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REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE/MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE AQUAMAN & MER-MAN SET
By Thomas Wheeler

One might tend to wonder, just offhand, what in the world do the DC Universe and the Masters of the Universe -- Universe, have in common? And on the surface, it would seem that they don't really have all that much in common.

The DC Universe takes place, for the most part, on Earth, featuring characters with a variety of super-powers, but who are, for the most part, human. The most iconic of these characters, such as Superman, Batman, and others, have been around for decades, and are some of the most recognizable pop culture characters in existence. The adventures generally take place in the modern day, with a bent towards a technological world slightly in advance of our own, depending on the storyline requirements.

Masters of the Universe takes place, for the most part, on Eternia, a fictional planet, featuring characters whose unusual attributes seem to be largely based on the natural development of the species they happen to represent, making Eternia either an anthropologist's dream or a Darwinian nightmare. The concept has been in existence for slightly less than thirty years as of this writing, and while certainly prominent in the pop culture world, arguably isn't quite as well known as the DC Universe. The Eternian civilization is a strange cross of the medieval, the high-tech, and even magic.

So, where does a line like "DC Universe vs. Masters of the Universe" come from? Well, it helps if you're Mattel, the company that owns the Masters, and is the master licensee for DC Universe toys. It also helps if your primary toy brands in those categories, Masters of the Universe Classics and DC Universe Classics, happen to be designed by the same superb sculpting and design team, the Four Horsemen, and are very nearly to scale with one another.

And it doesn't hurt that the first comic book debut of the Masters of the Universe took place within the pages of DC Comics Presents, a Superman team-up title in the 80's, and sent the Man of Steel briefly to Eternia. This was followed by a brief Masters mini-series which also guest-starred Superman, although there is a certain irony to be had in that, later on, the Masters had a far longer comic book run under Marvel's Star Comics imprint. But -- we won't get into that here... It wasn't like the X-Men turned up or anything.

Now, admittedly, from a conceptual standpoint, the line is a bit of a stretch. Superman is the only DC Universe character to ever encounter the Masters. But why nit-pick? The DC Universe Classics line is easily the most impressive line of DC Comics action figures ever produced, and this team-up series has finally brought at least some of the equally magnificent Masters of the Universe Classics figures -- usually an online exclusive to MattyCollector.Com, to the retail market, at Toys "R" Us, which is the exclusive carrier of these two-packs.

Clearly, Mattel's intent has been to link characters from both universes that have common attributes, as much as possible. This we have seen Superman and He-Man, Skeletor and Luthor, Hawkman and Stratos, and now -- AQUAMAN and MER-MAN!

I'll admit, I haven't been picking up these sets with any great consistency, if only because I've generally purchased the individual figures in their respective lines whenever they've hit the stores, or been made available on MattyCollector.Com. But this particular set had something very distinctive about it, that I will get into over the course of the review, that made it worth the purchase.

For now, let's consider the individual figures -- and if we go in alphabetical order, either by concept name or individual character name, that puts Aquaman at the front of the line. So let's start with him, and consider some of the character's history.

Aquaman first appeared in "More Fun Comics #73", in late 1941. He was created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger. Initially a back-up feature in several of DC's anthology titles at the time, Aquaman later starred in several volumes of a solo title, and when the "Silver Age" of comics really began to take off, he was a founding member of the Justice League of America.

Aquaman's origin has been revised -- more than the average super-hero over the years. His first origin story was presented in flashback from his debut, narrated by the character himself.

"The story must start with my father, a famous undersea explorer - if I spoke his name, you would recognize it. My mother died when I was a baby, and he turned to his work of solving the ocean's secrets. His greatest discovery was an ancient city, in the depths where no other diver had ever penetrated. My father believed it was the lost kingdom of Atlantis. He made himself a water-tight home in one of the palaces and lived there, studying the records and devices of the race's marvelous wisdom. From the books and records, he learned ways of teaching me to live under the ocean, drawing oxygen from the water and using all the power of the sea to make me wonderfully strong and swift. By training and a hundred scientific secrets, I became what you see - a human being who lives and thrives under the water."

