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By Thomas Wheeler

Super-heroes have been a steady part of the action figure world for many years. These days, Mattel has the rights to the DC characters, after a long run by Hasbro, and is presenting us with product based on Batman and the animated Justice League. Toy Biz has helmed the Marvel world for many years.

In the 60's, a 12" character named Captain Action was the primary outlet for super-heroes. He was the super-hero version of G.I.Joe, a character for whom you could buy a wide range of character costumes, including the likes of Batman, Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man, Aquaman, and even non DC or Marvel characters such as The Phantom, Flash Gordon, The Lone Ranger, and the Green Hornet. Cap made a sadly brief comeback several years ago from Playing Mantis.

In the 70's, the super-hero world was ruled by Mego, which had the rights to both DC and Marvel characters, and turned out a wide range of 8", cloth-costumed super-heroes that are highly sought after to this day. The Mego line featured superb action figures of well-known characters like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America, as well as the first real action figure versions of the likes of Green Arrow, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain Marvel, and others. Even a few non-Marvel-DC characters found their way in here, such as Tarzan, Conan (handled by Marvel in those days but not owned by them), Isis, and a few others.

Granted, Mego had the rights to just about everything back then, but this is not a Mego article.

In the 80's, after Mego's demise, there were no significant super-hero figures for several years. Then Mattel came along and produced a series of action figures based on Marvel Comics' recent Secret Wars mini-series. The figures were adequate, but largely uninspired and not terribly impressive.

Kenner obtained the DC license and crafted the SUPER POWERS line. And did one heck of a job with it.

By the mid-80's, the day of median-scale, cloth-costumed action figures was over. The 3-3/4" G.I.Joes ruled the roost. Entirely plastic bodies, notable for excellent detail and a high range of articulation, were the most prominent product on the shelves.

Kenner adapted to this, to a degree. They used all-plastic bodies, with good articulation, if not to G.I.Joe level, and they would, unlike Mattel's Marvel-based Secret Wars line, make each figure unique unto itself. Mattel had a nasty habit of reusing parts whenever possible. Mattel's figures also weren't especially detailed. Kenner's SUPER POWERS most emphatically were, certainly for the mid-80's. For the time, these were probably some of the coolest figures around. And they even hold up well today.

The SUPER POWERS line ran for three years, and would present dozens of very cool figures, including some pretty obscure ones along the way. The figures have an average height of 4-1/2", although that varies from figure to figure. Detail and markings are truly excellent. The cloth capes, on thise figures requiring them, were lightweight, and not hemmed, but generally held up well, and were certainly better than the flimsy and very prone to fraying stuff Mego had generally used. And someone finally remembered to give Superman the yellow "S" on the back of his cape! Captain Action didn't. Mego didn't. Kenner did. (Bottom line, though, nobody's ever done capes better than Toy Biz's Famous Covers, especially with the acreage of cape they gave to The Vision and Magneto).

There was one special gimmick. Each figure had a spring-activated feature of some sort. Fortunately, these were generally not a significant hindrance to the figure's articulation.

The first group contained the characters one would expect it to. Interestingly, there were a couple of very prominent DC characters in the lineup that were getting their first significant action figures, since Mego, for whatever reason, had never gotten around to them (although there's reason to believe that they had planned to). These are FLASH and GREEN LANTERN. The remainder of the first year line-up included SUPERMAN, BATMAN, ROBIN, WONDER WOMAN, AQUAMAN, a very cool HAWKMAN, and villains JOKER, PENGUIN, LEX LUTHOR, and the then-very-robotic BRAINIAC.

The second year would get a little strange. The world of Jack Kirby's "New Gods" came into the collection. That meant, most prominently, a superb figure of DARKSEID. It also meant an initially mail-order only STEPPENWOLF, as well as general release figures of KALIBAK, DeSAAD, ORION, PARADEMON, MR. MIRACLE and several others. They were cool figures, don't get me wrong. But I think it might have been a mistake to focus so closely on this one concept within DC. There were plenty of other more prominent DC characters that could have been brought into the line before this.

