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.
PART 2: Not the one, not the only, not the original. But still...PLASTIC MAN!
I don't recall anyone ever saying anything positive about the 1960s Plastic Man series, which was DC's first attempt to revive the classic 1940s superhero it purchased from the defunct Quality Comics line in the '50s. Of course, it would border on heresy to claim these '60s books could compare to the sheer comics genius of Plas creator Jack Cole's original Plastic Man tales in the '40s. So yeah, this stuff clearly ain't Jack Cole. But was it really that bad?
The task of updating Plastic Man fell to a couple of comics veterans, writer Arnold Drake and artist Gil Kane. Drake had a wealth of experience in writing both adventure and humor comics; he created the misfit superhero team The Doom Patrol (and, later on, both Deadman for DC Comics and The Guardians Of The Galaxy for Marvel), and he wrote DC's long-running humor books The Adventures Of Jerry Lewis and The Adventures Of Bob Hope. Kane's work on Green Lantern and The Atom had already made him a fan favorite. Plastic Man's fate wasn't exactly in the hands of novices.
Still, it didn't really work. It wasn't just that this new Plastic Man didn't have any of the zest and ingenuity of the original; it didn't have anything special of its own to offer, either. It was a superhero sitcom, not altogether different from Drake's amiable, agreeable, and amusing work on Jerry Lewis, though somehow lacking...something. The Adventures Of Jerry Lewis was a fun title; Plastic Man was sorta fun, but not as much.
The new Plastic Man is introduced without a back story, a fait accompli, with no origin or explanation of the stretchy guy's powers. Woozy Winks, the original Plastic Man's goofy sidekick in the '40s, is nowhere to be seen. In Woozy's place, the Silver Age Plas has a new set of supporting characters: his girlfriend Mike, aka wealthy and beautiful heiress Micheline De Lute the 3rd; his pal Gordon K. "Gordy" Trueblood, a pet store proprietor who wishes Plas would take the superhero biz more seriously; Mike's mother "Moms," or Micheline De Lute the 2nd, who despises that uncouth, good-for-nothing Plastic Man who has somehow captured her daughter's heart; Police Captain Matthew McSniffe, who hates Plastic Man even more than Moms does, and won't rest until he's proven that Plas is really a criminal, not a hero; the insidious Dr. Dome, Plastic Man's evil--but inept--arch-enemy; and Dr. Dome's daughter Lynx, a whip-wieldin' sex kitten who secretly lusts for Plastic Man's pliable bones.
Gil Kane's rendition of Plastic Man was only a slight modification of the original; Kane's Plas was more square-jawed, and he sported red leggings instead of bare legs, but was otherwise visually similar to classic Plastic Man. Gil Kane was a comics legend, but Plastic Man is but a minor footnote in his long career; Kane's Plastic Man had none of the visual spark and pizazz of Jack Cole's character. Nor did the script call for it.
By Plastic Man# 2, Kane was replaced at the drawing board by Win Mortimer. In Plastic Man # 7, it's revealed that the titular hero is, in fact, the son of the original Plastic Man, as Papa Plas and Woozy Winks come out of retirement to team up with the new guys. Jack Sparling became the artist with Plastic Man # 8, and the book was cancelled after ten issues.
Plastic Man made but one extracurricular appearance in the '60s, teaming up with Batman in The Brave And The Bold # 76. A Neal Adams cover was the best thing about the issue, as Bob Haney's story and artist Mike Sekowsky's loutish figures made the regular Plastic Man series look like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby by comparison.
Nostalgia interferes with my objectivity here. 1966's Plastic Man # 1 was the first time I'd ever seen Plastic Man in action, and DC's house ad for that issue was the first time I'd ever even heard of Plastic Man. Up top, we asked the question: Was DC's Silver Age Plastic Man series really that bad? And, well...no, it wasn't that bad. It just wasn't very good. But it was harmless, and it was even occasionally fun. And it served to introduce me to one of my all-time favorite characters.
Plastic Man's next appearance [SPOILER ALERT] was in 1971, as a surprise, unannounced guest star in The Brave And The Bold # 95. With a cover-billed team-up of "Batman and...?," this issue ignored the '60s series and the son of Plas entirely, and brought back the original Plastic Man. But now, Plas was played straight, bemoaning the fact that everyone thought he was a clown, a freak. I was 11 when it was published, and I loved it. Unlike the last time Batman and Plastic Man met in the pages of B & B, this time Bob Haney's script clicked for me, and Nick Cardy (perhaps my all-time favorite comics artist) turned in 22 pages of sheer brilliance. You can argue that Plastic Man shouldn't be played straight--and, if pressed, I'd probably agree with you--but, within its own parameters, this one worked very well for me.
The one. The only. The original Plastic Man.
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