REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS BLACK VULCAN
One of the things I have certainly appreciated about the creators of Mattel's line of DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS figures, whether you're talking about Mattel personnel or the Four Horsemen sculptors and designers, is that they are distinct fans of the DC Universe. I really do think it helps if you sincerely enjoy what you're working on.
They also know its history, including some of its more unusual aspects, which is why, with Wave 18 of the DC Universe Classics line, we're getting a number of figures that might seem a little -- bizarre. There may be those who might prefer to see other, better known, or more contemporary characters and might raise an eyebrow or scoff at these, but honestly, I'm glad to see them, because to me, it lends these characters a certain legitimacy that, admittedly, they've had a hard time with.
The characters I am referring to are four super-heroes that were developed specifically for the Super Friends animated television series, which was developed by Hanna-Barbera in the 1970's, and had a very healthy run well into the 1980's, under a number of name changes. Although the show tended to focus on the big guns of the DC Universe -- Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, and along the way other well known heroes from the DC Universe found their way in, there was a handful of heroes, specifically created by Hanna-Barbera, that only ever really appeared in the cartoon show.
Admittedly, these four were created to provide a certain amount of racial diversity. It was a politically-correct statement of sorts before that term had even been coined -- and before it became so prevalent in society to the extremely annoying degree that it has today. Some of these heroes have had action figures before, although not extensively. This is the first time any of them have made it into a flagship line such as DC Universe Classics.
Those four individuals are SAMURAI, EL DORADO, BLACK VULCAN, and the wave's Collect-and-Connect, APACHE CHIEF. A fifth character, GOLDEN PHARAOH, was created specifically for the 1980's SUPER POWERS line from Kenner, and never even appeared in the cartoon show. He was brought into the DC Universe Classics line several waves back, and he's a superb figure. If you don't have him, track him down.
This review will take a look at arguably the second-best-known of this unusual group of heroes, BLACK VULCAN. But first, a little history on the Super Friends series, for those of you unfamiliar with it who might think that the modern Batman, Superman, and Justice League series and their successors are where DC animation really got going.
Super Friends was an animated series about a team of superheroes, which ran from 1973 to 1986 on ABC as part of its Saturday morning cartoon lineup. It was produced by Hanna-Barbera and was based on the Justice League of America and associated characters.
The name of the program, and the JLA members featured with the Super Friends, have been variously represented (such as Super Friends and Challenge of the Super Friends for example) at different points in its broadcast history.
Plotlines for the first incarnation of the Super Friends did not involve any of the familiar DC Comics supervillains. Rather, they focused on the often far-fetched schemes of various mad scientists and aliens, who were revealed at some point in the program to be well-intentioned but pursuing their goals through an unlawful or disreputable means. Typically, at the end, all that is needed is a peaceful and reasonable discussion to convince the antagonists to adopt more reasonable methods.
The All-New Super Friends Hour departed somewhat from the previous series' formula by using villains that used much more violent methods to further their goals and typically could not be reasoned with, requiring the heroes to use force to stop them. Beginning with Challenge of the Super Friends, several of the heroes' arch-villains from the comic books, such as Lex Luthor and The Riddler, began to feature prominently in comic-style stories.
Super Friends first aired on ABC on September 8, 1973, featuring well known DC characters Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. Superman, Batman & Robin and Aquaman had each previously appeared in their own animated series produced by Filmation, and voice talent from these prior programs was brought over to work on the new show.
In addition to the superheroes, a trio of sidekicks was introduced, each of whom were new characters not drawn from the comic books: Wendy, Marvin White, and Wonderdog, none of whom had any special abilities (save the dog's unexplained ability to reason and "talk.", not unlike Scooby-Doo) The trio were depicted as detectives and/or superheroes in training.
Each episode would begin with the heroes responding to an emergency detected by the massive TroubAlert computer that was situated within the Hall of Justice which served as the headquarters of the team. Colonel Wilcox, a U.S. Army official, was a recurring character who would work as a government liaison to the Super Friends during emergencies.
Conflicts were often ultimately resolved with the antagonists persuaded to adapt more reasonable methods to achieve their aims with the assistance of the heroes. Natural disasters triggered by human (or alien) activity were often shown, and environmental themes featured strongly in the program.
