With the DC Universe Classics line of 6" scale action figures from Mattel, you have something of a dichotomy. These figures across the board have the potential to be the most impressive super-hero action figures that have ever been crafted for the standard retail market. Better than Super Powers. Better than Marvel Legends.
And they have one major heads-up over DC Direct in my opinion, in that they are essentially "standardized" versions of the various characters, rather than three-dimensional versions of one or another artist's interpretation of a given character. I don't care if a figure of Batman was based on the art of Ed McGuinness, George Perez, or Fred Hembeck. Just give me a decent, reasonably realistic Batman (or whomever) figure.
That's what DC Universe Classics does. Many of the male figures use all or most of a common body design, and it's a good one. The uniform details and headsculpts are excellent. So, where's the dichotomy? What's the problem?
The problem is twofold. One problem is distribution. Mattel can say "All the retailers have to do is order our product" all they like. This toy line is almost as hard to find as sincerity at a political convention. Then there's the second problem. Assembly. Quality Control, period. I am aware of the fact that Mattel has had its factory problems in recent times. That's an explanation. It's not an excuse.
And it's gotten pretty demoralizing, especially when it affects the TWO top action figure lines Mattel is producing right now, the other being Masters of the Universe Classics. But let's stick with DC Universe Classics. I have to carry a diagram with me of how the basic make figures are supposed to be assembled. I've never had to do that in 30 years of action figure collecting. And that's no guarantee, as I'll explain further along. And then this ties back into distribution -- maybe the assembly problem wouldn't be such an issue if I could walk into a store and find four or five of a given individual. But if there's only one or two, and they both have problems -- it's pretty disappointing.
That having been said, I'm still trying. I'm sincerely hoping Mattel can work their problems out, which are considerable. Because this line -- and frankly Masters as well -- has way too much potential for a long and extremely impressive existence for this kind of garbage to be happening to it, and sooner it later, it's going to cause a backlash that's really going to hurt the future of this line. And I'd really hate to see that happen. Meanwhile, all I can do is hope for the best.
Series 5 of DC Universe Classics is, interestingly enough, a Wal-Mart exclusive. That's interesting because Wal-Mart hasn't really been carrying this line, although reportedly they plan to start. They've been content to focus on Batman and his recent movie product for their DC merchandise. That's left DC Universe Classics in the hands of Target, and Toys "R" Us.
Series 5 is an interesting assortment of characters, consisting of Atom, Amazo, Eradicator, Black Lightning, and Riddler, with a "Collect-and- Connect" figure of Metallo. Of that interesting assortment, there were three -- Atom, Riddler, and Black Lightning -- that I was particularly interested in. I managed to secure two of the figures -- Black Lightning and Riddler.
This review will take a look at BLACK LIGHTNING. Let's consider the character's history. Although Black Lightning isn't exactly what one would regard as a major player in the DC Universe, he's rubbed shoulders with enough of the heavy-hitters, up to and including the Justice League, so that he should probably be fairly regarded as a good second- tier character these days. He's been around for a little more than thirty years.
Black Lightning -- real name Jefferson Pierce -- was one of the first major African-American superheroes to appear in DC Comics. He debuted in Black Lightning #1 (April 1977), and was created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden.
The original candidate for DC Comics' first headlining black superhero was a character called the Black Bomber, a black hero who was actually a white racist and later described by cartoon and self proclaimed comics historian Don Markstein as "an insult to practically everybody with any point of view at all."
When the editor who had approved the Black Bomber left the company before the character had seen print, Tony Isabella was asked to salvage the character; Isabella managed to convince editors of his Black Lightning character which he had been working on for some time.
Tony Isabella wrote the first ten issues of Black Lightning, before handing over to Dennis O'Neil. Only one O'Neil-scripted issue came out before the series was canceled in 1978 as part of a general large-scale pruning of the company's superhero titles known as the DC Implosion. Issue #12 was published in Cancelled Comic Cavalcade, then formally published in World's Finest #260.
Black Lightning made a number of guest appearances in various titles over the next few years, including a string of issues of World's Finest written by O'Neil, then shifting to Detective Comics and a two-part story in Justice League of America in which the League invited him to join, but he turned them down.
In 1983, with his powers restored, he regularly-appeared again as a member of the Batman-led superhero team the Outsiders. When The Outsiders ended, he returned to making occasional guest appearances. One such appearance, in 1988, resulted in increased powers.
In 1995, a new Black Lightning series began, with art by Eddy Newell, again written by Tony Isabella, who was fired after the eighth issue. After Tony Isabella left, the series was canceled after only five more issues.
