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REVIEW: SAN DIEGO COMICON EXCLUSIVE DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS WONDER TWINS & GLEEK By Thomas Wheeler

The San Diego Comics Convention, or Comic-Con, as it is perhaps better known, has become, over the years, pretty much THE place for pop culture mavens. Hardly just a gathering of comics fans anymore, this mega-event brings in movie studios, promoting films that should be of interest to the crowds gathered; video game companies, comics publishers from the greats to people probably running their titles out of overworked computer printers -- and of course the major toy companies are present in force.

As much as the International Toy Fair is a place for companies such as Mattel, Hasbro, and everybody else to try to persuade the major retailers to carry their forthcoming product, the San Diego Comic-Con is an opportunity for these companies to meet with and showcase their products that will be of interest particularly to adult collectors, longtime fans of various concepts that may or may not have had their origins in the toy world, but certainly maintain a considerable presence there.

And, over a good number of years now, one of the main attractions in this realm is that most of the major toy companies offer a number of items that are exclusive to the Comic-Con. Although some remaining supplies might turn up at a later date, they're still billed as Comic-Con exclusives, and the majority of the inventory is likely to go out the door there.

Obviously, one of the major players in the toy realm of Comic-Con is Mattel. And one of the lines that certainly garners a generous amount of attention is DC Universe Classics, the increasingly excellent line of 6" action figures based on the characters of the DC Comics universe.

The 2008 DCUC exclusive was Lobo, the somewhat over-the-top intergalactic bounty hunter. Granted, Lobo has a personality and appearance that would probably have made him a tough sell at retail. But nevertheless, I suspect a lot of fans were left wondering -- what Mattel was going to do next for a Comic-Con exclusive that would even be comparable.

When it was finally announced, my first reaction was moderate disbelief. My next reaction was to laugh my head off for about five minutes. My subsequent reaction was -- and I suspect shared by many others -- "Hey, I gotta have that!"

The 2009 DC Universe Classics San Diego Comic-Con exclusive is -- THE WONDER TWINS! I didn't even see that coming.

Who, specifically, are the Wonder Twins? Anybody who was a kid in the 1970's -- which I was for a fair portion of them (as well as the 1960's, but we don't need to go there for this), and paid the slightest attention to Saturday morning cartoons, is likely to know who the Wonder Twins are.

As much as we're used to seeing super-heroes on the air these days -- Batman, Superman, the Justice League -- in the 1970's, there was ONE show, which pretty much brought them all together. It was called SUPER FRIENDS, and although aspects of it may seem a little hokey by today's standards, it still has a considerable following.

There had been super-hero cartoons prior to this. But this was really the first time that most of DC's big guns -- Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman -- were gathered together on one show. Produced by Hanna-Barbera, the show would enjoy as astonishing run. Although it would change its name several times in later years, it would run well into the 1980's, and ultimately bring in characters from all over the DC Universe, even including such cosmic menaces as Darkseid himself, and use characters that didn't even exist when the show first started, such as Firestorm and Cyborg.

In the early episodes of the series, the super-heroes were joined by a couple of young sidekicks, named Wendy and Marvin, as well as Marvin's pet, Wonder Dog. More cartoonish than the mainstay heroes -- especially Marvin -- these kids had no super-powers of their own. Wendy tended to dress in an outfit that looked faintly Jetsons-ish, but not particularly super-hero-ish. Marvin wore a white shirt with a large "M" on it, and tied a green cape around his neck, but his trousers and sneakers were fairly ordinary. Marvin, frankly, was trying a little too hard.

It wasn't terribly long before Wendy and Marvin went into retirement, with Wonder Dog, and were replaced by a couple of new young heroes, who were more credible in the super-hero world. Enter the Wonder Twins, a couple of alien teenagers (who looked more than a little Vulcan-ish even if they didn't act like it) named Zan and Jayna, accompanied by their (frequently annoying) blue space monkey, Gleek.

Zan and Jayna looked and dressed more like super-heroes, and even had super-powers. By touching fists, they could activate their powers, which allowed Zan, the male, to transform himself into any form of water, and Jayna, the female, to transform into any animal.

Gleek didn't have any powers of his own, except for a preposterously long prehensile tail that must've been an animator's nightmare. However, he did seem to be able to produce a bucket seemingly at will to contain Zan in his water form. To what degree this might've been some sort of strange super-power is unknown, but it actually has been a topic of discussion, and is even mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on these characters.

Which if nothing else will show that some fans will nit-pick anything to death if given the chance. As over-the-top and hokey as the Wonder Twins may have been, they've become cult heroes in their own right, as one of the highlights of the Super Friends show. They were developed character-wise even more extensively in the Super Friends comic book, and even officially brought into the mainstream DC Universe, in somewhat altered form, a number of years ago. Let's see what WikiPedia has to say about them.

The duo made their debut in The All-New Super Friends Hour. Zan (voiced by Michael Bell) and Jayna (voiced by Liberty Williams) are siblings from the planet Exxor (also spelled Exor) who were being informally trained by the superheroes.

