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John's Action Figure Column 4/11/96

The Magazine Rag I
     Conventional wisdom holds that a picture is worth a thousand
words.  Though moving into its adolescence, the World Wide Web is
anything but conventional (especially if you're accessing it on
your first computer -- though it's easy to get jaded fast, the
Web is an extraordinary meta-entity).  As far as toys go, we
action figure fans have been treated with some regularity to
advance promotional photos of upcoming figures on various
commercial web sites (Tomart's Action Figure Digest, Spawn, most
notably).  Don't get me wrong; I think these pictures are great,
and create a powerful enthusiastic buzz (if you'll pardon the
pun) for new product.
     However, I just got a hold of the newest issues of Tomart's
AFD and Lee's Action Figure News & Toy Review, and I have to say
that the pictures therein, printed with care on high-quality
glossy paper stock, blow the previous digitized images out of
the, uh, ether.  In terms of shot, angle, pose, etc., most of the
images are identical to their earlier web counterparts; it's the
*quality*, the sheer visibility and clarity, that has undergone
an electronic sea change.
     Early on in Neil Simon's play "The Odd Couple," Murray 
the Cop is criticized for dealing out a poker hand too slowly.
He retorts, "Whaddaya want, speed or accuracy?"  This
indeed is the crux of the difference between snagging up-to-the-
nanosecond web photos and waiting the extra weeks or even months
for high-res hardcopies to inch their way across the country at
the proverbial snailmail's pace.  For the web images are
available with effective instantaneity, once word of their
uploading trickles down to the legions of browser-ready fans;
although I suppose some folks check the sites regularly, I
haven't the time or the inclination and am content to wait and
heed another Columbus' cry of Eureka! (and I bet you didn't know
ol' Chris was a scholar of Ancient Greek).  Tomart's and AFNTR,
or even catalogues from Playmates or the Spawnshop, must still
rely on the patient -- if comparatively plodding -- efforts of
those couriers, the swift completion of whose appointed rounds
shall be stayed by neither (a) rain, (b) snow, (c) sleet, (d)
gloom of night, nor (e) disgruntled ex-co-workers with too much
military training for anyone's good.
     (By the way, noting that I am a conditioned product of my
youthful environment, every time I type the word "Playmates" I
get the image of a bunch of retired Hefner Bunnies cranking out
toys as a way to boost their sagging, uh, careers.  Am I the only
one?  "Time for your estrogen, Mr. G....")

     What all this preamble is heading towards is the following
observation:  for weeks I've pored over all the hot new web scans
I could find of 1996's upcoming action figures, and made
considered evaluations based upon same.  Now, having finally
obtained the April issues of the hobby's premier tout mags
(eliding for the moment over what that portends for the state of
the hobby), in the words of the sage Johnny Nash (and Curly, once
Moe's fingers were removed from his eyes), "I can see clearly
now."  Which is to say, however regretfully, some of my heartfelt
opinions based on those early digitizations have changed
     It's kind of the inverse of the feeling that Wordsworth
memorialized in the intro to his "Ode:  Intimations of
Immortality" (hey, it's virtual space -- if you don't like the
expansion/digression, move right on ahead to that next posting; I
believe it's a beautifully worded and much-reflected-upon ad for
"Priapus-Headed Spawn figure, a steal at $35..."):

     There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream
     The Earth and every common sight,
          to me did seem
          Apparelled in celestial light,
     The glory and freshness of a dream.
     It is not now as it hath been of yore--
          Turn whereso'er I may,
          By night or day,
     The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Uh, yeah.  What he said.  Or, rather, the opposite:  the web
photos generally look murky, or (at least on my 15" monitor) are
quite small, offering little in the way of detail.  Yeah, you can
tweak them with various photo display programs, but at heart they
remain possessed of minimal detail, shadowy and dim.  Whereas the
magazine photos, situated though they are amongst ridiculous
price-inflation rhetoric, convey a comparative wealth of visual
richness, bright, clear and stunning.
     Which, *finally*, brings us to the meat of this discussion,
to wit, updated, and revised ruminations upon the selfsame 1996
prospects in the dizzying world of the action figure.  Ahhhh.
     Oho!  One further caveat:  as both magazines point out,
their April issues reflect only half of the plethora of plastic
product purveyed so pleasingly at the New York Toy Fair; this
being the case (or half-case), in the words of every station
break card ever aired by Johnny Carson's late, lamented Tonight
Show, "more to come."

