Friday Flashback: The History of DC DIRECT

JLA CLASSIFIED Classics Series 3

We know that the DC moves have been big news.  And we know that there remains some uncertainty about particular quarters at DC.  One such looming question mark is DC Direct; though some questions have been leveled about this division at DC, there haven’t been, to this point, firm public answers about their ongoing direction.  It seemed to me that it might be appropriate at this time to look back at DC Direct, particularly in terms of the action figure line, and trace its rather humble beginnings to today.  WayBack . . . hit 1998.

1998 in Film: Two, two movies involving things hitting Earth (Armageddon and Deep Impact) made the top ten money-makers.  The Godzilla remake (sigh) was out, as were Mulan, A Bug’s Life, and Saving Private Ryan.  Best Picture went to Shakespeare in Love, which absolutely no one in Hollywood has ever, ever, regretted.  The underrated Babe: Pig in the City appeared, and The Dude first began to abide (The Big Lebowski, of course).  Blade unknowingly kicked off the new generation of comic-based films, and Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms, yo.  There were actually quite a few more films og significance, but then I realized that this was the same year that the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho came out, and I became too depressed to discuss more films.

1998 in Music:  The biggest hit single was “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, which nearly depressed me enough to make me stop discussing music, too.  The second biggest was . . . ack . . . “Believe” by Cher.  Oh, I almost forgot!  This was when the insurgent alternative rock of the first several years of the decade had all but collapsed as a sales force, enabling the New Pop (followed by the New Teen Pop) and Nu-Metal to storm the gates.  Korn and Limp Bizkit rose at the same time that *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys did.  And yes, the official single release of “… Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears happened in October.  “The Way” by Fastball was a hit, boasting one of the most supremely weird subjects to ever inspire a song (the Lela and Raymond Howard case).

1998 in Comics: Toy Biz bought Marvel.  Kinda forgot that, didn’t you?  Important work included this sampling of Eisner Nominees: “From Hell” (“Dance of the Gull Catchers”), “Transmetropolitan”, “Preacher”, “Astro City”, “300”, “Whiteout”, “Lenore”, “Young Justice”, “Stray Bullets”, “Starman”, “Castle Waiting”, “Daredevil”, and, obviously, many, many more.

In the Beginning . . .:  In the mid ‘90s, DC was playing catch-up with Marvel in terms of action figures at the mass market.  Sure, there were figures based on the Timmverse animated series and whatever Batman movie was in theatres, but Marvel was with Toy Biz and they hit the plastic version of the universe rather hard, frequently using their many and varied animated series at the time as openers of the way.  The DC license for mass market in the ‘90s was with Kenner/Hasbro (later just Hasbro), and that resulted in “Total Justice” (which launched in 1996) and the “DC Superheroes Collection” (an abortive Hasbro line that resulted in one assortment and a boxed set; they’re frequently noted for their “twisted” posing). Options for DC characters beyond the bigs were extremely limited.  At the same time, direct-only merchandise kept building, with increasing numbers of companies getting in on the action with statues, action figures, and other merchandise.  Into this environment, DC Direct debuted with the intention of going after the market of lifelong collectors; that is, they marketed products to long-time fans that enjoyed representations of their favorite characters in a variety of forms.  Though the DC Direct brand has included everything from props to statues and more, we’re going to focus on the mainstay: the DC Direct action figure line featuring DC characters (as opposed to later, licensed entries like WoW and AfroSamurai).

Going Mad:  The very first assortment to arrive in 1998 came as a bit of surprise.  Rather than delving directly into the DCU, the initial offering came from another entity in the broader DC stable: Mad Magazine.  There were three figures: Alfred E. Neuman, and the White and Black spies from the popular Mad entry “Spy vs. Spy”.  Though the price point was a bit higher than other comparable figures at the time, collectors would soon prove willing to pay for figures of slightly higher quality and selection that wasn’t available elsewhere.

