Plastic Man: The Complete Collection. Not Quite "Complete," but Chockfull of Fun
“He can spring! He can stretch! He can fly! He can bounce! He can change his shape! And… he can even dance!”
That booming introduction from Michael Rye effectively introduces the stretchy star of the Plastic Man: The Complete Collection DVD set. For the uninitiated, The Plastic Man Comedy-Adventure Show was a 1979 Ruby Spears cartoon series based on the Jack Cole comic book character of the same name. The comic story began with a common crook named “Eel” O’Brian, who was shot by a guard during a robbery at a chemical plant and bumped into a vat of “experimental acid,” which splashed into his wound. This accident later endowed O’Brien with the ability to stretch his body and mold it into any shape he can imagine. Inspired by the kindly monks who cared for him after the accident, O’Brien decided to reform (pun intended) his wicked ways and become the super-heroic Plastic Man. Plas originally maintained his O’Brian identity as a cover to get him inside information on crimes he would later foil. He eventually worked for the FBI (which later became the “NBI” [National Bureau of Investigation]), aided by a bumbling, portly sidekick named Woozy Winks, who aspired to be an agent himself.
On the show, Plas (brilliantly voiced by the equally versatile Michael Bell) worked as a James-Bond-type no-so-secret agent for an unnamed crimefighting organization, taking orders from an attractive, no-nonsense woman known only as “The Chief” (sultrily portrayed by the velvet voice of Melendy Britt). He operated out of a hi-tech “PlastiJet” which flew all over the world on various spy-type missions. To help reflect diversity on the show, Plas’ bumbling comic-book partner Woozy Winks was replaced by an equally bumbling Polynesian character named Hula-Hula (wonderfully depicted by the late British actor/comedian Joe Baker), who was a “Lou Costello”-type character that would occasionally spout Hawaiian references (“Mother of Maui!”). Hula had an uncanny ability to bring bad luck to himself and his colleagues (which may have been inspired by a similar ability Woozy Winks had in his first comic book appearance), but he also had an array of contacts throughout the world that always proved useful on their missions. The show also introduced a strong female character in the form of Penny (breathily portrayed by the cooing voice of Melendy Britt), a sexy southern belle who was enamored with Plas, but was also an expert jet pilot and mechanic. While she would many times end up becoming the “damsel in distress,” she also came through in a pinch to help capture evil henchmen while Plas would handle the primary adversary.
Plastic Man: The Complete Collection contains all 32 “spy mission” episodes from the entire first season, plus three episodes from season two (which was renamed as The Plastic Man-Baby Plas Super Comedy Show, the intro of which is wonderfully included with these episodes). While the overall story plots were fairly basic (like most cartoon shows were in 1979 and 1980), The Plastic Man Comedy-Adventure Show was still a breakthrough program in its day. It was a fun – and funny – show which used more sophisticated humor than the rest of the Saturday morning fare at that time – including several homages to classic comedy shows like Get Smart and Three Stooges shorts. It even had a touch of romantic comedy with the ongoing “broken love triangle” whereby Penny fawned over Plas, who was completely oblivious because he was ga-ga over the Chief, who was quick to rebuff Plas’ “advances” while occasionally slinging clever insults at our hero.
Granted, the series had a number of “Oh, come on!” moments. In “Wham Bam, Beware of the Clam,” Plas and the gang were trapped in the tendrils of a giant squid at the bottom of the ocean – without any underwater gear whatsoever – and were somehow able to carry on a lengthy conversation of how they were going to get out of that mess (which was a very Looney Tunes solution, by the way). In “Honeybee,” Plas transformed into a rocket and was able to somehow take flight without any sort of propellant. In “Plastic Man Meets Plastic Ape,” an ape with Plas’s powers is somehow smart enough to reform himself into complicated mechanical objects. But I’m not one to let a little disbelief spoil my enjoyment of this classic cartoon. Even this long-time (40-mumble-mumble-year-old) fan still chuckles at many of the one-liners, and even though a lot of them go over his head, my 5-year-old son has a blast watching the visual gags on the show.
