In 1941, Will Eisner protege (and fill-in Spirit artist) Jack Cole was given the chance to create his own comic book hero. What he came up with was Patrick “Eel” O’Brian, an orphan-turned-street hood-turned-safecracker. One night during a heist at the Crawford Chemical Works, O’Brian is shot in the shoulder by a security guard and doused with a vat of unidentified toxic goo. As if the night wasn’t bad enough already, the other members of his gang speed away, leaving him there to take the rap.
After stumbling his way into the night he eventually passes out only to awaken and find he’s being nursed back to health by a local monk. What’s more, he discovers the mysterious chemical bath has transformed his entire body into some kind of pre-space age polymer. He can stretch, bounce, and form himself into any shape he chooses, from a throw rug to a hammer to a floor lamp to a car. Not only does he have the traditional super strength on top of it, but now that all of his organs are made out of plastic, he’s also impervious to injury. The only things that can slow him down, and for obvious reasons, are extreme heat and extreme cold. Under the care of the monk, he vows to use his crazy new powers for good instead of evil.
Returning to the workaday world after his recovery, he maintains his Eel O’Brian persona as a way of moving freely in the underworld and gathering information about upcoming jobs. Then, when the time comes, he dons a pair of wite-framed aviator shades and a red, black, and yellow striped leotard to foil the crimes as Plastic Man. Along the way he’s joined by a bumbling oaf of a sidekick named Woozy Winks who offers assistance as he can, but mostly just gets into trouble.
Plastic Man premiered in the first issue of Quality’s Police Comics (along with The Human Bomb and Phantom Lady, all characters who would eventually be acquired by DC Comics), and soon became part of their regular stable decades before other elastic superheroes cropped up on the scene. What set Plastic Man apart wasn’t his unique superabilities, but his zany sense of humor. It wasn’t just corny one-liners. His adventures were less “adventures” than madcap slapstick routines as he foiled low-rent crooks by turning his body into whatever got the job done, from a giant slingshot to an anaconda with arms.
Jack Cole’s deranged imagination didn’t stop with merely coming up with new ways to mold his hero. He actually took to molding the form of the traditional comic book, warping and stretching the standard panels and page layout, allowing characters to reach (or yell) from one panel into another, screwing with readers by dropping in endless tricks and visual puns. Nobody, not even Eisner, had done or seen anything quite like it before. The format and structure of the comic itself became Cole’s playground, just as Plas became a satire on all those other self-serious, stony-faced hero types out there.
It was a brilliant and brilliantly hilarious creation, and remains a favorite of contemporary comic artists from Frank Miller to Art Spiegelman (who, with chip Kidd wrote a great biography of Cole some years back). Thomas Pynchon even gave Plas a cameo in Gravity’s Rainbow.
Although I was never a big fan of superheroes when I was young, my dad passed along his stash of original Plastic Man comics when I was ten, and I was hooked. Even early on I thought it would be great material for a cartoon if someone really had the imagination to transfer Cole’s warped and twisted (in so many ways) stories and style onto the screen. Maybe someone like Chuck Jones or the Fleischer brothers.
Of course in the mid-70s the idea of a live action Plastic Man was sheer folly given the state of practical special effects. I mean, the live action superhero shows on TV at the time, like Wonder Woman and Shazam, were pretty sad as it was even without a character who could turn himself into a superball. But a cartoon? Christ we had the Super Friends, didn’t we? Goddamn humorless Aquaman and his starfish friends. Plastic Man seemed like any half-decent animator’s dream.
Of course, being a kid I wasn’t taking into account two things. First, the comics I got from my dad were from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I wasn’t aware how much the character and the comics themselves had changed since Cole’s suicide. After a reincarnation with DC in the early ‘60s, Plas was still wacky, but now in a wisecracking Wonder Twins sort of way. And with other writers and artists at the helm, the comics themselves came to resemble every other superhero comic on the market, losing that decidedly surreal edge of the originals. The other thing I didn’t take into account was that much as I loved him, Plastic Man was simply never that popular in the first place.
