REVIEW: JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED "SUPER FRIENDS" - SAMURAI - BLACK VULCAN
- APACHE CHIEF THREE-PACK
Although the superb Justice League Unlimited animated series has been off the air for some time now, Mattel has remained dedicated to continuing this very cool line of DC Universe action figures in the animated style, both through exclusive retailer Target, and other specialty sets available on MattyCollector.Com.
Indeed, the line has expanded to the point where any number of characters that never appeared in the animated series have turned up as figures. The recent "Shazam Family" set is a good example of this. Although Captain Marvel did appear in one episode of the series, Mary Marvel, Black Adam, and Shazam himself never did.
Nevertheless, if someone were to name off three of the least likely figures to ever turn up in the Justice League Unlimited line - or anywhere else in figure form - I would certainly regard this particular three-pack, turning up at Target stores, as a major contender.
Head back to the 1970's, when the main outlet for DC Universe animation was a rather different take on the Justice League. Dubbed "Super Friends", the show was produced by Hanna-Barbera. Although the design of the characters in the show was less stylized than what would be presented in the 90's, and arguably more realistic in appearance, at least in keeping with the comic book designs of the time, the program didn't exactly take itself all that seriously. Super Friends focused on Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. They were joined in the first season by a couple of slightly goofy teenagers named Wendy and Marvin, and their canine companion, Wonder Dog. Later seasons offered us the somewhat more impressive Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna, and their blue space monkey, Gleek. At least these kids had super-powers. The early episodes of Super Friends were early attempts at political correctness, really. One episode featured a scientist who had developed a way to shrink human beings down to a few inches in height. He reasoned that if the entire human population were thus reduced, the food supply of the planet would be proportionately greater.
In later seasons the series took a somewhat more serious direction, and was more closely tied to the DC Universe. More established characters turned up, including Flash, Green Lantern, and even such newcomers at the time as Firestorm and Cyborg. By this time, the show was tied in with the Super Powers action figure line of the early to mid 80's. Established villains were also brought into the show, including such characters as Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and even Darkseid!
But there was a sort of mid-point in the series run, before the cast was expanded with established characters, but also wanted to bring in more heroes - and do it in a rather politically-correct manner for the time. So a number of super-heroes were created, specifically for the show, and they all represented different races. These days, if you tried something like that, its anybody's guess whether the show would be applauded for its diversity, or condemned for stereotyping. The three best known characters were Samurai, a Japanese individual with various elemental powers; Black Vulcan, an African-American man with electrical powers (and I think debuting somewhat in advance of DC's own Black Lightning, although I'm not 100% certain of this); and Apache Chief, a Native American who could grow in size to massive height and strength. There was a fourth, a Hispanic man by the name of El Dorado. He had the ability to teleport over vast distances, using his cape in some fashion (explaining powers was not exactly a priority), and was able to create hologram-like illusions from his eyes, although these illusions were also capable of generating sound and could be touched, so they were clearly beyond ordinary holograms.
Now, all three of the others have been rendered in the modern animated style, and turned out for the Justice League Unlimited line! Somebody at Mattel is clearly a major fan. That's not a complaint. Setting aside the sheer hilarity of a three-pack like this, I think it's also pretty cool. None of these characters ever appeared in the Justice League animated series. For the most part. In a couple of episodes of the series, the Justice League encountered a team of government-sponsored-and-created heroes called the Ultimen. These characters were clearly offshoots of Samurai, Black Vulcan, Apache Chief, and the Wonder Twins. Their names were changed, as were their appearances, but their nationalities (or alien appearance in the case of the Wonder Twins' offshoots) and powers were largely the same as before. The Samurai-type character was known as Wind Dragon; the Black Vulcan clone was called Juice, of all things; the Apache Chief stand-in was named Long Shadow; and the Wonder Twins replacements were known as Downpour and Shifter. However, with the exception of a statue of the Wonder Twins that was visible in the background in a museum in one episode, none of the classic Super Friends characters ever appeared as themselves in the Justice League series.
