Monday, July 28, 2008

Secret Wars of the Super Powers

Over at El Jacone's Comic Book Bunker, Luke recently recalled happy memories regarding a character he likes, the Martian Manhunter. It got me thinking about the early days of my own fandom, so I thought I'd share.

I have no idea when I started reading comics, Both my uncle and mother read them, so they were always just around. The earliest copies I remember reading were from 1978, but when I first picked them up, I cannot say. I'd guess I started actively pursuing comics on the newsstand between 1981-1983. Like most people, I entered with Superman and Batman, then progressed to Spider-Man and Captain America, before settling into X-Men and the New Teen Titans. I was around for the dawn of action figures, with early Star Wars among my first toys. It was only natural when super-hero action figures were released, I'd be all over them. Either I was too young or poor to gather many proper Megos, but my Pocket Heroes came right off the pegs. I bought all my favorites-- Spider-Man, Robin, Wonder Woman and Captain America.

Being more of a Marvel guy in the Reagan years, I tended toward Secret Wars, and snapped up most of the first series new in 1984. Only Magneto and Iron Man escaped my interest, as I only learned to appreciate Tony Stark in the last few years. I could never score any second series, but when I started visiting my half brother, I got to play with his Daredevil and Baron Zemo. I preferred their more smooth and pliable sculpts to the rigid, gimmicky Super Powers.

I thought the Hal Jordan Green Lantern was one of the best looking super-hero figures to that point, so he joined Robin among my first purchases. Somehow, the head had been ripped off my old Pocket Robin, so the Boy Wonder had become an undead assassin until I lost him. Perhaps it was association, or just that slightly demented grin on the Super Powers version, but a lost cape and sniper rifle later yielded a second stone cold killer in booties and short pants. Hawkman, Wonder Woman, Dr. Fate, Darkseid, Joker, Penguin, and the Parademon would all come later. Superman, Batman and Mr. Freeze passed through my hands in undesirable trades. Plastic Man and Martian Manhunter were probably the last two I'd ever buy, at a discount, because the shelves were full of them.

Maybe it was just the lines winding down, but by 85-86, I wasn't nearly as interested in buying super-hero toys. For starters, they were much taller than G.I. Joes, which had far more versatility, playability, and copycats, making them the standard bearer. Next, I wanted my own action heroes, as while I emulated the comics I read during playtime, I never wanted to exactly recreate them. You'd think I'd get off to having my resident bad ass, "The Executer," team-up/battle with Marvel's Wolverine, but it never worked like that. Instead, I'd pour my fantasies into a modified Zartan, while Superman would play some random thug whose butt "The Tarantula" would kick. Maybe it was his Liefeldian protruding chest, those dim eyes, his hands locked at his waist, or his inability to perform a roundhouse kick, but the Man of Steel was, comparatively, a tool.

Not so with the Martian Manhunter. The comic that came with the toy was lousy and forgettable, so his slight backstory went out the same window as his cape. Instead, I relished his lengthy reach. Two fists of iron clinched far from his body, begging to be planted on somebody's chin. Martian Manhunter was never one of my star heroes, but he was clearly too gorgeous to settle for Superman's lowly status. When he played the villain, he'd stare down a host of heroes from his beetle-brow. When he was among the good guys, the rim of his cavalier boots would rustle as he ascended a rocky mountain path to serve as a dutiful, doomed lieutenant. He would hold the line until perishing in the final conflict, serving proudly. There was a nobility to his face, and a serenity in his tight smile that would never allow him to descend to the depraved depths of that grinning lunatic Robin. He could have been a contender, if only he'd had a ball joint in his hip, or maybe a swivel in his waist.

The original Martian Manhunter perished along with pretty much all my toys of similar size when my brother took them with him to that camp for "problem" children. He felt bad, and gifted me all his figures of He-Man stature to make amends. I'd played with them as well, but that was clearly an entirely separate universe with its own continuity. Well okay, after reading "Crisis On Infinite Earths," I did one crossover, with the Robotech Zentradi acting as the bridge/Monitor/Pariah that negotiated the size difference. It was "Crisis," and then "Justice League International," that introduced me to the real Martian Manhunter. I liked him almost immediately, but it would be some years later before I was truly a fan.

Even still, the mold began with that Super Powers action figure, so well crafted that it imparted on me a sense of who the character was before we were truly acquainted. Long ago, with impartiality, I came to the conclusion that he had usurped Hal Jordan as the best Super Powers sculpt. I still feel the same, and am pleased Kenner allowed me access to Martian Manhunter fandom well before DC ever did. I wonder though, what, if anything, will be the gateway for the next generation of fans? Justice League? Smallville? Time will tell...


Luke said...

Manhunter is certainly one of the best of the Super Powers Collection I have ever had the pleasure of seeing in person. Dr. Fate (the two are forever connected in my mind thanks to my childhood) is similarly awesome looking, his two-tone look really standing out. Part of me still leans towards GL as the best designed character, and part of me Aquaman -- and the advantage both of them have over Manhunter is that they don't have capes to lose! Argh, I wish I had Manhunter's cape! (I still have Superman and Fate's capes, I am pretty sure.)

Diabolu Frank said...

Manhunter and Dr. Fate, eh? I'll be returning to regular synopsis soon, so the first JLI Annual should be of interest in a few months...