By the time of the Silver Age, starting in 1959, Aquaman's backstory was revised, with various new supporting characters and several adjustments made to his character, origin, and powers.

It was revealed that Aquaman was Arthur Curry, the son of Tom Curry, a lighthouse keeper, and Atlanna, a water-breathing outcast from the lost underwater city of Atlantis. Due to his heritage, Aquaman discovered as a youth that he possessed various superhuman abilities, including the powers of surviving underwater, communication with sea life, and tremendous swimming ability.

Eventually, Arthur decided to use his talents to become the defender of Earth's oceans. Aquaman eventually met the Atlanteans and became their ally. He was recognized as the son of Atlanna and was later voted to be King after the death of the former regent, who had no heirs. By this time Aquaman had met Mera, a queen from a water-based dimension, and he married her at the same time he was crowned king of Atlantis.

His adventures would continue to the mid-1980's. After his own feature's demise, Aquaman was briefly made the leader of the Justice League, and would reorganize the team several times leading up to the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Following this, several mini-series were produced featuring the character.

In 1989, his origin was revised once again, keeping some of his Silver Age origin, but rewriting much of the rest. Now, Aquaman was born Orin to Queen Atlanna and a mysterious wizard known as Atlan in the Atlantean city of Poseidonis. As a baby, he was abandoned on Mercy Reef because of his blonde hair, which was seen by the superstitious Atlanteans as a sign of a curse.

As a feral child who raised himself in the wilds of the ocean with only sea creatures to keep him company, Orin was found and taken in by a lighthouse keeper named Arthur Curry, who named Orin "Arthur" after himself. One day, Orin returned home and found that his adoptive father had disappeared, so he set off on his own.

Later, Orin returned to the seas, mostly staying out of humanity's sight, until he rediscovered Poseidonis. Later, he made his way to the surface world, where under the name of "Aquaman" he became one of several superheroes emerging into the public view at the time. Upon his later return to Poseidonis, he was made their king, and sometime later he met and married Mera.

Aquaman would receive another series of his own in 1994, greatly revising the look of the character, giving him long hair, a beard, a somewhat armored uniform, and eventually, a harpoon for his left hand following an encounter with the villain Charybdis, who stole Aquaman's ability to communicate with sea life, and had a school of piranha devour the hero's hand. This would remain Aquaman's look for a number of years, including in a number of animated appearances, including the Justice League series.

This series ran until 2001, and a new series commenced in 2003, where he gradually regained his more traditional look, and gained a new prosthetic hand made of "mystical water". During the course of this series, he went to San Diego after a massive earthquake plunged half the city into the Pacific Ocean. He discovered that many people had survived the catastrophe, somehow gaining the ability to breathe underwater, and he began helping them rebuild the submerged portion of the city they now called "Sub Diego".

Following the "One Year Later" event after Infinite Crisis, Aquaman is missing and presumed dead. He ultimately does die, later to turn up as a "Black Lantern" during the Blackest Night storyline, but was restored to life at the end of this tale, and as of this writing, will be starring in a new series.

So, how's the figure? Well, it certainly looks good. The Aquaman figure is essentially identical to the Aquaman figure that was released in the second series of DC Universe Classics figures. While that may seem repetitive, let's keep in mind that the DC Universe Classics series is up to around Series 16 or 17, and that Aquaman figure hasn't been readily available for several years, and was relatively scarce even when the assortment that it was part of was more readily available, simply because of the recognition factor.

As such, this set is a good chance for those who missed out on Aquaman the first time around to pick him up this time. And the figure really showcases the work of the Four Horsemen at their finest. Aquaman is dressed in his best-known, most traditional outfit -- the scaled orange shirt, the black trunks, and the green leggings and gloves, with the little fins on the backs of the legs.

