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REVIEW: DC RETRO-ACTION SUPER-HEROES SUPERMAN
By Thomas Wheeler

I've said it any number of times when reviewing these types of retro-style figures, but it's just as true as it ever was. Throughout the early to late 1970's, one company more than any other ruled the action figure world, and that company's name was Mego.

By crafting a good, basic, 8" scale body, that could be molded in any color needed, dressed in any cloth costume fitted for it, and have any head needed secured to the hole in the top of the torso, Mego came up with a straightforward means of producing literally dozens of characters from a wide range of pop culture concepts, many of which had virtually nothing to do with each other.

It was one of the very few times when both the DC Comics and Marvel Comics action figure licenses were under the same roof, through Mego's amazing "World's Greatest Super-Heroes" line. Mego also produced action figures for Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Wizard of Oz, and some choices that might strike some people as rather odd, including popular television series at the time such as The Dukes of Hazzard, Starsky & Hutch, CHiPs, and even The Waltons.

Thus it would have been theoretically possible for Aquaman and Thor to team up, beam up to the Enterprise to have an adventure with Captain Kirk and Mister Spock, have all four of them get stranded on the Planet of the Apes, helped out of that mess by Galen, somehow find their way to the Emerald City of Oz, beg the Wizard for a way home, and somehow or other get sidetracked, ending up with Bo and Luke in the General Lee pulling up to the Waltons' farm and scaring the heck out of John-Boy, who's already got his hands full because The Fonz showed up on his motorcycle twenty minutes ago because Mego also had the license to Happy Days, and neither the farm boy nor the biker quite know what to make of a car being driven by two good ol' boys loaded with two super-heroes, a Starfleet officer, a Vulcan, and a talking chimp. And all of this would've worked because all of the action figures for all of these characters were made by the same company using basically the same body parts.

Just for those of you who think the 80's were the glory days of the action figure world, take it from someone who was there -- the 70's weren't too shabby, either.

Alas, Mego was no match for the Force. When Kenner developed their 3-3/4" Star Wars figures, that was the beginning of the end for Mego. However, the company and its products have maintained a considerable following, to the point that today, several companies are producing either exact replicas of Mego figures, thanks to a company called EmCe Toys, or at the very least, "retro-style" figures very much in the spirit of Mego, based on licensed that Mego either didn't have, such as Battlestar Galactica and the Six Million Dollar Man, or that simply didn't exist at the time.

One of these companies is Mattel, and need it be said, their main retro line is based on the DC Universe. Although the line has run its course for the moment, it's still possible to find figures here and there. Some of these are based on characters that Mego did do back in the day -- Aquaman, Batman, and so forth. A great many of them are based on characters that for one reason or another, Mego never got around to. Flash, Green Lantern, Captain Cold, Black Manta, and others, all under the DC RETRO-ACTION SUPER-HEROES name.

This review will take a look at -- well, it's probably not too much of a stretch to call him THE super-hero. He's the one who set the stage for every tights-wearing, super-powered do-gooder that's come along since. And the man's name is -- SUPERMAN!

Now, presenting an extensive history for Superman in this review would be a waste of space. I mean, seriously, if you don't know who this guy is. Not to mention how extensive his history is. Seventy-five years and counting, although personally, I refuse to count the current, no-red-shorts, no real history, no real legacy, in-company bastardization that's running around these days under the "New 52" banner. Anybody who believes that's Superman is obviously prepared to believe that fertilizer can fly.

But, I do like to present some moderate history behind the character of any action figure I review, so let's have just a bit of a look at Superman's history before we have a look at his Retro-Action figure.

Created by American writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian-born American artist Joe Shuster in 1932 while both were living in Cleveland, Ohio, and sold to Detective Comics, Inc. (later DC Comics) in 1938, the character first appeared in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) and subsequently appeared in various radio serials, television programs, films, newspaper strips, and video games. With the success of his adventures, Superman helped to create the superhero genre and establish its primacy within the American comic book. The character's appearance is distinctive and iconic: a blue, red and yellow costume, complete with cape, with a stylized "S" shield on his chest. He is widely considered to be an American cultural icon, and deservedly so.

