Bizarro Back Issues: Sure, Plastic Man Can Be Batman, That Shouldn’t Be A Problem (1975)
I think I've made it pretty clear over the past few years that I'm something of a connoisseur of strange comic book stories. I love comics where things get weird with that sort of cheerful rejection of all logic, where things don't quite add up, but the truth is, I sometimes get to a point where I think I've seen it all. I start to get jaded, and think that nothing can ever match the weirdness that I've already seen. But every time, I run across a story that makes me realize that in all my years, I've only hit the tip of the iceberg of bizarre stories. And it usually happens when I'm reading a Bob Haney comic.
Case in point: Bob Haney and Jim Aparo's "How To Make A Super-Hero," where the World's Greatest Detective decides it would be a good idea to let a homeless Plastic Man fill in for him while he's out of Gotham City, and guess what? It goes horribly wrong.
The story originally ran back in The Brave and the Bold #123, but I actually read it as the lead story in the more recent second volume of Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo, and folks, this thing is a bold choice to lead off a $50 hardcover with the words "Dark Knight" on the cover. Don't get me wrong, it's not that it's not amazing, but it is flat-out weird, even by Haney standards.
Part of that has to do with the fact that this is exactly what it says on the cover, a "Titanic Trio Team-Up" in which the Caped Crusader is joined by two of DC's strangest comedy characters, Plastic Man and Metamorpho. That alone is enough to raise a flag of weirdness -- Haney and Ramona Fradon's original Metamorpho series ten years earlier is the absolute high point of bizarre and spuriously educational superhero comedy. The thing is, it's not weird in the way you expect. Well, outside of the part where Metamorpho turns into a bright purple and orange helicopter and Batman rides him around Gotham City in broad daylight without anyone noticing. But, you know, that's pretty standard stuff.
Let's jump right into it, shall we? We open on a hostage crisis, as "bandits" -- that is the word the police captain uses, "bandits," because apparently he just arrived in Gotham from 1888 -- have taken over a branch of the Gotham City National Bank. Considering they're not going after any twin cat statues or leaving cryptic crossword puzzles, you'd think the police would be able to handle it all on their own, but the standoff requires the assistance of Batman, who shows up with the craziest plan.
Step one: Dress a policeman in drag as an oblivious old woman and send him through the Drive Through to drop a hand grenade into the night deposit.
Step two: BEAT 'EM WITH A BAG OF NICKELS.
We're only on page two of this story, but I could seriously talk about those three panels for the next ten hours. They are a thing of beauty. Just look at that middle panel -- in his introduction to the Ten Nights of the Beast paperback, editor Dan Raspler writes about how Aparo's version of Batman is distinguished by having these massive, powerful hands, and once that was pointed out, I couldn't stop noticing it. It's true, though; it's why Aparo's Batman looks like he's just destroying dudes when he slaps them with those gigantic frying pans at the end of his arms, and why that gun-toting thug above looks like he has been knocked into next week when Batman flings that sack of nickels at him. Look at him! His feet are off the ground! That's how hard he's being hit!
Anyway, moving on. Once Batman and his hands have dealt with the bank robbers, it's off to his next assignment: Tracking down wanted fugitive Bruce Wayne!
Note for new readers: Bruce Wayne is secretly the Batman.
So how can Batman be called on to hunt down Bruce Wayne? Well, for the answer to that, we are treated to a flashback that, I'm sorry to say, has some very problematic and unfortunately racist storytelling choices on the part of Haney and Aparo. The short and relatively inoffensive version is that a village in Africa (hoo boy) has had a sacred statue stolen, which has resulted in Hard Times all around. This might seem like it's out of Batman's usual jurisdiction, but Haney's world-traveling Caped Crusader was on the case, tracking down the statue in his civilian identity so that he could buy it back from the art dealer who bought it from the thief.
