by T Campbell
The heroes soon to be known as the Pan-Plastic Four stared at each other, unable to believe the incredible changes racking their animal bodies. Seed Switcher was stretching his wings and neck every which way, like some kind of malleable mallard, and he would soon become known as Mister Pan-Plastic. Shrew Storm was turning invisible, giving her the name of the Invisible Mouse. Scrawny Storm was flying and had harmlessly lit his entire body on fire (do not attempt), so he would become the Avian Torch. And Ben Grizzly had become an over-muscled monster-mammal with skin made of semi-precious orange stones, thus he bitterly renamed himself… the Bling.
“And… cut! OK, people, break for lunch! Back in forty-five!”
The last two Fantastic Fur movies had flopped so badly that the hot new director of the newest movie was trying a new, controversial approach for the reboot. Rather than cast actors based on the species of the characters from the comic-books — Mooster Fantastic, Invisible Gorilla, Simian Torch, and the Thang — they decided to go in a different direction and change the species of the characters to suit the actors, even going so far as to change the title. Many fanboys were up in arms at the desecration of their beloved childhood icons (comparing it to the way Marmoset Comics changed the Hulk-Bunny into the Inedible Hog), while other fans praised the decision for being progressive. Only time would tell if the new approach would actually translate into a good movie.
As the cameras switched off, the actors relaxed the part of their brains they’d used to pretend the green screen behind them was a downed spaceship. Baxter Barker, the stuntwolf-turned-pro who was playing Dogtor Doom (the updated version of classic villain Ducktor Doom), took yet another opportunity to badger the director-badger about giving him more screen time. The actors playing the Storms, Zeke Zubird and Miranda Bear, flirted heavily.
Byrd Rentals, the grass-green mallard playing Seed, watched the lovebird and lovebear with an upset he tried not to show. Normally, if a high-profile, single actress was going to hook up with anyone in one of his productions, she would be hooking up with him, especially now that he was single again after his relationship with the Siren Belle crashed and burned (never date a super-villainess, kids — they’ll break your heart… and a leg or two). (*) He wasn’t losing his touch, was he? No, he consoled himself, he was just too busy introducing his buddy to the world of acting to have any time to really bring his charm to the table.
“How you doing in there, P.I.?”
Pig-Iron, under normal circumstances, was a purple mass of iron in the vague shape of a pig, wearing blue metal gloves, boots, and overalls. The filmmakers were relying on CGI for most of the film’s effects, but they’d gone old-school with Pig-Iron, covering his body from top to toe in shiny orange plastic.
“Well, heck,” he replied, “it ain’t no problem as long as I don’t try ta move, see, or take a deep breath.”
“Welcome to professional acting, good buddy. Sandra Bulldog had to spend months in a suspended space suit last year. You’re just gonna have to suffer for the art.”
“I can’t get my head around this guy. He gets turned into someone bigger and stronger than anybody, an’ all he does is whine about it?”
“He is coming at it from a different place than you did,” said Byrd. Really, the director should have been talking Piggy through this motivation stuff, but Byrd suspected the director was a little overwhelmed by all the flack he was getting for his new take on the characters, and might need some of Byrd’s creative input before the movie was through, as directors so often did. “Ben Grizzly was a football star and a test pilot. You know, he probably got a lot of tail before he suddenly got orange rocks all over every part of his body–”
“And me, I was a pipsqueak steelworker who was never gonna be famous and never gonna get a date, so I din’t exactly have much to lose, that it?”
Something told Byrd that saying yes might be construed as insensitive. He stammered, “That’s not — I mean — you were humble, right? And humility’s a great virtue — so I hear, anyway–”
The erstwhile Peter Porkchops gave him a stern look and held it for fourteen seconds.
Then he burst out laughing. “Haw-haw-haw-haw! Whut, am I gonna get mad about the truth, Byrd? Sure, I could get all bent up about the things I don’t got, but who couldn’t? I get ta be a super-hero, I get people ta notice me on the street, and now I get ta star in a movie! Ya know what I call that? A really good deal.”
“Well, that’s a winner’s outlook, Pete. Just remember, when the time comes, that we are not allowed to actually beat up the critics, tempting as it may be.”
Byrd glimpsed Miranda heading into Zeke’s trailer and sighed. Pig-Iron seemed to pick up on that; in any case, he was a bit quick to shift topics, dropping his voice to make sure no one else heard his next words. “Hey, so give me some more movie-makin’ insight, coach. Our director just about had kittens when I signed up for this part and saved him a bunch’a dough on special effects. So why are you lettin’ them CGI in your character’s stretchy super-powers when ya atchally have stretchy super-powers?”
Byrd made a shushing gesture; Pig-Iron had gotten louder than he’d meant to get at the end, there. “Because Rubberduck is the super-hero, and Byrd is the actor. I want to do Snakespeare before my career’s done, and keeping my identity secret means I don’t get typecast.”