Aquaman's shirt has a fairly wide collar, ringed in gold. Of particular note are the scales on the shirt. This has always been a somewhat tricky detail for action figures. Cloth costumes especially have a hard time of it. Mego basically ignored it. Captain Action and, more recently, Mattel's own Retro-Action line, printed the scales on the cloth. What else could you do?

Action figures where the costume is part of the figure are another matter. A few have sculpted a limited number of scales. Every once in a while someone will try to do the entire shirt. Kenner's Super Powers was probably the first to really do this, and this sort of intricate detail has to set a new sculpting standard for tedium. It's little wonder that sometimes the consistency of the scales is a little off.

Mattel's DC Universe Classics Aquaman is the first one I've seen that really got it right. The shirt is fully scaled, but it's also consistently scaled. I have no idea how they did it, but they sure did it. More impressively, given the high articulation of the figure, they did it across no less than eight distinct parts -- the upper torso, the mid torso, the shoulders, upper arms, and lower arms -- which at least were mostly gloves. The pattern is regular and consistent on each part, even over the musculature.

Aquaman's scales are highlighted with a slight metallic sheen. This IS different from the original Aquaman figure, very slightly. The original Aquaman figure in the DC Universe Classics line used just a lighter shade of orange as a highlight, to bring out the scales. It didn't have a metallic finish. There was also an Aquaman figure in a two-pack with a Black Manta figure that had an ENTIRELY metallic uniform. The Aquaman in the DC/Masters set leans more towards the original than that, but the slight metallic finish to the shirt is very cool-looking, and definitely enhances his aquatic appearance.

The rest of the figure is properly colored, and doesn't really have any particular enhancements. Aquaman comes with a very ornate trident accessory, and of course, the figure is superbly articulated. 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? Unfortunately, yes. There are some serious quality issues with this figure, and I sincerely hope that it was an aberration, because they're serious enough that I would hare to see them turn up elsewhere in DC Universe Classics.

The legs are horribly loose, and I mean to the point of being floppy. The knees and ankles aren't bad, but the legs at the hip are just awful. Worse, the right leg's outward movement articulation point is STUCK!

Add to that the fact that the head articulation is -- well, a little jerky somehow. I don't know what might have gone wrong there. He's also a bit loose at the waist. Visibly, this Aquaman figure is for the most part very decent. Structurally, he's one of the worst DC Universe Classics figures I've ever encountered. I hope that this isn't a trend in lowering quality standards. I almost wonder if some of this could be a result of adjustments that were made when the figure was produced for the two-pack where he was given a heavy metallic paint finish, but that's still not an excuse, and I frankly doubt it anyway.

On a minor note, the eyes could have been more neatly painted. They're not quite as precise as my original Aquaman, or for that matter the later Aquaman I have dressed in the swirling blue "ocean camouflage" uniform. Now, this could simply be a matter of the particular Aquaman that happened to come with this set, but still -- this figure was so problematic that I was VERY glad that I already owned a nearly-identical Aquaman from his original release in the DC Universe Classics line, and that really, my main reason for getting this set was the very unusual Mer-Man figure -- because the condition of this Aquaman is a real shame, and there was no way to know until I'd unpackaged him.

Now, let's turn our attention to the Masters side of the set, with Mer-Man! Unlike Aquaman, he doesn't have as lengthy a history. However, this is understandable, given that in the early days -- really up until the Masters of the Universe Classics line, extensive backstories of the characters involved was not regarded as a priority.

Of what could readily be argued to be the top three action figure concepts of the 1980's -- Masters, G.I. Joe, and Transformers -- Masters was the only one that didn't go in for some sort of character profile. G.I. Joe had its file cards. The Transformers had their Tech Specs. Masters -- didn't have much of anything. Even the animated series from Filmation was less concerned with character backgrounds, and more interested in presenting half an hour of high adventure.

