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John's Action Figure Column 10/17/96


     Advertisements.  We love 'em.  We hate 'em.  They clutter
our views, decorate public transport, punctuate our television
programs, fill our airwaves with sell, sell, sell.  Hard sell. 
Soft sell.  Secret sell.  Competitive sell.  Anti-competitive
sell.  They're damn near *everywhere*.
     The variant flavors of advertising put Baskin Robbins to
shame (a paltry 31, puh-lease).  You've got The Bargain ads.  The
Snob Appeal ads (paging Jonathan Pryce, please pick up the gold
repaint courtesy phone...).  Tickle The Funny Bone ads.  Pity
ads.  More Fun Than A Barrel O'Monkeys ads.  Scare Tactic ads. 
Guilt ads.  Threat ads.  Even "How'd They *DO* That?" ads.
     But you know what ads you *don't* see very often?
     Action figure ads.
     Oh, I know about the handful of television ads for figures
("Don't mess with the 'S'..."  egads -- wotta revoltin'
development *that* was) -- but hyper-hyperbolic Dragonflyz
exhortations just don't do it for me.  Even the wonderful Nissan
"Action Man" ad was far too fleeting.
     No, the ads I'm talking about, the ads I crave, the ads I
miss, darn it, are action figure _print_ ads.  Simple, quiet,
compelling, effective, print ads.  But alas, as far as action
figures are concerned, print is dead.  There are no action figure
print ads.
     What's that you say about Spawn Comics?  Yeah, alright, I
hear ya -- McToys does indeed take out ads displaying pictures of
their upcoming action figures (in profusion, at that), but
they're the *only* ones who do it.  (And we can presume that the
tidiness of their Todd McFarlane Toys' connection with "Todd
McFarlane's 'Spawn'" goes a long way to explaining it).  What I'm
talking about are all the other figures...and all the missing
print ads.

     See, when *I* was a kid, you couldn't read a comic book
without encountering a plethora of silly advertisements.  Ads for
X-Ray Goggles, Miniature Submarines, Real Live Sea Monkeys and
the like all shared space in a mad riot of color, cheap design,
and truly bad prose.  Not to mention the great Marvel ads for
"Thing" sweatshirts, "Hulk" t-shirts, posters, stickers, et
     Those were great fun, but my second-favorite ads were the
wonderful center spreads for Saturday Morning Cartoons.  Ahhhhhh,
the time I spent poring over those ads every August, mentally
salivating (much cleaner) over the upcoming promised tours of
wonder like the Herculoids, Space Ghost, The Wacky Races, Johnny
Quest (the original, accept no substitutions), The Impossibles,
Thunderbirds, Thundercats, Thunder Gods, and a host of others...
great fun.
     But even those ads paled next to my ultimate favorites.  The
ads that often grabbed my attention more firmly than the stories
in the comics themselves were those guessed it, toys
and action figures.  Hot Wheels!  Sizzlers!  Whizzers!  Hot
Birds!  Zeroids!  Captain Action!  G.I. Joe!  Aurora Model Kits
(mmmm, loved that Vampirella)!  Monogram Models!  Strat-o-matic
Baseball!  Raleigh Bikes!  747 Jumbo Jets!
     Where are they now, I ask you?  Where the *heck* are they
     Because let's face it, the action figure market today is a
*monster* compared to the market of yesteryear.  The frustrating
few figures available in the late 60s was a drip, a drop, at most
a puddle, compared to the veritable ocean of figures available
     And yet, looking at a comic book, you wouldn't know they

     My god, talk about natural companions -- where are the Toy
Biz ads in Marvel Comics?  Where are the Kenner ads in DC?  The
Playmates ads in Image?  What's going *on* here?!?
     Rack my brain though I do, I can come up with no
explanation.  Surely print ads cannot even come *close* to the
cost of television ads?  (Forget radio -- I'll concede that radio
spots for action figures would basically gut the best of both
worlds, though they might be pretty funny to hear).  And to say
that the toy manufacturers are "in bed" with the comic companies
is probably an understatement.
     So why no ads for figures in our beloved comics?
     I just don't know.  Really.  I don't.
     But I do know what we're missing.  We're missing plenty.
     For those toy ads were wonderful.  It didn't matter if the
art was primitive, if the copy pre-historic.  Those blurry,
simplified, ultra-commercial images captured this kid's heart
like nothing else.
     And just in case memory didn't suffice, I recently found
myself knee-deep in old comic books at Jeff's place, where it was
my delight to come across not only some prized wonders from
yesteryear, but a passel o' great ads from some of the lesser
books!  The highlight was my seeing a back-cover ad for "Hot
Birds," Mattel die-cast jet planes that I'd had and then lost
long, long ago, and whose names I'd even forgotten.  So this was
a double-threat nostalgia feed -- I saw pictures of the toys I'd
watch go to charity in the late 70s (a better end than theft, or
loss, but I still miss them), and also saw their *names*!  Ohhh,
sweet.  So now I finally know that what I lost were a "Ski Bird"
and a "Sky Scraper," and that the one I secretly lusted for but
never got was the "Maching Bird."  (As an aside, that name really
bothered me, until finally it clicked and I "got" the really bad
pun.  "Stop it, Mattel -- you're hurting me....").
     So anyway, I think the comic books should lose their lame,
garish CD ads, cut back on the tiresome videogame ads, and
recapture their former (and present) reflected glory in Action
Figure ads.
     What have they got to lose?

