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John's Action Figure Column 5/9/96


     Action figures have lots of features.  And I'm not even
talking about "action" features -- you've got their bodies,
musculatures, costumes, stances, articulations, sizes ... and
faces.  And while all those other things are very important, it
can certainly be argued that a character's physiognomy can be its
most determining quality.  Er, face it -- without his eyepatch,
beard stubble and clenched teeth, Nick Fury would be just another
80-year-old gun nut running around in the middle of the night in
form-fitting pajamas.  What would Wolverine be without his snarl,
his owlish hair-points and ever-shifting mutton chops?  Spawn
without his hamburger?  Sure, figures' bodies and costumes,
armors and flesh all contribute to their appeal, but the face is
the thing, to paraphrase the Bard, wherein is trapped the
conscience of the King.  Or hero.  Or hellspawn.  You get the
     The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but they sit in the
face, and the face *is* the character -- more often than not. 
Sure, you can find exceptions, characters whose faces are generic
(the Animated Batmen, or the not-so-animated Supermen), or
generically masked (Stormtroopers, various Iron Men), or even
interchangeable (Spidey's Chameleon, or Reboot's Hexadecimal),
but most figures out there make their greatest impressions in
that half-to-full-inch of carven plastic above the shoulders.  No
matter how you slice 'em, faces are extremely important.
     Just consider a few figures with poorly-molded or badly
painted faces.  The 1995 POTF2 Princess Leia more than springs to
mind here (kind of a mad leap, really), as do the FF's Invisible
Woman and the Age of Apocalypse Wolverine, or (from the photos,
at least) the upcoming "Mendoza" (nee "Dozer II") from McFarlane
(talk about a goofy expression).  These figures are all but
laughingstocks of the action figure community.  They probably
throw on masks when they go out on the town, or venture off to
save the universe.  And it's a pity.  (Think about it:  the Leia
figure really isn't half-bad, if you don't look at that awful
     On the other, uh, hand, think about how having exceptionally
well-constructed faces make certain figures enormously appealing,
enhancing their resonance considerably:  Super-Skrull.  Ninja
Spawn.  Bishop.
     Yep, a figure's face is hugely determinative, more often
than not.

     I should note that the headline at the top above is an old
Roger Zelazny science-fiction book title -- not one of the
Master's best, admittedly, but it does have a certain (and
appropriate) ring to it.  Why do I make this near-obsessive
annotation?  Because the supremely talented Mr. Z died last
summer at the not-ripe-enough age of 58, from a degenerative
disease he kept secret from fans and (most of his) friends alike. 
So though it's a bit late, here's to you, Roger!  The best of
your work stands head and overmuscled shoulders above that of
your peers, and provided this gentle soul with an inordinate
amount of pleasure and enthrallment on more rainy afternoons than
I will ever be able to remember (I'm left instead with an entire
universe, no, *several* universes, of surpassing imagination and
magnificent characters as the legacy of memory of those days and
     And for those of you who might unaccountably, astonishingly,
be unfamiliar with RZ's works, stop reading this IMMEDIATELY
(well, wait for the end of the sentence) and go out and get a
copy of LORD OF LIGHT and defer sleeping, eating and working
until you have finished it.  You'll thank me, believe it.  Then
after that, grab a catnap and a quick meal, and move along to
THIS IMMORTAL (also published as "...AND CALL ME CONRAD").  This
one's fairly short and might even leave you enough time for a
snack before you proceed to CREATURES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS. 
Then grab forty winks and take that vacation you've put off for
so long, because it's time to begin...The Amber Chronicles.  Your
tour of the fantastic commences with NINE PRINCES IN AMBER, and
from there your imagination will be twisted and magnified through
incalculable geometries of wonder and joy.
     Alright, so I'm starting to diverge somewhat wildly from the
realm of Action Figures -- or so you think.  Because the amazing
captivating power and entertainment of Roger Zelazny's works
aside, the myriad characters of his Amber novels would make one
kick-ass set of action figures.  You've got Corwin -- in amnesia
mode as well as full Amberite regalia, then the other eight
princes (ten, if you include the long-lost Osric and Finndo),
King Oberon, Mad Dworkin, the princesses -- Flora, Fiona,
Dierdre, Llewella (am I leaving anyone out?), sorceresses all. 
Then the denizens of the Courts of Chaos, the primordial chaos
Serpent, the figure of pure order in the Unicorn -- what an
incredible pantheon!
     Uh, for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about
(is that *all* of you?), I guess I should wind down and return to
today's topic.  But do yourself a favor, if you haven't before: 
read some Zelazny.  And then, once you've fallen big time for his
writing, read the first five Amber novels.  Then we can start
petitioning McFarlane Toys to begin manufacturing the figures....

