When I picked up this issue of Brave and the Bold fifty years ago (give or take a couple of weeks), Batman’s co-star in the book, Plastic Man, had been around for over twenty-six years — almost as long as the Caped Crusader himself. But he’d only been a DC Comics hero for a little over one year — which is about as long as my ten-year-old self had been aware of him.
Obviously, I hadn’t been around for Police Comics #1 (August, 1941), the Quality Comics issue in which writer-artist Jack Cole’s creation debuted, or for any of the succeeding 102 issues of that series (not to mention the 52 issues of Plas’ own titular series) that Quality published featuring the character. Plastic Man had been mothballed with the cancellation of his series in 1955, and his publisher, Quality, folded in 1956, a year before I was born. And that might have been that, if not for the publication of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes in 1965 — a personal history of and tribute to the superheroes of comics’ Golden Age that helped give Cole’s classic character, and his uniquely comedic take on costumed crimefighting, new visibility.
DC Comics had purchased a number of Quality’s intellectual properties when the latter company went out of business in 1956; and even though they hadn’t chosen to keep Plastic Man going through the late ’50s and early ’60s the way they had with Blackhawk and G.I. Combat, they still held the rights to the character when Feiffer’s book was published. The success of that book, along with an appearance by an unrelated (and unauthorized) “Plastic Man” character in a comic book released by M.F. Enterprises in 1966*, may have spurred DC to hasten to make those rights more secure, through publication. Thus, “the one, the only, original” Plastic Man soon returned to the stands — first, in a sort-of guest appearance in the “Dial H for Hero” feature then running in House of Mystery, and then in his very own series — the premiere issue of which was heralded by this classic house ad that I and my fellow DC fans of the time first encountered in the fall of 1966:
For DC to launch Plas in his own comic book right out of the gate, without testing the waters via a try-out in Showcase or (before 1966) Brave and the Bold first, was a rather unusual move for DC at the time. Perhaps they were nervous about a perceived challenge to their trademark, or maybe they were just confident about bringing out a new superhero title — especially one with a strong humor component — in the era of “Batmania”.
The company also handled the return of Plastic Man differently than any of their other Golden Age superhero revivals. Plas was unlike the “new” Flash or Green Lantern, in that he wasn’t a re-imagined version of a per-existing character; but he was also unlike the “returned” Hourman, Wildcat, or the Spectre, since as a Quality hero he didn’t easily fit into the Earth-Two/Justice Society of America framework that had been established to explain the co-existence of two Flashes, two GLs, and so on. (Eventually, Plastic Man and most of the other Quality heroes would be established as living on “Earth-X”, but that development was still six years in the future at this point.)
Plastic Man #1 hit the stands on September 22, 1966, featuring a script by Arnold Drake and art by Gil Kane — but, while I remember being intrigued by the house ad reproduced above, I either passed on buying this issue when it came out, or — probably more likely — never saw it at any of my regular comics outlets. Whatever the reason, I didn’t get around to sampling the series until the fifth issue, published the following May. By that time, the artist on the book was Win Mortimer (Gil Kane having left after the first issue), though Arnold Drake remained as the writer. And though I’d been enjoying the Drake-Mortimer team’s work on the comic-fantastic “Stanley and His Monster” feature in The Fox and the Crow well enough to pick up that book at least semi-regularly, their take on Plastic Man apparently failed to impress my then nine-year-old self. Issue #5 would be the one and only issue of the 1960s Plastic Man series that I’d buy.
Still, disappointed though I may have been by my first encounter with the character, that didn’t dissuade me from picking up Brave and the Bold #76 a few months later. Of course, there were other factors which I’m sure came into play. One was Plas’ co-star — I was a Batman fan — and another was the cover by Neal Adams.
The cover of issue #76 was only Adams’ second for BatB, but it would prove to be far from his last. As noted in my Detective Comics #369 post some weeks back, in the latter half of 1967 the future artistic superstar had begun to land higher-profile gigs at DC, after toiling for months on titles like The Adventures of Bob Hope. By the time BatB #76 saw print, he was the regular penciller on The Spectre as well as on the “Deadman” feature in Strange Adventures, and contributing regular covers to the Superman family of titles. But he’d only just begun to make his mark on the venerable character whom he’d soon help virtually reinvent, and with whom he’d forever be associated in the minds of comic book fans: Batman.
