REVIEW: DC RETRO-ACTION SUPER-HEROES BATMAN
When I was a kid, I had two action figure lines -- after some struggle with my parents who weren't at all sure they wanted their son "playing with dolls". Those two action figure lines were Captain Action, which has made a comeback, and Major Matt Mason, which I sincerely wish would.
I never had the original G.I. Joe. For whatever reason, my parents didn't want me to have any of those. My only memorable G.I. Joe encounter when I was a kid was in the toy section of a large department store, that I assume was undergoing some sort of remodeling at the time, which had a display of what looked like at least a hundred G.I. Joe figures in their narrow boxes. Over this display was a large pink banner that read: "Here is your Barbie Entertainment Center!" Make your own jokes.
The 1970's, of course, saw the arrival of action figures from Mego, and I was all over them, despite my parents becoming concerned that I was getting a little too old to play with toys. Then again, if they wanted a kid that in any way fit the conventional definitions of "normal", they should've shopped around more.
Mego pretty much had everything in the 1970's. Their figure design, an eight-inch body with a hole in the top of the torso, into which could be secured any head design they wanted, and then the figure dressed however was required, allowed them to craft a great many action figures with, in most cases, just needing to create a head and the wardrobe. To that end, they licensed the characters from both DC Comics and Marvel Comics, as well as popular concepts of the time, including Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, the Wizard of Oz, and many more, as well as create some in-house product, including Pirates, Western characters, Knights, and even Robin Hood.
Although Mego would fade in the shadow of Star Wars, and no longer be a significant presence in the toy aisles by the early 1980's, their vast product line is certainly well-remembered to this day, and more to the point, has been re-created by a number of companies, crafting not only replicas or updated versions of characters which Mego originally offered in the 1970's, but entirely new lines that Mego either didn't have, or wouldn't have been able to since they didn't even exist at the time.
I've always been highly reluctant to refer to anything that falls within my lifespan "nostalgic". However, the simple passage of time -- and maybe shorter attention spans -- does seem to turn these sorts of things around and return them to popularity on the part of people seeking to recapture, to whatever degree they can, some pleasant element of their childhoods. The Mego action figure format, and many of the characters that they produced, have certainly fallen into this category.
Mattel was able to take advantage of this. As the primary licensee for toys based on the characters of the DC Universe, they crafted a line of eight-inch, cloth-costumed action figures, placed them on packages very reminiscent of the Mego "World's Greatest Super-Heroes" line, and dubbed them Retro-Action Super-Heroes.
Unfortunately, the line didn't see the best distribution in the world, and some of the figures have been rather difficult to track down. Even as another company is preparing to produce more Mego-precise DC Universe action figures, I'm trying to complete my Retro-Action collection. I recently came one step closer to that completion with the addition of the Caped Crusader himself -- BATMAN!
Batman is one of those characters that I'm almost embarrassed to present any sort of backstory for. It's a little like explaining water. Everybody knows about it. Nevertheless, a certain amount of background is appropriate, and then we'll have a look at this Retro-Action figure of one of the best-known, most iconic super-heroes of all time.
Batman was co-created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger (although only Kane receives official credit on the comics pages), appearing in publications by DC Comics. The character first appeared in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)
Batman's secret identity is Bruce Wayne, a wealthy industrialist, playboy, and philanthropist. Witnessing the murder of his parents as a child, Wayne trains himself both physically and intellectually and dons a bat-themed costume in order to fight crime. Batman operates in Gotham City, assisted by various supporting characters including his sidekick Robin and his butler Alfred Pennyworth, and fights an assortment of villains that are generally regarded as one of the wildest collectives of lunatics ever assembled. Unlike most superheroes, he does not possess any superpowers; he makes use of intellect, detective skills, science and technology, wealth, physical prowess, and intimidation in his war on crime.
Batman was one of the few superhero characters to be continuously published as interest in the genre waned during the 1950s. In the story "The Mightiest Team in the World" in Superman #76 (June 1952), Batman teams up with Superman for the first time and the pair discovers each other's secret identity. Following the success of this story, World's Finest Comics was revamped so it featured stories starring both heroes together, instead of the separate Batman and Superman features that had been running before. The team-up of the characters was a financial success in an era when those were few and far between; this series of stories ran until the book's cancellation in 1986.
In the late 1950s Batman stories gradually become more science fiction-oriented, an attempt at mimicking the success of other DC characters that had dabbled in the genre. New characters such as Batwoman, Ace the Bat-Hound, and Bat-Mite were introduced. Batman's adventures often involved odd transformations or bizarre space aliens. In 1960, Batman debuted as a member of the Justice League of America in The Brave and the Bold #28 (February 1960), and went on to appear in several Justice League comic series starting later that same year.
