REVIEW: DC RETRO-ACTION SUPER-HEROES GUY GARDNER
The Marvel Universe is a highly-populated one. Of course it has its core characters, which are going to receive the majority of the attention in other media, including action figures, but there's no shortage of, let us say, lesser-seen characters, that are deserving of some measure of attention.
I am pleased to see that the Marvel Universe line of action figures is getting around to doing so. Increasing numbers of characters not quite as well known as some are finally being rendered in plastic.
One of these is a personal favorite of mine. His name is GLADIATOR, and he is the leader of an alien super-team known as the Imperial Guard!
So, who is Gladiator? For that matter, who is the Imperial Guard? They first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #107, published in October of 1977. Created by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum, the Imperial Guard represented a team of super-beings, gathered together by the alien Shi'ar Empire, which had also just recently been introduced in the pages of X-Men in the form of renegade Princess Lilandra, who had made telepathic contact with Charles Xavier.
The Imperial Guard consisted of several dozen highly diverse aliens with a myriad of individual super-powers. In short, they were the Marvel/Shi'ar equivalent of DC Comics' legendary Legion of Super-Heroes. This was no great shock artistically, since Dave Cockrum, then artist for the X-Men, was also known for an extremely successful previous artistic run on the Legion. Most of the initial Imperial Guard members could be linked to one degree or another -- visually, power-wise, whatever -- to some existing member of the Legion of Super-Heroes.
And Gladiator? Plain and simple, he was Superman. The Marvel Universe version of Superman, anyway. While this has never been openly stated, of course, it's been readily acknowledged time and again. Gladiator's real name is Kallark -- a combination of Kal-El, Superman's Kryptonian name, and Clark (Kent), his Earth name. In one edition of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Gladiator's entry was illustrated by Curt Swan, one of Superman's most legendary artists. This drawing is the only illustration Swan ever did for Marvel Comics.
Gladiator has managed to get around, both within and beyond the mainstream Marvel Universe. He co-starred in a company crossover with an Image Comics character named Supreme, in which, interestingly enough, Superman's origin was briefly referenced, although it didn't apply to either character.
In the Star Trek/X-Men crossover comic, Gladiator turns up, and actually punches the U.S.S. Enterprise -- much to Captain James T. Kirk's considerable annoyance. Now, there's no shortage of people that have punched Kirk, punched Spock -- how many people punched the ship?!
As to his history in the comics, he first appeared with the rest of the Imperial Guard in Uncanny X-Men #107-108, where the Guard battled the X-Men under orders from Emperor D'Ken, who was trying to harness the power of the M'Krann Crystal. Let's just say that didn't work out too well. He next appeared during the Trial of Phoenix, the final chapter of the Phoenix Saga, where once again, the Guard battled the X-Men, this time over the fate of Jean Grey. We know how that one played out.
He would appear not long after in the pages of Fantastic Four, which was now being drawn by John Byrne, who had worked on Gladiator after taking over the art duties on X-Men from Dave Cockrum, as of X-Men #108. Here, he believed the Fantastic Four to be Skrulls, and battled them. The Skrulls had actually taken on the guide of four X-Men, however. Gladiator would later appear during the Trial of Reed Richards, when Empress Lilandra put Richards on trial for saving the life of Galactus.
The Imperial Guard would star in a three-issue limited series, in the wake of the Onslaught storyline, which shifted most of Earth's heroes into an alternate universe. The contingent of the Guard sent to Earth included Gladiator, under orders from Lilandra to protect the planet in the absence of its heroes. Gladiator bristled at the assignment, but accepted it nonetheless, taking on the "secret identity" of "Cal Kramer" and looking more than a little bit like Clark Kent in the process -- including glasses.
More recently, Gladiator has turned up during the "War of Kings" storyline in Marvel Comics. He is commanded to stop the conqueror Vulcan, who is in fact the brother of Scott and Alex Summers of the X-Men, and who is also determined to destroy the Shi'ar Empire over the murder of his mother years before at the hands of D'Ken. After a horrific battle during which Vulcan kills several members of the Guard, Gladiator manages to defeat him and deliver him to a Shi'ar prison facility.
However, a Shi'ar agent, wishing a return to the days of D'Ken's rule, frees Vulcan and together with Lilandra's sister Deathbird, the pair stage a coup and usurp Lilandra. After marrying Deathbird, Vulcan murders D'Ken and becomes the new Shi'ar Emperor. With Lilandra usurped and in hiding, Gladiator and the remainder of the Guard are reluctantly honor-bound to serve Vulcan.