     I always thought the title of Joseph Campbell's seminal
study of the mythology and socio-anthropology of heroes and gods
would make a perfect name for the sandwich shop I one day intend
to open:  The Hero With 1,000 Faces.  But that's another
sidetrack; we're here to discuss the aspects, visages, mugs,
miens, punims, masks, expressions, countenances, physiognomies,
et al. of the Action Figure Universe.
     And in a general sense, I think we can divide figures into
two main classes:  those with faces and those without.  In the
latter category, I lump all the robots, and masked/armored
figures, with whom we can pretty much dispense as far as a
discussion of face sculpting goes; in the former, pretty much
everyone else.  And that former category of faced-figures can be
further divided for convenience' sake into three sub-categories.

     First, you have figures based on comic book characters.  For
most of these figures, the designs upon which their aspects are
based are fairly specific and detailed, though admittedly often
deriving from the work of several-unto-many artists.  Which means
that while capturing the essence of their expressions is somewhat
easy, oftentimes the manufacturer is trying to serve more than
one master at a time.  I mean, if you design your Thing from the
Fantastic Four to look like a Jack Kirby Thing, you end up with
the "Thing I" from the 1995 FF series.  If you're going for a
more 90s look, you end up with the agitated "Thing III" from
1996.  (We'll put aside the "Thing II" for a moment, since it
falls into our second category).  In both instances, the finished
product reflects a particular look, faithful to one depiction of
the hero -- and it *works*.

     The second category of faces is for figures based on
characters from Animated Series.  Now, in the vast majority of
cases, these figures originally derive from comic books as in
group one above, but the strictures of the television medium and
the demands of the animation itself lead to vastly simplified
designs.  This isn't inherently bad.  In fact, when your cartoon
is sophisticated and stylized, like Batman: The Animated Series,
the figures that emerge can be the best of the best in terms of
facial design.  Not only do the highly stylized features look
great, their very simplicity lends itself very well to conversion
to plastic.  While the virtues of this process may get dulled and
lost in the proliferation of hero-clones (all the incessant
Batmen, Supermen, etc.), its payoff is particularly visible in
some of the villains, such as Mr. Freeze and the Joker.  It seems
like the animated characters have leapt off the screen and onto
the display shelf -- to collectors' manifest delight.
     (And I would note here that though nearly as redundantly
duplicated as Batman, the Robin figures never fail to captivate
my sensibilities -- maybe it's the elegant simplicity of the
design, but the Robin figures' faces look terrific, no matter how
lurid and silly the bodies beneath them.  Go, uh, figure.)
     It is probably to the BTAS figure line's advantage that the
animated series went with such a consistent stylization in
character design -- other animated series, such as X-Men and
Savage Dragon, went for pure simplicity rather than a kind of
patterned, signature look, with the result that the figures
derived therefrom hearken back to the original comics.  I suppose
we can't blame the toy manufacturers for the shortcomings of the
animators.  For instance, the "Thing II" figure looks remarkably
matched to the design of the character in the FF animated
series -- but so what?  The cartoony simplicity adds little to
the figure, IMHO (it makes me think of Chuck McCann behind the
scenes, doing the voice), and were it not for the trenchcoat and
glasses it would be one of my least favorite ToyBiz figures.

     The third category of facial design, that of figures based
on "real, live humans," is the most problematic, and suffers most
from conversion to plastic.  You don't have to look farther than
any of half a dozen figure lines based on movies or television
shows to see what I mean.  And it isn't hard to explain -- when
the base models for your figures are actual people, the level of
detail that needs must be lost in translation to half-inch
plastic is enormous.  But must it be so laughably off?
     Consider the Star Wars POTF2 figures.  Do *any* of these
resemble the actors at all?!?  Puh-lease (and no wisecracks about
the robots, or Stormtroopers, or Vader -- we're talking about
character with honest-to-flesh _faces_ here).  Okay, maybe the
Ben Kenobi hearkens at least a *little* to Sir Alec Guiness.  But
that's *definitely* the exception.
     Or how about the forthcoming "Independence Day" figures? 
No, forget the aliens; the humans, at least as shown in the
Puzzle Zoo ads, look incredibly goofy.  And when I found out that
one of them was Will Smith, I was completely floored -- it just
doesn't look *anything* like him.  Even the President figure --
Bill Pullman probably has one of the least "nuanced" faces in
filmdom, and his figure *still* doesn't resemble him at all --
looks like a (shudder) Baldwin brother.  "The horror, the
     Probably the biggest exception to this rule are the Star
Trek: The Next Generation figures.  Several of these present
terrific recreations of the actors' own faces -- the basic Picard
model comes to mind, as do Ryker, Beverly Crusher, various
Ferengi, Klingons, et cetera, et cetera.  Similarly, many of the
Deepspace Nine figures look remarkably representational.

