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!

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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!

Celebrate 75 years of Plas with … the origin of Plastic Man! (part 1)

This year is Plastic Man’s 75th anniversary in comics, and May 14, 2016, will be the exact date marking Plas’ first appearance in Police Comics #1 all those years ago. In honor of this momentous milestone, not to mention Jack Cole’s artistry in creating such a completely original and obviously enduring character, I’ll be sharing the various retellings of Plastic Man’s completely bonkers origin story (and a few extras, here and there) throughout the week.

One of the things I like about Plastic Man’s origin story is just how quotable Cole’s original 1941 story is, both visually and written. Later creators have obviously loved being able to pay homage to both of these elements in their own work, and who could blame them? Believe me, this won’t be the last time you see Eel O’Brian getting cheeky while shouting, “Great Guns! I’m stretching like a rubber band!”

First up we have a condensed version of Plastic Man’s origin as published in Adventure Comics #467, written by Len Wein, with art by Joe Staton and inks from Bob Smith!

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And I seriously just noticed that the shadowy men of D.I.P. in the last panel are also dead ringers for past versions of the Chief!

As an added bonus, here are the Plastic Man entries from Who’s Who in the DC Universe — both the original 1986 run-down and the 1990 update.

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You can see how hard writer Phil Foglio (with art by Hilary Barta) was dragging Plastic Man over toward a more wacky and literally mentally unstable version of Plas (a version I’m on record as not being a huge fan 0f), and how much of the 1986 entry (art by Joe Staton) was jettisoned post Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Tomorrow … the origin of Plastic Man!

Celebrate Plastic Man’s 75th anniversary with Comixology!

Guys. GUYS. I usually try to avoid shilling for any particular distributor or company, but Comixology (a service I actually both use and enjoy) just announced a weeklong sale in honor of Plastic Man’s 75th anniversary!

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It’s a pretty good sale, offering 50 percent off a nice selection of comics hitting all the highlights from Plas’ long and storied history. Any of the comics listed would be a good choice (with a possible exception, your mileage may blah blah), but if you want to focus on one run in particular, I’d wholeheartedly recommend the Kyle Baker issues. And the entire 20-issue series is available, so get to it!

(You can’t go wrong with the Phil Foglio/Hilary Barta four-issue mini series, either. Or the Adventure Comics books. Or the original Golden Age stories by Plastic Man creator Jack Cole. Or … hell, get ’em all!)

Speaking of the Golden Age, it may be surprising to some that Plastic Man has been around long enough to celebrate a 75th anniversary. It’s always worth remembering that Plas hit the stands on May 14, 1941 (cover date August 1941), in Police Comics #1. This was only three years after Superman’s debut, but Plastic Man was already a wholly original creation, and a nearly instant hit for Quality Comics.

Since then, Plastic Man has enjoyed an almost constant presence, in comics, cartoons, figures, and various DC marketing efforts. Even when the character doesn’t have his own ongoing series or featured spot in a team book, he’s never too far away. The titles being offered by Comixology are a good way to see how Plas has developed over time, and why he remains a favorite of fans and creators alike.

The sale ends May 9, so don’t miss your chance to pick up some great Plastic Man titles!

Review: Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #2

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Cover art by Hilary Barta

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.

Writer Simon Oliver hints at his plans for Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters

With the April 29 release of Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1 slowly inching closer, the two-issue Convergence mini-series is finally getting some love from the comics press. Newsarama posted a great interview with PM-FF writer Simon Oliver yesterday, and it gives some insight into what readers can expect when the first issue finally drops.

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Oliver mentions more than once his aim to explore the emotional depth of Plastic Man, and that is really encouraging. That doesn’t mean I want Plas to become an angsty mope – far from it. But I do think the character has been allowed to be seen as a one-note clown, a court jester dancing around the more-serious – and more seriously taken – superhero royalty. It’s easy to forget that Plastic Man is also a former most-wanted criminal turned Nazi-fighter and government agent. Plas gives a writer plenty of avenues to explore, many that are much more interesting than the prankster role he’s usually shoe-horned into. As I’ve said before, Plastic Man is definitely a smart-aleck, but he’s no dummy.

Here’s some of what Oliver had to say:

But I got to kind of pick the storyline and characters, at first honestly because of the Nazis in New York City angle, but then when I started digging more into Plastic Man, who he was, who he had become, I really started to find that emotional connection I honestly didn’t expect going in.

