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REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS SAMURAI
By Thomas Wheeler

One of the things I have always appreciated about the creators of Mattel's superb line of DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS figures, whether you're talking about the Mattel personnel such as Scott Neitlich, or the highly talented sculptors and designers at the Four Horsemen Studios, is that they are distinct fans of the DC Universe. I really think it helps if you really enjoy what you're working on.

They also know its history, including some of its quirkier aspects, which is why, with Wave 18 of the DC Universe Classics line, we're getting a number of figures that might seem a little -- unusual. Certain purists or modern-day fans who might rather see other, better known, or more contemporary characters might raise an eyebrow or scoff at these, but honestly, I'm glad to see them, because to me, it lends these characters a certain legitimacy that, admittedly, they've struggled with.

The characters I am referring to are four super-heroes that were developed specifically for the Super Friends animated television series, which was developed by Hanna-Barbera in the 1970's, and had a very healthy run well into the 1980's, under a number of name changes. Although the show tended to focus on the big guns of the DC Universe -- Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, and along the way other well known heroes from the DC Universe found their way in, there was a handful of heroes, specifically created by Hanna-Barbera, that only ever really appeared in the cartoon show.

Admittedly, these four were created to provide a certain amount of racial diversity. It was a politically-correct statement of sorts before that term had even been coined -- and before it became so prevalent in society to the extremely annoying degree that it has today. Some of these heroes have had action figures before, although not extensively. This is the first time any of them have made it into a flagship line such as DC Universe Classics.

Those four individuals are SAMURAI, EL DORADO, BLACK VULCAN, and the wave's Collect-and-Connect, APACHE CHIEF. A fifth character, GOLDEN PHARAOH, was created specifically for the 1980's SUPER POWERS line from Kenner, and never even appeared in the cartoon show. He was brought into the DC Universe Classics line several waves back, and he's a superb figure. If you don't have him, track him down.

This review will take a look at arguably the best-known of this unusual group of heroes, SAMUARI. But first, a little history on the Super Friends series, for those of you unfamiliar with it who might think that the modern Batman, Superman, and Justice League series and their successors are where DC animation really got going.

Super Friends was an animated series about a team of superheroes, which ran from 1973 to 1986 on ABC as part of its Saturday morning cartoon lineup. It was produced by Hanna-Barbera and was based on the Justice League of America and associated characters.

The name of the program, and the JLA members featured with the Super Friends, have been variously represented (such as Super Friends and Challenge of the Super Friends for example) at different points in its broadcast history.

Plotlines for the first incarnation of the Super Friends did not involve any of the familiar DC Comics supervillains. Rather, they focused on the often far-fetched schemes of various mad scientists and aliens, who were revealed at some point in the program to be well-intentioned but pursuing their goals through an unlawful or disreputable means. Typically, at the end, all that is needed is a peaceful and reasonable discussion to convince the antagonists to adopt more reasonable methods.

The All-New Super Friends Hour departed somewhat from the previous series' formula by using villains that used much more violent methods to further their goals and typically could not be reasoned with, requiring the heroes to use force to stop them. Beginning with Challenge of the Super Friends, several of the heroes' arch-villains from the comic books, such as Lex Luthor and The Riddler, began to feature prominently in comic-style stories.

Super Friends first aired on ABC on September 8, 1973, featuring well known DC characters Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. Superman, Batman & Robin and Aquaman had each previously appeared in their own animated series produced by Filmation, and voice talent from these prior programs was brought over to work on the new show.

In addition to the superheroes, a trio of sidekicks was introduced, each of whom were new characters not drawn from the comic books: Wendy, Marvin White, and Wonderdog, none of whom had any special abilities (save the dog's unexplained ability to reason and "talk.", not unlike Scooby-Doo) The trio were depicted as detectives and/or superheroes in training.

Each episode would begin with the heroes responding to an emergency detected by the massive TroubAlert computer that was situated within the Hall of Justice which served as the headquarters of the team. Colonel Wilcox, a U.S. Army official, was a recurring character who would work as a government liaison to the Super Friends during emergencies.

Conflicts were often ultimately resolved with the antagonists persuaded to adapt more reasonable methods to achieve their aims with the assistance of the heroes. Natural disasters triggered by human (or alien) activity were often shown, and environmental themes featured strongly in the program.

Three other DC Comics superheroes were featured as guest stars during this season: the Flash, Plastic Man, and Green Arrow.

This first run of Super Friends, consisting of sixteen one hour episodes that were rerun several times, concluded on August 24, 1974.

