True to his shape-shifting nature, Plastic Man is stretching his way back on to the pop culture radar screen.
The moldable, pliable superhero - created in 1941 and now owned by the Time Warner conglomerate - got his own comic book back last month through Time Warner's DC Comics unit. This event and its impact - or lack of one - on the plastics industry offers an interesting look at the value of licensing and branding.
A plastic legacy
First, the basics. Plastic Man was created in 1941 by Jack Cole, a native of New Castle, Pa., who became one of the most respected artists in comics. Plastic Man was Eel O'Brian, a two-bit thug - was there any other kind? - who had a chemical potion spill into a wound when he was shot during a robbery attempt. The potion gave O'Brian the power to stretch and change his shape, and this somehow inspired him to turn away from his life of crime.
As comic book origin stories go, Plastic Man's wasn't quite as heroic as Superman's being rocketed from the doomed planet Krypton, or as dramatic as Batman's witnessing his parents' murder during a robbery, but it wasn't that bad, overall.
``Plastic Man'' was published by Quality Comics Inc. and was featured first in its Police Comics title and then in his own title into the mid-1950s, outlasting many of his costumed competitors. Cole's unique vision of the character - and the witty, humorous tone of many of the stories - won a legion of admirers.
What separated Plastic Man from his superheroic peers? Writer Jim Amash tried to answer that elusive question in Alter Ego, a comics history magazine that devoted most of its June 2003 issue to the character.
``Cole's camera angles vaulted from high-altitude perspectives to worm's-eye views of the city, with an occasional side trip to dreamland,'' wrote Amash. ``His writing was as original as his art, combining adventure with side-splitting slapstick. Was there ever a more kinetically charged superhero than Plastic Man?''
After DC bought Plastic Man and other characters from Quality in 1956, the character disappeared until the late 1960s, when he received his own short-lived title. In the next 35 years, the character appeared sporadically as a guest star in various DC titles and in a couple of solo series.
Plastic Man's pop culture peak probably occurred in 1979, when he was given his own Saturday morning cartoon by ABC-TV. The idea was pitched to ABC by former comic book artist Norman Maurer, a Plastic Man fan who was working as a consultant for ABC at the time, according to comics historian Mark Evanier. Maurer also wrote the pilot script for the show, which lasted only two seasons, but served to reintroduce the character to a whole generation of fans who probably had never seen him in comics.
So would it make sense for an organization such as, oh, let's just say the American Plastics Council, to license the character for an ad campaign?
For his part, APC communications director Rob Krebs said the Arlington, Va.-based group has not considered using the character. In a recent telephone interview, Krebs said the character might fit in a youth-oriented campaign, but even then it might not meet APC's goal of improving the image of plastic. That's because adults still make most household purchasing decisions that might be affected by plastic perception.
``If we saw kids starting to steer parents' decisions more, we might look into licensing [Plastic Man],'' said Krebs. ``But as far as our research shows, [kids] aren't the ones making those decisions.''
Plastic Man's name did not pop up in phone polling that APC did in the mid-1990s when it asked the public its general impressions of plastic.
APC has had success in recent years with its ``Plastics Make It Possible'' series of TV commercials, which have played a role in the industry having its highest approval ratings in 15 years. Krebs said he was not sure if an animated commercial starring Plastic Man could be made for less than the cost of APC's current live-action commercials.
Marty Brochstein, executive editor of ``The Licensing Letter,'' a New York-based industry publication, cited Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.'s use of the dog Snoopy from the Peanuts comic strip as a successful example of a business using an established comic or cartoon character in its advertising.
``Characters that might be perceived as being aimed at kids can be used to reach adults as well,'' Brochstein said. ``We're not immune.''
In the past year, navigation systems maker OnStar Inc. has enjoyed success with a live-action Batman commercial, while financial services provider ING Group has featured the Flash, DC's superspeed superhero, in Internet pop-up ads.
Officials at DC Comics declined to comment on the new comic or on licensing opportunities.
Baker all plasticky
The new series is written and drawn by Kyle Baker, a successful artist and animator who has created a number of acclaimed comics projects, including King David, an adaptation of the Biblical story that won critical praise in 2002.
In a recent phone interview, Baker said DC asked him to revive one of its established characters. He suggested Plastic Man because of the artistic possibilities the character held.
``You can basically be as creative as you want with the character,'' Baker said. ``I had done a story with [award-winning comics writer] Alan Moore about a character who was made of ink, and I've used some of those same ideas with Plastic Man.''
Baker had not seen much of Cole's original work when he suggested the idea, but DC soon supplied him with copies of those stories as reference material.
``I've tried to keep [the new comic] as close to the style and spirit of the original as I could,'' Baker said.
Early reaction to the new comic has been positive, but Baker said he has received some unusual comments from fans of the more ``serious'' portrayal of the character.
``I've had some people tell me my version is too silly or too cartoony,'' he said. ``When I hear that, I just say, `It's Plastic Man!' ''
A star on the rise
The new monthly Plastic Man comic comes at a time when Plastic Man's critical credibility may never have been higher. In addition to the comic, DC recently published the fifth volume of Plastic Man Archives, a hardcover series reprint of Cole's 1940s work. December also saw the publication of Plastic Man: 80-Page Giant, a comic that collected a pair of classic Cole tales as well as three later Plastic Man adventures from the '60s and '70s.