Vulcan then embarks on an ambitious plan to conquer the rest of the universe in the limited series "X-Men: Kingbreaker", a prelude to the "War of Kings" series. Gladiator is ordered to capture Lilandra, who has allied herself with the alien Kree race. After battling Lilandra's allies the Starjammers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, Gladiator is swayed by her argument against Vulcan and kills a member of the Imperial Guard loyal to the Emperor. However, Lilandra is eventually killed by an assassin, and Vulcan and the Inhuman leader Back Bolt both apparently die during battle in an explosion.
In the one-shot publication "War of Kings: Who Will Rule", Gladiator is depicted as weary, and in the wake of Lilandra's death, and wanting to preserve the Empire and avoid another Civil War, Gladiator proclaims himself the new Emperor.
In an accompanying spin-off limited series "War of Kings: Warriors" Gladiator's origin is revealed.
Gladiator is a member of the Strontian race. According to his origin, he was one of a number of individuals among his people who were trained by a Council of Elders to protect the planet and serve the Shi'ar Empire, essentially the ultimate warriors. In the end, he was the only one to make it through the training, due to his unwavering confidence, and his willingness to serve the Shi'ar emperor unquestionably, even when the order was given to eliminate the same Council of Elders that had trained him and the others. As it turned out, this was a final test arranged by the Council itself.
His unique alien physiology and a special "Gladiator process" that he underwent gives him a number of superhuman capabilities including superhuman strength, enough to shatter a planet; superhuman speed, stamina, and durability, capable of withstanding an explosion equivalent to a supernova; reflexes, heat vision, frost breath, and he is capable of flight up to and including warp speed, measured as "a hundred times the speed of light". Gladiator's abilities, especially his invulnerability, increase and decrease in accordance with his level of confidence in battle. The Invisible Woman once took him down in a single shot by rattling his faith in himself.
He has battled some of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe, including Thor and Wonder Man. He has had occasional team-ups, including with Spider-Man, and a somewhat altered version also participated in the Age of Apocalypse storyline, when Gambit and his X-Ternals were sent to the Shi'ar Galaxy to steal a shard from the M'Krann Crystal. Gladiator also appeared in the excellent 90's X-Men cartoon, in its adaptation of the Phoenix Saga, wherein, among other things, he punched Juggernaut halfway across a continent.
So, how's the figure? Not bad at all, really. This is not the first Gladiator action figure. That honor goes to a figure produced by Toy Biz during their X-Men run. That figure wasn't bad, for the time, but it did come at a time before the current expected levels of detail and articulation were commonplace. Toy Biz also turned out a figure of the Imperial Guard member Warstar, and several of the Starjammers, during this time.
Hasbro's Gladiator, obviously, takes full advantage of modern toy manufacturing and the expectations thereof.
Although Gladiator is clearly intended as a take on Superman, the degree to which he actually resembles the Man of Steel is open to some interpretation, especially from the neck up. He doesn't look entirely human. Gladiator is humanoid, and he has a more or less human face, but he also has pointed ears, lavender skin, and his hair is styled into a large black mohawk. There has been some speculation over the years that this may be a nod to another DC character, the original OMAC, who had a similar hairstyle, but I've never heard any confirmation of this. I've always tended to believe it was designed to give Gladiator -- given the name -- a somewhat Roman-type look, making his hair resemble the details of an ancient Roman army helmet. Add to the fact that Gladiator, before he became Emperor, was officially designated the "Praetor" of the Imperial Guard, another Roman term.
Although Gladiator's costume uses the same color scheme as Superman's, the details are different. The upper part of the chest and upper arms are dark blue. The rest of the chest and abdomen are red, as are the trunks. The upper legs are dark blue. Gladiator has very high red gloves and boots. He is wearing a gold belt around his waist, arguably the most Superman-like detail of his costume, and he has a gold triangular symbol, presumably some sort of alien letter or insignia, on his chest.
Gladiator also has a long red cape, but unlike Superman's, it is bordered in gold, and has a high collar, and a gold chain clasp across the front. Some depictions of Gladiator duplicate the letter-emblem on his chest at the base of the cape, again somewhat like Superman, who has a yellow version of his "S" shield on the back of his cape, but not at the base.