Let's consider the three of them individually, starting with arguably the best known of the lot: SAMURAI - Samurai probably gets credit for being the best-known in part because he was the only one to make it as an action figure in the Super Powers line. According to WikiPedia, El Dorado and Black Vulcan were being planned, along with the Wonder Twins, but the line came to an end before they could be made. However, there's no reference to any of them in the never-quite-produced fourth series of the line. The Super Powers line did create an entirely new character that wasn't even in the animated series, an Egyptian called Golden Pharaoh. What can I say, it was the 70's and 80's... As to Samurai - much to my surprise, all of these characters have individual entries on WikiPedia. Wiki has this to say about Samurai: Samurai is a superhero in the Super Friends cartoons created by Hanna-Barbera. His real name is Toshio Eto, and he is of Japanese descent. He was one of the later additions to the team along with other ethnically diverse heroes in an effort for the show to promote cultural diversity. His voice actor is Jack Angel. In addition to being a prominent figure in several other animated shows, Angel also did the voice for The Flash and _Hawkman.
Samurai appears in The All-New Super Friends Hour, Challenge of the Super Friends, Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show, and The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians.
Although not outwardly resembling a traditional samurai, he upholds the code of the Bushido, sometimes relating everything he or someone else does to the ancient tradition. Although he displays a good number of powers, the one he relies on most often is the ability to manipulate wind. He can fly by creating a small tornado around his lower body and can conjure powerful gusts from his hands that can knock back even large objects.
In addition to controlling wind, Samurai can also call upon other abilities he learned during his years of training in the ancient arts. He invokes them by speaking a phrase in Japanese:
"Kaze no Y? ni Hayaku" -- The most frequently used of Samurai's powers, all of Samurai's body (except sometimes his head) becomes a powerful tornado of wind that allows him to travel at superspeed and use his winds to pick up objects or blow them around. In later episodes of the series, he would frequently appear with only his lower body transformed into a tornado. (The phrase translates to "Swift as the wind")
T?mei Ningen -- The second-most frequently used of Samurai's power, used twice, this allows Samurai to turn invisible. (The phrase translates to "transparent man/human")
Igo Moen -- Only used once or twice throughout the series, Samurai engulfs himself in flames. (The first half of the phrase is not proper Japanese, but the second half can be read as 'great fire/flame'.)
He first appeared in The All-New Super Friends Hour and then he mostly appeared in the Challenge of the Super Friends series as a fully active member of the team, he later made sporadic appearances in the later The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians series.
As to how he got his powers, WikiPedia reports that he was a history professor prior to becoming a superhero. One day, Eto was struck by a beam of light sent by the New Gods of New Genesis, who were trying to create more superheroes to defend the world from Darkseid. Although Eto briefly ran wild with his new powers, the New Gods explained their intent to him and he vowed to become a superhero.
As to any official appearances in the DC Universe, WikiPedia reports that a character resembling Samurai appeared in a double page spread in the Infinite Crisis hardcover trade collection.
What WikiPedia doesn't mention is that in the very recent (as of this writing) Justice League of America 80-page Giant, Superman and the heroic Doctor Light are sent back to feudal Japan, where an honorable samurai warrior is given powers extremely similar to those of the Super Powers character. He uses them to defeat the New Gods character Steppenwolf - one of Darkseid's agents - who has been posing as the leader of one of the cities.
This character calls himself Samurai, and there is something of a resemblance to the Super Powers character. However, as this character exists in the distant past, I would suspect it's unlikely that he'll turn up in modern adventures. Still, it's a nice nod.
As to the Samurai figure, as with all of the figures in this assortment, he's an excellent modern animated take on the classic version of the character. Samurai is dressed in a bright green vest with an orange collar, bright green trunks, and green gauntlets and boots that have ridges on them. As the figure uses one of the standard body molds, the ridges on the gauntlets and boots are printed on. However, the figure's vest is a separate piece, doubtless to accommodate the somewhat flared shoulders.