This guy's really had a tough time catching any major publishing breaks. As to the character himself:
A gold medal-winning Olympic decathlete, Jefferson Pierce returned to his old neighborhood (the notorious Suicide Slum in the proud city of Metropolis) to become a high school teacher. Appalled by the violence he saw, Pierce tried to intervene on behalf of his students, but quickly learned that the 100, the local criminal organization, objected violently to interference. Peter Gambi, a family friend and tailor, designed the costume and electronic power belt of Black Lightning. Pierce donned a mask, an Afro wig, a hip way of talking, and Gambi's outfit to become Black Lightning, defender of the poor and underprivileged. Later, Black Lightning's belt was destroyed while he was imprisoned by his enemies. He would later discover that he had internalized the electrical power and no longer needed the belt.
After his own series was canceled, Black Lightning lost his electrical powers, but continued fighting without them. The loss eventually turned out to be psychosomatic, a symptom of a crisis of confidence resulting from the accidental death of a bystander during an altercation between Black Lightning and some gun-wielding thugs. After his powers returned, he joined the Outsiders for a healthy run in a popular title in the 1980's that featured Batman leading his own team of super-heroes, after leaving the Justice League of the time over assorted differences. The team also featured classic (if weird) hero Metamorpho, as well as newcomers Katana, Geo-Force, and Halo. Artwork by legendary Batman artist Jim Aparo also helped.
When Lex Luthor was elected President of the United States in 2000, he appointed Jefferson Pierce as Secretary of Education, Pierce accepting as he concluded that he could do more good working within the system than outside it. He resigned amidst controversy over his "worst-kept secret in Washington" identity as Black Lightning, and his alleged inadvertent killing of a criminally-minded corporate CEO, for which President Pete Ross (who succeeded Luthor) then pardoned him.
In issue #5 of the Infinite Crisis storyline, it was shown that Black Lightning was one of the eight people Batman had considered to aid him in destroying the Brother Eye satellite, which controlled the OMACs. Booster Gold, who was not on the list of eight, but knew about the candidates from his knowledge of the future, contacted Lightning before Batman did, as historical data from the future had shown who had aided Batman. Lightning accepted, arriving at the Bat cave to await orders. He then forged an uneasy yet effective alliance with Mister Terrific, combining their powers of electrical manipulation and invisibility to technology to strike the villainous AI from the inside.
After the third Society of Super Villains was formed, Black Lightning began using his status as Luthor's former Secretary of Education to gain information from super villains.
Most recently, Black Lightning has joined the Justice League of America under the creative team of Brad Meltzer and Ed Benes, once again appearing with a modified costume. He appears to be primarily based in Washington DC again. Black Lightning assists the JLA with intelligence gathered from the criminal community. Many super villains still believe he is 'in' with Lex Luthor and are willing to cooperate.
As to his powers and abilities, At first, Black Lightning wore a belt that enabled him to surround himself with a protective electromagnetic force field and to generate, project, channel, and absorb electromagnetic energy. In the course of his adventure and perhaps from using the belt for so many years, these powers became internalized, and he can now throw bolts of bio-electrical energy generated by his body. Exactly how much electrical energy Black Lightning can generate is unknown but he can easily stun or kill a man with his powers, and on one occasion he was able to restart Superman's heart after the Man of Steel had suffered from a near-fatal Kryptonite exposure. He can also generate an electro-magnetic force-field capable of stopping projectiles, however, this requires considerable effort and concentration.
Pierce also maintains his Olympic-level physical conditioning, giving him above average strength, speed and endurance. Under Batman's tutelage, he has become a highly skilled hand-to-hand combatant.
Black Lightning has had three major costumes in his history. Fortunately, Mattel chose the most recent one for their figure.
Black Lightning's original costume was so much a product of the 1970's that it was almost laughable. You'll note the reference earlier to the afro wig. Jefferson Pierce had very short hair. And while the afro wasn't too exaggerated, the only other super-type that I can think of that ever made use of a wig as part of her identity was Black Canary, for crying out loud. More or less attached to the wig was a silver mask with yellowish eyes.
Black Lightning wore a shirt that, in basic configuration, looked like he was stealing Luke Cage's wardrobe, Power Man from Marvel Comics, which ironically enough Tony Isabella also wrote. One wonders to what degree he helped design the characters. Black Lightning had a loose-fitting shirt with somewhat billowing sleeves and a high collar, with silver cuffs. The shirt was mostly dark blue with black lightning stripes on the sleeves outlined in yellow. He also had dark blue tights and black boots with silver cuffs. Somehow he managed to get away with this look all the way into the 80's as part of the Outsiders, well after disco was dead...
His 90's costume was also typical for the time, and not much of an improvement. Of course it had to include the traditional jacket that so many heroes of the time wore. In this case, it was mostly a dark red jacket with black lightning bolts highlighted in yellow. While perhaps trendy for the time, it wasn't especially impressive-looking, either.
