Created by Jack Cole
Plastic Man was the unique creation of Jack Cole, a cartoonist whose work on the character has elevated him to the status of “comic book royalty,” but whose career was cut short by suicide. The seeds for this character (Quality’s second most popular, after Blackhawk) can be seen in Cole’s earliest work. In 1935, Jack drew autobiographical cartoons for an article in Boy’s Life about his cross-country bike trip from Pennsylvania to California. In these single-panel cartoons, his style was already fully developed. They show Jack making fun of himself: a wiry, bendy figure with a goofy face, and the panel borders are twisted and off-kilter. Naturally, Cole had been a fan of newspaper comic strips. His figures were more in league with E.C. Segar’s Popeye than Hal Foster’s Flash Gordon, but fate threw Jack Cole into the burgeoning world of the comic book hero, where he invented intriguing ways to infuse cartoons with adventure.
Jack Cole’s experiences on that bike trip informed his stories, and the colorful characters within them. Plastic Man’s adventures spanned many American locales, and revealed Cole’s keen sense for pop culture. Jack infused his stories with elements of entertainment and science, including early references to television and rocketry.
Prior to creating Plastic Man, Cole warmed up with Midnight, a character that Busy Arnold intended to be a copy of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit.” Whatever Arnold’s intentions, Cole’s Midnight was nothing like Eisner’s Spirit. Midnight debuted in Smash Comics #18 (Jan. 1941), only about a half-year ahead of “Plas.” That boisterous feature displayed some of the elements that Cole wold bring to his own original creation.
Plastic Man debuted in Police Comics #1, in the summer of 1941, as a six-page back-up feature. The cover star of that issue was Reed Crandall’s “Firebrand,” but that wouldn’t stand for long. The first installment was an origin story. Our hero—who began as a common criminal named “Eel” O’Brian—was orphaned when he was young, leaving him to fend for himself on rough streets. (Later stories explained that he earned his nickname by being so adept at eluding the authorities.) O’Brian was left behind by his gang at the Crawford Chemical Works, and after being shot and doused by acid, he limped to safety on a remote mountain. When he awoke, he found he’d been taken in by a monk at a place called Rest-Haven. The acid had imbued him with the incredible ability to stretch and mold his body into any shape! He saw the opportunity to turn over a new leaf and vowed to use these awesome powers to fight crime. When he left the Haven, his first mission was to take revenge against his former gang. He donned a red rubber suit and returned to infiltrate them. They were stunned by the freakish powers of Plastic Man and fled to their getaway car—which was driven by O’Brian. He promptly dropped them off (literally) at the nearest police station. (Police #1)
When Woozy Winks casually saved the life of Zambi the Soothsayer, little did he realize that he’d be rewarded with invulnerability and immunity to pain. Winks described this as “protection from Mother Nature.” To decide his path, Woozy flipped a coin and pursued a life of crime, soon becoming partners with Eel O’Brian. Plas eventually convinced Woozy to turn himself in, but the police discovered that because of his powers, Woozy couldn’t be held, and could simply saunter out of custody. Rather than serve his sentence, Winks was offered redemption—he could help Plas catch Eel O’Brian. (#13) Plastic Man convinced Murphey to release Woozy into his custody. (#14)
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Cole’s second major change to the world of Plastic Man was enlisting the hero with the FBI. Plas had been deferred from civil service during the war because Captain Murphey needed him more on the home front. It was the President himself who requisitioned Plastic Man’s services for the FBI. The post was confirmed by a telephone call; Plas would work for the government on counter-espionage. (#18)
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Cole produced “Plastic Man” fairly consistently through its run in Police Comics, which ended in #102 (Oct. 1950). After that, the title changed to all adventure features, but Plastic Man continued bi-monthly for another six years. In Plastic Man #43 (Nov. 1953), Quality began inserting reprint stories (it was also done in issue #34). After that, reprints were common and by #53 (April 1955), reprints filled the entire book. The title continued to issue #64 (Nov. 1956), when Quality ceased publishing.
[ … Q C. ]
In Police #6, Plas addressed the reader, thanking them for sending letters about the feature. He asked if readers would like to see the feature go from six to nine pages. That it did, relatively soon; with issue #9, Plastic Man jumped to the lead spot, but he’d already taken over the cover with #5.
Woozy mentioned the Human Bomb in Police #17.
Pit Stop: M.F. Enterprises
In early 1966, just before DC revived Plastic Man, another ambitious publisher attempted to cash in on some Golden Age properties. M.F. Enterprises was probably the first to gamble that these characters might no longer be protected by copyrights. If only their comics had been good, we might today have a very different comics landscape. M.F. Enterprises launched their own Captain Marvel title, which lasted for less than a year. Marvel Comics wouldn’t create their own Captain Marvel until a year later.
