Recycled: Plastic Man vs. the United Crooks of America!

After the body horror of Those Hands in the last issue, Jack Cole seemed to give his readers a chance to catch their breath with Police Comics #7. For Cole this meant coming up with a story packed with his overflowing imagination — as well as a new criminal organization, spankings, a lifelike scarecrow, and glow-in-the-dark paint.

The story is also fat with action, as you can tell from the opening splash page.

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That’s right — the United Crooks of America! An organization that counts only the most nefarious ne’er-do-wells among it members! A democratically minded mob of the creme de la crime! Naturally, Eel O’Brian wants in.

After bowling over the cops at the A.J. Phox Fur Co. (and promising to himself to return the furs later), Eel brings the spoils of his “audition” back to UCA headquarters.

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Ha! A corn roast! I’m no expert on the slang of 1942, but somehow that sounds both sarcastic and insulting. And it’s disturbing to see how proud Slug is of both the UCA’s civilized club structure and of being a proficient cop killer. This is the sort of thing I’m talking about when I mention Cole’s ability to pepper his seemingly light-hearted stories with some truly dark elements.

I also love the way Plastic Man gets so much joy out of needling Captain Murphy. Seriously, he’s going to make the guy blow a vessel. But the fun can only last so long before he has to go back undercover to be pledged as a full member of the United Crooks of America.

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Can we take a second to raise our glasses to poor ol’ Slim, who’s been the only thug so far to put it together that wherever Eel O’Brian goes, Plastic Man isn’t far behind? Look at those guys in the second-to-last panel — booing someone to their face like that is harsh.

Once the swats and near-drownings are done, Eel is put right to work along with Ape Ellson and Trigger Jones to steal the Swagger gem collection. Luckily, he’s tapped to be the getaway driver, so no one’s around to see him spring into action as Plastic Man!

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Cole’s creativity really starts rolling as the series goes on, and it shows in the new ways Plas uses his powers in almost every issue. Plastic Man is having fun, so it’s easy to imagine that Cole was, too. And as Cole’s imagination gets looser so does his drawing style; sharp angles begin to soften as he develops a slightly more cartoony, rubbery look.

I always like to point out Cole’s amazingly strong draftsmanship, and this page is a good example. Look at the way the image in every panel leads the eye to the next, from Trigger in the first panel pointing to the next, to Plastic Man’s downward swoop guiding the reader to the final panel. It shows how much thought Cole was putting into his work on Plastic Man, and it’s wonderful to look at.

Not so wonderful? That acid Trigger has dumped on Plas! The bad guys make their escape, but Plastic Man takes a quick dunk in a rooftop water tank and beats them to the car downstairs. Trigger and Ape dive into the car, only to find Plastic Man and … Eel O’Brian?!

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No wonder the cons don’t want to tangle with Plastic Man — he’s totally letting them think he’ll throw them over a cliff from a moving car. Still, back at United Crooks of America headquarters they’ve got Plas outnumbered and they’ve got a plan. It involves a spray gun full of glow-in-the-dark paint. Plastic Man’s plan involves more throwing-people-from-high-places.

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Tsk — poor ol’ Slim.

  • panels from Police Comics #7 (Plastic Man): Jack Cole, writer/artist

Plastic Man and the Injustice of it all

So, you might remember that earlier this year I raved about Injustice: Gods Among Us, Year Four Annual #1, an entry in the ongoing, Elseworlds-style storyline that was essentially a really good Plastic Man story. In these Plas-starved times, I’ve been finding it a one-shot I keep coming back to, enjoying it more each time.

A lot of that comes down to Tom Taylor‘s writing, which I liked so much that I’m doing something I would’ve sworn I wouldn’t do again — reading a comic featuring a despotic Superman fighting enemies who were once friends in a world that fears him.

The catalyst for Superman’s descent into darkness (SPOILER WARNING for a three-year-old comic) is the Joker, who manages to trick Superman into killing Lois and triggering a nuclear bomb that destroys Metropolis. In his rage and sorrow, Superman punches his fist through the Joker’s chest, kicking off his global tough-love campaign.

