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By Thomas Wheeler

I was seriously starting to wonder if we were actually going to see any new Justice League Unlimited figures. I knew that quite a few new faces had been showcased at the 2007 International Toy Fair, despite the fact that the animated series is no longer on the air. The Justice League figures continue to be popular, there's a massive cast to work from, and Mattel, as master license holder for DC Comics, knows this.

At the same time, it's been a weird summer in the toy aisles. With no less than five probably blockbuster movies having a toy tie-in, and with the retailers wanting to push as much of that sort of merchandise in possible in what was, for most of them, a fairly short window of opportunity, many action figure lines that would normally have received due attention and space were rather badly neglected.

Fortunately, the toy aisles started to work their way back to something resembling moderate normalcy -- including, finally, the appearance of some new Justice League Unlimited three-packs. This is one of those three-packs, featuring BATMAN, BLACK CANARY, and THE JOKER. Let's take those three characters in order.

BATMAN - Come on, do I really have to explain him? Dark Knight, Caped Crusader, Grim Gotham Guardian and bane (not that Bane) to all of Gotham City's assorted underworld lowlifes, including a frightening array of assorted warped minds, twisted forms, and various psycho nutjobs.

Despite not having any super-powers, Batman has honed his body to the peak of physical perfection, even as he has trained his mind to become the world's foremost detective. Although a reluctant team player at best, he's managed to maintain his grim visage even while hanging around with various incarnations of the Justice League over the years. More recently, following the Infinite Crisis and during the "One Year Later" time-skip, Batman, as Bruce Wayne, realized that his severe nature had gotten a little too severe, and while no one's going to say that he's lightened up all that much, he's not quite as impenetrably dark and grim as he used to be. Just don't try convincing Gotham's underworld of that. They still fear The Bat.

The figure of Batman has certainly appeared multiple times in the Justice League line, and it's a good rendition of the character. Heck, years before the Justice League series came along, there was a Batman animated series, that continues to be well-regarded to this day, even though there is a second, more recent Batman animated series that isn't particularly connected to its predecessor or to the Justice League series, which do have connections to each other.

Batman is, as one would expect, dressed in grey and black. The figure is well-articulated, nicely designed, and on the whole, is a superb rendition of the animated version of the character. If you've somehow managed to miss acquiring a Batman figure for your Justice League collection, here's a good one.

BLACK CANARY - The daughter of the original Black Canary, Dinah Lance grew up surrounded by the heroes of the Justice Society and was determined to become a crimefighter like them. Her parents were, naturally, against this, but fate took a hand with the discovery that Dinah, as a consequence of the meta-gene, was able to project a devastating sonic scream. She served with the Justice Society on Earth-2 for a time, later hopping over to Earth-1 to join the Justice League in the wake of a personal tragedy. She struck up a relationship with Green Arrow, that fizzled for some time, but more recently has been reignited to the point where it looks like the two are going to get married.

Over the years, she's worked on her own, with several versions of the Justice League, in the company of Oracle as part of the Birds of Prey, and most recently with the modern incarnation of the Justice Society. And, of course, she's turned up in the animated series.

This is not the first Black Canary figure. One was released as part of a Target-exclusive three-pack a while back. However, although this figure uses pretty much the same molds, there are some interesting differences.

For starters, the first Black Canary had the more modest uniform of an all-black sort of "one-piece swimsuit", with grey leggings, black boots, and a blue jacket. This new Black Canary has a black halter top, black trunks, a blue jacket, black boots, and grey leggings that have a "fishnet stocking" pattern painted into them. This is accurate to an earlier costume of Black Canary, it should be noted.

What's interesting is how they achieved the fishnet pattern. Mattel apparently took the existing "female leg" molds, and redid them somewhat with a fine criss-cross pattern sculpted into them. Then after the legs were molded in grey, they did a wash or wipe of black paint over them, to get the black paint into the grooves of the fishnet pattern.

Still, the end result is a very cool and very classic-looking animated- style Black Canary figure. About the only thing I don't like about it is the pre-posed left arm.

And I'll honestly be stunned if Mattel doesn't do a fishnet version of Zatanna at some point. They already did one version of this character, using the Black Canary molds (except for the head), and getting by the fishnet situation on that by coloring the legs a darker flesh tone than her face and hands. Now that they've got these new leg molds, I would think that a revised Zatanna is at least being considered.

THE JOKER - I think the single best line I've ever read that describes the Joker came from a mini-series called "Underworld Unleashed". In it, a huge array of villains are gathered by a cosmic-level villain named Neron. He has rounded up as many of Earth's villains as possible to launch an assault against the heroes of Earth. But among them all are a council of five that include the likes of Lex Luthor and The Joker.

The narration in the scene is being provided by the Trickster, a second-rate villain to The Flash. As soon as the light shining across the table hits The Joker, Trickster says, as part of the narration, "Oh, nice going, Neron. Pick the one guy no one wants to be in the same room with. When super-villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories."

Batman may believe that criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, and that by taking the form of a bat he can frighten many of them into submission. And maybe he can. But there's something to be said for a clown-faced homicidal maniac who has taken unpredictable behavior to an entirely new definition.