Obviously, this is going to take a bit of time, so rather than leaving Gotham City unprotected in his absence, Batman decides to get someone to fill in. Now, if you're Batman, you're probably going to have a plan in place for this eventuality, right? Maybe you get Robin to come back down from his studies at Hudson University and go on a few patrols. Maybe, if you're anticipating something big, you call in Superman. Hell, Green Arrow's not doing much these days, right? He could probably fill in on short notice.
Or, I suppose, you could enlist Plastic Man, who at this point is an actual hobo.
Yes, it seems that being rejected by Ruby Ryder (a pretty obscure villainess who was Bruce Wayne's chief business rival in a few BATB stories) has sent Eel O'Brien on a one-way trip to skid row. Fortunately, Batman is there to give him a hand up, right into a cape, cowl and utility belt full of explosives and bludgeons.
That seems like a good idea, right?
The key selling point here seems to be that Plastic Man's powers allow him to shape-shift himself into Batman's exact double, which is why Bruce Wayne isn't entirely surprised when Batman shows up in Istanbul. He is, however, surprised when "Batman" attempts to arrest him and never acknowledges that he's not the genuine article! Obviously, something has gone wrong with this plan (shock follows shock, I tell you), and Wayne ends up in jail on the hook for a murder charge.
Obviously, the Batman is more than capable of breaking out of a Gotham City jail -- judging by every other comic, those things have only a slightly better rate at keeping people confined than a prison guard just telling everyone the floor is lava -- but that'll only lead to the ersatz Dark Knight hunting him down again. Obviously, he needs a hand, and he gets one from the second shape-shifter of our story, Metamorpho, who shows up disguised as Bruce Wayne's lawyer and plans a jailbreak.
And then Batman rides him around like a helicopter.
I warned you that was coming.
Not only is Ruby Ryder well aware that "Batman" is actually Plastic Man, she's slipped him a hypnotic "polymeric catalyst" (science words!) that have brainwashed his malleable mind into thinking that a) he's the actual Batman, and b) that he should follow her sexy, sexy orders to the letter. So how did she dose him?
In the best way possible.
I know we're a couple years into the New 52 and it doesn't seem likely, but if we get one thing from that reboot, please let it be the return of a Batman who just walks around in broad daylight accepting free lemonade from children.
Batman and Metamorpho hightail it back to Istanbul, prompting Ruby Ryder and Plastic Man to give chase. I'm not sure why Ruby feels the need to follow up her own darn self, but I'm just going to go with "plot contrivance." After all, it's not too long before, as part of their plan to heist the missing statue and return it to the villagers, Metamorpho dupes her into confessing on tape:
Oh man, thank heavens that editor's note was there. Otherwise this story might seem slightly illogical!
No sooner have Batman and Metamorpho recorded her confession -- Metamorpho detaches the tape recorder from his body for safe keeping, which is both intriguing and slightly gross -- than Ruby reveals that she brought Plastic Man all the way to Istanbul so that she could murder him with poison:
This is not a good plan, but it does give everyone who lists their interests on Tumblr as "Batman" and "Tea" a nice image to use for their profile. Good looking out, Bob Haney.
Plastic Man narrowly avoids being dissolved by bad tea, only to find himself in a battle against Metamorpho, and again, this is an amazing sequence by Aparo. Shapeshifters fighting in comics is rarely as good as you want it to be, but Aparo does a fantastic job of keeping them visually interesting and giving a distinct character to their individual powers, all while Haney throws in some hilarious smack talking:
Also, that page turn itself is great -- the first panel on the next page is Metamorpho popping Plastic Man like a balloon from the inside by shapeshifting from oxygen gas to a cobalt nail. It's great.
And apparently, it's enough to break the spell of Ruby Ryder's hypno-lemonade, and that, as they say, is that. Batman returns the statue to the villagers, Plas is back to (relatively) normal, and Metamorpho has her confession on tape, meaning that she's going up the river for a conspiracy to commit murder and, I assume, distribution of hypnotic lemonade. And really, if you take nothing else away from this issue, it should be that: There is hypnotic lemonade in this story, and it's not even the eighth craziest part of the plot.