The All-New Super Friends Hour which followed featured four animated shorts per program which followed a basic format each week. The first segment of every show featured two of the heroes, teaming up in a separate mini-story. The second segment featured a story with the newly-introduced Wonder Twins, a pair of alien heroes named Zan and Jayna, who honestly fit the bill a little better than Wendy and Marvin did, as they wore more super-hero-looking costumes and had actual super-powers -- although whether Gleek the blue space monkey was an improvement over Wonderdog may be open to some debate. The third segment was considered the "primary" adventure of the week which featured the entire Super Friends roster (including the Wonder Twins) in a longer adventure. The fourth and final segment featured a story with one of the primary lineup along with a "special guest star". The fourth segment typically featured a problem that was solved using the guest star's unique abilities.

In addition, between segments there were additional short spots with members of the Super Friends giving basic safety lessons, providing basic first aid advice, demonstrating magic tricks, creating crafts, and presenting a two-part riddle featuring the week's primary plotline.

The next segment of the show, which was also half an hour in length, was called the Challenge of the Super Friends. These stories introduced the Legion of Doom, a team of thirteen recurring foes who are the Super Friends' worst enemies. They used a swamp-based mechanical flying headquarters, the Hall of Doom, as a suitable contrast with the Super Friends' gleaming Hall of Justice.

Additional heroes that had previously appeared only as guest stars were added to the roster as well, to make a total of eleven. These included the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman, as well as the three Hanna-Barbera creations Black Vulcan, Apache Chief, and Samurai.

Once again renamed, this time simply reverting to Super Friends in 1980, the series changed formats again, abandoning the production of half hour episodes and producing seven minute shorts. Each episode of Super Friends would feature a rerun from one of the previous six years along with three of these new shorts. These new adventures featured appearances by the core group of the five classic Super Friends along with Zan, Jayna and Gleek. There were also guest appearances from members previously depicted in Challenge of the Super Friends as well as the original Hanna-Barbera created hero El Dorado.

In September 1984, Super Friends returned with a new thirty minute program that typically featured two 11-minute stories per episode. This incarnation featured Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and the Wonder Twins and Gleek, this time teamed up with Firestorm. In addition to this core group, episodes during this season also featured some cameos by old and new Super Friends. This series featured various villains from the comic books such as Brainiac, Lex Luthor, Mirror Master and Mr Mxyzptlk, as well as Darkseid and his henchmen from Apokolips.

This season, and the one to follow, featured the "Super Powers" tag which was part of a marketing tie-in with the action figure line.

In the fall of 1985, the next version of Hanna-Barbera's depiction of the DC Comics heroes began, although it no longer carried the Super Friends name. Subtitled "Galactic Guardians", this series returned to a conventional line-up for the team, with a focus on the newer members Cyborg and Firestorm. Once again headquartered at the Hall of Justice in Metropolis, the heroes battled such familiar foes as Lex Luthor, Brainiac and the Scarecrow, as well as the recurring villain Darkseid. It also contained the first and only appearances by The Joker, The Penguin, the Royal Flush Gang and Felix Faust.

The tone of the Galactic Guardians incarnation was notably more serious than Super Friends had been in the past. Additionally, the Galactic Guardians series featured the first televised depiction of Batman's origin in the episode "The Fear". This was the final season of the series.

Now, relative to modern DC animation, Super Friends, in any of its incarnations, does come across as more than a little hokey. Nevertheless, for the time period in which it was presented, it showcased some very popular heroes, made for some great adventures, and when it ultimately tied in to the Super Powers action figure line, provided a link to an action figure line that it still very well regarded to this day, and deservedly so.

As such, while the presence of some of these oddball characters might mean that someone more closely tied to the DC Universe might have to wait his or her turn for a while, I can live with it. In contrast, these characters are still ahead of some that I really don't care whether or not they make it into the line, and even a few that already have.

So, let's consider the character of SAMURAI. Of the group, he's easily the most prominent. He's the only one of the Hanna-Barbera-created characters to be given a real name, he's the only one to be given a definitive backstory, and he's also the only one, to date, to have turned up, albeit in cameos, in the mainstream DC Universe -- at least pre-relaunch.

He's also the only one to have two prior action figures. He turned up in the Super Powers line, and he also received a figure in the Justice League Unlimited line, alongside Black Vulcan and Apache Chief, and that was an oddball sort of set, seeing these characters in the modern animated style, when in the series in which they appeared, the style, although certainly very simplified, was generally more realistic.

So, who is Samurai? His real name is Toshio Eto, and he is obviously of Japanese descent. Samurai appeared 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. Besides being inserted to create diversity, Samurai, in a sense, took the place of Red Tornado, with whom he shares similar wind-based abilities. After sporadic guest appearances, Samurai grew into a prominent team member in the series later seasons.

A character resembling Samurai has recently appeared in a double page spread in the Infinite Crisis hard cover trade collection. The actual Samurai made his first appearance in the comics several years later during the Brightest Day event.

Although not outwardly resembling a traditional samurai, Samurai 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 Yo 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".

