On The Cheap: Kyle Baker’s ‘Plastic Man’
Over the past few weeks, Comixology has done a pretty amazing job of staying on top of DC's Convergence event with a string of sales based on the different eras that were brought into Bottleworld to fight it out. This week marks the end of Convergence and, along with it, the end of this particular set of sales, but they've decided to go out with a bang. In addition to some classic Bronze Age Justice League and fun, continuity-bending Booster Gold, they're shining the spotlight onto one of the greatest --- and most underrated --- DC books of the 21st Century: Kyle Baker's Plastic Man.
It only ran for under two years, but in that time, Baker's hilarious and brutally satirical take on the JLA's stretchy shape-shifter racked up five Eisner Awards, and it's easy to see why. It's among the funniest and most adventurous superhero comics ever published, and since you can grab the whole series right now for less than $20, that's something you definitely want to do.
Despite its critical success, there was only ever one paperback collection of the series, and while it was awesome --- it was designed with a rubberized cover that made it look like you had Plas himself chilling out incognito on your bookshelf --- that left a lot of the book's best stories on the table. [UPDATE: There's actually a second paperback from 2006, too, albeit one that remains out of print]
Even at the start, Plastic Man is interesting. You can probably tell just by the style Baker's using for this book and the gag covers that he's going for comedy, and the book's full of the kind of innovative, ridiculous sight gags that have marked Plastic Man's adventures ever since Jack Cole created him back in the Golden Age with stories so weird and fun that read like they were sent back in time from the '60s, but it actually goes a lot deeper than that. Underneath all the sight-gags and one-liners, those early issues are an exploration of the idea that Plastic Man was a gangster who got dumped into chemicals and emerged as a superhero --- he's essentially the Reverse Joker --- and what it meant for a person to change that much, literally overnight.
Baker directly references Cole's stories in that arc, but adds a lot to it, including casting Eel O'Brien as an analogue for Mr. Fantastic in a group of cloistered monks who each have the powers of the Fantastic Four.
That stuff's great, and it's that first arc that was the source of the book's first few Eisners, but after that... That's when the series gets really good.
As the series goes on, Baker walks this amazingly fine line between slapstick and satire. There's one issue, #14, that's a tribute to Looney Tunes, with Plas trying to kill a mouse that's bugging him and going full Bugs Bunny, even to the point of turning himself into a sexy lady mouse in order to seduce his rodent opponent into a trap. It's hilarious, it's goofy, and it's one of those things that shows you exactly why Plastic Man was often mistaken as a comedy book for younger readers.
But then the next issue launches into a parody of Identity Crisis and the very idea of grim and gritty superhero comics, and it's one of the sharpest, most merciless satires I've ever read. And it's still hilarious.
Keep in mind that this was a book that was coming out in March of 2005. That's three months after Identity Crisis ended, and Baker's doing an entire six-part story that is, to put it charitably, all about how he is not a huge fan of that direction for the superhero genre. And not only that, but he takes on everything about Grim And Serious Comics, from Dark Knight Returns all the way down to the self-importance of those treasury-sized Paul Dini/Alex Ross books that were all the rage at the time:
For a certain kind of comics reader (and I am definitely one of them), Baker mimicking the overwrought style of serious comics is hilarious. Part of the story involves Billy Batson getting killed, and there are pages in his funeral that are an almost word-for-word parody of the funeral in Identity Crisis, viciously going after the very conceit of Adult Superheroics. But that's also the point where Plastic Man is clearly not for kids anymore, too; younger readers might just want to stop with #14 and assume the rest of the book is about hunting down Wascally Wabbits.
It's a sharp satire that still feels relevant, and while it was amazing to see Baker doing a DC Universe superhero comic --- about a member of the Justice League, no less! --- it ends up feeling like something closer to Baker's masterpiece, The Cowboy Wally Show. And that is not a complaint.
The current sale runs until next Tuesday, and the whole run of Plastic Man (including the fill-ins by Scott Morse) for less than $20 is a heck of a deal.