Monday, August 27, 2007

Least Likely to Change: Plastic Man

Judging from the poll in the sidebar, it seems that the majority of you think Plastic Man has changed the least since his Golden Age incarnation.

I couldn't disagree with you more.

Sure, he looks pretty much the same, adjusting for change in drawing styles since the Golden Age. But, in my opinion, he couldn't be more different. In fact, I think he's the character who's changed the most. He's become the very opposite of what he originally was...

the straight man.

C'mon, now, raise your hands; how many of you have actually read a Golden Age Plastic Man story? More than one story? More than five?

Most readers' current impressions of Plastic Man are not gathered from work done by his creator, Jack Cole. Their impressions come from his appearances in the Morrison JLA, his Kyle Baker series, his occasional crossover cameos, or, at oldest, his '60s series and Brave & Bold appearances.

None of those are anything like the original Plastic Man. Sure, his powers were wacky. His sidekick, Woozy Winks, was wacky. His villains, heck, his entire world was wacky.

But he was not. Plastic Man wasn't crazy, and seldom joked, except in that wan way of battle-banter that all Golden Agers favored. Part of the genius in Cole's creation was juxtaposing a fairly straightforward heroic type again a world more like "Fun Comics" or "Percival the Cop" than like Metropolis or Gotham. It was the dynamic marriage of the new superhero comics with the old "sproing-take" humor comics that was the basis for Plas's adventures, and his popularity.

The humor came not from Plastic Man being a wacky goofball, but from his comparative deadpan in his crazy world. Plastic Man wasn't meta-referential absurdism; it was camp. Plastic Man wasn't Jim Carey; he was Adam West.

Plas was, in essence, the straight man in his own series. Almost no subsequent writer has been able, or even tried, to duplicate this effect. It's understandable; it's the natural consequence of
putting him in "our" modern comic book world of superpowered rapists and deformed child-torturers. In order to keep this current world seeming "normal", writers have taken all the wackiness that used to surround Plas and tried to stuff it in him.

He's an elastic character, yes, but not that elastic. It simply doesn't work, so as a result, Plastic Man always seems forced, unfunny, out of context, and generally annoying. All this is done in the service of making the current comics remain "serious". But, naturally, the effect is the opposite. As soon as Plastic Man appears, you are are reminded through his commentary that, ehn, it's just a comic, there's nothing really at stake, don't take anything that happens to heart as significant.

Recently, writers have realized this problem and have therefore begun to ground Plas as if he were a Marvel hero, with personal problems, an illegitimate son, crises of conscience. All of this leads to the further Death of Whimsy and Dearth of Fun in comics, and only serves to spoil, not deepen, Plastic Man. I mean, really; shades of Speedball. Except for his look, Plastic Man is now nearly completely unrecognizable as the same character as the Golden Age version.

If you want Plastic Man to even remotely resemble what he was in the Golden Age, you need to take him out of the more serious center of the DCU and put him off at its wackier edges, such as the Shadowpact, the Doom Patrol, the All-New Atom, Dr. Thirteen, and the like. Let him be the character that takes the craziness seriously, like he did in the Golden Age. Let Plastic Man not be zany, but rather the symbol of zaniness. Reposition Plas as the straight man against all the DCU's zaniness, and he would bounce back in no time.


Jared said...

"Plastic Man wasn't Jim Carey; he was Adam West"

You are so right. I've a huge love for the Golden Age Plastic Man stories, and you're exactly right. That is exactly how Plastic Man was presented.

No wonder I never got into the Kyle Baker PLASTIC MAN series, despite my love of both Plas and Baker's work.

Plastic Man, like Captain Marvel, needs his own little world away from DCU proper where he can exist according to his own logic. In fact, wouldn't a Plas/Cap. Marvel crossover make more sense than either of them joining the JLA?

Anonymous said...

Great article!

I can't say I've ever read more than 2 or 3 Plastic Man Golden Age stories, but I always agreed that "zany Plastic Man" felt forced. Although I do think Frank Miller did a admirable job with zany Plastic Man in DKSA (and All-Star Bats, yes, I'm one of the 17 who actually like it)

Keep the series coming!


Anonymous said...

I agree about Captain Marvel and Plastic Man not belonging in the DCU. Witness how all attempts to shoe-horn them in come off like ramming a square peg into a round hole. "Dark Mary Marvel"? Mass murderer Black Adam? Grim and gritty wizard Billy Batson? Give me a break...

David page said...

You know when you put it like that I wish I could retract my vote

Anonymous said...

Every now and then in the 1970s a writer would treat Plas in more of the straight-man manner. His short-lived "Adventure" strip -- when he was sharing the book with Aquaman and Steve Ditko's Starman, but I can't for the life of me remember Plas' writer -- more or less kept Plas straight and let Woozy handle the hijinks (with absurd villains and supporting characters, yup). And an issue of "Super Friends" written, I think, by E. Nelson Bridwell, did much the same. That one had the interesting twist that repeatedly Plas would be about to close a case when one of those fool superfriends like Batman or Superman would blunder in and screw it up. Heh.

Brushwood said...

I too, sit chastised. You're right. Although my first exposure (beyond seeing the origin in Feiffer's Great Comic Book Heroes) was the 70s series, in which he was mostly serious. Mostly.

Still, I do think a straight man in a crazy world based on the DCU can work... in fact I'd suggest Garth Ennis came very close to that style in Hitman.

Oh man, Plastic Man by Ennis and McCrea, anyone??

acespot said...

