Captain Action

First, full disclosure: I was an avid fan of these dolls when I was a little boy. Second, these were dolls, not the tiny bits of plastic the Gen-Xers would come to call "action figures" a decade later. My across-the-street neighbor (Scotty) had one and my cousin (Jimmy) had one and we were secure enough in our masculinity to admit that we were playing with dolls... but boy dolls. That's the narrative I've been spinning for the last 45 years but, in his introduction, Mark Waid maintains that the term "action figure" was coined by Hasbro in 1964 to market its G.I. Joe dolls. He's probably right, but I personally don't remember hearing the term "action figure" until post-Star Wars, by which time I was too old to be playing with dolls in any case. 

I'm not going to insult your intelligence by describing what a Captain Action doll was, but I had  the Superman, Batman, Phantom and Lone Ranger costumes. (I also had a second-hand Aquaman costume, but no mask.) I never saw Action Boy or Doctor Evil except in advertisements. Captain Action: The Classic Collection also includes a few period advertisements, which were helpful in stimulating my 50+ year old memories. You could buy the doll itself, and/or you could buy the various costumes, and/or you could buy certain accessory packs.

Other costumes included Captain America, Flash Gordon, Sgt. Fury and Steve Canyon. (As a four or five year-old, I couldn't figure out the draw of the latter two as we already had G.I. Joe.) Jimmy had Captain America and he also had the "Weapons Arsenal" but he was missing about half of them. Scotty had Aquaman and he also had the "Survival Kit" but he, too, was missing about half of the accessories. I, too, had the "Survival Kit," but I kept mine intact (until my mother decided to give it away without my knowledge or permission, anyway). It consisted of an orange plastic vest with little slots for a radio, tackle box, mirror, first aid kit, collapsible shovel and other tools. I could not understand why/how my playmates could be given these cool toys and then randomly lose them. 

One thing I do remember is that each costume came with a mini-comic book (the some one in each package) which detailed how Catpain Action would/could change identities. I was hoping (expecting, really) that that min-comic would be reproduced in the "Classic Collection" but, sadly, it is not. It does reprint something called the "Yellow Book" (a promotional pamphlet from the late '60s with art by Chic Stone) which I know I must have seen. The "Jet Mortar" and "Directional Communicator" accessory kits looks very familiar, but I think I knew them just from this ad. Also, I'm pretty sure Jimmy had "Captain Action's Super Hero Parachute" (which ended up being an excellent  way to ding up your doll because it didn't deploy half the time). 

But I posted this discussion in the "Comics" forum, didn't I?, and so far all I've been discussing has been the toys. Time to rectify that.

I do not remember exactly when I became aware there was a Captain Action comic book; sometime in the late '80s I suspect. They're not (and never have been) hard to find, but they are difficult to find at a price I was willing to pay. My favorite comic book guide concludes, "This really was an exciting and powerful series that should have lasted more than five issues." Nevertheless, I did not have very high expectations regarding Captain Action and, now that I've had the chance to read it, I'm ambivalent.

I have long known that this five-issue series contained some mix of (16-year-old) Jim Shooter, Wally Wood and Gil Kane, but I didn't know to what degree. If I had known the first issue was penciled by Wally Wood (including a full page spread mimicking the cover plus two additional panels of Wally Wood's Superman), I may have reconsidered some of those backissue prices (and maybe if the series' original editor, Mort Weisinger, had assigned the cover to Wally Wood instead of Irv Novick I would have known that). As it is, I never peeked at the interior of any of these issues until today.

As I indicated, I didn't have particularly high expectations for this series, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. Mort Weisinger was the series first editor but, before sales figures would have even been in, management inexplicably moved the title over to Julius Schwartz's office. Although the second issue was penciled by Kane, it was inked by Wood and plotted by Shooter. The sea change came with #3, which was not only penciled but also plotted and scripted by Kane. (A big deal is made of this fact in the letters page, all of which are included in this collection.) 

I am not particularly enthusiastic about Shooter's original direction. Although it is very Kirby-esgue (in an "Eternals" sort of way), it is more "Chariots of the Gods?" than super-hero oriented. In Shooter's set up, there is a single pantheon of Gods across multiple beliefs. Each of these Gods' power are manifested in a coin bearing that God's image. In Shooter's plot, Captain Action gets some and Krellik (his arch nemesis) gets some. That's not a bad set-up for a super-hero series in general, but I always saw Captain Action as more Nick Fury than Captain Marvel. 

With #3, Kane changes the villain from Krellik to Dr. Evil. He seems to be putting everything he's got into this series, but it's still more superhero than super-agent. By 1969 though, Ideal cancelled the toy line and the Batman TV show was off the air. I could see a writer (such as Kurt Busiek, for example), resurrecting the "God-coin" concept, but Captain Action was never a good fit within the DCU. If you like other period comics (such as The Creeper or Hawk & Dove or THUNDER Agents) or if you have fond memories of the Captain Action dolls, you may enjoy this collection. 

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  • I was too young for Captain Action but I was fascinated by the ads I saw in old back issues. Of course, today such a toy would be impossible and I'm amazed that it was able to be done then! Many forget that the second series Spider-Man set was one of the first merchandising done for the Ol' Web-Head! 

    One thing about the comic: given the revised origin, DC could revive Krellik at any time as he had nothing to do with Ideal!

    Later I bought Michael Eury's book about the good Captain! 


  • I'm unfamiliar with that. I'll have to seek it out.

    EDIT: Then again (judging from the backmarket prices), perhaps not. 

    Too bad. I definitely would have bought it when it was new had I been aware of it.

  • Captain Action's power coins made a brief return to the DC Universe when they turned up in the hands of a Superman villain who went by the names "Superwoman" and "Obsession".  She first appeared as Dana Dearden in Adventures of Superman #532 (Feb. 1996).

