of superheroes to its campy limits, and the talented Cole, understanding that, leaned into the humorous angle of the character. Jimmy Olsen’s super powers were played as much for humor as heroics (presumably in part so that he wouldn’t threaten Superman’s status as the real hero of Metropolis), and even the amateur detective Elongated Man had his touch of whimsy (when Ralph Dibny “smelled” a mystery, his rubbery nose twitched).
But Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did the unexpected and played against type. Far from being amusing or charming, the FF’s Reed Richards was something of a pedantic bore.
From one angle, the innovative and ground-breaking Fantastic Four can be seen as a recycling of popular concepts. Reed Richards is Plastic Man. The Thing is another of those transformed monsters Lee and Kirby turned out for science fiction titles. The teenaged Human Torch evokes Timely/Marvel’s android Human Torch, one of the most popular superheroes of the 1940s. And the Invisible Girl is Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, one of the first female superheroes. Published by the Chicago Times, her newspaper strip ran from June 3, 1940, to 1956.

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