Ideal Toys released their first Superman "action figure" way back in 1939 and since then he has been one of the most reproduced comic characters of all-time.
It therefore would be impossible for me to even attempt to try and review or cover every single last one that has been issued.
So, what we have here is a general overview of what's been produced, by whom and when, as well as tips and information on what to buy, and not to buy, rare figures and more to give you an informative and, hopefully, entertaining but essential reading for all Superman Toy collectors.
Not only that but further on I will go into a lot more detail on the individual manufacturers and lines but for the purpose of this guide I will be taking a close look at five different Superman figures, each representing a different era in evolution.
But first, let's take a little trip down memory lane and take a look at the history behind these popular toys.
And what better place to start than at the beginning with Mego Superman.
As with so many other Mego figures, this guy was the first "proper" action figure of The Man of Steel, despite the earlier Palitoy "figure" already mentioned.
Now if you’re familiar with Mego you’ll know the body type and clothing style.
First thing to go on these guys was always the sticker so you’re looking at about the $30 price point for a loose figure with sticker intact.
Of course you could just buy one in good condition without a sticker and buy a reproduction sticker for around the $3 mark.
Once you hit the boxed examples of Mego Superman it’s closer to one hundred dollars increasing to about the $500 mark for AFA graded carded figures.
But on the other hand, if you love action figures and are unfamiliar with Mego, it's time you got acquainted with them as they are part of our heritagits.
And there’s few better places to start than with the first truly recognized iconic comic book Superhero.
If you’re looking for eighties examples there is the Kenner Super Powers collection which ran from 1984 to 1986.
As with most figures from back in the day much of the appeal of these is firmly rooted in nostalgia.
Therefore if you previously owned, and then lost this one or worse, your mother gave them away to a jumble sale (as my mother did, much to my utter horror and disgrace) then a loose figure will set you back $15 with an intact cape although, like the Mego stickers, these capes can be bought separately for around $15.
Now, you're probably thinking there must be some sort of error her because this seems an odd disparity, implying that the figure itself is worthless and the price you pay is all about the cape.
Either way you can get one without a cape for a few dollars, though as always be sure to check the condition as there are too many loose-limbed, paint-chipped and discoloured examples of older figures that are still floating around,rather than at best being restored or at worst being thrown away entirely.
Carded examples will set you back around the $120 mark, going up to $500 for AFA graded.
Toy Biz released a virtually identical line in the early 90’s called DC Comics Super Heroes.
Which even in pristine condition won’t set you back much more than $70 and I’ve even seen them go carded for less than $25.
Many collectors favour the earlier Kenner figures as being of better construction.
Kenner regained the license in the mid-90s and produced a Man of Steel figure line to tie in with the comics which received something of a boost around about the death of Superman, but then declined after it turned out he actually wasn’t dead.
If you want these you’re best off searching for multiple carded figure lots to show off the outfits and supporting cast.
I’ve found assortments of five or six for as low as $40 including delivery.
The same goes for the animated series line from 1998.
Really, these were not stupendously detailed figures and were designed for kids to play with and a lot of them sat on pegs once all the standard classic Supermen figures had gone.
Hence their low demand and bargain bin pricing on the secondary market.
Which brings us to the first of the figures I have to hand to discuss, the Justice League Unlimited Superman.
Now Mattel made dozens of these figures back in the early 2000’s to tie in with the Justice League TV show, which had spun off the Batman and Superman Animated series’.
When I entered the name into the eBay search box I got back nearly a thousand results.
This is an incredibly easy figure to come by. Loose, carded, packaged with other figures and with many different variants.
Principally this was because being such a core DC character he had to be in every wave of Unlimited figures and there were a LOT of waves. In fact Mattycollector.com is still selling collector-focused extensions to the line more than a decade on.
The Justice League Unlimited figures were all made in the same pose, legs together, back straight, arms by the sides. Some, like the later versions of Superman here had posable waist, elbow and knee joints, but by and large they were statues with four and a half points of articulation, able to stand, sit and extend their arms.
What they lacked in playability they made up for in range, variety of hero and villain, inexpensive shelf price and vibrant, accurate depictions of the onscreen heroes.
One thing to watch out for when buying loose, new figures from China or other overseas sellers rather than private collectors is that a lot of these are factory rejects with imperfections.
Sometimes this means a bent leg which prevents them standing, sometimes it means one leg shorter than the other.
They can feel incredibly cheap and tatty and not at all special. This is why I tend to go for carded JLU figures to ensure they hit a certain standard, although falling over is always a factor as they have enormous torso’s and twig-thin legs with slender feet.
