Plastic Man #1,
(variant cover artwork by Amanda Conner and Dave Johnson)
I’ve had a tremendous soft spot for Jack Cole’s Plas going right back to childhood, when I was knee-high to a Bat-Mite. A small, very dingey old store near the supermarket my parents used to go to had piles of old American comics on some spinners for some reason (it wasn’t a comic shop, they barely existed then, this was just a dusty store that sold all sorts and the owner, for some reason, regularly got bundles of old comics cheap and flogged them off). And in the time-honoured tradition I would be allowed to pick out a couple of comics from this store as a way of keeping a youngster amused and quiet while the adults got on with the grocery run. I remember the store always had a lot of old Plastic Man issues, and they soon became my favourite, and it’s not hard to see why a kid would enjoy them so much – adventure, superheroes but all with wise-cracking humour. I loved Plas. I loved all my superheroes as a kid, but Plas was the one I wanted a a pal, if he had been real.
So browsing the racks this week for the new releases for my lunchtime reading, of course I was going to have to pick up the first issue of a new take on Plastic Man, although I was also worried a bit, as many old fans of Plas would be, I think – I mean you want to see new stories with your beloved character, but what if they don’t get him right? Fortunately the writing is in the hands of one of our best mainstream comics scribes, Gail Simone, with art by Adriana Melo, who manages the difficult juggling task of being able to depict scenes of criminal brutality (a vicious baseball beating in a back alley by some hoods) with the lighter, more cartoony touch required for Plas himself in action. I knew she had it just right when only a handful of pages into this first issue she has a large splash page of an exuberant Plas stretching up above the surrounding buildings with a delighted smile on his face as he strides forward. It’s a moment of pure comics joy.
Small-time criminal and safecracker (much like the earlier Plas before he became a hero), Eel O’Brian is being held down on his knees by hoodlums, while their leader tries to placate his moll, who is furious at being made to wait for their meal out, while he “takes care of a little business”. With a baseball bat. Making this worse, these aren’t some sworn enemies of poor Eel, they are his former friends and gang members who, after a heist went wrong (with him being wounded and accidentally doused with a chemical in the factory they were robbing), abandoned him for dead. You’d think they would be delighted to see him back from the dead, but no, not unless beating someone to a pulp with a baseball bat is a strange version of welcoming someone.
This is nicely handled by Simone and Melo: they hit several of the classic riffs of the original Plastic Man’s story and origins, but in a very brief and economic but efficient manner. Readers relatively new to the character can thus pick up what they need to know about his background very quickly and are able to dive right into the unfolding story (Plas wondering which of his former gang is the one who fired the bullet that killed a guard on their botched robbery), while old hands like me are also left quite satisfied that writer and artist are paying respect to Jack Cole’s creation (there’s even a nice touch in naming the burg he is in “Cole City”, and the filthy alley, and the title name in a puddle on the pavement all hints at the great Eisner’s The Spirit as well as original Golden Age Plas).
Reintroducing an older character can be problematic, and often is is mishandled either by the creators or the publisher (seeing it as just another property they can use), but here that is not an issue, in fact it is quite clear to this old Plastic Man fan that Simone, Melo and indeed DC are trying to do right by the character, treating him with dignity and respect (and by extension treating his fans in the same way). I think trying to mix in comedic beats is often far harder than writing dramatic or tragic ones – comedy often gets overlooked as “easy” compared to drama, but in my opinion it is often far, far harder to do and do well. And to mix drama and adventure with comedy is an even finer balancing act, but one carried off here so well by Simone’s script and Melo’s artwork (the two clearly work very well together on this character). This was a total, smile-inducing pleasure to read.
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