Not even the 2002 Masters series went in for origins and histories all that much, although the comic book affiliated with this later series, produced by MVC Productions, did delve into the character histories somewhat more, with Mattel's approval, of course. And now, the Masters of the Universe Classics line has finally taken a cue from its 1980's contemporaries, and has introduced scroll-like bio cards on the backs of their packages, which have also been brought over into the DC/Masters line.

In the case of Mer-Man, it states that his real name is "Squidish Rex" -- which probably explains why he prefers "Mer-Man" -- and goes on to read as follows: "Ruler of the undersea realms of Eternia, Mer-Man was forced to serve in the armies of Skeletor after his kingdom was destroyed in a battle with rival ocean clans. His allegiance with Skeletor brings him to the surface world more often than he would like. Cowardly on land, Mer-Man prefers to stay in the murky waters of the Sea of Rakash, awaiting the evil call of Skeletor."

Mer-Man was among the first of the Masters of the Universe figures back in the 1980's, and as such received considerable time in the media, which included the mini-comics that came with the early action figures, as well as the animated series, where he was generally portrayed as a bumbling buffoon -- right along with the rest of Skeletor's lackeys -- who had a voice that seemed set on permanent "gargle". Frankly, it got on one's nerves pretty quick. One tends to think that Skeletor was probably content to leave Mer-Man in the Sea of Rakash as much as possible just so he didn't have to listen to him.

So, how's the figure? Well, for starters, it's slightly taller and definitely bulkier than Aquaman. However, this is simply the nature of the toy line, and isn't all that surprising. The DC Universe Classics figures are designed to present reasonably realistic interpretations of the legendary characters of DC Comics. The Masters of the Universe Classics figures are modern interpretations of the characters of the Masters universe, many of them looking like they stepped right out of the animated series, but let us keep in mind that the original figures back in the 1980's were incredibly musclebound for what they were. Their physiques were massive to the point of exaggeration, and that, to a large degree, has been maintained, even as the modern Masters figures manage to be better proportioned than their predecessors.

Those looking for an explanation as to why the Eternians would consistently be that much more muscular over the super-heroes of Earth -- the best explanation I've heard is that Eternia may well be a larger world than Earth (which might also explain how it's managed to develop such a variety of sentient life), or otherwise has a stronger gravity, or whatever other explanation you might care to come up with that simply comes down to the fact that Eternians are just naturally bulkier and more muscular than Earthmen -- even most super-heroes.

However, that doesn't explain one thing about this Mer-Man figure. Mer-Man, in every previous incarnation -- the original figure, the 2002-era figure, the animated series, you name it -- has dark turquoise skin. So -- why in the world is he a rather bright blue in this set?

Much like the recent "Battleground Teela" figure from the Masters line, which took its design cues from a single early appearance of the character, Mer-Man once appeared as a bright blue -- in one of the early mini-comics illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. This was, much like the Teela appearance, likely the result of needing to have the comics prepared in conjunction with the toys, and certain character likenesses (and colors) not being finalized.

The figure is otherwise largely identical to its more customarily-colored cousin, who was released fairly early on in the Masters of the Universe Classics mail-order line through MattyCollector.Com. Mer-Man has a decidedly non-human head, resembling as much as anything a frill-eared frog. The original Mer-Man figure actually came with two swappable heads, this one and another one that more closely resembled his animated likeness, but I, for one, am pleased that this one was used, since I think the character looks cooler with this particular head. The eyes are large and round, encircled by yellowish scales which extend over the upper lip. A row of sharp teeth can be seen inside a slightly open mouth. Mer-Man's head tapers down to a frilled sort of neck, that figure-wise, is a separate piece distinctive to this figure.

