Part of the purpose of Black History Month is to look beyond our automatic assumptions and realize significant contributions to society by African-Americans that we may not have noticed before. And one of the key areas in which non-diverse assumptions can take root is the pop-culture sphere – growing up, it never occurred to me that the vast, vast majority of superheroes and action figures were white males, and therefore it was easy to see myself role-playing as them. When I’d play Super Powers with my younger cousin Ming, I could be Superman, Batman, Dr. Fate, whoever…and she would be Wonder Woman. Every time. Because that’s all she could be, or so we thought as kids. Granted, that’s a gender issue and not a racial one, but the racial one couldn’t actually be a factor in this case, because Ming, as her name suggests, is half-Chinese, and there were no toys that represented that. It was one of the most exciting Christmases ever when she found out a Chinese Barbie existed.
The creators of our fictions are more sensitive to these kinds of issues now, in part because of political correctness but also because people will demonstrably buy characters – and support heroes – with whom they can identify more. It took a while, but racial hegemony is no longer a fait accompli in the toy aisles. Along the way, several excellent action figures have steered kids and collectors towards greater acceptance, and in honor of Black History Month as it concludes, it’s time to salute the very best of them.
11. Willrow Hood (Hasbro)
The fans demanded that this obscure Empire Strikes Back extra, known for running with an ice-cream machine, get made into a toy. DEMANDED. We went from toy companies worrying that black figures wouldn’t sell, to fans insisting a hopelessly minor black character get mass-produced, and then buying him.
The bent weapon on that particular figure is kinda sad, but if we know anything about the character, it’s that he values the ice-cream machine more.
10. Roadblock (Hasbro)
Before he morphed into The Rock, Roadblock was both the biggest dude on the G.I. Joe team and the one with the most massive machine gun. More intimidating than the prior version, who wore a helmet and had to crouch down to fire his weapon, this iteration was shaven-headed and proud, and could pick up his gun like it was nothing and still adopt great battle poses. Plus we were told he’s also a gourmet chef and speaks in rhyme. Yes, years before it became an appropriate catchphrase, we could metaphorically smellalalalala what the ‘Block was cooking.
9. Django (NECA)
I know I criticized these toys a bit before they came out – I’m not partial to that retro-’70s style when modern techniques can do so much better. But who would have guessed that Django the toy would have become even harder to capture than Django the movie character? In spite of his heroics and righting of pre-Civil War wrongs onscreen, protests from the likes of Al Sharpton ensured that his run in stores was very limited, and that the price on his plastic head would go through the roof. Quentin, you Inglourious Basterd.
8. Voodoo Queen (McFarlane)
Okay, hold up. It’s easy to look at this figure and dismiss it as a caricature, but that isn’t the context in which it was presented or received. It used to be standard for McFarlane to feature at least one scantily clad female character in his horror lines, and she’d usually become the hardest to find, thanks to raging fanboy lust. Well, when your series is inspired by classic monsters, your options are limited, since the only one in the all-time pantheon is Bride of Frankenstein, and she’s essentially a chopped-up zombie. So alongside reinterpreted classic creatures like a Mummy and Werewolf, Todd McFarlane made an all-new character, Voodoo Queen, who fulfilled the cheesecake and scare factors.
Now, we can have a different conversation about whether or not the scantily clad warrior-woman figure slot in every series was appropriate to begin with, but the fact that a racial switch made no difference to consumers was a sign of the times. Because she proved that fanboy boners knew no color, and was just as hard to find on shelves as the previous caucasian angels.
6. and 7. (tie) Shaft (McFarlane) and Mace Windu (Hasbro)
Hell, forget character names. Let’s just call both of these “Samuel L. Jackson.” In the case of Shaft, he looks nothing like the classic Richard Roudtree character, but he does look pretty much exactly like Nick Fury, and the one guy whose name I can’t remember that was pissed off about motherfucking snakes (quick, without checking imdb – can YOU name his character in that film?). As for Star Wars, Jackson publicly asked to be involved in the movies, insisted on a lightsaber color nobody else had (his toy didn’t catch up to that till later!), then became the first-ever prequel figure. That’s badass.
