Saturday, November 17, 2007

presentation 2--Plastic Man and the Spirit: Pre-Postmodern Heroes of the Golden Age

On the morning of Saturday, October 13th I presented at the Midwest Pop Culture Association's conference in Kansas City. My presentation was the first one of the day, at 8:30 am, the morning after the free food was served at the bar as the opening night's reception. So attendance was not as great as the previous weekend's presentation. Besides the other presenters, there were less than five people there, and two of those people were the panel chair and the girlfriend of one of the other presenters. Oh, and my presentation was scheduled in a room that, essentially, was one big room that was split into two by... a thin curtain. So you could hear the presentation going on on the other side of the room the entire time I was speaking... Suffice to say, circumstances were less than ideal.

This time around my topic was "Plastic Man and the Spirit: Pre-Postmodern Heroes of the Golden Age." My presentation was supposed to be around twenty minutes in length, but I ended up speaking for about twenty-five. And I still had to cut stuff. For this presentation I had to do a lot more research, because I wasn't as familiar with the subject matter as in the previous week. This fact also meant that I didn't feel as confident just getting up there and winging it, so I wrote a bit more ahead of time with this one. I did a full intro and conclusion, plus a much more extensive outline of the body, complete with notes on which stories to discuss when and particular quotes from sources I might want to use.

Here then was my introduction, verbatim:

In the contemporary era of comics, the influence of postmodernism can be felt far and wide. Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, and Kevin Huizenga spring to mind as obvious examples of indie comic artists whose works take a turn into the bizarre. More mainstream works inspired by postmodernism can easily be found in Alan Moore’s classic deconstruction of the superhero Watchmen or the metafiction of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man.

But postmodernism’s roots in comics stretch back all the way to the medium’s infancy. Even in the Golden Age as the genre of the superhero was still forming, it was already being deconstructed. Both Jack Cole’s hero Plastic Man and Will Eisner’s infamous creation The Spirit defied the conventions of the superhero genre in every adventure they undertook, and at the same time their creators explored the ways to defy the conventions of the medium of comics and in fact all storytelling conventions as they related these adventures to eager readers.

(I chose to call this notion “pre-postmodernism” in my abstract for two reasons. First, it seems to fit in neither category as solely modern or postmodern, utilizing some modern ideas regarding form yet serving an intent that is purely postmodern. Secondly, it sounded like an interesting hook.)

So from there I dove into the body of my presentation which I had divided up into three sections: conventions of the genre of the superhero, conventions of the medium of comics, and storytelling conventions. And for each division, I broke it down further, looked at each aspect of those conventions and explored examples of how both heroes defied them.

Starting with superhero tropes, I looked at the secret identity and how neither character really had one. After the origin story of the Spirit, Denny Colt was for all intents and purposes dead, and he walked around as the Spirit all the time. Meanwhile, in Police Comics 26, Plastic Man's secret identity as criminal Eel O'Brien is discovered by his chief at the FBI, and in order to be pardoned for his crimes, he essentially must prove himself worthy by solving three unsolvable crimes in twenty-four hours. Once the task is completed, Eel is pardoned... and is no more.

I moved on to costumes then, to briefly discuss how Plastic Man's "costume" of a red leotard and sunglasses eschewed the typical cape and mask. Then I moved on to the Spirit, who of course had no costume but a domino mask. Otherwise he was just a guy in a suit, which of course how Eisner wanted it. Eisner didn't like the idea of drawing costumed heroes, and the mask was a compromise he made with his publishers.

As for origins, Plastic Man's was very unconventional. He of course started out life as a crook, but all that changed when he had the requisite accident with chemicals. Suddenly, spontaneously, and in the course of one whole panel, he decides to leave his life of crime behind and become a force for good.

As for why he makes this drastic change in character... this explanation is all we get. Just like the explanation of how he got his powers--chemicals--it's like once Cole got the result he wanted, got the story going in the direction he wanted, he just didn't care. In a story from Police Comics 24, Plas's sidekick Woozy Winks gets his powers for a day, and in the end of the story Plastic Man unzips the red and black leotard Woozy is wearing, and Woozy exclaims dejectedly that he has lost his powers. And that's it, the entire explanation of how things went back to normal. Zip, no more powers. Again, it's very much like Cole just wanted to tell his zany stories and didn't care too much about logic.

And that brings me to tone, that Plastic Man is probably the earliest example of the trickster hero. He has a lighthearted attitude toward fighting crime, like it's actually fun for him, and his victories were often rather unconventional. In his fight with Sadly Sadly, a villain whose "power" was that he made such a sad face that would make people feel so sorry for him they would give him all their money, Plastic Man defeats him... by tickling him with a feather until he laughs.

In much the same vein Eisner mixed humor with hardboiled crime stories in the Spirit's adventures. The December 1948 story "Two Lives" involves a criminal breaking out from prison, at the same time that his doppelganger runs away from a home where he is dominated by a controlling wife. The two decide to switch lives, and while the henpecked husband happily goes to jail, the escaped con lives with the domineering wife for a week or so... and tries to turn himself in to return the jail. But no one believes him and he's stuck. Meanwhile, the Spirit's victories as a hero often involved dumb luck. He would get beat up and knocked unconscious, and the criminal would make some kind of mistake to get himself apprehended or killed while the Spirit was out cold. Not very "heroic" in the end.

I'll continue on to how the characters defied the conventions of the medium and of fiction in general tomorrow. For now, this entry is long and I'm tired.