Plas did make a one-off cameo in a Super Friends episode in the early ‘70s, when Superman calls him in to fish a mouse out of a Justice League computer. After that he was nowhere to be found until 1979, when Scooby-Doo creators Joe Ruby and Ken Spears decided to give it a shot anyway by creating the Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show. They made a few small changes along the way.
Woozy Winks was gone, replaced with a mostly useless bombshell of a girlfriend named Penny (apparently to quell all those whispers about Plas’ sexuality) and a rotund Hawaiian caricature sidekick named Hula Hula (with the voice of Lou Costello for some reason) who has nothing but bad luck. Plas no longer works for the police or the FBI as he did in the comics, but is now a Bondian secret agent working for some mysterious government intelligence agency. He also has a plane and a submarine that allow him to confront ridiculous supervillains all over the world.
Well, when you get a Saturday morning cartoon with a name like “The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show,” you pretty much get what you pay for. The animation is as tired and flat as the endless predictable one-liners and the countless “long arm of the law” cracks. Voiced by Michael Bell, Plas mostly thwarts villains by stretching himself out and grabbing things, and most episodes end with Plas, Penny, and Hula Hula forcing laughs that go on way too long over some weak closing gag. Despite his wacky abilities and all the potential laid out in the original comics, it looked and felt like damn near everything else in the Saturday morning landscape at the time.
Nevertheless the show remained on the air until 1981, eventually killing itself off with the intriduction of the single-toothed Baby Plas, a desperate gambit that paid off for about one episode before everyone realized how fucking annoying the bendable spawn of Plas and Penny could be.
Animation-wise, Plas went into hibernation again for the next twenty-five years, when in 2006 Warner Brothers and the Cartoon Network commissioned a new Plastic Man series from Andy Suriano and Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants who now provided Plas’ voice as well. Inspired in part by Kyle Baker’s revitalized Plastic Man comics, the pilot, “Puddle Trouble,” was much more energetic than the ‘70s incarnation in spite of the inevitable “long arm of the law” bit that opens things up.
This time around Plas has a parole officer, and we learn he’s only fighting on the side of Good and Justice in order to pay off the debt to society he racked up during all his years of street thuggery. The jokes and visual gags come in a maddening flurry and the drawing and animation are comparatively crude, reminding me more than anything of Roger Ramjet, with a hint or two of those early Tex Avery shorts for Warners.
It certainly makes an effort to recapture the spirit if not exactly the letter of Cole’s original creation, which may explain why the pilot was never aired and the show never picked up. Apart from a few scattered comic guest spots on Batman: The Brave and the Bold (in which Plas’ criminal background keeps leaking out), and assorted other DC Universe shorts, Plas hasn’t been the regular staple of small screen animation you would expect him to be.
But for god sakes what about a live-action film? Take a scan through what’s on the horizon and it seems every superhero comic in the damn world has been plundered for the big-budget all-star pyrotechnic IMAX franchise treatment. All of them with the exception of Plastic Man, that is. Turns out that’s something of a story.
Following the apocalyptic success of Tim Burton’s Batman, every major studio in Hollywood went into scramble mode in 1990, snatching up properties from Marvel, DC, even a couple indie publishers. There would be more Superman movies, more Batman movies, Captain America, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, The Hulk…Christ, everyone was rushed into pre-production. And amid the feeding frenzy, in 1991 Dreamworks and Warner Brothers secured the rights to Plastic Man. Of course the state of special effects limited what they could do with it unless they wanted to go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route, but still. Better to have the rights to a DC character than let someone else get them.
But the project, even with some interest from Spielberg himself and Bryan Spicer rumored to be on tap as director, sat there for a few years as more popular comic book characters took precedence. Finally in 1995, four years before The Matrix, back before anyone knew who the hell they were (their only produced script was the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Assassins), the Wachowskis were commissioned to write a Plastic Man script.