By 1964, sales on Batman titles had fallen drastically. Bob Kane noted that, as a result, DC was "planning to kill Batman off altogether." In response to this, editor Julius Schwartz was assigned to the Batman titles. He presided over drastic changes, beginning with 1964's Detective Comics #327 (May 1964), which was cover-billed as the "New Look". Schwartz introduced changes designed to make Batman more contemporary, and to return him to more detective-oriented stories. He brought in artist Carmine Infantino to help overhaul the character. The Batmobile was redesigned, and Batman's costume was modified to incorporate a yellow ellipse behind the bat-insignia. The space aliens and characters of the 1950's such as Batwoman, Ace, and Bat-Mite were retired.
Starting in 1969, writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams made a deliberate effort to distance Batman from the campy portrayal of the 1960s TV series and to return the character to his roots as a "grim avenger of the night". O'Neil said his idea was "simply to take it back to where it started. I went to the DC library and read some of the early stories. I tried to get a sense of what Bob Kane and Bill Finger were after".
The Batman comics garnered major attention in 1988 when DC Comics created a 900 number for readers to call to vote on whether Jason Todd, the second Robin, lived or died. Voters decided in favor of Jason's death by a narrow margin of 28 votes.
The following year saw the release of Tim Burton's Batman feature film, which firmly brought the character back to the public's attention, grossing millions of dollars at the box office, and millions more in merchandising. In the same year, the first issue of Legends of the Dark Knight, the first new solo Batman title in nearly fifty years, sold close to a million copies.
The 1993 "Knightfall" story arc introduced a new villain, Bane, who critically injures Bruce Wayne. Jean-Paul Valley, known as Azrael, is called upon to wear the Batsuit during Wayne's convalescence. Writers Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, and Alan Grant worked on the Batman titles during "Knightfall", and would also contribute to other Batman crossovers throughout the 1990s.
1998's "Cataclysm" storyline served as the precursor to 1999's "No Man's Land", a year-long storyline that ran through all the Batman-related titles dealing with the effects of an earthquake-ravaged Gotham City.
Batman has also been featured in a wide range of media, including a campy but popular 1960's television series, more cartoons than I can readily count, and a host of movies starting in 1989 and running to the present day. Word out of the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con indicates that the next major DC-based live-action feature film is going to feature both Batman and Superman, together as such for the first time ever.
So, how's the figure? Really very nicely done. Admittedly, it's precise resemblance to its Mego ancestor is a little marginal in some respects, but in most of those instances, it's an improvement.
The cowl has a better design, for starters. One of the classic elements of Batman's "look" is that his cowl, when viewed from the front, seems to draw pretty much a straight line from the tips of the bat-ears right down through the neck. It doesn't taper inwards after the jawline, in other words. This cowl does a really nice job of duplicating that look.
Also, the ears are a little taller than the original Mego figure. I remember thinking, back when I had a massive Mego collection, that the ears should've been a bit more pointed. But there wasn't all that much to be done about it. While I certainly learned a lot about customization and repainting on my Mego figures, as well as repair, I could never figure out a way to extend those ears that wouldn't've looked like heck. They were molded in the blue plastic on a very smooth surface. I wasn't quite that talented. The ears on this Retro-Action Batman are much more pronounced.
The front of the cowl, near the face, has been painted black, with blue eyebrows, nose, and white eyes. Now, these days, that black is considered shadow or shading as much as anything, but back in the 50's and somewhat into the 70's, that black seemed to be as much a part of the design of the cowl as anything, and since this Batman figure is supposed to represent that time, I have no problem with it appearing here, and I think it looks good. The eyebrows could have perhaps been painted a little better. There's an upturn at the close end of each that almost gives Batman a worried look.
I do appreciate the blank white eyes. Mego's Batman had black pupils, and it just never quite looked right. Neither, at the time, did the all-blue cowl. Remember what I said about early customizing on my part? My Mego Batman had a cowl color scheme not dissimilar from what Mattel has done with this Retro-Action figure.
And -- the cowl is removable! This is very much a nod to Mego's early Batman figure. The early releases of both Batman and Robin featured, in the case of Batman, a removable cowl, and in the case of Robin, a removable mask. This practice was discontinued fairly early on, probably due to expense. A specific Batman head was crafted, and the Robin head got the mask painted on.