[ … Q C. ]
Plastic Man II
In 1966, DC Comics was experiencing a renaissance fueled by the popularity of the new Batman television show. By this time, DC’s own stretching hero, the Elongated Man—also sporting a red outfit with a yellow belt and a deep v-neck—had been appearing in The Flash for over five years (The Flash #112, May 1960). Plastic Man fit the bill for a campy revival that began with a preview of sorts in House of Mystery #160 (July 1966). This issue by Dave Wood and Jim Mooney starred Robby Reed in the “Dial H for Hero” feature. As the cover proclaimed, this issue featured “a new old hero.” Reed’s wristwatch, when dialed, would transform him into a different super-powered hero every time. Carrying the concept further, Reed would also use the Dial to transform into an “old new hero” and a “new old hero.” Saving Plastic Man for last, the writer conjured “that famous crime-fighting hero of years ago”—Plastic Man. Reed used the power of plastic mostly to form elongated limbs and to shape himself into a ball. It was a far cry from Jack Cole, but power enough for Robby to outwit his foe, the wizard Drago.
[ … Q C. ]
When Plastic Man was relit in 1976 (with the same numbering sequence), it was “business as usual” with Plas—and Woozy Winks. His origin was retold in issue #17; it was identical to that of Police #1. Editors had taken note of the fans’ requests and returned the character to classic form. It lasted for another ten issues. Steve Skeates’ revival series reads much more cleanly than its forebear because it’s not bogged down by DC’s mid-’60s obsession with “groovy go-go” this and that. Ramona Fradon’s art was much truer to Jack Cole’s, and Plastic’s uniform was back to its original look, too. Plas was again working for the government, but at DC it was called the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation).
[ … Q C. ]
In the period up until the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Plastic Man appeared only as a member of the World War II era All-Star Squadron. In this series, Roy Thomas grouped heroes from all DC properties together under a common umbrella. Thomas was faithful to the Quality lore and made Plas a sort of liaison between the government and the hero community.
[ … Q C. ]
In the pages of JLA, Plastic Man’s personal life was explored more deeply than ever. When Mark Waid took over the series, he was even so bold as to finally give the hero a first name: Patrick (it happened in JLA #50). Waid said, “it just fit with the story—our first real good in-depth look at the pre-accident Eel.” Waid said that “Patrick” was the most Irish name he could think of (and regrets misspelling his last name throughout that tale). More surprising was the discovery that Plas had a son…
JLA #65 (2002) introduced ten-year-old Luke McDonagh, who had inherited his father’s powers. Plas and his ex-wife, Angel, had long since divorced on bad terms. Though the boy was never told his father’s identity, he knew the truth. Luke could change color as well as shape. When he got mixed up in trouble, Plastic Man requested Batman’s help in scaring him straight. Batman challenged Plas to push his own powers to change color, too.
[ … Q C. ]
Big Bang Comics
Plastic Man was parodied lovingly by Big Bang Comics, a publisher who specializes in that sort of story. Created by Gary Carlson, Protoplasman was more about channeling the magic of Jack Cole than simply renaming a popular character. These stories are a lot of fun, and while the art doesn't capture Cole's unbridled sense of composition, it's a solid homage. The first issue of Big Bang Presents (2006) also contained editorial comment about the road to Proto. Carlson had many proposals to do a Big Bang version of Plastic Man, but found them all lacking until meeting artist Mort Todd. Todd's drawing style mimicked both Cole's early Plastic Man style, and the later horror style of the pre-Code 1950s. The first issue jumped right into his story, and the origin was told in his second appearance, Big Bang Presents #3…
Protoplasman's origin was a tale that also parodied Jack Cole's "the Claw" from Lev Gleason's Silver Streak Comics. At Big Bang, Claw was called Dr. Fang, and he was to blame for Protoplasman's powers. This was also set in the World War II era. Hitler launched a "Buzz-Bomb" at Mammoth City, USA, which instead of explosives housed the vampiric Dr. Fang (Hitler's former head of Secret Service). Banished to the United States, Fang unleashed a reign of terror and one of his first victims was Butch Castle. Days later, Dr. Fang used his Universal Solvent to destroy a dam and proceeded towards the city's water works. There he was confronted by Butch's brother, private eye Jake Castle. Fang produced the remaining poison, which exploded all over Castle, and he tumbled into a tank of water. Later the police drained the tank and discovered that Jake's body was broken down by the Solvent. He could now turn his body into a protoplasmic mass of goo. He donned a rubber suit that helped him hold his shape. Now a "human water balloon," Castle could elongate his body and unleash its mass as a sort of torrent of liquid. Fang then revealed that he had kept Butch Castle as a prisoner—in shrunken form! But Butch was mentally unstable and attacked his brother after Dr. Fang grew him to giant size. As the villain stole away, he doused Butch with the Solvent, killing him.
