Comfort Food Comics Presents: Read Pile – Plastic Man: Rubber Banded by Lan M.

Comic fans everywhere have a stack of books. Sometimes it’s manageable. Sometimes it isn’t. It sits, judging you and your choices in entertainment, wondering what it did to deserve your neglect. 

Read Pile exists to take that angry pile and do something with it. It’s where a writer gets to sit down with a book they’ve been meaning to get to and muse about for a little while. There’ve been a few of ‘em.

This week we’re rejoined by Lan M and it warms my heart that he’s done so. He picked Kyle Baker’s Plastic Man, which feels like the perfect match. 

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Rubber, Glue, Ain’t It Funny to You?

When you think about comics that are of the comedy genre, what comes to mind?  In a book club I ran last year, we had a comedy-themed week, where I let members of the book club suggest the book we would read for that week.  People suggested books like Fraction/Aja Hawkeye, Duggan/Hawthorne Deadpool, and Spencer/Lieber’s The Fix.  But not a single person had suggested Kyle Baker’s Plastic Man.  To be fair though, it wasn’t their fault; It was May of 2020, and Plastic Man: Rubber Banded – The Deluxe Edition, the first edition to collect all 20 issues of the run (18 by Baker, 2 by Scott Morse), wasn’t going to be out for another month.  The prodigal return of Baker’s run, almost 15 years after its last issue had seen publication, was monumental for a variety of reasons.  

Plastic Man (2004) was previously only collected as two trade paperbacks (TPBs), which reprinted Baker’s twelve issues out of the first fourteen issues of the run, leaving the last six issues of the run, as well as Morse’s two issues, lost to the annals of the direct market. Plastic Man has also been in a rather interesting spot since the end of Baker’s run. Though the character has always been in an odd spot since DC’s buyout of Quality Comics properties (of which Plastic Man was one), there hasn’t been anything that’s caught the same feel as Baker’s run since.  The fact that Woozy Winks, a mainstay of classic Plastic Man comics, hasn’t appeared in a single comic since DC’s big New 52 reboot in 2011 says a lot about Plastic Man’s place in the DC Universe.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Judging by the Cover

Plastic Man: Rubber Banded – The Deluxe Edition is an interestingly-crafted hardcover.  There’s nothing glossy about the book; not the cover, not the pages, not even the ornamental rubber belt which wraps horizontally around the book, fashioned to look like Plastic Man’s iconic belt.  The band is a novelty in both originality and its function as a trinket, insofar as the allure wears off rather quickly when you try and wriggle it back onto the book after finishing reading it, or when it grips onto the other books on your shelf, leading to three books being pulled off the shelf instead of just the one when taking Plastic Man: Rubber Banded – The Deluxe Edition out for a read.  But novelty rubber band aside, the crisp pages of the hardcover allow for an easy flip through as you become engrossed by the stories within.

Baker’s Dozen (and a Half-Dozen More)

Reading Baker’s Plastic Man in its entirety for the first time can be likened to a third-eye-opening, especially when juxtaposed with the eponymous hero’s recent outings.  Aside from The Terrifics, Plastic Man’s latest (and only since Baker’s run ended) solo book was the six-issue 2018 miniseries from Gail Simone and Adriana Melo, which, while good, I’d now say pales in comparison to Baker’s tenure on the series.  

When I say “Baker’s run”, I’m not flippantly forgetting the artist (or colourist and letterer, as I just did when referring to Simone/Melo’s run); this truly is Baker’s run.  With Baker handling writing, art, colours, AND lettering, the only task not done by him was editing, which was done by Joey Cavalieri.  This ties him for the most creative duties handled by one person, at least in the direct market, with Jeff Smith (Though not for the same positions; Smith wrote, drew, lettered, and edited Bone himself, but the series was later coloured by Steve Hamaker).  

In fact, Baker taking on so many roles is the reason why Morse ended up being brought in for those two guest issues; DC had bought both of Morse’s stories as a backup for when Baker would (theoretically) fall behind on his schedule, which he never did.  Month after month, Baker kept delivering each new issue on time, forcing DC to give him one-month breaks after each of his first two arcs in order to publish one of the Morse stories.  With 20 issues running monthly, Plastic Man lasted from 2004 to its cancelation in 2006, long enough to see DC’s logo on the book change from the classic bullet logo to the not-so-classic late-2000s logo.