The next series, released in March of 1999, brought the DCU to DC Direct.  The first assortment included Wonder Woman, The Sandman (Wesley Dodds, then appearing in Sandman Mystery Theatre), and Swamp Thing.  Each figure also had a variant (armored Wonder Woman, a traditional Golden Age Sandman, and a glow-in-the-dark Swamp Thing).  Another Vertigo-heavy assortment followed in September, featuring Death, Jesse Custer of Preacher, and Plastic Man (with, again, each sporting a variant).  The final assortment of 1999, December, included Sandman/Morpheus, Starman Jack Knight, and Spider Jerusalem of Transmetropolitan.

It’s interesting to look back on that layout.  Obviously, there’s a heavy Vertigo emphasis, partially given to the Direct-Only nature of the line.  It was assumed that there would be more of a market for those characters than there actually turned out to be down the road.  While more Vertigo, Wildstorm, and ABC characters would appear in DC Direct, their last real presence in the line came in 2002 with the release of the Authority assortment in August and the Promethea/Sophie two-pack in September.

By February of 2000, the line picked up steam with the “Hard Travelling Heroes” assortment; based on the classic stories, the assortment included Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Black Canary, and Green Arrow.  Amazingly, this was the first Black Canary figure ever.  Soon after, assortments became monthly concerns, with upwards of five figures and/or a two pack or deluxe figure hitting at any given time.  The “We Are Here to Stay” month for DC Direct was November 2000, which saw the release of nine figures: the JLA/DC androids themed group of Amazo, Hourman III and Tomorrow Woman; the JSA group of Golden Age Starman, GA Green Lantern, GA Flash, and GA Wonder Woman; and a set of Big Barda, Mister Miracle and Oberon.

Early criticism centered on the occasionally stiff poses of the figures.  Many early figures lack much in the way of articulation, and some poses (like Amazo) were somewhat awkward.  There is, however, noticeable improvement between the first DC assortment of ’99 and the JSA of 2000.

Another thing that annoyed collectors at the time was the inability of DC Direct to make figures from the Batman or Superman families due to issues of the DC master toy license.  However, when DC made their expansive deal with Mattel (which continues to this day), Superman, Batman, and their characters were able to come into the line, and began doing so in earnest in February of 2003 (with the much-loved Silver Age Batman and Robin two-pack).  March 2003 saw the arrival of the first Superman-centric assortment; its centerpiece was the most articulated Superman figure to that time, and one that I praised in Newtype USA magazine as one of the best ever to that point.

Since then, DC Direct’s figure line has continued to roll along.  Sometimes it invites much love, sometimes it involves frustration.  The biggest praise of the line has been its character depth, while the biggest criticism of the line has frequently been the same thing.  One strength has been the ability to offer story specific figures (like “Kingdom Come” or “Crisis on Infinite Earths”), while a drawback in recent years has been the overproduction of Batman and Superman (2006 saw approximately 11 Batmans).  

Recently, DC Direct put a lot of eggs in the “Blackest Night” basket, mostly to good response.  Between October 2009 and August 2010, there were five assortments; three more are scheduled between November and December.  There are those that take issue with this type of plan, pointing to the notion that DC has left some classic teams unfinished (such as the Golden Age JSA, which lacks a Mr. Terrific, a Johnny Thunder and Thunderbolt, or a Ma Hunkel Red Tornado).

Nevertheless, twelve years is a long time for an action figure line to last in any market.  DC Direct deserves credit for bringing an enormous amount of characters to collectors and, in a way, proving that something like DC Universe Classics might be able to work in the mass market.  Jump to the thread below and talk about your favorites, your wish-they-could-haves (that Watchmen assortment that never happened, for instance?), and what you might like to see DC Direct do in the future.  They’re DC Direct, and they’re your Friday Flashback.

What's your favorite DC Direct item? What's your favorite DC Direct item?

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