     Ohhh, I'm such a tease -- here I am, about to launch into my
reconsideration of the 1996 Spawn offerings, when something on
the page three splash photo in the Tomart's catches my eye and
just won't let go.
     I'm speaking, of course, of nothing other than the larger-
than-life-sized Bananas In Pajamas!  Now why weren't *these*
gallant fellows displayed on a web page months ago?!?  My word,
let's remember, "they're coming down the stairs, they'll catch
you unawares, grrrmumble mumble mummmmm...." (kinda makes the
Wordsworth stuff sound like crap, huh).  As if these things
weren't scary enough in the 15" scale....  Given this twinned
apparition (not to mention the giant living Smurf on the left
hand side of the selfsame page -- "the horror, the horror...") it
was several long minutes before I could contain my terror
sufficiently so as to render me capable of turning the page.
     (And in doing so I first came upon the Puzzle Zoo ad
containing the first images I'd yet seen of the Independence Day
aliens, which appear to be little more than revved-up tweaks of
the original H.R. ("Make my nightmare") Giger alien from "Alien,"
but we'll get back to these in any event).
     Okay, Tomart's, page 6.  If you think promo shots are
boring, is there anything *more* boring than some fool's
*comments* thereupon?  Probably not.  Hey, if you want
excitement, try waiting in the aisle for new figures in San
Francisco on truck day.  We're fighting insomnia here, and these
people are in *pain*....

     The Spawn gallery.  Ahhhh, finally.  Taking it from the top
(or left, as the case may be): the July 1996 line.  Not only are
these photos great, but Todd and the Gang have snuck in a figure
or two we've never seen or even heard of before (not to mention
the first actual prototype shots of the "Total Chaos" line, which
had heretofore appeared only in sketch form)!
     For my money, the big revelations here concern Tremor II and
Vandalizer.  Maybe it was their color schemes, or even the
backgrounds, but these two figures were represented with stand-
out muddiness in the web photos.  Now revealed with greater
clarity, Tremor looks even better than I'd thought before!  Yeah,
the portable air conditioner on his back is still silly as all
get-out (all of you, get out, right now!), but the detail in the
hands and claws is terrific!  I'd hire this guy to lurk under my
bridge *any* day.
     As for Vandalizer, well, I have to applaud this figure --
for so well-illustrating the proposition that the more you see
ain't always the more you like.  I didn't much care for the
black-on-black side-shot of this puppy in the Spawn web shots;
now, in his full-frontal crudity, I'd have to say he looks even
worse.  Don't get me wrong:  the detail is quite good.  It's just
the overall scheme of the figure that I find uninteresting.  I
guess if he were an Orc or something I'd be more interested, but
I think Todd created a "type" of nightmare creature with the
Violator and the Vertebreaker that was really extraordinary --
unique and atypical -- and this fella just takes a giant,
shambling step back from that.  Nice armor, great face, but other
than the obligatory back-spike, this fella just doesn't look like
something from the Hell Todd Made.  (Maybe I have it wrong in the
premise -- is the Vandalizer not one of the Phlebaic Brothers? 
Yeah, I know, technically Vertebreaker is like a second-cousin or
something, but consanguinity is consanguinity, however tenuous,
no?).  Anyway, Mr. Vandy-pants just doesn't thrill me.  Which may
turn out to be a good thing, if he's the shortpack of the lot.
     Interestingly, AFNTR had slightly different shots of these
figures, and their photo of Vandy-Man is somewhere in-between the
profile shot from the Spawn page and the full-on shot from
Tomart's.  Unfortunately, this third viewpoint doesn't enhance
the figure's appeal, at least not as far as I can see.  The
elongation of the snout, which was dimly visible in the web
photo, appears clearly here, though that clarity does little to
heighten its appeal.

     Generally, I'd have to agree with the rtm consensus that
Tomart's is classier than AFNTR; though AFNTR did have some
angles in the figure photos that Tomart's passed up in favor of
straight-on shots, they had far fewer photos in all (gotta make
room for that ridiculously out-of-touch and egregiously
inflationary 27-page manifesto of swollen, dealer-aggrandizing
figure costs, er, I mean dispassionate, reasonable and
intelligent price guide) and their written coverage was...hmmm,
anybody *find* any written coverage in AFNTR?  I mean, there's a
paean to scalpers that goes by the misleading title of "Toy Fair
'96," but that's about it.  Oh well....

