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John's Action Figure Column 4/25/96


     When I was a little kid, I mean *really* little, probably no
more than three or four, my dad started playing "Superman" with
me.  He'd lie down on the floor and suspend me on his knees,
holding my arms out to the sides, and I *was* Superman!  He'd do
the sound effects, and make me swoop and soar, and run a
narration that included floods, meteors, volcanoes (all always
menacing Lois Lane, which role was played with bemused
disinterest by Mom), and even the occasional super-villain.  Mr.
Mxyzptlk seemed to be Dad's favorite; that 5th dimensional imp
would conjure up one arcane bedroom menace after another --
swarming pillow beasts, mad raging bolsters, even the Myriad
Mystery Novels of Doom (mom was keen on the darned things; they
were in piles everywhere).
     I never thought about it this way at the time, but you know,
in retrospect, he kinda made *me* into an action figure.
     And I loved every second of it.
     We wore Mom down eventually, and she even got into it,
tossing hot Kryptonite chunks (i.e., balled-up clean socks fresh
from the dryer) at me and the like.  Of course, Superman had no
greater nemesis than Mom when she was adamant about having his
adventures end for dinner, or bedtime.
     Though Dad was a Superman fan from his own youth (he's one
of the hordes of 40s-era lads who owned Action Comics No. 1, only
to have it tossed out as valueless by his mom when he left for
college in 1952), I think my own mania for the character stemmed
from a fantastic present I got when I turned four.  I remember it
as one of the best presents I ever got in my whole childhood:  a
Superman comic book.

     Huh?!?  I hear your jaw drop open in wonder, dear reader. 
Was this kid so deprived that a mere comic book lit up his entire
youth?  Well, not quite.  Because I'm holding something back. 
You see, the comic wasn't the only thing in the present, or even
the main thing.  The real present was the Superman *record*
album, containing the sounds and story of the entire adventure
from that comic book in wonderful, stentorian, 33 & 1/3 rpm
     I must have listened to that album five hundred times.  By
the time I finished with it, years later, the thing had no
grooves left.  I think it ended its life in an oven at a cub
scouts meeting, transformed into a tricorn hat for a Thanksgiving
display (don't get me started....).  (And the only other record I
had that suffered equivalent overplay was "Snoopy and The Red
Baron," only the agent of destruction in that case was mom, who
decided upon the 114th sequential play of the song one Saturday
afternoon that it had to be relocated to my cousin's house for
safekeeping -- but that's definitely another story).
     Anyway, in addition to setting me far down the path of being
a comic book addict, it made me a Superman zealot without
parallel.  I drew pictures of Superman.  I strutted around at
four and a-half, walking Superman.  I tied a red towel around my
neck and ran around the backyard for hours, feeling it stream out
behind me in the wind of my passage.  I *was* Superman.

     And the following Halloween, prayers I hadn't even realized
I'd been making came true when I opened a costume box and found
inside a glorious, gorgeous costume of -- you guessed it --
Superman.  Sigh.  Even today, thirty-odd years later, I can see
in my mind's eye the brilliant yellow of the "S" logo against the
silken blue of the chest, arms and legs, and the deep, rich red
of the trunks and leg-bottoms (colored so to look as if they were
boots, of course).  Sitting here now, I recall begging mom to let
me sleep in the darned thing, and I can't wipe a grin off my
     We have a photo of me in the costume, posed beside an
enormous carved pumpkin, and I've got the very same grin --
albeit on a much younger version of the face.
     For reasons I never understood, the costume came with a red
domino mask -- like Superman needed a mask.  (Well, actually, a
mask would have gone a long way to explain how in fifty-plus
years no one made the connection between him and Clark -- my, the
wonders of a little mussed hair.... but at four I couldn't have
cared less.)  The "official" Superman costume box had the mask in
it, so I wore the mask.  And long after Halloween was a fading
memory of dark excitement and sugar-sour stomach, I wore that
costume in ongoing Superman play sessions with Dad.
     When I got a little older, and came down with the reading
bug, I started craving externalized adventures of Krypton's
favorite son.
     Every night of the work week, Dad would come home from the
office and go through the same routine -- doffing his hat (yep,
men still wore hats in those days, and I don't mean a backward
baseball cap), hanging up his coat, and asking "What's for
dinner?" in a great, booming, jovial voice.

