A few weeks ago, we took a look back at the fondly remembered ‘Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars‘ toy line from the mid-1980s. This week, we’ll examine that series’ biggest competition, the ‘Super Powers Collection’ produced by Kenner and based on Marvel’s chief rivals, the DC Comics super heroes.
As the story goes, DC was looking for a toy company to bring their characters to life in plastic and held meetings with various manufacturers to see what they could offer. Mattel at the time was riding high with their smash ‘Masters of the Universe’ line and had little interest in a licensed brand wherein they would have to split the profits, when they already had a best-selling line that they owned outright.
On the other hand, Kenner’s major cash cow was fading, as the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy had wrapped and interest waned. The company saw a savior in DC’s popular roster of colorful heroes and villains. (It’s hard to believe that at this point in time, the DC heroes were household names but most of the population had never heard of Iron Man or Wolverine… how times have changed!)
Kenner hit DC with everything it had. Initially they proposed three sub-collections, ‘Justice League of America’, ‘The New Teen Titans’ and ‘Legion of Super Heroes’. They pitched dozens of playsets, vehicles… even a 12″ fashion doll line that would have focused on Lois Lane but would have also included Wonder Woman and Bizarro Supergirl with others like Batgirl available for later waves.
In the end, the concept was whittled down into just a basic action figure collection focused on the Justice League, initially with one large playset, The Hall of Justice and three initial vehicles, the Batmobile, a redesigned Supermobile (with a spiky battering ram instead of the two metallic fists on the comic book and cartoon version) and a newly designed Lex-Soar-7 for the bad guys.
And what a collection of heroes and villains! The first wave showcased all of the heavy hitters from the ‘Justice League of America’ comics and the ‘Super Friends’ cartoon and each had a super gimmick that kids employed by either squeezing their legs or arms together. The heroes were: Superman (punching), Batman (also punching), Robin (karate chop), Wonder Woman (crosses her bulletproof bracelets), Aquaman (swimming legs), The Flash (running legs), Green Lantern (aims his power ring) and Hawkman (flaps his wings). Opposing them were: Lex Luthor (punching… kind of), Brainiac (spiky kick to the groin, ouch!), The Joker (swings his huge mallet) and The Penguin (brandishes his famous umbrella, which also has a sword concealed in the handle).
Luthor and Brainic, should be noted, had just been redesigned by George Perez with new more menacing looks. Luthor now sported a chunky, imposing suit of battle armor. Even more dramatic was Brainiac’s transformation from a green-skinned humanoid into a nightmarish, skeletal silver robot with an exposed “brain”. (Just as a note though, to give Brainiac his shiny metallic appearance, Kenner used a different type of plastic on him… sadly a more brittle form… I don’t know anyone who had a Brainiac whose arms didn’t just snap off at some point.)
By the time the ‘Super Powers Collection’ hit stores, ‘Star Wars’ was basically a memory and astonishingly, Mattel’s ‘Masters of the Universe‘ had taken a dive in popularity. (Maybe I’ll get into that in a later story.) ‘Super Powers’ charged in and was an instant smash. Like I said, EVERYONE knew Batman, Superman, Robin and Wonder Woman and even Aquaman, Green Lantern, The Flash and Hawkman had high profiles from appearing on ‘Super Friends.’
And rather than generic shields and ray guns, the characters came with accessories that made sense. Wonder Woman came with her magic lasso, Aquaman his trident, Green Lantern his power battery, Hawkman his mace and Penguin his umbrella. Not to mention the characters that were supposed to have capes… had them! Not just that, but they were accurate to their looks in comics, with Batman’s hanging to his calves and including the scalloping at the edge, and Superman and Robin’s coming up shorter to the backs of their thighs.
Unfortunately, the first wave characters were essentially the most recognizable of DC’s characters. The second wave nearly finished off the Justice League, by adding Firestorm, Martian Manhunter, Red Tornado and Green Arrow as well as Justice Society member Doctor Fate. (Omitted were Elongated Man, The Atom, Black Canary and Zatanna.)
The Jack Kirby creations The New Gods, Darkseid, Kalibak, DeSaad and their army of Parademons were introduced as the main villains on ‘Super Friends’ and were therefore added to the toy collection along with fellow comic villains Mantis and Steppenwulf. (Steppenwulf was made available early as a mail-away premium.)
Kenner actually hired Kirby himself to redesign the characters for the toy line, which he did and this marked the only time he received royalties for his work for either DC or Marvel.
This assortment also yielded an excellent Batcopter vehicle, in addition to a few goofier original modes of transportation, like the Delta Probe One, a generic space ship that any character could pilot and the Justice Jogger, a windup toy that would slowly jog your hero into battle… or more likely a wall or baseboard.
Cyborg from the ‘New Teen Titans’ was added to the ‘Super Friends’ so he received an action figure in the third series as did a character that only appeared on the cartoon and not the comics, Samurai. Realizing the power of TV, Kenner also added toys based on Shazam/Captain Marvel, who’d starred in his own live action series in the 70s 9and therefore appeared on loads of licensed merchandise, and Plastic Man, who starred in his own cartoon series during the 80s.
Because Darkseid and his minions were becoming so visible thanks to ‘Super Friends’, Kenner added two heroic New Gods to the collection, Orion and Mister Miracle.
Only two new villains were introduced. Mister Freeze had recently been given a high tech suit of battle armor, making him quite action figure-ready. Tyr is a villain from the Legion of Super Heroes, so his design may have been left over from that aborted subset.