5. Baracula (Heroes in Action)
Love or hate his policies (or like most sane people, fall somewhere in between), both his supporters and opponents will acknowledge that Barack Obama captured pop culture in a way that few presidents before him did, inspiring a slew of merchandising that included Alex Ross T-shirts and a multitude of toy collectibles. Baracula, which depicts him as a seductive vampire, struck me as the most progressive of the bunch for one simple reason: merchandise honoring the first black president is obvious, but merchandise that subjects him to the same degree of satire as any other chief executive? That’s equality.
4. Spawn X (McFarlane)
When Spawn mentioned in one of the earliest comics that he was a black man, it was a deft example of prejudice challenging – most of us, most likely, had assumed this masked antihero was as white as so many others underneath, and had no idea until he spoke up why he was upset at reconstituting his “hamburger head” face into a blonde surf-dude. Still, while Spawn may have been made into more different figures than any other African-American character in fiction, it’s a stretch to say anything about his skin color when he usually doesn’t have any skin. For The Adventures of Spawn, however, McFarlane Toys reimagined the character as he might look like in a Saturday morning cartoon, complete with handsome human face that leaves his race in no doubt.
And no, the X isn’t a racial thing; this was merely the tenth different version of Spawn in his primary costume.
3. 200X Zodak (Mattel)
This, folks, is why we don’t always use the term “African-American” – the continents of Africa and America do not exist on Eternia. Racial switcheroos on characters can be a point of controversy – Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin was not a choice that pleased hardcore fans, though it’s likely that kids today think of Nick Fury as being Samuel L. Jackson rather than David Hasselhoff, which is as it should be. But nobody really minded when Mattel took the most confusing Masters of the Universe character from the original toy line and gave him both a pigment change and an interesting backstory. Previously, he had been sold as a bad guy but presented as neutral-to-good in the cartoons and tie-in books; the 2002 cartoon made him a wounded hero with a vendetta against snakes and some badass tattoos and weapons; a significant, major character, whereas the only black figure in the vintage line, Clamp Champ, was fairly obvious tokenism. When the Classics toy line revived Masters of the Universe, the disappointment was palpable that they came out with lame, white Zodac first, versus the awesome black version (who did show up eventually, being an easy repaint and all).
Want to be a truly nerdy stand-up comedian? Start honing your “White Zodac does this, but black Zodak does THIS!” routine.
2. Lando Calrissian in Skiff Guard Disguise (Kenner)
While waiting for this figure to come out, I wondered how they’d make him. Would he be helmeted, as he was in Jabba’s palace, or unhelmeted and recognizable as the Lando we all knew? This was a big deal, since he was my favorite Rebel at that point – moral ambiguity was always more interesting to me. Anyway, when the toy finally showed up, and it had a removable helmet, mind was blown. This was a totally new gimmick in 3-3/4 scaled figures, and it hadn’t occurred to me that one figure could incorporate both looks. Plus the ultra-cool skiff pike weapon beat the hell out of the three or four generic guns that came with most other figures – I cried and cried when a friend’s dog jumped up on my lap and broke the darn thing.
1. Blade (Toy Biz)
The very same character who proved that Marvel movies could be good was also the one who proved that Marvel movie toys could be amazing. Featuring more articulation than most toys had then and now, he came with a flamethrower weapon and gun that could be holstered around his waist, plus a boomerang, spring-action crossbow, sword, and removable sunglasses that looked good both on and off the dead-on Wesley Snipes likeness. All of which could hide underneath his soft removable trenchcoat. Regarded by many as one of the greatest figures ever, he still fetches a decent price among collectors. It’s too bad Snipes himself didn’t stockpile a few to get out of his tax troubles.