Rain fell steadily on a large crowd gathered in an Atlanta park. Hundreds of voices rose in song, evoking echoes of marches held long ago. As a progression of speakers took the podium, two men with a lot in common met in the crowd.
“Excuse me, aren’t you Ralph Dib–?”
“I am, but please, no autographs.” For once in his life, Ralph Dibny was serious about that line. “Today is about something bigger than me.”
The thin man, who had black hair and dark glasses, smiled. “Yeah, you got that right.” He looked up at the dark-skinned woman sitting on the podium listening to an emotional retelling of events from decades before, and the smile vanished. “I know all too well. Still, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get together with you after the memorial service.”
“I’m staying at the Hilton, if you’d like to meet there. Just ask at the desk.” Ralph’s head cocked to one side. “What’s your name, so I know it’s you instead of one of my many admirers?”
Putting out his hand, the other man replied, “O’Brian. Patrick ‘Eel’ O’Brian.”
It was 5:30 when O’Brian arrived at the hotel. Ten minutes later, he and Ralph Dibny were sitting in the lounge, sipping club soda.
“You know, even though we’ve run across each other once or twice before, I’ve wanted to sit down and have a chat you for years. I never figured it would be at a service for Dr. King, though.” O’Brian pushed his sunglasses up on the bridge of his nose. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about you from Batman.”
“All right, what’s your story? There aren’t many people that Batman would go swapping stories with.” Ralph’s nose started to twitch, far more than any normal nose should have been able to.
“You mean, I’ve actually managed to stump the world-famous Elongated Man? Wow, I do believe my day is made! My week, even!” O’Brian reached into a pocket of his dark red sports coat and pulled something out. “Maybe this will help.” He lifted his hand to his face and quickly exchanged his sunglasses for a pair of opaque goggles. Once they were in place, he spread his hands wide — about two feet wide. “Ta-da!”
“Well, I’ll be–” Ralph’s face lit in a big smile. “Plastic Man!”
“In the super-elastic flesh!” replied O’Brian.
“How are you, you old son of a gun?” asked Ralph. “The last time we met, just after the Crisis, you, me, Superman and Jimmy Olsen in his Elastic Lad costume fought your old pal Skizzle Shanks, who’d become Malleable Man!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “That’s the Way the Heroes Bounce,” DC Comics Presents #93 (May, 1986).]
“You don’t have to remind me,” said Plastic Man. “I was there, remember?”
“Yes, but as I recall, we spent most of that case under the villain’s mental control,” countered the Elongated Man.
“True,” said Plastic Man. “And after the case was over, each of us just rushed off again. It had been ten years that you were active, and the one time we worked on a case together, I still never got a chance to talk with you, my stretchable successor in spirit, if not in fact. Hope you don’t mind my pushing the issue, but when I saw you at the service today, I couldn’t resist.”
“Not at all. I always figured, if my travels took me somewhere where I heard you were operating, I’d look you up. Outside of the Crisis on Infinite Earths itself, we only ever worked together for the Malleable Man case in ’85. I’m glad you took the chance, though. I also wanted to have an actual conversation with you, since you were doing this stretching thing long before I was.”
“Well, I have another reason for meeting you now,” said Plastic Man. “Since you were there today, I take it you admired Dr. King?”
“Of course!” said Ralph. “I know some people didn’t like his views, but I hope they’re few in number.”
“Good, because I’d like your help with something. I want you to help me catch his killer.”
Years earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King had been the most prominent fighter for civil rights in the United States. Marches in Selma, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., had put him in the center of the fight for racial equality. Then in 1968 on one April night in Memphis, Tennessee, an assassin’s bullet ended his life. For over fifteen years, the mystery had gone unsolved.
“Several people have tried to track down King’s killer over the years,” said the Elongated Man. “Better detectives than I, even. What makes you think we can find the killer?”
“Because none of those people ever included King’s bodyguard in the hunt.”
“The one that the National Bureau of Investigation had assigned to him,” replied Plastic Man. “Me.”
Thinking back to what he had heard about his fellow stretchable hero over the years, Ralph Dibny quickly put a couple of pieces together.