Samurai's headsculpt is nicely done, and an excellent take on the original character. Samurai clearly has an Asian look to him, as well as fairly thick eyebrows, a distinctive mustache, and his hair is pulled back in a topknot, akin to a traditional samurai.
Overall, a very effective rendition of the character. Now let's consider the next figure:
APACHE CHIEF: Apache Chief is a Native American superhero from the various Super Friendscartoons created by Hanna- Barbera. He was voiced by Michael Rye.
In the Challenge of the Super Friends Series, Apache Chief was seen in every episode except one, but had spoken lines in nine out of the sixteen episodes of the series. His arch enemy from the Legion of Doom was Giganta, who also happens to be an original arch enemy of Wonder Woman.
By speaking the word "Inyuk-chuk" ("Big Man"), Apache Chief could grow to vast sizes. He tended to appear to be around fifty feet in height most often, although apparently this was somewhat variable, and fifty feet was not his upper limit. In an episode titled "Colossus", Apache Chief "Inyuk-chuks" himself to cosmic proportions to battle the Colossus, a titanic space creature that plucked Earth from its orbit and placed it in a small (relative to him) glass bottle. He also spoke in somewhat stereotypical "Native American English" and recited vaguely Native American philosophy. In some episodes it was shown that he had a superhuman tracking ability as well.
Apache Chief's origin, related in an episode of the animated series, was thus: While still a young brave, he went for a walk with the chief of his tribe. The two men are quickly attacked by a bear, but the chief - recognizing that the young brave might be ready for a test such as this - gives the younger man a pouch of a special magic dust, which will amplify the user's thoughts and abilities a hundredfold. The young man resolves to be strong and brave (heeding the chief's advice that whatever is in his mind at the time, the dust will amplify), and upon sprinkling himself with the dust and invoking the magic phrase "Inyuk-chuk", grows to fifty feet in size, stronger and braver. He disposes of the bear, without violence, proving that he has passed the test.
His real name has apparently never been given. It's worth noting that his Justice League Unlimited "Ultimen" counterpart, Long Shadow, was arguably the most noble of the bunch, and was even allowed to join the Justice League for a time.
WikiPedia also notes: Apache Chief does not appear in the mainstream DC Comics universe, but another Native American character called Manitou Raven was created and joined the JLA. Like Apache Chief, Manitou Raven, and later, Manitou's widow, Manitou Dawn, have both been seen to say "Inyuk-chuk" when casting spells or invoking powers.
The figure is cool, and definitely looks like a modern animated version of the character. I think Mattel used a slightly larger body mold for him than the others, but this makes sense given the character's main super-power. It may just be the vest, though.
Apache Chief's costume, likely the most stereotypical of the entire group, consists of a brown vest, a brown loincloth with an orange belt, and brown boots. He is also wearing an orange headband, orange necklace, and orange wristbands. Not the most extensive color palette in the world.
Both the vest and the loincloth are made as separate pieces, and both are made from a very flexible plastic that I dearly with Mattel would utilize on capes for their DC Universe Classics line in a regular basis.
Apache Chief has an excellent head sculpt, a very angular type of face, looking very Native American and very heroic. He has long black hair, but it's not a significant hindrance to head movement. The hair past the headband is a separate piece, molded from the same sort of flexible plastic as his costume, so his head is readily able to turn. Nice effect.
There's a slight inconsistency in his skin tone, but that could just be this figure or even depending on the light source. He does have the darker skin of a Native American, relative to the usual Caucasian tone used on most of the figures in the JLU line, but the arms, legs, and head are a slightly different color than the torso. But it's not that significant or troublesome, really.
Let's consider the final member of this group:
BLACK VULCAN - I honestly couldn't recall who came first - Black Vulcan or Black Lightning. It seems that Black Lightning did, as Black Vulcan didn't debut until 1977. As to why Black Lightning wasn't used in the show, the WikiPedia entry explains this:
Black Vulcan is an African American superhero on the animated series Super Friends created by Hanna-Barbera. He was voiced by Buster Jones.
