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John's Action Figure Column 11/7/96


     I've been thinking a lot lately about secret identities. 
No, no, not about adopting one -- though it might come in handy
sometimes -- about the people who've already *got* one.  I mean,
you have to admit, in most cases, secret identities are critical
to the character of most super-heroes.  Oh, sure, you've got the
occasional figure who's "out" in terms of his or her civilian
i.d., or doesn't really _have_ a well-known civilian id (I think
here of the X-Men as opposed to a Clark Kent or Tony Stark type),
but for the most part much of a hero's psychological cachet comes
from that second, secret suit of clothes hanging in her closet.
     (And to digress for a moment, in terms of the other kind of
"out," I guess comics are for the most part behind the times, and
stray from the manifest proportions of sexual subcategories that
are so obviously prevalent in the "real" world.  I can just see a
"Very Special Superman Story," where Luthor reveals to the world
that Kal-El is in fact gay, and suddenly neanderthal reaction-
aries don't want the big lug saving their kittens from trees, or
changing the course of mighty rivers ("He might turn those mighty
he-man rivers _ho-moe-seckshal_, Beulah!").  Or a critical point
in a battle against the Gray Gargoyle when the Falcon turns to
Captain America and stammers, "Steve... it looks like we may not
make it, and there's something I really have to tell you...
sweetie....").  Anyway, there must be demographics (which word I
tend to always read as "demongraphics," which is perhaps more
true than you might think but is definitely a digression's
digression and should be tabled for the nonce), demographics
available to the comic companies which indicate that despite the
presence of a manifest and discrete subsection of the population
which is "sexually alternative" to the theoretic hetero baseline,
those folks just won't buy comic books, 'cause between you and
me, if Marvel or Image thought they could make a buck pandering
to, say, a lesbian population, you'd be seeing "Scarlet Bitch"
and "Destroyer Dyke" so fast it'd make your pink triangle spin. 
But talk about a tangent....)
     So back to secret identities.  And more importantly, secret
identity _figures_.  Now, yes, we have had Bruce Wayne and Dick
Grayson figures, and Peter Parker, Clark Kent in that verdamnte
and still-unbelievably-not-on-sale Matrix car, and even Tony
Stark, but what about all the _other_ wonderful alter-egos out
there that verily scream for figurization?  I mean, my enjoyment
of most of my favorite comic book characters derives in no small
part from the non-combative segment of their lives, as well as
the swashbuckling-in-lurid-and-rather-revealing-tights part. 
Let's face it, half the thrill comes from that moment when Clark
tears open his shirt and you see that yellow "S" peeking out,
when Barry Allen's Flash costume bursts out of his ring -- that
moment of transformation, when someone who could easily be you or
me, doctor, lawyer, demented scribbler, pastry chef, rends the
veil of illusion between their mild self and their "true"
empowered self by shucking a few articles of clothing and
emerging as....hero.
     Latter-day character perversions aside for the moment, who
wouldn't *love* a test pilot Hal Jordan figure? (with snazzy
silver lame jumpsuit, of course.)  Or a police scientist Barry
Allen? (basic white lab coat.)  What about Steve Rogers (I'd
still opt for the cop uniform), or a decent-sized (and
recognizable) Bruce Banner ? (more scientist togs) (And by the
way, "Robert Bruce Banner..." -- pfagh!  Jeeze, make a mistake,
and then instead of _admitting_ it, why doncha _canonize_ it?!? 
Razzin' frazzin' Marvel editors....)  How about Diana Prince? 
Janet Van Dyne?  Heck, we got a civilian Wolverine, why not a
civilian Don Blake?
     Okay, okay, I know part of the professed reason:  "the
kiddies won't buy 'em...."  Frankly, I don't agree.  If the
packaging were done correctly, that is, hero and alter-ego packed
together on the same card, stand back and watch 'em sell like
hotcakes!  (But not where the alter-ego is proportioned to be
three feet tall -- hel-LO, Toy Biz "Transforming Hulk" sculptors,
clue-call for you on line one....)  Admit it, wouldn't you kill
to get a Thor/Don Blake combo?  I would, and I think my nephew
would, too -- sure, a kid might not want a Don Blake _alone_, but
packed along with Thor, imagine the fun kids could have slamming
that silly wooden stick down in frail Doc Blake's hand and then
pulling the Mighty Thor out from behind their back!  Again, it's
that mystical transformation that is the essence of much of our
love for these superhuman characters (in part because it gives us
hope of transforming ourselves, and also makes it clear that even
these impervious heroes have a very vulnerable human side).
     I think the fact that the only civilian-duds figures we've
seen are those of figures that basically anchor their figure
lines bespeaks the manufacturers' fears that civilian figures
just won't sell.  You know, it's a "well, we'll do Spidey, but
nobody else" mentality.  But -- aha! -- we've already _seen_ the
viability of "collector sets" of specialty limited figures.  Why
not a "Collector's Pack" of _Secret_ _Identities_!?!  I think it
would rock!
     Here's how I see it:  First, Toy Biz makes a deal with to produce 10,000 sets of "The Secret
Identities of Marvel Comics," two five-figure sets, the first of
which is Stephen Strange, Don Blake, Steve Rogers, Jessica Drew
and Victor Von Doom.  The second set would consist of Matt
Murdock, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark (in Armani suit), Elektra
Nachios, and Ben Grimm.  Ohhhh, be still my heart!
     Then Kenner emerges with a 10K run of Puzzle Zoo exclusive
figs:  Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen, Ray Palmer, Barry Allen, and
Dinah Prince.  (I know, I know, we don't even have _superhero_
figures for some of these yet, but hey, it's _my_ fantasy).
     When both companies realize that regardless of their "kiddy
demongraphics," these figures are getting snapped up in their
entire runs in mere days, whoo-hoo, the floodgates open!  Soon,
not only are civvy figures coming fast and furious, but the
companies realize that collector input (since it was all our
idea) means *actual* profits, and the light begins to shine clear
and bright.  It's a bloody domino effect!  In the following
months, *superhero* and *villain* figures we've always craved
start to appear in similar sets, from Mister Miracle and the
whole Kirby's Fourth World gang to the Vision, Ultron, Avengers-
upon-Avengers, a Savage Land set, Legions of Super-Heros, "Future
Villains" (Kang, Zarko, etc.), Golden Age heroes, and so on. 
It's's more than wonderful, it's a revelation, a
heaven on earth....
     "Hey, John!  John!"
     "Wake up, dude, you were *dreaming* again during a staff
     And so it goes.