As noted above, this was Adams’ second BatB cover; but as I’d either skipped or missed issue #75 (cover shown above right), it was the first one that I saw. And its depiction of a desperate, almost agonized Batman was surely the most emotionally potent rendering of the Caped Crusader I’d seen to date. The next two issues’ covers wouldn’t be by Adams, as it turned out, but the artist would return with issue #79 to begin a year-long stint as the book’s regular artist — for the interiors, as well as the covers. During this time Adams would develop and refine his “back to basics” approach to the visualization of Batman and his milieu — an approach which remains dominant to this very day.
But, of course, Neal Adams wasn’t the interior artist for the story featured in Brave and the Bold #76, “Doom, What is Thy Shape?” That job went instead to the team of Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Jack Abel (inks).
Not that either of them were credited on the book’s splash page (or anywhere else), since that’s not the way most of DC’s editors, including BatB editor George Kashdan, did things back then:
Mike Sekowsky was of course no stranger to Batman, having depicted the character regularly throughout his 60-issues-and-counting run on Justice League of America, as well as in Brave and the Bold #68. Jack Abel, on the other hand, had done relatively little work in the superhero genre to date, and in 1967 was working primarily on DC’s war books (though it must be noted he was also moonlighting for Marvel, inking the “Iron Man” feature under the alias of “Gary Michaels”, at the same time). They were competent craftsmen, whose work fit in well with the prevailing styles at DC during that era; but the contrast with Adams’ more dramatic, photorealistic art was striking.
The stroy’s script (also uncredited, of course), was by regular BatB writer Bob Haney, whose free-wheeling, jokey style (probably influenced by Stan Lee, at least somewhat) is very much in evidence in the splash page’s introductory caption, as shown above.
Judging by the first caption on the following page — where our story actually begins — Haney also appears to have had an appreciation for fast cars:
Luckily for the good citizens of Gotham, this oddly-animate GTO isn’t the only uniquely-equipped set of wheels currently out on its streets:
“Go, little Batmobile!” Why didn’t Jan and Dean make a song out of that one, huh?
The Batmobile makes it to the intersection in time for its interception — but unfortunately, the Caped Crusader has an unpleasant surprise in store:
As we readers are soon made aware, the shape-changing attributes of the bank heist vehicle are the work of a criminal scientific genius — a brand-new super-villain who calls himself the Molder:
The Molder’s inventiveness extends to the creation of autonomous humanoid plastic creatures he calls his “Plastoids” — whom he soon sends out to rob commuters riding on a Gotham subway train:
(Yes, Batman flies a mini-helicopter into a subway tunnel.. What can I say? Based on how often he wrote it into his BatB stories, Bob Haney seems to have really loved that Whirly-Bat, maybe even as much as he loved cool sports cars.)
The Plastoids attempt to escape Batman by changing their forms into those of subway station pillars — but when our hero catches wise, the Molder responds by unleashing a liquid torrent of quick-hardening plastic goop upon the Caped Crusader, thereby trapping him on the train tracks — just in time for the uptown express:
It looks like Batman is about to be permanently derailed (yeah, I copped that from Haney) — but then…
This being Plastic Man’s first appearance in a DC book other than his own, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Batman to know who he is , but that’s how things tend to work in DC’s comics of the Sixties — all the heroes know each other. (Besides which, Plastic Man #7 had revealed a few months previously that the current Plas is the son of the original version, whose adventures were published by Quality. So, Bats may simply be familiar with the earlier hero’s career.)
As soon as they realize the Molder is still on the scene, our heroic duo quickly launch into hot pursuit — literally, in Plas’ case, as he snaps himself out of the subway tunnel like a rubber band:
After blasting Plas into pieces, the Molder sends more jets of plastic goo Batman’s way, once again ensnaring the Whirly-Bat. By the time Plas has got himself stuck back together, and Batman has got himself unstuck, the villain has escaped.
The Molder soon decides that he needs a much bigger score. and to pull it off, he lures Plastic Man into a trap by pretending to attack Gotham City Hall. When Plas shows up, the Molder hits him with a special blast that saturates his body “with a catalytic plastic”, which will, in its turn, infect the hero’s molecules “so that they will reproduce themselves endlessly!”