And then there’s this:

I think one of the things I picked up on going in was in the past, readers had felt Plastic Man had fallen a little too hard into the comic relief role, without making him dark and gritty (which is itself becoming a well-worn trope). I wanted to stay true to who I felt Plastic Man was, but at the same time show some inner conflict, and at the heart of this huge story is his coming to terms with who he once was and who he is now.

Sounds good to me! And as Oliver also said, the book’s “got robot superheroes and frickin’ Nazis in it!”

Go read the whole interview for more about Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters mini-series, and be sure to put it on your list for April!

cover image by Hilary Barta

Plastic Man in color, plus The Sad Case of the Missing Credits

I’ve mentioned a couple of times how much I’m looking forward to Hilary Barta’s covers for Convergence: Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters, and thanks to the artist we got a couple of sneak peeks at what readers could expect when the title is released in April. But now that that the solicitations are up on the DC website, we finally get to see the full-color version for the first issue.

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That is one explosive image! (Pun intended – I apologize for nothing.) It’s a dynamic drawing, and the colors really help Plas and his Nazi-punching pals from the Freedom Fighters jump off the page … even though the solicitation makes it sound as if the heroes might be teaming up with history’s biggest villains.

STARRING HEROES FROM CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS! You have to see this story to believe it! Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters are on the gallows in a New York City taken over by Nazis, when robot super heroes attack from Futures End and enemies become allies.

Like most things, that could be completely awesome or utterly terrible. I’m curious to see where writer Simon Oliver takes it. While we’re on the topic of covers, let’s talk about that Chip Kidd variant.

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Pretty cool, right? I’m a fan of Kidd’s design work, and not surprisingly I think what he did for Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits is among his best. Unfortunately, while I love his variant cover, I hate the fact that the solicitation only mentions his contribution and not the original artist — who in this case is iconic Plastic Man artist Ramona Fradon.

Let me make it clear: I don’t blame Chip Kidd for this. I’m sure if it was up to him he’d gladly give credit where it’s due; he is, after all, an artist himself. Instead this seems like the sadly familiar circumstance of DC Comics overlooking the creators who have, and continue to, provide them with content. (You might’ve noticed, for example, that I didn’t mention who did the coloring for the Barta cover; that’s because DC didn’t actually list it). I can only hope that Fradon is mentioned somewhere in the book’s credits, just as I hope all of the original artists are credited. DC might not see it as the obvious thing to do, but it would be the right thing to do.

But just in case: The image above is from Plastic Man #17 (vol. 2), written by John Albano, with art by Ramona Fradon and inks by Bob Smith. The colorist, unfortunately, was not included in the original credits.

For what it’s worth, I admire (as always) Kidd’s eye for imagery. When choosing from the artists who have depicted Plastic Man in the past, he could hardly have done better than Ramona Fradon, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for this variant in my local shop.

Semi-breaking news! Hilary Barta returns to Plas with Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters covers

As more details are slowly released about DC’s big Convergence event, it seems as if the folks running the company might be realizing they have a history, and one worth celebrating, maintaining and revisiting.

Of course, I’m talking about Plastic Man.

A couple of weeks ago artist Hilary Barta — the penciller for the 1988-89 Plastic Man mini series — posted a picture of his cover for 1989’s Plastic Man #4 on Facebook and casually mentioned it was “the last time I drew Plastic Man on a DC cover–until a few weeks ago.” Naturally, this got my plasti-sense a-quivering: Why would Barta be returning now to a character he so indelibly portrayed 15 years ago? Especially one that has been missing, for all intents and purposes, from the DCU since the launch of the New 52 in 2011?

Could it have anything to do with the upcoming Convergence: Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters?

As Barta answered: “Uh … yes.”

This is great news! Not only does it mean readers will get to finally see Barta working with Plastic Man again, it also speaks volumes about the direction DC might be taking with the two-issue Convergence mini series, and possibly beyond that. The 1988-89 series was satirical and silly, and I hope having Barta contribute what he described as “a couple covers” means DC might finally be willing to stop taking itself quite so seriously. At the very least, it’s a solid acknowledgment of the history — and work — that has been put into the character by previous writers and artists.

And as you can see in this sneak peek Barta also posted on Facebook, he draws a helluva Plastic Man!

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Even cropped, it’s a great image and I can’t wait to see the finished cover. Well, I guess I mean I don’t want to wait — but Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters kicks off with issue #1 on April 29,  with issue #2 hitting stands May 27.

(And if you’d like to see more of Hilary Barta’s work, check out a preview of his work in IDW’s recently released Garbage Pail Kids Puke-tacular #1 – featuring a cameo by suspiciously stretchy superhero — and at his own website.)