American pop culture nostalgia tends to go through generational cycles. In the 1970s, everyone watched Happy Days; in the 1990s we had another Woodstock; in the early “naughts” we had That ’70s Show.
The same holds true for toys. In the 1990s, there was a resurgence of popularity for Mego and Star Wars, lines whose heyday was in the 1970s and early 1980s. Now, we’re seeing feature films of The Transformers and G.I. Joe, while lines such as Transformers Classics, 25th Anniversary G.I. Joe and the 2002 Masters of the Universe revamp show that 1980s nostalgia is big business right now. NECA’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mattel’s latest attempt at resurrecting He-Man, Masters of the Universe Classics, are more examples of action figure lines intended to cater to collectors who were kids in the 1980s.
Nostalgia has been an important component of the action figures collectors’ market since adults first started poking around flea markets for their beloved 12″ G.I. Joes of childhood. But it was in the mid-1990s, when Hasbro re-launched their Star Wars brand with no movies (other than the re-releases) to support them, that the toy companies began to cater to collectors as well as kids (who were increasingly choosing electronic entertainment over traditional toys). McFarlane Toys upped the collectors’ market ante in the late nineties with lines based on rated-R properties such as Movie Maniacs, and by 2000 the market was in the midst of the sort of boom seen in comics in the early nineties.
While there are no doubt a good number of children who ask their parents for figures from mass market lines such as Star Wars, 25th Anniversary G.I. Joe, Transformers Classics and MOTU Classics, these lines are clearly targeted toward collectors.
However, I don’t think Marvel Legends–to use an example–is a “nostalgia line” the same way the aforementioned lines are. For one thing, there isn’t really an iconic toy line for collectors to be nostalgic for. While Mego’s World’s Greatest Superheroes and Mattel’s Secret Wars were fairly successful, the former wasn’t Marvel-specific (it had DC heroes as well) and the latter never came close to the popularity of Mattel’s other boy’s brand, He-Man. Marvel Legends came about as a natural evolution of Toy Biz’s comic-based toy lines of the 1990s; it was not (again, not intially) intended to be marketed primarily to collectors who remembered the comics (and Secret Wars) fondly from the 1980s.
So what about DC Universe Classics? Is it a nostalgia line, geared toward collectors who fondly remember the days of Super Powers and George Perez, or is it a “regular” contemporary superhero action figure line?
What is now DCUC began in 2003 as a 6″ action figure line based on the Batman comics, which was the only DC license Mattel had aside from the animated universe. Clearly targeted toward kids (and if you want to argue with that, I present Street Luge Batman as Exhibit A), but designed by talented sculptors with a collector’s love of action figures (the Four Horsemen), the line offered a few excellent figures (for kids and fans alike) before succumbing to the “variantitis” that plagues so many children’s lines, where dozens of odd versions of the main characters are released while the secondary characters and villains get shortpacked (if they’re packed at all).
When Mattel picked up the Superman master license as well (ahead of Superman Returns), the languishing Batman line, whose four best figures (Bat Signal Batman, Attack Armor Batman, Bane, and Scarecrow) had only been released internationally, morphed into the DC Superheroes line. The first wave consisted of re-releases of Bane, Scarecrow, a re-sculpted Killer Croc and a Batman who was a blue repaint of the Bat Signal Batman (minus the ball jointed head, for some reason). This was followed by the much more impressive Superman wave, featuring what is still my favorite Superman figure ever made, as well as Supergirl, Bizarro, and Doomsday.
The DC Superheroes line continued for several years, offering increasingly improved sculpting, tooling, articulation, and character selection. In general, the look of the figures reflected not necessarily their “classic” look, but their most popular or iconic. And so, while we received modern versions of Batman, Catwoman and Supergirl, the design of Lex Luthor and Brainiac was based on their short-lived 1980s incarnations, best remembered from the Super Powers line.
Last year, DC Superheroes became DC Universe Classics. With that change, the line’s identity crisis was evident. Every other toy line with the term “Classics” at the end, including the upcoming Masters of the Universe Classics, offers modernized, revamped versions of old figures and lines. But Mattel’s comic Batman line had started out as a “generic” comic-based line geared toward kids. When it became DC Superheroes, its target demographic began to skew a bit older, in particular to fans of the Justice League and other animated show.
Mattel has clearly stated DCUC is intended to be a collector-oriented line with some overlap with the children’s market. And they’ve been true to that claim; in the first wave, they substituted the classic Red Tornado in for the modern version, and in the second wave they’re releasing the classic Firestorm (Ronnie Raymond) before the modern one (Jason Rusch).
The third wave will feature Green Lantern in his classic, pre-1990s duds. The sculpts of Wonder Woman and Cyborg are clearly based on the George Perez era of the 1980s (Cyborg in particular has a more streamlined look now). Amazo is looking very retro too.
And yet…the Riddler figure will be in his business suit, Black Lightning is in his modern outfit (much to collectors’ chagrin, it seems), and Batman Beyond, of all people, will appear in a future assortment. And then there’s the very McFarlanesque Metallo. The whole situation has left some fans seriously displeased.
Some collectors have asked Mattel to focus entirely on “classic” versions of characters; a few have expressed a preference for the modern version. Obviously, variants of both would be ideal, though the ratio of such variants will never please everyone (for instance, the 50/50 split between the classic and modern Aquaman in DCUC2 was a step in the right direction, but a 70/30 split in favor of the classic might have been smarter–most fans seemed to want the classic version).
The style of each DCUC sculpt appears to be a confluence of one or more of the following:
- a character’s “classic” look (Wonder Woman);
- his or her current look in comics (Catwoman);
- his or her look in the DC animated universe (Mr. Freeze, Clayface, the first Supergirl release);
- his or her look in the Super Powers line (Brainiac, Lex Luthor);
- and the Four Horsemen’s personal style and interpretation (Metallo?).
The Horsemen and Mattel are not simply choosing to sculpt the most iconic or classic version of a character, nor are they only doing the most contemporary version. In general, think they’re trying to choose the most toyetic version of a character. The robotic Brainiac is far more visually interesting than the green-skinned humanoid version, even if he only looked like that in the comics for about a year. And unless it’s an exclusive, I can’t envision a mass market Lex Luthor figure in a business suit selling well (despite Toy Biz’s early effort) when compared to the purple-and-green monstrosity Perez designed for Super Powers. I find Clayface particularly interesting–the design of the figure seems primarily inspired by his animated version, but the crystals in his right arm are from the comic version.
If you want me to divine some sort of conclusion from all this, it’s that DC Universe Classics is not a true nostalgia line like Transformers Classics, 25th Anniversary G.I. Joe, or (presumably) Masters of the Universe Classics. DCUC is not just providing updated versions of Super Powers figures, nor is it trying to keep up with recent storylines as Marvel Legends has done with Civil War and World War Hulk.
Instead, the “DC Four Horsemen Universe” is an amalgam the DCU’s visual history, distilled to its most toyetic essence. It’s a stylistic choice I admire, and while I might have preferred a different version of a character here or there, I think the creative minds behind DC Universe Classics have provided the best example yet of what an action figure line can and should be.