Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Injustice: Gods Among Us: Year Four Annual #1: Plastic Man enters the Injust-iverse

I had two thoughts when I read the title of Injustice: Gods Among Us: Year Four Annual #1.

The first was something along the lines of "Holy crap, 'Year Four'...? How long is this Superman vs. Batman storyline going to go on?" It was my understanding that the video game upon which this comic book series is based involved the heroes from the "real" DC Universe eventually journeying to the dark, fallen world of Injustice to help Batman and company take down fascist Superman and fascist Wonder Woman. The comic series just seems to be going on forever though, and it's hard to imagine a video game would encompass at least four years of action, right? And having read so much of the first year, it's hard to imagine this particular conflict going unresolved that long. Why, within the first trade collection, it seemed like Batman and Superman were on the verge of fighting to the death.

Well, I re-reread the Wikipedia entry on the game and apparently there's a five-year jump in the plot, a jump that occurs between the time that The Joker and Harley Quinn trick Superman into killing Lois Lane and his unborn child and then blow up Metropolis with a nuclear bomb (it starts pretty grim, basically) and the events of the game. So I guess the fact that it's "Year Four" just means that the comic book is filling in the gaps of the game's storyline.

My second thought was simply bemusement at there being an "annual"–that is, a comic book special published once a year–for a book that is only meant to last one year.

When I finally started reading the book though, and hit page nine, this is what ran through my head: "Oh my God it's Plastic Man!"

See this annual, written by Tom Taylor and drawn by three different artists (Bruno Redondo, Sergio Sandoval and Jordi Tarrangona), is basically a Plastic Man spotlight issue, and it's a damn good examination of the character. At the very least, it shows off his powers, makes a strong case for just how powerful he really is, and brings a few particular aspects of the character to the fore, including his sense of humor, his old-school purity and resistance to grim-and-gritty changes. Ironically, the motivating factor for Plastic Man's entry into the Injustice narrative is something that came from a decently-constructed, but ill-considered JLA story that attempted to give the character a melodramatic angle to be emotionally hung-up on, as writer Joe Kelly apparently thought the character lacked the sort of emotional depth that being a deadbeat dad would potentially give him (That's 2002's JLA #65, if you missed it).

Oh, um, "spoiler alert."

As you can tell by the cover, there's no indication that this is a Plastic Man story.

That cover, drawn by Redondo, is a pretty great one, actually, showing a bunch of villains in a jail cell, the bars of which are the shape of Superman's S-shield (I really like The Mad Hatter trying to force his head out between that little space...how did he even fit his hat through it?). As you can see, there is no Plastic Man on the cover. Unless he's disguised, perhaps as the red thing in the middle of Bane's Venom-injecting intravenous super-steroid delivery vest...? You can never tell with that guy.

So when Plas shows up? It's quite a surprise. And a welcome one, at least as far as I'm concerned. Which is why I'm spoiling it for you here. If you too are a Plastic Man fan, then you might want to check this book out, as it contains 100% more Plas than its cover indicates (And this is also the first time Plastic Man has appeared in a DC Comics since Convergence: Plastic Man and The Freedom Fighters #2).

The opening scenes of the book involve a group of terrorists that may or may not be called Ordinary People Against The Rule Of Superman bombing a Superman statue, and getting almost instantaneously busted by Superman, who is faster than a speeding bullet, and The Flash, who is faster than anything.

One their members, who narrates the opening scene, is a shapeshifter.
Who is it? Is it Metamorpho? Metamorpho was my first guess, as he's all metallic looking.

But no, it's one Luke McDunnagh. He's taken to The Trench, the underwater prison where The Superman regime has been storing all of its super-powered criminals (not to second-guess Superman, but The Riddler, Two-Face, Mad Hatter and Mr. Zsasz, all shown on the cover, do not have super-powers. Bane and Captain Cold don't either, unless you lock them up with their Venom-injecting rig and freeze gun, respectively, but then, why would you do that...?)

Does that name sound familiar to you? No? I didn't catch it at first either, but The Flash noted the kid looked familiar. It's on page nine that we get a new narrator, one who the League was expecting and is a little nervous about receiving, and who arrives in silhouette, dropping clues to his identity: "I am many things. I am a liar. I am a thief." And so on, until:
Plastic Man in not a playable character in the Injustice videogame, which might explain why he is not redesigned at all. Emphasis on the at all. The costume and look of the character throughout this issue is identical to the one that his creator Jack Cole was drawing back in the early 1940s. Perhaps the only concession to the passage of time is that the cut of Plas' shorts are a little more boxer and a lot less brief. That, and perhaps the fact that he's a bit more muscular in his default form, as most modern superheroes are. But the goggles and red uniform? They constitute his Golden Age gear.

