Perhaps the biggest surprise from this year’s Toy Fair was the relaunch of Defenders of the Earth. Based on an ’80s toy line and tie-in animated series, the property features characters from 1930s King Features Syndicate comic strips. Flash Gordon and his arch-nemesis Ming the Merciless served as the primary hero and villain, while Gordon’s allies included the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and his sidekick Lothar.
NECA often refuses licenses on the basis of their being too niche, but in this case they had already developed a superhero body for a handful of DC Comics characters. Wanting to make more superheroes, but finding most of the big names tied up in other licenses, NECA managed to get several classic characters in one here. Flash, Ming, Phantom, and Lothar seemingly reuse the basic superhero buck. Meanwhile, Mandrake’s body looks like a possible Joker prototype repainted.
Fans mostly recognize the Phantom today for his ’90s live-action movie starring Billy Zane. Not exactly a hit when it came out, it has grown in appreciation since, and arguably launched Catherine Zeta-Jones’ career. Mandrake doesn’t have the same level of recognition, but many consider him comicdom’s first true superhero. Using fast-acting hypnosis, he fights crime with illusions, and the help of sidekick Lothar, a sort of proto-Black Panther who’s an African prince with super-strength. Like many villains initially depicted as uncomfortable stereotypes in the ’30s, Ming saw reinvention in the ’80s cartoon as a much more alien warlord.
The toy company plans to roll out more details later. But for now we know to expect them in the fall, available as individual figures. Whether these ’30s characters will catch on better in the new ’20s than the last ’80s remains to be seen.
Written by Luke Y. Thompson.
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