     So what in Gene's name went wrong with the Original Series
figures?  These things are a joke -- they're right up there with
Star Wars and Jurassic Park in terms of faithlessness.  And it's
not as if Playmates can plead "learning curve" -- some of the
most recent OS figures are among the worst in this regard! 
(Chapel and Rand from the recent release come frightfully to
mind, though to be fair, Vena and even the Libido Kirk look
significantly better).  I'll keep hoping that the upcoming
figures will rise to the standards of those produced for the
later television series, but I'm not laying any bets.  What is it
-- does William Shatner's face defy sculpturing?  (Hell, his
*hair* has been artificial for *decades* -- you'd think that
would make it easier to copy).  Even the Nimoy figures look off. 
Not-so-fascinating, Captain....

     So, all this said, one has to admit that some faces simply
stand, uh, head and shoulders above the rest.  Whether the
product of an inspired sculpt, or an above-average design in the
underlying figure, some faces are just better than others.  And
with this in mind, I present my own, personal, tunnel-visioned,
couldn't-be-more-subjective, idiosyncratic and no doubt eminently
cranky Top Five Action Figure Faces of 1996 List (of figures
released to date in '96, so far, of course, which makes the pool
verrrrry shallow):
     Number 5:  The Wingless Wizard (one wonders why the
distinction had to be made in his original name -- who's this
"Winged Wizard" Lee and Kirby wanted to avoid confusing?) --
great sneer, overshadowed as it is by that silly, faithful-to-
the-comics bulbous helmet (how does this guy hear anything,
anyway?).  Besides, I like the van dyke and the fire in his eyes. 
Hey, come to think of it, without that helmet, he'd look a *lot*
like Xanatos.  You know, I've *never* seen them together....
     Number 4:  Cy-Gor -- okay, so he's a monkey -- look at those
lips, those eyes, heck, check out those *nostrils* ... hey, big
fella, anybody ever tell you, you were *made* for the movies! 
Ah-ooo-gah!  Here's one instance where straying from the source
material (recent issues of Spawn comics) was a *good* thing --
the Cy-Gor there just seems too pathetic, a tortured beast who
done been wronged, while the action figure Cy-Gor looks like that
old description of Lord Byron:  mad, bad, and dangerous to know. 
Oooh, I get shivers.  'Nuff said.
     Number 3:  Age of Apocalypse Magneto -- sleek lines, a great
seriousness of purpose; between the stray lock of white hair and
the downturned lips, I find a real pathos in this figure's mien. 
He stands next to "Licorice Lips" Apocalypse on my shelf, and
definitely benefits by the comparison.  You go, Magneto....
     Number 2:  Mucous Tick (well, *I* never saw it before 1996,
though the copyright is listed as '95).  Goofy to the max (no,
not *that* Maxx), super-cartoony -- and it works!  Putting aside
that unparalleled "action feature" (since it hardly belongs in
this discussion), the distended jaw, oogly eyes and total thrust
of this figure's face totally capture the essence of the
character.  Throw in perfect, sickly-green translucent plastic,
and this runner-up never fails to please.  Hock a lugie for us
all, big guy!
     Ahem.  So.  The moment you've all been waiting for (you
*did* stick around this long, didn't you?  Hello?  Anyone?).  The
Winner, my number-one pick for Best Face Design on an action
figure (well, at least on one I happen to own, released so far in
1996, one qualification after another...), drum roll please,
     ...the 1996 Man of Steel line's very own, LEX LUTHOR! 
Yeahhhhhh!  (The crowd goes wild).  Forget this figure's Hornet
Mask -- get it out of the way, glue it to his back if you have
to, because the face beneath it is just -- heh heh -- to die for. 
An extraordinary sculpt, reflecting a level of detail rarely seen
in Kenner figures.  From the snarl on his face to the gnarled
brows above it, the clenched teeth to the dented cheekbones, this
is a face to be reckoned with.  Lexy, baby -- you're so evil,
you're beautiful!  For those of you holding out for the upcoming
Superman: The Animated Series figures, well:  don't.  From the
looks of the preview shot, the Luthor-to-come suffers from a
serious steroids problem, not to mention a hang-dog expression
worthy of Bizarro.  If this upcoming figure had a talk feature,
all is could say would be "duh."  I don't mean to create a frenzy
for an already shorted figure, but the new Luthor is swee-eeeeet. 

     I'd like to thank every one of our competitors this year --
you've all been wonderful, a credit to the artists that created
you and the polymers that formed you.  From the Jack Kirby
pavilion in Metropolis, this is John Gersten, saying, GOODNIGHT,
Ditko bless, and happy figures!
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

Comments? Drop me a line....
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