     But Friday nights were different.  On Friday nights, the
routine was expanded to include a little paper bag.  And he would
always act surprised, like, "Why, how did this bag get in my
hand?"  And he'd peek inside, and frown, and say, "Well, *I*
don't want a SUPERMAN comic book!  It must be for YOU!"  And he'd
pull it out of the bag and hand it over, and I'd run into the
living room and throw myself down on the bristly carpet, nearly
giving myself rug burns in my haste to set up and plow through
Superman's latest adventures.
     Of course, it wasn't always a comic book.  Some Fridays the
bag would contain baseball cards, or little puzzles, or toys, or
superhero cards (I remember vividly marveling over the then-new
Batman tv series cards), or fizzies, or a trick glass, a flip-
over top, you name it.  But there was always something, and
frequently it was another wonderful four-color installment in the
life and times of the Metropolis man-hero.  Nostalgia may not be
what it used to be, but man, those were the days.
     Back then, I didn't pay much attention to who wrote or drew
the Superman comics, or any comics for that matter.  ("You mean
someone actually *draws* these?  I always figured they were like
newspapers, only delayed a bit....")  Of course, this was the era
of Wayne Boring, and the Marvel (read: Kirby/Ditko) explosion had
yet to transform the visual language of comics.  But I loved the
stories, every one of 'em.  It didn't matter how bizarrely Mort
Weisenger's editorial slant skewed things; I ate it all up.

     I think my favorite "weird" element of the Superman stories
of that time was the ongoing expansion of his powers to fit the
twists of any given story.  If you've read any of the Superman or
Action comics of that era, you know what I'm talking about. 
"Super-Memory!"  "Super-Breath!"  "Super-Smell!"  "Super-
Concentration!"  "Super-Balance!"  Super-pretty-much-anything-
the-plot-requires.  Ahh, but it didn't matter.  He was
*Superman*, and he was, well, Super.
     And hey, it wasn't like he always had it easy.  I mean, he
*did* lose his entire family of origin, not to mention the whole
dang *planet* he came from.  So, if it seemed at times that the
worst thing ol' Supes had to contend with was Lois Lane sneaking
around trying to pop his secret identity, well, what the heck.

     As I read more of the comics, I began to realize that they
were *not* all created equal.  In fact, there was something every
so often that made the regular comics seem like a pale second: 
The 80-Page Giant.
     Ahhhh, even now, that phrase makes me quiver and go soft in
the knees.  "An 80-Page Giant."  Like a quarter-inch thick, a
mega-comic chock full of stories from Superman's past!  Sometimes
thematically linked, sometimes not.  But talk about getting your
money's worth!  These babies had four or five full-length
stories, and occasional shorts as well.  The mother lode....
     Sure, in a few years, I'd cast Superman off like an old
sneaker in favor of the very different but astonishing and
strange new stuff coming out of a company called "Marvel," but my
start in the world of comics was Kal-El-centric, and I loved
every second of it.  (And always wondered if he had a Jewish
cousin named Bag-El....)

     So, the pleasantness of this little detour down memory lane
notwithstanding, how does this column relate to action figures? 
Ah, I'm glad you asked.  Because this very afternoon, you see, I
got lucky and scored a complete set of the new Kenner Superman
Man of Steel action figures.
     Actually, I'd found the new Superman variations a few days
ago (at a TRU, of all places!).  But Lex Luthor, the single
villain of the piece, eluded me.  Now, judging by the first
series, finding *any* and all of the figures should not have been
a problem.  But just because all five of the singleton figures
from series I have been peg-hangers for months was no guarantee
that series II would be the same.  In fact, I was worried that
Kenner might actually have *learned* something awful from the
persistence of the first series and juggled the assortment to
create chase figures to make the line more interesting (not that
*I* would find it more interesting for shortpacking, but we're
talking about a toy company here).
     I don't know the packing ratio for Conduit in the first
Superman series (and even he was a little hard to find... at
first), but Lex Luthor would certainly seem to be one per case
right now.  Which is to say I'd stumbled across multiple variant
Superman figures at several TRUs and Targets, but never set eyes
upon Superman's arch-nemesis.
     Until today.
     I hit Target just after they opened; nada.  And I don't just
mean Superman stuff.  They had *nothing* new at all.  Well,
Dragonheart, but that doesn't count.  And aside from that
medieval-mystery-in-plastic, I could have stumbled through a time
warp and been staring at a toy section from January.  In mild
disgust, I got back in my car and headed south.
     It was too early to hit the Kaybee, so I passed and went
straight on to TRU.  And, upon reaching the action figure aisle,
I was excited to see an end cap filled half with Superman figures
and half with Batman Returns figures.  Ignoring the dark knight
side of things, I set my gaze upon the Superman racks.  Yep,
there was the delightful yellow sunburst Kenner so conveniently
provided so that we could see at a glance whether we were dealing
with series I or series II figures.

