PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

The PopCult Toybox: Justice League Bendies

Img_8293This week The PopCult Toybox looks at some new “Bendies” based on DC Comics Superheroes. First, a little background: Bendies are rubber action figures with wire articulation.

They were very popular in the 1960s, due largely to Gumby and Pokey. More elaborate Bendies were Major Matt Mason and The Sea Wolves from Mattel and Ideal’s Evel Knievel. There were tons of licensed and unlicensed DC and Marvel Bendies back then.

"Don't do it, Evel! You'll break every wire in your body!"
“Don’t do it, Evel! You’ll break every wire in your body!”

The great thing about Bendies was that they were one-piece of rubber, and were nearly indestructable. The bad thing was that the wire inside was not so indestructable, and would break very easily, robbing the figure of any posability. They were cool, but there was that big drawback.

One of the Just toys Star Wars figures that resurrected a major toy line

This type of figure fell out of popularity for some time, before bouncing back big in the early 1990s, when Bendies sparked the Star Wars toy revival. It may seem hard to imagine now, but by 1985, Star Wars toys lost so much of their sales power that Kenner dropped the line. Until a company called “Just Toys” started releasing Star Wars Bendies (branded as “Bend-ems”) in 1993, Star Wars was considered a dead property. The success of the Just Toys Star Wars Bend-ems was so great that it prompted Kenner, by then a sudsidiary of Hasbro, to pick up the license again. They’ve made billions of dollars selling Star Wars action figures since.

Gumby has s;ent 30 years with NJ Croce
Gumby has spent 30 years with NJ Croce

Just Toys went belly-up around 2001, but that did not mean the end of the bendies. Several smaller companies have come out with new Bendie figures, but one company remained rock-solid throughout. NJ Croce has been making Bendies since they became the licensee of Gumby thirty years ago. Since then they’ve made Bendies of Betty Boop, Popeye, The Simpsons and other classic characters.

Which brings us to our reviews this week. NJ Croce has released Bendie figures based on The Justice League of America. More specifically, they seem to have based these figures on very early JLA adventures, because the designs seem an awful lot like they were drawn by Mike Sekowsky.

The Justice League as drawn by Mike Sekowsky
The Justice League as drawn by Mike Sekowsky

Sekowsky was a veteran comic book artist who landed the Justice League gig and drew almost seventy adventures of the Super Team before moving on to other comics and later animation. He had a very distinctive style, with barrel-chested males and unusual-looking females. He also didn’t exactly follow the traditional models for the characters he was drawing. In the early adventures of the Justice League, Sekowsky’s Green Lantern wore a costume that looked a bit like green Mormon underwear.

My guess is that these figures are mostly based on a very early, Mike Sekowsky-drawn, issue of The Justice League of America. They just have that look.

Found at Magic Mart
Found at Magic Mart

These figures were shown at Toy Fair this year, and some online retailers have been selling them for a couple of months, but I found them at Magic Mart. At two different Magic Mart Stores, in fact, since it seems that no store has received the complete set. I found Superman and Wonder Woman in Quincy, while Batman was in Teays Valley. Both stores had The Joker. Nobody had Green Lantern.

Missing in action: Green Lantern with Mormon  underwear
Missing in action: Green Lantern with Mormon underwear

These are individually-carded figures that were $5.88 at Magic Mart. There is a boxed set that includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, but so far I’ve only seen it at online retailers. The Joker was a happy surprise, since I don’t remember seeing him in any Toy Fair coverage. He is not in the boxed set.

So, how are they? Well, they’re pretty darned cool. It’s nice to have early Silver-Age incarnations of these characters. The scultping is first-rate. Paint details are mostly well-done. They don’t pose very well. Like most Bendies, the range of motion is limited by the thickness of the rubber. These figures have nice, thick limbs, which sadly means that they don’t pose very well.

Yet, they look really cool, and they’re flexible enough to make most kids happy. It’s a little weird that toys with such retro-adult appeal are actually ideal for young children, but it broadens the appeal. Plus it’s better for kids to identify with these Silver-Age versions of Superman, Batman and the others than it is for them to think that the horrible Jim Lee “New 52” designs are the real versions.