In other words, it’s bad news for Gotham City:
Batman is soon engulfed in seething, scalding Plas-stuff, while the Gotham City Police Dept. resorts to shelling the Malleable Marvel with a World War II gun that City Hall keeps around for patriotic parades (live ammo and all):
“Of all the old warehouses in all the city,” the Molder might later lament (doing his very best Bogart, of course), “his head had to fall into mine!” It’s an unlucky break for the villain, but (as will quickly become evident), a very lucky one for our heroes.
Right after Plas downs the vile concoction, the Plastoids show up and grab his head — which he gladly welcomes:
Immediately, Plas snaps back to normal; and with the city (including himself) no longer covered in hot red goo, Batman is free to go after the Molder:
And that’s about it, save for the final page’s (or, more accurately, half-page’s) explanation and wrap-up:
“Read ’em ever… miss ’em never!” Apparently, not enough readers took that advice in regards to Plastic Man, as the series would be cancelled a mere three months later, with its 10th issue. I’ll have more to say about that topic in a bit; but before we get to that, here’s a few more thoughts about this Brave and the Bold story, and how it holds up a half-century after its original publication.
I think it may be instructive to compare this story to the one in another BatB issue I reviewed over a year back, namely #68. Like this issue’s tale, that story was written by Bob Haney and drawn by Mike Sekowsky, and featured Batman teaming up with a shape-shifting superhero — in this case, Haney’s own co-creation, Metamorpho. As I noted in that review, I approached re-reading that story — which had the Caped Crusader turned into a “Bat-Hulk” by the Joker, the Penguin, and the Riddler — with a good bit of trepidation, and was kind of surprised to find that, as silly and campy as it was, and in spite of my general preference for a “serious” Batman, I rather enjoyed it. So I approached re-reading this story, five decades after first encountering it, with somewhat higher expectations than I might have otherwise.
Unfortunately, “Doom, What is Thy Shape?” doesn’t hold up quite as well as #68’s “Alias the Bat-Hulk” , at least not for this reader. Comparing the two stories, I think that the fact that #68 came out at the very height of “Batmania” has a lot to do with it. In that issue, Haney — who already wrote in a breezy, slangy style — leaned in hard to the Batman TV series’ camp approach — not only indulging his most over-the-top stylistic tendencies, but also loading up the story with three of the show’s most frequently used villains, and also coming up with wild plot twists every few pages. It was an inspired performance; and the idiosyncratic Sekowsky rose to the occasion in the artistic department, as well. By contrast, neither scripter nor penciller seems to be testing any boundaries in this issue. The story sets up the villain’s capabilities, lets him fight the heroes to a draw, then ups the ante — and resolves the story with a stroke of dumb luck. Even with Plastic Man on hand, the proceedings are simply rather — dull. That’s just the way it goes, sometimes.
Still a great cover, though.
Believe it or not, the 24-page “Doom, What Is Thy Shape?” wasn’t the only story featured in BatB #76. The issue also included, as a back-up feature, a 6-page “Demand Classic” originally published in Star Spangled Comics #128 (May, 1952) — a solo adventure of Robin, the Boy Wonder written by David Vern Reed and drawn by Jim Mooney, “The Man Called 50-50”.
I don’t really have anything to say about this story, save that the villain is a pretty obvious, not to mention unnecessary, knockoff of Two-Face who I’m pretty sure never appeared again (unsurprisingly). Still, tacking on a 6-page reprint brought the the total number of story-and-art pages in this issue to 30 — making for really good value at a time when most of DC’s books featured a total of 24 such pages.
As previously mentioned above, DC’s Sixties revival of Plastic Man came to an end with the tenth issue. But its failure didn’t prevent the company from trying to make a success of Plas again — and again — over the following five decades.
First up was a 1976 take by Steve Skeates (writer) and Ramona Fradon (penciller), which picked up the ’60s’ series numbering at #11. Skeates and Fradon seemed like good matches for the character — he’d done both memorable work on “standard” DC heroes such as Aquaman, as well as humorous scripts for Plop!, and she was the co-creator (with Bob Haney, of course) of the less traditional hero Metamorpho. But their version lasted only ten issues (by which time Skeates had been replaced as writer by John Albano). Still, it might have helped raise the character’s visibility enough to make the idea of an animated cartoon series — first proposed in the Sixties — seem newly viable. The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show debuted in September, 1979, and ran until February, 1981.