Then it gets weird.
There is a character from DC Comics named Cyclotron, but he was an obscure villain from the 1940s who fought the All-Star Squadron. Kenner introduced a character named Cyclotron, but he had ZILCH to do with his namesake. This was a robot created by Superman. His powers were essentially the opposite of the Red Tornado’s (coincidentally, also a robot), in that rather than his lower half spinning, his upper half spun. He also had a removable face/chest plate and good luck finding that after one spin too many.
And the Golden Pharaoh was a completely made-up character. Strangely, his illusion powers were very similar to a character that was already more recognizable.
A Clark Kent figure was sculpted and offered as a mail-away incentive.
Unfortunately, the line came to a close. The comic audience was becoming increasingly older as comics started vanishing from traditional purveyors like gas stations, grocery and drug stores and mall book shops. Even the venerable ‘Super Friends’ was cancelled and was only available in syndication, where it had to fight for viewers against newer, more cutting edge shows like ‘Thundercats,’ ‘Voltron,’ ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Transformers.’
That was seemingly then end, until some concept art emerged that indicated that Kenner had huge plans for the line had it continued.
- Atomic Knight
- Black Racer
- Black Vulcan (The Super Friends)
- Blue Devil
- The Creeper
- El Dorado (The Super Friends)
- Green Lantern (John Stewart)
- Kid Flash
- Man-Bat (at least one prototype is known to exist)
- Manhunter (Mark Shaw)
- Mister Mxyzptlk
- Reverse Flash
- Terminator (better known today as Deathstroke)
- Vigilante (Adrian Chase)
- The Wonder Twins (Zan and Jayna from The Super Friends, both as deluxe figures)
I’m honestly just going to say it, they were going by looks with this wave. Most of these characters had a “totally 80s over-designed but not 90s over-designed” look. Atomic Knight with his intricate armor, like Brainiac must have been a nightmare for any artist who had to draw him, except for the overly ambitious guy who designed him. Obsidian looks cool, but he was a member of Infinity Inc and there are no other toys in this collection that reference those characters at all. Vigilante and Deathstroke are killers for hire… so… not sure how appropriate they are, but hell they’d have looked cool, right?
The weirdest part however is the strange lack of chronological awareness involved. This line up would have come out at least a year after ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths.’ Prior to this story, Reverse Flash was already dead and within the story, Supergirl was killed along with The Flash, Barry Allen. Kid Flash/Wally West then dons the Flash costume and carries on in his mentor’s legacy. On top of that, the proposed Supergirl figure would have had her dressed in a costume she hadn’t worn in at least two or three years.
But at the same time, they planned to toss in brand spanking new characters like Blue Devil and Shockwave. So yeah, I say they flipped through some issues of ‘Who’s Who’ and were like “Oh he looks cool! Let’s make him!”
But to top it all off, Kenner actually hoped to continue making up brand new characters that didn’t exist in the comics. They are:
- Executioner (A hulking minotaur-like villain)
- Howitzer (pretty sure, just a guy with a big gun)
- Quadrex (Otherwise known as Bio-Bug, he would have been a Blue Devil foe with four arms and an insectoid appearance.)
- Silicon (Would have been molded out of clear plastic with robotic parts visible inside of him.)
- Rocket Man (would have been part of a deluxe armored assortment which would have also included the Wonder Twins and deluxe versions of existing characters. Some speculate that Rocket Man was a super identity for Wonder Woman’s boyfriend Steve Trevor who was depicted as an astronaut on ‘Super Friends’.)
I know some of these would have been welcome additions to many a kid’s collection, but the new, original characters are head-scratchers.
But overall, the comic accuracy of these toys endeared them to the hearts of comic fans. Most of the toy designs were based on the drawings by the fantastic Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, from the legendary DC Style Guide, which is still used today to create popular merchandising. (There were a few exceptions. Cyborg’s design was based on artwork by George Perez. And as stated the New Gods were designed by Jack Kirby.) To many, this remains the definitive DC toy collection.
The one line that may have surpassed it was Mattel’s recent DC Universe Classics, which presented a wider variety of characters. Eventually Mattel produced updated versions of every character that Kenner had made for the Super Powers Collection… yes, even the Golden Pharaoh! In fact, DC Universe Classics went Kenner one better by producing all of the original ‘Super Friends’ so not only was Samurai a part of the line, but Black Vulcan, El Dorado, the Wonder Twins (and Gleek, who was not planned for ‘Super Powers’) and Apache Chief (Ditto).
But while Mattel’s releases are an excellent tribute, they can’t really match the vibrancy and charm of the classic ‘Super Powers Collection’. The level of quality that Kenner invested is evident in that these toys are highly sought after by adult collectors today and many pieces from the collection sell for hundreds of dollars. Of course ‘Secret Wars’ has its passionate fans as well, especially those seeking the three rare foreign release figures. But hands down, the quality of ‘Super Powers’ hands down places them a notch above. (Sorry Marvel Acolytes!)
Both ‘Secret Wars’ and ‘Super Powers’ appealed to mostly the same audience. But Mattel clearly didn’t really invest its all into ‘Secret Wars,’ whereas ‘Super Powers’ was made a genuine priority by Mattel, who made it a point to translate elements from the comics and cartoons faithfully.
But feel free to voice any disagreements in the comments section. Or agreements. Those are nice too.
Source: Action Figure Insider