Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to untangle the continuity of Plastic Man

(Title is a paraphrased quote from DC’s Plastic Man #6).

Courtesy of the DC app I recently read the first issue of DC’s Silver Age Plastic Man (November, 1966) for the first time as part of my Silver Age reread. While a poor shadow of Jack Cole’s original, Arnold Drake’s story does do an effective job introducing “the famous human rubber-band,” his foes (Dr. Dome [hmm, that sounds familiar], his daughter Lynx and his lackey Professor X [hmm, him too]) and his friends (rich girlfriend Micheline “Mike” DeLute and super-square sidekick Gordon K. Trueblood). What I’m really blogging about, though, is how tangled DC’s subsequent Plastic Man continuity became.

The first place I encountered Plastic Man was House of Mystery #160 in which Robby Reed, the original H Dial kid, becomes “that famous crime-fighting hero of years ago.” It’s the only time Robby dialed into a “real” hero rather than a made-up one like King Kandy or Giantboy, though I had no idea at the time that Plastic Man was, so to speak, real. Was it a test case for readers’ reaction, like the Human Torch story in Strange Tales in which the Acrobat impersonates Captain America? A promotional ploy to alert kids like me that when Plastic Man #1 appeared, DC hadn’t pulled him out of their butt?

#1 introduces Plas as an already established hero so readers might have assumed he’s the same guy Robby remembered. Then again, some of them might have wondered why Robby thought of him as ancient history if they were contemporaries. Or they didn’t think about that stuff at all — I’m pretty sure I didn’t.

Like I said above, the Drake/Gil Kane story is no match for Jack Cole. Kane, talented though he is, can’t match Cole on a strip like this; neither can J. Winslow Mortimer or Jack Sparling who replaced Kane on the strip. Just look at this wonderful splash page.

Nor does Drake catch what made Plastic Man work. As noted here, Cole’s Plas was his own straight man, playing off his own rubbery body; his low-comic sidekick Woozy Winks; and off an endless parade of oddballs, weirdos and lunatics. Drake’s Plastic Man is a jokester and a smartass while Gordy is a straight arrow pushing his pal to act responsibly. I enjoyed the Silver Age series as a kid but I traded almost all the issues away in my early teens, and I did not let go of my childhood comics in those days. Like most of DC’s humor books of the 1960s (e.g. the Maniaks) it wasn’t that funny.

Now, as to the continuity … in #2, Dr. Dome, having failed to kill Plas once again, decides to learn his origin, go back in time and kill him before he got his powers. Much to Dome’s frustration, witnesses to Plastic Man’s debut tell him three different origin stories and he can’t figure out which is right. He could, of course, have gone back and researched all three origins or simply killed all three alleged identities, but Dome’s a comedy character so he doesn’t do anything that smart.

In #7 we learn none of the stories are true: Plastic Man is the son of the original Quality Comics character who hung out with Woozy. Out of nostalgia, Dad hung on to a bottle of the chemicals that gave him his powers and when his kid swallowed the formula … This explains why the DC version is so different in personality; in fact he admits he likes hanging with Gordy because his buddy’s as serious as his dad. However it’s odd that unlike Robby Reed, nobody in Plastic Man remember there was a Golden Age Plastic Man. Nor does Drake explain Plas making up the fake origins he told people in #2, though it’s in character for Drake’s Plas to play a joke like that.

Silver Age Plas got 10 issues plus a team-up with Batman in Brave and the Bold #76 before DC pulled the plug. In fairness, 1968 was a bad year for DC so that may not be Drake and Sparling’s fault. Then again, nobody’s ever held this up as a lost classic. Len Wein hated DC’s take so much that when he placed the Quality Comics heroes on Earth-X in Justice League of America #107 he established that Earth’s Plastic Man was long dead.

In 1971, Bob Haney and Nicholas Cardy gave us a different take on Plastic Man in Brave and the Bold #95, “C.O.D. — Corpse on Delivery!” Ruthless tycoon Ruby Ryder begs Batman to find her missing fiancee Kyle Morgan in return for a $5 million charitable donation. Morgan doesn’t want to be found and for good reason: when Bats brings him in, Ruby kills Kyle for ghosting on her, then frames Batman for the murder. Weird events abound as Batman tries to clear himself; the explanation turns out to be that Kyle Morgan is … Plastic Man! “I hated being trapped inside that plastic clown! How I longed to be free … lead a normal life … know a woman’s love!” He became dreamboat Morgan only to discover Ruby was rotten to the core.

When we see Plas again in B&B #123, he’s even worse off. Rather than return to crimefighting he became a carnival freak, couldn’t take it, and now he’s a Skid Row bum. In #148, he’s still broken in spirit and working as a sidewalk Santa.

In between those second and third B&B appearances we saw a completely different Plastic Man starting in Plastic Man #11 (Steve Skeates, Ramona Fradon). He’s now an employee of the federal NBI with Woozy Winks as his sidekick. This version ignores both Haney’s tragic Plas and the Silver Age origin: he’s not old enough to be the Golden Age original but Woozy doesn’t treat him like his younger “nephew.” Either way, the series was every bit as funny as Arnold Drake’s.All-Star Squadron 1 cover Rich Buckler Dick GiordanoIn the 1980s we get to All-Star Squadron (there was a Plastic Man strip in Adventure Comics too but it’s not relevant to the continuity stuff I’m covering here). Roy Thomas cast the Earth-Two Plastic Man as one of the Squadron’s founding members, only to have him relocate to Earth-X, a world with no superheroes, alongside Uncle Sam’s Freedom Fighters. Thomas’ view was that almost all Golden Age superheroes (the Marvel Family of Earth-S were an exception) existed on Earth-Two and nowhere else. For example, Zatara, long assumed to be an Earth-One hero, had migrated there from Earth-Two at some point.

