Review by KC Carlson
The Character’s Comic Origin
Plastic Man was one of the greatest conceptual characters ever created in comic books, especially during his Golden Age career where his adventures were chronicled by his creator, the amazing Jack Cole. Primarily a humorist, Cole’s Plastic Man adventures (beginning in the pages of Police Comics in 1941) were wildly funny and amazingly innovative, with Cole’s often surreal artwork and outrageous slapstick humor.
But Plastic Man wasn’t just a great humor strip — there were darker elements as well, especially in the character’s origins as former criminal Eel O’Brian, abandoned by his gang and left for dead when a heist goes bad. Saved by a monk and taken to recover at his monastery, O’Brian discovers that exposure to a mysterious acid during the failed crime has changed him physically — his body is pliable like rubber! With the revelation of this remarkable power, and with the monk’s belief that he had the capacity for greater good, O’Brian decides to change his life completely. Disguising himself by remolding his face and donning cool goggles and a patently ridiculous stretchable leotard (with a distinctive black and yellow striped belt), he becomes the crime fighter Plastic Man!
Eventually joining the police department and then the FBI, Plastic Man becomes an incredibly successfully hero, mostly because he still maintains his Eel O’Brian identity as a criminal in order to keep tabs on the criminal underworld. Thus, with one foot in each “world”, Plas’ adventures are filled with wild comedy as well as crime elements, as he’s pitted against any number of bizarre crooks and femme fatales. Cole capitalized on the character’s unique costume and abilities by either making Plas a master of disguise or by having him “blend into the background” by taking the shape of normal everyday objects, like mailboxes and lamp poles — all with tell-tale black and yellow stripes or stylized goggles. Thus, he became his generation’s “Where’s Waldo?” long before Waldo was born, and readers delighted in ferreting out where Plas was hiding in Cole’s often bizarre artwork!
Plas in Modern Comics
Plastic Man had a long and successful Golden Age career in both Police Comics and his own title until his publisher, Quality Comics, folded in 1956. DC Comics (then National Periodical Publications) acquired the publishing rights to three Quality properties — Blackhawk, G.I. Combat, and Plastic Man. They almost immediately began publishing the first two but completely forgot about Plastic Man until 1966, where he finally popped up in the Dial H For Hero feature in House of Mystery. That was probably just a way to promote his upcoming (but short-lived) ten-issue series, the first issue memorably illustrated by Gil Kane. But the character wasn’t the same.
Since then, Plastic Man has had a very long, very intermittent, and mostly confusing history/continuity at DC. Every few years the character would be revived, either with a new series or as a member of the All-Star Squadron or eventually, the Justice League. But the exact combination of key elements of each appearance were never quite satisfactory. Almost no one could replicate Cole’s magic touch with the character. (Although Kyle Baker’s series came close. At least it looked great!) A lot of his later writers could just not capture his humor properly, especially in his JLA appearances, where it seemed like he was an obnoxious jerk who wouldn’t shut up. Or they made the character too serious, with family problems or really wrong feelings of insecurity. In the modern DC world, he’s still a good character, but he has lost many of the elements that originally made him great.
Destined for Animation
Unfortunately, such is the same with Plas’ animation career. It’s not that The Plastic Man Comedy/ Adventure Show (running 1979-1981, from which this four-DVD set is compiled) is actually a bad show — it’s not! It’s got a great pedigree, and some great folks working on it. Plus, Plas is a character who is destined to be animated — stretching and morphing into other shapes is only really cool when you can see it in action! It’s just that it is obviously a product of its time, subject to the whims of the great Saturday Morning Television Network gods, their P.C. desires and fears of complaints from parental groups. It probably didn’t help that the show was co-produced by Hanna Barbera (long past their prime, pre-Cartoon Network) and Ruby-Spears (did they have a prime?).
Here’s some of the good stuff: Plas himself, who does some cool stunts throughout the series and throws out some occasionally great one-liners while under pressure. He’s ably voiced by Michael Bell, although his voice tends to occasionally get a bit whiny when agitated (or is that just because he’s fighting to be heard against the relentlessly bad generic non-stop soundtrack music in each episode?). The villains are pretty cool. I especially like The Clam, an actual talking clam wearing a little sailor’s cap. Dr. Dome (not Doom) pops up from the 60s DC comic series, and Carrot Man (from the 70s comics) also makes an odd appearance. Plus, there are some great comic book writers on the writing staff including Mark Evanier, Steve Gerber, Roy Thomas, and Buzz Dixon. Unfortunately, there are no individual episode credits, so you’re on your own trying to identify who wrote what. (Sounds like a great drinking game to me!)
