REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS "JUSTICE IN THE JUNGLE" ANIMAL MAN & B'WANA BEAST TWO-PACK
Ever get the impression that, every once in a while, a toy company does something just for the fun of it? Granted, it's not the sort of thing that happens very often. Ultimately, toy companies are in business like any other company is -- to make money.
Toy companies, more than most, have to keep an eye on what's popular. If a toy company doesn't keep an eye on what's popular, then their product isn't going to sell well once it hits the stores, and the stores aren't terribly likely to order again. So, even though there might be a handful of people screaming for a complete action figure line of Hanna-Barbera's 1970's animated series "The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan", it isn't terribly likely to happen.
The DC Comics Universe consists of literally thousands of characters across its 75-year history. Obviously, some of these are better known than others. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman -- even people who have never picked up a comic book in their lives have heard these names. Some other names, not so much.
Mattel is producing a remarkable series of action figures known as DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS. Within this growing line, there are some names that are better known than others, obviously. But there are likely some names that -- you really just have to believe Mattel decided to do them pretty much just for the fun of it.
Now, that wouldn't work within a retail environment. Fortunately, Mattel does have another outlet for their product. And one recent DC Universe Classics two-pack turned up as an exclusive on that outlet -- the Web Store known as MattyCollector.Com.
What makes me think that maybe Mattel turned this particular set out just for the fun of it? Because really, you're not going to take a relatively obscure hero like Animal Man, a seriously obscure hero like B'wana Beast, put them together in a two-pack, call it "Justice in the Jungle", and have that many people take it seriously.
Fortunately, Mattel IS very serious about producing top-notch action figures from the DC Universe, regardless of who those characters may be. And the amusement factor of this particular set was just too good to pass up. Let's consider the characters (and figures) individually, starting with...
ANIMAL MAN - Animal Man is unquestionably the better known of the two characters in this set. He's had his own series, has turned up in more than one "Crisis", and has been far more involved, at least in the mainstream DC Universe, with other heroes, than has B'wana Beast. Animal Man's comic series even featured covers by the remarkable Brian Bolland. Let's see what I was able to find out about Animal Man:
Animal Man's real name is Bernhard "Buddy" Baker. As a result of being in proximity to an exploding extraterrestrial spaceship, Buddy Baker acquires the ability to temporarily "borrow" the abilities of animals (such as a bird's flight or the proportionate strength of an ant). Using these powers, Baker fights crime as the costumed superhero Animal Man.
Created by writer Dave Wood and artist Carmine Infantino, Buddy Baker first appeared in Strange Adventures #180 (September 1965) and adopted the name Animal Man in issue #190. Animal Man was a minor character for his first twenty years, never gaining the popularity of other DC heroes such as Batman or Superman. However, he became one of several DC properties, such as Shade, the Changing Man and Sandman, to be revived and revamped in the late 1980s for a more mature comics audience. He was billed as a "full time hero", an aspect that would be the most changed by the revamp.
The Animal Man revival series was innovative in its advocacy for animal rights, its willingness to break the fourth wall, and its portrayal of Animal Man as an everyman hero with a wife and children. After that series ended in 1995, the character has made brief appearances in DC crossover events. Animal Man recently was a major character in the weekly series 52.
Although Grant Morrison's issues are the better-known and higher-selling, the title's entire run maintained a general consistency of themes, content, and narrative structures. These included social consciousness, metaphysics, deconstruction of the superhero genre and comic book form, postmodernism, eccentric plot twists, explorations of cosmic spirituality and mysticism, the determination of apparent free will by a higher power, and manipulation of reality including quantum physics, unified field theory, time travel and metafictional technique. The series is well-known for its frequently psychedelic and "off the wall" content. A majority of the series' cover art was done by Brian Bolland
Animal Man debuted in a story written by Dave Wood and drawn by Carmine Infantino and George Roussos. He continued as a semi-regular feature in the book, making occasional cover appearances, until the introduction of Deadman, who became the main feature with issue #205. His subsequent appearances were sporadic and sparse. In 1980, Animal Man made a notable guest appearance in Wonder Woman #267-268.