Three other DC Comics superheroes were featured as guest stars during this season: the Flash, Plastic Man, and Green Arrow.
This first run of Super Friends, consisting of sixteen one hour episodes that were rerun several times, concluded on August 24, 1974.
The All-New Super Friends Hour which followed featured four animated shorts per program which followed a basic format each week. The first segment of every show featured two of the heroes, teaming up in a separate mini-story. The second segment featured a story with the newly-introduced Wonder Twins, a pair of alien heroes named Zan and Jayna, who honestly fit the bill a little better than Wendy and Marvin did, as they wore more super-hero-looking costumes and had actual super-powers -- although whether Gleek the blue space monkey was an improvement over Wonderdog may be open to some debate. The third segment was considered the "primary" adventure of the week which featured the entire Super Friends roster (including the Wonder Twins) in a longer adventure. The fourth and final segment featured a story with one of the primary lineup along with a "special guest star". The fourth segment typically featured a problem that was solved using the guest star's unique abilities.
In addition, between segments there were additional short spots with members of the Super Friends giving basic safety lessons, providing basic first aid advice, demonstrating magic tricks, creating crafts, and presenting a two-part riddle featuring the week's primary plotline.
The next segment of the show, which was also half an hour in length, was called the Challenge of the Super Friends. These stories introduced the Legion of Doom, a team of thirteen recurring foes who are the Super Friends' worst enemies. They used a swamp-based mechanical flying headquarters, the Hall of Doom, as a suitable contrast with the Super Friends' gleaming Hall of Justice.
Additional heroes that had previously appeared only as guest stars were added to the roster as well, to make a total of eleven. These included the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman, as well as the three Hanna-Barbera creations Black Vulcan, Apache Chief, and Samurai.
Once again renamed, this time simply reverting to Super Friends in 1980, the series changed formats again, abandoning the production of half hour episodes and producing seven minute shorts. Each episode of Super Friends would feature a rerun from one of the previous six years along with three of these new shorts. These new adventures featured appearances by the core group of the five classic Super Friends along with Zan, Jayna and Gleek. There were also guest appearances from members previously depicted in Challenge of the Super Friends as well as the original Hanna-Barbera created hero El Dorado.
In September 1984, Super Friends returned with a new thirty minute program that typically featured two 11-minute stories per episode. This incarnation featured Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and the Wonder Twins and Gleek, this time teamed up with Firestorm. In addition to this core group, episodes during this season also featured some cameos by old and new Super Friends. This series featured various villains from the comic books such as Brainiac, Lex Luthor, Mirror Master and Mr Mxyzptlk, as well as Darkseid and his henchmen from Apokolips.
This season, and the one to follow, featured the "Super Powers" tag which was part of a marketing tie-in with the action figure line.
In the fall of 1985, the next version of Hanna-Barbera's depiction of the DC Comics heroes began, although it no longer carried the Super Friends name. Subtitled "Galactic Guardians", this series returned to a conventional line-up for the team, with a focus on the newer members Cyborg and Firestorm. Once again headquartered at the Hall of Justice in Metropolis, the heroes battled such familiar foes as Lex Luthor, Brainiac and the Scarecrow, as well as the recurring villain Darkseid. It also contained the first and only appearances by The Joker, The Penguin, the Royal Flush Gang and Felix Faust.
The tone of the Galactic Guardians incarnation was notably more serious than Super Friends had been in the past. Additionally, the Galactic Guardians series featured the first televised depiction of Batman's origin in the episode "The Fear". This was the final season of the series.
Now, relative to modern DC animation, Super Friends, in any of its incarnations, does come across as more than a little hokey. Nevertheless, for the time period in which it was presented, it showcased some very popular heroes, made for some great adventures, and when it ultimately tied in to the Super Powers action figure line, provided a link to an action figure line that it still very well regarded to this day, and deservedly so.
As such, while the presence of some of these oddball characters might mean that someone more closely tied to the DC Universe might have to wait his or her turn for a while, I can live with it. In contrast, these characters are still ahead of some that I really don't care whether or not they make it into the line, and even a few that already have.