That's pretty damn unusual in this particular milieu, where just about every character's costume is rather radically redesigned, even those that are pretty perfect alread. Note, for example, the Injustice Flash, and his bulky red suit of armor.

Taylor gives Plas a pretty great scene where he tells of the Superman's League in an aggressively passive-aggressive fashion. The middle of the scene includes this page, in which Plas calls out the inclusion of Sinestro as a pretty good clue that maybe they're not the good guys anymore.
I particularly like the two panels where Cyborg suddenly seems to notice that Sinestro actually does have a bad-guy mustache. (Also, Cy? His name is Sinestro; you can't spell it without "sinister"...!)

Plas wears out his welcome when he brings up Superman's dead kid, but puts together an all-around sneaky plan to get the League to essentially show him how to break into The Trencch prison, and sets about doing so. He accomplishes this with the aid of his old pal Woozy Winks, and then his skills with changing shape, impersonation and stealing shit (before leaving the Hall of Justice, he makes off with a Mirror Master device and a string of Green Lantern rings* from the trophy room).

The various demonstrations of his powers are all excellent, and it was nice to hear so many characters talking up just how powerful Plastic Man actually is–"He's more capable--more dangerous--than you can possibly comprehend," Evil Wonder Woman tells Sinestro–although they may have done so one time too many.

Plas' plan to spring Luke doesn't quite go the way he expected, thanks in part to the presence of the Trench prison's warden, Metamporpho.
Oh, there he is!

Also, Superman and company show up and, as they seem to do pretty much constantly in this series, their attempt to fight for their agenda leads to a disaster–here the flooding of the prison that would kill everyone within it. Plas is ready to sacrifice his life to save them all, but his son Luke calls him out–"I think some screwed-up part of you would actually find it easier to sacrifice yourself here rather than escape and hang out with me"–and using the Mirror Master tech, they and all of the villains and the surviving members of the Green Lantern Corps escape into that weird dimension on the other side of all mirrors that Mirror Master sometimes has access too.

Like Kelly did in JLA, Taylor has Plastic Man a lifelong absent father, too wrapped up in his own life to be a good dad to Luke. That, in part, is why he takes on this daring rescue mission, as a way to make it up to his son. Granted, it's a lot less negative a portrayal than Kelly's, who had Plas actually actively denying that Luke was his son to Luke's mother, even after Luke began exhibiting shape-changing abilities.

The climax makes it pretty clear that the introduction of Plastic Man and son, whose superhero identity is the The Kingdom-inspired Offspring, aren't necessarily going to be a big part of the Injustice narrative going forward. Not only does the next issue box, like the cover, focus on the escape of the villains, reading "The story of the escaped villains continues in Injustice: Gods Among Us: Year Five #1," but in the last panel, when Plas suggests to Luke that he will join him in standing up to Superman, Luke declines.

"Or...you know, we could just hide until more qualified people bring him down," and Plas responds, via narration, "That's my boy." It's a nice, clever ending that both writes the pair out of the ongoing storyline while staying true to the character as depicted throughout the book, particularly since it follows both a slight subversion of the hero-gives-his-life-in-melodramatic-feat-of-self-sacrifice trope, and Plas making a speech to all the supervillains he just released into the world.

As a reformed career criminal himself, he knows bad guys can become good ones, and he spends about three panels asking them all not to "continue being ****s" once they get out of the mirror dimension and back into the real world: "My son was locked up for standing up to Superman. And...welll...seeing as we helped you escape and stopped you from imploding... ...I'd really appreciate it if you focused most of your evil on Superman."

It's an all-around pretty great portrait of Plastic Man, one that stays pretty true to the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint depiction and characterization of the character, within the extremely unlikely setting of Injustice, which is about as hostile a universe as one could imagine for a classic, Golden Age, light-hearted superhero like Jack Cole's Plastic Man.

*Superman and company must have taken down the entire Green Lantern Corps at some point between the time I stopped reading Injustice and the beginning of this annual. That would explain why there are a bunch of GL rings in the Hall of Justice's trophy room, why a bunch of Lanterns like Kilowog and Tomar Re are imprisoned in The Trench and why Hal Jordan is wearing a yellow, Sinestro Corps ring.


Carey said...

My favourite reaction to the Joe Kelly JLA absent father revelation was Kyle Baker in his 2000 era Plastic Man series who, to paraphrase, said "How can you be a hero if you desert your child?" And then proceeded to not just ignore it but create a new family around Plastic Man.

God, that was a good series that pretty well nobody bought. Meanwhile, rape fest 2000 (or Identity Crisis as it was better known) was the best selling comic of the time which begat things like, well, Injustice: Gods Among Us.

Anonymous said...

Is that the current redesign of Rex? Because that's the best retooling of Metamorpho's basic look I've seen, really, since back when Bart Sears was drawing him...