     Okay, here's the scenario:  It's the 1997 annual convention
of the American Psychiatric Association, and a plane brimming
with attendees from San Francisco unfortunately and unaccountably
goes down over the Rockies.  As crews slowly manage to find and
then pore over the hideous, twisted wreckage, it becomes clear
that no one has survived.  Incredible tragedy.
     However, this disaster in the Earthly plane does not escape
the attention of...Malebolgia.  In fact, unbeknownst to the
contemptible mortals, this was all _planned_ by the big M.  For
the war against the angels is not going well, and it is time to
break with history and precedent and create a multitude of new
Spawns all at once!
     Yes, the next phase of the war with heaven will be fought
not on the battlefield, but on the _couch_, because it's time
for... "The Mental Health Professionals Spawn Series."
     First off, there's Classical Freudian Analyst Spawn with
Neural Parasite Sofa and pull-string talk action with Viennese
accent.  "Tell me, young lady angel, vhen vas it you first
experienced erotic totts about your poppa, de big guy...?"  This
Spawn's main power lies in immobilizing its angelic adversaries
with two-hour talk therapy sessions six days a week for at least
ten years, all at a staggering cost.
     Next up, Jungian Analyst Spawn with Primal Archetype Masks. 
This figure is equipped with a dream book and a small sand box
for evocative play with _really_ tiny action figures (each one is
approximately 1/4th inch tall).  By the time the angels have
staged various play dioramas of their creche childhoods, Jungian
Analyst Spawn has trapped their frail egos in a web of
irresistible images drawn from the collective unconscious, and
heaven is set back yet another ten yards.
     Then there's Rogerian Spawn (he doesn't _say_ anything, but
his mere reflective presence validates your angst and gives you
courage in an uncertain world); Ericksonian Spawn ("Buy yourself
a nice pair of Barbie's "sleep tight" silk pajamas, miss, your
whole life will change..."); Rolfian Spawn (with agonizing
finger-massage action), and perhaps my favorite, "Group Therapy
Spawn," which comes with a set of troubled "regular" Spawn
universe figures (which just happen to be the six available at
precipitous discount at various warehouse stores) who sit around
in a big circle and deal with their deep feelings that Todd
doesn't love them enough, and in fact never did.
     Finally, there's 70s counter-culture Alternative Therapy
Spawn, a clothing-optional figure with hot tub accessory and a
set of small crystals for resonance healing.  This figure also
comes packed with a small attorney figure to stave off frequent