Unlike most of the Super Friends, Black Vulcan was not a pre-existing DC Comics character. This is particularly notable since DC Comics' roster did include an African American superhero with electricity-based powers, Black Lightning, who could not be used on the show due to disputes between DC and Black Lightning's creator Tony Isabella.
Originally introduced as a way to add a more culturally diverse roster to the team in the All-New Super Friends Hour series, Black Vulcan was the Super Friends' resident black superhero, although his character mostly refrains from being seen as a harsh stereotype. As originally depicted, Black Vulcan's costume had the super-hero equivalent of pants, but in later episodes his legs are bare.
His powers include the ability to emit electricity from his hands, as well as fly by charging his lower body with energy.
On a few occasions, he exhibited powers he had not had before, such as the ability to assume a form of pure energy and travel at the speed of light (in an attempt to escape a black hole, which, according to theory, is a feat not even light is able to accomplish, once it has passed inside the event horizon. He was even able to travel back in time by fluctuating his body's energy in such a way that it opened a rift in space.
There's no indication of what Black Vulcan's real name might have been, or how he obtained his powers.
Indeed, as memory serves, the character was not especially stereotypical. Really, none of them were, although Apache Chief probably was more than most, due to his appearance and speech pattern.
Black Vulcan's costume, though, was probably one of the sillier of the lot. While Samurai and Apache Chief might have been seen as somewhat underdressed relative to the rest of the spandex set, Black Vulcan probably needed a better tailor. His costume consisted of a full head mask that left his eyes and lower face exposed. This mask was dark blue, but with a wide yellow stripe down the middle, and two lightning-like appendages to the sides that looked like someone had glued a pair of small boomerangs to his ears.
The figure of Black Vulcan carries off this design admirably well, although those side pieces must've given the sculptors and mold makers absolute fits.
Black Vulcan is wearing a very dark blue uniform, long-sleeved but bare-legged, with a wide bright yellow lightning bolt running down the front and back in a curious sort of "V"-like configuration. He's not going to be confused with the Flash or Captain Marvel. His gloves and boots are yellow and slightly flared.
The figure does an excellent job of duplicating the look of the original character in the modern animated style. The skin is the right tone, and the uniform is very nicely done. The only real change they made was that in the animated series, Black Vulcan's uniform is open above the lightning bolt. Here, the head mask just tapers down into the costume on the front.
I am especially impressed, since painting a lighter color, especially yellow for some reason, over a darker color, and this costume actually looks black, not dark blue, is extremely difficult and can result in serious goof-ups, especially in mass production. But the lightning bolts are sharp and crisply delineated, as are the gloves. Nicely done, Mattel!
So, what's my final word here? Okay, there are likely going to be some people who don't know the animated history of DC well enough, who are going to see these three figures and think, "Who the heck!?" And the personal data on the back of the package card is somewhat vague, and borders on the hokey - which is rather in keeping with where they come from. But if, perish forbid, somebody sees these who is not aware of the Super Friends, they're really going to wonder where these guys came from.
However, I think both Mattel and Target are aware of the fact that most people still following the Justice League Unlimited line are not kids. They're collectors, and they're longtime fans of the DC Universe, and they know perfectly well who these characters are. They're the same fans who went nuts at the San Diego ComiCon when the Wonder Twins were released as DC Universe Classics figures. Well, here's the second course of that, in the Justice League Unlimited series.
And I, for one, am truly delighted to have them. Yeah, Super Friends comes across as a pretty hokey show these days, and these three characters bordered on a laughable attempt to make the show more politically-correct or ethnically diverse or whatever, but the show has attained enough of an iconic status, so that producing this three-pack is a cool tribute to what was, ultimately, a simpler, and in many respects, more fun era.
The JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED "SUPER FRIENDS" SET of SAMURAI, APACHE CHIEF, and BLACK VULCAN definitely has my highest recommendation!