This Might Be Annoying
And here’s some of the bad stuff: Plas’s blonde bombshell partner Penny, who is voiced with the most annoying Southern accent since Veronica on the Archie cartoons from the 60s. (The voice actress, Melendy Britt, did a much better job voicing Princess Adora/She-Ra.) Penny obviously has a huge crush on Plastic Man, which is mostly unrequited as Plas only has eyes for the female Chief (also voiced by Britt). In the DVD documentary for the series, animation producer James Tucker speculates that Penny might only be there to help make it clear that Plas is actually interested in girls, being, you know, so unusually dressed in a leotard all the time. (Oh dear.) Penny finally succeeds in getting her man, as sometime between the first and second seasons, Plas and Penny not only marry — but actually spawn. There’s a little Baby Plas running around in Season Two, not only in his own cartoon series (called Baby Plas, natch), but in the Plastic Family series of cartoons staring Mom, Pop, and Baby Plas. Sadly (or fortunately — your choice), the Baby Plas and Plastic Family cartoons are not included in this set, making it not quite so Complete after all. (But trust me, I’m not complaining!)
By the way, we don’t actually see any of the wedding, except for being told about it in the opening sequence of the second season, in lieu of actually getting a real theme song. But then again, there’s no theme song for the first season either, just a discussion of how Plas’ powers work, set to more relentless generic soundtrack. Was there so much cost-cutting going on that the producers didn’t want to pay for a theme song, or were there just not that many good rhymes for “plastic”?
But I’m forgetting about one of the worst comic relief sidekicks in all of cartoons. Hula Hula was a Polynesian (you can tell by his Hawaiian shirt) man (or boy? who can tell?), who inexplicably talked like Lou Costello (from Abbott &…) and had horrible bad luck that affected everybody around him. And apparently made him stupid as well. Fortunately, the producers came to their senses and didn’t call him by the horribly racist name “Coconut” like they wanted to. The character was already offensive enough without that added burden. He was no Woozy Winks, I’ll tell you that!
But all is not lost. As if to prove that Plas could be a great animated star, the DVD set also includes an unaired Plastic Man pilot episode that was produced for Cartoon Network in 2006, and it is the best thing on this set. It was developed by Andy Suriano (producer on Batman: The Brave and the Bold) and Tom Kenny (voice of Spongebob Squarepants), who also plays Plastic Man. It’s a great cartoon, full of manic energy (maybe a bit too manic, actually), but there are lots of good gags, and Plas seems more like Plas than he has since the 1940s. Perhaps it’s a little bit too Ren & Stimpy/Kricfalusi influenced, for my taste anyway. There’s enough great stuff in the cartoon to not really need the crutch of the borrowed influence, and that may be why it was not picked up to go to series. I’d love to see Suriano and Kenny try it again — and Plas does occasionally pop up on Batman: The Brave and the Bold (voiced by Kenny), and in a much more appealing style, at least in my opinion.
Also included in the set is a 14-minute documentary, PLAS-tastic: A Brief History of Plastic Man. Featuring comic historians Jerry Beck, Mark Evanier (who also wrote for the show), and Alan Kistler, plus animation veterans Dan Riba, Andy Suriano, James Tucker, Tom Kenny, Andrea Romano, and Jeff Hall, the group discuss the series in-depth, as well as the unaired pilot, Kyle Baker’s take on Plastic Man at DC comics, and Plas’ appearances on Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Notably, no DC staffers appear in the documentary.
One last thing, the Bonus Features aren’t on Disc 4 where the packaging says they are. The Documentary is actually on Disc 1 and the unaired pilot “Puddle Trouble” is on Disc 2.
All in all, a very nice DVD set, for a series that may or may not really deserve it — but that’s pretty much left up for you to decide. If you grew up watching this series as a kid, and have fond memories of watching it, you will love it. For the rest of us, there’s a lot to love about Plastic Man, and for something you love, a lot can be forgiven.
Classic comic book adventures of Plastic Man by Jack Cole can be found in Volumes 1-8 of the Plastic Man Archives, published by DC Comics, and highly recommended. (The studio provided a DVD review copy.)