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REVIEW: DC RETRO-ACTION SUPER-HEROES MARTIAN MANHUNTER
By Thomas Wheeler

Ask anybody who's been around long enough what the coolest, most diverse toy company for action figure was in the 1970's, and if that person says anything other than Mego, then they just weren't paying attention.

In the early 1970's, Mego came along with their World's Greatest Super-Heroes line, bringing together the top names from both DC Comics and Marvel Comics -- something that certainly hasn't happened since then -- and basically maintained a strong presence in the toy aisles for the rest of the decade. Their top products were always their various lines of 8", cloth-costumed action figures. Not only super-heroes, but Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Knights of Camelot, Pirates, Western heroes, and other licensed lines such as the Wizard of Oz, to somewhat less likely candidates for action figure treatment, like Starsky & Hutch, the Dukes of Hazzard, and the Waltons.

Mego remains highly popular to this day. There's an online Mego Museum, a Mego Convention, and Mego collectors are still highly numerous. Several years ago, a new company, with the blessing of Mego's founder, Marty Abrams, came along, calling itself EmCe Toys, and reproducing Mego's original Star Trek and Planet of the Apes figures, and even adding some much needed new faces to the Star Trek cast.

And that gave Mattel, current license-holder of the DC Comics Universe, an idea. What if they brought out a line of Mego-esque DC Super-Heroes? Thus was born the DC Retro-Action Super-Heroes line.

Now, in all fairness, it didn't fare all that well. Out of four available assortments, only two of them ever really hit the stores, and then only at Toys "R" Us and Toys "R" Us Express. Certain online retailers were a little more accommodating. And there were a number of figures that were available only through MattyCollector.Com, a Green Arrow figure, and a Green Lantern-centric wave. But ultimately, the line has run its course. To what degree it was a success probably depends on who you ask.

For myself, I have rather enjoyed it, and might well continue to try to round up some of the figures here and there as I am able. The DC Retro-Action line did something much along the lines of EmCe's Star Trek line -- it expanded the cast.

Mego's DC line consisted largely of who you'd expect it to -- Superman, Batman, Robin, Aquaman, "Shazam!", Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, and a handful of others, including notable villains such as Joker, Penguin, and Riddler. Conversely, the line did not include a number of prominent faces, such as Green Lantern and the Flash. According to historical information, there were plans to add these characters to the line-up, but for one reason or another, it just never happened.

Mattel not only corrected this oversight, but they brought in a lot of other characters that Mego never came up with. While Superman, Batman, and Aquaman returned, they were now joined by the likes of Luthor, Sinestro, Black Manta, Two-Face, and even Darkseid. The Green Lantern assortment even gave us figures that would have been impossible in the 1970's, because they didn't exist at that time, such as Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner.

I saw a statement that summed up the Retro-Action line, if perhaps a little brusquely, then not inaccurately, when it said that at the very least, the line had added over twenty new figures to the world of 8", cloth-costumed, Mego-type action figures, and it's worth mentioning that the vast majority of these were new faces never turned out by Mego.

One of these, recently made available on MattyCollector.Com, probably wasn't even a contender in Mego's eyes, since if memory serves, in the 1970's, he just wasn't that prominent a character, although he did certainly exist within the DC Universe. He's been a personal favorite of mine for years. His name is MARTIAN MANHUNTER! Let's consider the history of the character for a bit, shall we?

J'onn J'onzz, also referred to as the Martian Manhunter, was created by writer Joseph Samachson and artist Joe Certa, and first appeared in Detective Comics #225 (Nov. 1955).

The Martian Manhunter debuted in the back-up story "The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel" in Detective Comics #225 (Nov. 1955). The character is a green-skinned extraterrestrial humanoid from the planet Mars, who is pulled to earth by an experimental teleportation beam (originally presented as an attempted communication device) constructed by Dr. Erdel. The shock of the encounter kills Dr. Erdel and leaves J'onn with no method of returning home. The character decides to fight crime while waiting for Martian technology to advance to a stage that will enable his rescue. To that end, he adopts the identity of John Jones, a detective in the fictional Apex City (later retconned as Chicago).

