Monday, January 24, 2011

Plastic Man Postcard by Ethan Van Sciver

Looking back on my childhood memories, I do believe Plastic Man was the first super-hero I actually hated. In fact, I wasn't even 100% sure he was a "real" super-hero at first. You see, I loved almost all the super-hero cartoons featuring Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Superman and so forth. Those guys were very much in the comic book mode, especially the '60s Marvel ones where they literally cut up and barely animated actual comic book art. Then there were all those tongue-in-cheek pretenders the cartoon studios trotted out, like the Blue Falcon, Atom Ant and the rest of those big fakers who were still riffing on Batmania over a decade after it died. I made allowances for the ones who took the work seriously, like Space Ghost and Birdman, even though I knew they weren't proper comic book adaptations. Like Jules Feiffer, I resented super-heroes that got too cheeky, as though they were mocking myself and the other kid viewers who wanted legit super-hero action, and Plastic Man was the biggest traitor of the bunch.

You see, even though it would be years before I read a Plastic Man comic book story, the cartoon made it clear that he was in fact a DC Comics character, and it also made it plain that he sucked. Like a one man Impossibles, Plas could basically become anything, was never in physical danger, and generally employed wimpy non-violent methods of fighting crime. While regular super-heroes had a decent supporting cast, Plastic Man had that klutzy idiot Hula-Hula that was never not annoying. His girlfriend Penny's primary charm was lost of a prepubescent, not that she would be my type even now, and boys only have so much tolerance for incessantly distressed damsels. Plastic Man had the worst villains, and then they went and added Baby Plas, because kids love watching shows about new fathers and the trouble their super-powered infants get up to.

The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show was an anthology like Space Stars, and while I was never a huge fan of The Herculoids or the Galaxy Trio, they were still alright. Not only was the Plastic Man cartoon itself terrible, but it was "supported" by absolute crap like Rickety Rocket, Fangface and Mighty Man & Yukk. However, even taking all that into consideration, the very worst aspect of the show was the live-action inserts in which a smirking, smarmy, terribly unfunny actor played Plastic Man as the show's "host." That guy made the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man look like the George Reeves Superman.

Probably the first Plastic Man stories I read were in Adventure Comics, and they weren't much better than the show. Plas would turn up here and there over the years, but I think it says something that even when Justice League was desperate for name characters in its post-Legends relaunch, nobody bothered with Plas. There have been numerous attempts at "funny" Plastic Man specials, mini-series and even an ongoing, and speaking as a guy who loved Ambush Bug and Blue Devil, I just couldn't see the appeal. Those books were all bland sitcoms masquerading as comics, like adapting the tired television super-hero parodies back into the books themselves.

I did buy a Plastic Man Super Powers Collection action figure, but only because it was so cheap for so long in the discount bin, I finally took pity on it. He was useful when other toys needed someone to beat up. I was always losing action figures to thieving kids in my neighborhood, but no one ever stole Plas. He was still in my collection until my brother lost every single one of my figures at some camp for juvenile delinquents he went to. I bet some pre-teen kleptomaniac looked at that Plastic Man and realized he must have a serious problem if it had come to this.

In the late '90s, someone finally decided the character was historically significant, and then Grant Morrison went and added him as the "trickster god" in his vision of a pantheistic JLA that pretty much marked the point where his run started limping. Morrison thought it would be brilliant to recast Plas in the Jim Carrey mold, problem because he was really high during an Ace Ventura: Pet Detective/The Mask double feature. Plas became the gratingly obnoxious ass intended to offer "comic relief," which was usually related to ancient Warner Brothers sight gags and the sexual harassment of super-heroines. In searching the internet for art to go with this piece, I came across no shortage of both, and I feel the twenty-fifth image of a partially disrobed Wonder Woman choking a perverted Plas really drove home how pathetic the character has become.

My history with Plastic Man was toxic, and one punishing comic appearances after another stoked that earliest childhood hatred across three decades. A funny thing happened in 2001, though. I was convinced by solicitation copy to read Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits by Art Spiegelman. The book was part biography of the creator, part history of the character, plus classic reprints and a look at cultural impact/artifacts, all of it presented through the graphic design artistry of Chip Kidd. The whole production was outstanding, and completely changed my perspective on Plastic Man. I followed that up by reading old school essays on Plas by guys familiar with the original material, and then made sure to sample Jack Cole's work myself, and realized why it's considered one of the high points of the Golden Age.

I now realize that Plastic Man is one of the truly under-appreciated gems among super-heroes, with classic stories potent enough to outlive most of his '40s contemporaries, making it a month into the Silver Age before his publisher sold out to DC (who in turn sold out the character.) I don't hate the Plastic Man, only DC's inability to write the character remotely correct. You see, Plastic Man is not an all-ages goofy character. He's the straight man with a kinky body meant to navigate a thoroughly crooked world. The old comics are filled with dark humor and dirty deeds committed by delightfully wicked n'er-do-wells. Plas is himself an ex-crook who still pals around with the opportunistic Woozy Winks and busts gun-runners, sweatshops run on child labor, diabolical entities, and so forth. Plastic Man is relevant, sexy, and cool in hindsight, and it's only the minds of his writers that got small.

There's a reasonable amount of decent art of cartoony Plastic Man on the internet, both geared for kids and arrested development cases. However, I went to the trouble of coloring and otherwise enhancing an Ethan Van Sciver convention sketch for this "postcard" because he seems to be the only illustrator out there who "gets" the character. Plas may be malleable, but there's handsome heroic features and an underlying anatomy in Van Sciver's interpretation. The Pliable Paladin needs someone who can bring back the serio-comic elements of Cole's awesome comics. I can't think of any writer better than Gail Simone to join Van Sciver in playing up the contrast between the necessary humor of Plastic Man with the darkness and complexity of his world, the latter having been completely forgotten over the years. Rumors have placed both creators on a prospective project in some dim future, and if there's any justice in this industry, it'll be Plastic Man.


Tom Hartley said...

DC's treatment of Plas has managed to be even worse than its treatment of that other Golden Age great, Captain Marvel. At least DC managed to put out 8 whole volumes of Plastic Man Archives before downsizing the Archives program.

Spiegelman & Kidd's Jack Cole book is required reading.

mathematicscore said...

As always, your case is pretty much airtight, and I much prefer a more legitimate superhero take (with just a dash of absurdity) to straight up comic relief. That said, during DC 1,000,000, when the future JLA is going slowly insane, I loved the giant hands used as a screen that said "we aren't talking about you."