“How’d you get this role again? I mean, you’re no slouch with machines, but isn’t Seed supposed ta be some kind of super-Einswine?”
“They said I had ‘the super-hero look,’ and that-that-that-that’s not the point, and anyway, this director is kind of unusual. Most directors don’t want to hire super-heroes, because we attract super-villains, and that puts the whole production at risk. I learned this after trying to get Timmy Joe a few gigs as Fastback.”
“Yeah, well, somebody needs to tell ’em that you attract more trouble as Byrd than as Rubberduck. Bein’ around Rubberduck is actually tons safer!”
“What? That — that’s nuts.”
“Nuts, mebbe, but true. I mean, think about the guys who’ve come after you, ‘steada you and the Crew goin’ after them. The Salamandroid was gunnin’ for Rubberduck, I’ll give ya that one, though I think he was just attackin’ anyone who was home that day… and besides him? (*) The Mudd monster who invaded your monster movie went after Byrd’s kinda-sorta girlfriend. (*) ‘Doc’ Bill Platypus, yer old stunt-beast, went after Byrd like a jealous psycho killer ex-boyfriend. (*) An’ King Kone? He wuz an ice cream vendor who went berserk the day Byrd was scheduled ta appear at his store.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Sinister Salamandroid,” Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew #11 (January, 1983), “His Name Is… Mudd,” Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew #4 (June, 1982), “Road to Disaster,” Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew #17 (July, 1983), and “You Scream Ice Cream,” Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew #18 (August, 1983).]
At this, Zeke’s trailer exploded with lightning bolts, coruscating out in all directions. There were screams from within the trailer’s walls, one of fear, one of outrage. The production crew yelped and ran every which way, and Byrd stayed rooted to the spot, looking for a pattern to the lightning as he planned his attack.
Pig-Iron jerked a finger in the direction of the trailer. “And now there’s that guy!”
“That guy… ugh! He really needs to order some ice cream! He’s been here twenty minutes, just texting!”
Garrison Gorilla looked suspiciously at his fellow soda jerk, a freckle-faced monkey. “He hasn’t ordered anything?”
“‘Swhat I said. You know how some animals are. Married to their phones. Maybe he’s trying to find the order ice cream app. Ha-ha-ha-ha-haha! Some animals are annoying.”
Garrison tuned out his co-worker (which was always a chore) and looked out over the Benji and Hairy’s. He had been an ice cream store owner before he’d briefly become a super-villain, King Kone, as a stepping stone to owning his whole franchise. Things hadn’t worked out. His lawyer had managed the naughty-but-nutty defense well and, having submitted to counseling, he was declared fit to rejoin society. But no one was going to hire him as management again for ten years, if ever. He was lucky to have a job in his old field at all, so he was a little oversensitive to anything that looked like trouble.
Nevertheless, the texting owl was the only customer in the store, except for the cat and dog now sitting down. The cat, wearing a smiley-face T-shirt, had ordered Choklit Choklit Chipz, and the large Great Dane had ordered wow, such pistachio, two scoops, big cone, very drip. Garrison knew the rules: if the register wasn’t busy, make sure everyone was happy. He left the monkey to finish the first two orders and walked over to the owl.
“Garrison Gorilla,” Doctor Hoot greeted him. “It weighs on my heart to see a peer reduced to this.”
“Do we know each other?”
“Only by reputation, Garrison. Using nothing but spare parts from your franchise outlet, you built an ice-cream-making weapon that came very close to killing Rubberduck. Now, the late Cold Turkey’s technology handed the entire Zoo Crew a defeat, but he had more funding. (*) I can’t help but wonder what someone like you would do… if you had access to that technology. This is one of those hypothetical-but-not-reallys, by the way.”
[(*) Editor’s note: Cold Turkey died during the Crisis of Infinite Animals.]
“You’ve got the wrong gorilla.”
“I really don’t think so, King Kone. My name, incidentally, is Doctor Hoot.”
“Y–! D-don’t — Please don’t wreck this place. I need this job!”
At the other table, unnoticed by Garrison and by the messily-eating Great Dane, the cat’s shirt changed. The smile became a superior-looking frown, eyebrow arched, nose high in the air.
“Destroying this place would be doing you a favor! This isn’t your place on the food chain! Peons like that monkey over there were born to serve: monkey see, monkey do. But you and I… we — we’re different! We create new power structures with ourselves at the top! We think! We invent! We seize!”
Suddenly, Garrison was aware how poorly lit this store was, how skimpy the portions were, and how unhygienic the monkey was in serving them. Incompetence. He was surrounded by incompetence.
“I’m putting a bounty on Zoo Crewers, Kone. Seventy-million a head. That would be quite a startup nest egg for your ice cream franchise, wouldn’t it?”
“Didn’t Fat Kat and Brother Hood try that and fail a few months back, and for a lot more money?” replied Garrison. (*)
“Pish-tosh,” replied Hoot with a snort. “The work of amateurs is always bound to fail.”
