They don’t make superhero figures like they used to. I’m looking at Marvel’s latest Mystique statuette. Only a mutant could maintain proportions so inhuman. The shapeshifting supervillain has taken the form of a softporn supermodel, Marvel’s answer to DC’s so-called “Bombshell” series. Artist Ant Lucia says he took his inspiration from vintage pin-up illustrations. That explains why Batgirl’s breasts bulge from her barely trussed batbra. Supergirl isn’t bashful about her gravity-defying miniskirt either.
These are definitely not the action figures of my youth. I stopped playing with those in 6th grade, when they became a major social liability. One of my much more popular classmates stared at me with pity when I mentioned reading a comic book. I imagined his expression if I’d admitted that superhero dolls were posed on my bedroom bookshelves at that very moment. We were supposed to be talking about girls.
If I’ve done the math right, this is 1978. I’m twelve. On the cusp of puberty. Mego, which literally owned the superhero doll market through the 1970s, was struggling after blowing its chance to produce the Star Wars line. The company would be bankrupt by 1983, my senior year of high school. But in 1978, I was still a Mego boy.
I apparently liked the color green: Hulk, Green Goblin, Lizard, Green Arrow. The orange-skinned Thing was in the mix too, but not much in the way of human flesh tones. DC Bombshells stand eleven inches high, so they would have dwarfed my little eight-inchers. My guys had interchangeable heads too. The bodies were identical. A single elastic band held limbs inside shoulder and hip joints. If a leg or arm broke off, the others did too. If the chest cracked, the elastic imploded the limbs into a center knot impossible for my preadolescent fingers to pry apart.
I liked their clothes the most. Cloth unitards with metal snaps up the back and removable plastic boots. I would undress them and recombine to invent new characters. Green Arrow in silver chainmail was “Invincible,” a sword-wielding superhero from some vaguely Medieval dimension. I didn’t play with girl clothes though. My doll collection included no female anatomy. Mego offered very few women, only Invisible Girl from the Marvel line-up (I considered myself too mature for DC). The males were sexless anyway. Not so much as a bulge or butt crack marring their identical plastic pelvises.
I also had to stop drawing superheroes, another former favorite childhood pastime. My understanding of anatomy had been questionable at best. My heroes (I only drew originals) defied da Vinci’s eight head height ratio. My imitation of Marvel footwear resulted in bulbous ankles and ballet-pointed toes. The pose was always the same: forward-facing, full-body portrait. Costumes changed but not my bodies.
My classmates preferred drawing female anatomy in the back of the science room. They argued vagina positioning, whether forward- or downward-facing. I did not offer an opinion. Someone performed shocked disgust when I was forced to admit to having never fondled a girl. My heroes had made only one investigative sortie into my older sister’s box of abandoned Barbies. They were nipple-less and closed-groined, and at just under a foot, too tall for my eight-inchers. The plastic bodies were ungiving anyway, and my interest only mild.
My daughter’s abandoned Spider-Man brags over a dozen points of articulation, including fingers, toes and torso. Like my Mego gang, her Barbie Batgirl has real clothes, but the others wear their costumes like skin. Her Mystique was naked but for her genitalia-disguising plastic fur, but there was no disguising those generous hips. She told me years later how much the doll disturbed her. Both her collection and the remains of mine migrated into a plastic bin that lived in my son’s closet for a few years and now in our attic. He hasn’t opened it in years. He’s in seventh grade now and would rather play Wii or read a book, a real book, not a comic book.
Little Billy Baston was eleven when he gained the powers of Shazam and turned into Captain Marvel. Mego made that doll too, but I didn’t care about DC characters. You couldn’t just say a magic word and be grown-up. It was a process, a series of choices and mishaps. The Thing got stuck with a new body, but he wasn’t happy about it. The Hulk didn’t ask to change either. The Lizard just wanted a new arm. Change happens whether you like it or not.
When my dad saw me boxing up my superheroes, he asked me why I’d suddenly declared myself too old for dolls. He’d seen me playing with them just a week before. When I told him, he nodded glumly. He looked disappointed, not in me but in the world.
I liked flying them around my bedroom, crashing them across the landscape of my bedspread. They were hard to pose, but if you were careful, if you balanced them just right, they could stand at the edge of a table or a corner of a bookshelf. Just stand there. Frozen. That tiny elastic cord pulling inside their chest. Always on the verge of imploding.