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Strangely enough, a Superman with blood up to his elbow isn’t usually my thing. But as I said, Taylor’s scripting is great, and he never loses sight of who these characters are as people, right up to Plastic Man’s appearance three years later. I’m digging it, much more than I thought I would, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes (even knowing Taylor stops writing the series regularly after Year Three).

Still, I can’t help wondering if things might’ve turned out a little differently if Plas had been on the scene earlier.

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Not as dramatic as a hand through the chest, but still, that’s gotta hurt.

  • Top panel: Injustice: Gods Among Us, Year One #2; artists, Mike S. Miller and Bruno Redondo
  • Bottom panel: JLA #15, artists Howard Porter, Gary Frank, and Greg Land

Muhammad Ali, Superman, and Plastic Man’s ringside seat

As most of the waking world already knows, we lost a true titan yesterday with the death of the King of the World, the Champ, the Greatest of All Time — the one and only Muhammad Ali. At the age of 74, Ali succumbed to respiratory complications due to the Parkinson’s disease he battled for more than three decades, and with him went one of the last, true-life heroes in this world.

I can’t remember a time when Ali didn’t loom large in my life. Growing up in the 70s, I was just old enough to see the excitement and admiration of the adults around me during what would be the second half of his career, following his return to boxing after he was stripped of his title for his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. (I was five when Ali fought Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila.)

In my house, he was already a hero.

So what does this have to do with Plastic Man? Once news of Ali’s death broke, the famous Neal Adams-drawn cover of 1978’s Superman vs. Muhammad Ali started making the rounds on social media, and with good reason. In addition to being a good, fun story in its own right, the cover takes full advantage of its original 10.5 x 13.5 treasury size. It’s fat with almost 200 personalities both fictional and from real life. Take a look:

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Batman sitting behind Sonny Bono! Jimmy Carter and Lex Luthor! Phyllis Diller, the Jackson 5, Jerry Garcia, and Henry Winkler in full Fonzy mode. On and on, so many people in the crowd that a person could spend an afternoon — if not longer — trying to identify them all on their own. But hey, who’s that on the left side of the ring, framed by the top ropes?

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Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me at all that Plas would be the kind of guy who’d enjoy a night at the fights. And like everyone else at that wonderful dream of a bout, Plastic Man would’ve known the match he was about to watch was going to the The Greatest.

This was, after all, Muhammad Ali.

 

We’ve been waiting 75 years for this joke

Wait a minute! Plastic Man is 75 years old today?! But he looks great — sometimes even better than ever! How does he do it?

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Hey, don’t look at me — blame Kyle Baker.

  • from Plastic Man #17 (vol. 4)
  • writer/artist, Kyle Baker

Today is Plastic Man’s 75th anniversary!

Eeyow! Today is the 75th anniversary of Police Comics #1, and the first appearance of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man!

I could very easily go on and on about this wild, action-packed origin for one of comic’s most unique characters — and I have! — but I think I’ll just sit back and let you all bask in the genius of Cole’s original story and art.

Enjoy this introduction to what might be one of the most inventive comic book characters ever created in its entirety, and be sure to wish a happy anniversary to the one and only Plastic Man!

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A brief break for Darwyn Cooke

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From “Justice League: The New Frontier,” art based on Darwyn Cooke’s original designs.

I’m taking a brief break from celebrating Plastic Man’s 75th anniversary to send best wishes to Darwyn Cooke.

Earlier today, his family released the news that Cooke is dealing with an aggressive cancer and is now undergoing palliative care. Cooke is an exceptionally talented writer and artist, and I’ve enjoyed his work for years; I’ve also heard nothing but good things about him as a professional and as a person. There haven’t been any other details about his condition, but I’m crossing my fingers that there is some hope for recovery.

In the meantime, go to your shelf and pull out one of his books, or put your DVD of Justice League: The New Frontier into your player. And if you don’t have any of his work on hand, please consider buying some of his stuff — you won’t be sorry, and it will hopefully help Cooke and his family in their time of need.

Celebrate 75 years with … a whole bunch of Plastic Man origins!