But the story within (which I’ve somehow managed to go over seven hundred words without explicitly mentioning) is where Baker’s Plastic Man shines, in every facet possible.  The diversity of the art is unparalleled, and the variety in styles makes each new issue a pleasure to read.  The style, the tools, and the way pages are structured change radically from issue to issue.  One issue’s style might ape old Hanna-Barbera cartoons with soft lines while another evokes Neal Adams with coarse, heavy lines, and another could have no outlines whatsoever, looking aesthetically similar to Matt Hollingsworth’s Hawkeye colour guides.  Issue #8 starts with an homage to Alex Ross before moving to a Mixed-media montage that harkens back to early Vertigo books.  Baker wears his influences on his sleeve, especially the fluid cartoonishness of Plastic Man creator Jack Cole’s art.  The art is quintessential to a good Plastic Man story, and Baker sets the bar incredibly high.  Other artists that have tackled the character since, good as they may be, have yet to capture the malleability and looseness of Plastic Man quite like Baker did.

But what good is fantastic art if the story isn’t good? Well, relatively good if you consider the current Black Widow ongoing series, but I digress.  Luckily, the story here is very good too.  Baker’s previous experience in the animation industry shines with zany plots rife with slapstick humour. One standout issue, issue #14, has Plastic Man chasing around a mouse in a sequence taken straight from the storyboards of an episode of Tom and Jerry. Baker doesn’t shy away from satire, taking shots at the military industrial complex, internet piracy, and DC’s events and characters themselves.  Baker also makes the interesting choice to include no straight-man in the book.  Every character is goofy in their own manner, untethering the entire reading experience as the reader goes on these gonzo journeys.

The final arc of the run is a self-indulgent “status quo-changing” “event”, bringing in a slew of DC’s heavy hitters for the sake of making absolute goofballs out of them.  Baker’s writing is witty and his dialogue is snappy, keeping a consistent energy throughout the run. Though some of the potshots taken are at rather low-hanging fruit, the rest of the humour in the run remains evergreen.  Plastic Man is a complete departure from DC’s house style and overall vibe, both in the mid-2000s when it originally came out, and in the current day.  It’s tonally, narratively and visually distinct, in a way that other DC oeuvres.  Perhaps that’s why Plastic Man as a character hasn’t been able to capture that same feel since; the refusal to divorce the character from the DC Universe’s norms, both aesthetically and tonally, holds him back from reaching his true potential.  There’s a larger point here to be made about the state of DC’s many acquired properties, but that’s for another piece, I suppose.

Baker employs wide, spacious panels for the book, rarely exceeding 6 panels per page.  This allows for ample breathing room between panels, and structures the story in a way that allows each joke the space and time to hit those home runs.  Baker’s lettering also plays into his panel structure, in the way that he lets speech bubbles blend into the panel’s edges, or in some cases, move across several panels.  His employment of simple shapes (mainly ovals and rounded rectangles) for his speech bubbles adds a fluidity to the lettering in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive or out-of-place with the rest of the book’s mechanics (compared to something like, say, some of Ken Bruzenak’s recent work).  Plastic Man may not be Baker’s magnum opus by any means, but it’s still a masterclass of artistry and storytelling.

But Wait, There’s Morse

I’d be remiss to not talk about Scott Morse’s two issues of the run, issues 7 and 12.  While not connected to the rest of the run’s overarching plot, these two standalone stories are very fun b-sides to the main run.  Both focus on the slapstick comedy of the character, stretching Plastic Man out into a plethora of objects across a variety of scenarios.  Morse employs very round, exaggerated shapes in his work, emphasizing the bounciness of Plastic Man’s powers.  Morse’s issues are also visually distinguishable from the rest of the run, both in its sepia-tone gutters and the textured colouring, which stands out against even the most-rendered bits of Baker’s issues.  Plastic Man: Rubber Banded – The Deluxe Edition didn’t need to include the two issues (like the previous two collected editions had omitted), but it’s all the better for collecting them and bringing them to new eyes.