“Anyway, I think being a known hero-murderer might do some harm to my personal brand.”
“There are ways around that,” said Hoot with a dismissive wave. “Mass hypnosis, plastic surgery, and false identity… whatever. In any case, you see my new henchbeasts? Good help, reliable. When they came in, they put Cold Turkey’s freeze-gun into the trash can by the left exit. All you have to do is fish it out, and then you can do what you like with it. You can take it home and examine it after your work shift ends. Or… you can go ahead and use it now, to… give notice.”
Hoot left a paper with instructions on the table, stood, and started to walk out, putting a wing on Garrison’s shoulder as he did so. “Perhaps I’ll see you later.”
As Hoot left, the cat’s shirt shifted again, this time to a red face, scowling, with eyes of uneven size. And it hit Garrison all over again, how unfair it was that a genius like him had come to be here.
The cat, Emoticat, and dog, Marmadoge, got up and left as well. Emoticat’s power had provided the necessary push, or, as Emoticat would say, the Invisibl Paw-Press. What happened next would happen of Garrison’s own free will.
“Wow, you’re really good with customers,” said the monkey. “He looked like he really enjoyed talking to you. The boss would be happy, except for the part where you didn’t even ask him to buy anything! Ha-ha-ha-ha-haha!”
And just like that, King Kone wasn’t feeling much of anything. His feelings were back in a deep freeze as he started to walk to the trash can. He felt no anger, no joy, not even embarrassment.
And he would definitely feel absolutely no regrets.
Just now, Little Cheese profoundly regretted every moment of conversation he’d had this morning with Captain Carrot, beginning with the one where he’d said, “You draw comics? That sounds pretty cool.”
Somehow that had led him here, to Rodney Rabbit’s studio office, where Little Cheese was now wearing a Super-Squirrel costume, trying to pose as if he could fly, while Captain Carrot, in his civilian clothes as Rodney, was photographing him from every angle. Some photographers knew how to relax their models with light conversation, but that wasn’t really Rodney; when he was in the zone, he was in the zone. “OK, Chester — shrink.”
With a slight sigh, Chester Cheese shrunk down to his six-inch size, doing his best to keep his limbs in their stiffened, unnatural positions. He reminded himself that he had been a student athlete even before being a super-hero, and he told himself this was cross-training. That worked… for a while.
“I don’t see why you need me to model for Super-Squirrel. Isn’t he more your age?”
“They rebooted the whole Just’a Lotta Animals younger a few years ago, more or less. I’ve been drawing other projects for a while, but they’re planning to put me back on it after Giraffe Johns’ final arc. Your physique’s about right for Green Lambkin now, too. Maybe we should get a few poses for that–”
His phone sounded at that moment with a Super-Squirrel-theme ringtone. He took it.
“Heyyy, Rodney!” came the slightly overworked, slightly Follywood voice of Giraffe Johns. “I got some bad news and some great news! We need you on something else more than on JLA. How’d you like to be a double-threat again? Writer and artist, monthly title, lotta buzz?”
Rodney bit down hard on his frustration. You had to adapt fast, being a freelancer. But if this was some guaranteed insta-cancellation like Sword of Saucery, then so help him…
He… he would probably still roll over and take it. “What’s the book?”
“You’re gonna love this. We got the media license for the Zoo Crew!”
Chester was impressed at Rodney’s restraint. Rodney stood bolt upright, his eyes bugging out and his lips moving, but not once did he make the slightest sound until he said, “Did you?”
“Yeah, you know, these guys are real-life superheroes, so we’re kind of figuring half-JLA, half-reality show. Wombat Entertainment can’t wait for us to get started. They’re gonna treat the comic as the first draft of a film treatment, too. The team’s got this angry energy I really like, you know? It’s like the Captain can’t really control the guys on his team at all.”
“Seems… seems… seems like a solid strategy, but you know, these guys are on the front lines and everything. What if they die in action or something?”
Johns laughed. “Well, you know, if that happens, I figure we won’t be worrying about what books we’re publishing this month, right? We’ll be busy running away from whatever got them, and screaming for mercy. Not much we can do if that happens, so why worry?”
“True… yeah… but y’know, there’s a risk with public figures. New members can come and go without much warning — remember Stormwing? (*) And they’ve got… secret parts of their lives that I’m sure they don’t want to share, so you’re just guessing there, and–”
[(*) Editor’s note: Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew: Storm Warning.]
“Well, I spoke to their media rights rep just the other day, and she seems to think you’d have some great insights there. Challenges are made to be overcome, right? Ciao!”
The call ended. Rodney calmly pulled up his sleeve and tapped his Zoo Crew wrist-comm.
“Um,” said Chester. “Should I leave, or–?”
“Call Yankee Poodle,” Rod said into the comm. It chirped in reply, then clicked as a connection was made.
“Oh, hi, dearie!” came the voice from the comm. “How are you?”