Oh me, oh my, and what a script it was. Where to even begin? Patrick “Eel” O’Brian has for some reason now become David O’Brian. Instead of a street thug and safecracker, he’s now a radical environmentalist who confronts litterbugs on the street and breaks into industrial labs to release research animals. Instead of gaining his powers after being doused with mysterious chemicals during a botched heist, he breaks into an evil industrialist’s headquarters, is captured, and used as a human guinea pig for some experimental high tech plastic surgery research. Instead of being wooed into crime fighting by a kindly monk, he’s out to get the rat bastards who did this to him. So instead of a superhero film, exactly, it becomes an action revenge pic with lots of explosions, and one that owes more than a little to Sam Raimi’s Darkman.
Yeah, the Wachowskis have never really been much known for their sense of humor. Instead of a means toward wacky slapstick hijinx, Plastic Man’s newfound powers, at least for the film’s first half until shit starts blowing up, is seen as a horrible medical condition that needs to be cured. It’s a little shy on the yuks, which may explain why they once told an interviewer Plastic Man would be as close to a comedy as they could get. It’s not that they don’t try to be funny. They do. They try really, really hard. But watching the Wachowskis try to be funny is just kind of sad. The big joke here, and it’s less joke than heavyhanded social commentary, is that a radical environmentalist suddenly finds his entire body transformed into non-biodegradable material. He even pisses liquid plastic. (HAW! HAW! HAW!)
Well, it’s unclear why Dreamworks and Warners decided against going ahead with Plastic Man. It might’ve been the competition it would face at the box office. It might’ve been the proposed brain-freezing budget. Or it might’ve been the godawful script (though that’s never been known to stop the major studios before). In any case the Wachowski script was passed around but no one seemed to want it, and it languished.
Then in 2008, desperate to salvage their scarred reputations following the failure of Speed Racer, they dusted off their thirteen year-old script again and seriously began talking about making it. With CGI at their disposal now, what would stop them? They even announced a December 2009 release date. The question then became, how do you make a bad script even worse? Simple. You ask Kaw-Ligia himself Keanu Reeves to star as that zany Plastic Man. Whoa, dude! Bruce Campbell and Jim Carrey might’ve been getting a little old by that time, but at least they would’ve made some sense. Keanu Reeves? Guess it says all it needs to about how they envisioned the tone of the film (i.e. NOT FUNNY).
Although there were rumors the Wachowskis and Reeves were set and already in pre-production in Germany, it seems things never got beyond the talking stage and the project fizzled again as other projects came along. Thank god.
With the Wachowskis’ script fast becoming their equivalent of David Lynch’s Ronnie Rocket, there’s been no more talk of making it. But now with their sci-fi extravaganza, Jupiter Ascending knocked back six months, it might give them time to think. Lets hope not.
Then out of nowhere in September of 2013 other rumors began swirling that David Tennant had been offered the role of Plas in Warner’s upcoming Justice League movie. It seemed another odd choice, but there you go. The thinking seemed to be the DC films had become so grim and brooding and overbearingly righteous something had to be thrown into the mix to lighten the mood a bit. It was a trick Marvel recognized from the beginning, but one that hadn’t yet dawned on DC. Plastic Man had been a member of the Justice League for some time, though it seems he was mostly kept around for comic relief. Why not get a little of him in the movie to see if he could crack a few of those stone jaws?
Not long after the rumors began, they stopped again and nothing else was said about the possibility.
So what is Plas’ problem, exactly? Why is it that he doesn’t even deserve a cameo in these endless, endless comic book films? You’d think audiences (or studio executives) would appreciate an elastic finger-popping gizmo who could take the piss out of a few of these self-serious gasbags. What, do people actually prefer that tired old bore Reed Richards?
Well, maybe they do. Maybe they need their heroes to be brooding and straightfaced as they defend the world against other people in funny costumes. For most I guess only righteous superheroes matter. And maybe that’s why my allegiances stick firmly with Plastic Man. The whole goddamn age takes itself so stupidly seriously, but for my money give me a superhero who, in one early Cole panel, runs down the street with a gun screaming “Whoopee! I’m a dope fiend!”
That’s why I gotta say in retrospect I’m actually kind of relieved there doesn’t appear to be any big screen glamour in his future. As the Wachowskis’ script and Frank Miller’s unforgivable adaptation of The Spirit proved, whoever ended up making a Plastic Man movie would probably just fuck it up anyway.