Nevertheless, I did have one of the early Mego Batman figures (later replaced -- I could be a bit hard on my toys) with the removable cowl, and sure enough, underneath was a Bruce Wayne head. That's exactly the case here, as well. The cowl comes off readily enough thanks to a slit in the back. Admittedly, from the back, it looks like Wayne forgot to zip his cowl or something, but it does make removal of the cowl easier.
The Bruce Wayne head underneath not only looks capably like Bruce Wayne, it looks quite a bit like the original Mego head, although the eyes are better detailed. I don't recall the original Mego Bruce Wayne having blue irises. There's even something about the design of the ears that reminds me of Mego.
The cape is a dark blue -- actually, all of the blue details on the costume are a somewhat darker blue than Mego originally used, and it's an improvement -- and seems made from a material very similar to that used in the 1970's. Hopefully it's less prone to fraying. Although admittedly, I don't expect to be playing with these figures the way I did with their decades-ago predecessors. That alone should increase their lifespans (though I still have a Mego Superman in my collection). The cape has the scalloped end, and is secured in place with some stitching at the collar. The collar has an elastic band, and is probably removable over the head, but I'm not going to try it.
The costume is a surprisingly light gray. This seems more a reflection of some of the modern (at least pre-New 52) color choices for Batman, who had switched from a dark bray and very dark blue, to a lighter gray and black. Somehow, the lighter color seems to work better for a figure that's intended to look retro.
The Bat-emblem has been stamped on the front of the costume, complete with yellow circle around it. This, in particular, is an improvement over the original Mego figure, which used a sticker that had a nasty habit of falling off (check the Mego figures at any toy show). It's also more accurate. Mego's Bat-emblem wasn't so much an oval as it was a rounded rectangle, for lack of a better term. The Bat-emblem on Mattel's figure is most definitely encased within an oval, and is so precise it looks like it was pulled right from a licensing packet of official emblems, and probably was.
The costume has black fabric trunks, and dark blue flexible plastic boots. Then we come to the gloves. Here, in particular, is an improvement over the original Mego figure. The early Mego figures that had gloves, and that included Batman, Robin, and Aquaman, were essentially long plastic mittens. Later figures that had gloves either had them molded as the color of the hands, such as Spider-Man, Green Arrow, or the Riddler, or were molded in rigid plastic and had more sculpted detail, such as Iron Man or Mister Fantastic.
The mittens -- tended to look a little silly. And it didn't help Batman's case that those iconic jagged protrusions on his gloves, looked more like some sort of fringe on the Mego mittens.
Mattel took a cue from later Mego figures for their Retro-Action Batman figure, molded the hands in dark blue, and made the upper portions of the gloves out of a leathery fabric and sewed them to the arms of the costumes. And the jagged protrusions look right, too.
Of course, Batman needs his utility belt, and it is present and accounted for, molded in plastic and clasped in the back -- although it also seems to have been glued in the front. Also, oddly, the belt looks like it's been painted yellow, rather than just molded in that color. What color it might have been molded in I'm not really sure.
Articulation of the figure is excellent. Batman is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles, although the ankles are somewhat hindered by the boots. It is worth mentioning that Mattel was not able to precisely duplicate the Mego design, since that was being used by EmCe Toys for their Star Trek and Planet of the Apes figures. Mattel came up with a good design, but it does have one slight problem, in that the lower torso piece is a bit too small for its own good, and this can have an adverse effect on the articulation of the waist and the legs. But it's not too bad.
So, what's my final word? Well, even as another company prepares to produce a new series of Mego-esque figures that are supposed to be authentic reproductions of the original Megos, I can't find any real fault with Mattel's sadly rather short-lived effort. They produced a nice series of figures, focusing not only on the big guns of the DC Universe, but giving us figures of a lot of characters that Mego never really got around to, including Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter, and a host of interesting villains including Sinestro, Captain Cold, Cheetah, Black Adam, and even Darkseid! We also got a cool Green Lantern assortment that gave us figures of John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and Kyle Rayner, who didn't even exist when Mego was producing their World's Greatest Super-Heroes.
I'm looking forward to the new line, but I remain impressed by Mattel's Retro-Action line, and with the acquisition of Batman, I only have one to go, and am determined to complete my collection. These are very decent figures, with a definite Retro feel to them, but they also work for the modern day, and I'm pleased that Mattel produced them, and I'm glad to have them, including now Batman. If you're a DC Universe fan who enjoys classic action figures, you should certainly make an effort to track these down.
The DC UNIVERSE RETRO-ACTION SUPER-HEROES figure of BATMAN definitely has my highest recommendation!