His main appearances in the 1980s were as a member of the "Forgotten Heroes", a team of minor DC heroes. It was in that capacity that he appeared in the company-wide crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths.
In the late 1980s, following the slate-cleaning Crisis on Infinite Earths event, DC began employing innovative writers to revamp some of their old characters. In the period that saw Alan Moore reinvent Swamp Thing, and Neil Gaiman do the same with The Sandman, Animal Man was re-imagined by Scottish writer Grant Morrison. Morrison wrote the first 26 issues of the Animal Man comic book, published between 1988 and 1990, with art by Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood.
Although the series was initially conceived as a four-issue limited series, it was upgraded into an on-going series following strong sales. Consequently, Morrison developed several long-running plots, introducing mysteries, some of which were not explained until a year or two later. The title featured the protagonist both in and — increasingly — out of costume. Morrison made the title character an everyman figure living in a universe populated by superheroes, aliens, and fantastic technology. Buddy's wife Ellen, his son Cliff (9 years old at the beginning of the series), and his daughter Maxine (5 years old) featured prominently in most storylines, and his relationship with them, as husband, father, and provider, was an ongoing theme.
The series championed vegetarianism and animal rights, causes Morrison himself supported. In one issue, Buddy helps a band of self-confessed eco-terrorists save a pod of dolphins. Enraged at a fisherman's brutality, Buddy drops him into the ocean, intending for him to drown. Ironically, the man is saved by a dolphin.
Buddy fought several menaces, such as ancient, murderous spirit that was hunting him; brutal, murderous alien Thanagarian warriors; and even the easily-defeated red robots of an elderly villain who was tired of life. The series made deep, sometimes esoteric, reference to the entire DC canon, including B'wana Beast, Mirror Master, and Arkham Asylum. Soon after the launch of his series, Animal Man briefly became a member of the Justice League Europe, appearing in several early issues of their series.
During his run on the title, Morrison consistently manipulated and deconstructed the fourth wall — the imaginary barrier separating the reader from the setting of the story which also extends to the characters and their creators. Some characters become aware that they are being viewed by a vast audience, and are able to interact with the borders of the panels on the page. The series notably contained overt references to the various Earths of the pre-Crisis DC Multiverse.
After the cancellation of his own series, Animal Man made cameos in several other titles, returning to his standard costumed form. He has been utilized in most of the recent DC company-wide crossovers fighting alongside other less-mainstream heroes, including 52 and Infinite Crisis, both co-written by Grant Morrison, as well as Justice League of America issue #25.
In the pre-Crisis origin, Buddy Baker gained animal powers when he encountered a spaceship which blew up, infusing him with radiation. He used his powers to fight crime and ward off alien attackers. He then joined the Forgotten Heroes group prior to the Crisis on Infinite Earths..
Baker's post-Crisis origin was slightly altered, but retained the essence of the original. While hunting as a teenager, he encounters a crashed spaceship which apparently endows him with his abilities. After an apparently unsuccessful stint as a superhero, followed by a hiatus where he utilized his powers to work as a film stuntman, Baker decides to restart and make a career out of it after being inspired by the headline-making Justice League International; this is where his self-titled series begins.
He is married to his high school sweetheart, Ellen, a storyboard artist and, later, an illustrator for children's books. They have two children, Cliff and Maxine, who are a pre-teen and toddler, respectively, when the series starts. They live in a suburban area outside of San Diego.
As to his powers and abilities, Buddy can mimic any abilities of any animal as a result of his encounter with a crashed alien spacecraft. He does this by either focusing on a specific animal near him, or, as he learned later, by drawing power from the animal kingdom in general (this enables him to even mimic animals that are extinct). The nature of these powers has been described in various ways, including the superficial "alien radiation" explanation of his early appearances, the reconstruction of his body by aliens with "morphogenetic grafts" at the cellular level, and currently, mystical access to a "morphogenetic field" created by all living creatures, also known as "the Red". He does not grow wings to fly as a bird (instead he flies in classic "Superman style"), nor does he form gills to breathe underwater when mimicking a fish, but he has occasionally been known to mimic the actual appearances of animals, such as adopting the claws of a wolverine temporarily, or his metamorphosis toward the end of Delano's run on his series.