The figure does an excellent version of duplicating the costume. Interestingly, Hasbro chose to make the blue portions of his costume a dark metallic blue. An interesting choice, and somehow, it makes him look both more alien, and more powerful. Clearly an existing set of molds was used, as most of the details of the costume are painted on, except for the belt, which is sculpted on. But the bottom of one foot has a 2009 copyright date. I suppose it's possible that Gladiator was assembled from various parts from different figures from different times, but this is something I cannot be certain of. Obviously, the head is entirely new, as is the cape.
Gladiator is certainly taller than average. He stands fractionally over 4-1/2" in height to the top of his head -- not counting the mohawk. That takes him up to nearly 4-3/4". One wonders how much mousse he uses on that thing. The Marvel Universe line tends to vary the heights of its figures somewhat, depending on who they're making, with respect to how that character is portrayed in the comics. While I am of the opinion that the figures tend to vary a bit more than their comic book counterparts, it does result in a decided, and not inappropriate, range in height, where based on prior experience I would have to say that 4-1/4" is about standard for a "typical" adult male in the line. I'm basing that measurement on Cyclops, whom I got in a special anniversary set of X-Men figures. So Gladiator definitely has a height advantage, and an appropriate one.
Hasbro adjusted the design of these figures a while back in one important respect. They did away with an overly complicated and slightly quirky upper leg design, that was a not-quite ball-and-socket with a swivel, that really didn't work all that well and was somewhat over-engineered for what was required. More recent figures have had a design that's closer to G.I. Joe, and it works well. I'm pleased to report this is the design that Gladiator has.
Gladiator has been given metallic gold eyes, which is a somewhat unusual choice in my opinion. Admittedly, this is something that is somewhat open to artistic interpretation, but in Gladiator's early adventures, he was pictured as having entirely normal-looking eyes. Granted, this may also have been a shortcut for painting. I am always impressed by any toy company's ability to paint such effective eyes on such small faces. If they want to take a break from that once in a while, I can hardly blame them.
For the most part, Gladiator's paint work is very well done. But -- I do have one significant complaint. Much of the figure has been given a black "wash" of watered down paint, in an unfortunate attempt, I assume, to bring out more of the muscle detail, or to make the character look more comic-book-ish or something.
This is just not necessary. These figures have plenty of sculpted detail on their own, and the occasions there this sort of detail works well and looks good are minimal. It's even worse when it's used to "battle damage" a character. In Gladiator's case, while it's not as obvious against the metallic blue portions of his uniform, and they didn't do it to his cape, the significant red portions of his uniform, especially his high gloves and boots, make it look like he really hasn't had time to visit the Shi'ar Laundromat in a while.
Even worse, though, is his face. For some peculiar reason, a swath of watered down black paint has been smeared right down the front of his face. I have no idea what the thinking was here, but the unfortunate result makes Gladiator look like he took a faceful of ink from a squid.
Admittedly, this is a process that's bugged me for years, regardless of the toy line it appears on. And I know it doesn't bother everybody. But it does bother me, and honestly, the face splat especially just looks ridiculous on Gladiator, and I will be looking for ways to clean him up.
Apart from this, however, I am abundantly pleased with Gladiator. Of course, the figure is very well articulated, and is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, legs, knees, and ankles. And the cape is not terribly back-heavy, so he stands up well.
I don't know that we'll be seeing any more members of the Imperial Guard in this line. The team was almost created tongue-in-cheek, as a clear riff on the Legion of Super-Heroes, and sometimes I wonder if Claremont and Cockrum had any idea how well they would be received. But there's also no question that Gladiator, perhaps not surprisingly, rose to the top, even well beyond his teammates. And that was before he assumed the Emperor's role over the Shi'ar Empire.
So as the Marvel Universe line of action figures expands forth into more extensive corners of the Marvel Universe, it makes sense for Gladiator to turn up. The rest of the Guard? Not so sure. The Starjammers? Again, who knows? I wouldn't turn them down if they did, though. They gave the X-Men a chance to have some science-fiction adventures, the earliest of which especially were some fun reading.
So, what's my final word? Okay -- Gladiator isn't Iron Man, or Captain America, or Thor. And he's not the Man of Steel. He's one of those characters that someone who is only superficially aware of the Marvel Universe is going to see in the toy stores and think, "Huh? Who's this?" But then there's those of us that know who he is, and are delighted to see him brought into a modern action figure line -- and certain paint details notwithstanding, this is really a great figure of him. If you've read any of Gladiator's adventures over the years, you'll be very pleased with this figure. Just keep him away from any Star Trek figures you might have around. I don't think Captain Kirk ever quite forgot that little incident...
The MARVEL UNIVERSE figure of GLADIATOR definitely has my most enthusiastic recommendation!