Plastic Man is back with his own series at DC Comics this week from writer Gail Simone and artist Adriana Melo. After being teased during the events of Dark Nights: Metal and made a part of The Terrifics, Plastic Man has become a key ingredient in the DC Comics lineup once again. While this pliable protagonist is one of the most enduring characters in the entire superhero genre, his origins and history are not nearly as well known as those of his Justice League cohorts. Most readers know what Plastic Man does and that he can crack a joke, but that’s only a portion of the whole story.
That’s why we have assembled a beginner’s guide to Plastic Man for anyone interested in the new series or checking out what came before. From his inception to a multitude of modern stories, Plastic Man is a highlight of DC Comics’ publishing history and one character that has presented great stories from the Golden Age to today. So if you even have an inkling of curiosity about who Plastic Man may be, then read ahead and learn more about one of the great underrated superheroes of all time.
Plastic Man was created by one of the undeniably great cartoonists of the Golden Age: Jack Cole. Cole was an artist at an early age and moved with his wife from their home in Pennsylvania to New York City in order to pursue a career in the quickly growing industry. He worked throughout the entirety of the Golden Age, including a long stint at Quality Comics where he was edited by Will Eisner. It was at Quality Comics that he created Plastic Man, a character who debuted in the page of Police Comics #1 in August of 1941. Plastic Man was an instant hit and helped grow Cole’s name and reputation within the industry. By 1943, Plastic Man was given his own series, which continued to carry Cole’s name on the banner even by the end of the decade when the majority of stories were written and drawn by ghost creators.
Plastic Man is a perfect example of Cole’s artwork and what makes him a significant creator from this era. His strips were loaded with humor and some of the most expressive and experimental artwork of the time. Cole’s style was idiosyncratic, and his work with Plastic Man was unlike anything else being published. Plastic Man’s design allowed Cole to play with design elements and layouts, pushing the boundaries of storytelling much further than other successful series like Action Comics or Detective Comics. Cole later became an illustrator at the magazine Playboy for a long stint and continued to set a high bar in the field of cartooning.
Jack Cole tragically ended his own life in 1958 after mailing letters to his wife and Hugh Hefner, his friend and editor. The reasons for his suicide remain a mystery, but his life and legacy continue to be mourned by cartoonists influenced and inspired by his work. Cole was eventually honored with posthumous inductions into both the Jack Kirby and Will Eisner Halls of Fame.
The origin Jack Cole crafted for Plastic Man has turned out to be almost timeless in nature. While there have been some tweaks across the years, the essential elements have all remained intact. Plastic Man was introduced under his alter ego of Patrick “Eel” O’Brian, a criminal who was orphaned at the early age of 10 and turned to crime to take care of himself. As a professional thief he took on the role of a safecracker, until a robbery at Crawford Chemical Works went wrong, resulting in Eel being shot, doused with chemicals, and abandoned by his partners.
Eel still managed to escape, and his unconscious body was discovered by a monk who took him in, nursed him back to health, and hid him from the police. Soon after he discovered his amazing ability to stretch and reshape his own body, and was inspired by the kindness of the monk to dedicate his life to good. Eel created a stretching uniform, the same iconic red, black, and yellow outfit he wears today, and maintained his alter ego to collect information on criminals. He also discovered his bumbling sidekick, Woozy Winks, early in his career when Cole was still creating the comic.
The most significant reimagining of this origin came from artist Phil Foglio who made some tweaks to the story following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths. However, the origin of his powers, his criminal past, and other essential elements all remained unchanged, even through today.
His Greatest Hits
The Plastic Man Archives, Vol. 1: Unlike many characters created during the Golden Age, the early adventures of Plastic Man created by Jack Cole still read very well today. The DC Comics Archives offer many of these early installments of both Police Comics and Plastic Man in a beautiful hardbound format where readers can discover what made the character click and why Cole’s cartooning is so revered.
Plastic Man: On The Lam: The first collection of Kyle Baker’s work on Plastic Man shows how he set a modern standard for this character and superhero cartooning. Every element of the series is hyper-exaggerated, resulting in some very fun and far out adventures. It is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to the earliest appearances of Plastic Man, and a truly evergreen comics read.1comments
Rock of Ages: This story in the renowned JLA run from writer Grant Morrison and artist Howard Porter helped make Plastic Man a core member of the team, eventually transforming the “Big 7” into the “Big 8.” Plastic Man made some incredibly heroic turns throughout the series as he was shown to be far more powerful than anyone ever expected, but the best place to start is with this modern classic.
His Status Quo
Plastic Man largely disappeared after the New 52 reboot though, and his absence has only recently been resolved. He first reappeared in the pages of Dark Nights: Metal when Batman revealed an egg-shaped object with Plastic Man’s uniform he had been keeping in the Batcave due to its instability. That egg was released and reformed as Plastic Man to help Mister Terrific and Metamorpho stop Simon Stagg from opening a portal into the Dark Multiverse. Their adventure together also led to the rescue of Phantom Girl and a mysterious bond between the four heroes that is keeping them together in the pages of The Terrifics. It’s unclear how the new Plastic Man series will fit into this timeline, but it is apparent that Plastic Man is back to stay at DC Comics.