The level of Buddy's abilities are proportional to the size of the animal they are drawn from. Hence, drawing the jumping ability from a flea would allow him to cover great distances. However, taking the abilities of a larger animal does not result in diminished power for him. In some appearances, he can also talk to animals and enter their minds.
So, how's the figure? Really very nicely done. One thing seriously surprised me about it, however. I was well prepared to say that one of the reasons that Mattel did this Animal Man figure was so they could get a second use out of the jacket molds that they'd used on Mister Terrific, a standard-release DC Universe Classics figure from Wave 8.
There's not that many jacketed super-heroes anymore -- thank goodness. It was some sort of peculiar trend, pretty much in the early 90's. All of a sudden jacketed super-heroes were everywhere. It was like tights weren't good enough anymore, and somehow wearing a jacket over the spandex made you tougher. Frankly, I think Marvel did it a lot more than DC. But it was a weird trend, right up there with muscular physiques that, proportionately, made the Hulk look like the kid that gets sand kicked in his face in those Charles Atlas ads.
A few jacketed super-heroes I'm prepared to put up with. But very surprisingly, the jacket worn by Animal Man is NOT from the same molds as the one worn by Mister Terrific! When one considers the cost of molds, this is really very amazing. Mind you, I'm not complaining. For a set that may well have been created largely for the sake of doing something as offbeat as possible, there's a number of parts on both Animal Man and B'wana Beast that clearly required some additional effort.
Now, the basics of the jacket do follow the same parameters of Mister Terrific, and is a common practice in any number of action figure lines where a character is typically wearing a coat or cloak. I've seen it in DC Universe, I've seen it in G.I. Joe, I've seen it in Star Wars, I've seen it in Indiana Jones. Basically, the "body" of the jacket is molded as a vest that is placed on the figure during the course of assembly, and the actual arms of the action figure are also the sleeves of the jacket, or coat, or robe, or whatever.
More often than not, it works reasonably well, and it certainly has here in the DC Universe Classics line. Now, there are a couple of common points between Animal Man and Mister Terrific's jackets. The upper arms appear to be the same. But the main body of the jacket, the shoulders, and the lower arms, which feature cuffs on Animal Man's coat that Mister Terrific does not have, are entirely different.
Detailing on the jacket is very well done. The jacket has an upturned collar, with little copper snaps painted on it, and a silver zipper down the center. You want detail? There are even snaps on the back of the collar, fully painted, even!
As for the main figure's body, it uses the same "male hero" mold that a considerable majority of the male figures in the DC Universe Classics line use. I do not have any complaint with this whatsoever. It lends a consistency to the overall line which I sincerely appreciate.
Animal Man's costume is predominantly a deep golden orange, with a blue "A" like shape cross the chest, missing the crossbar, as such looking something like an inverted "V". His gloves and boots are black. The boots have a very stylized design to them, with multiple curves along the tops.
Animal Man's costume is black around the head, leaving his dark blonde hair exposed. We wears a pair of triangular-lensed goggles. Impressively, the goggles were molded as a separate piece, and his eyes are visible behind the lenses.
Of course, the figure is superbly articulated, and is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, and ankles.
Any complaints? Not really. The face has what could be a scar on it, on the lip and nose, but whether this was an accident of molding or intended to be there, I'm honestly not sure. The overall detail on the face is excellent, even if the paint could perhaps be a bit better. There are a few wrinkles on the forehead, and Animal Man has this sort of sardonic smile on his face, like he's saying, "Yeah, I know I'm far from the most prominent hero in the DC Universe. You still bought me, though..."
I will address one matter. The apparent "mold injection point" was right where his left earpiece is. This has left that earpiece with a rather wrinkled look to it, as if the plastic right there didn't form quite properly. I realize that finding an injection point that won't affect the look of the figure is probably not easy, but in this case, the choice perhaps could have been better.
