It's Not the Spirit of (19)76 in 'Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1'
It's disappointing that so little of the original spirit of these characters found its way into this book.
I picked up DC's Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1with a tingle of excitement. My feelings are torn about the big DC and Marvel cross-over events this summer, Convergence and Secret Wars, respectively. Both publishers are reaching back into their histories, back into their catalogs of heroes and stories and worlds, to fill the pages of their summer series. It's all going to be bombastic and overblown, perhaps intolerably so. But the chance is there for good stories, to see characters and universes and storylines that we haven't seen in a long time. Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters seemed like it just might fit the bill.
The premise of DC's Convergence is that cities are stolen from all of the multiple Earths that have populated the DC Universe from the very beginning. These cities are brought together and their heroes and villains are forced to battle one another for survival. You see what I mean don't you? Bombastic and overblown.
But the chance to see characters and settings from the long and creative history of DC Comics brought back to the page is also pretty wonderful. I have been especially excited at the chance to reconnect with some of the stories from my youth, before the Crisis on Infinite Earths reset the DC Universe and started things over again with a, mostly, clean slate.
Thus my tingling excitement for Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters. I was ready to go back to the time when every summer brought a crisis to two or three earths at the most, back to the time when I was only a boy.
Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters (Black Condor, Uncle Sam, The Ray, Doll Man, the Human Bomb, and Phantom Lady) were originally published by DC's rival publisher, Quality Comics. Quality Comics ceased publishing in the mid '50s and the characters were subsequently acquired by DC. In the mid '70s, DC gave the characters a real push. The Freedom Fighters and their Nazi-controlled Earth-X were introduced in the pages of Justice League of America in 1973. Then, in the American bicentennial year of 1976, they were given their own short-lived series. I was caught up in all things patriotic that year so Freedom Fighters #3, with its top of the page banner that read – in red, white and blue letters – "DC Comics Salutes the Bicentennial," stood out at the drug store and found its way, sooner or later, into the coverless stack of comicbooks that were stored under my bed.
I first met Plastic Man a few years later when he appeared in his own Saturday morning cartoon, The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show, that ran right after Super Friends. I don't remember much about the show, except that it featured an entire Plastic Family that included Plastic Man's wife, Penny, and their stretchy son, Baby Plas.
Later in life, I discovered Jack Cole's Plastic Man comics and immediately fell in love. Cole began Plastic Man's adventures in 1941. As his art matured over the next several years, it came to match the character's plasticity and humor perfectly. Cole's covers and first-page splash panels became ever more wonderfully zany and absurd as the stories inside became ever more preposterous and hilarious.
So, you see, when I noticed the ad for Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1 and I saw that wonderfully explosive Hilary Barta cover, and I saw the red, white and blue lettering of the Freedom Fighters' logo, it was 1976 all over again. I expected something groovy; I expected something fun.
But I knew right from the start that this book was not going to be what I had hoped it would be–right there on the opening page, a page that was definitely not a tribute to Cole's magnificent splashes of days gone by, that was instead a dark and gritty depiction of the construction of a set of gallows, a depiction that was accompanied by an equally somber narration that ponders what it will be like "when you set food on that platform, about to feel that rope pull tight around your neck . . ."
I suppose that Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1 is a fine book, as far as it goes. John McCrea captures the gloom and despair of a New York City that is ruled by Nazis. And Simon Oliver provides a somber little story about failed heroes at, almost literally, the end of their ropes. But there is nothing special here. Nothing that we haven't seen a million times before over the last forty years. It all seems pretty wrong for these characters; and it is disappointing that so little of their pre-crisis, pre-DC spirit found its way into this book.
As it turns out it is not 1976 in the pages of Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters. And it's not 1941.
I guess I'm going to be spending some time over the next few days looking for back issues.