An Unfunny Coincidence

While writing the rest of this article late at night, an intrusive thought entered my head.  The cartoony art style, the homages to Hanna-Barbera cartoons, the usage of Mixed-media art, the occasionally-garish humour; I’d seen it before, somewhere else.  Somewhere outside the realm of Big Two comics, outside the realm of sanity, outside the realm of reality, even.  The thought was rather….Unfunny.  Then it clicked.

One month after Baker’s Plastic Man had started, in January of 2004, Mark Millar’s comics brand (barf) Millarworld launched.  In its opening slate was a book that has since been excommunicated from Millar’s bibliography, one that Millar’s then-wife called “the most horrible thing she’d ever read in her life”.  I come to you, dear reader, not with an answer for why the crow was sucking cock, but with a revelation.  

As above, so below, and as Plastic Man went on to win eight Harvey and Eisner awards, through the cracked mirror of the comics industry, Mark Millar was bringing some of the worst comics to life in the pages of his infamous oeuvre, The Unfunnies.  I hadn’t realized at first how close the two books were temporally, with The Unfunnies edging out Baker’s run by a year, ending in 2007 while only being one fifth of the length of Baker’s run.  It’s poetic symmetry that while Baker kept to a consistent schedule for 18 issues straight, Millar took three years to put out four issues.  Millar (and artist Anthony Williams, though I’d be hard-pressed to think he’d prefer being credited for his work) tried to do Hanna-Barbera cartoons by way of crude gonzo shock-storytelling.  The formula was there for Millar to create a work similar in pedigree to the Plastic Man run the book mirrored; however, with this being a Millar comic, that formula was thrown out the window in favor of horrific shock comedy for his audience to languish in.  All this to say, if I’m cursed with the burden of this knowledge, then so must you be.

Stretching Things Out

There’s a certain melancholy to finishing Baker’s Plastic Man.  The slow realization that you’ve hit the end of the road, forced to moor yourself back into Plastic Man’s current reality as yet another agent of the DC Universe; it’s rather disorienting.  The only character from this Plastic Man run (aside from the Justice League) to have survived DC’s big New 52 reboot was the titular character himself.  Who knows how that’s changed with DC’s constant Crises, Anti-Crises, Metaverses, Omniverses, and Ultra-Giga-Turbo-Arcade-Edition-verses plaguing DC’s continuity, but as it stands, Kyle Baker’s Plastic Man is unmoored.  It’s interesting that it was even published as a mainline DC book when it much better suited the vibe of Vertigo (which is unfortunately dead in the water now) or Piranha Press (which had been dead in the water for a solid decade before the run debuted).

Truthfully, I’m not even sure if it’s worth replicating the run’s aesthetics in this day and age.  When writing this piece in mid-February, 2021, I came across some previews for the then-upcoming, now-current Nightwing not-so-relaunch, which reeked of heavy Fraction/Aja Hawkeye vibes.  While I realized at the time that it was a criticism that would undoubtedly be repeated ad nauseum, I still wasn’t enamored with what I was seeing.  In some ways, it felt like the creative team were remixing previous hits to placate their audience. It got me thinking about what made Baker’s run stand out, and how a future creator/creative team could make a Plastic Man run stand out.  Baker has his influences in Jack Cole’s original run, which is no surprise; however, Baker didn’t seek to recreate what Cole did.  The book was uniquely Baker, and his creative drive, spirit, and talent permeates the book in every possible way.  The next creator/creative team to take on the character shouldn’t try to make their Plastic Man run a “Best Hits” of Baker’s work. It should be their voice, their energy, and their unique signature that adorns the book; after all, the sky’s never the limit for a man made of rubber. 

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I feel very fortunate to be able to continue setting people up to do these pieces, and it feels like Read Pile has been on a real hot streak to me! Of course, it’s not ending anytime soon, as next up is someone I’ve been excited for for some time, and I’m happy everything has finally worked out: Forrest Hollingsworth will be joining us here to bring us into their Year of Manga, which will no doubt be wonderful. Please join us next time for that! 

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