If you’re a big Plastic Man fan, you may have slightly lost it when a certain red, black and yellow egg popped up in Dark Days: The Forge #1. All but completely missing since the dawn of DC Comics’ New 52 (He got a mention in Justice League International #1, and a brief cameo in Justice League #25 that also retconned the JLI appearance), it looks like Eel O’Brian will make a much-missed return in DC’s Rebirth reality.
To celebrate Plas’ imminent return (unless this is some huge bait-and-switch, which would be the absolute worst) we’re taking a look back at his role in the JLA “Trial By Fire” arc, written by Joe Kelly with art by Doug Mahnke. But first, we have to clarify one thing.
This isn’t the best Plastic Man story ever created. That honor belongs to the Eisner-award winning and criminally out-of-print Plastic Man solo series by Kyle Baker. What this is, though, is the most significant Plastic Man story; the biggest turning point for him as a character. To borrow the mantra from another superhero, it’s his “With great power comes great responsibility” moment.
If you’re unfamiliar with the early 2000’s JLA series, let’s catch you up to speed. During “The Obsidian Age” arc, the Justice League were flung 3,000 years into the past. While stuck there, Plastic Man was frozen and shattered into pieces. The JLA, unable to collect all the separate pieces and assuming he was dead, travelled back into the future. In present day they made the shocking discovery that not only was Plas was still alive, he’d also been conscious for the last 3,000 years all while trying to piece himself back together.
The emotional trauma of being stuck in a body-prison for three-millennia took a considerable toll on his well-being, so Plastic Man decided to retire from super-heroics, hoping to reunite with his estranged son, Luke, and his mother. He managed to block out the Plastic Man identity from his mind, taking on the new personality of “Ralph Johns” and began living a normal life.
During Plastic Man’s absence, Martian Manhunter underwent therapy to cure his fear of fire because it made him useless during a crucial moment in “The Obsidian Age.” J’onn is eventually cured, but something went wrong. It turns out Martians were originally an incredibly violent and destructive race, and their fear of fire was mentally implanted by the Guardians of the Universe.
Without this mental block, J’onn became unhinged. Overcome with his Burning Martian persona, he started calling himself “Fernus” and made plans to bathe the earth in flames and make more Burning Martians through asexual reproduction. He made quick work of the Justice League; his superhuman abilities alone make him a threat capable of taking out Superman with ease. Combined with his telepathy it was impossible for the League to hide or plan a counter-attack without him knowing.
Fortunately, Batman is Batman, so he has a contingency plan: Plastic Man. Not only can he go toe-to-toe with Fernus’ Martian shape-shifting powers, the only way Fernus can keep up with Plastic Man’s hyperactive transformations is to put his full concentration into it. Plas is also immune to his psychic abilities because everything about Plastic Man is inorganic, including his brain. Unfortunately, Plastic Man currently doesn’t know he’s Plastic Man. He’s Ralph Johns, average Joe.
This where the idea of “great power; great responsibility” comes into play. Plastic Man has that power, and it’s his responsibility to do good with it. He’s torn, because he also feels responsible to be a good father to his son in a way his own father wasn’t. Reverting back to his Plastic Man persona means going back to how things were before he became Ralph; it might even lead to his death. It’s a hard decision to make: be a good father or be a good hero. But sometimes the right choice isn’t always necessarily the easy choice. Being a good father is important, but no amount of #1 Dad mugs will stop the apocalypse. As much as Luke needs Ralph Jones, the world needs Plastic Man.
Batman gets it. He tells Luke that he constantly thinks about the night he lost his parents, and that if he had the chance to go back and stop it from ever happening he honestly doesn’t know what he would do. The world would lose Batman and all the good he’s done, but Bruce would get his parents back and have a happy, normal life. When Batman of all people is empathising with a difficult decision, you know just how hard it truly is.
Despite his entire hyperactive, Looney Tunes-come-to-life, joke making personality, Plastic Man is incredibly insecure. He hides his anxieties under an incredibly thick layer of jokes, choosing to run away from his problems than actually face them. He’s afraid of letting people down and when push comes to shove being a coward is the easier option. That’s why he abandoned his son, because he’d rather admit defeat from the get-go instead of actually trying and running the risk of failure.
Upon learning that his son was in a gang, he gets Batman to scare Luke straight. The Dark Knight then chews out Plas telling him that of everyone he knows, including Superman, he always thought Plastic Man would make the best dad. “You’d be the kind of father who would show his children that he loved them, instead of just telling them.” Batman can see past Plas’ goofy façade to his potential to be great – all Plas needs to do is summon the courage that’s inside him and grasp that greatness.
Going up against Fernus, Plastic Man had no idea whether or not he’d succeed, but now he actually wants to try instead of admitting defeat straight away. He’s got the power to defeat this apocalyptical threat, and it’s his responsibility to make the world a better place for his son and everyone else. Plastic Man finally learns that being a good father and a good hero aren’t mutually exclusive roles; that if you actually put the effort in you can find a balance between them.
“Trial By Fire” is the most important Plastic Man story because it’s the biggest turning point for the character. It’s about a man overcoming his insecurities and cowardice to become the father figure his son needs and the hero that the world needs. He’s the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz finally realising that that he had courage inside himself all along. It’s the moment DC’s biggest goofball decided to stop treating everything like a joke and actually take things seriously.
And now, it looks like it’s time for the rest of the DC Universe to wake up to the fact that he’s potentially the most powerful hero of them all.
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