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DCAU Toys: A Brief Retrospective

Posted by: Casimir at 10:12 am on Friday, August 12, 2011

Fans of the Justice League Unlimited line know that the end is nigh. Mattel has made clear that two 3-packs and one 7-pack of figures remain to be ransomed, er, I mean sold via their collector website. While additional figures have been shown, it’s unlikely those “lost” figures will be manufactured. Although miracles have kept the JLU line going in years past, I think we’re fresh out.* Though I would be more than happy to be proven wrong. Please, Matty, prove me wrong.

With the end in sight, I thought it might be pleasant to take a short trip through history and revisit the line from its unofficial start in 1992. Please bear with me as this is all from memory. If I misstate some facts, please feel free to politely correct me.

Most fans of the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited show know it represents the final chapters of the DC animated universe under the watchful eye of producer Bruce Timm and his talented crew (thus the oft-used term “Timm-verse”). This fictional universe started with Batman: The Animated Series in autumn of 1992. Entire books have been written about the quality of the show and its impact on all animation and adventure programs that followed, so I won’t delve into detail on that front. It’s safe to say its influence was felt farther and wider than any such show before or since.

As far as the toys are concerned, Kenner (owned by Hasbro at this point) held the DC license as of 1992. They had just produced toys for the Batman Returns film. The quality and style of these is about what one would expect of the time. Naturally, Kenner rolled right into manufacturing toys for the animated series.

 

Combat Belt Batman, the one that started it all.

These first waves provided some hits and misses. Batman himself is a reasonable representation of the character (that fluid Timm style of the early seasons is hard to pin down in plastic). Joker was adequate for the same reasons. Two-Face and Riddler could have been better. Robin was a repaint of the “expanded universe” Batman Returns Robin, so he was pretty far off the mark. And yet others, like Mr. Freeze and Man-Bat, are works of art, maquette-like in their quality of sculpt.

 

A selection of some of the better BTAS villain sculpts. Well, maybe not Joker so much...

Kenner also provided us with some excellent playsets and vehicles. The Batmobile and the Batplane really stand out. The Batcave was a repaint of the Batman Returns cave, but it holds its own.

And yes, there were some wacky repaints and silly vehicles aimed at kids, but that’s to be expected, and Kenner did not overindulge any more than was necessary.

Batman: The Animated Series and its toy line are what pulled me back into the world of animation, comics and toys, more so than anything else. For that, these little pieces of plastic hold a special place in my heart.

Timm and his crew followed up with Superman: The Animated Series in 1996. Since 1992, there had been some big changes in the toy world. First, in 1994 Hasbro saw fit to cancel the classic 3 3/4” G.I.Joe line and replace it with G.I Joe Extreme. This line consisted of overly muscle-bound characters. It’s as if Hasbro wanted to merge the Joes with a line of ultra-violent wrestling figures (I’m sure Joe experts have written on this in more detail). I hadn’t collected Joes for years at this point, but I sure noticed the change and was left wondering what the Hasbro execs were thinking. Fans were not amused, and the line died a quick and quiet death. Traditional Joes were soon back on the pegs.

In 1995, Kenner (again, owned by Hasbro) brought back the granddaddy of all modern action figure lines: Star Wars. Again, however, the executives at Kenner/Hasbro bestowed upon Luke and company a raging steroid look. Despite the muscle-bound aesthetic, the line was a hit, but that was due more the pent-up demand than visual appeal (thankfully, the sculpts have improved with time).

So it’s no surprise that as 1996 rolled around and Kenner was preparing the animated Superman line, an off-model aesthetic was chosen as the basis for the line. As accurate and appealing as the animated Batman line was, Superman missed the mark.

 

Kenner shoots and misses with the first STAS Superman.

By this time, I was actively collecting several lines again. I don’t know where Kenner and Hasbro got their data regarding demand for the muscle look, but it wasn’t from the real world. I can’t tell you how many times I’d hear some variation of this in retail aisles: “Here’s Superman, Timmy. He’s your favorite,” followed by, “Mom, I don’t want that one. I want one that looks like he does on the show.” I don’t hear that as much today, but for many years I heard it far too often.

Fans of the animated Superman toys were subjected to one disproportioned and poorly sculpted Superman after another. The villains fared no better (Luthor? Really?). It was a hard time to be a collector.

 

A selelction of STAS figures. I suppose they could be worse...

