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John's Action Figure Column 9/12/96


     In response to some offhand criticism of the purportedly
frivolous and amateurish way in which we netwriters comport
ourselves, I was going to really cut loose this week, throw on a
three-piece suit, some wingtips and a frown, and try to extend my
reach to some "serious journalism" about action figures.
     But then I decided that dumbing-down a bunch of four-month-
old press releases and padding them out to column length would be
just a little too boring...not to mention covering ground the
print media already trample flat on a monthly basis.
     Oh, sure, the "serious journalists" (which distinction they
would have us believe should be drawn on the basis of eschewing
use of the pronoun "I" and otherwise dispensing with any
trappings of merit, literary or informational) get all the glory
-- the perks, the fans, and the boastworthy renown of a
prestigious byline in a Serious Publication, but you know, I
think I'll stick to entertaining folks -- actually providing
something readable and perhaps even the least bit timely or
useful, avoiding a whole cheeze-filled combo of stale, throwaway
dead wood and outdated trivia and leave the sycophantic rump-
rubbing and moldy-fact rehashing to the professionals.
     End of public service announcement.  Grins for everybody!

     So, with all that in mind, let me remind everybody that
"Superman: The Animated Series" had its terrific debut last
weekend, to nearly universal acclaim.  So what if the prototype
figures from that line would appear to suck more than a 15-amp
Eureka omni-vac; in Superman's honor, it's time to look at the
world of the figures of...DC Comics!

     I write a lot (some might say too much) (actually, some *do*
say too much, but who listens?) about Image Comics figures.  I
spend a fair amount of screen real estate waxing prosaic
(sometimes even poetic) about Marvel Comics characters.  And
while I've dredged the mud flats of memory once or twice for some
personal Superman or Batman lore, I've yet to really make a
depthful canvas of the diverse corridors filled with the
delightful characters of...DC Comics.
     Forget about protohistorical WWII heroes who evolved via
teenage angst and rampant persecution complexes into the cosmic
grand opera groundlings (sans singing, of course) of Stan Lee's
Marvelous Universe; long before Al Simmons-as-Spawn was a hint of
a ghost of a glimmer in Image's form-without-content eye, DC
Comics was delighting children with the dashing cavortings of a
doughty cadre of some of the most diverting characters ever to
grace the four-color world of the comics.  And though those
adventures had more than their share of outright silliness (uh,
maybe a considerable amount *more* than their share), the heroes
that leaped, sped, flew, jetted, swung, swirled, dashed, swam and
even snapped their way through battle after battle to save the
day for mom, apple pie and consumerism were always engaging and
powerfully evocative, capturing the enthusiasm and imagination of
millions of kids of all ages.
     Sure, DC had their ups and downs over time, but their stable
of super-beings (including others who were just mightily
overachieving mortals) maintained a wonderful dynamism as well as
a refreshing simplicity and directness for nearly four decades. 
DC's superheroes had an essential innocence, an uncomplicated
purity of purpose and design that made them basically
unassailable.  Yes, bad writers and weak artists could do them
injustice as easily as the next batch of heroes, but for decade
after decade these characters endured, weathering editors who cut
for sci-fi, or space opera, or romance, or even westerns, or spy
thrillers (as well as those who felt wacky gorilla stories and
versions of the heroes as babies were the ne plus ultra of

     By the late 50s the pattern was set, with modern characters
that for the most part reflected archetypes ranging back
centuries, even aeons.  DC had your basic super-human in Superman
(shades of Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Paul Bunyan); your basic dark
detective-avenger in Batman (Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and the
Scarlet Pimpernel, with a dash of the Poe anti-hero thrown in for
good measure); your basic speedster in Flash (Hermes and Mercury
up through legends of 7-league boots, and even a touch of Br'er
Rabbit); your dashing archer crusader in Green Arrow (William
Tell and Robin Hood, anyone?); your basic "Monarch of the Seas
and their Denizens" in Aquaman (Neptune by way of Captain Nemo,
with a classic changeling riff thrown in for good measure); your
basic Amazon and token female character in Wonder Woman (hey,
those were the times -- and she does resonate with the likes of
Athena, Artemis, Joan of Arc and Lady Godiva).
     There were also some terrific modern additions to those
basic types.  You want an incredible shrinking man?  Ray Palmer,
the Atom.  A pre-Star Wars Jedi Knight-type, complete with high-
tech alien light weapon?  Hal Jordan's Green Lantern (not to
mention his "where there's enough will, there's a way..." ethic,
folding in the "I think I can, I think I can..." school of
American "can-do" ethos).  Need a truly "alien" looking alien? 
Martian Manhunter, at your service.  Elemental forces your bag? 
Look no further than the Red Tornado, or even Metamorpho.  Need
your basic irritating kid sidekick?  "Paging Snapper Carr, Jimmy
Olsen, Pete Ross, Robin, Speedy, and Aqualad."  Heck, they had
magicians in Zatannah and Zatara, the righteous undead in Deadman
and the Spectre, avian glory in Hawkman and Hawkgirl, echoes of
accelerating modern technology in the Metal Men, and of madness
(Creeper) as well as social issues (Hawk & Dove, Prez).  Talk
about a stable of wonders!
     My era of infatuation with DC began in the mid-1960s (which
is most of the reason why I'm skipping over the older versions of
the duplicated heroes from the "retconned into obscurity" Earth-
1, Earth-X, Earth-3.14159 and Earth-Wind-&-Fire).  The
aforementioned Flash.  Green Lantern.  Hawkman.  J'onn J'onzz,
the Martian Manhunter.  Green Arrow.  Black Canary.  Zatanna. 
Wonder Woman (well, I have to confess -- other than an abiding
adolescent desire to peek down her gilded bustier, for which
behaviour she would likely pummel the mortal daylights out of me,
I never cared much for Wonder Woman).  The Spectre.  Deadman. 
Challengers of the Unknown.  The Metal Men.  And, sigh, the
Legion of Super-Heroes.
     And of course Batman.  And -- beyond "of course" -- the
rugged alien fella who started the whole thing off, everybody's
favorite _Identified_ Flying Object and E.T., let's have a warm
rta-f welcome for Kal-El from Krypton, Superman.  ("Land sakes,
Jonathan, it's a BABY!"  Sorry, I just had to throw that in).

