Interview: Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters (and what we can expect) starts to take shape with writer Simon Oliver

In just a little more than a month, Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters will finally be on the stands, marking the pliable paladin’s first appearance in a DC comic in years. As part of DC’s Convergence event, the two-issue mini series will put Plas, Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady and the rest of the Freedom Fighters back on familiar territory — fightin’ Nazis and kickin’ robot butt (OK, that last part might be new).

Personally, I can’t wait to see what writer Simon Oliver and artist John McCrea put together, especially after Oliver was kind enough to take the time to share his thoughts on his approach to Plastic Man, some insights on what makes him work, and the importance of Batman’s severed head.

It’s Plastic Man: Did DC approach you to do Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters? Was it a tough sell? What about it appealed to you?

Simon Oliver: DC initially approached me about the Convergence project and I got cold feet, and was frankly a little intimidated. I was busy on other projects and the thought of getting to grips with the kind of continuity that fanboys rake you over the Internet coals over seemed a little daunting to say the least. So I declined, put it to one side and moved on.

But then two weeks later the phone rings and it’s Dan DiDio and the entire editorial team behind the project, and Dan starts throwing DCU timelines I could use and it’s going in one ear and out the other (when I say I simply don’t know superheroes, I really mean it), but when he comes to the one about Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters battling Nazis in occupied NYC, I was like, “Hey, back up there, what the fuck was that?” I might not know superheroes but I’m pretty sure I can do Nazis.

So I was pretty much in, but then Dan went on to say, “Hey, just focus on a character-driven story, and above all have fun with it,” which is an obvious but too-often unsaid detail of writing comics (it shouldn’t be about punching in and hitting predetermined story points) and, well, I was sold. And yeah I had fun writing it and I think it shows on the page.

What materials did DC send to familiarize you with the character? Was there a version or storyline — such as Plas’ time as an Axis-buster — that you connected with in particular?

I read everything I could about Plastic, which compared to some of the other DCU characters is surprisingly light on the ground. It’s odd, because everyone knows who he is, he has this insane name recognition for a character who’s appeared in so few books. There were a couple of questions about his continuity, he was at one point killed off, but then there was a question about if he was really dead? And can you kill someone who can’t biodegrade? I think in taking on Plastic Man I not only dodged a big continuity bullet, but really lucked out in getting a character who despite everyone knowing who he was, wasn’t too loaded down with conflicting history. He really is a diamond that’s been, if not forgotten, then at least kind of passed over in favor of other characters.

But out of all his past story lines it was the old battling Nazis story line I got to focus on. I grew up in England in the 1970’s when they still published a lot of war comics like Commando and Warlord. That part was relatively easy to tap into.

Working sketch by John McCrea
Working sketch by John McCrea

I know you can’t give away any details, but some of the art teased by (Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters artist) John McCrea seemed to hint at a closer look at Plastic Man’s time at the Rest-Haven monastery; does that point to the sort of thing you meant (in an interview with Newsarama) when you mentioned finding and exploring an “emotional connection” you weren’t expecting?

Yeah, it wasn’t what I was expecting going into the project, but at some point with Plastic the story started taking me below the surface and into his past to find out “who” he really is. And to do that I had to go back to before he became Plastic Man, to when he was a petty criminal, and find that inner conflict. I mean, he went from criminal to superhero pretty quickly. By accident he was handed these powers and given a second chance, when he really didn’t deserve it — that has to leave some scars, that has to create some conflict over “who” he really is inside.

Plastic Man really does seem to be a “known unknown;” everyone is familiar with him, but nobody seems to know much about him, especially when it comes to his past as a criminal. Saying he got his powers accidentally and was “given a second chance when he really didn’t deserve it” is a powerful point. I’ve always wondered what it was about his life as a crook that made him almost grateful for the chance to be something, to be someone, else.

Yeah I totally agree. He was a lowlife who had the potential for greatness thrust upon him. I think as much as he’d like to draw a line in the sand and forget his criminal past, it’s really as much a part of who he is and how he got there; he just has to learn how to balance both sides of himself.

He’s kind of a superhero without being overly super, or heroic. He’s in that camp of superheroes that didn’t train or plan on becoming what they are — I think that makes them kind of interesting. It’s kind of like lottery winners; one day you have nothing, the next you have it all.

Plas stretches out with some tai-chi at Rest-Haven. Art by John McCrea.
Plas stretches out with some tai-chi at Rest-Haven. Art by John McCrea.

Was there something in particular in the character’s origin or history that resonated with you?