“Once upon a time, when I was still just a boy, I remember reading about your adventures. I was, truth to tell, one of your biggest fans when you first appeared way back in 1959 at the beginning of the golden age of heroes, when actual super-powered heroes like those from old comic-books began appearing in real life. At the same time I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, I collected all I could about your cases, and the one consistent thing I remember hearing is that you were this happy-go-lucky adventurer, really kind of off-the-wall, even. Then, all of a sudden, you retired in 1972 — just disappeared. When you resurfaced several years later, you were having all this trouble, and you were broke, destitute, and depressed. I remember that, because it was so out of character for you. That would be during most of the decade after King was killed. Any connection?”
Plastic Man put his elbows on the small table between them and dropped his face into his upturned hands. “What do you think?” He slumped back in his seat. “There I was, the first costumed hero to be recruited by a government agency, assigned to an undercover assignment to protect a high-profile civil rights leader, and two weeks into the assignment, he’s killed. No clues to his killer, nothing to go on. The Chief never blamed me, but I did. I went on for a few more years after that, trying to act like my old self, but inside, guilt was eating me up. Finally, in 1972, I dropped out of the NBI, dropped out of super-heroics, dropped out of life. I guess I just gave up on myself.
“The next several years were tough, and my life went downhill. Capitalizing on my stretching powers, I took a number of jobs at travelling carnivals and the like. Sure, I played Plastic Man once in a while, but by that time Superman and a whole new generation of heroes were emerging. I was just an out-of-date freak compared to them. It’s funny, though. I worked with the founding members of the Justice League of America shortly before it was formed, during the Martian invasion of ’74. (*) I suppose, if I’d gotten myself together by then, I might even have been a founding member of the JLA! Instead, I just chalked it up as another one of my failures and let my life slide downhill even more.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Origin of the Justice League, Minus One,” Justice League of America #144 (July, 1977).]
“But around the same time, I began to get tired of being a circus freak. I wanted to be a normal man again and find romance with a normal woman. So I created the identity of Kyle Morgan and used my powers to mold my features into that of a handsome man desirable by women everywhere. I quickly built a reputation as an adventurer and gained fame through what would have been death-defying feats for any normal man. Women practically threw themselves at me, and at one point I could have picked any one of them that I wanted. But I was greedy, and I chose to be with the wealthiest woman in the world — Ruby Ryder.
“Ruby had everything I ever wanted in a woman: beauty, wealth, and passion. And after a hot and heavy courtship, we became engaged. But to my horror, I soon learned that she was also utterly ruthless — a cold-hearted, even evil woman who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted. And once she had me, she considered me her property. I had to get out. With the help of a friend, I left for South America on official business for Ruby Ryder, Inc. Once there, I faked my death and disappeared, laying low for the next six months. I would soon have been in the clear to start anew completely, if it hadn’t been for my old buddy, Batman. By that time I’d met Batman a couple of times before, the first time during the Martian invasion, and later during a case against a villain called the Molder.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Doom, What Is Thy Shape?” The Brave and the Bold #76 (February-March, 1968).]
“I remember that case,” interrupted the Elongated Man. “Batman told me all about it. In fact, the villain you fought — the Molder — must have struck something in my subconscious afterward, because a few years later, when I lost my memory and gained new powers as the result of a freak side-effect of drinking gingold, I took on the identity of a super-villain called the Molder. Thankfully, the Flash managed to restore me to my rightful self before any lasting harm was done. (*) But my version of the Molder was essentially the same as the real version, except that my powers were innate. Even the costume I created was similar.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Double Dose of Danger,” The Flash #252 (August, 1977) and “Don’t Mess With the Molder,” The Flash #253 (September, 1977).]
“Yes, I remember reading the NBI case concerning that incident,” said O’Brian. “The new Molder seemed too similar to the original to be a coincidence.”