In 1997, Batman got his visual animated revamp to match Superman, as The New Batman Adventures premiered. New Batman toys were released in early 1998, and these new sculpts were some of the most screen-accurate to date and remain so to this day. Someone at Kenner was thinking.

 

TNBA Batman: Screen accurate, size accurate. A winner! (Despite the yellow belt. Mine's been repainted.)

Even the villains and sidekicks got a fair treatment. (Unless your name is Batgirl. Her time has yet to come it seems.)

 

A selection of maquette-quality TNBA villains.

For years, these were the base figures customizers used to create all the character that Kenner/Hasbro ignored.

Batman Beyond premiered in 1999. The show took awhile to find its ground, but most fans eventually embraced it, accepted it as continuity, and even came to love it. The Batman Beyond toys, however… not so much.

 

The alleged Batman Beyond. What happened?

After the success of the TNBA line and its on-model aesthetics, Kenner/Hasbro went back to the over-the-top muscled look for Batman Beyond. Not only was the look far removed from the character’s appearance in animation, it was years before Batboy was manufactured in his proper black and red, and even then the sculpt was still a misfire. (Once again I hear, “He doesn’t look like he does on the show, Mommy,” in the aisles, a place toy executives fear to tread.)

As I recall, only three villains were made: J-Man, Happy and Blight. J-Man was a decent enough sculpt, but painted completely wrong. Blight was almost as wrong as the animated Lex Luthor figure was a few years earlier. Ironically, Happy was the only on-model character produced for the entire line, and he was a low-level Jokerz character who barely ranked his own name, with little screen-time (because of his large size and accurate sculpt, he became a common base figure for customizers. I still use him).

 

A selection of Beyond villains. Really, Hasbro? Are you even watching the same show as the rest of us?

The next few years were long and dark (and somewhere in this time period Hasbro dropped use of the Kenner name altogether). Hasbro churned out inappropriate repaint after inappropriate repaint. Whole waves of repaints washed up on the pegs. Store exclusives were repaints of ten-year-old Bat-variants. The DC license was languishing at Hasbro. (“Mommy, I can’t find Batman in his regular colors.”)

However, there were a few bright spots during this period. Hasbro teamed up with Toys R Us to offer several 4-packs of characters. Often at least one character was a new, never before offered figure. On one hand, collectors were delighted to finally obtain the likes of Talia, Ra’s al Ghul, Ventriloquist and Scarface, Poison Ivy, Batgirl and Alfred. And yet… did the interns sculpt these? Some of the new sculpts were oddly… off.

A selection of the "bonus" figures... Sculpted by interns?

Lois’ body and outfit were nearly perfect, and yet her face was strangely round, and her hair was misshapen. Alfred’s head was neither BTAS or TNBA. Talia was accurate in the details, but looked like she belonged to some other animated series. The Ventriloquist and Scarface were fairly accurate, but painted wacky colors. Batgirl and Ivy did not even come close to doing the characters justice (Batgirl was particularly bad. Not even useful as customizing fodder).

And the the line continued to languish, even while Justice League took to the air in 2001. Years passed.

Finally, in late 2002, news broke that Mattel would be awarded the license for Batman toys, starting in 2003. “Ding dong, the Witch is dead!” was the song going through many collectors’ heads. Despite the many trials and tribulations brought on by Mattel, even to this day, this news has proven a godsend to Batman and DC toy collectors. (I should mention that Hasbro has since learned their lesson. Their current Marvel products beat the pants off Mattel’s DC offerings. But that’s another story).

The seemingly omniscient Jason Geyer was the first to show us what we wanted to see: animated-style figures of the Justice League, roughly in-scale with previous offerings (they were slightly smaller, but not so much as to be considered a wholly different line by many collectors). The “big seven” were initially sculpted by DC Direct, which meant accuracy and detail (well, Superman could use some help, but that’s nit-picking). Mattel started manufacturing these in early 2003.

Justice League, quality sculpted.

The line continued well. Mattel threw in a few villains, though not nearly enough. Mattel did correct one of Kenner’s mistakes, and gave us the first screen-accurate Luthor. Thanks, Mattel!

When the Justice League program changed to Justice League Unlimited in 2004, the toy line followed suit shortly thereafter. For awhile, the flood gates seemed to open, and collectors were able to obtain many secondary heroes and villains, as three-packs and singles, like never before. Quality and accuracy were seemingly across the board as Mattel’s own in-house team provided the sculpts, but quantity went a long way to overlook quality, for once.