This version of Superman has a nice, plastic cape that hangs down. I believe he also came with a chunk of Kryptonite. Once again, part of the appeal of these figures is assembling your own league, cherry-picking your favourites.
They display beautifully, carded and provided you get some figure stands, the same goes for loose. Another thing to consider is that if you have very young kids or are planning to then these make fantastic introductions to the DC universe.
And if they get broken they can be easily and cheaply replaced.
DC Superman Returns
The next figure is from Superman Returns. This movie was reasonably popular, but not the explosive reappearance most were hoping for.
I described it in a review as a relationship drama with some heavy lifting. However, they did not scrimp on the tie in toys and the shelves were plastered with Brandon Routh’s face.
This meant a lot of variants of Superman himself, especially as he had nobody to fight in the film and actually didn’t throw a single punch.
This is death to toy lines based on action movies. Without villains, your figure sales decrease by at least half as what kid wants a dozen Supermans with different action features but nobody to have a mid-air scrap with?
Notably the recent Man of Steel film corrected this and has seen decent sales of its kid-focused lines.
This one, Ultra Flight Force Superman from Mattel is in an unusual eight-inch scale, slightly bigger than Marvel Legends.
He has a piece of machinery installed in his back cavity that has a drawstring attached. When you pull it he vibrates.
I’m not sure why.
Perhaps he’s vibrating with inner power… and also revving like a motorcycle.
He looks like a hunchback under his cape and the action feature takes ages to wind down so I’m going to say this is a counterproductive addition to an otherwise basic and chunky figure.
The detailing is great, on his boots especially, and he has plenty of articulation.
Unfortunately his neck is incredibly fat and his chin is incredibly shallow, which makes it look like he’s wearing a Charlie Sheen Halloween mask over a tiny head.
I’m actually surprised this one got off the line. From some angles it looks like classic Superman, but from others it’s twisted and deformed with an enormous crack running down the side.
He has an enormous, long open hand that makes him look like he’s slowly turning into something else and of course the drawstring is attached to a big triangle of burgundy plastic so it looks like a bit of his cape broke off and got lodged in his side.
Again you can pick up this and many other figures from this line for mere dollars on eBay. They sold well enough to kids who are now approaching their late teens so there is a surplus of unwanted Returning Superman figures out there.
However, I cannot recommend Flight Force, simply because there are other versions that didn’t have their sculpt sacrificed for an extremely limited play feature.
In 2012 we finally got a Lego Superman. Lego mini figures, or mini figs, like this have crept up on the action figure market over the past couple of decades.
Back in the 90’s it was knights, space men, pirates and Lego city but with Star Wars in 1999 the dam burst and a tidal wave of licenses began getting the brick treatment.
Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Avengers followed, with even some rare licenses like The Last Airbender, Toy Story and Speed Racer making their way into the Danish titan’s fold.
When buying Lego figures the natural inclination is to look at price and be bewildered why people would pay so much for so little plastic. They don’t have action features and rarely more than one accessory.
It’s a complex market because most of them are bundled with vehicles and playsets. Often you’ll find those stripped of their figures and resold on eBay, a forlorn cavern without any Hobbits or Cave Troll. If a figure only comes with a big set it can command a tremendous price on the secondary market because you are relieved of the colossal outlay for the whole thing but still have to pay the original buyer for their investment.
Lego also tends to discontinue every set after a certain period of time, making certain rare figures intensely desirable.
And again, despite not having much to them, these are arguably the most perfectly designed figures in the world.
They are instantly recognisible, lovingly rendered, durable, posable, fully compatible among every single Lego set.
There aren't many toys being released today that can be easily taken apart and then remade into something else using the components of a 1987 kit.
It’s something even Grandparents wouldn't grumble over the kids playing with instead of getting fresh air.
This is why Lego tops every best toy list.
Lego Superman here is exactly what you would expect. Blue arms and legs, muscular decal on his torso, rather more of a grumpy expression than normal. Definitely angry at Lego Lex Luthor.
One like this was sold in a set with Batman and Green Lantern for $600 recently.
They were San-Diego Comic-Con exclusives from 2011 but that does illustrate the kind of collector frenzy these can instill.
Lego Superman averages at about $15 each, bought separately, but there were nearly 3,000 results for Lego Superman so it pays to shop around as there are many variations.
Dealing in Lego minifigs and kits can be an expensive business, but can also pay off if you are a shrewd buyer as well and put away your purchases for later when they have been deleted.
