Thursday, June 09, 2011

Plastic Man #1

Plastic Man had a long and storied history in the Golden Age of comics with over 100 appearances in Police Comics, most of which had him as the cover feature and 64 issues of his own magazine. He outlasted all of the GA superheroes with the exception of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

Part of this was due to the artistic genius of his creator, Jack Cole. Cole was a master cartoonist and he made full use of his talents to make his pliable character as amusing as possible. When Plas laughed, Cole contorted his features so that he resembled a braying donkey. A recurring theme had him changing himself into an inanimate object, such as a couch or a rug or a lamp in the crooks' hideout, only to reveal himself at the critical moment.

Plastic Man's adventures were published by Quality Comics, which sold out to DC in late 1956. DC continued several Quality titles, including Blackhawk, GI Combat and Heart Throbs, but Plastic Man did not make the jump. If this seems puzzling, remember that superheroes were at their all-time low in publication around this time; Showcase #4 had been issued a few months earlier, but several publishers had tried and failed with superhero revivals of Captain America, the Human Torch, the Blue Beetle and a new hero called Captain Flash.

And so Plastic Man slumbered for a full decade. Meanwhile, several other characters were introduced who ahem, borrowed his stretching abilities, including Reed Richards aka Mr Fantastic, the Elongated Man, and Elastic Lad. In House of Mystery #160 (July 1966), Robby Reed used his Dial H for Hero skills to transform himself into Plastic Man.

Shortly before that, however, Jules Feiffer published his landmark book, The Great Comic Book Heroes. This was one of the very first books to take comic books seriously, and reprinted many classic Golden Age stories, including the origin of Plastic Man from Police Comics #1.

DC evidently felt confident enough in Plastic Man to launch him directly into his own title, something of a rarity for the company in the Silver Age. I would attribute this to a confluence of several factors, including the runaway success of the campy Batman TV series, the increasing influence of Golden Age fans who remembered Plas from their youth and the success of Feiffer's book.

Unfortunately, those are also probably the reasons the series failed. First, the Batman fad imploded like all fads do, and superheroes who were anything less than super-serious were no longer cool. And the new Plastic Man was not faithful to the Golden Age character, doubtless turning off the older fans.

For starters, Cole was not available, having committed suicide in 1958. This first issue was illustrated by Gil Kane, and while I admire Kane's amazing body of work on features like Green Lantern, the Atom and Spiderman, the plain fact is that he was not cut out for cartoonish characters like Plastic Man. You definitely had the feeling that he was trying hard here:

But I suspect that's one of the secrets of great cartooning; it has to look effortless, with very simple lines.

For some reason, Plastic Man's old sidekick, Woozy Winks was not brought back for this series. Instead, Plas picked up an earnest young man with a crewcut named Gordon K. Trueblood:

The chemistry wasn't there between them. In the Golden Age, the goofy sidekick was a staple of superhero comics, from the Flash's Winky, Blinky and Noddy to Green Lantern's Doiby Dickles and Wonder Woman's Etta Candy. Indeed, Alfred, Bruce Wayne's butler was initially played for laughs. But for the most part they were not reincarnated in the Silver Age. Gordie mostly comes off as Bud Abbott to Plastic Man's Costello; a straight man or foil.

The villain is Dr Dome, shown wearing the chromium headgear on the cover. He's a standard mad scientist with the inevitable curvaceous daughter (wearing the Emma Peel jumpsuit). Plas has also picked up a girlfriend, Micheline DeLute 3rd; as you can probably guess, she's wealthier than Richie Rich. A significant subplot of this issue concerns her family's dislike for her goofy and playful boyfriend:

That bit with the cops calls to mind that the Golden Age Plastic Man was originally a crook named Eel O'Brian, but after being left for dead by his gang (and gaining his powers), he turned into a crimebuster.

Dr Dome sends the second greatest villain, Professor X (no, not that Professor X) to attack Plastic Man, but our hero manages to defeat him. At one point the curvaceous daughter (named Lynx) seduces him and slips a mickey in his lemonade, then dumps him into the ocean, but he gets away from that death trap as well.

The series meandered on for ten issues, with Win Mortimer taking over the art duties starting with #2, and Jack Sparling sitting in for the final three installments.

Although the series was mostly forgettable, it did have the salutary effect of introducing Silver Age readers to Plastic Man. In the early to mid-1970s DC reprinted quite a few of Cole's Golden Age classics.

Update: Marc Burkhardt makes a terrific point about the GA Plastic Man in the comments:
Plas was essentially the straight man in an insane world (kind of like Pogo); a key ingredient that doesn't work in shared universes all that well.

Yes, I think that nails it. In Cole's world, everybody was about 90 degrees off kilter. Plastic Man, while he had a sense of humor, was relatively sane. The Silver Age Plas became a prankster in a world that was stuffy and serious which can be amusing but is not terribly original.


hobbyfan said...

Ah, but DC would give Plas another chance, and relaunched the series in the mid-70's, with the numbering intact. Ramona Fradon took over the artwork for a spell. I had 1 battered issue for a while, and, well, they did get it right. Woozy was back, and he & Plas were now federal agents.

Ed said...

This was a weird series in many ways, not the least of which was that it seemed not to take part in the same DC Universe. They could have at least thrown him into an issue of Jerry Lewis. Actually, Bob Oksner might have done a nice job on Plas.

The only attempt I can recall to give Plas any support came in B and B 76, which came out the month before PM 9. Unlikely that it could have given much sales help to a comic on which the plug had almost surely been pulled.

Marc Burkhardt said...

First in many attempts by DC to bring back Plas, none of which came close to equaling the Golden Age strip.

Steven Skeates and Ramona Fradon came closest though. Perhaps because they were one of the few teams to realize that Plas was essentially the straight man in an insane world (kind of like Pogo); a key ingredient that doesn't work in shared universes all that well.

Anonymous said...

I bought it, cuz it was a No. 1. But it puzzled me. And why was I supposed to be so excited about this? When you're a kid and something disappeared 10 yrs before, it might as well have been 1000 yrs.

Cool Gil Kane punch on cover though.

Ed said...

Good point, Marc. When Plas showed up in that B and B, he seemed the proverbial square peg. In a later B and B, well after the first series had disappeared, Plas appeared as a kind of lost sou superhero. Just did not suit him at all.

Wasn't this version later retconned and revealed to be Eel O'Brien's son?

Robby Reed said...

I have this dial, and one time I dialed it and BECAME Plastic Man.

Anonymous said...

Robby Reed reappeared in a mid-70's Plastic Man issue, so presumably that series took place in the same universe as House of Mystery. Then again, that story (like the series in general) was played for laughs, so it was more parody than crossover. And you could argue all day about in which universe B&B 76 was set.

Anonymous said...

The original Plastic Man and Woozy Winks guest starred in Plastic Man #7, IIRC. That story revealed that the Silver Age Plastic Man was Eel O' Brian's son. Dr. Caulder, the Chief from the Doom Patrol, made a cameo appearance in PM #8, and Robby Reed was in a 1970's issue. Both acted out of character, but those appearances were more satire than crossover.