Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Special Transformers Feature: Ultimate Battle Optimus Prime

I keep a few Transformers figures in my office.  Although most of the people who have occasion to come in and see them aren't really Transformers fans, Transformers are enough a part of our popular culture that quite a few people remember them from their childhood.  As such, I get a few comments, almost always positive, about the toys.  This Optimus Prime figure tends to get special attention.  I always find this mildly amusing, because this particular figure is wildly disliked among fans.

It must be understood that those of us who have followed Transformers for 25 years now know that there have been many Optimus Prime toys (and that's just counting the Generation One character, as opposed to the alternate versions of Optimus Prime found in, say, Armada or Transformers: Animated).  People who stop by my office may remember only the original toy (if even that.  They may simply remember the character from the old cartoon).  If one considers this toy alongside all those other Optimus Prime toys, it may well be considered inferior.  But if one is only comparing it with the original, or sees it as a representation of the cartoon character, it's really not all that bad.  It's certainly got far better articulation than the original toy does, and evokes the memory of the character perfectly well.

Of course, no one who has come into my office and has seen this figure has actually transformed it, and it really is in the alternate mode that the toy's deficiencies are most obvious.  It kinda-sorta evokes the classic truck mode, but the cab looks like it could fall apart at any moment, and the legs try even less to look like part of the back of a vehicle than the legs on the original toy from 25+ years ago do.  I do have to give credit to the simple, but effective, way that the weapon folds up to become a vehicle-mounted weapon, though.  It's definitely a saving grace of this toy.  That, and the fact that it has proportionately long smokestacks.

A peculiarity of this particular Optimus Prime toy is that the designers attempted to incorporate an action gimmick in robot mode.  If you push on this button in back of the toy, Prime is intended to respond with a "power punch."  In reality, what happens is that the entire upper torso spins around... completely.  It's really pretty silly, and makes the figure difficult to keep in a "standard" pose.  Thankfully, you can pull the button outward (it requires what may seem to be excessive force, though) and "lock" the figure into a regular position.   Thus, if you keep the figure on display in robot mode all the time, it looks pretty good, but as a toy one might play with, it loses it's charm pretty quickly.

And this is exactly why I keep the figure on the shelf in my office.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Special Transformers Feature: Mighty Muggs Bumblebee

A couple of years ago, some marketing guru at Hasbro thought of a very simple idea: Create a line of simple vinyl/plastic figures.  All figures would use the same basic shape (with one or two minor variations possible), but the images on the figures will resemble any of a number of popular characters.  Thus, the Mighty Muggs were born.

Mighty Muggs quickly became inexplicably popular, and other companies have picked up on the concept in various ways.  Disney theme parks sell "Vinylmation" figures that all use the same Mickey Mouse-inspired shape.  There's a line of DC Comics hero figures called "Blammoids" that are clearly Mighty Muggs-ripoffs.

Anyway, despite the fact that these figures are little more than glorified and overpriced paperweights, Transformers (being one of Hasbro's most profitable franchises) are in on the Mighty Muggs theme, as well.  I picked up this Mighty Muggs figure of Bumblebee more than half a year ago when it was on clearance at Target for less than half of its original price (Target is generally pretty good about clearancing figures that have been on the shelves for too long.  Toys R Us, by contrast, still has full-priced Mighty Muggs Bumblebees on their shelves to this day).  Truth be told, I still feel like I overpaid for the thing.  I guess I just don't understand what they big craze is about.  The horns are the only feature of Bumblebee that are physically any different than practically every other Mighty Muggs toy in existence, and it doesn't really do anything but stand there.  It's not even especially poseable, although I suppose the arms might raise up if I cared enough to bother to try to do so.  Basically, it just sits in my office looking cute. 

But, hey, if you don't mind spending some $10 to $15 for a cute paperweight, go for it!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shadowstorm: Firestorm's Very Own Bizarro

20 years ago, the DC comic book hero Firestorm was going through what has been called his "Elemental" stage.  That is to say, instead of the familiar "Nuclear Man," he was understood to be a "Fire Elemental," and all of his powers (which were essentially the same powers as before, although he stopped using his previous signature power of changing things into other things) were understood through a lens of having to do with fire.  Most fans consider this period a misstep in Firestorm's history, but it did make a few contributions to the myth that were interesting at the time, if all but forgotten now.