It is also one of the only toys we can confidently claim will be here long after us all, demand will increase so investment will pay off.
In late 2010 Warner aired an animated show named Young Justice. It was a Justice League style show incorporating the wider DC universe but focusing on a group of younger sidekicks in their own team. This allowed Greg Weisman and Brandon Vitti the chance to tell the epic stories of the big league DC heroes from the perspective of youngsters standing in their shadows. It was excellent and ran for two seasons until 2013.
This stands as a cautionary tale for cartoon and toy line tie ins, because the continuation of the show was dependent not on critical acclaim or viewing figure, but on toy sales and right now, looking at the Superman figure from this line I can see why they may have struggled.
It’s not a bad figure by any stretch. It’s unmistakably Superman rendered four inches high with an expressive face and detailed eyes. But it’s also very similar to Mattel’s Justice League Unlimited figures. Less stylised, slightly more realistically proportioned, but just as sparse in terms of play value. He can move his arms at the shoulder and legs at the hip. That’s it. He has the astonishing power to stand.
He also has a stand.
It’s quite possible that kids and adults alike already had a sizable collection of Justice League Unlimited figures and these offered little more. Mattel cannibalising their new line with the success of the old.
It’s also possible that the focus of the show being on Robin and Aqualad and Kid Flash and Superboy did not have the desired effect of bringing the superheroic archetypes that much closer to identification with kids and in fact just made them think Justice League’s C-Team, not interested.
The immense success of Ben 10 with it’s enormous assortment of crazy creatures must surely play into this as well. Kids, even little ones have seen Superman punch a monster a hundred times, but his own iconic nature plays against him in this case. There’s no exact science to it though, while Ben 10 proliferates a dozen more shows with wholly original monster and robot action like Sym-Bionic Titan go unnoticed and cancelled. Although interestingly this was purportedly due to not having a toy line to begin with. It’s frankly amazing that Legend of Korra is getting by without one, after Bandai walked around the first season of The Legend of Aang.
Regarding collecting Young Justice figures, I can honestly say that the show was dynamite and you should track it down on DVD or instant view. Once you get into it, the rare importance of characters like Artemis, and M’gann suddenly takes hold and the toy line will gain significance to you. Without knowing and watching the show, this is just another DC line. They go for but a few dollars, carded.
It’s worth noting there is a more detailed, better sculpted, better articulated 6” line, complete with dioramas which go for not much more right now, but will likely increase in value as the time from cancellation grows longer and it gains cult status. Now is the time to snap these up.
DC Young Justice
And finally we’re going to look at Black Lantern Superman from DC Direct. This is where I get to talk about and praise DC’s self-distributed figure lines which have for years been mainstays of comic store shelves. Rather than sub-license all properties out to Mattel for mainstream markets, DC Direct went straight to the collector.
This began in late 1998 mainly focusing on properties from their Vertigo comics series that no average child would ever be interested in, but that adult fans would clamour for, including Sandman, Preacher and Transmetropolitan. This continued into a range of more comic-based renderings, capturing the Justice League time and again in the styles of many different artists.
This is a fine example of a storyline the average person will not have heard of but Green Lantern fans will be all over. 2009’s Blackest Night centred around the dead rising and joining the Black Lantern corps, along with many of DC’s heroic pantheon, now rendered into horrifying wraith-like form. It is up to the Green and Yellow Lantern corps to save the day.
Now I’ve not read it, but after researching for this figure I now want to. The prospect of an undead Superman is positively terrifying. The figure himself is weighty and beautifully sculpted, looking to all intents and purposes like an articulated statuette rather than a children’s toy.
Like most DC Direct figures he has a genuine heft to him and comes with a sturdy, Black Lantern figure stand. Some of the earlier DC Direct line came in neat card window boxes which allowed collectors to repackage their figures and have them loose or boxed or alternating. This was a lovely touch that sadly isn’t present here as zombie Superman has been sealed into bulletproof plastic.
After fourteen years and hundreds of figures released DC Direct was rebranded DC Collectibles in 2012 and still continues to ship to specialist shops, focusing at present on the New 52 renditions of the heroes and character models from Batman’s Arkham games.
This happens to be one of the last figures produced under the old label, but it does its heritage proud. This specific figure can be picked up for around $25 on eBay.
Once again, like Lego, getting into collecting the DC Direct line is going to be an expensive business, but at least you have a beginning and an end to sift through for your favourites and fans will attest that they look excellent on the shelf. Also on inspection of the DC Collectibles New 52 line it would appear the card window box is back, so top marks to DC all round.
DC Black Lantern