There was…the stack of cool graphic novels on my desk, which rested on the copy of the New York Review of Books with Anthony Grafton’s rapturous essay about Ben Katchor’s New York. I wandered over to the kitchen, where I noticed my copy of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel about two loony Jewish immigrant cartoonists that won last year’s Pulitzer Prize; I remembered that I had yet to see Ghost World and had missed Wallace and Gromit at the Film Forum.

But that list leaves out another really interesting example: Art Spiegelman’s book on Plastic Man.

Recently a Slate piece on Monsters, Inc., made reference to today’s "golden age of American cartooning":

There was…the stack of cool graphic novels on my desk, which rested on the copy of the New York Review of Books with Anthony Grafton’s rapturous essay about Ben Katchor’s New York. I wandered over to the kitchen, where I noticed my copy of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel about two loony Jewish immigrant cartoonists that won last year’s Pulitzer Prize; I remembered that I had yet to see Ghost World and had missed Wallace and Gromit at the Film Forum.

But that list leaves out another really interesting example: Art Spiegelman’s book on Plastic Man. That’s not to say that Daniel Clowes or Ben Katchor aren’t fabulous. But it seems that the old comic books, the ones loopy immigrant cartoonists made, are getting something of a second chance in front of the critical eye. (Of course, it’s always easier for people who have reservations about a medium or a movement to point to older examples, preferable ones no longer current, and say that those were different and better.) Perhaps it shouldn’t be interesting. Chabon loves comic books, after all. But even someone largely disinterested in superhero comics, someone like Maus writer-artist Art Spiegelman is getting in on the act.

Spiegelman’s New Yorker essay on Plastic Man and Jack Cole — a byproduct of research for an opera on the history of comics, Drawn to Death is now a beautifully designed book that includes a few issues of the inventive superhero comic. Jack Cole had worked for comics legend and The Spirit creator Will Eisner before creating and spending more than a decade writing and drawing Plastic Man‘s adventures. I’ve only read a few issues of Cole’s work, but they’re great — a character who could assume any shape was a natural for Cole’s goofy visual sense, and the character of Woozy Winks (a droopy sort who, thanks to a mystic blessing bestowed by a mysterious gent that he fished out of a pond, is protected from all harm) just added the possibility for further zaniness. Cole stopped writing Plastic Man in 1956 (part of a general trend away from superhero comics) and had become a cartoonist for Playboy (Eightball‘s Daniel Clowes has worked for Hustler) before killing himself in 1958.

Everything I’ve ever read about Spiegelman suggests that he isn’t a fan of superhero comics. His magazine RAW probably never got quite the attention in the mainstream art community that it deserved, simply because it was (to use Eisner’s term) "sequential art". But Spiegelman has always had a soft spot for his predecessors. I’m not sure that I believe that Garbage Pail Kids and Wacky Packs (both were produced by baseball card and candy company Topps while Spiegelman was part of their creative staff) were an explicit nod to a comics tradition dating back to EC’s Mad, but Spiegelman is clearly fond of EC dating to their lurid Two-Fisted Tales and Tales from the Crypt days. (Mad‘s original title was Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad, a little joke made at the expense of the less-than-imaginitve titles of the EC horror books, and Spiegelman has claimed that Mad‘s Harvey Kurtzman was his greatest influence.) RAW goosed the careers of Chris Ware, Richard Sala, Kim Deitch, and others, but Spiegelman also included a Krazy Kat story by the great George Herriman, a one-page piece by Winsor McKay, and a bizarre story called "Babe, Darling of the Hills" by Boody Rogers, creator of a little-known superhero character, Sparky Watts.

The Sparky Watts story is somewhat reminiscent of Cole’s Plastic Man (although not half as witty or amusing). Cole was playing around with the medium and its conventions, which hadn’t yet hardened into deadening seriousness or the forced fun of wacky-alien DC comics of the ‘60s. Loopy kids who don’t know what they’re doing (and small-time businessmen who think they can make a buck) often produce great art; see, for instance, the history of the Hollywood movie or the Broadway show. For a brief period ending in the early ‘50s, superhero comics were where the money could be found, and they flourished — but those comic books were much weirder than they’re given credit for. Before DC sued Fawcett Comics out of existence, their most popular title, Captain Marvel (which outsold Superman’s Action Comics in the late ‘40s), featured not only a superhero modeled after Fred MacMurray and a cackling mad scientist who called Captain Marvel "the big red cheese" but also Mr. Tawny, the "celebrated talking tiger," who strolled around on his hind legs and wore a green checked sports coat. Or consider the case of William Moulton Marston, the inventor of the polygraph device, who (under the name of "Charles Moulton") created Wonder Woman. Moulton saw Wonder Woman as a blow for women’s rights (that article, it must be noted, is written by Olive Richard, the college student who lived with Marston and his wife, lawyer Elizabeth Marston, and with whom Marston had two children; one wonders if Fredric Wertham knew) and a character who would allow boys to explore their feelings of being dominated. While he wrote the comic, he used it quite intentionally as a means of disseminating his feelings about women and feminism. Even the humor comic Scribbly got in on the fun, with spoof character the Red Tornado making a guest appearance in a "serious" superhero comic book.

Most of these works have been out of print for years. Cole’s work, along with Marston’s and some of the early days of Captain Marvel, is being reprinted in lovely (if expensive) archive volumes, which is wonderful. This was throwaway art, designed for kids (and G.I.s) to read and then discard. But thankfully it has begun to be recognized as art. Most of it is probably lost, sadly — I still haven’t been able to find George Carlson‘s work collected, and I think Carlson’s a surrealist of the first water. But with people who the rest of the word takes seriously — people like Michael Chabon and Art Spiegelman — making noise, perhaps we’ll all get to take a chance to appreciate more of the loopy genius of art that didn’t know what it was doing.