Review: Injustice: Gods Among Us, Year Four Annual #1

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Review: Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1, or Plas During Wartime

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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.

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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!

Recycled: Plastic Man vs. Dopey Joe’s opium ring!

Normally, these reviews of Plastic Man’s past appearances would consist of particular panels with a summary of details from the story to fill in the blanks, but in this case I’m giving you full pages from Police Comics #2 because, brother, there is a lot going on.

How Plastic Man joins the police! Opium! Canada! Casual racism! Bullets fly! Corruption at the highest levels! And all that in just six pages — I’m sure I’ll be saying this a lot, but there’s a ton of story in these relatively short features.

Our story picks up with Plastic Man visiting police headquarters, where he has a proposal for the chief: If Plas can break up the opium racket in town, he’ll be made a full member of the force. The chief calls his bluff, then raises the bet to one opium gang and that notorious gangster, Eel O’Brian. Whoops.

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Back on the street as Eel, Plastic Man quickly hooks up with drug smuggler Dopey Joe. His old pal is happy to bring Eel in on the scam, and reveals the fairly gruesome way the smuggling ring is bringing opium in from Canada. It ain’t pretty, though Eel does get to drive a fancy car.

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I love the way Jack Cole emphasized Plastic Man’s “man of a thousand faces” bit — it’s something that was lost with later iterations. Even more than the shapeshifting, I think it really shows Plas’ cleverness and ability to think on his feet. He’s no dummy.

After following the car and seeing a complicated, high-speed exchange go down, Plas follows one of the drivers and sees an equally complicated drop take place. Changing his face once again, Plastic Man pretends to be a dope addict and tries to shake his way into an opium den. Which, of course, is filled with awful caricatures of Asians.

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I have to admit, seeing these kinds of images is always difficult for me — I feel embarrassed, uncomfortable and often a little pissed. But I also understand that when these sorts of things pop up in Golden Age comics, it’s almost always a matter of ignorance and insensitivity on the creator’s part rather than overt racism. I don’t like it, but I understand it in the context of who created it, and what society was like at the time. I certainly don’t believe Cole was a racist, and I like to believe that he never would have depicted people in this way if he’d been around in more modern times.

But the way Plastic Man rounds up the opium thugs … Christ, Jack.

There are a couple things I like about this page, though. I really dig the way Plastic Man seems to already be well-known to the criminal underground, and I like how comfortable Plas seems to be with his powers. Did the story jump forward in time a bit? It seems likely, but Cole did it in a way that felt natural and unobtrusive. And for the record, I had to look up the definition of “flivver,” but it makes total sense.

Next, Plastic Man zooms back to Ottawa, hot-bed of trans-border crime. He confronts the crooked funeral director, and we learn two things; Plastic Man’s base of operations is Boston, and he’s bulletproof! The funeral director learns that, too, but it doesn’t do him much good since he catches his own slugs on the rebound. By the way, you’ll be surprised to see how many times the bad guys will mistake Plas’ arms for snakes in later stories — not to mention how many times Plas will call criminals “dogs,” which I find weirdly endearing.

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Ug! In short order Plastic Man snatches the fancy lady from the earlier drop, throttles a chauffeur, and sets Dopey up for a police raid while keeping his Eel O’Brian persona intact. He also manages to find out that there’s a boss above Dopey Joe, and gets his phone number to boot. That’s all in one page, guys.

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In our final page, Plas tracks down the big boss and finds out he’s someone with plenty of power and influence. This doesn’t slow Plastic Man down a bit, though, and soon he’s slipping through keyholes, teaching a new meaning to the term “head-butt,” and setting bad guys spinning — literally.

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And with the opium ring cracked, Plastic Man is welcomed onto the police force — even if he didn’t manage to bring in that slippery Eel O’Brian. THE END.

I really enjoy this story, for a number of reasons, but they all mainly come under the umbrella of characteristics and devices that would become classic Plastic Man tropes. The way Plastic Man is shown using his power is amazingly creative, with Plas going into action in a new way on almost every page. This really shows Cole’s unique imagination at work.

In particular, I like the snappy patter that runs throughout this story, from the sneering bad guys to Plastic Man’s own blend of rat-a-tat wiseguy lingo and righteous lawman pronouncements. And as I’ve said before, Plas is getting an obvious kick from busting criminals — he likes being a hero, and that is incredibly engaging. His affability, especially when he’s dealing with his former cohorts, is off the charts and makes him instantly likeable.

It’s not hard to see why Plas was such a success with readers right from the start; at the time, and for a long time after, there was nothing else on the stands quite like Plastic Man.

Police Comics #2 (Plastic Man): Jack Cole, writer/artist

Recycled: A review of The Origin of Plastic Man!

In the late Spring of 1941, Plastic Man stretched out of the mind of genius Jack Cole and onto the pages of Police Comics #1, where in just short six pages he would go from notorious criminal to happy-go-lucky hero thanks to a stray bullet, some unknown acid and the kindness of a local monk.