There’s a big detail that I’m not allowed to mention, but let’s just say Plastic has a big “reversal of fortune” and is back where he started, forced to reevaluate his life so far, and choose how he’s going to act from that point on. I’ve not written superheroes before, but for me as a writer that’s the kind of emotional spine, the meat of any story, that you look for. I wanted to take Plastic on a emotional life-changing journey, but at the same time not lose who he is as a character and what makes people like him so much. He’s not a brooding guy, he’s not the Dark Knight, he’s not someone who’s generally weighed down by life. He rolls with the punches, he’s a glass half-full guy, and I didn’t want to lose sight of his humor, but at the same time didn’t want to make him a joke.

If there’s anything I picked up in my research and I think had a valid point, was that people liked Plastic but felt he’d turned into too much of a wise-cracking sidekick. I really wanted to take him back and show who he was inside, balance out the jokes with some heart.

Most people do think of Plastic Man as just a humor character without realizing Woozy Winks was originally the comic relief — Plastic Man was the straight man. You said you don’t want to lose his humor, but you also don’t want him to be a joke; how tough was it to maintain that balance? And what do you think of the more goofball portrayals of Plastic Man — do you think they miss the point?

I wouldn’t say they miss the point, it’s just a different approach, and as much as I like to have moments in my books that are funny, at least to me, I wouldn’t say I was an out-and-out funny writer. There’s a moment in my second issue, which only hit me during the lettering phase, where Plastic assumes the bag of explosives he has is fake. It’s just this potentially throw-away moment, or at least it should be, but one that has a huge impact on the story. But after all he’s been through, to make such a stupid but human mistake, is kind of funny to me. It makes him very human.

plasticman_colorpanel_mccrea_kalisz
Art by John McCrea, colors by John Kalisz

Speaking of Woozy, do you think he helps or hurts the character of Plastic Man?

I did manage to get Woozy in the mix, just one scene and things do not do well between them. If I did get to continue with the characters I’d go for dysfunction between them over comedy. Woozy would be the walking reminder of what Plastic was. He’s that friend who is going to get you shot. You can’t remember why you’re friends, but you stick up for them despite all common sense telling you to run the other way.

The more I think about (Plastic Man), really, the more I feel I want to pitch for his own book. It feels like such a no-brainer to me.

I couldn’t agree more. A Plastic Man book seems kind of obvious, and in particular I’d love to see what you would do with that. I have no idea what’s going on with Convergence, but whether his own book was set in the “regular” universe or the Nazi-fighting universe, I think people would definitely respond to it. I know I’d be in.

The Convergence thing is definitely a self-contained thing and from what little I know I don’t think it will have any huge bearing on continuity. I think it’s designed more as a way of looking back at different aspects of the DCU’s past, before moving on into business as usual after the move (to California).

I don’t think I’ve heard it described that way before, but it makes sense.

I may be wrong but that was the impression I got when it was pitched to me.

I think that there may be some good books coming out of it. I kept waiting to be told to rewrite everything based on some change in another book, or to shoehorn in something that wouldn’t work, but they left me alone, even let me use Batman’s severed head as a plot device, if that gives you any indication. My feeling is they should learn from that and inject some sense of fun back in. Everyone is too damn precious about IP and potential movie spin-offs to have any fun anymore.

Which is such a shame — I think fun is what’s so appealing about superhero comics in the first place. But if I can have my own, “Hey back up there, what the fuck was that?” — Batman’s severed head?!?

It’s just a robot Batman’s head, but I couldn’t not find a way to do it. But I was surprised that they let me do it.

Knowing the approach was more than “punching in and hitting predetermined story points” is really encouraging. And while you’re not wrong about fanboys and devotion to continuity, do you hope some of what you’ve written will become a part of the Plastic Man canon?

I think I was lucky because Plastic has been so passed over by the reinvention and new, more grounded approach so many other characters have had in the last 20-plus years. It’s only two issues, and we cover a crazy amount of ground in those 44 pages, so I didn’t get to do the kind of depth I would have really, really liked to do on him. The great thing was that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, his origin story is no different, just his reaction and moral struggle is hopefully a new angle that gives him some added depth.

Were there any Plastic Man writers or artists that you particularly enjoyed?

John fricking McCrea — blew me away on this.

Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1 will be released April 29.

In the meantime, catch up with writer Simon Oliver on Twitter at @simonoliver01 and be sure to read his current series, FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics (it’s really good). You can also find artist John McCrea on Twitter at @mccreaman, along with lots of his great artwork. Let them know you’re looking forward to seeing their work on Plastic Man!

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