     You know, I'm really looking forward to the new "Superman,
The Animated Series" figures.  So much so that the trickle of new
Superman cartoons dubba-dubba-dumb-and-dumba are doling out just
aren't enough to satisfy me, so I pulled out the tape I have of
the old Max and Dave Fleischer 1940s Superman cartoons, and
watched those as well!  Very different, but just as compelling. 
     One thing I noticed (and found very interesting) in those
50+ year-old cartoons was that in addition to the familiar
"Faster than a speeding bullet..." intro, some of the toons had
an alternate Superman intro.  It went like this:

     Faster than a streak of lightning
     More powerful than the pounding surf
     Mightier than a roaring hurricane...

(And, by the way, on another level, in the listening process I
found myself jonesin' for the voice-over from the "live" Superman
television series of the 60s -- who else have you ever heard
pronounce that name as "Syoo-pah-man," I ask you?  Ohh, the
elocution that's been lost...but that's another digression, one
we won't pursue today.)
     Now, maybe it's just the novelty of it, but I really like
the "streak of lightning" intro.  I mean, the more famous version
compares Supes to things like bullets, locomotives and buildings
-- all very man-made -- but this one opts for painting him as a
natural force, sort of a "Father Nature" (in tights).  That
appeals to me.  And let's face it, however high-powered your
rifle, that speeding bullet ain't gonna move anywhere *close* to
the pace of a lightning bolt.  Not ever.  (Though I conveniently
will avoid the discussion of exactly which direction the "bolt"
part of the lightning moves, since my recollection of
conventional physics wisdom is that the free ionized particles
align first from sky to ground, but then the bolt actually
flashes from ground to sky -- were they saying that Superman
flies *backwards*, but so fast that no one notices?  See -- it's

     But back to figures.  When I first saw the Animated Superman
figures in last Spring's Toy Fair photos, I was severely
underwhelmed.  They just didn't seem that exciting, and the
dominant characteristic seemed to be necks so wide they'd shame a
pro wrestler.  I'm pleased to say, however, that the more recent
photos do the figures considerably more justice (or is that the
other way around?  And let's not leave out the appeal of the
series itself, looming in the figure background, and those great
STAS comic books as well!).  So much so that I have become a
convert based on pictures alone.  Once the figures finally appear
I'll make a final judgment, but so far I'm delighted.  Heck, I
don't even mind the Kenner-inevitable main character variations,
especially since they've put several of the super-suits into the
show (in the background at S.T.A.R. labs).  Hey, as long as they
stay away from camouflage, or plaid, I'll be happy.
     So, all this in mind, coupled with the fact that life on the
West Coast may have its advantages but they generally do *not*
include getting figures at the same time as the rest of the
country (and thus we Eastern Pacific Rim rtaf-ers have to endure
one compelling post after another extolling the praises of new
figures of which at first we can only dream...and for which our
yearnings must assuage themselves with boring old patience),
leads me to jump the gun (hey, I'm faster than a metaphorical
gun!) and make some appraisals of the first round of Superman TAS