Appearing more or less concurrently with the animated series was a “Plastic Man” feature that ran in Adventure Comics from #467 (January, 1980) to #475 (September, 1980). Here, Plas held down one half of a “split” book, the other half featuring DC’s then current version of Starman. The scripts were by diverse hands, including Len Wein, Martin Pasko, and Marv Wolfman, but all of the art was pencilled by Joe Staton and inked by Bob Smith. Staton was another good match for the character, stylistically; his own co-creation, Charlton Comics’ E-Man, had owed some inspiration to Cole’s Plastic Man work. But, once again, the feature didn’t last.
DC’s next attempt at a Plastic Man title came more than a decade later, in a four-issue miniseries that was written by Phil Foglio and drawn by Hilary Barta and Kevin Nowlan. Following in the wake of the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event which reset DC’s continuity, this 1988 version represented a re-imagining of the classic character. Here, as in the classic origin story by Jack Cole, Plastic Man is originally a criminal, “Eel” O’Brian, who gets his super-powers when he’s doused with an unknown chemical, and then decides to become a crimefighter. Unlike Cole’s version, however, the chemical is revealed to have affected O’Brian’s mind as well as his body; thus, the “cartoony” visuals contributed by Barta, which follow in the tradition of Cole, are presented as being how Plas “sees” the world, while the more conventionally representational renderings of Nowlan serve as the reader’s “reality check”. To the best of my knowledge, no later creators followed the lead of Foglio and his collaborators in utilizing this interpretation of the hero and his world. (UPDATE 12/18/17: Jim Herman has identified two other stories that did utilize this idea; please see his comment at the bottom of the post for details.)
While this late-Eighties miniseries didn’t lead to an ongoing title, Plastic Man continued to make appearances throughout the DC Universe over the next decade, gaining a good bit of new traction via his induction as a member of the Justice League of America during writer Grant Morrison’s late-Nineties run on JLA. His regular appearances there eventually led to a one-shot special by Ty Templeton and Aaron Lopresti, though not to an ongoing series. That would have to wait for 2004, and the debut of a new Plastic Man title, featuring story, pencils, inks, colors, and even letters by one singular talent, Kyle Baker.
Baker, a versatile artist who’d proven himself more than capable of “straight” illustrative rendering as well as of more expressionistic work, went for a full-fledged “cartoon” style in his approach to Plas, at least initially. (Later issues would draw on Baker’s ability to go both “grim and gritty” and “photorealistic” a la Alex Ross) for His version lasted for 20 issues, making it the most commercially successful run since the Quality Comics days; it was the most critically successful treatment since Cole’s, as well, picking up five Eisner Awards along the way.
Since the conclusion of Baker’s series in 2006, there hasn’t been another attempt at a solo Plastic Man series. The character’s appearances following DC’s 2011 “New 52” reboot were sporadic, but he seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence at the present, post-“Rebirth” moment. He plays a small but key role in DC’s 2017 crossover event/miniseries Dark Nights: Metal, which is in its turn leading into the upcoming (at this writing) debut of The Terrifics — a new series featuring a new superhero team, comprised of Mr. Terrific, Phantom Girl, Metamorpho, and, you guessed it, Plastic Man. The similarity between this (ahem) fantastic foursome and Marvel Comics’ (currently dormant) Fantastic Four seems, by all accounts, to be completely intentional. One aspect of that similarity (evident in the illustration at right) is that all the team members wear basically the same costume — or at least the same colors — leading to the first real change in Plas’ look in his entire 76-year history, as his classic red and yellow give way to black and white.
What other developments may lie in store for the Malleable Marvel in the pages of The Terrifics have yet to be discovered, of course. But I figure it’s a pretty sure thing that this latest chapter in the long history of Jack Cole’s great creation won’t be the last. The Age of Plastic will continue to roll — or should that be stretch? — on into the future.
*Said comic book being titled Captain Marvel — and, no, it had nothing to do with either the classic Fawcett Comics character or the later Marvel Comics hero. Yes, there does indeed seem to be something of a pattern, here.
**It’s fun to speculate that Bob Haney could actually have been influenced by this famous scene in Mike Nichols’ 1967 film, The Graduate, when creating the Molder — but since the movie was released on December 22nd, and this comic book just four days later, on the 26th, it’s highly unlikely. Haney was doing some work for the TV animation studio Filmation at the time, however, so it’s just barely conceivable that he may have somehow found his way into an early screening of Nichols’ future classic. We’ll probably never know for sure, though.