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John's Action Figure Column 3/28/96

     We've seen lots of "Wish List" figure catalogues recently; I
just want to iterate what is fast becoming my strongest wish list
set:  Watchmen figures.  For several reasons.
     First, I still think Moore and Gibbons "Watchmen" series is
the apotheosis of the form.  I don't mean to exclude the hundreds
of other magnificent efforts of a multitude of other comics
professionals, but I believe "Watchmen" is, in its twelve-issue
microcosm, the best example of what comics can offer.
     Second, Dave Gibbons' art has a wonderful faux simplicity
that conceals a marvelous depth of meaning, emotion, nuance, et
cetera.  And the clean lines of his character designs would make
for awesome figures!  Let the Todd McFarlanes and Erik Larsens of
the world blur their pages with microscopic cross-hatching and
near-fractal detail; Gibbons' pure elegance of stroke makes the
graphic elements of "Watchmen" shine as much as Moore's
incomparable words.
     And third, what fantastic characters!  They run the gamut
from average joes and janes with crime-busting manias to the
super-human, and even the Super-super-human.  Throw in a
psychotic or two, and one of the best-conceived alien beasties
ever teleported right *into* the midst of the comic buying public
(among others, and a wonderful touch, that), and you've got a
recipe for extraordinary figures.  There are plenty of
accessories built right in, as well as vehicles (the Owlship, the
jet bikes), playsets (I'd love a Los Alamos with Intrinsic Field
test chamber, an Ozymandias' fortress of solitude, and a Dreiberg
Owl's Roost), and even "power feature" variations (can you
imagine a 2-foot Dr. Manhattan?  Eat yer heart out, Galactus!) 
Or Rorschach with and without the elevator heels?  (And with and
without beans and sugar cubes)  How about "before and after the
end of the world" Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk?  Okay, so at
heart these characters started as rather pedestrian Charlton
Comics' leftovers from the 50s and 60s -- Moore and Gibbons'
efforts exalted them to the heights of the comics pantheon.
     I have seen the fine customized Watchmen figures on the web,
but (a) they aren't mine, and (b) well, they aren't mine.  And
I'd rather not make the effort to create them.  (No, I enjoy
driving hundreds of miles and rubbing shoulders with the scum de
la scum of scalper royalty day after day, but don't want to "make
the effort" of daubing a little paint on a couple of surplus
figures....what's wrong with *this* picture....?)

ECON 101
     Now, okay, there might well be some question as to the
market for "Watchmen" figures.  After all, for all its
brilliance, I bet "Watchmen" didn't sell as well as even your
average issue of "X-Dudes, the Simply-Rendered Animated Series." 
Which begs the looming question (as it moves us on to another,
albeit related, topic)....
     ....just where do action figure companies find their break-
even point?  Is it 100,000 figures?  50,000?  25,000?  1,701? 
All the companies out there get v-e-r-y cagey when it comes to
discussions of the actual numbers of figures made (with the
possible exception of the otherwise execrable-Playmates, who make
a business point of tattooing numbers on their figures Achilles'
heels). Staying with my originating thread, how many "Watchmen"
figures would have to sell for a company to make a profit on its
investment in design, molds, production, etc.?  I don't expect
any of us to have the answers to a question like this, nor do I
expect the companies to come forward and give away what is
apparently their most guarded trade secret.  But if there were
some way to make "boutique" figures in smaller runs, and still
make a profit therefrom, I think it would open up a tremendous
mini-market.  Not only the "Watchmen" figures, but all kinds of
other potential figure series that lack only the tv-zombie pre-
adolescent consumer base to skyrocket sales up towards the
100,000+ mark.  For instance....
     The Comics Creator Series!  Could you imagine a Jack Kirby
figure? (Yes, with cigar action feature)  A Steve Ditko?  (Could
be a silhouette in a bottle if the ostensibly bizarre Mr. D would
not give permission for his likeness to be perpetuated, or could
have a "disappearing" action feature)  Even a Stan Lee?  (Would
have to have a talking feature -- pull the string and pure
unadulterated hyperbole streams out, true believer!)  How about a
Jazzy John Romita?  Or a Todd McFarlane (this would be the
shortpack, of course, in part because of the extra space the
"expanded head" feature would occupy in the blister pack)!  There
is slight precedence for this:  Marvel used to occasionally stick
artists' self-portraits in the comics (I seem to remember the
aforementioned Ditko, Romita and a few others), and then of
course there was that great "What If The Original Marvel Bullpen
Became the Fantastic Four?"  Okay, so maybe the kiddies wouldn't
buy in droves on this series -- remember though, we're talking
"boutique" sets here....