During this period, the character and his backstory differ in some minor and some significant ways from modern treatments. Firstly, his power range is poorly defined, and his powers expand over time as the plot demands. The addition of precognitive abilities (Detective Comics #226) are quickly followed by telepathy and flight, atomic vision, super-hearing and many other powers. In addition, his customary weakness to fire is only manifested when he is in his native Martian form.

A more significant difference, is that at this time, there is no suggestion that Mars is a dead planet or that the character is the last of his kind. Many of the tales of the time feature either Martian technology or the appearance of other Martian characters, Detective Comics #236 (October 1956), for example, features the character making contact with the planet Mars and his parents.

J'onn eventually reveals his existence to the world, after which he operates openly as a superhero and becomes a charter member of the Justice League. During the character's initial few years as a member of the Justice League, he was often used as a substitute for Superman in stories (just as Green Arrow was, for Batman) as DC Comics were worried about using their flagship characters too often in Justice League stories because of fears of overexposure.

His appearances with the League kept him in the public eye long after his own series were canceled. He is a founding member of the team, and served as a member during many of its various incarnations. From the late 1960s until the late 1970s, J'onn was absent from the JLA, having left Earth to find and become leader of New Mars. This time period is later retconned during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and his period of absence is never again referenced.

The 1988 four issue mini-series Martian Manhunter by J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Badger further redefined the character and changed a number of important aspects of both his character and his origin story. It is revealed that Dr. Erdel did not die and that the character's humanoid appearance was due to physiological trauma and attempts to block out the death of his race, his familiar appearance a "compromise" between his true form and a human appearance based upon Erdel's mental concept of what a Martian should look like.

The native name for Mars is said to be "Ma'aleca'andra" in his native tongue (a nod to "Malacandra", the name used by the inhabitants of Mars in C. S. Lewis's novel Out of the Silent Planet). The series also adds to canon, the idea that J'onzz was not only displaced in space but in time and the Martian race, including J'onzz' wife and daughter, has been dead for thousands of years.

Martian Manhunter began as an ongoing series in 1998, written by John Ostrander. The series lasted 36 issues before being canceled. Ostrander established that Martian Manhunter is the most recognized hero in the Southern Hemisphere, and that he maintains a number of different secret identities, many of them outside the United States.

Using the events of World War III as a catalyst, DC Comics redesigned the appearance of the character, changing his costume and giving an appearance that more closely resembles that of his Martian form. Those changes were further explored during a Martian Manhunter limited series that spun out of the DCU: Brave New World one-shot. Written by A.J. Lieberman with art from Al Barrionuevo and Bit, the series portrayed a Manhunter more mistrustful of humanity and their actions towards each other. The mini-series focuses on J'onn's search for other survivors of Mars.

Following this mini-series, J'onn was intended to be in Outsiders. He appeared in the third issue of the Outsiders: Five Of A Kind series with Thunder, and joined the team afterwards.

He is next seen working undercover during the events of the limited series Salvation Run. At the end of the series, J'onn is left captured and alone on an alien planet. In Final Crisis #1, Libra summons a boom tube for J'onn at the behest of the Human Flame, who then kills J'onn in front of an onlooking Secret Society. Before his death he proclaims: "Your kind will fail... your kind will always fail... defeat is in your destiny, Libra... now and forever!" He is buried on Mars, where many of his colleagues attend the graveside burial service. The events of those two issues are explored in the one-shot, Final Crisis: Requiem.

Martian Manhunter possesses a wide variety of superhuman powers, many of which are similar to those of Superman and Wonder Woman, including super-strength (nearly equal to that of Superman), super-speed, invulnerability and flight. Like Superman, Martian Manhunter has "Martian vision" (a term designating both the ability to see through solid objects and the ability to generate optic beams of force and heat). Superman once called him "one of the most powerful beings on the face of the earth".

The Martian Manhunter also possesses the power of shapeshifting, which he employs for various effects (e.g., adopting human or monstrous appearance, elongating his limbs, growing to immense size). He can alter the chemical makeup of his body to imitate various materials such as steel or stone. J'onn can render himself invisible, and is also able to become intangible so as to pass harmlessly through solid objects.

He is a powerful telepath, capable of both perceiving the thoughts of others and of projecting his own thoughts. He often acts as a "switchboard" between minds in order to coordinate the Justice League's actions. The extent of his telepathic abilities is great; several times he has connected to the entire planet Earth.