     And all that said, that Dynamic Catalogue enumerated, I have
to say I would go absolutely Dynamite Crazy for decently
constructed modern action figures of these uniquely American,
dependably classic icons.  But alas, right now such figures just
don't exist.

     Sure, we've seen some Batmen.  And some more Batmen.  And
additional bunches of Batmen.  And then there's the Batmen.  And
even a Superman or two.  (And don't forget Batman).  But aside
from some recent hyperthyroid contortionist cases in Total
Justice, figures based on DC heroes are sorely, deplorably,
inexplicably lacking.  ("Total Justice" -- what *is* that,
anyway?  I mean, what would "Partial Justice" be -- the OJ trial? 
Oops, sorry; that's *No* Justice.  Ahhh, "Total Justice...."  You
can still hear the echoes of the marketing meeting where a young
snot B-school grad who never read a comic book in his life
thought up that stellar concept.)
     Aap!  I know, you're thinking, "hey, John, ever hear of
'Super-Powers' figures?  The basic state-of-the-art cover-all-
the-bases here's-how-to-do-a-line-right" action figures of all
action figures?"
     Yes, I have.  But they came out in the trough between the
childhood and rediscovered adulthood crests of my action figure
fascination.  And with all due respect, against the escalating
detail and size of the current figures, the Super-Powers just
seem, well, small, and relatively unarticulated.  Besides, having
just got into collecting within the last year or two, I just
don't have the resources to buy up a set of decade-old figures at
(conservatively) thirty to fifty bucks a pop (maybe if pop was
paying for 'em, but he's not).
     There's no question that the Super Powers figures were
wonderful.  Heck, in breadth-of-characters alone they are hands-
down the winning figures of all time.  (I give them the title
over the Toy Biz's X-figures simply because of Kenner's decision
to limit themselves to one version of each character, though
their greater focus across the line didn't hurt, either.)  A
terrific range of characters whose simplicity and solidity were
captured and reflected with astonishing faithfulness by Kenner's
mid-80s toy makers.
     But for better or for worse, we're in another era now. 
Thanks to young turk manufacturers eager to turn the figure world
on its plastic ear, the stakes have risen considerably -- the
standard of detail and scale has been elevated to unprecedented
heights, and the same simplicity of line and modest design that
made Super Powers figures great in their time have brought them
to a point where they simply look outclassed.

     Which is *not* to say that for the few corresponding Super
Powers figures, any existing 90s versions are superior.  Quite
the contrary -- Total Justice's hypertense Kyle Raynor is just
not a "real" Green Lantern; that's Hal Jordan's role.  And
"grimacing" fractal Flash just isn't the icon I grew up loving. 
Look, who wants an action figure that looks like it's in pain
just standing there?  Besides Kenner, I mean....
     Which is precisely the point, and the apex of our current
     You see, at this point, and if Total Justice is the new
Kenner standard, frankly I'm a little *afraid* of getting more
"classic" DC hero figures.  I'd almost rather see no figures at
all then see "Imagified" versions of the rest of my idols.  (And
like most copycat operators, Kenner emulated the most-
inappropriate elements of their competitors' breakthrough lines) 
Oh, sure, maybe one or two would look okay in that strained,
overdone style (Hawkman comes to mind, because of how Joe
Kubert's pencils used to look), but for the most part Total
Justification of the aforementioned icons would be just awful. 
Worse than a joke -- a travesty.