     Back to the photos.  The other four figures from this series
looked somewhat better that the first two on the Tomart's page,
but not especially different that the earlier phosphor-dot
depictions.  But oh!  We have just received word of a non-
cosmetic update:  according to Chet Jacques of McFarlane Toys
(you know, the guy who gets the dubious pleasure of reporting on
McF toys to us, but who never gets any real input on anything --
I believe he once said they keep him chained in a cellar and he
never gets any of the good pizza slices with the gobs of stuff on
'em -- though they do let him out to do the occasional trade
show) for various reasons the "Wildstorm" figure is now going to
be called "Widow-Maker" (though in that outfit she oughtta be
called the "Merry Widow-Maker"); the Tiffany figure from the Fall
assortment is going to be called "Thresher," Dozer II is now
"Mendoza," Grail II is now called "Assassin 1," and Dane II is
"Driver 8."  And from now on Chet is going to be "Todd 22/7" and
Todd is going to be "Louis the XIV"; "Spawn" will be renamed to
"Eckie, Eckie, Eckie A-Wing Kaow Paing, The Creepy Ghoul With No
Skin" and my wife is now to be referred to exclusively as
"Amoretta, Empress of Passion."  Pay attention here, things
change pretty fast....
     And moving therefore right along...

     ...the Fall line.  Again, several of these look pretty much
like their digital forbears.  The exceptions are the Superpatriot
(please, somebody, get this guy a hyphen!) and the Alien Spawn,
both of which look better for the move to paper.  I like the
Patriot's gear, and I have to say (again) that this mechanized
(or is it armored?) flag-waver is my pick of the litter.  And dig
those groovy specs, Maynard!
     Though the clarity which print brings to the Alien Spawn
makes this beast a close second.  Okay, so the limbs look like a
direct slice from the Cy-Gor mold -- I *love* the Cy-Gor!  So
"Alien" is the Exo-Boned Monkey From Planet Zero -- it works for

     The real surprise here is "Chameleon Spawn," a figure of
which I'd not heard, uh, hide or hair (of which he appears to
bear neither) before opening this issue.  Quite stunning --
tortured, distended limbs caked in what looks like burnt adobe
clay, a pulpy peach-colored almost-face which appears to ooze
downwards from a hole in the chest (leading me to guess that this
baby will be nicknamed "Booger Spawn"), weird glowing green
translucent back spike attachments -- wow.
     Which is not to say I particularly like this figure -- I
don't.  But you can't complain about a lack of detail, no sirree. 
And I like the fact that McToys held this promo back for a bit.
     I was initially nonplussed to count *seven* figures on this
page -- were we to wait for one to drop out of production, or was
the shortpack coming back for a return engagement as collector-
haunting marketing strategy?  I'd chalked it up to "only Todd
knows..." until Chet Jacques' recent announcement on rtm that
Booger Spawn was going to be a "premium" figure, priced a buck or
two more than the other McF toys a la Future Spawn (which I
thought he'd earlier said was something they weren't going to do
again, based on the fact that the Future Spawns were flying off
the racks so fast they were leaving burn marks every *except* a
basement Woolworth's in New York, that latter location being the
single place McFarlane conducts their market tests -- but what do
*I* know?).
     Well, so be it.  And from Mr. Jacques' comments on the
"Collector's Club" special figure ("Necroplasmic Spawn" with
glowing green plastic) I assume that the frozen-sneeze backpack
on this guy is more of the same Yecchh-toplasm.  Bet the kids
just eat it up, uh, love it....  Ahem.

     Turn the page god, total chaos!  (Oh, not the
magazine -- one of my cats just decided to sneak up on another of
the brood, and was successful enough in its silent dispatch to
cause the target animal to scream and posture sufficiently to
rouse the third feline, sleeping next to the figure shelf, with
the result that she screeched, panicked and leapt for the high
ground, clearing every figure off the two display shelves in the
process.  Hang on a second, I've got some cleaning up to do....)
     ...there, that's better.  Okay, *now* let's look at Total
Chaos from the McFarlane shop.  By now I guess everyone knows
that these figures are notable for preceding the marketing tools
that generally make figures sell -- that is, comics and/or
animated television cartoons.  Well, and perhaps they're notable
as well for their unconventionality...or not.  (And frankly, I'd
feel better about the whole thing if Tomart's didn't go to the
trouble of noting that these things are "designed only to make
good toys and collector items."  But then, if the asymmetric exo-
armored-boot fits....)

