DC Comics launched it latest nothing-will-ever-be-the-same epic this week with the release of Dark Days: The Forge #1, itself a prelude to Dark Nights: Metal, and there were surprises and Easter eggs a-plenty. Of course, around here we’re mainly concerned with one big egg in particular.
Generally speaking, I haven’t really been keeping up with monthly comics for a while. Which is why I’ve hardly read anything from the Injustice: Gods Among Us storyline, even though it launched in early 2013. But I still have an idea of what’s going on, and I’m glad about that because otherwise I might’ve missed one of the best Plastic Man stories I’ve read in a long time.
The alternate universe Injustice story spun out of a video game of the same name released that same year, and it boils down to the now-tired idea of, “What if Superman went evil?” It’s a trope I personally think has gotten really boring (and has been for a long time, honestly), and any kind of merchandising tie-in makes me leery, so I actively avoided the comic. But based on Injustice: Gods Among Us, Year Four Annual #1 (eesh, what a mouthful), I might revisit the whole thing because Tom Taylor writes the hell out of this issue.
Taylor, who was also the original writer on the series, pulls off something that seems to give a lot of other writers trouble — finding the balance of Plastic Man. Still a seemingly devil-may-care character who cracks wise in the face of undeniable danger, Taylor’s Plas is also formidable, determined, and focused. He mockingly calls out the wrongs he sees, and demands justice from the group that has set itself up as rulers of the world. He knows who he is, who he’s been, and acknowledges his mistakes while still moving forward. He is, in a word, heroic. That’s the kind of Plastic Man I like to see.
The story, which was released earlier this month, opens with a group of protestors/terrorists (depending on who you ask) blowing up the famed statue of Superman. Almost immediately, Flash and Superman are on the scene, and after a super-speed sweep of the park, Flash has rounded up the four protestors. But, as Cyborg tells them from back at headquarters, there should be five of them. While the former heroes look for the missing man, a park bench starts shapeshifting and untying his compatriots — until Superman and Flash come back and arrest him, too. Flash recognizes him and is instantly apprehensive because this kid is Luke McDunnagh, Plastic Man’s son.
Back at the Hall of Justice, what comprises the Justice League decides there can’t be any favoritism and Luke has to be imprisoned along with the other super-criminals. You kind of get the idea that it’s less about nepotism and more about self-preservation, though, as the group also goes on high-alert, especially once Plastic Man actually walks through the doors. In short order Plas manages to insult the group, piss off Superman, and point out that Sinestro has a really evil mustache.
I don’t want to give too much away, but what follows is a great sort of heist story, with Plastic Man handily outsmarting and out-heroing his old friends. Tom Taylor’s characterization of Plas is, again, fantastic. I would love to see Taylor take on a regular Plastic Man series; I’ve mentioned other writers in the past, but with this annual Taylor has jumped to the top of my list. Really, if for no other reason than he brought back Woozy Winks in a way that feels real and loaded with subtle depth. Sharing few words (as men tend to do), Plas and Woozy communicate a long and heartfelt friendship, one that would lead an ordinary man to risk Superman’s wrath. In a book filled with great scenes, this might be my favorite.
Also pitch-perfect is the artwork by Bruno Redondo, who captures facial expressions, body language, and camera angles with a solid self-assurance that grabs the reader without being flashy. That might sound like faint praise, but Redondo’s work (along with the seamless finishes by Sergio Sandoval and Jordi Tarragona on the final pages) is really wonderful, and I’d even call some panels beautiful. As a whole, from Sandoval’s inks to the coloring by Rex Lokus, I can’t say enough good things about this creative team.
At its heart, the Injustice Year Four Annual (I refuse to type that whole name out again), is a story about family. It’s about the love between a father and son, even when that relationship has been strained to its breaking point in the past. It’s about the continuing break-up of the family that was once the Justice League. And a prodigal son comes home, making a holy mess out of the carefully placed dinner table. I was happy to see Plastic Man was the one stretching his elbows all over that table.
It’s ironic that an alternate universe version of Plastic Man somehow turned out to be a truer version of that character than I’ve seen in a while. If DC ever does get around to putting out a Plastic Man series, or even making him a regular part of a relaunched JLA book, I hope this is the Plastic Man we’ll see. This is the Plas I’ve been waiting for.
This is probably going to be a short review, because in all honestly I’m still a little confused by Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters, and whatever this two-issue mini series was trying to do.
I can only guess that the mini was DC’s quick-and-dirty way of reintroducing Plastic Man to readers, and maybe setting up a new status quo for what I hope is the character’s return to a post-Convergence DCU. But as I said, that’s only a guess because the story itself doesn’t tell us much.
The second issue opens with a brief recap of Plas’ origin and a neat look at his time at the Rest Haven monastery, where he not only learns how to control his power but where he’s also put on his personal path to redemption. From there we jump into a scene where the Future’s End superbots are wreaking havoc on a platoon of Nazis while the Freedom Fighters look on. How long have the robots been tearing through the city? How did the Freedom Fighters manage to complete their escape from the Nazi prison from last issue? How were the Axis soldiers able to mobilize so quickly (or did it happen slowly? The city looks wrecked, later), and why are the Freedom Fighters and the Silver Ghost so quick to ally with each other? None of these – or any other – questions are ever really answered, and transitions from scene to scene jump forward with a jarring abruptness.