That wasn't the entire line-up for the second year, however. There were some other prominent characters that were not affiliated with Darkseid and his minions. DR. FATE. GREEN ARROW, FIRESTORM, RED TORNADO, and MARTIAN MANHUNTER all joined the line. Of these, only Green Arrow had been part of Mego's line-up.

Between the second and third year, the SUPER POWERS line got a little weird. It brought in several characters that were exclusive to the SUPER FRIENDS animated program that had been running on ABC since the 70's. This show, in an attempt to be more racially or culturally diverse or whatever, had created heroes that were clearly native to certain races or parts of the world. Among these, SAMURAI and GOLDEN PHARAOH would actually receive action figures. This was a very strange move in my opinion. In fairness, though, the Super Friends show changed its name to SUPER POWERS, actually brought in the Darkseid concept, and introduced Firestorm into the program, since he'd just gotten an action figure.

The third year would be the last for SUPER POWERS, but it would be a good one. Several very prominent characters would be introduced into the toy line, and one of them would make it into the animated program just as prominently. This was CYBORG, a member of the hit TEEN TITANS comic book, which had been overhauled several years prior by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. His figure was chrome-plated and very cool. Also introduced was CAPTAIN MARVEL, the "Shazam!" character who had become very prominent in DC Comics in his own right, a character almost as powerful as Superman.

PLASTIC MAN, who would probably appreciate the irony of being produced as a plastic action figure, rounded out the third year, along with MR. FREEZE, and a villain named TYR, who was a really strange choice, as I believe he was mostly an enemy to the futuristic Legion of Super-Heroes. One can envision the others saying, "Who let HIM in here?!"

Probably the scarcest figure of all was a mail-in figure for CLARK KENT.

There were some vehicles and playsets in the line. Some of these were predictable. There was a BATMOBILE and a BATCOPTER. There was a HALL OF JUSTICE, once the connection to the Super Friends show was made a little more clear. Darkseid and his cohorts received a couple of vehicles. But the Award for the Single Silliest Name for a Vehicle in the 1980's -- or at least certainly a contender, has to go to the JUSTICE JOGGER. Don't ask...

There are some oddities in the line. In South America, the Green Lantern molds were used to make a RIDDLER figure, whose name, translated, was "El Acertijo". Interestingly, several years after the Super Powers line, Toy Biz would briefly have the DC license, acquired mostly for the first Batman movie. Although most of their figures were very poor imitations of the Super Powers line, or just plain junk, such as the Two-Face with the twirling coin the size of a dinner plate or the Lex Luthor with the Kryptonite Ring and the excessive spring action that basically caused him to punch himself in the face, there was a decent, and non-GL-based, RIDDLER figure in this line, that works perfectly well within the Super Powers collection, and won't have Hal Jordan suing for likeness abuse.

A fourth series of the Super Powers line was in the works, and would have reportedly included SWAMP THING (a line which Kenner later did, and they're pretty much to scale), BLUE BEETLE, SUPERGIRL, and several others.

Several years ago, Tomart's Action Figure Digest did a lengthy report on some of Kenner's other plans that never came to fruition, that would have essentially been spin-offs of the Super Powers line. An extensive GREEN LANTERN line was considered, that might've brought in more of the Green Lantern Corps, and a huge TEEN TITANS line was also pondered. None of these, however, came to pass.

Today, the SUPER POWERS line is well-regarded by most collectors. Although in some respects the figure seem a little simplistic, they still look good, and to many collectors, are certainly preferable to the over-sculpted pre-posed plastic statues that have been marketed since, and are definitely preferable to 250-and-counting versions of a certain Dark Knight. The figures were all uniquely and carefull sculpted, look properly heroic or villainous, and are truly superb representations of their characters.

The SUPER POWERS collection is definitely one of the classics of the super-hero toy world.