Black Lightning's current costume is excellent, in my opinion, and is reflected on the figure. Apparently deciding not to have thing to do with anything afro-like in the least, Jefferson Pierce has shaved his head. He is wearing a thin mask with yellow lenses, and his uniform is fairly straightforward super-hero rights, and is mostly black. The arms are blue, with black gloves, and two lightning bolts coming from the shoulders and meeting on the chest and back, outlined in yellow.
The costume, in some basic respects, is not dissimilar to one of the costumes worn by Legion of Super-Heroes member Lightning Lad, sometimes called Live Wire. But, what the heck, it's a good design, why not go with it? There's also a yellow lightning-like belt across the middle.
How's the figure structurally? Here's where I have to start getting more critical than I'd like, and more critical than I should have to. What we have here is a really superb basic body design, that's been used on quite a few male characters within this line, that has no reason for NOT being assembled properly, but the factories keep managing to mess it up.
The body design itself is superb. Heroic, well-designed, and superbly articulated. The body is poseable at the head, arms, upper-arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso (one of the few times I've seen this actually designed in such a way that it doesn't detract from the look of the figure) waist (thank you for including that as well as the mid-torso, instead of some "either-or" proposition like some other lines), legs, upper leg swivel near the knees, knees, and ankles.
So what's the problem? How about putting these things together right? I went through four Captain Atoms before I found one that was assembled correctly. More often than not the arms were swapped, bicep to wrist, and they're not interchangeable. This is just plain carelessness. This is also why I carry an assembly diagram with me, and why I'm reluctant to get these figures from any source other than seeing them in the store myself. These figures cannot swap their various limb appendages left for right. Period!
As for movement along the articulation points, for the most part, it's excellent. But here again we encounter a problem. Black Lightning's left leg is a bit stuck at the hip. This is the one thing that can't really be checked effectively in package, and I've had it happen a couple of times.
Worse, the actual assembly point is preposterously and needlessly small given the side of the figure, the size of the body and the leg, and the available space. And the recommended practice of "boiling" a figure briefly to loosen his joints didn't work. I can pretty much tell that if I move Black Lightning's left leg very much at all, it's going to twist and snap off,. He stands just fine, but that's it. And while I realize that this DC Universe Classics line is more collector-oriented than kid-oriented, imagine a kid getting this Black Lightning figure, and its leg falls off five minutes after he starts playing with it.
I am sincerely sorry that Mattel is having problems with their factories, but THERE -- IS -- NO -- EXCUSE.
Wanting to end on a high point, the headsculpt is excellent, and obviously unique to the figure. While it might not seem like any great challenge to sculpt a bald guy, you still have to come up with a sculpt that is decently detailed and conveys some of the essence of the character. In this, the sculptors, the legendary Four Horsemen, have succeeded admirably, creating a superb likeness of Black Lightning, with a moderately angry and very determined expression on his face, that isn't the least bit exaggerated or implausible. The mask is nicely done, as well. Granted it likely wasn't in the budget to sculpt transparent yellow lenses and actually place them over visible eyes, so Mattel just made the lenses part of the headsculpt and had them painted metallic gold. A fair compromise.
The overall painted detail is excellent, but it's also minimal. The uniform is mostly black, with the blue arms and blue lightning bolts on the chest and back. This is where the trickiest paintwork is, especially since the lightning bolts are outlined in yellow. While I suspect there could be some alignment problems here or there, for the most part Mattel has done a superb job, especially when I take into consideration the number of times on other figures from several companies that I have seen "yellow paint sprayed on black" turned into an absolute mess.
So what's my final word here? This figure is a superb design, and an excellent likeness of the character of Black Lightning. And I sincerely and fervently wish I could give it my total recommendation. But I can't. The stuck leg is symptomatic of an ongoing quality control problem that Mattel HAS to deal with if they have any hope of turning their top two action figure lines into anything that is going to be respected by the action figure community in the long term. I am hardly the only one who has noticed these problems, and is fed up with it. Mattel has lost a lot of trust between DC Universe Classics and Masters of the Universe Classics, and it's going to take a lot to get it back.
Look, this is a very cool-looking figure. If you're a Black Lightning fan, and can find him at your local Wal-Mart, check him out. Give the figure a thorough visual inspection. Make sure all the parts line up and appear to be assembled as they're supposed to be. Determine as much as you can that he has a neat paint job. And if you're lucky enough to get a really good one, get him to the cash register, and then pray that when you open him, nothing's stuck on his articulation. Or if it is, that he can at least stand on a shelf and look cool. Hell, there's got to be SOME really good ones out there.
With all of that in mind as a strong advisory, then, yes, I would certainly give the DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS BLACK LIGHTNING my definite recommendation! Just be very careful in your selection.