     From here, it's but a short leap to some enchanting stories
about our most beloved heroes working out _their_ existential
woes on the couch, heroes from the Spawn universe and beyond.  I
see some terrific diorama possibilities here, beginning with the
inevitable intensive work on the split-personality endemic to the
whole hero/secret-identity complex by a slue of therapists
focusing on such characters as Billy Batson, Oliver Queen, Bruce
Wayne, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, Clark Kent, Hal Jordan, Bruce
Banner, and dozens more.  It's "Schizophrenia on Parade" with
these boys!  Heck, there's fodder enough for a big therapy
_group_ right there.
     Then there's the other unavoidable collective workshop --
"Dealing with Overweening Physical Strength: A Group for Big
Men."  It's probably a weekend retreat kind of thing, where the
bulked-up heros can gather together away from the hustle and
bustle of city life and really speak their hearts about the brawn
that just won't quit.
     The Savage Dragon:  "...well, sometimes, I'd just like
someone to notice me for my mind...."
     The Thing:  " know what it's like to try to pick a
lousy daisy and end up uprooting a whole blamed garden?"
     The Mighty Thor:  "...hath not a Thunder God eyes?  Hath not
a Thunder God hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections,
passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases -- "
     But he is suddenly interrupted by a booming, angry voice: 
"...Hulk is tired of listening to longhaired girly-man... Hulk
does not have puny talking stick, but Hulk wants to talk now
_anyway_...!"  [Slams fists against the ground, knocking down
several nearby trees and sending an entire forest full of birds
to the skies]
     You know, on second thought, ol' Greenskin probably isn't
the ideal candidate for a group kind of thing; he really needs a
one-on-one therapist of his own.  I can see it now....
     "Uh, welcome in, Mister, ah, Hulk, yes, please, be careful
with that vase, um, no, no, I don't think the chair is a good
spot for you, why don't you try that couch...."  [Tremendous
creaking noise as sofa bends into a "U" shape under the Hulk] 
It's awkward at first, but after a few minutes the Hulk actually
gets into it, and begins talking about all sorts of wounds that
only a behemoth could suffer.  Yes, ultimately, the Hulk
starts...opening up.
     "...Hulk appreciates time thera-pis has taken with him and
now knows that when he punches bad guy he is really transferring
his aggression towards his mother....  Hulk understands that
Hulk's parents had a hard time of things and did best they
     "Good, good, uh, Hulk, but I there's a breakthrough looming
ahead...keep going..."
     "Hulk will now...point to puppet and tell you where teacher
touched him...."
     Oy, the pain these heroes suffer...
     "...and Hulk think thera-pis needs new couch...."
     Of course, when the therapist announces that the hour is up
and the session is over, the Hulk unfortunately goes into a rage
and destroys the entire counselling center....
     Maybe this isn't such a good idea after all.  Does anyone
know what kind of health insurance most heroes have?  Probably an
HMO, not a good idea at all.

     You know, it's hard to miss the figures being promoted
lately from noon to night and available at various fast food
chains.  From Burger King to McDonald's, Subway to Taco Bell,
action figures are becoming as prevalent as, well, ersatz
foodstuffs and cholesterol.  You want a meatball hoagie?  Spider-
Man comes along for the ride.  An "adult" chicken sandwich?  Have
a Tasmanian Devil on the side.  A Whopper?  Enjoy a little Buzz
Lightyear action with that.
     I guess the conventional ad-man wisdom is, if you weren't
planning on poisoning your system with fast food before, you'll
see a neat ad photo of Bugs Bunny, and stop and think, "hey, it
may take years off my life, but I'll get a *toy* with those
calories!"  Yep, fast food and figures -- they're starting to go
together like Martin & Lewis, assault & battery, well, pickle and
     But what if they had it the other way around?
     I mean, what if the toy manufacturers thought about this
from the other end, saw that certain figures just aren't selling,
but that maybe, just maybe, the right dietary enticement might
turn those peg-hangers into retail gold!
     I can see it now:  Toy Biz strikes a deal with McDonald's,
and starts packing *fries* in with all the Spider-Man figures! 
And they start to sell like nobody's business!  Not to be
outdone, Kenner races back into production with innumerable Bat-
variations, forms a hot deal with Burger King, and before you can
say "Have it our way, or don't have it at all," that Peptic Ulcer
Batman with Life-Like Gas Action will come with a mini-vanilla
shake!  Mmmm-mmmm, that's fine eatin'!  Playmates immediately
sees their profits flying out the take-out window and leaps in
with a futuristic Star Trek 7-11 tie-in promotion -- every Next
Generation figure comes with 1,701 tiny Slurpees!  The crowds go
wild, and the figures sell as never before.
     Sure, the staff at TRU is eating half the profits, but it's
a monster, this is a marketing phenomenon for the coming century,
and it's unstoppable!  As the food/figure wars escalate, entire
meals are packed under bubbles with figures, until Puzzle Zoo
steps in and begins marketing exclusive "Complete Thanksgiving
Dinners for Eight" with multiple figure sets of Original Avengers
and New X-Men!  Target and Hasbro announce an exclusive "T-Bone
Steak" G.I. Joe line, while Trendmasters begins packing Dolly
Madison cakes and pies in with every Mars Attacks figure.  It's a
consumer _juggernaut_!
     And then the inevitable:  McFarlane Toys enters the fray. 
At first their deal with Subway seems innocuous enough:  Spawn 8
figures come with either a BMT, Tuna Hero, Imitation Seafood 6"
or Veggie Delight Sub.  Until Todd McF reveals that the repaints
come with entirely different condiments!  Yep, if you want
mustard on that Italian Combo Sub, you're gonna have to wait for
the rare "they screwed up at the factory" repaint chartreuse
Proctologist Spawn figure.  And if you like onions *and*
jalapenos, well, you're in trouble my friend -- that's packed
only with a Kaybee Toys Rhinoplasty Spawn gold exclusive, and
won't be out until *next* Xmas....
     You know, I've got to stop.  I'm suddenly not feeling so
well....urp!  Oh, boy, I think I need a shot of pepto....
     See week!
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

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