Bandai America (2009) [via]
Constantly hoping for the new Mattel DC Universe Classics action figures they never have, last week's hunt brought me once again to the toy aisles of Springfield's mega Wal-Mart. Overlooked and under-cared for, the same eleven superhero toys they've had on sale for
close to a year hung on their hooks, pushed far to one side to make room on the shelves for mass quantities of the latest and greatest of Bandai's Power Rangers.
'Latest and greatest' for the Power Rangers, toys that have been around as long as their syndicated live-action Saturday morning namesake, simply means re-mastered. After 700 episodes and 17 seasons, the long-running Power Rangers fought their last battle against Lord Zed and Rita Repulsa on Dec 26th, 2009. From their 1993 beginnings on then-new Fox Kids, the Power Rangers series morphed its way through fifteen different iterations, finally landing at Disney's ABC Kids channel, which canceled new production on the series one year ago. That doesn't mean Disney - or their merchandising partner Bandai - is oblivious to the dollars still there to be mined from the franchise, however. Returning to and re-mastering the early episodes of the series, the original Mighty Morphin' Rangers are back on Saturdays, young again and looking better than ever.
That's great for Amy Jo Johnson, Dave Yost, and the other former teen stars of the original show, but not so good for The Dabbler, frustrated as I was that one late night last week in Wal-Mart. If the ratio of Rangers to Classics wasn't enough of an upset, the chain store giant added insult to injury by actually increasing the price of the Mattel heroes! Instead of 'rolling back' their prices on my toys, they 'rolled out' a heap of toys about which I could honestly care less -- cheaper toys, lower-quality toys, all garishly painted a metallic pastel.
And you know what, dabblers? It all makes perfect sense.
Mattel's DC Universe Classics have become a sell-out hit since the line's first wave of comic book action figures hit two years ago. Despite ever-increasing demand and Mattel's exclusive agreements with its three biggest vendors - Toys R Us, Target, and Wal-Mart - to launch many of those six-inch superheroes, DC Universe Classics - averaging $15 a pop - remain scarce on shelves, unevenly distributed amongst store locations, and even victims of production shortages by Mattel itself. As a result, eBay has become the toy line's biggest reseller of DC Universe Classics, with most buyers paying $15-20 or more above retail for every figure. Other online vendors - including Mattel's own delimited online shop Matty Collector - have also entered the fray, but the costs remain just as inflated.
If the decision to buy even one DC Universe Classics action figure sounds like an expensive uphill battle, then you're definitely paying attention. It is. It's a Collector's War, one fought by adults, not their children, and for which a terrible price is paid -- figure by collectible action figure.
And that's why Wal-Mart's toy aisles are full of well-stocked Rangers, not marked-up Classics. Comic books have evolved into adult reading material intended for an audience that Wal-Mart doesn't bend over backwards to target. Thirty-four year old toy collectors aren't the chain's primary demographic; thirty-four year old parents of three are. It's a far more general demographic, and the Power Rangers are far more general toys. Superheroes and their unique identities and powers and origins versus six colors of Rangers, often reincarnated but always essentially the same. The appeal of the toys is easy to see, even for kids who haven't seen a single Power Rangers episode.
Even if they did, the show's as general as its toys - non-linear, cartoonish, even ill-logical. Comics readers by definition have a taste for a structured, well-ordered universe. Comics are stories, and comics fans are meticulous about them, able to spot oversights and gaps while eschewing the unsubstantiated. Power Rangers was never a show to worry about form or follow-through; it was simply a vessel for free-floating imagination.
Unfortunately, imagination like that seems to be on the wane. Disney can't create it, only become its re-master. The toys may help tow the line, but will they be enough to invigorate the raw imagination of a new generation? Judging from the small stacks of Mature Readers comic books here at the Home Office and my own mile-long want list of action figures called Classics, the answer should be obvious.