As I’ve said in earlier posts, there’s just something about Plastic Man’s origin that really makes artists and writers want to retell the story. Naturally, creators also want to put their own spin on it, and combined with changes in tone and efforts to update this Golden Age hero for fresh audiences, new things almost always get added to the original.

Because of that, Plastic Man’s origin might stay fundamentally the same, but we’ve also gotten a version of Plas who never met the monks of Rest Haven, another who’s mind was altered by the experimental acid as well as his body, and still another with a notable talent for exposition. Most recently, Eel O’Brian was dunked with strange chemicals thanks to an alternate universe  variant of Batman. (Which is a little poetic, considering the longtime friendship between Plas and Bats.)

There are more versions of Plastic Man’s origins than there are days in the week, so let’s take a quick look at some of them. First up, here is a fairly faithful retelling from Plastic Man #17 (vol. 2) by writer John Albano and artist Ramona Fradon. I say “fairly” because while all the major points are there, the team opted to get rid of Rest Haven and only hints at “Ya putrid punks!”

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And here is how Phil Foglio (writer) and Hilary Barta (artist) kicked off their four-issue mini-series in Plastic Man #1, with “reality checks” by artist Kevin Nowlan. The work by Nowlan helped differentiate the “real world” from the cartoony way Eel O’Brian perceived the world after being doused in acid. Later, Plas befriends Woozy after our portly pal stops him from committing suicide and then reveals that — as a recent resident of Arkham Asylum — he sees the world the same way the Eel does. (This is also the story in which Plas and Woozy leave their futures as either crime-fighters or partners in crime up to a coin toss.) Continue reading Celebrate 75 years with … a whole bunch of Plastic Man origins!

Celebrate 75 years with … the Secret Origins origin of Plastic Man!

Plastic Man has always had something of an absurdist streak, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Jack Cole was an artist in the truest sense, and he had a talent for taking his most famous creation to the edge of silliness without ever tipping over the line. As screwball or crazy as a Plastic Man story could seem, Cole never let readers forget that Plas was a fully formed character, not a caricature. Sure, he was quick-witted and never afraid to drop a well-placed quip, but he was no clown. He wasn’t crazy — the world around him was.

This distinction started to get lost as it filtered through the years and various creators. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly Plas started to be treated as mostly a whacky humor character, but I’d say it was probably with Plastic Man #11 (vol. 2), by writer Steve Skeates and artist Ramona Fradon.

HOLD IT! Just for the record, I love that particular era of Plastic Man, which ran from November 1975 to July 1977, before ending with issue #20. It was unrepentantly goofy, even after things took a slightly more serious turn when John Albano took over writing duties with issue #17. But while Fradon’s artwork was pitch-perfect, Skeates’ scripting was often over-the-top, and like a looney variety of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it set a precedent that would dog the character for decades afterward.

Case in point: Plastic Man’s origin as told here in Secret Origins #30, by writer Roy Thomas and artist Stephen DeStefano. While Thomas writes in the letters page column that he tried to balance the humor and adventure associated with Plastic Man, his story leans pretty heavily on the ha-ha. And this would tie in with the four-issue mini-series by Phil Foglio and Hilary Barta that was already in the works. (Secret Origins #30 was published in May 1988, and the mini would hit stands just four months later.)

We’ll take a look at the mini-series soon, but first, let’s dive into the Secret Origin of Plastic Man!

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From here, the rest of the story continues to follow the original pretty faithfully, just with a lot more humor injected into it (Cole’s version was not played for laughs at all, though you couldn’t call it deadly serious, either). So, yeah, we get a rat with a police hat, a monk wearing roller skates trying to kill flies with a frying pan, and multiple appearances by Burp the Twerp (a character from Cole’s one-page Police Comics humor feature). Some people really like a sillier interpretation of Plastic Man, but for me, this is almost a little too much.

This post is already a bit longer than I planned, but if you’d REALLY like to hear me go on and on about this issue, check out the Secret Origins Podcast! Ryan Daly is the host of this Fire and Water Podcast Network show, and he was kind enough to have me on as a guest. Go give it a listen, and then give Ryan a big, sloppy kiss. He loves it. Really.

Tomorrow … the origin of Plastic Man!