There are some fun fight scenes – artist John McCrea seemed to be having a little more fun this issue – and moments of light-heartedness, but for the most part the whole thing felt … shapeless. And surprisingly, this isn’t a great thing when it comes to a Plastic Man comic (or any comic, really). It made me wonder what writer Simon Oliver was shooting for, because while a reader could see points where the ideas of Plas’ atonement, heroism and questions of identity were being brought up, it was harder to see the writer who brought us The Exterminators and the excellent FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics. I suspect the problem is really with the editing, not the creative team, and I’d be interested in seeing what Oliver could do with an ongoing series where he could flesh out some of these ideas.
Oh, and the rest of the Freedom Fighters? If you’re a fan of the team, prepare for disappointment as the gang makes what is essentially the best-marketed cameo in comic book history.
I do like Phantom Lady’s slightly more sensible outfit, though.
Let’s be clear about one thing right from the beginning: Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1 was not what I was expecting. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
If you picked up this book thinking you were going to get the wisecracking Plas, the hyperactive hero no one — including himself — takes seriously, you were in for a surprise. This isn’t about Plastic Man as comic relief; this is Plas during wartime.
That’s something important to keep in mind, and a realization I had to come to myself reading this first installment of the two-issue mini series. Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters, at least in this first issue, is less of a superhero comic and more of a war comic. And in the context of a story set on Earth X — where the Nazis have won and New York is a city under fascist control — it makes sense.
Written by Simon Oliver, with art by John McCrea, the story sets the scene and tone early, with Nazi soldiers building a gallows for the captured and de-powered Freedom Fighters, who in this iteration seem to be led by Plastic Man. This is in spite of the presence of Uncle Sam, who usually fronts the Fighters, and it’s these kinds of small details (Plas makes an overt reference to Earth X on the first page, for instance) that make me wonder if, instead of a return to the Silver and Bronze Age versions of these characters we’re getting yet another, slightly different take. Is this the Plas who left Earth 2 to fight on Earth X, now gone native and burned out by the rigors of war? Or is this a Plastic Man who actually is native to this Earth, a hero the others have rallied around? I have no idea, and we’ll have to wait until the second issue to see if there are any answers.
Set against the opening backdrop of the gallows we also get narration from Plastic Man himself, a device used — sometimes ponderously — throughout the story, itself told mostly in flashback. The plot centers on a failed attempt by the Freedom Fighters at taking out a super-powered Nazi called the Silver Ghost. After losing their powers thanks to a Convergence dome suddenly appearing over the city, the Freedom Fighters barely escape and start living a life that’s even more underground than before, with Plas forced to return to petty crime just to keep the team fed.
Soon enough Plastic Man (now going by his old alias of Eel O’Brian) is trying to keep the underground movement going by buying guns from an old friend, who cynically betrays him to the Nazis. Somehow this leads to all of the Freedom Fighters being rounded up, though we’re not shown how, and this takes us back to the beginning, with the Freedom Fighters shackled in a prison and listening to soldiers preparing for the hanging. But at the last moment, the heroes regain their powers and bust out, just in time to hear a booming voice in the sky announce that the convergence has begun and “only one city shall survive” — setting up next issue’s appearance of the Future’s End super-bots.
I have to admit to having mixed feelings about Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1. The work by both Oliver and McCrea is solid, but both also feel rushed in places — an unfortunate consequence of having only two issues in which to tell what could be, and probably should be, a much more complex story. I kept getting the sense that there were ideas planted here that would never see fruition, and as a reader that made the whole thing oddly unsatisfying. The short run forces the creators to front-load the first issue with a lot of exposition and scene-setting, so I’m hopeful that the second issue will be less clunky.
McCrea’s art is great for the street-level action, and he consistently turns in some of the best reaction shots, but I’m not sure a book featuring Plastic Man is the best fit for his style. Many of the super-powered scenes almost seem static and, most disappointingly, Plas’ powers are barely on display. For a character who can literally take any shape that can be thought of, it was a let-down to see him only stretch like some kind of Mister Fantastic or Elongated Man. Shape-changing is Plastic Man’s defining characteristic — too essentially ignore it seems like an surprising oversight.
You might notice that Plastic Man is getting most of the attention here. That’s not just because this is a Plas-centric site — the Freedom Fighters just aren’t given much to do in this issue. There is very little action for the team, and even less dialogue or characterization. I understand that Plastic Man is the headliner for the series (wow, that feels good to say), but I still would have liked to have seen more from the Freedom Fighters. Instead, the story here could have been told just as easily without them included at all. Again, this could all change next issue, but for now there are a lot of characters being overlooked in what is ostensibly a team book.
As negative as all this might sound, I really did enjoy this issue, especially once I wrapped my mind around the concept of it being a war book. Is it a wacky, hijinks-filled good time? Nope. But it is an original, interesting take on Plastic Man as a hero, on his criminal past, and his struggle to resolve the two against the backdrop of wartime occupation. It’s ambitious and digs into aspects of the character that are often left unexplored. We’ll have to wait to see if the second issue delivers on that promise.
Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #2 will be on sale May 27th!