  • Interesting. I would have read those issues back then, but I wouldn't have recognized the coins (and don't remember them). Thanks, Dave!
  • Neither the DC Wiki, Comic Vine nor GCD connect the coins with Captain Action, so they didn't remember either! 

  • I've never seen a Captain Action action figure doll in real life - I rather suspect that it may never have been sold in the UK.  I remember seeing adverts for it in the comics, but I can't say that it looked very appealing.

    Despite that, for some reason I bought the Captain Action comic when it first came out. I really liked the concept of the super-power coins that Jim Shooter set up in the first issue.  Each coin delivered a different power, appropriate to the god whose image it bore.  This meant that our heroes could give themselves appropriate sets of powers, according to the requirements of the mission they were on.  This seemed a really cool idea, which reminded me a bit of Duplicate Boy, who had appeared with the Legion of Super Heroes a few years earlier.  He had the ability to mimic the powers of any other hero, which I also found a pretty cool.

    Disappointingly, in the second or third issue, most of the coins were destroyed.  The few left were fused into a pair of merged coins, one for each of our heroes.  This left them with a fixed (and rather dull) set of powers - flight, super-speed, that sort of thing.  I thought this was a major let-down.

    Gil Kane's stories went in much less for straightforward super-heroics, and much more for social commentary.  They also involved what I now recall as some seriously overwrought writing.  I found the comic was still interesting enough to keep buying it for the rest of its five-issue run.  However, I suspect I would probably have given up on it if it had lasted much longer.

  • Back in 2008, a company named Moonstone relaunched Captain Action as a comic book. I bought #0 out a sheer nostalgia. 


    I also bought #1. As it turned out, #0 would have made great #1, but the actual #1 made a lousy #1; it was actually a #2 in terms of content. [Brief Aside: Comics inability to begin counting with #1 is one of the three most embarrassing things about the hobby.] the so-called "#0" was $1.99, but subsequent issues were $3.99. I decided two bucks was fair, but four bucks was too much, so I didn't buy beyond #1. [Actually, I did buy "First Mission, Last Day" (also $3.99), which was an illustrated prose story.] I I had know the series would last only five issues, I might have made a different decision.

    As it turned out, #0 was overpriced as well. Despite that fact it had a card-stock cover, inside were only "two" six-page stories, separated by a page and a half history of Captain Action written by Michael Eury (who wrote Philip's book). The "first" issue was also a bad deal, comprising a single ten-page story (plus two unrelated back-up features) for four bucks. The introduction of #1 was written by Jim Shooter, who told of his opportunity to be featured on What's My Line? in 1966 as the 14-year-old writer of Superman and other DC comics, an opportunity nixed by Maort Weisinger who claimed the characters were the stars and didn't want writers to get "undue attention." [What a dick.] Shooter also detailed how much of the Captain Action storyline was dictated to him. 

    Of the issues I read, only the essays by Eury and Shooter are worth reading. 

  • I have never seen a Captain Action figure either, but wanted one from the comic book ads (just in DC Comics, I think -- I'd have to look that up). I only saw a Major Matt Mason once, on sale at some store my mother rarely went to but did on at least one occasion (which is how I was there), so I never saw it again.

    However, I was on board with the comic book (and I bet Richard Willis was, too). I was already a Wally Wood fan from early Daredevil and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, although in 1968 I probably hadn't heard of EC Comics yet. Anyway, as his participation decreased, so did my interest.

    And the story, of course, was awful to the Li'l Capn, given that it completely changed a few issues in, and then the book disappeared. I assumed it was canceled, but in those days, you just never really knew. Anyway, taken as a whole it didn't amount to much to me then, and I never felt the urge to re-read it. Reading grown-up responses to it here is interesting, and saves me the trouble of re-reading!

    But I think my real disappointment was that I wanted an explanation for all those other identites. Was Captain Action a shapeshifter? A disguise expert like Human Target? Why did the doll change into other characters, and why were they from so many different companies?

    The comic book didn't explain this, although I think the super-power coins were meant to suggest that Captain Action could "become" other superheroes. Or at least ape their powers. But that wasn't good enough for the Li'l Capn, who really wanted to know A) how he became Aquaman, and B) why he would bother? Ditto Steve Canyon.

    OK, that's an exaggeration. Even the Li'l Capn was aware that using other people's characters involved leasing or buying the rights, and Captain Action's alters were from a lot of different companies, so it was probably expensive. (And impossible in a DC comic book, which was competition for most of them.) And if Captain Action used Aquaman instead of a cool superhero, it was probably because he was cheap, or because DC insisted.

    The upshot is that there was no obvious reason why the Captain Action doll had all these other personas, and I wanted the comic book to explain it to me. Sadly, it did not. I've been disappointed ever since!

  • Also why and how could Captain Action become the Lone Ranger, Tonto and Sgt. Fury, all heroes from the past? 

    And become Buck Rogers, a hero from the future?

    If DC really wanted to, in his comic he could change into Superman, Batman and Aquaman plus Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Sgt. Rock, Adam Strange and/or Tomahawk. 

  • Those half-remembered (by me) pamphlets that came with the costumes made a half-hearted attempt at explaining why/how Captain Action took on those other personas, but I never thought he really did. In my make-believe play, the other costumes/masks we a way to have multiple dolls while your parents had to buy just one. I never pretended that Captain Action was (or somehow became) Batman any more than I thought he was G.I. Joe. Captain Action could (and often did, in my imagination) meet and interact with G.I. Joe, but not with Batman, Superman and the rest. 

    I've got some pictures around here somewhere.  I'll ask Tracy to post them.

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