He has demonstrated regenerative abilities, once able to regenerate himself from only his severed head but with great strain (due to the loss of mass he found it necessary to incorporate new matter from Martian sand). Early appearances of the character show him as able to breathe underwater. The Manhunter has sometimes been said to possess nine senses, but these additional senses are poorly defined and generally ignored by most writers. He continues to have a vulnerability to flame, although this tends to vary depending on the story and its writer.

Aside from his superhuman powers, the Manhunter is also a skilled and very capable detective. As Batman mentions in his file, that "in many ways, Martian Manhunter is like an amalgam of Superman and the Dark Knight himself."

So, how's the figure? Extremely cool, but I'd like to say a word about the packaging first. Mattel has done a very nice job of replicating the original Mego packaging, with their own modern information, of course. The figure is packaged on one side of a more or less square card, that is largely a solid color -- in this case blue -- with the images of the other characters in this assortment -- which include Captain Marvel (Shazam!), Black Adam, and Darkseid, in circles running down the other side of the package. The DC Retro-Action Super-Heroes logo is red with yellow lettering, much like the original Mego World's Greatest Super-Heroes logo. Full illustrations of the four characters are on the back of the card, again very similar to the original Mego packaging.

Now, let's discuss the figure. I'm very impressed with this figure, not only because I've always liked the character, but because, unlike Flash and Green Lantern, I really believe this is someone that Mego, had the company endured and had they added to the ranks of the WGSH line, simply would not have gotten around to. J'onn just was not that major a player at the time.

Martian Manhunter has light green skin, and the figure has been given a very interesting shade of it. It's a very light, fairly bright green. For some reason, I believe that toy companies have struggled over the years with otherwise humanoid characters that have green skin. I'm honestly not sure why. Is it that hard to come up with a reasonably plausible green skin color?

I recall Mego's figure of the Incredible Hulk. Nicely done figure for the most part, but along with being way too short, he was also way too dark a green. Interestingly enough, a 12" Hulk from Mego some years later was a distinctly lighter color.

Then we have Mattel's own efforts n their DC Universe Classics line. Their figure of the classic Brainiac was a few shades too dark -- especially for wearing that pink sweater. (Hey, Mattel, can we get a modern Brainiac in Club Infinite Earths at some point?) Beast Boy, Martian Manhunter, and most recently Brainiac 5 from the Legion of Super-Heroes set are all somewhat different shades of green, and yet all are abundantly acceptable. There's still no shortage of green-skinned characters in the DC Universe. I wouldn't mind seeing figures of Jade and Miss Martian at some point.

But the Retro-Action Martian Manhunter figure is a distinctly lighter green than any of these individuals, and it took me a little while to figure out why. I finally realized that the closest color analog to this Martian Manhunter figure is, in fact, the Super Powers Martian Manhunter figure from the popular Kenner line from the 1980's, which was in some respects Mego's successor for bringing out a major line of super-heroes once Mego ceased production. Not only is the green nearly identical to that figure, but so are the red and blue components of the costume.

The headsculpt is very Mego-esque. Mego figures, for the most part, did not have the depth of detail that we've come to expect from action figures these days. Oddly, one of the more detailed portions of the average Mego head was its ears. Martian Manhunter certainly has these, as well as the prominent brow for which he is known, and a nicely done, very classic-looking facial structure. His eyes are red, with black outlines, very nicely painted.

What may surprise some people is that Martian Manhunter is wearing a green body suit. However, there is certainly precedent for this within the Mego line. One of their early figures within the World's Greatest Super-Heroes was a Tarzan figure. This may seem like an odd choice, since Tarzan is neither a DC or Marvel character, but at the time, he had a long-running comic book published by DC Comics. The Tarzan figure was wearing a flesh-colored body suit underneath a leopard-spotted corduroy loincloth.

Flesh-colored uniform parts tended to be fairly prevalent, if not always present. Robin did not have them on his legs. Aqualad, a few years later, did. So did Supergirl and Catwoman. Green Arrow had them with his arms. Conan the Barbarian, who worked his way into the Marvel side of the line by virtue of his comic book (and oddly enough the character was listed as copyrighted to Marvel!), didn't have any flesh-colored body-suit. Nor did Thor have this feature on his arms. So it just sort of varied.

