by Spencer Irwin and Michael DeLaney
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: The first JLA comic I ever read was an issue from Joe Kelly’s early 2000s run. The story found Martian Manhunter corrupted and turned against a hopelessly outmatched League. The only hero who could stand up to him was, surprisingly, Plastic Man, whose shapeshifting skills were on par with J’onn’s and whose elastic brain resisted his telepathy entirely. Plastic Man was also an interesting contrast to the rest of the uber-serious League, a walking visual gag who cracked wise even as he fought the most powerful being on Earth one-on-one. That issue impressed on me the value of Plastic Man and the unique charm he adds to the DC universe. Gail Simone and Adriana Melo clearly understand the character’s appeal, and it’s ultimately Plastic Man’s charisma that carries Plastic Man 1 in its shakier moments.
Simone is, frankly, a brilliant choice to write this mini-series, as her sense of humor and Plastic Man’s seem just about identical. And she doesn’t just understand that he’s a living, breathing Looney Toon, though that’s certainly a major part of his appeal both in this series and in general — she also understands the value inherent in his origin. The ex-con looking for redemption is a powerful hook, but Simone and Melo also tap into the era he was created in, the Dick Tracy-esque mode that Eel O’Brien operated in. This issue clearly takes place in the present, but Eel and his cronies all dress and talk like 40s era mobsters. Cole City as a whole looks like it was lifted straight from the era (or from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), not only giving the character and the series a unique look and feel, but adding an extra bit of humor to nearly all its proceedings.
Melo and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick also do fantastic work with the character. There’s a real, pronounced contrast between the grunginess of Cole City and Plastic Man, who practically shines. He’s big smiles and bright colors and fun, off-the-wall designs, and he can’t help but to be the center of attention in every page he’s featured in, whether in costume or not.
Plot-wise, though, the issue feels a bit jumbled. Some of that, thankfully, just seems to be typical first issue problems, where the creative team has a lot to establish and not a ton of room to do it. There’s a bit of a strange leap from Eel’s attempt to solve the mystery surrounding his own origin to his being dropped straight into the investigation of a worldwide conspiracy, but the creative team does find a fairly elegant way to link the two plots, at least, by having the conspirators target Eel’s former friends/partners — which also suggests that Eel has more to do with this case than anyone might have previously thought, which would be a smart move. And both plots seem worthy of our time and attention — the origin stuff shows the contrast between who Eel is now and who he used to be, while the conspiracy stuff (especially its involvement with the JLA and other heroes) shows how far Eel still has to go, how much more he has to grow. There’s a lot of potential here, even when the execution isn’t always 100%.
The major problem with Plastic Man 1 is, ultimately, a small one, but one that’s glaring enough to be a distraction nonetheless. During his investigation, Eel has no memory of his origin. He interrogates one of his former friends, Benny, who claims that Eel himself shot the security guard, and Eel seems to believe him. A few pages later he has a dream/flashback that dives into the botched heist in more detail, ending with Eel being haunted by the ghost of the guard he killed. That’s all well and good, except for the fact that the art clearly shows Eel not killing the guard.
Melo’s storytelling isn’t necessarily at its clearest here — I like the frames indicating flashbacks, but they make these panels feel a bit cramped — but it looks like the guard fires first, then Benny fires and kills the guard, and the guard’s shot spills the toxic goop on Eel that transforms him into Plastic Man. This is a perfectly logical origin, except it completely contradicts both what Benny told Eel and the ghost that confronts Eel at the dream’s end (and note that Eel still believes Benny and the ghost even after experiencing this flashback). Not only is this a confusing contradiction, but I’m not entirely sure why this contradiction exists. Are we seeing some sort of Rashomon-esque play on perspective? If so, it’s not executed well. If not, was there just some kind of miscommunication between the writing and art? Whatever’s going on here, it’s distracting and makes me question too much of the issue’s foundations, and not in a good way — not in a “I don’t know who to trust, this is thrilling!” but in a “I can’t parse out what’s going on, and it’s making me lose faith in the storyline” kind of way.