     Basically, I see it as a split of three and three, or maybe
three, two and one -- three of the figures are fairly standard,
two are rather outre (sorry, can't put the accent in on the basic
ASCII set), and one is perilously close to trademark
     Thresher (nee Widow Maker) is your basic McFarlane "Zoftig
Femme Fatale with Attitude" whose distinguishing feature is she
appears to have had a *very* bad experience at her local Red
Lobster restaurant.  And kept the trophies to prove it.  Uh,
okay, but what exactly is the point?  Maybe it's a satire on the
folks who crusade against cruelty-to-crustaceans.  "That broiled
lobster died for *your* sins, pal...."
     Then you've got Dragon Blade, and a more basic Knight figure
I couldn't imagine.  Not that that's bad, and it is gratifying to
see McF & Co. giving their standard treatment to characters other
than monsters and buxom females.  (Heh heh, the best thing about
Dragon Blade is his utter customizability into any of a dozen
classic Fantasy heroes, from Elric and Corwin to Holger Danois
and Sir Gawain).
     The third somewhat-conventional figure is "Al Simmons" (and
a more fearsome and evocative eponym I've never encountered --
sends shivers down my spine just thinking of it...).  Now, just
because he's got two arms and two legs doesn't mean I don't fancy
him.  Quite the opposite:  I've got a fondness for high-tech
armor (remember, I'm the guy that bought *every* Iron Man
variation -- sob, while they still made them....) and ol' Al
certainly fills the bill.  This looks to be a pretty cool member
of the club; that helmet in particular is very appealing (though
it reminds me of the Time Travel suit from "Buried in Time"). 
"Hey, Al -- you got some snot dripping from your arm-gun."  That
Al -- helluva soldier, not much for cleanliness.

     Then we get to Gore and Thorax.  Talk about twisted!  Cross
Notre Dame's Quasimodo with Captain Hook (and perhaps a dose of
mania worthy of Melville's Ahab) and you've got Gore.  The
pretty, multicolored cyber-parrot on his, uh, flesh-heap
protuberance is a particularly macabre touch, but what the hell. 
Not my cup of tea (Gore, not the parrot, who makes the set almost
desirable) but the monster fans might like him.
     As for Thorax, uh, this one is truly indescribable (but what
the heck).  "Thorax" is defined as "the part of the body between
the neck and the diaphragm"; I find this a curious sobriquet for
the figure, since it ostensibly *has* no such body part.  That
Todd, such an ironist.  Anyway, Thorax appears to have cyber-
feet, vaguely saurian carriage (imagine the progeny of Future
Spawn and a raptor), who gets his scale color from his uncle the
Incredible Hulk (on his mother's side).  Certainly different. 
Not sure I'd have opted for the lurid green, but you gotta love
that mechanical mouth....

     The last figure is pretty interesting.  I'm starting to get
the feeling Todd McFarlane is reading rtm, since he's obviously
concocted his own version of the debatably ultra-collectible
Rhino from ToyBiz.  It's "Sergeant Rhino from the 1st Armored
Division of the Jungle Corps," and a meaner, tougher, um, hornier
blackguard you've never seen.  The detail on this figure is quite
appealing, though I'm tempted to deduct points for lack of
originality.  Then again, it's pretty cool looking...if Thorax
weren't so much bigger, and if Todd-through-Chet hadn't indicated
a leaning away from shortpacks, I'd have put my money on ol' Hoof
being the hardest to get.
     Ah well, given that there's no release date indicated for
these figures, we may be waiting quite a while for them, during
which time they may well undergo further McMutation.  Xmas 1997
perhaps?  Stay tuned, loyal Chaosians....

     Wow, where does the time go?  Lessee, I think I'll take on
Total Justice, a nice counterpoint to Total Chaos, and call it a
day.  Guess we'll visit ToyBiz and Playmates next week.
     Okay, Total Justice.  (Help me here:  what would Partial
Justice be like?  Justice with just a smidgen of corruption?  The
O.J. Trial?  What?).  Well, I'm pretty conflicted about these
figures.  On the one hand, they have a pretty decent level of
detailing, especially for Kenner.  On the other hand, they look
to have *no* articulation.  On the third (and therefore bionic)
hand, they did pick some interesting characters to initiate the
line.  On the fourth (removable hook) hand, they went with
current (read:  lame, lame, lame) variations thereof, at least in
some cases.  But let's get down to "Fractal Tech" tacks....
     Batman:  best of the bunch shown, especially in his full-
blown "Fractal Techgear" snap-on armor (though somehow I don't
think "techgear" is going to make it into the lexicon, at least
not this year) with infrared visor (I hope it's infrared,
otherwise we're in the Territory of the Incredibly Stupid, not
visited since Luke Skywalker donned a "blast shield" to battle
blind against a test droid in Star Wars; "sorry I crashed the
spaceship, Han; I saw an asteroid coming and donned my blast
shield just like it says in the Manual....").