     Then there's the Signature Character Series (yes, I know
I've gone on about this before; I just *love* the idea!)....  You
know, "Spider-Man as Visualized by Steve Ditko," "The Thing by
Kirby/Sinott," "Jim Starlin's Captain Marvel," etc.  Okay, so the
copyright (and royalties) problems alone would keep this one from
ever getting off the ground -- I can dream, can't I?  Besides, in
effect this is what we're getting from McFarlane Toys, no? 
(Which is part of the reason that most of the Youngblood figures
look so, well, bad.  Strained -- and straining.  Maybe if Die
Hard came with a truss, or if Dutch had his own set of Charles
Atlas isometric exer-devices -- to explain how he got so....nah,
never mind.  Those things will never sell, not even if they stick
a Tapestry Picard in the bubble with each one.)
      And, back to the world of the comics themselves, how about 
Miracleman/Marvelman figures?  D.R. and Quinch?  The Bojeffries
Family?  (Can you sense a pattern here?  The Moore the
     How about Matt Howarth character figures?  Moebius-inspired
figures?  Ahhhh, what about Milo Manara figures?  (Obviously not
for the kiddies, heh) (And please, let's skip the discussion of
the action features on the Manara figs, okay?  Ahem.)  How about
Brian Bolland "Camelot 3000" figs?  Mmmmmm, tasty!  The list
could go on for quite a while....

     And by the way, before we move on, some last words on Moore
and Gibbons' "Watchmen."  Since I have not seen this written
anywhere "officially," I feel compelled to alert the world that
the kernel idea for "Watchmen" appears, whether Moore and/or
Gibbons knew it or not, in a very-early-60s "Where Monsters
Dwell" story illustrated by Jack Kirby entitled "The Earth Is
Doomed When Lo-Karr Stalks."  This six page tale describes a
giant dinosaur-like creature that descends from the heavens in a
tremendous spaceship to dominate our entire world, and is only
stopped when the Red Red Russkies and the Apple-Pie Amurrikkans
agree to put their differences aside and join forces to attack
the monster as one.  In the last panel, we see a scientist on the
rocky cliffs of an ocean coast, dumping the sundered pieces of
the robotic Lo-Karr into the surf and muttering about how
deception was the only way to get all of us dumb humans to
cooperate and stop killing one another....
     So while Messrs. Moore and Gibbons most definitely ran quite
a bit further (like, light years) with their extraordinary tale, I
don't think it hurts them one bit to note that good ol' Jack
Kirby had visited that ground once long, long before.  (And let
me make this perfectly clear, to avoid raising anyone's hackles:  
I do not for a moment think that the "Watchmen" creators
plagiarized the "Lo-Karr" story; I just think it bears mentioning
as a precedent.  And I wonder if JK read "Watchmen," and even 
remembered that old monster story....)
     And, finally, yes, I'm giving Kirby credit for something that
he certainly collaborated on with (in all likelihood) Stan Lee; I 
just don't have this old comic book out West with me, and
while Kirby's art sticks in the mind decades later, I just can't 
be sure who authored the words.  But I would put even money on 
Stan the Man....