One of those contributions was the character of Shadowstorm.  Long story short, Firestorm, who was at that time experiencing a crisis of faith, was taken to a land of African gods called Ifé (called the "Living Land" in the story, although this is somewhat at variance with the real Ifé and its African mythology).  Ifé was imperiled by shadows which threatened to overtake the land, creating shadow copies of everything--and everyone--they touched.  At one point in the story, Firestorm himself was overcome by the shadows.  Although he quickly emerged, the shadows spat out a shadow copy of Firestorm, which eventually took the name of "Shadowstorm" for himself.  The gods of Ifé finally realized that the shadows were not a force to be fought, but rather an essential part of creation, as necessary as light itself.  Although these gods therefore made peace with their shadow-selves, Shadowstorm was not so easily placated.  Whereas Bizarro was a kind of "backwards" clone of Superman, Shadowstorm was a clone created from darkness and anger.  He considered it a denial of his very being to make friends with Firestorm, and departed swearing that they would remain enemies.

Firestorm soon returned to the mortal realm, and found a sign of hope in a small plant growing in the middle of the desert.  After Firestorm departed that area to return to America, Shadowstorm appeared at the same spot, to do nothing more than to destroy the plant simply because it gave Firestorm hope, an act that seemed to promise that Shadowstorm could become a major Firestorm villain for some time to come.

The cancellation of the Firestorm comic only two issues later dictated that this was not to be.

Shadowstorm did reappear about a year later, in the last story arc of Captain Atom's self-titled series.  Shadowstorm had apparently never ventured far from the place of his origins, and was slowly turning an entire African city into a city of shadows, burning away all but the anger and darkness each being possesses within themselves.  Captain Atom sought to combat Shadowstorm, but was easily overcome himself, and the outcome at the end of the series was left uncertain, at best.  The intention was to set up the possibility of Captain Atom's becoming the villain Monarch in the Armageddon 2001 series, but the last-minute decision to turn Hawk into Monarch negated the impact of that story.  Another mini-series event, War of the Gods, was taking place at that exact same time, and Shadowstorm made a quick appearance there, basically long enough to take a pot shot at Firestorm and then disappear again.

Shadowstorm has never been seen since.

This gives Shadowstorm the somewhat interesting distinction of being a villain that Firestorm has never truly defeated.  He could theoretically still be out there, perhaps having built an empire of shadows and anger where he rules supreme.  But, given the several continuity reboots the DC Universe has undertaken in the years since, and the fact that Firestorm has long since left his "Elemental" persona behind, I'm not holding my breath waiting on seeing Shadowstorm again.  Indeed, this month marks the 20th anniversary of Shadowstorm's creation, and I would truly be surprised if anyone besides me even notices.

It's too bad, because there was truly some interesting potential here....

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Offbeat Transformers Collectibles: Valentine Candy

Often, after one of the major "candy holidays" (Valentine's Day, Easter, or Halloween), I'll make a trip to one of the local drug stores, which can reliably be expected to have a clearance on all candy related to that holiday.  During such a trip yesterday, I was surprised to discover this pair of chocolate sets, cashing in on the popularity of last summer's Transformers movie.

Of course, I'm using the word "collectibles" very loosely here.  I'm not going to hold on to these.  Chocolates are for eating!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The (Second) Return of the Popples?

If you were a kid in the mid-to-late 80's, you might remember "Popples."  If you weren't around then, or don't remember, I suppose that I might describe Popples as a kind of "plush Transformer."  That is to say, in one form, a Popple is just a fuzzy ball, but you can "pop" it open and turn it into a pudgy stuffed animal.  I seem to remember hearing something about the line "coming back" (as so many 80's toy lines have done) a couple of years ago, but I don't think I've ever seen any.

I have, however, stumbled upon these toys called "Fur Berries" while at Toys R Us recently.  So far as I can tell, it's pretty much the exact same thing as a Popple, perhaps with the Strawberry Shortcake gimmick (they're scented to smell like fruit) thrown in.  (Incidentally, both Popples and Strawberry Shortcake were done by the same company way back when.  Fur Berries don't seem to be by the same folks, though.)

I actually have to wonder if they've been around for a while, and I've simply never noticed.  The Fur Berries web site says you can buy these at (among other places) KB Toys, but KB went out of business more than a year ago.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Offbeat Transformers Collectibles: Play Shave Set

It's been a while since I've delved into the more bizarre side of Transformers collecting.  This is an item I don't actually have, myself, but I shot this picture with my cell phone (hence the low resolution) while I was at the toy store.  I can't actually say that, as a kid, I wanted to "play" at shaving, but I suppose that kids want to emulate their parents in all sorts of ways, so why not this one?  And if the marketing folks can make a little extra money by capitalizing on the popularity of Transformers... well, naturally, very little is considered "out of bounds" if someone thinks that they can make money off of it.

I did find it a bit odd to see that this play shaving set also includes a little brush (just left of center in the picture), since I wasn't even aware that brush-style shaving cream still existed, even for adults!  I've always just used the stuff you squirt out of a can.....
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