     The list I've seen shows six figures so far:  Deep Dive
Superman (which I keep reading as "Deep Dish" Superman, though
that's presumably a local Chicago variation), Quick Change
Superman, Evil Alien Brainiac, Vision Blast Superman, Neutron
Star Superman, and Lex Luthor (who for consistency's sake should
probably be listed as "Evil Earthling Lex Luthor," but we'll let
it go).
     Well, ol' Deep Dish Supes looks okay to me.  Very un-
traditional color scheme, but it does suit (so to speak) the
undersea theme.  I suppose Total Justice Aquaman might be peeved
about the encroachment on his territory, but I'm cool with it. 
Throw in a layer of pepperoni and we've got a winner!
     Vision Blast Superman has a nice dark aspect.  I'm not crazy
about the name (heat vision, yes; x-ray vision, yes; telescopic
vision, yes; but *blast* vision?!?  That belongs to that Marvel
character with the funny red spectacles, no?) but given that it's
Kenner we're talking about, we're pretty lucky the names aren't
worse.  (Then again, if this line hits, the future could bring
things like "Hormone Surge Superman" and "Split Infinitive Clark
Kent").  Maybe it's a black suit for formal occasions.  Works for
     Neutron Star Superman -- now this figure, quite
unintentionally I must assume, evokes a bunch of great nostalgic
Superman memories for me.  I remember reading part one of an
"imaginary story" back in the late 60s where Superman loses his
super-powers (they probably just rolled behind the fridge, but
since he's no detective he never checks) and ends up deciding to
leave the Earth rather than continue as a regular Joe (as opposed
to a G.I. Joe, I guess).  Part one concludes with Superman
strapping himself into a spaceship and journeying forth in humble
sadness into a freak space warp.
     I never found part two of the story, so I'm not sure how
things got resolved, but that image of Superman, well, the then
ex-Superman, grimly striving forth in the face of great
adversity, garbed in a plain white spacesuit, really made an
impression on me.
     Which is the reason why "Neutron Star" Superman touches my
heart.  There he is (sort of), that bold, uncompromising,
depleted hero, willing to face any new challenge even without his
wondrous powers.
     Okay, I know that's not the meaning behind this figure at
all.  So sue me -- can I help it if my childhood programming
colors my blast vision even now?  No.  So whatever its true
purpose, that Neutron Star armor looks wonderful to me.  You
*go*, Superman....
     And that leads us to the last of the Superman figures,
"Quick Change" Superman.  (I assume this doesn't refer to a small
coin-belt around his waist, although that might be kind of cool. 
"Quick, Superman, I need a quarter for the meter....").  The
ostensible snap-on Clark Kent accoutrements look corny as hell,
but nevertheless captivating.  And the likeness of Superman
himself is a perfect match for the great stylization used
throughout the Animated Series.  For "true icon" reasons alone,
this is my favorite of the Supes.  My only complaint is that the
glasses appear to be part of the Clark overlay, so I won't be
able to play "close call" with Superman and my Lois figure.
     Oh, yeah, there probably won't *be* a Lois figure.  Did I
say I *liked* Kenner?  I musta been smoking sauncha....

     And now, it's villain time.  Kenner went with the big guns
for this, their first Superman TAS assortment, which I'm guessing
means they actually paid some attention to the way the Man of
Steel line sold (or didn't sell, as the case may be) last year. 
I think Kenner blew it with the MOS line in lots of ways (too
numerous to go into here), the largest of which was poor timing: 
had a Steel figure come out, for instance, when the "splinter
Supermen" story line was still going, I think there would have
been much more interest.  As it was, the morbid interest kindled
by the "death" of Superman had long waned, and I think the
figures emerged right smack in the middle of "backlash time."
     And Kenner *always* misunderstands the appeal of villains; I
think "variety is the spice of life" *really* applies to comic
book villains -- you don't necessarily have to longpack them, but
if you don't keep a steady supply out there, who do all those
incessant, unending and indefatigable heroes have to duke it out
with but each other?  As much as the Batman line has its
problems, at least there are enough villains to set up a "Rogues'
Gallery" -- and even keep the membership rotating!
     Plus, as far as the Man of Steel line went, Kenner
*bizarrely* chose to make the best villains available *only* in
expensive two-packs.  (Not to mention one of the best hero
figures as well -- that "Hunter/Prey" Superman, despite the
unfortunate name, was just toooooo cool).
     So anyway, we've got Lex Luthor and Brainiac.  More primal
you probably couldn't get, and that's a good thing.  I'm still
hesitant about the "new" Brainiac (dammit, I *liked* the old
green baldy with the connex game on his head, and it took me a
while to warm up to the souped-up chromedome version -- although
Gil Kane's wonderful art certainly eased the transition), but he
does look creepy.  And while I tell myself I'd rather see that
Telly Savalas-Luthor in an Armani suit, he'd probably start
punching himself in the head again in one of those things.  So
let him keep the armor -- he'll need it.
     So, all Super-things considered, these Superman TAS figures
look like they really capture the style of the show itself --
which is a good thing.  No, make that a "terrific" thing. 
There's something about the broadness of the interpretation that
really brings me back to my first memories of Superman:  a
friendly titan with an enormous heart and so much darned pluck
that nothing could keep him down for very long.
     Here's hoping the Superman action figure line is made of the
same stuff!
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

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