The company’s new character had to be distinct from those other heroes, to have some roots in science fiction, and to fit into crime-fighting stories but provide some comic relief.
Working with writer John Broome and artist Carmine Infantino, Schwartz came up with Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man. His power was that he could stretch his body in superhuman ways, making himself tall, thin, bouncy, table-shaped, and so on.
That was also the power of Quality Comics’s leading superhero of the 1940s, Plastic Man, created and usually drawn by Jack Cole. Schwartz hadn’t realized that since 1956 DC had owned Quality’s comics trademarks, including Plastic Man. He later told colleagues that if he’d known that, he would simply have revived the Plastic Man name.
But it was too late: DC now owned two crime-fighting superheroes with stretching powers, both on the funny side. From the start, knowledgeable comics fans saw the similarities. When Schwartz took over the Batman line in 1964, he made the Elongated Man a backup feature in Detective Comics, raising his profile further. And two years later DC launched a new Plastic Man magazine. So what could make the two stretchy guys distinct?
Such overlaps were a drawback to how DC Comics grew through syncretism, as I described yesterday. Different companies created the same types of heroes to star in the same types of stories, but once those heroes were put into the same universe they lost their special qualities.
Fortunately, that need to distinguish characters opened the door for more creative storytelling. In the case of the Elongated Man, he ended up doing things that went against the typical superhero tropes. He married his girlfriend, Sue. He dropped the mask and secret identity. He announced himself as a professional detective for hire. Though he never had his own series, Ralph Dibny became a unique character in the DC Universe with his own following.
As for Plastic Man, DC’s creative teams recognized that Jack Cole had written his crime stories mostly for laughs, so they went further in that direction. Plas became the most wackadoodle hero of the whole line. He could be in the Justice League with Batman, and writers could play off their contrasts for laughs. Creators also made clear that Plastic Man was more topologically powerful and invulnerable than the Elongated Man.
None of that would have happened if Julius Schwartz had simply revived the Plastic Man trademark to create a supporting character for the Flash. Having two similar characters in the same universe forced him and his colleagues to think in new directions.
COMING UP: Syncretism and the Batman.