Now let's turn our attention to:
B'WANA BEAST. Okay, seriously? This is a guy who didn't even get an entry in the last edition of the massive DC Comics Encyclopedia. You start seeing B'wana Beast action figures, and you start wondering if Mattel's next two-pack is going to be Congo Bill and Janu the Jungle Boy (who DID have entries in the Encyclopedia...).
Even so, you start thinking "obscure heroes", and B'wana Beast would be pretty close to the top of the list. Incredibly, this ISN'T the first action figure of him. He actually made it into the Justice League Unlimited line, due to an episode of the series that did rather prominently feature him.
Let's see what I was able to turn up about this character's history.
B'wana Beast appeared in Showcase #66–67, in 1967. He did not appear again until an issue of DC Challenge, in which he teamed up with Congo Bill. His next appearance was around the same time was in Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. He then showed up in Swamp Thing Annual #3 in 1987. After that, he appeared in Animal Man #1, 3, 4, and 13 in 1988. He also makes an appearance in the comic series Justice League Unlimited, based on the animated series, in issue #29. There he assists Animal Man in defeating the Queen Bee.
B'wana Beast's given name is Mike Maxwell. Maxwell possesses a helmet and elixir which confer on him his powers. These powers are mind control and the ability to fuse together two living animals to make one powerful entity under B'wana Beast's control.
With the help of his gorilla companion, Djuba, in a secret hideout at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, ranger Mike Maxwell drinks the aforementioned elixir and dons the helmet to become B'wana Beast. In the origin issue, he fights Hamid Ali, "He Who Never Dies."
In the initial story arc of Animal Man, written by Grant Morrison, B'wana Beast journeys to America to rescue Djuba, who has been captured by scientists and infected with an experimental form of anthrax. He fails to save Djuba and is himself infected with the disease, but he is cured by Animal Man, who mimics B'wana Beast's powers in order to merge his white blood cells into forms capable of fighting off the disease.
In Animal Man #13, Maxwell decides to retire and performs a ceremony to find a successor. He passes the helmet and elixir on to a South African activist named Dominic Mndawe, who assumes the name Freedom Beast.
B'wana Beast has the ability to communicate with animals. He also has the ability to merge two animals together to form a Chimera or (how he puts it) he merges the best of two different things to create an unstoppable force.
B'wana Beast was featured in the Justice League Unlimited episode "This Little Piggy". He was recruited by Batman for his superior tracking skills in the search for Wonder Woman, who had been mystically transformed into a pig by Circe. In this incarnation, B'wana Beast was given a thick New York accent and blue collar personality to match, and his abilities were presented as animalistic feats of agility and the ability to communicate with animals.
B'wana Beast appears in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode "Enter the Outsiders". He helps Batman in his fight with Black Manta. In his fight with him, B'wana Beast used his powers to merge a policeman's horse and a spider to form a creature to catch up with Black Manta and later merged a pelican and a shark to form a creature to stop Black Manta. B'wana Beast returns in the second season, with a bigger role. In "Deep Cover for Batman!".
Yeah, I know, it's nowhere near as extensive as Animal Man's background. Like I said, this guy is pretty obscure. And somewhere in the Multiverse, if he's somehow able to see all of the media and toy attention he's been getting the past several years, he's probably laughing himself silly up a tree somewhere.
It would appear that his recent prominence in other media has even led to an increased prominence in the comics, at least where possible. The 2009 DC UNIVERSE HOLIDAY SPECIAL, a lengthy but enjoyable publication featuring no less than sixteen short, holiday themes stories, includes tales from not only major characters such as Batman and Superman, but from all over the DC Universe, including, among others, Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, Adam Strange, Martian Manhunter, Ragman, and -- B'wana Beast. And it's a pretty cool story, too.
So, how's the figure? Well -- um -- it certainly looks like B'wana Beast. Which does bring us to the matter of his -- er -- costume. I've seen better-dressed professional wrestlers. Frankly, he looks a lot like a professional wrestler. Mattel's got the WWE license these days, and I'd be willing to wager that you could take B'wana here, put him in a lineup of WWE figures, show them off to someone who's knowledge of the WWE wasn't quite as extensive as it should be, and he wouldn't think that B'wana Beast was the least bit inappropriate. Tell him you saw him take on Shawn Michaels two weeks ago and he'd probably believe it.