     Next best is a tie between Flash (yay!) and Robin.  Maybe
it's a function of there just being so damned *many* Batman
clones, but some of the best figures coming out of Kenner lately
are Robin figures.  Who'd of thunk it?!  This Robin's chest
harness looks just about perfect -- one of those rare instances
where something that would look great in a comic book *also*
looks great on a 3D figure.  Okay, so I could do without the
spear and shield -- or is it an Olympic-tie-in discus launcher? 
Snore.  And I'm not sure the "TJ" logo adds anything -- makes him
look like "Bargain Boy" from TJ Maxx....
     "98...99...100!  He did it, class!  The Flash just spun 100
times on his finger in one second!"  (My favorite unbearably
stupid moment from all comics, all-time; a scene from Flash #100
where a grade school class witnesses the aforesaid event,
COUNTING TO 100 IN A SINGLE SECOND!  Ever try it?  I've always
thought it was the kids who deserved a medal here....)  And
perhaps this best sums up the oeuvre of our friend the Flash. 
Incredibly neat power, but for all the decent stories, many were
pretty lame -- if you'll forgive the expression.  Though I have
to say I had a weakness for the perennial "Flash vs. Superman"
contest for the title of "Fastest Man Alive."  But I digress....
     The Flash figure looks great.  But part of that may derive
from the fact that there just plain *is* a new Flash figure. 
(And I don't care who DC says it is; he's Barry Allen to me).  I
mean, I have to say I like this figure in *spite* of its
appearance.  Like, those silly yellow shoulder wings/rockets/
what-have-you are, well, silly.  But then in the smaller photo
beside the main one where the scarlet speedster appears *without*
them, the pose looks utterly ridiculous (it's "oooh, I'm running
on hot coals and my protective aura is on the fritz Flash"). 
Which makes me think that for all their inanity, those yellow
water wings give the figure a sweep of design that is, perhaps
regrettably, aesthetically pleasing.  Nice that they gave him a
sheath for his relay race batons....  And whose idea were the
grunge-chic stomp boots?  It's Mosh Pit Flash, with fractal tech
     Anyway, despite all this, I like it.  What can I say?  Eye
of the beholder and all that....

     Which leaves us with Darkseid and two other figures which
the captions insist are Green Lantern and Aquaman.  I beg to
differ, but I'm an old-timer, a purist -- perhaps there's no room
for me in this lightspeed digital world.  I mean, the Darkseid's
okay (kinda petite for the beyond-horror Ruler of Apocalypse, but
we don't want to frighten the kiddies I guess; and there've been
numerous complaints about his face but I just can't tell from the
photos one way or another) but please, that's just *not* Green
Lantern!  The *real* Green Lantern had perhaps the single best
costume of any DC hero -- simple, elegant, bold, imposing.  It's
just not the same.  I mean, even the *mask* on the new fella is
idiotic!  And what's with the straight-from-Charles-Dickens
fingerless gloves?  Makes him look like super-powered Fagin!
     And I'm too sorry, but what's the so-called "Aquaman" doing
with the She-Dragon's wig?  Not to mention the "Jesus of the
Seven Seas" beard/moustache combo?  And if you're gonna give a
guy a hook, why on, er, under Earth give him one that's about as
frightening as a bent paper-clip?!?  "Oooh, don't spindle me,
Aquaman, though I could use some help cutting the packing tape
along the side of this trade box...."  P.S., Hey Artist-Ravaged
Aquaman: Flash Gordon wants his Destructo-Cannon back....
     Like the Good Book (contradiction in terms but I won't
belabor the point) says, "How are the mighty fallen...."

     All in all, the lack of poseability (well, I suppose the
shoulders move, and possibly the nostrils) makes these otherwise
imposing figures a disappointment.  Maybe my opinion will change
upon actually seeing them in the plastic.  If not, they may be
Totally Stunning at first, but will ultimately become a Total
     And hey -- it's time for me to go before someone gets the
idea of characterizing me that way....  Stay tuned for further
dissection next week, same Bat-group, same Bat-thread....  ("Da
na na na na na na nah, da na na na na na na nah, Logorrhea

[Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten (except for the bit from Wordsworth, which I obviously didn't write, although, heh heh, I certainly *wish* I had...and maybe one or two other little cribbed quotes). All rights reserved (except for those in the aforementioned poem-and-other-bits, which rights are, I believe, yours to use as you see fit. Scribble 'em on your newspaper, tattoo them on your posterior, heck, spray paint them on a subway wall -- and wouldn't the world be a much better place therefor....).]

Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

Comments? Drop me a line....
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