Yes, the show employed lots of fun visuals. Plas’ gallery of ridiculous-yet-menacing villains seem to hearken back to the original Jack Cole comics, with a little dash of Dick Tracy thrown in. Not to mention the clever use of Plas’ powers to disguise himself as various red objects in unexpected places – creating a veritable Where’s Waldo-esque game for the viewer in every episode (a gag that was frequently used in the comics) – as well as the creative ways Plas would subdue his wily foes in an era where cartoon “action heroes” were not allowed to throw a punch or cause any bodily harm. Equally clever are the various methods the writers came up with to incapacitate our hero by essentially turning Plas’ amazing powers against him (e.g., tangling him up in a taffy-pulling machine in “The Miniscule 7”, weaving him into a rug in “Badladdin”, melting him into a puddle in “Terrible 5+1”). This show was very intelligent, which made it appealing to kids beyond the network’s “ideal target audience.”
Case in point: the educational segments of the show were not the typical safety or health-improvement lessons hammered into the young minds by the other shows of this time. They were “Plastic Man’s Consumer Tips,” where Plas and the gang would act out 30-second scenarios to teach viewers to be mindful shoppers, from counting change at the counter to shopping several stores to find the best price. These lessons obviously targeted teens with disposable income, and helped kids of all ages be more involved in one of their parents’ most vital “grown-up” activities (“Did you check the sell date on the eggs, Mommy?”). Sadly, the 20-some consumer tip segments are not a part of this so-called “Complete Collection.”
Also missing from this set is Plastic Man’s very first animated adventure, which was shown in segments in the Plastic Man Saturday Morning Sneak Peek special that aired on prime time to offer a preview of ABC’s 1979 Saturday morning shows. It’s understandable that the non-Plas segments (hosted by Michael Young on the Kids Are People, Too set) may have been legally difficult to include. However, a clever way to circumnavigate that would be to splice those Plastic Man segments into a DVD featurette. Hopefully this adventure and the Consumer Tips can find their way onto The Plastic Man-Baby Plas Super Comedy Show DVD set when (if?) it is released.
Another issue I have with this set is the inconsistent quality of the video transfer of these episodes. For the most part, the video is clear with a slight graininess that we should expect from a 30-year-old cartoon. However, there are some episodes that contain very blurry scenes (with “Dr. Irwin and Mr. Meteor” almost blurred throughout), “jumping” video (with “Hugefoot” almost inducing a headache), and “glaring red patches” (“Honeybee”). But these are the exceptions, and if you are able to look past these visual disappointments they should not detract from the enjoyment of these shows. In any case, the DVD set offers the best quality available for these episodes (definitely better than my deteriorating video tapes or the bootleg DVDs you’ll find at comic conventions). I should also mention the pleasant surprise of seeing that the stationary frames of the title cards and end credits were cleaned up and look really sharp.
The special features, though few, are also very enjoyable. The “Puddle Trouble” pilot to the unrealized Plastic Man Cartoon Network series, a hit on YouTube and Veoh, is a pleasure to see in rock-solid DVD video, and offers a Plastic Man cartoon that is the most true to the Jack Cole style of humor. The “Plas-tastic” retrospective is 14 minutes packed with an insightful look at Plas’ comic book origins, a brief behind-the-scenes glimpse of the development of The Plastic Man Comedy-Adventure Show, discussion of the 2006 “Puddle Trouble” pilot and speculation on why Cartoon Network didn’t pick it up for a series, and comments from producer James Tucker and voice actor Tom Kenny regarding the handling of the Plastic Man character in Batman: The Brave and the Bold. It’s a shame that the featurette didn’t include voice actors Michael Bell and Melendy Britt and their thoughts regarding the show which occupies this DVD set (at least the Toon Zone News interviews will help fill in this gap).
To sum up, despite my noted quibbles, Plastic Man: The Complete Collection will provide hours of recaptured fun for long-time viewers, as well as true “kid friendly” entertainment for children of ages 5 to 100.