Hopefully Simone finds a way to clear this up and rectify things as the story moves forward, and not just for the series’ sake — as frustrating as I found that conflict, I’m still charmed and amused enough by Simone and Melo’s take on Plastic Man that I want to see it succeed and want to come back to an issue 2 that works on all levels. Here’s hoping it delivers exactly what.
How about you, Michael? What’s your experience with Plastic Man, both the character and this issue? And what do you think of “wang” as slang/a catchphrase? I’ll admit that it feels a bit forced to me, but I also can’t help but to get a kick out of the fact that Eel clearly has no clue what it means when used as slang, but keeps trying to make it work anyway.
Michael: I haven’t ever regularly read Plastic Man in titles like JLA, but I have enjoyed him as the goofy sidekick in Justice League Action and as and absolute lunatic in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Plas is like a Green Lantern except that he is the ring AND the constructs. And like a Green Lantern, the shapes he constructs are only limited by his — and the creative team’s — imagination. There is something delightful and kind of terrifying about watching a human character contort his body into an inanimate object.
As for the wang slang…I’m not crazy about it. It’s a joke that we’ve seen before: a character tries to sound cool by repeating some phony slang he heard but only ends up looking foolish. That joke can work, but here it doesn’t for me. Plas being semi-self-aware of what wang could mean takes the air out of the whole thing. And…I was kind of shocked that a DC superhero book got away with publishing the word “penis.”
Spencer you are right on the money with that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? comparison. The defining characteristic of that movie is seeing real life people interact with the more malleable cartoon world physics. As shown here, Plastic Man was created from the tried and true “chemical spill” origin, but could’ve easily stepped out of Toontown. I think that’s one of the main explanations for any popularity that Plastic Man has gained over the years: he doesn’t quite fit in. The way he behaves and the way he bends and breaks the laws of physics/sanity make it seem like he’s from a different story altogether.
Though it will always be jarring reading ’40s dialogue in the modern day, I like the choice that Simone and Malo made to style Cole City the way they did. The constant rewriting, recontextualizing, and modernizing of superhero comics can be exhausting. Plus, it’s crazy super science-fictions stuff!
One of my favorite stories in the recent Action Comics 1000 was basically set in the aftermath of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics 1. The year wasn’t clearly stated but from the art you could intuit that it was 1938. Giving Superman stories some nuances of the generation he was created in feels natural. The same goes for Plastic Man, who was created in 1941 — it’s in their DNA.
With that in mind, you could say that Plastic Man 1 is set in a parallel reality of 2018: there are modern cars, advanced military types and diverse characters that coexist with the crew that Eel O’Brien pals around with.
The gang uses phrases like “sport” and have names like “Dizzy Darren” — the kind of stuff you’d see in a James Cagney film. But unlike those films, Eel is dealt some very modern day, brutal justice that certainly wouldn’t get past the MPAA way back when.
Does Plastic Man usually bleed? I didn’t think so. He gets beaten bloody and left in an alley sometime after he “comes back from the dead” so you would think that baseball bat just bounce right off of Eel, right? Or is he just putting on a show here?
I’ve never seen Plastic Man’s bones break and need and to “POP” back into position. However as I mentioned, Plastic Man’s powers don’t necessarily play by the rules so I’ll let it go.
What is more frustrating, however, is that flashback/dream sequence that Spencer already mentioned. I’m scratching my head on this one, folks. I tried to give that whole sequence the benefit of the doubt, but it just doesn’t line up. This doesn’t seem to be the case of “unreliable narrator” — if that was the case, this epiphany dream would’ve come later or changed Eel’s mind by the end of the issue. But as Spencer said, it doesn’t. I think that this is just a plain mistake on Malo’s part.
So while I have a great amount of respect for the visual tone and aesthetic that Simone and Malo have put together here, I am not onboard with the narrative just yet. I’d love to see some more Plastic Man in action in the coming issues, because after all that is where the fun is: seeing your hero joyfully cross dress into Wonder Woman.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?