Here we have a man who has no super-powers, who's not even that much of a physical combatant, and yet just thinking about what he's done over the years is enough to give even other criminal madmen a shiver down their spine.

Although for the most part The Joker has focused his activities on a fairly local level around Gotham, doing his level best to take over the local underworld and happily kill as many people in the process as possible -- ideally including Batman -- every once in a while he's stuck his pointy nose into the business of super-dom on a grander scale, where one would think he'd be entirely out of place. He's been a member of several versions of the Injustice Society, including the most recent one first turning up in the pages of Justice League of America in 2007, and he was also responsible, several years ago, for the "Last Laugh" crisis where he thought he was dying of a terminal condition, and exposed dozens of super-villains to a specialized form of his usually lethal Joker gas that turned them all into Jokerized versions of themselves, whereupon he and they went on a global rampage.

The Joker's origin has been steeped in -- not so much mystery, but confusion and insanity. Arguably the most reliable version was told a number of years ago, where it was revealed that the Joker was a failed stand-up comedian with a pregnant wife. Looking for a way to score some big bucks and try to make life better for himself and his forthcoming family, he agreed to help some crooks steal from a nearby chemical plant. The night before the robbery was planned, however, his wife and unborn child were killed in a freak electrical accident in their apartment. Forced to go through with the robbery, wearing a strange red hood (also taking the name of Red Hood), the theft was broken up by the authorities and by Batman. The man who would become the Joker was wounded, and ended up taking a swim in a chemical vat that exaggerated his facial features into a hideous grin, left his skin chalk white, his lips an alarming shade of red, and turned his hair green. This, combined with the recent events he had suffered, drove him insane, and turned him into a homicidal killer with an insane sense of humor and a penchant for wearing purple, orange, and green. He uses gags such as a "joy buzzer" that transmits a lethal dose of electricity, and a lapel flower that squirts acid as his favorite "gags".

He has become the Batman's greatest adversary, and as the Trickster's quote indicates, someone feared by hero and villain alike. Interestingly, a recent analysis of the Joker by Batman himself, presented in the pages of JUSTICE #12, indicates that Batman believes that the Joker is nowhere near as insane as he presents himself as being. "I'm convinced that, while everything about the Joker - his murderous instincts, his maniacal laughter, his maddening behavior - points to his being insane, he is the farthest thing from it. The Joker's greatest prank has been to pull the wool over society's eyes all these years, masquerading as a madman so as to be thrown into an asylum and treated with kid gloves when apprehended, rather than punished in a penitentiary."

It makes sense. If the Joker were as insane as he comes across as being, he probably wouldn't be able to dress himself in the morning, let alone concoct some of the surprisingly clever schemes he comes up with. Years ago, an article in Wizard interviewed an actual psychologist, asking for his take on various comic book villains. About the Joker, the man speculated that it would be virtually impossible to rehabilitate him, in part because the Joker sees his previous life as a complete failure, and murder and crime are the only things he's really good at.

In modern animation, the Joker has been a presence since the 90's Batman series, voiced by a decidedly un-Luke-Skywalker-ish Mark Hamill. This presented The Joker as the same sort of madman as he was in the comics, only slightly toned down for animation. The Joker would continue to be a part of all of the Batman animated series over the next several years, and even turned up as the villain of the piece in the Batman Beyond movie, appropriately titled "Return of the Joker."

It was no great surprise that he made the leap over to Justice League when the time came, and managed to become part of several groups that went after the League on several occasions.

As to the figure, although it's a previous release from some prior point (the copyright date on the leg is '03, but there might be some new parts I don't know about), it's still an excellent rendition of The Joker, and fits well with the other Justice League figures. I have only two minor complaints about the figure. First off, it's a little preposed. The right arm is bent at the elbow, and is holding a playing card. Granted, it managed to still be something of a menacing pose, but I just don't like pre-posing. It limits what an action figure can do.

My second complaint is with regard to the color scheme. It's too dark in some respects. Although the purple on the jacket and trousers is perfect, there should have been some orange on the costume somewhere, and the hair and lips were both painted black. The hair should have been a dark green, and the lips red. At least some green trim in the hair would've been nice. The result is almost too stylized in some respects.

Apart from this, however, it's really an excellent Joker figure, and I know that when it was announced that The Joker was going to become part of the Justice League collection, most fans were very pleased with the news. Part of this may have been because the figure couldn't use the same "muscle body" molds that many of the figures in the line use, but I think also a big reason is simply because The Joker is such a popular character, and he has certainly been in the Justice League animated series.

It's interesting, but this three-pack has a little trouble standing out on the shelves. There's nobody in here with any really bright colors. Certainly Batman doesn't have any. And while some might argue that The Joker should be wearing a brighter purple, I definitely approve of the shade used, although I might have hoped for a little more color elsewhere on the figure. Really the only standout color is Black Canary's blonde hair.

However, the set is still to be recommended. This is a different and somewhat more classic version of Black Canary, and The Joker is certainly a good reason to grab this set. And if for some reason you don't already have Batman, well, here's a good version of him, too. And if you're going to have The Joker around, you'd better have Batman.

This BATMAN, BLACK CANARY, and JOKER three-pack of JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED figures definitely has my enthusiastic recommendation!