Obviously, one of the reasons to do a skin-colored body-suit in the first place would be to conceal articulation points. What impresses me about the one being worn by Martian Manhunter is how precise a match it is for the skin color. That can't have been easy. Seldom in the days of Mego were any flesh-colored suits a precise match for the plastic. But here? It's right on the money. Now, I don't pretend to know everything that goes into the procedures of coloring plastic or dyeing fabric, but I would suspect they are quite different methods, and getting an exact match like this -- well, what can I say, but -- Wow! I am very impressed.

The figure doesn't look especially odd wearing the bodysuit, either. One might think he would, since he really isn't wearing a suit like this in the comics, but he doesn't look at all strange. The sleeve cuffs are a bit of a giveaway, but the costume is a good fit, it's certainly a good color match, and I think another factor that helps is the fact that the fabric used on these modern figures is a bit thinner, and certainly a finer weave, than the original Mego figures.

Martian Manhunter's costume as a whole is fairly basic. Bodysuit notwithstanding, J'onn has typically worn blue shorts, blue boots with folded-down cuffs, a blue cape with a high collar, and a red belt with red straps criss-crossing his chest. Mattel has done a really nice job of duplicating this costume on the figure. The shorts, cape, and boots are all the same color of blue (and once again we have some impressive color matching between two types of fabric and the plastic boots), and the red belt and straps are a leather-like material attached to the costume.

To add to the overall effect that the shorts, belt, and straps are the extent of Martian Mahunter's costume, the shorts, belt, and strap are actually a separate piece, apart from the green bodysuit. This is probably a little more extensive than Mego would have gotten, but it certainly works well here.

The boots are well made, and nicely detailed, and have a certain amount of flexibility in them. Much as in the days of Mego, there is no "left" or "right" boot -- just one boot made twice over. This may sound uncomfortable, but let's remember that the Manhunter is a shape-shifter. He can adjust his feet to fit.

The cape is cool, and held in place by a gold cord. When Mego made capes, they made them from a very thin fabric of a type that -- I don't really know what it is. It's like a lighter version of a type of fabric that I have a couple of very lightweight jackets made from. The thing with Mego was -- they never hemmed the capes, and they did tend to be prone to fraying.

Such is the case here. The cape is not hemmed, and it appears to be made from the same fabric as the original Mego capes. Thus I would caution EXTREMELY limited and careful handling. Mattel has done a nice job of bringing the collar up, and sewing it down so that it more closely resembles the collar that Martian Manhunter is best known for, but that's the extent of any real stitching on this cape.

The figure is nicely articulated, but at this point I must mention that Mattel did not precisely duplicate the Mego design. Precisely why, I don't really know. I'm assuming there might have been some legal issues involved, whereby EmCe Toys can use the original Mego body -- and indeed they do -- but Mattel couldn't. Mattel's design is very capable, but it does have one odd aspect to it, in that the lower torso piece is unusually small and narrow, and as a result, the hips on these figures tend to look a bit large, and the leg articulation doesn't hold a pose very well.

Granted, these figures are intended for adult collectors who remember the days of Mego, so I wouldn't expect them to see a lot of play, and as far as that goes, I'm probably in the minority of those that will even take them off their package cards.

Slight structural gaffe aside, the Martian Manhunter figure is very nicely articulated, and much like a Mego figure, is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles.

So, what's my final word? I'm glad that Mattel made this effort with their Retro-Action Super-Heroes. I had a ton of Megos when I was a kid, and alas, very few of them survived my childhood, for various reasons. I still have my original Mego Superman, and a small handful of others. Actually, I think I only have two others here. I've been pleased to add some of EmCe's Star Trek and Apes figures to my collection, and I've been pleased to add some of Mattel's Retro-Action figures. Certainly I was glad to be able to bring in the Martian Manhunter.

For anyone who remembers the days of Mego, and is a fan of the DC Universe, this Retro-Action figure of the Martian Manhunter will be a real treat.

The DC RETRO-ACTION SUPER-HEROES figure of MARTIAN MANHUNTER definitely has my highest recommendation!