This time my targets for myth-radical comparison will be Jack Cole’s PLASTIC MAN-- and by extension, all versions of Plastic Man thereafter-- and the Golden Age JOHNNY THUNDER, a feature that didn’t survive the Golden Age, though the title character continued to make semi-regular appearances in various DC titles.
PLASTIC MAN fits my criterion for a series in which the adventure elements dominate and the comic elements, though extremely important, should be considered subordinate. Indeed, a better word than “subordinate” might be one I coined in an earlier essay, “subdominant,” in that the comic elements in PLASTIC MAN predominate far more than they do in a “straighter” feature like BATMAN, where comic elements are more sporadic. “Subdominant” indicates that a given narrative makes extensive use of the elements of one mythos even though the narrative as a whole fits another mythos better.
Though some critics have chosen to find Cole’s PLASTIC MAN “subversive” of the normative heroic-adventure mythos, close study reveals that it’s nothing of the kind. The earliest stories in the series, twenty of which are collected in volume 1 of DC’s PLASTIC MAN ARCHIVES, follow a consistent pattern. The hero’s opponents take any number of forms—racketeers, freaky mad scientists, Nazi agents—but at no point does Cole ironize his chosen mythos by sympathizing with society’s malcontents. Issue #16 is particularly noteworthy in that Plastic Man goes out of his way to break up a small group of American Indians advocating revolt against the United States. To accomplish this, the hero masquerades as their totem-spirit. The leader of the proposed insurrection then kills himself and comes back as a real spirit. He mesmerizes Plastic Man and incites the hero to wreck the city, and all that saves Plastic Man from prosecution is that the Indian leader’s son beseeches the spirit to lay off. Odd though the story is, nothing in it invalidates Plastic Man’s actions at the outset, or the hero’s general quest for justice.
JOHNNY THUNDER, on the other hand, frequently shows the titular hero falling afoul of hoods and gunmen, whom he usually vanquishes with the help of his magical powers. However, in his first adventure he’s unaware of the power, which is conferred on him for an hour’s time when he pronounces the holy word “Cei-U” (which Johnny only does when he accidentally uses the words “say” and “you” consecutively). The same “origin story” establishes that Johnny, though moderately skilled as a fighter, is “just an ordinary guy trying to lead an ordinary life,” which aligns him less with heroic magicians like Mandrake than with the comic protagonists of Thorne Smith.
I would grant that within the comic mythos, Johnny Thunder is, like the Inferior Five analyzed earlier, a hero who gets into a fair number of fights. But these agonic elements are subdominant to the comic elements, such as the scene where Johnny, unaware of his power, tells a man to “go jump at a duck,” which of course the fellow does. In later stories, Johnny’s power becomes embodied in a separate character, a genie called “Thunderbolt,” but the presence of this super-being never takes the focus away from Johnny’s status as a good-hearted bumbler. Even as a member of the heroic Justice Society, Johnny plays the funny sidekick to the “serious” superheroes. Thus even in this adventure-oriented feature Johnny Thunder remained a visitor from a strangely comical domain.
Number 1852: Writer of other worlds, Ed Hamilton
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