And that gives us a big continuity glitch: if there’s no Earth-One Plastic Man and Earth-Two’s version died on Earth-X, how could Robby Reed remember him? Where did the Silver Age Plas come from? How does it all make sense? Of course the answer is, “We had a bunch of creators who weren’t worried about what anyone else was doing with Plastic Man and none of DC’s takes were popular enough that anyone cared.” But it’s no fun to settle for such an obvious answer. Instead let’s look at couple of the possible explanations (I’m not concerned enough to pick one).

Wein and/or Thomas were wrong. We know absolutely nothing about how Plastic Man died on Earth-X but all of us know how often superheroes cheat death. Why not this time? E.g., “Poor Plastic Man. Blowing up that dimensional gateway sent Baron Blitzkrieg, U-Man and Baron Blood back to their own worlds but all that’s left of our friend is some shreds of his costume.” Meanwhile, a battered, naked Plas pulls himself together on Earth-One …

As for Thomas, All-Star Squadron never showed us WW II Earth-One the way it did Earth-X. His claim it had no superheroes is his personal head-canon, not substantiated on the printed page. So perhaps Two’s Plastic Man did die on Earth-X but Earth-One had a homegrown version who eventually gave birth to the Silver Age smartass. Maybe the younger Plas fell apart after he and Mike broke up, leading him to reject superheroics in favor of the Kyle Morgan identity.

But what about the Skeates version who hung out with Woozy Winks? Maybe it’s Old Plastic Man after all. He’s plastic so he doesn’t age (pretending you’re growing older is a time-honored trick for immortals) and Woozy had magic protection against harm that might have done the same for him.

Or maybe the origin in #7 is a lie. We know Plas made up the stories in #2, so maybe #7 is more bullshit. Faking being your own son is another classic immortal trick, though we still have to explain the presence of his father (“Hey, Immortal Man, do you think you could help me with a cover origin? I did it for you in 1952, remember?”).

Earth-12 explains everything. In Oz-Wonderland War #3 we get a brief appearance of the Inferior Five asking Captain Carrot for help finding Earth-12. This inspired a theory that DC’s 1960s humor books all took place on that Earth, the same way all funny animal books take place on Earth-C.

If true, Earth-12 is the home of the Inferior Five, Angel and the Ape, the Maniaks and Super-Hip. It’s where Jerry Lewis teams up with Batman, Flash and Superman as it has counterparts of most of the Earth-One heroes. If the Silver Age Plastic Man took place on Earth-12, there’s a separate Plastic Man on Earth-One, whether he came from Earth-Two originally or not. Presumably he gave up crime-fighting some time before Robby Reed turned into him; Justice League of America #144 shows Plas fighting crime on Earth-One in 1959, but for a teenager in 1966, that probably did feel like years ago.

At some point Plas became Kyle Morgan — like J’Onn J’Onzz he may have assumed multiple identities — but eventually returned to crime-fighting with the NBI and met Earth-One’s Woozy Winks. That third B&B may have been a temporary relapse.

Like many fan theories, this relies heavily on guesswork. We don’t know anything canonical about Earth-Twelve, not even that it’s the dimension the I5 calls home. They could have been searching for it for any number of reasons. But it’s generated enough fan interest I’m mentioning it anyway.

This is obviously more thought than anyone at DC put into these questions and probably more than the answers are worth. But I had fun so I hope you did too.

#SFWApro. Images top to bottom by Gil Kane, Jim Mooney, Jack Cole, Carmine Infantino, Nick Cardy, Neal Adams, Rich Buckler and Adams again.


  1. Alaric

    Or the B&B stories could have taken place on Earth-B, as per the theory that many of Haney’s Brave & Bold Batman team-ups took place on their own Earth, to explain all the changes in personality and continuity problems.

  2. DarkKnight

    Plastic Man is one of those characters that is really tied to their original creator. I think the only other person who got close to Jack Cole’s vision was Kyle Baker whose Plastic Man series I thought was fantastic.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    My intro to Plas was his appearance in the original Super Friends series, in the “GEEC” episode, where a mouse gets inside a super-computer, that is running all machinery, causing complete havoc. Plas is called in at the end, to help Superman locate the trouble, after they shut down the machine. The first time I saw it, I somehow missed seeing Superman in the same scene and got it in my head he was Superman, in disguise, since they both had dark hair I watched it again, years later, and there is Superman, standing right next to him, using his x-ray vision!

    Since then, I’ve read some of Cole’s and some of the others and Staton did a nice art job on the Adventure Comics stories; but, they couldn’t hold a candle. Staton had practice, having co-created E-Man, who was pretty much inspired by Plas. Kyle Baker’s stuff was good.

  4. Man, that ’60s Plastic Man series was rough, and for my money really not very funny at all, though it tried.

    I remember in the letters page once someone wrote in asking for the return of Woozy Winks, and the editor scoffed that Woozy was way too old-fashioned now (as opposed to Plas’s incredibly boring new sidekick, I guess). But a few issues later Woozy did indeed show up, along with Dad Plas.

    I really liked the later Adventure Comics run, though

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