And that’s just the beginning.

The origin of Plastic Man begins with his alter ego, safecracker Eel O’Brian who is working with the Skizzle Shanks gang to rob the Crawford Chemical Works. But whether through overconfidence or Shanks’ poor planning, a guard gets the drop on the hoods.

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I love the carnival barker hyperbole of that intro and the way it tells just enough to hook the reader — not to mention that wonderfully composed splash at the top (complete with inspiration for the name of this blog!). I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again (and again and again); I’m always impressed by the way that simple costume design is so iconic that it has been virtually unchanged in 74 years. Jack Cole: Genius.

You can also see how, right from the start, Plastic Man was a funny comic that wasn’t a humor comic. In other words, it wasn’t telling jokes or trying to put vaudeville on the page — it was just funny with small asides and character reactions. I don’t know which I like more in that last panel, Eel calling them putrid punks or that cheerful, “Adios, Eel!” But, boy, does Eel look mad.

After taking a couple of bullets, getting drenched in acid and then being abandoned by his cohorts, Eel staggers away from the scene and into the nearby foothills. He manages to lose the cops, but soon collapses, overcome by the strain and the acid seeping into his wound. When he wakes up the next morning he finds himself in Rest-Haven, a monastic mountain retreat where a brother tells Eel that he has been taking care of him since he was found on the trail earlier. More amazingly, the brother tells Eel he turned away the police who came looking for him that morning.

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Is there any other superhero whose origin is based almost completely on kindness? I assume there must be, but I can’t think of one. Eel O’Brian’s whole life is turned around because someone told him, “Hey, I see something in you, something good … something you’ve lost sight of in yourself. You deserve a chance.” That’s amazing. And keep in mind that Eel hasn’t discovered his powers yet; as far as he knows, he’s still just a regular joe.

One more thing: Take a look at that last panel. Cole was already toying with perspective, shadow and “camera” angles, bringing a cinematic flair to his work. We’ll see this come out full-force in later stories, but it’s neat to see it sneaking in here.

Oh, and that thing I said about Eel not realizing he’s changed from hard-nosed crook to man of rubber? Well, a quick stretch of his arms reveals he’s got more of a reach than he did the day before, and after pulling his face like putty, he comes to a quick decision.

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I’m totally entering every room with “Hi, punks!” from now on. These panels go a long way in showing how clever Eel really is — not only did he have the foresight to go back to his gang acting as he just wanted his cut of the Crawford job, but he’s quick enough to insist on being the get-away driver and putting a plan into action. Also, there’s a rabbit.

As the rest of the gang goes into the building to grab the bank messenger, Eel sees his chance to change his clothes AND his face. The gang quickly grabs the money and start to make their way out of the elevator’s escape hatch. Unfortunately for them, they’re about to get a helping hand.

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A couple of things to note, here. First, as the reader can see, this is before Plastic Man realized he was bulletproof, otherwise those wiseguys would’ve gotten it right there on that ladder. And secondly, this is Plastic Man’s first official shape-change! Granted, he just made himself look like a rug, but changing shape to disguise himself as some innocuous object would become a hallmark of the character. It also leads us to these fantastic panels.

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Oh, man — that one guy screaming “Eek!” just kills me.

Plastic Man quickly dispatches two of the thugs, but the other two manage to slip past him and make their way to the roof. As they shimmy down a rope along the side of the building, they realize they aren’t getting anywhere — Plas is pulling the rope up! (Plastic Man seems to have greater-than-normal strength … something that never really comes up otherwise, but how else would he be able to lift and move things at all those angles?) Soon enough it’s a brawl, but the first two crooks manage to make there way to the roof and …

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Whoops! Luckily, as I said Plastic Man is a quick thinker, and even though he’s new to these powers and this is his first time fighting crime, being thrown off a 20-story roof doesn’t even slow him down.

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And so ends the action-packed, six-page origin story of Plastic Man! It’s one of my favorite origins of all time, full of excitement, redemption and fun. Cole’s art is already a marvel to look at with a dynamism that’s sharp even as the art appears — deceptively — simple. (Seriously, go back and look at those panels again, check out those angles and points of view. Then bask in the glory that is Eel’s shit-eating grin in panel five.) And something that doesn’t get mentioned often enough is Cole’s dialogue, which feels realistic and gloriously kooky at the same time.

(And that “hitting th’ pipe” crack? Don’t think that’s the last time you’ll see opium referenced in this book.)

Finally, the last panel’s caption box tells the reader everything they need to know and gives us Cole’s final twist: Plastic Man has launched his crime-fighting career, but this time his old identity will be the mask. Instead of being Eel O’Brian changing into Plastic Man, he’ll dedicate himself to being Plastic Man, with his old life as Eel being the real disguise.

Now that’s an origin story.