Plastic Man by Ennis and McCrea.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, both Mark Waid and Joe Kelly took a darker and/or more serious view of Plas in JLA, at least under the veneer of the zany attitude. The idea of plas being a dark grim criinal, or at least aware of the seriousness of DCU life and hiding it, for whatever reason, behind the all too literal rubber mask worked well for me and I think would work in the dark DC-verse.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Cole's Plastic Man reminds me of The Spirit. Neither was nearly as important than the story he was in. Denny Colt, placed in the DCU, would be a nobody. Thankfully, they haven't really tried to fit him in too. (The Spirit/Batman crossover notwithstanding.) People loved the stories that pivoted on Plastic Man and the Spirit, and the leads served the key function of "sane and brave men in a World Gone Mad," but without that World Gone Mad, those leads aren't much.

I think "Death of Whimsy" is going to be a mini-series put out by Marvel later this year. The first issue's cover will show Rocket Raccoon being beheaded.

Anonymous said...

Actually my first exposure to the character came from the 1979-81 The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show, so I've always kinda associated him more with the Hanna-Barbera version of the Justice League ("Wonder Twins activate!") than anything else.

Maybe that's why I've always prefered Ralph.

Anonymous said...

Are you going to cover all those Golden Age characters in this manner? I certainly hope so, since this and the Superman post have been great reads.

I am sorry to say I am not well versed in the Golden Age DCU so I can't contribute anything on this. But the Identity Crisis parody in Kyle Baker's series (in issue 19 or 20) was excellent and similar to what you describe in your conclusion.

Josh Elder said...

No argument here. Being shoehorned into the greater DC Universe really robbed Plastic Man of all his panache.

Then again I think most characters in the DCU would be better off if they weren't in the DCU.

Scipio said...

THanks, Julian; yes, I am.

Jon Hex said...

I voted Wonder Woman.

Marc Burkhardt said...

I voted for Batman, because at his core he's always been a weird creature of the night - even when he was doing a lot of crime-fighting in the day.

(Hey, even the Adam West Batman flashed the Bat-shadow once or twice to scare bad guys!)

As far as Plas goes, you're completely right. Kyle Baker's Mad Magazine approach came close, but nobody can really approach Jack Cole's Quality Comics version because Cole was a one-of-a-kind talent.

Like Captain Marvel, Plas needs his own world - preferably a surreal one where he could be the most normal guy around.

Another great post, Scipio!

Anonymous said...

My vote was for Flash. Sure, there's a new person wearing the suit these days. Sure, there's Speed Force and all that stuff. But at heart, Flash is still a good-hearted, regular guy working a regular job, with a girlfriend/wife/kids, gifted by chance with extraordinary powers. Flash is always the "everyman" of the DCU.

Anonymous said...

Actually my first exposure to the character came from the 1979-81 The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show

Come to think of it, Plas' representation in that show was closer to the Golden-Age set-up than the comics, as straight man in a crazy world. I mean, come on; one of his cartoon opponents was a mummy disco queen!

Greg said...

I thought I was the only one who understood that Plas is the straight man in a cartoon world. What comedy that occurs in a Plastic Man story is not because of anything Plas does, but due to the characters around him. He doesn't view the world strangely because his dip in the chemicals left him constantly high. (Jesus, DC was rudderless post-CoIE. He's not a clown, changing shape to elict laughs or to show what he is thinking. However, he also is not a comically straight straight man, ala Adam West or Patrick Warburton in the Tick. The example I always use of how to properly write Plas is to equate him to Frank Drebin from Police Squad! Plas may understand that things around him are a little goofy, but he goes along with it and doesn't call attention to it.

The problem, as I see it, with trying to bring Plas back to that kind of characterization, is that even though Jack Cole Plastic Man stories are readily available, the "Plas as class clown" characterization has been DC's view of the character since his mid-1960s series. That series came out forty-one years ago, which is over three times longer than the Golden Age version was in print, and forty-one years of comic fan memory is a lot to get past. Far too many comic book fans can't see anything past when they started reading comic books--whatever happened to fans embracing comic history--so for possibly the bulk of fans (and in that group far too many editors could be placed), "funny" Plastic Man is the only characterization of Plastic Man.

What I think is amusing is how comic fans can play both sides of an argument. For example, some fans whine on about the "de-dickification" of Batman, often state that obsessed Batman is what Bob Kane intended and should be the default characterization. Never mind the discussion about Kane's dedication to his art as opposed to his dedication to obtaining a chushy lifestyle, examination of GA Batman reprints shows that for the bulk of his Golden Age appearances, Batman wasn't a dick. In fact, even at his worst, machine gunning down man-made monsters, he only treated the antagonist poorly. However, try to support a change in the presentation of Plastic Man by returning him to a modern version of his GA milieu, and those same fans become sniffy, and start complaining how the goofy world of Plastic Man could not fit in with the "realistic" world shown monthly in mainstream DCU comics.

Jon said...

Jim Carrey, unlike, say, me, spells his name incorrectly. There are enough one-R Careys without him, trust me.

Unless you meant the former Caps goalie. In watch case, nothing to see here, move along.

Rambo said...

The third anonymous gentleman (or woman) down beat me to the punch; Joe Kelly and Mark Waid's take on Plas showed a much darker side of the character, giving him some depth and showing that he's not just a living sight gag.

Those two writers showed a Plastic Man that changed to fit a changing world, change in this case being to juxtapose the grimness of the current DC "reality." If, as you say, Plastic Man was the only sane thing in a crazy world, I think the current incarnation is trying to be the shining light of humor in a world gone dark with hard reality.

It seems as though the core of the character isn't necessarily to be the straight man, but rather to expose the world by playing it's opposite.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see Plas return to his roots. I'd also love for DC to lose the "we don't need two stretchy guys" attitude and realize that the Elongated Man was a great character in his own right. Ralph and Sue are missed.