So, let's consider the character of BLACK VULCAN. An unusual name, and I should state at the outset here that in this instance, "Vulcan" doesn't refer to a certain species of pointy-eared humanoids from Star Trek. If you want that sort of Black Vulcan, then pick up the DVD's of Star Trek Voyager and see what Tuvok is up to in any given episode. (Seriously, it's a good series, I recommend it...)
In this instance, though, that part of the character's name is a reference to Vulcan, the god of beneficial and hindering fire, including the fire of volcanoes in ancient Roman mythology. Vulcan is usually depicted with a thunderbolt, which makes sense for the character.
Even so, the name is a bit of a stretch, but that can be explained by looking into Black Vulcan's history, as far as it goes. Right around the time that Black Vulcan was introduced into the Super Friends series, DC Comics had also introduced a character into its comic books, titled BLACK LIGHTNING. This was arguably DC Comics' first major African-American character, and with Hanna-Barbera wanting to get a greater level of racial variety into the series, one would think that Black Lightning would have been a natural carryover. However, there were some unspecified disputes between DC, Hanna-Barbera, and Black Lightning's creator, Tony Isabella, and so Black Lightning was not used in the series. Black Vulcan, a fairly similar character, was created in his place.
His origin remains unknown, as given the time period in which the show was produced, such things as origins and backstories weren't considered all that significant. Originally introduced as a way to add a more culturally diverse roster to the team in the All-New Super Friends Hour series, Black Vulcan was the Super Friends' resident black superhero, although his character mostly refrains from being seen as a harsh stereotype. As originally depicted, Black Vulcan's costume had the super-hero equivalent of pants, but in later episodes his legs are bare.
His powers include the ability to emit electricity from his hands, as well as fly by charging his lower body with energy, which was honestly more than Black Lightning could do -- but you should see what the show let Green Lantern get away with sometimes...
On a few occasions, he exhibited powers he had not shown before, such as the ability to assume a form of pure energy and travel at the speed of light -- this was in an unsuccessful attempt to escape a black hole, which, according to theory, is a feat not even light is able to accomplish once it has passed inside the event horizon.
He was even able to travel back in time by fluctuating his body's energy in such a way that it opened a rift in space-time, which was certainly well beyond Black Lightning's abilities.
Finally, Black Vulcan is able to spot-weld microelectronics -- which might some seem like much compared to the rest of that, but what the heck, it's bound to come in handy a bit more often.
The package for the action figure -- probably looking to fill space as much as anything -- offers some additional details, stating that although he keeps his identity and personal life to himself, Black Vulcan is trusted implicitly by his teammates. Some speculated that he might be a scientist - especially after that spot-welding bit - but not even Batman feels the need to investigate him.
Which is pretty impressive coming from ol' Bats. Of course, it's just as likely that Bats doesn't feel the need to investigate him because he probably already knows who he is and might well have him on WayneTech's payroll for all we know. It'd be interesting to bring some of these characters into the modern day and see what could be done with them.
So, how's the figure? Extremely impressive. I won't say that these "Super Friends" figures are unnerving, but they are unusual in one important respect. Unlike the Justice League Unlimited set, which strove to bring the characters into the animated style of that series, the DC Universe Classics collection has consistently shown that its intention is always first and foremost to present a straightforward, realistic interpretation of the characters.
The result here is a figure that looks more "real" than its best-known incarnation from the original animation. Although the original Super Friends animated series wasn't particularly stylized to any degree the way modern DC-based series have been, it was certainly simplified. This is evident even comparing it to later animated series that made use of a more realistic character design, such as the 90's X-Men or Spider-Man series. Somewhat limited animation and a lack of shading in the painting process led to a look which, admittedly, by modern standards, looks a little flat.
So here we have a Black Vulcan figure that, quite frankly, looks a whole lot more impressive than he ever did when he was in the cartoon.
Black Vulcan, unlike his compatriots, wears a mask. He has a cowl that covers the top of his head and really only leaves the lower part of his face and his eyes exposed. Most of his costume is black -- or such a dark blue that it might as well be black -- with yellow trim. Black Vulcan's cowl is black, with a yellow stripe over the top, and -- in easily the most peculiar design aspect of the figure -- two yellow protrusions on either side of the head that look like boomerangs. I wonder if this is what inspired Mattel to put Captain Boomerang in the same assortment. "'Ey, mate, I want those back!" They are very peculiar-looking, and doubtless would give the Flash, with those little wings on the sides of his head, something of a laugh.
