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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

COMIC BOOK RETROVIEW: PLASTIC MAN In The Silver Age, Part 1






Jack Cole's Plastic Man is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest comic-book creations of all time.  Cole's original Plas tales in the 1940s were kinetic, inventive, goofy, energetic, and irresistible; although the character has appeared many, many times in more recent years, no one has even come close to recapturing the magic of the original Plastic Man stories by Cole.  (Though I do want to add an honorable mention to the late '80s Plastic Man mini-series by Phil Foglio and Hilary Barta, which came the closest).

Still, I must confess that my love of Plastic Man predates my exposure to Jack Cole's wonderful work.  No, I became a Plas fan via 1966's Plastic Man # 1, DC Comics universally-reviled attempt to revive the character in the Silver Age.

History:  Plastic Man debuted in Police Comics # 1, cover-dated August 1941.  Police Comics and the subsequent Plastic Man comic book were published by Quality Comics, a very successful comics company in the '40s, also known for its aviator hero Blackhawk and its comic-book reprints of Will Eisner's The Spirit.  Plastic Man was originally a small-time crook named Eel O'Brien, involved in a botched robbery that left him exposed to some unidentified, acidic substance, and--no honor among thieves!--deserted by the other members of his gang.  O'Brien still managed to escape, and was later discovered and nursed back to health at a nearby monastery.  As he recovered, O'Brien discovered that the acid had given him super-elastic plastic powers, including the ability to change his appearance, and to stretch.  And to streeeeeeeeeeeetch.  And to really, really streeeeeeeeeeeeeetch.  Inspired by the kindness of the monk who'd saved him, O'Brien decided to change his evil ways, baby, and to dedicate his powers to fighting crime as the ever-pliable Plastic Man.

Plastic Man endured until the '50s, but Quality exited the comics biz in 1956.  Most of Quality's non-licensed properties were then sold to National Periodical Publications (alias DC Comics); DC continued a few of Quality's titles--Blackhawk, the war book G.I. Combat, the romance title Heart Throbs--but had no immediate need or use for the other Quality characters it acquired, including Plastic Man.

(In the early '60s, Plastic Man reprints turned up in Plastic Man comics published by Super Comics, a company that had acquired printing plates from various defunct Golden Age comics publishers.  Super Comics owner Israel Waldman apparently believed that possessing these plates gave him the right to publish them in his own line of comics.  He was mistaken. One presumes that DC was not shy in pointing this out to Waldman in regard to Plastic Man.)


                                  
In 1966, the success of the campy Batman TV series made superheroes more popular than ever.  DC already had a proven track record of reviving heroes from the '40s in new, revamped incarnations, beginning with the debut of the Silver Age version of The Flash in 1956.  Almost all of DC's successful revivals to date--Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman--had been new characters, with new costumes, new origins, and usually new secret identities, sharing only the titular names with their original Golden Age counterparts.  Hell, DC's most successful revival--by far!--didn't even fully share the name of its '40s inspiration, as The Justice Society of America was revived as The Justice League of America.  That one worked out really well for DC!

By 1965, though, the popularity of guest appearances by some of the original 1940s characters (now retroactively relegated to an alternate Earth dubbed Earth-Two) must have led editor Julius Schwartz to toy with the idea of straight revivals of Golden Age heroes, rather than new heroes with old names. Success in this endeavor was limited; two-fer revivals of Starman & Black Canary and Hourman & Doctor Fate did not survive past two-issue trials, leaving The Spectre as the only such attempt to graduate to its own title.

Plastic Man was neither/nor.  It wasn't exactly the original character from the '40s, but it also wasn't a new character in the sense that Silver Age versions of The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, and Hawkman had been new characters.  Before introducing the new Plastic Man, an ersatz Plas appeared in the "Dial H For Hero" feature in House Of Mystery, as that book's dial-a-hero protagonist Robby Reed (who usually transformed into one of a series of heroes created for the strip) became "that famous crime-fighting hero of years ago,"  Plastic Man!

                

Of course, by the mid-'60s, the one and only original Plastic Man was no longer the only stretching hero on the stands.  The most famous stretchable superdoer was Mr. Fantastic, leader of The Fantastic Four over at Marvel.  DC had itself introduced no less than two new pliable protectors, evidently neither realizing nor caring that it owned the rights to Plastic Man himself:  Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen had his own occasional superhero identity as Elastic Lad, and a hero named The Elongated Man was introduced in The Flash and subsequently became Batman's back-up feature in Detective Comics.

Nonetheless, there was no Mr. Fantastic comic book, nor an Elastic Lad, nor anything but second-banana status for The Elongated Man. As a titular hero, Plastic Man had the stretching scene all to himself.

The Silver Age Plastic Man debuted in Plastic Man # 1, dated November-December 1966.  And that was my introduction to Plastic Man.

                                            

NEXT:  Not the one, not the only, not the original.  But still...PLASTIC MAN!