     As I looked through the pegged figures, I started to get
disappointed.  There didn't seem to be a Lex anywhere.  But you
know how this story ends, so I'll skip to it:  way at the back of
a top row peg, I saw the green plastic of a "Squirting Hornet
Attack Jetpack" (boy, does Kenner get a lot of use outta one
attachment or what?).  Hooray!  Nearly falling over the entire
display from my tip-toed extended position (I'm a pretty short
guy, definitely so relative to the ostensible preponderance of
behemoths on this newsgroup -- yes, I paid particular attention
to that detail in those bio posts from the beginning of the year
<g>), I managed to get my hands on Lex's card and pull him down.
     And, oh!, what a figure!  Easily the best of the line.  (And
I don't have to say "so far," since, alas, my understanding is
that it, too, along with Iron Man and several other lines, is
being canceled).
     In fact, I've waited to de-card him until this very moment. 
Hey, this might be an rtm first -- a LIVE (well, for me anyway)
de-carding of a new figure.  Hang on, let me get that handy old
pen knife...
     ...oh, man!  He's even better out of the bubble!  Totally
bald, great evil sneer, excellent detail in the eyebrows and
face, *great* outfit (black t-shirt, brown vest over green khakis
and army boots, a black watch on his right arm, a black glove on
his left hand).  Even Kenner's patented "Superman series II
Stretch the Leg Back So He Can Stand" pose can't ruin this
figure.  Let me just stretch that right foot back....voila!  The
well-balanced Lex Luthor, eager to dominate any display shelf at
hand.  Okay, so he's a bit more svelte than the Luthor I remember
-- he still looks nasty, filled-to-the-brim with malice.
     And let's see, how to get this "wasp" backpack over his
shoulders....oh, I see, it opens at the waist.  Excellent.  And
just let me get the "mask" portion up and on....uh, oh.  Hmmm. 
Okay, so the mask makes him look like a Bug Rogers wannabe.  (I
guess that should be "wannabee").  That's okay, the figure alone
is perfect.  "And YOU are there, fellow rtm-ers....
     I have to say, the versatility of the back unit on this
figure (and the similar one on Solar Suit Superman as well) is
great.  I generally *hate* "squirting" action features, but the
rubbery plastic of the "wasp body" actually looks good.  It's a
Giant Insect!  It's a backpack with wings!  It's a set of hand
weapons!  Bravo, Kenner.  Sometimes a lack of articulation (four
points, not counting the neck which, while "separate," can only
move about two microns in either direction) really works -- at
least Lex's elbows and knees look human.
     Really, the only big minus to this figure is that with the
legs posed so he can stand, he's leaning very far forward.  But
even that adds a little menace to him -- I'll take it!  (Well, I
     All in all, a wonderful addition to an underrated line.
     Yes, you read that right:  underrated.  I think the Superman
Man of Steel line is actually quite fine.  Particularly the
second series "Goofy Variations" figures -- and I have a reason. 
You see, I really loathed what DC did with Superman in the last
year or so.  And consequently, I'm not overfond of the long hair,
or the "splinter" Supermen.  And even if these latter, newest
three are found in the (bad) comics as well, they haven't
received the publicity some of the others did, and so they are
effectively new to me.

     Ultra-Shield Superman?  A great figure!  Look at it this way
-- it's Superman, WITH ARMOR!  I *love* armor!  (Well, high-tech
armor at least; Medieval Joust Batman, get back in line....)  The
helmet's a little too thick, but the blue tint is great.  Kinda
like "Superman meets Xanatos," but it works for me.  A winner!
     Solar Suit Superman?  Another great figure!  Okay, so this
one is the longest-peg-lasting of the new set, judging by the
racks at several stores -- I still like it, lame pose and silly
breathing mask and all.  And the backpack is pretty cool, with
its detachable and moveable wings (okay, never mind why Superman
would need wings -- you might as well as why Street Thug Superman
needs a chain weapon).
     Okay, why *does* "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka Superman" need a
chain weapon?  This one I can't answer, folks.  (And the
"castrate me and my arm swings around" action feature bites as
well).  But look at that trenchcoat.  Look at that *haircut*! 
How can you not fall for this figure?  Yeah, the shield thingy is
lame, too, but he's "Just Sold My First Screenplay And Bought A
$3,000 Duster From The J. Peterman Catalogue" Superman -- another
     Alright, and yes, this whole appraisal is extremely
subjective.  Hey, the whole *hobby* is hugely subjective.  And as
noted above, Superman and I go *way* back.  Even DC's late,
lamentable "Superman: The Travesty" can't douse my enthusiasm for
the big Kryptonian lug.
     And though the "Man of Steel" line is apparently a goner,
it's no matter.  So what if we won't see a Brainiac, or a Terra-
Man.  Like the "death" of Superman himself, some reports are
effectively greatly exaggerated.  For there is a new line coming
down the pike, based directly (so I'm told) on the upcoming
Superman animated series -- the Super-well will not dry up so
soon.  And even if Batman resonates with more people these days,
with his manifest ego-darkness and culturally-appropriate thinly-
veiled malevolence, I have to "just say no" and stick with my
childhood hero, through thick and thin.
     So in the words of one of this medium's greatest pundits,
"Make Mine Superman!"
     Now if only they'd put that ridiculously expensive (and
inappropriate) "Superman's car" on sale for $5.99 so I can get
the nifty Clark Kent figure, all my current dreams will have come
     Up, up, and awayyyyyyyyyyyyyy!
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

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