However, the headsculpt is overall excellent. However peculiar the -- side-gear might be -- the basic headsculpt is excellent, the eyes neatly painted, and the lower face giving evidence of an entirely serious and determined expression. It's as though he's saying, "Yeah, I know it's not the greatest costume in the world. But just go ahead and laugh. Just try it."
Black Vulcan's costume is interesting. It seems to have been a peculiar hallmark of the Hanna-Barbera designed characters that they seemed a little underdressed relative to their better-known DC-created counterparts. El Dorado was shirtless. Apache Chief wore a vest, trunks, and boots. I honestly don't know if this was an excessive attempt to show greater skin-color variety or what, but -- the designs are what they are. There's certainly been no shortage of skimpy outfits in the super-hero world since.
Black Vulcan's costume leaves his legs bare. According to my research, in the first couple of appearances, the costume did have legs, but later on, the legs were left bare. Did he just misplace his tights?
Black Vulcan's costume is mostly black, with yellow gloves, boots, and a yellow emblem running down the front and back that looks like a cross between a lightning bolt and an arrow. One interesting deviation the figure has made from its animated counterpart -- the cartoon version of Black Vulcan has an open neck bordering the open part of the lightning bolt. The figure does not have this open section, unless I got one that was somehow mispainted, as frankly, even the prototype of the figure on the package back shows an open area near the top of the costume. As I have not personally seen more than one production-level figure of Black Vulcan as of this writing, I really don't know. I suspect it may have been left off as a cost-saving measure, and to be perfectly honest -- it's an improvement.
The figure is very neatly painted, and let me say this. It has been both my observation and my experience (since I've customized a number of action figures over the years, mostly G.I. Joes), that one of the toughest things to do, paintwise, is to paint a lighter color over a darker color, and have it look decent. And the toughest combination of all, for whatever reason, is painting yellow over black. I can understand the black part of that, but why yellow and not white, or light blue, or whatever, I don't know. But yellow over black always seems to be a nightmare, and I could show you any number of figures from any number of toy lines where this step was simply a necessity of design, and the steps that had to be taken to accomplish it -- more often than not either a white undercoat or a particularly thick coating of paint, enough to even obscure some of the sculpted detail -- have been evidence of the difficulty.
Black Vulcan does a very nice job of accomplishing his design necessities without spoiling the figure. Even so, around the edges, you can sort of see that it took more than one coat of paint to get that lightning bolt to look good.
Obviously, whenever possible, Mattel is going to want to use existing molds. It's a consistency of this line that I sincerely appreciate, and one of the reasons why I rail against the double-articulated elbows and knees, which blessedly are absent on these Super Friends figures, although Captain Boomerang and Toyman, also in this Wave, weren't so fortunate.
In Black Vulcan's case, the figure uses a basic body mold, with just the head being distinctive. Even the gloves and boots are painted on. But -- hey, it works and it looks good. I'm not complaining. In fact, I sincerely and enthusiastically applaud it. I can think of a couple of figures that would benefit from a reissue done with the established body molds -- like the Creeper, who was pretty well ruined by the double-articulation.
Black Vulcan comes with an interesting pair of accessories -- yellow lightning bolts that attach to his wrists. The character often gave evidence of lightning sparking from his hands in the animated series. I think these pieces might be recolored carryovers from Wave 2's "Blue Superman", the thankfully short-lived energy form of the character. Anybody thinking that Black Vulcan and his compatriots from the Super Friends line are unusual choices need look no further for comparison.
Of course, Black Vulcan is highly articulated, and is poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivels, knees, and ankles. Everything works superbly well on this figure, too. No articulation complaints whatsoever.
So, what's my final word here? If you have any recollection of the Super Friends series, you'll certainly welcome this figure into your DC Universe Classics collection. If for some reason you don't remember the series, go to your local library or video store and see if they have it available. Most of it is on DVDs. Try to keep it in the context of the time in which it was produced, and have some fun with it. Then you'll be able to appreciate this figure and his compatriots in this assortment. For myself, I'm delighted to see all of them.
The DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS figure of BLACK VULCAN definitely has my highest recommendation!