Plastic Man has been a character with extreme popularity in the mainstream culture at points but has an extraordinarily muddled and irregular comic book presence. He started as the creation of another company before being bought by DC Comics. In the 1990s, he experienced a spike in appearances in the DC Universe only to disappear when the New 52 reboot happened. He finally returned but only as part of a pastiche of Marvel’s Fantastic Four in a comic that just recently got canceled.
Plastic Man was the creation of writer-artist Jack Cole while he was working for Quality Comics. His first appearance was in Police Comics #1 (1940). Cole was also responsible for creating Midnight, a very obvious knock-off of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Those were the only memorable characters Cole created with the rest of his work, which is made up of horror stories and eventually Playboy cartoons.
This original Plastic Man was Patrick “Eel” O’Brian, an orphan that fell into a life of crime as he grew up. Eel was a fantastic safecracker, and that’s what led him to a break-in at a chemical factory one night. During the escape, Eel was shot in the shoulder and covered in experimental chemicals. He wandered into the woods, where he eventually passed out only to come to in the care of a monk. The monk revealed how he told the police he hadn’t seen anyone protecting the wounded man, and this inspired Eel to pay it forward and show kindness to others.
During his recovery, Eel discovered his body had become supernaturally malleable, allowing him to stretch and shape himself in ways that are impossible for other people. While having the properties of rubber, he names himself Plastic Man *shrug*. Eel dons a red, black, and yellow costume dedicated to fighting crime and protecting the innocent. Shortly after that, he gains a sidekick named Woozy Winks, a bumbling comic relief character that was fairly common with the era’s superheroes. Green Lantern had Doiby Dickles while Hourman had Minute-Man, for example.
Quality Comics went out of business in 1956, and DC Comics purchased the rights to their characters. Plastic Man had a few appearances in DC titles through the 1960s but was never really used to his full potential. Instead, DC had already developed Elongated Man, a detective character who had similar powers but a very different background.
Plastic Man was a part of Earth-X, one of many realities in the Multiverse. This universe followed an alternate timeline where the Axis Powers won World War II, and the United States was split down the middle. The eastern half under Nazi control, and the western by the Japanese. The Freedom Fighters were formed, American heroes who operated in secret. These were all character brought over from Quality, including Plastic Man. He also appeared as one of the random identities Robby Reed acquired with his Hero Dial in the pages of House of Mystery.
Plastic Man had a cameo in a 1973 episode of Superfriends, which led to his own animated series The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show ran from 1979-1981 right after Superfriends on ABC. In 1984 it went into first-run syndication with other cartoons produced by Ruby-Spears slapped onto it. Think of the Disney Afternoon package of programs. In the animated version, they skip over Plas’s origins and jump into the action. He has a girlfriend named Penny and a grossly racist Polynesian sidekick named Hula-Hula. They are given assignments by The Chief and travel the world fighting the baddie of the day. In the second season, Plas and Penny get married, producing Baby Plas.
In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Earth-X was merged with the others, and Plastic Man became one of the Golden Age heroes that made up the All-Star Squadron. Humorous comics writer-artist Phil Foglio created a four-issue mini-series in the late 1980s that tried to reboot the character as a new figure. It takes place outside of continuity and saw Plas and Woozy getting into a serious of misadventures. It’s a fun book but ultimately made little impact on the DC Universe.
It wasn’t until Grant Morrison’s legendary run on JLA that Plastic Man really gained a prominent place in the DCU. Batman brings Plas on board as an espionage specialist infiltrating the Injustice Society in the guise of one of the villainous members. Plas became a good friend of fellow members Steel and Zauriel, which made for some interesting interactions. When Mark Waid started writing JLA, he featured a story, “Divided We Fall,” where the Justice League members were split into two entities, a pure superpowered persona & their secret identity. This version of Eel was most adept at leading the team of civilians as he was very cunning and used his safecracking skills to get past enemies.
In the late 1990s, Mark Waid and Alex Ross produced Kingdom Come, a four-part prestige series about a possible future of the DCU. In this reality, Plastic Man has a teenage son with his same powers nicknamed Offspring. Their relationship was expanded on in the sequel The Kingdom. Offspring holds resentment of his father for not being there and off being a superhero, and Plas has to deal with trying to make amends. Apparently, some editors liked this idea, and retroactively introduced a teenage son who was Offspring into the mainstream continuity. The character even appeared briefly as part of the Teen Titans in the mid-2000s.
Aside from a winking cameo in the New 52’s version of Justice League International, Plastic Man wouldn’t show up until 2017’s DC: Metal crossover event. In the aftermath of that story, Plas would join super-scientist Mister Terrific in his exploration-based team The Terrifics. They are joined by Metamorpho and Legionnaire Phantom Girl traveling through the Multiverse and battling those who seek to harm reality. The series was just recently chopped from the monthly line-up as DC Comics aims to streamline operations in the face of COVID-19.
Since the 1990s, Warner Brothers has periodically worked to develop a live-action feature film spotlighting Plastic Man. The Wachowskis even wrote a script in 1995, which you can read in its entirety here. That fell through, but in 2018, development on a new Plastic Man film was announced. The script is written by Amanda Idoko, who also writes on Loren Bouchard’s Central Park animated series. With coronavirus halting production on film & television, it remains to be seen if that picture will come to fruition.