     Once again, Kenner is missing the point -- and by a distance
order of parsecs.  You don't compete best by relying on the
*other* fella's strengths -- you compete best by maximizing
_your_ _own_.  And with the DC license firm in its gloved hand,
Kenner's strength is the resonance and design strength of the
characters themselves, not how whiplike their muscles are, how
uncomfortable or strained their poses, or how much fractal-jargon
snap-on crap they can load them up with.
     My best advice for Kenner is to get back to basics.
     Actually, that bears repeating:  KENNER, GET BACK TO BASICS. 
Starting from the Batman, the Animated Series point wouldn't be a
bad idea (though a bit more articulation would go a long way) --
clean, simple figures which highlight the characters, their
costumes and design, rather than how pumped-up they are (or
aren't, or never should be).  And dump any plans for near-
infinite character variations -- stick to the standards.  The
winning, resonant, evocative standards formed in the 50s that
lasted with grace and power and style through the 70s and much of
the 80s.
     Taking all the figures that are out there into
consideration, I think the goal should be a cross between the Toy
Biz Marvel lines and what Playmates (hollowed be their name) did
with the defunct WildCATs license:  strong, solid, simple 5-6"
figures that rely on bold design and bright paint jobs to make
them stand out.  Not tortured poses with agonizingly strained
limbs.  A figure doesn't look "tough" or cool because it's face
is contorted into a grimace; a figure looks cool because we look
at it and can project *our* memories and dreams of the icon onto
its simple, elegant features.
     So:  imagine a line of figures on the basic five to six-inch
scale.  Strong heroic features.  Relaxed facial sculpts with
minimal pre-posing (like keeping both legs and feet in the same
vertical plane, are you listening, Kenner?!?).  Costumes and
detail reflecting care and patience in the painting.  And with
these criteria in mind, let your mind relax and envision...
     ...a lovingly rendered, classic, be-winged and be-maced
Carter Hol Hawkman!
     ...a classic Hal Jordan Green Lantern, no translucent armor
or deluxe Oan jockstrap!
     ...the Barry Allen Flash, complete with Time-Bending
     ...Oliver Queen as Green Arrow, with actual green arrows,
and green quiver!
     ...golden lasso Wonder Woman (with a clear plastic plane
accessory, of course)!
     ...fishnet stockings & top hat Zatannah (homina homina)!
     ...a two-handed Aquaman!  A spinning Red Tornado!  A ghostly
Spectre!  My god, there is SOOOOOO much DC could do with their
properties, so much that even Super Powers didn't touch! 
     ...the Metal Men (complete with Gold, Iron, Mercury, Tin,
Platinum, Lead, and Doc Will Magnus)!
     ...a set of beloved "sixties" characters like Hawk & Dove,
the Creeper, Deadman!
     ...DC's more "mature" 80s successes such as Swamp Thing,
John Constantine, Abby Cable (more hominas, which are nothing
like hosannahs, and yet...), the revamped Doom Patrol, heck, the
*old* Doom Patrol!  And oh, alright, I can pander with the best
of 'em -- Sandman figures as well!
     ...not to mention, a whole SUB-LINE of New Genesis/Apokalips
wonders, too many to enumerate (and dammit, use the exact old
canonical Jack Kirby drawings, okay?)!
     ...and while we're paying homage to the One True King, how
about some Kamandi figures!  Great play value, lots of appeal to
the kids with all those anthropomorphized animals, go crazy!
     ...and please, please, please, no kidding here, they may be
last in the list but they are first in my heart, so long overdue
it's not even funny, and a *perfect* assault to make on Toy Biz's
obviously lucrative X-figure line...
     ...THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES (circa no later than 1983,
let's say).  Oh, boy, does this line *scream* to be done.  Why,
at just the thought of it I'm getting faklempt, so I won't list
all the names, but their absence from plasticization is a
travesty -- no, a crime, no, a *felony*, heck, it's high
*treason*!  If I could hijack Moses' tablets and re-inscribe them
for the masses, I'd etch "MAKE US LEGION FIGURES" in letters
fifteen inches tall!  No, *twenty* inches tall!  No, wait a
minute, where's that HOLLYWOOD sign -- I've got a saw here
     My word -- we haven't even touched upon the DC *villains*! 
I mean, these are the folks who coined the image of the posed
"Rogues Gallery" in book after book.  Kenner needs to start
waking up to the realities of the marketplace, and of the
profitability of niche marketing (can you say "Bat-villains?"  I
knew you could...) and start CRANKING these suckers out! 
Tomorrow!  Now!

     What really saddens me about this whole discussion is that
we are about to get a bunch of ostensibly mediocre "Superman: The
Animated Series" figures, after whose tanking Kenner is going to
turn to their DC superiors and say, "see, your junky old heroes
just don't *sell* anymore."  Never for an instant realizing that
it isn't just the old icons that stir the imaginations (and the
wallets) -- it's the embodiment thereof in powerful, playable,
*poseable* plastic that rouses the passions.  (And gets the cash
flowing.)  Kenner seems mired in the misbegotten mentality that
any audience for figures older than about age eight is an
anomaly, a blip in the market that should be ignored.
     Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe Total Justice was the anomaly, and
even now there are drawing boards and rubber molds just waiting
to dazzle us with an eruption of classic DC figures, figures we
grew up loving and dreaming, figures that would knock the socks
off the latest McToys horrors, put the X-People back in their
proper place as a footnote to comic icon greatness, and reclaim
their rightful position in the center of the action figure
     Nah, I don't believe it either.

     [Special thanks to Vijay Singh for suggesting this column,
lo those many months ago.  Vijay, you're the most patient guy I
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

Comments? Drop me a line....
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