The second story picked up not long after this. After his defeat, Fang left a horde of vampires. Rose Daly mowed them down with a tommy gun filled with silver buillets—she was Jake Castle's partner at the Knight & Daly detective agency. It was then she learned of her partner's fate and he dubbed himself Protoplasman.… "at 96% water, I can stretch, bounce... and could even melt!"
In the morgue they unearthed a new threat: two unnaturally conjoined men. The trail led to Yin and Yang, conjoined twins who worked at the circus. Proto set a date with Yang but on his way, he stopped a robbery by a yin/yang dressed crook. The twins had a super-power based on a pair of ancient coins: when given to someone else, the power allowed them to separate and the new possessors of the coins became conjoined. Yin accidentally shot her sister, which caused them both to die. (Big Bang Presents #3)
It was Proto's first appearance that introduced his supporting cast. Dr. Noah Toll had recreated the Philosopher's Stone in the form of an elixir. It was immediately stolen by a succession of crooks and wound up in the possession of Proto's enemy, Mint Julip. She lost it in the sewers and it found its way to Willy Wampum. Wampum was bound to commit suicide and took the elixir for poison. Instead when he ingested it, he found he could take the properties of anything he touched. He began robbing banks for the cash to woo back his sweetheart—who turned out to be Julip. She spurned him still and Wampum becam suicidal again. He leapt into the water, turning to H20 himself, and disappeared. (#1)
The crew was called to Hollywood by Goldfish Studios to find their missing star, the super-handsome Paul O'Dennis. After suspecting a succession of bitter ex-girlfriends, they discovered that the actor had eaten himself into a behemoth so that women would love his personality, not his face. (#4)
Protosplasman's powers differed slightly from Plastic Man's. He wasn't a true "shape-shifter," but could change form. He could form his body into shapes such as a water balloon, that would essentially expel himself. The bouancy also allowed him to stretch and bounce.
» FEATURED APPEARANCES: Big Bang Presents #1 (July 2006), 3–4
Plastic Man can change his body into any shape that he can imagine. His physical make-up was changed in such a way that his entire body was composed of the same malleable substance. His body could survive almost any attack of force, including projectiles or heavy pressures. As a balloon, he could create the effect of super-breath. In the beginning, he could change his color, as well. In tales at DC Comics, he has struggled with that aspect. Being made of a rubber-like substance, he was insulated from electromagnetic energies.
His weaknesses involve extreme temperatures and glue. In recent appearances, acetone was used to “dissolve” him.
Plas’ friend Woozy Winks also had metahuman abilities. Upon saving “Zambi ze Soothzayer” from drowning, he was granted protection of nature, meaning nothing could harm him. (Police #13) He tested this by hitting himself on the head with a hammer and jumping off a cliff without being hurt. Woozy’s power provided him with a sort of shield from harm. Not only could he feel no pain when struck, but other disasters (like lightning, earthquakes, etc.) simply “slipped” off of him.
» FEATURED APPEARANCES:
Action Comics #661, 762, 791
The Brave and the Bold #76, 95, 123, 148
Green Arrow/Black Canary #8-12
Green Lantern vol. 3 #103, 115–116, 134-136
Green Lantern/Plastic Man: Weapons of Mass Deception #1
House of Mystery #160
JLA #14–76, 87-89, 91-93, 100, 109, 109, 111-114
Justice League of America vol. 1 #144
Justice League of America vol. 2 #35-38, 40, 42
Plastic Man vol. 1, 64 issues (1943-56)
Plastic Man vol. 2, #1-10 (1966-68) #11-20 (1976-77)
Plastic Man vol. 3, 4-issue limited series (1989)
Plastic Man vol. 4, 20 issues (2004-06)
Police Comics #1-102 (1941-53)
The Plastic Man Archives:
Vol. 1. Police Comics #1-20 (1999)
Volume 2. Police Comics #21-30 (2000)
Volume 3. Police Comics #31-39 (2001)
Volume 4. Police Comics #40-49 + Plastic Man #3 (2002)
Volume 5. Police Comics # #50-58 + Plastic Man #4 (2003)
Volume 6. Police Comics #59-65 + Plastic Man #5-6 (2004)
Volume 7. Police Comics #66-71 + Plastic Man #7-8 (2006)
Volume 8. Police Comics #72-77 + Plastic Man #9-10 (2006)