     Don't know if this is consistent nation-wide, but the several Toys
'R Us stores in this area are just *not* getting in any new figures. 
Oh, there was an initial flurry of new Spawn Ultra III cases, and a 
smattering of Star Wars POTF figures, but that's been it for weeks now.
Target and KayBee are getting tons of new stuff (particularly from 
ToyBiz and Kenner/Batman, though few Spawn/POTFs, tis' true), but the 
TRU seems to think they'll starve figure buyers into an eventual frenzy 
of passion buying -- or something.
     And speaking of Star Wars, when I said "smattering" of new figs, I 
did mean a "smattering" -- given that we here are about the length of an 
Imperial Cruiser from George Lucas' ranch and home, and that there is a 
*serious* overabundance of Star Wars fans and collectors in the area, it 
boggles the mind that Kenner (and or TRU) thinks two or three boxes with,
like, sixteen figures is enough to slake our collective thirst.  Not so!
Now, I could understand someone making a cursory pass through the action
figure aisles seeing dozens of Chewbaccas and R2D2s (and even the occasional
Han Solo) thinking, hmmm, these figures just *aren't* selling, but such a
person would have to be so oblivious as to be a prime marketing department
candidate for Kenner.
     I talk frequently to the managers and clerks in the TRU aisles, and
they are uniformly complaining about poor sales -- which certainly aren't
going to be helped by absent product! 
     Something's not right with this picture....  So, with this in mind, 
I hereby propose the following amended chain titles for the hapless TRU 
	"Toys 'R Not Us"
	"Toys Might Someday Be Us Again"
	"New Toys 'R Not Us, But Could We Interest You In A Set Of Kyluns?"
	And lastly,
	"Going Out Of Business 'R Us...."

     Meanwhile, at two different Target stores within the past four days,
I've found multiple cases of the new Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Spider-Man
and Ghost Rider figures.  With the single exception of Medusa (and a sharp
rap on the head to ToyBiz for shorting this ostensibly stunning figure),
every figure from every set could be had on the peg.  (And some exceedingly
fine figures they are, including some of the Ghost Rider figs -- what a 
pleasant surprise!).  And my trip to one of these stores was early evening 
on Saturday -- usually among the worst time to find figures, since 
everybody and their brother has been in picking over the racks since nine 
a.m.  Target gets a gold star, with only one point missing for a complete 
absence of new Spawn figures.  (Hey, you can't have everything....)

     Even KayBee has more new stuff than TRU -- and I think of KayBee as 
the *last* place I'll find new things fast.  Guess I'll have to revise my 
opinion.  While the new FF/IM/GR stuff wasn't in, they did have all of the 
Age of Apocalypse figures -- at least their second shipment, maybe third.
And these things have *yet* to appear at TRU.  (Then again, in a satisfying
time-twist, the KayBee also had some r-e-a-l-l-y old figures on the rack, 
1993 card-date X-Men like Cyclops, Archangel, Colossus, Juggernaut, etc.).

     Frustration.  And Batman.  Acres and acres of unwanted Batman figures.
Endless Batman variations.  Maybe kids somewhere love this near-infinite 
series, but not here.  And the same old long-in-the-tooth-pack Wetworks and 
Youngblood figures that have been there since December.  Oooh, and oodles 
of Tarzan figures that may not move before the millennium (which KayBee 
somehow had the surprising foresight to avoid).  And oh yeah, "they've got 
a lovely bunch of Power Rangers, see them all a-standing in their rows, fat 
ones, skinny ones, some as big as yer head...."  Also not moving.  Could it 
be that after a person makes the grade as a primo marketing strategist at 
Playmates, they get promoted to head of buying and toy placement at TRU?
That might explain a few things....
     Although I did see something rather interesting there earlier today.
Got there around noon, and was surprised to find the main action figure 
aisle (as opposed to the two "half" aisles on either side, filled with the 
*really* old and non-selling dust holders) empty-of-customers!  Now, this 
is school lunch time, and the AF area is usually chock full of young fans 
and collectors oohing and ahhhing at the figures, but today it was empty.
As I got closer, I wondered why...
     ...until I got to the center of the aisle... and heard a voice... and 
understood.  Propped against one edge of the aisle was a box containing the
large Talking Spider-Man -- and boy, was it talking!  The switch had 
apparently broken, and ol' Spidey was caught in a screech loop squawking out
things like "My Spider-Sense is going berserk!" and "Here's your favorite
wall-crawler...yikes!" on and on and on and on....  I'm home now, hours 
later, and I bet that figure is talking still.  And will continue to howl 
on until the batteries die.
     But it certainly was keeping everyone out of the aisle.  Something 
about the combination of static in the voice box and the incredibly lame
and annoying quotes, four of them repeating in a sonic barrage that would
have made the Banshee proud.  At first I thought it just a random thing, 
but as I saw grin after grin on the face of each TRU employee, I began to 
think that there was method in this incitement-to-madness.
     Maybe that's what's keeping the toys away, too....
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

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