This recent outburst of attention may have begun with Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits, a 2001 book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman. The book, which also reprinted several of Cole's classic Plastic Man stories, was an extension of an article Spiegelman wrote for The New Yorker in 1999. The issue that contained the story also featured a Spiegelman cover drawing of Plastic Man freaking out at a modern art exhibit.
After leaving the Plastic Man feature in the early 1950s, Cole became a successful cartoonist for Playboy magazine - drawing one-panel, full-page gags usually featuring voluptuous women in comical situations. Cole's Playboy cartoons proved so popular that the magazine licensed them for a set of cocktail napkins that turned out to be a top-selling item. In early 1958, Cole diversified further when ``Betsy & Me'' - a comic strip he had developed - was picked up for national syndication.
Then - that same year, at age 43 - Cole committed suicide, leaving a mysterious note and a shocked wife, family and friends.
In the book, Spiegelman - who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for Maus, an illustrated version of his father's Holocaust experience - engages in some psychoanalysis of Cole, but also offers glowing praise.
``Jack Cole's Plastic Man belongs high on any adult's How to Avoid Prozac list, up there with the best of S.J. Perelman, Laurel and Hardy, Damon Runyon, Tex Avery and the Marx Brothers,'' Spiegelman wrote.
The book also featured innovative layouts by book designer Chip Kidd - to the extent that Kidd received a co-author credit - and was nominated for two Harvey Awards, one of the comics industry's highest honors.
On the comics front, the new title marks the first time Plastic Man has had his own ongoing title since 1977. He co-starred in Adventure Comics for 12 issues in 1979-80 and had a four-issue mini-series in 1988-89. More recently, Plastic Man became a member of DC's fabled Justice League of America in 1998, and has been a regular in its monthly comic ever since.
As of 2000, Police Comics No. 1 - Plastic Man's first appearance, from August 1941 - was valued at $6,500 in mint condition by the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. The next 12 issues each are worth more than $1,000 in mint. The first issue of Plastic Man's own title - dated Summer 1943 - was worth $3,200 in mint, with the second issue worth $1,300 in the same condition. On Dec. 5, a set containing Police Comics No. 1 and Plastic Man No. 1 - each in less than mint - was up for grabs on Ebay for $950.
Man on the spot
Like Forest Gump - the dimwitted everyman from the 1994 Tom Hanks film - Plastic Man has popped up in some unusual places over his 63-year history.
One of the more bizarre Plastic Man sightings occurred late last year when Toronto-area actor Jason Allin appeared as the character on the cover of ``Human Shield,'' a compact disc released by Canadian rock band Saint X.
Allin, a longtime Plastic Man fan who operates the fan Web site www.plasticman.ca, had made his own Plastic Man costume for Halloween in 2001. He was spotted at a party by a member of the band, who then contacted him for the photo shoot.
There also have been two Plastic Man action figures produced for the retail market - one by Kenner Toys in 1986, the other by Hasbro Inc. in 1999. DC's DC Direct toy unit also produced an action figure for the collectors' market in 1999. Mego Toys cranked out a ``stretchable'' Plastic Man toy - a pliable plastic exterior filled with some kind of gelatinous red goo, a la the Stretch Armstrong toys of the era - in 1979 to cash in on the Saturday morning cartoon. Plastic Man also was captured in plastic by Wiz Kids LLC for its HeroClix collectible miniature game last year.
In addition to the Saint X album, the Plastic Man character - or at least his name - has popped up elsewhere in the music world. Motown legends the Temptations hit No. 40 on the Billboard Top 100 chart in July 1973 with ``The Plastic Man,'' a song that had nothing to do with the character. At least a dozen other musical acts - including the Kinks, Sonny & Cher, Big Joe Turner and Katrina & the Waves - have recorded songs titled ``Plastic Man'' as well.
Then there's Canadian DJ/musician Richie Hawtin, who has recorded five albums as Plastikman since 1993. Hawtin/Plastikman was hailed by critic John Bush of All Music Guide as ``one of the most influential artists in the world of techno during the 1990s.''
Power Records even included Plastic Man on an album and single featuring spoken-word stories of several DC characters in the 1970s.
As for the movie screen, rumors have circulated for several years that Larry and Andy Wachowski - the brother team that wrote and directed the Matrix trilogy of hit thrillers - are interested in making a Plastic Man movie, even writing a script for the project in 1995.
Actor Jim Carrey was mentioned as a possibility for the title role, based on his success with 1994's similarly shape-shifting character in The Mask.
However, Plastic Man might not be the first stretchable superhero to make it to the big screen. An adaptation of Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four superteam - led by Mister Fantastic, a pale shadow of Plastic Man introduced in the 1960s - is set for a late 2004 release.
Writer Michelle Nolan accurately summed up Plastic Man's status in a recent story for the Web site of comics retailer Bud Plant Comic Art. Nolan described Plastic Man as ``one of the few Golden Age comic book characters who seems better appreciated now than he was during his original run.''