Okay, B'wana Beast is a jungle hero. That tends to limit one's options. There's not a lot of spandex stores in the middle of the jungle. You sort of have to work with what you've got. Which in B'wana Beast's case, wasn't all that much.
B'wana Beast is wearing a red helmet that looks like an upturned bucket, with a leopard-spot-patterned visor on the front that looks like one of Elton John's castoffs. He's wearing leopard-skin shorts -- which takes guts, I'd say -- that look like Giganta's leftovers, with a striped length of fabric down the front that looks like a dishtowel from Walmart's kitchen and housewares aisle. He has these strangely ridge-marked red boots that look like something he might've stolen from Iron Man -- assuming Iron Man might've paid a visit to the DC Universe and for some reason left a pair of boots there -- topped with more leopard skin trim that was made from whatever was left after he made the shorts.
To Mattel's considerable credit, this figure required some additional effort beyond using the standard male body mold and attaching a new head. The -- dishtowel (for lack of a better term) is a separate piece that had to be molded separately, as well as painted, and it actually has a fairly complex pattern of of stripes outlined in black.
Additionally, the leopard-spot boot cuffs are distinctly raised areas with considerable sculpted "fur" within them. This means that the figure has entirely distinctive lower legs. The leopard-spot part of the visor on the helmet also has fur sculpting in it.
The spotted pattern on the visor, shorts, and boot cuffs is extremely intricate, even moreso than the other recipient of this particular patterning, the "Collect and Connect" figure of Giganta. And it's very neatly painted on this figure, as are the black ridges on the boots. This is ultimately a figure with not a lot of painted detail on him, but what there is, is extremely well done.
And there's one other thing to take note of -- sort of a nit-picky little thing, but I think it's worth mentioning. When a DC Universe Classics figure has a cape, there's an indentation -- a slot, really -- in the back of the basic male hero upper torso mold, into which a cape can be secured. If a figure does not have a cape, like Flash, Green Lantern, Captain Atom, etc., that otherwise uses the standard male hero mold, then a shaped "plug" is inserted into the slot, so the figure doesn't have a gaping hole in his back. This plug is detectable, but it's preferable to a hole.
B'wana Beast obviously does not have a cape. Neither does he have a hole. Incredibly, neither does he have a plug! There is an infinitesimal line on his back, shaped like the outline of the slot, but it's clearly not a separate plug. It would appear that Mattel has created a new "back" mold that can be used on capeless figures, that simply removes the cape slot entirely, and eliminates the need for a fill-in "plug". I certainly approve, and I hope to see more of this particular back mold in the future. I would find it difficult to believe that it was created just for B'wana Beast.
Of course, B'wana Beast has the same excellent level of articulation as Animal Man, and as most of the DC Universe Classics figures. He is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, and ankles.
Any complaints? None. The outward movement of the left leg is a little loose, but not worth more than commenting on. Mattel just needs to watch its overall quality control on these figures, and they should continue to excel.
So, what's my final word here? Seriously, what we have here is one character, Animal Man, who may warrant an action figure, and another one, B'wana Beast, who almost certainly would not if it weren't for some other media appearances and, I'm convinced of it, someone at Mattel with a sense of humor who decided to "go for it" with this particular set. Fortunately, I have enough of a sense of humor to appreciate it and get them.
And I hope you do, too. I honestly believe that Mattel is producing the most impressive super-hero figures presently available with their DC Universe Classics collection, and I sincerely hope they continue to do so for many years. So why not allow a few oddballs into the line? Why not bring in Animal Man and B'wana Beast, and let them keep company with the big boys. It's zany, it's wacky, and really, it's pretty cool, too.
So, needless to say, the DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS "JUSTICE IN THE JUNGLE" Two-Pack featuring ANIMAL MAN and B'WANA BEAST, definitely has my highest recommendation!