Some of the painted details on Mer-Man's head have been given a glossy finish, adding to the aquatic look of the character, much like Aquaman's metallic finish on his shirt. Interestingly, the pupils in the huge eyes have been painted black, whereas the first Mer-Man figure in this series left the pupils the same dark green as the skin color. I'm just as glad they didn't leave them blue here. That would've looked a little too weird.

Mer-Man's body, for the most part, uses the same body molds as many of the Masters of the Universe Classics figures, which, much like the original line, specialized in multi-use parts. This isn't at all an unusual thing for any action figure line to do. It's just a little more obvious on some lines than others. Nor is it anything I really object to. It helps keep costs down, and one of the greatest costs in toymaking is the creation of the molds.

However, Mer-Man does have some distinctive parts, especially his hands, which have only three fingers and a thumb, and his left hand, in particular, has its fingers spread out, revealing a certain webbed look between his fingers and thumb.

Mer-Man uses the body parts that make him appear to be wearing flared gloves, and pointed boots. Interestingly, another deviation from the original Mer-Man figure from the Classics line is that this blue Mer-Man is wearing full boots, although allowances for his three toes and their claws have been made within the boot structure, whereas the first green Mer-Man is barefoot, having yellow boots only from the ankles up.

Mer-Man's primary distinctive outfit is a chestplate and shoulder armor, molded as a single piece, that firs over his head. Having a definite aquatic, crustacean look to it, it has a spiked collar around the head, flared shoulders, a narrow, spiked chestplate down the front, and a flared section at the base, not quite a belt buckle, but close. Two blue gemstones can also be seen on this armor.

Mer-Man's clothes, which also include the gloves, boots, and traditional loincloth, are the same color as the original Mer-Man, and are a fairly bright yellow-orange. His belt is bright green. The paintwork on the figure is superb.

Of course, Mer-Man 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.

His accessory is a large serrated sword that is very nicely painted and detailed, and looks like it's first cousin to a hedge trimmer. If it comes down to trident vs. sword, I'm not really sure where I'd place my bets.

The set also includes a mini-poster, featuring Aquaman facing off against -- interestingly enough, a traditionally-colored Mer-Man. Makes me wonder how late in the decision-making process this blue skin color came into play. The poster is cool. It's not exactly Alex Ross, but it's cool, and does portray both characters in the same scene, certainly something of a rarity in and of itself.

Of all the DC/Masters sets, this one has proven especially popular, I believe because of the blue Mer-Man. He's certainly the most radically altered of any of the characters yet to appear in the sets. You can't really do that much to change the look of Superman, or He-Man, or Skeletor, or Hawkman. But Mer-Man had something of a loophole, an excuse, call it what you will.

And honestly, he looks pretty cool in blue. A personal observation, if I may. While I'm certain this wasn't the intention of Mattel, there's something about this bright blue Mer-Man, certainly more brightly colored than his more traditional counterpart, that almost -- almost -- looks heroic. Now, he's still fighting Aquaman in the illustration. He's not intended to be one of the good guys here. It's just an odd perception I personally had.

So, what's my final word here? I'm extremely pleased to have this set, even though, technically, I already had both figures. However, the metallic detail on Aquaman's shirt is a nice touch, and Mer-Man's radically new color scheme is very impressive.

I'm also pleased with the line as a whole. Both lines, on their own, are favorites of mine, and this combined line is not only a way to showcase Mattel's finest, as well as the superb skills of the Four Horsemen across two of their top lines, but it's a way to get the otherwise online exclusive Masters of the Universe Classics line to the retail market. And there's not a thing wrong with any of that.

Maybe you already own these figures, individually. If you do, if nothing else, the unusual Mer-Man is worth it. Perhaps you missed out on Aquaman on his original release. Here's your chance. Maybe you don't have either figure -- here's a cool way to get them both. In any case, you'll be getting two extremely impressive figures from two extremely impressive action figure lines -- and pop culture concepts -- in one package.

The DC UNIVERSE vs MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE two-pack featuring AQUAMAN and MER-MAN definitely has my highest recommendation!