The origin story of Superman relates that he was born Kal-El on the planet Krypton, before being rocketed to Earth as an infant by his scientist father Jor-El, moments before Krypton's destruction. Discovered and adopted by a Kansas farmer and his wife, the child is raised as Clark Kent and imbued with a strong moral compass. Very early he started to display superhuman abilities, which upon reaching maturity he resolved to use for the benefit of humanity.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had initially created a bald telepathic villain bent on dominating the world, in the short story "The Reign of the Super-Man" in Science Fiction #3, a fanzine Siegel published in 1933. Siegel re-envisioned the character later that year as a hero bearing no resemblance to his villainous namesake, with Shuster visually modeling Superman on Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and his bespectacled alter ego, Clark Kent, on a combination of Harold Lloyd and Shuster himself, with the name "Clark Kent" derived from movie stars Clark Gable and Kent Taylor. Lois Lane was modeled on Joanne Carter, who later became Siegel's wife. Siegel and Shuster then began a six-year quest to find a publisher.

The character became more of a hero in the mythic tradition, inspired by such characters as Samson and Hercules, who would right the wrongs of Siegel and Shuster's times. It was at this stage the costume was introduced, Siegel later recalling that they created a "kind of costume and let's give him a big S on his chest, and a cape, make him as colorful as we can and as distinctive as we can." The design was based in part on the costumes worn by characters in outer space settings published in pulp magazines, as well as comic strips such as Flash Gordon, and also partly suggested by the traditional circus strong-man outfit, which comprised a pair of shorts worn over a contrasting bodysuit. However, the cape has been noted as being markedly different from the Victorian tradition. Gary Engle described it as without "precedent in popular culture" in Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend. The circus performer's shorts-over-tights outfit was soon established as the basis for many future superhero outfits. This version of the character was given extraordinary abilities, although this time of a physical nature as opposed to the mental abilities of the villainous Superman.

Although Siegel and Shuster were by now selling material to comic book publishers, notably Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's National Allied Publishing, the pair decided to feature this character in a comic strip format, rather than in the longer comic book story format that was establishing itself at this time. They offered it to both Max Gaines, who passed, and to United Feature Syndicate, who expressed interest initially but finally rejected the strip in a letter dated February 18, 1937. However, in what historian Les Daniels describes as "an incredibly convoluted turn of events", Max Gaines ended up positioning the strip as the lead feature in Wheeler-Nicholson's new publication, Action Comics. Vin Sullivan, editor of the new book, wrote to the pair requesting that the comic strips be refashioned to suit the comic book format.

And the rest, as they say... Superman has gone on to be the main character in a host of comic books, radio dramas, movies, TV series, toys, video games, books, you name it. I could go into a store and buy a pair of Converse sneakers with Superman on them, and probably find other clothes up to and including underwear with Superman or that famous "S" shield on it. Then I could send out some greeting cards featuring Superman, get some Superman gift wrap, and have myself a merry little Super-Christmas. About the only tights-wearing character I can think of that preceded Superman -- and not by much -- is The Phantom, and he started out in a newspaper comic strip, not a comic book.

So, how's the figure? Extremely impressive, really. Also, for the first time with one of Mattel's DC Retro-Action Super-Heroes, I can make a side-by-side comparison with Superman's original Mego counterpart. You see, of all the Mego figures I had when I was a kid, I still have my original Mego Superman, one of extremely few survivors of any action figures from my childhood.

Mattel has done a good but not exact job of reproducing the original Mego body. They probably couldn't reproduce is exactly, as that body has been duplicated by EmCe Toys for their precise Star Trek and Planet of the Apes figures, and I'm sure they have the rights to the design.

Nevertheless, Mattel's design is very close and very capable. The worst thing I can say about it is that the lower torso is a little narrow, making the hips seem a bit wide. But this is true on any of their Retro-Action Super-Heroes, not just Superman.

Mattel has crafted a very effective head, that has a nice retro feel to it. Compared to the Mego version, Mattel's has a slightly flatter top to the head, and a somewhat stronger chin, but the overall design still works. And in its favor, Mattel's Superman figure doesn't have those very 70's-looking sideburns.