“Well, now you know,” said Ralph. “So what happened with Batman?“
“Ruby Ryder happened. She knew I’d walked out on her, and she was furious, just filled with rage. Under the pretense of merely wanting to rescue her fiancée, she took the unusual step of asking for Batman’s help to track me down. When Batman did so and brought me to her, he had no idea that Ruby’s plan was to murder me and frame him for the crime. Of course, Batman escaped the manhunt and tracked down Ruby, bringing her to justice. After a swift trial, in which her guilt for my supposed murder was verified, she was sentenced to be executed. And she would have been, too, if Batman hadn’t figured out that Kyle Morgan was really me — Plastic Man — who couldn’t have been killed by mere bullets.
“So while Ruby’s murder charges were dropped, and she was a free woman again, I was left with nothing. True to her nature, Ruby got her revenge on me by vindictively preventing me from finding ordinary work, forcing me back to the hated carnivals. It became a personal mission for her to make my life as miserable as possible, since killing me wasn’t an option. I’d say she ruined my life, but I hardly had much of a life to ruin by that point. So it was then — more than a full decade after Dr. King’s assassination — that I finally hit rock-bottom. I couldn’t stand being a professional circus freak, so I quit that job and ended up on the streets, homeless and panhandling. It was a sorry end to a decade I’d rather just forget altogether.
“Batman found me again, begging for spare change, and he offered me another chance. I’m not sure why he did it, but I suspect he saw in me a lot of wasted potential. He asked me to fill in for him by impersonating the Batman while he was out of town for a few weeks. I did so gladly, since it gave me a much-needed purpose in life. But that was also when Ruby Ryder came back into my life. You see, she’d been spying on me this whole time, even after I started living on the streets. So she knew all about Batman’s recruiting me to impersonate him, and she quickly concocted a plan that put me right back under her thumb once more. The only difference this time was that, thanks to a chemical cocktail one of her agents slipped me, I not only believed that I was the real Batman, but I was also made to feel deeply in love with Ruby herself, and utterly loyal.
“Ruby’s a real piece of work, y’know? When she wants something, she’ll do anything to get it. And as soon as my part in her latest scheme to get a rare artifact was over, she would have me killed by having me drink a powerful solvent that could destroy even this pliable body of mine. It was only with the help of Batman and Metamorpho that I was finally freed from her thrall. (*) And with the encouragement and help of a few friends, such as Batman, Metamorpho, and my old sidekick Woozy Winks, I was able to start picking up the pieces again. Not too much longer, I was even back at the Bureau, but it was difficult to earn the Chief’s trust again. As for Ruby Ryder, her high-priced lawyers managed to keep her out of jail, and as far as I know, she’s never really changed — just became better at keeping her nose clean. God help Gotham City if she ever gets her claws on it.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “How to Make a Super-Hero,” The Brave and the Bold #123 (December, 1975).]
“I wish I could say that my life was a piece of cake from then on, but that was far from the truth. Sometime later, I ended up being fired from the NBI when I investigated a top-secret government project without getting authorization to do so. Although I uncovered a genuine threat to the public, I also embarrassed the government in doing so, and I was forced to go on the run for a time. (*) And as much as I hated to do so, I went back to cheap carnival shows to earn a living. But I could only take so much of that, and eventually I just took any old job I could to eke out a living.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Snooping Snitches,” Plastic Man v2 #20 (October-November, 1977).]
“That was why, during the Christmas of 1982, Batman found me working as a street-corner Santa Claus, raising money for charity and feeling utterly depressed — again. Without even trying, I found myself in the middle of a case involving a smuggling ring, and I helped Batman shut down that operation and save Gotham’s Christmas that year. (*) Thankfully, with the Batman’s help, I was able to rejoin the NBI for good. It’s funny, really. The only times I’ve really been happy were when I was palling around with ol’ Woozy Winks at the NBI, despite all the trouble he got himself into. And ever since then it’s been a bit easier to deal with my guilt over being unable to save Dr. King.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Night the Mob Stole Xmas,” The Brave and the Bold #148 (March, 1979).]
Ralph reached over to place a hand on the older man’s shoulder. “Look, one thing I’ve learned in this business, sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you do — you can’t save everybody.”
“I know, but still, I feel like I need to atone for that failure.” O’Brian looked up at Dibny. “So, what do you say? Give it a shot?”
“Are you kidding? Of course!”