A selection of JLU offerings over the years.

Things continued like this for some time. Finally, the JLU-line appeared to be in its waning days. This was sometime in 2007 or 2008 (please feel free to remind me). The first JLU-miracle occurred when Target stores agreed to be the sole retailer for the line. There’s some debate as to whether Target actually accepted them as exclusives, or if Target was simply the only retailer who could be bothered. Mattel is mum on this point.

Every year, the line appeared to be dead, and then Target would pick it up again. Matty sold a few items via its site during this time, usually SDCC exclusives, but little else.

And now we’ve come to the near end. Target is clearancing out the remains of its JLU product. The final offerings are to be sold via Matty’s site. It’s been a nineteen-year ride. I, for one, have had a great time, despite the bumps in the road. Not only have I built a fun and show-accurate collection, but I’ve made some great friends who share similar interests along the way (our host, Peter, for one). And then there’s the fun that is customizing in this style and scale. That’s a hobby that will live long past the final release by Mattel.

JLU customs by Casimir, Stew, Quartermain and Glassman

*Can you accept a smaller miracle? A little birdy told me master caster and customizer extraordinaire Stew hopes to provide castings of the “lost” JLUs. More on this as it develops.

 

About the Author: Casimir
Not satisfied with the limited options available at retail, award-winning customizer Cason Pilliod has been crafting his own toys since he was a child. His passion for toys merges with his background as a theatrical prop designer, allowing him to find unique customizing solutions, which he shares with the ever-growing customizing community via Inanimate Objects. Cason is also an armchair pop-culture historian, Swing dancer, DJ, daddy, and was once a Muppet wrangler, so he's got a unique spin on life. He also worked for Microsoft once, but let's just keep that a secret.

 

 

6 Comments »

  • Dusty says:

    Wonderful job Cas. I remember when I was first introduced into DCAU figures probably back in 1993 or 94 my first animated batman was a metalic purple Batman with removable grey dented armor. I loved that figure (hey I was only like 6 or 7.) I was one of those kids who liked the STAS line because it was Superman, but was a bit confused/slightly unhappy as to why he looked so different from the show. ;) Anyways, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    D.

  • vader says:

    The old Timm-style Batman figure was what really pushed me into this hobby. I love how you took us back through the different phases of the animated series and then tied them into the production of the different toy lines.

    Fantastic write-up! Thanks, Cason.

  • texgnome1 says:

    What a great article. Nice to stroll through the various Timm-verse lines. And love how you closed it out with some of my favorite custom figures. Sad to see the official line ending, but should be fun to keep making our own toys for years to come.

  • Kid Comet says:

    Thanks for the stroll down memory lane. I remember wandering down the aisles of TRU looking at the old batman toys – You were my inspiration for starting to custom and collect JLU – one day I hope my customising reaches your levels.

    As always this was an excellent read.

    Thanks again

  • Zach says:

    This is a great sum up of the line!

    While I enjoyed the Animated Series in my youth, and had a few McDonald’s figures from that era, my first real dive into this realm as an adult was a blue carded JLU Green Arrow figure that struck me as quite similar to the one depicted by Phil Hester during Kevin Smith’s run on GA at the time.

    I was amazed that this series was still plucking along so many years from it’s inception, and was instantly hooked. I bought JL and JLU bootleg dvds online as soon as I could to catch up and started watching the show as often as Cartoon Network would air it.

    I also started purchasing more figures after that initial GA figure and eventually wound up with a few multiples on hand due to Mattel’s ‘generosity’. These bonus figures would soon become my first custom figures, and I haven’t looked back.

    Mattel may be stopping for right now, but they or some other company may still pick up the reigns in the future. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to fill out the DCAU ranks myself & with the help of others such as Stew and Cason.

    Thanks for the great retrospective, Cason! It was great to read about the history of this line and what went on before I picked up on it. This really helped to put a lot of things in perspective!

  • StrangePlanet says:

    Good fun! It’s been a great ride and for Marvel kids like me, the shows were a way into the whole DC thing. I’d never know about anyone but Batman and Green Lantern (kid favorites) otherwise.

    I think your timeline is off. If I remember right, that Talia up there is a Mattel product. Some time after 2001 Mattel started doing Batman the Animated Series toys, and things like the new Batgirl and others that came out in those 4-packs were Mattel ctreations. Just my memory on that one.


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