Unlike their predecessors, Wendy Harris and Marvin White, this pair was able to participate in combat with abilities of their own. Their powers were activated when the twins touched each other and spoke the words, "Wonder Twin powers, activate!" (In the comics, it was revealed that this phrase was unnecessary, just a habit of theirs.) As they were about to transform, they would each announce their intended form. For example, Zan would announce, "Form of a glacier!" Jayna would then announce her intended animal form, by saying "Shape of -- " whatever.

Zan can transform into water at any state (solid, liquid, gas). In the case of becoming solid ice, he can also become any form he chooses, from a cage for a criminal and, implausibly, complex machinery (such as a rocket engine). He also changed into a gelatinous form at one point. On another occasion, he transformed into liquid nitrogen. By combining with already-existing water, Zan could also increase his mass or volume in the water form chosen. In addition, he could transform himself into weather patterns involving water, such as a blizzard, a monsoon, or a typhoon. Jayna can transform into any animal, whether real, mythological, indigenous to Earth or to some other planet, like Beast Boy, so long as she knows the name.

In addition, they had a pet Space Monkey called Gleek who had a useful prehensile tail and whose body could act as a conduit for the twins to activate their powers should they be out of reach. Gleek also served as a courier when the twins needed to travel: Jayna would typically transform into a large eagle, and Zan would transform into (plain) water, "jumping" into a bucket which Gleek conveniently would be holding. (This led to the joke by some fans that Gleek's superpower was to make a bucket appear and disappear at will.)

The characters were also introduced in the Super Friends comic, where they were far more competent, often being the key to solving major situations. Jayna's powers in the Super Friends comic book were shown to be more extensive, allowing her to transform into even mythical creatures. Similarly, Zan was able to transform into anything tangentially related to water or ice, including a frost giant.

In addition, the two shared a telepathic link, enabling one to alert the other over a distance when in dire circumstances. Their mutual telepathy would also explain how they were able to assume forms that allowed cooperation without any previous discussion of strategy.

According to the Super Friends comic book, Zan and Jayna are Exorian metas, genetic throwbacks to an ancient race of Exorian shapeshifters. Their parents died when they were still babies (during a plague), and, because of their origin, no Exorians wanted to adopt them. They ended up adopted by the owner of a Space Circus, who only wanted to use them as sideshow freaks. Fortunately, the circus's clown (or "laugh-maker") was a kind man and raised them. He also gave them Gleek as a pet. Eventually, as teens, the pair escaped the circus and hid on a planet where a space villain called Grax (an enemy of Superman) had set his headquarters. Spying on him, they learned that Grax was planning to destroy the Earth using hidden superbombs. The twins decided to travel to Earth and warn the Justice League; that was how they came to replace Wendy and Marvin (who were planning on retiring as heroes anyway) as their sidekicks. The heroes also arranged for the kids to live with an old scientist called Professor Carter Nichols, and they even took secret identities as John and Joanna Fleming. "Johan" and "Johanna" were supposedly transfer students from Esko, Sweden, disguised with blonde hair (Zan wore a wig, while Jayna used her powers to transform into a human to change her hair color and ear shape), to allow them to attend Gotham City High School.

You know, that's really a pretty cool origin story, for the time.

In the 1990s they were introduced into the main DC Universe in the series Extreme Justice. The series retconned their origin so that they are slaves of an alien villain, later rescued by the Justice League and were much more powerful than their previous cartoon incarnations. In Extreme Justice #9 (Oct. 1995), unable to speak English, they accidentally attack some civilians and the Justice League. They join Captain Atom's team in issue #16. They had far greater powers than their cartoon counterparts. During their fight with the JLA, Zan became an ice golem, a water monster, and a demonic-looking whirlpool; while Jayna became a griffin, a werewolf, and a sea serpent.

Although rarely seen today, this version of the Wonder Twins is still part of the current DC Universe. Later they appeared in Young Justice #49–51, wearing uniforms which resembled t-shirts and jeans, to help avenge the murder of Empress's parents. Apparently, the Wonder Twins enjoy the taste of CDs, as they ate several of Wonder Girl's favorite discs.

Personally, I didn't really care for this version of the Wonder Twins. I didn't see them in Extreme Justice, but I did see them in Young Justice, and they struck me as at once unhelpful and a trifle arrogant and dismissive of humanity in general. Not a very good portrayal of the characters in my opinion.

Additionally, two characters called Downpour and Shifter appeared in the Justice League Unlimited episode "Ultimatum". They are members of the Ultimen, a group of superheroes created by the government. The group is a pastiche of the heroes that were created for Super Friends, including renamed variants of Samurai, Apache Chief, and Black Vulcan, with Downpour and Shifter specifically a pastiche of the Wonder Twins. Downpour and his twin sister, Shifter have albino white skin and pointy ears. The characters later appear in the episode Panic in the Sky.

So, how are the figures? Well, before I get into that, I really need to discuss the packaging. I know, that's not something that I do very often. But Mattel does seem to like to have fun and pull out all the stops even on the packaging of their Comic-Con exclusives.