"Tomei 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".

"Higa Moay" - Also used only twice. This allows Samurai to cast illusions in order to fool an enemy. Both times, he created the illusion of fire to frighten his captors.

Personally, I'm impressed that these phrases were actual Japanese, and translated as closely as possible to the powers being manifested.

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 Toshio Eto, 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.

In addition to a cameo in Crisis on Infinite Earth #5, Samurai made DC comics appearances during the Justice League/Justice Society of America crossover featured in the Brightest Day event. Toshio appears as one of the heroes driven insane by Alan Scott's Starheart powers, and is shown using his winds to destroy the city of Tokyo. He is defeated and knocked unconscious by Jesse Quick and Congorilla.

So, how's the figure? Really superbly well done. I won't say that these "Super Friends" figures are unsettling, but they are unusual. Unlike the Justice League Unlimited set, which strove to bring the characters into the animated style of that series, or even the original Samurai figure from the Super Powers collection, the DC Universe Classics collection has consistently shown that its intention is always first and foremost to present a straightforward, realistic interpretation of the characters.

The result here is a figure that looks more "real" than its best-known incarnation from the original animation. Although the original Super Powers series wasn't particularly stylized to any degree the way modern DC-based series have been, it was certainly simplified. This is evident even comparing it to later animated series that made use of a more realistic character design, such as the 90's X-Men or Spider-Man series. Somewhat limited animation and a lack of shading in the painting process led to a look which, admittedly, by modern standards, looks a little flat.

So here we have a Samurai figure that, quite frankly, looks a whole lot more impressive than he ever did when he was in the cartoon.

The headsculpt is superb. It manages to take some of Samurai's more cartoonish traits -- thick eyebrows, a somewhat stereotypical mustache and goatee, and even a somewhat stereotypical hairstyle complete with topknot that makes him look like he scalped E. Honda from Street Fighter -- and makes it work, and even look entirely plausible within the realistic design of the figures -- although I have to admit the eyebrows are a slight stretch. It's not the fault of the sculptors, though. They worked with what they had.

The overall facial detail is excellent. Samurai looks heroic, determined, and decidedly Japanese, without anything exaggerated in his design. The paintwork is nicely done and most impressive. The figure I have does have a few mold creases in the head, and I mention this only so that Mattel might see this review and look into this as a quality control issue, so it doesn't happen any more than it needs to.

Samuari's costume is interesting. It seems to have been a peculiar hallmark of the Hanna-Barbera designed characters that they seemed a little underdressed relative to their better-known DC-created counterparts. El Dorado was shirtless. Black Vulcan's legs were bare. Apache Chief wore a vest, trunks, and boots. I honestly don't know if this was an excessive attempt to show greater skin-color variety or what, but -- the designs are what they are. There's certainly been no shortage of skimpy outfits in the super-hero world since.

Samuari's costume is mostly a rather bright green, and consists of two widely flared pieces of fabric that start at the belt and go over his shoulders, meeting at the belt in the back once again. He has a wide orange neckpiece, and the flares are also bordered in orange. He has a fabric-looking orange belt, and is also wearing green trunks and boots.

Obviously, whenever possible, Mattel is going to want to use existing molds. It's a consistency of this line that I sincerely appreciate, and one of the reasons why I rail against the double-articulated elbows and knees, which blessedly are absent on these Super Friends figures, although Captain Boomerang and Toyman, also in this Wave, weren't so fortunate.

In Samurai's case, the figure uses a basic body, for the most part, and the upper part of the costume is a separately-molded piece that is attached during assembly. This is interesting, given that this is pretty much how the figure was created for the Super Powers line, although there, the over-the-shoulder flares were made from fabric. But as a basic design formula -- hey, if it worked once, why not?

One other distinctive part of Samurai would appear to be the wrist bands. Samurai is wearing slightly darker green, highly ridged wrist bands. I'm not sure if these are distinctive to this figure. If they are, then that's really going the extra mile for this figure, since it meant the creation of entirely new lower arms, and I also appreciate the fact that they resisted the urge to double-articulate the elbows.

Samurai comes with an accessory, a transparent yellow, highly serrated energy sword. I do have some memory of the character using this in the series a few times. Of course, Samurai is highly articulated, and is poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivels, knees, and ankles. Everything works superbly well on this figure, too. No articulation complaints whatsoever.

So, what's my final word here? If you have any recollection of the Super Friends series, you'll certainly welcome this figure into your DC Universe Classics collection. If for some reason you don't remember the series, go to your local library or video store and see if they have it available. Most of it is on DVDs. Try to keep it in the context of the time in which it was produced, and have some fun with it. Then you'll be able to appreciate this figure and his compatriots in this assortment. For myself, I'm delighted to see all of them.

The DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS figure of SAMURAI definitely has my highest recommendation!