Mattel's Superman has slightly smaller eyes than Mego's, but this actually makes the figure look a bit more realistic. They're also better detailed, complete with blue irises. The only reason my Mego Superman has blue irises to his eyes is because I painted them on, decades ago.

On the whole, the Mattel Superman looks a lot brighter in color than his Mego counterpart. The skin-tone plastic is a bit brighter. But it's also known that Mego heads are somewhat prone to darkening and discoloring over time, and this figure is something like forty years old. The blue of the fabric costume is definitely brighter, and it's a good shade of blue for a classic Superman. These days, and by that I mean pre-New 52, the blue of his costume was darkened, and most action figures have responded in kind. Back in the day, Superman's costume was a very straightforward blue, and his Retro-Action figure reflects this.

The red trunks are interesting. Here, I have to give the advantage to the Mego figure. In going for generally brighter colors, I tend to feel that Mattel went a little too bright on the trunks. They almost look orange, even relative to the other red aspects of the costume, which include the red on the "S" emblem, the boots, which are plastic, and the cape, which is a different type of plastic.

The boots are similar in design, but the Mego figure's seem to be a slightly better fit. This is due in large part to the type of plastic used. The Mattel Superman's boots are a thicker, and somewhat flexible plastic. The Mego Superman's boots are a more rigid plastic, but they're not an especially sturdy plastic. I remember dealing with any number of split seams over the years. These have held up well because this Mego Superman has not been played with extensively.

The "S" emblem is an interesting study. On both figures, it's a sort of sticker. However, on the Mattel figure, it's larger, a little more accurate, and has been adhered to the costume by what means I really am not sure. The emblem seems to be some sort of thin plastic. The Mego Superman has a fabric emblem -- which was actually a change made over the years of production, and is slightly smaller than the Mattel version. Both look good, though. The Mego Superman's emblem isn't quite as securely attached, however. Interestingly enough, both emblems outline the red and yellow details in black.

With regard to the yellow belt, I'd say it's a toss-up between the two as to which is better made. The Mego Superman has a basic yellow plastic strip what's sewn to the costume top and bottom around the entire perimeter. The Mattel Superman's belt isn't sewn all the way around, but it does have more details, including a visible buckle, and red belt loops, which is more accurate to the character's portrayal.

When it comes to the cape, however, there's no question. The Mattel Superman wins this comparison hands down. Not only does the cape have the all-yellow Superman "S" shield on the back, something the Mego Superman never had, but the Mattel Superman's cape is hemmed! This is something I desperately wish the Mego figures had done. I'm not really sure what the fabric is that they used on most of their capes. It's obviously a rather lightweight and simple fabric -- but it was also very prone to fraying. The only reason my Mego Superman's cape looks as good as it does is, again, because he didn't see much play. The hem around the Mattel Superman's cape may make it look a little less smooth, but at least it's not going to leave pieces of itself all over the place.

On the whole, both costumes are excellent. They use a woven, elastic material of some sort. The Mattel Superman has a slightly thinner costume whose fabric has a smaller weave. That, I suspect, is the result of advances in fabric technology as much as anything. This does have the advantage of a costume that's a better fit, and showing off a bit more muscle detail than the Mego figure. Conversely, it's probably a little more delicate. But then these Retro-Action figures are more intended for collectors.

The Retro-Action Superman is as well articulated as his Mego ancestor. He is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles, although the ankles are obviously a bit hindered by the boots.

So, what's my final word? I consider myself fortunate. I still have my original Mego Superman, and he's in really very good condition. That said, I'm also pleased to have his modern Mattel counterpart. He works well with the other Retro-Action Super-Heroes that I've purchased, including many characters that Mego never got around to. Overall, it's an impressive collection, that I wish had fared better, but perhaps someday it shall return. And if you know where to look -- especially online -- it's still available, and is definitely a cool collectible line for anyone who enjoys the DC Universe, and perhaps has fond memories of Mego.

The DC RETRO-ACTION SUPER-HEROES figure of SUPERMAN from Mattel definitely has my highest recommendation!