On the whole, these figures are charming as hell. Let me run down the details on the four that I’ve been able to find so far:


A classic look

This is an outstanding rendition of The Man of Steel. Whoever designed this figure made some fantastic choices. While he bears some resemblence to Mike Skeowsky’s Superman in The Justice League, this figure also looks like Max Fleischer’s animated Superman from the 1940s. It’s almost like they combined Joe Shuster’s orginal design with Fleischer’s and the version Alex Ross illustrated in “Kingdom Come.” The “S” shield looks very Golden-Age.

Max Fliescher does Superman
Max Fliescher does Superman

His cape is a sort of plasticized fabric, attached over his shoulders. The paint ops are intricate, but mine has an “S” that’s just a little out of register.

The face recalls the Golden-Age Superman, but there’s just a hint of George Reeves in there, too. All-in-all, it’s a great figure for less than six bucks.

Wonder Woman

Not unlike a Ross Andru drawing

This is another great figure. There are a few things with which to quibble. Her boots are a bit strange. I think that this figure was sculpted with gladiator-type sandals with metal shinguards, but for some reason this was changed to red boots with white trim–and metal shinguards, when it came time to paint her.

Boot? Sandal? You decide.
Boot? Sandal? You decide.

The stars on her skirt are arranged in an odd way, too. The fact that she’s wearing such a short skirt instead of trunks is another indication that this design is based on Mike Sekowsky’s JLA.

This is still a nice figure. This is a classic Wonder Woman, with the eagle on her chest and silver-colored wristbands. The face paint recalls the late-1950s Wonder Woman, as drawn by Ross Andru. The paint detail over all is well-done, if confusing.


Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh...
Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh…

This figure most clearly resembles the Mike Sekowsky-drawn version. He’s got short ears on his cowl, funky-lengthed trunks and creases in his shirt. This Batman also has the pre-1964 Bat-emblem, without the yellow circle. His cape is attached to his back, but the cowl/cape combo is also sculpted around his neck. The effect works quite well.

Paint detail is terrific on the Caped Crusader. Rather than go with the light purple/blue color scheme that was used in the comic book, they decided to use a light gray/dark gray pallette, that is far more subtle and attractive. The utility belt is, of course, bright yellow. The face detail is very nice on this figure.

The Joker

Img_8280Batman’s sworn enemy, and a figure that is not available in any boxed set, The Joker is quite a find. The design seems to be an amalgam of classic versions of the character, with a hint of Bat-artists, Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang and Carmine Infantino evident, as well as a hint of Jack Nicholson.  However, a customizer could easily repaint this figure and come up with Fred Astaire. It’s a wonderful version of The Joker.

Great face detail
Great face detail

This is the traditional Joker, complete with his purple pin-striped suit (the stripes are sculpted-in), white skin, green hair and maniacal grin. He even sports a daisy in his lapel, which in the comics squirts toxic laughing gas.

The Joker may have the most impressive sculpt/paint combination of this line.

As I mentioned, I have not yet been able to obtain Green Lantern, but judging from the illustrations on the backs of these figure’s cards, he does have those funky Mike Sekowsky trunks.

The card back, which makes you want more
The card back, which makes you want more

A lot of thought obviously went into this line of Bendies. The design work is meticulous. The packaging is clever, mixing some of the best logos for the various characters. Wonder Woman’s logo is the one DC used in the late 1980s. The Joker’s is from his short-lived 1970s comic. Batman uses a 1970s-era logo. Superman’s logo is his inconic brand.

Some die-hard action figure collectors hate Bendies. They don’t get that these are totally different types of toys. They simultaneously have more kid-appeal and play value and more collector-appeal to mainstream audiences. I think this line of figures from NJ Croce is great, and I hope to see it continue with more Silver-Age DC heroes. Maybe if we’re lucky they’ll even throw in The Original Captain Marvel (known as Shazam, to the uninitiated).