Last year, Lobo came on a package card that came with 3-D effect glasses, which worked with a display within the package that could be set up. The Masters of the Universe Classics exclusive, King Grayskull, came in a package that was designed to look like Castle Grayskull, and when you lowered the drawbridge, the figure was on display, blue "lightning" flashed, and a voice boomed, "I HAVE THE POWER!"

Mattel clearly spared no expense on the Wonder Twins packaging. They come packaged on either side of a large, rectangular box. Each one has a fist extended. The box is on a hinge, and you can open it in such a way that it brings the Wonder Twins together, and their fists together, and as soon as that happens -- the backgrounds light up, sound effects go off, and the Twins launch into a fairly lengthy monologue with both of them saying, "Wonder Twin powers, activate!" followed by Zan saying, "Form of -- water!", Jayna saying, "Shape of -- an eagle!" The dialogue continues, with Zan commenting, "Let's save those kids!" and Jayne concluding, "I'm with you, Wonder Brother!"

The voices are not the originals. Nevertheless, it's an impressive display. The interior, now back, of the open packaging has a superb illustration of the Wonder Twins, with a huge image of Gleek's face.

Okay, so -- NOW -- how are the figures? Extremely impressive. These are the classic Wonder Twins, not any sort of modern comics counterpart that can count their appearances on one hand. Zan and Jayna both use the standard male and female body molds that are available for the DC Universe Classics figures, making them appear a little taller, relative to the other heroes, than they did in the Super Friends show. But, hey, it's been over thirty years. I don't know what the maturation rate is for natives of the planet Exxor, but they had to have grown somewhat in that time period.

The headsculpts are entirely new, and very nicely done. The grins on the faces are maybe a little excessive, making Zan and Jayna look more like the Donny-and-Marie of the superhero set, something I'm fairly certain was never intended, but hey, it was a less grim time on the whole.

Their costumes are entirely the proper color, a light purple -- which in and of itself makes them rather distinctive in my opinion since that's not exactly a color commonly used by most super-heroes, with darker purple gloves, boots, collars, and belts.

Of course, the articulation is excellent. I sincerely believe that Mattel's sculptors, the Four Horsemen, have really crafted excellent bodies here. The articulation is first of all extensive, and secondly -- something that needs to be emphasized a little more in some circles than it presently is -- looks good.

Accessories are interesting. Zan comes with a bucket of water with his face sculpted into it, and Jayne comes with a very nicely done eagle, one of her most frequent animal forms.

But what about Gleek? Oh --- brother -- where to start.

Mattel made the decision that, however many Wonder Twins sets might end up on their online site, MattyCollector.Com, after the San Diego Comic-Con, Gleek would ONLY be available at the Convention. You were supposed to receive Gleek when you bought the Wonder Twins. You didn't need to buy him separately, but he came separately, basically in just a little plastic bag.

That particular declaration sent the DCUC community into outrage. Not entirely sure I blame them.

Mattel has done a really nice job with this. Gleek might not be my favorite character in the world -- I've never quite understood the need to throw in slapstick comedy relief in an otherwise somewhat serious animated series -- but Mattel certainly did an impressive job with him.

Basically, he looks like the Hanna-Barbera character with the detail level of the Alex Ross illustration that I saw on WikiPedia. The exposed parts of his body, which include his face, hands, legs, and tail, all have fur very carefully and adroitly sculpted into them. Gleek's hair -- and he always did look like he was wearing a bad toupee, is very properly done and extensively detailed. His face has a friendly if moderately silly grin on it, and his eyes are bright, wide-eyed, and impressively painted.

He has appropriately pointed ears, and two front teeth protruding from the center of his mouth, and a nicely painted little black nose.

Gleek's costume is yellow, with dark purple boots, belt, and cape. Mattel has airbrushed some color onto the yellow areas to enhance it a bit more, a practice I don't necessarily approve of because, frankly, it can be so hit-or-miss, but in Gleek's case, it really works well. Even Gleek's fingernails have been painted.

The end result is a Gleek that looks entirely like his animated counterpart, but with a level of detail that you might be able to capture with modern CGI techniques, but which conventional animation would probably have a problem pulling off even today, never mind back in the 1970's.

Gleek isn't much in the articulation department, but let's face it, he's a borderline accessory, and isn't quite 2-3/4" in height. His head has a considerable range of motion, and he can move at the arms. He stands very nicely on his own, almost comprising a tripod between his feet and part of his tail.

So, what's my final word here? I find myself wondering what Mattel's going to do in 2010 to top this, for one thing. I really can't imagine. Then again, I couldn't imagine the Wonder Twins, either, and here they are! Mattel put a lot of love and respect into this set, and it's really amazing.

At this point in time, I'm not going to say they're going to be easy to get. They're not. And sure as heck the monkey isn't. But if you're any sort of longtime DC Universe fan, if you're old enough to remember waking up on Saturday mornings, turning on the TV, and whatever else you might have been watching, one of the things you really looked forward to were the Super Friends, then -- you need to have this set. Track it down somehow. It's worth it.

The DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS SAN DIEGO COMICON EXCLUSIVE WONDER TWINS (and GLEEK) most definitely have my highest enthusiastic recommendation!