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Indie Spotlight
by yo go re

As I write this, it's almost three years to the day since Shocker Toys announced their Indie Spotlight toys. And you think it's hard waiting for the stuff you see at Toy Fair to show up in the summer! It's been a long, rocky road for Shocker, but at last, Indie Spotlight has arrived.

Japan. The future. A new age of corporate feudalism. The worlds of business, organized crim and politics now exist in a delicate interdependence. Enter the Noh, a government agency that secretly polices that balance of worlds.

Kabuki, an operative of the Noh, becomes deeply affected by the death of her mother and can only relate to the world through the security of a mask. She embarks on a quest to come to terms with his family, history, culture and her mother's death... even if her personal crusade brings her in direct conflict with the powers she serves.

Kabuki is a strange comicbook. There's almost no plot or action, with most of the pagecount spent on memories and philosophical reflection - definitely not what you'd expect from a comic about a smorkin' hot ninja assassin. Nor is the art style the average T&A cheesecake; rather, it's a mixed media effort, with many pages being actual photographs of collages creator David Mack has assembled. Often one page's art will be drawn over the previous page's, with the subsequent page's art layered on top of that. It's definitely challenging.

Unexpectedly, our girl Kabuki has had an action figure before - several, in fact. Moore Action Collectibles released one in May 2000, along with a "war-torn" variant and an exclusive doppelganger Kabuki a few months later. That one had a great sculpt, no question, but barely any articulation (as was MAC's wont). That left the door open for Shocker Toys.

Scale is important to Indie Spotlight, so Kabkui is a bit shorter than the average 6" scale figure, standing only 5¾" tall, even with small lifts in her shoes. The sculpt isn't as good as Moore's, but that's not really a fair comparison; it's like saying your favorite webcomic isn't as good as DaVinci. It would be an unfair comparison. A fair comparison would be to Marvel Legends or DC Universe, so how does she stack up in that company? Still not as good, but much closer.

The proportions are odd: the back of her head is flat and kind of lop-sided, and her chest seems very long; her breasts (which are already larger than you'd expect on a woman of her build, even a comic character) sit in the right place on her torso, but her top doesn't actually come up onto the top of them, instead just cupping them from below. There isn't a lot of musculature on display, but the sculpt of her clothes is good enough. Her boots are more "hey, let's sculpt big wrinkles" than anything normal, but the case could be made that they're meant to be some unusual fabric, not skin-tight leather. The edges of her rising sun design are sculpted in, and the wraps on her arms are nice.

Kabuki (whose real name is Ukiko, if you were wondering) has a rather plain face. She's not the exotic stunner Mack usually draws, but still she's more Asian than Lady Deathstrike or Psylocke. In general level of detail, the face reminds me of the latest ML Namor - so in other words, a bit soft, but not terribly so. She has a removable mask (it's held on by friction), but there is one thing missing: she doesn't have the 歌舞伎 scars running down the right side of her face. It's kind of an important feature of the character, so where'd it go?

One area in which Kabuki can absolutely hang with the big boys is the articulation. Fans have been really unsure if Shocker could pull off workable articulation on an action figure of this sort, and Kabuki proves they can. The brief overview is simple: not as good as Marvel Legends, better than DCU. Bold words, huh? Well, not only did Shocker do double-hinged knees and elbows, but none of the joints were stuck, tight, or broken. Thus, better than Mattel. She's got a balljointed head, swivel-hinged shoulders, swivel biceps, hinged elbows, swivel wrists, balljointed torso, balljointed waist, swivel-hinge hips, swivel thighs, hinged knees and balljointed ankles.

The design of some of the joints is unusual, which is sure to draw complaints. The bicep swivels curve up onto the shoulder joint about as far as her shirt comes onto her breasts, and the hips - which have been a particular bone of contention for the various flamewars - have an angled section of outer thigh reaching nearly up to the waist. It's not the most seamless look, no, but it is functional. Having two balljoints in her torso makes her very flexible, and if you think the waist is ugly and unprofessional, well, we'll remind you that we've seen its kind before.

Kabuki's paint is handled well, too. Her skin is pale, but not plasticy, and all the edges of the design are crisp. The white on her legs is a bit dirty, but again, that's not just a problem with Shocker Toys: we've seen the same from Marvel Select and DC Direct, and at least she's not blue. I would have liked a darker red on her uniform, but that's just me. The green is vibrant, and her hair has brown highlights. Since her eyes are brown, it's easy to overlook how detailed they are, but she does seem to have some blush on her cheeks.

The star of the show, however, is the Noh Group tattoo, a large and ornate dragon spreading its wings across her shoulders and trailing down her spine. This thing is broken up among six separate pieces of the toy's body, and yet it all lines up well and looks great. There are a few spots where the outline and the fill don't quite match up, but you really have to get in there and examine the paint to see it. This is excellent work.

We have, so far, not even spoken about the accessories. She doesn't have a huge assortment, but what we get makes sense. Remember, these are Shocker's first "regular" action figures, so rather than risk something they weren't sure of yet, they played it safe. Kabuki is armed with her twin sickles, but they're not solo pieces: instead, they're molded with hands already holding them; the hands pop out at the wrists, and the set includes an extra pair of empty fists. Switching the hands is simple, and though the pegs are tiny, they don't show any particular threat of breaking. One thing that's missing - or rather, not missing - is the tip of her pinky finger on her left hand. The character's had it chopped off, but the toy has all 10 digits intact, on both sets of hands. Whoops!

Indie Spotlight was designed to follow Marvel Legends' lead by offering a Build-A-Figure, but that seems to have been changed so that the figure which would have been split up and divided among the regular releases is instead being sold as a "deluxe" figure. However, in keeping with the original idea, each figure in IS1 comes with an accessory that belongs to the big guy. In this case, that would be The Maxx, and so everybody around him gets an Is, one of the little sprites that's constantly hounding Maxx. Collect the entire series, and you'll have an entire army of Isz to go with Maxx when you get him. Kabuki's Is is a pink fairy type, from late in the series: they explode if not kept in water. It's got wings, white hair with a red bow, and is wearing a frilly red dress. There's a stand to make it hover, and quite reminds me of the type of accessory that would have come with Palisades' Invader Zim toys.

The Indie Spotlight figures are sold on blister cards, done in the Japanese style: that is, a large plastic blister which covers the entire front and wraps around the sides, with the cardboard backer just taped in place, not glued. Cut the tape, and the cardboard slides up so you can get the figure's tray out, or re-pack the toy when you're storing it. I've liked this kind of packaging since I first ran into it on Microman toys, and I'm glad to see it making its way into (sort of) the mainstream. The packaging itself is done in warm colors, orange and yellow, and generic enough to work with any figure Shocker might choose to do. There's a cardstock insert at the bottom with comic art of the character and the comic's logo, and a filecard type panel on the back with info about the character. There's a J-hook on the top, but it looks way too small to fit on any store's pegs - that's either going to have to be redesigned, or these will be sitting on a horizontal surface. A paper in the package gives instructions for the toys, and details on the free mailaway figure. That's right, free: buy all the Series 1 figures (yes, including the two variants) and you can send for a free Mr. Gone - not even shipping and handling charges.

Shocker Toys faces a tough road with their Indie Spotlight toys. In the time since they announced the idea, the similarly inspired Legendary Heroes line has come and gone, withering on the vine - and that was from a proven company. Shocker's an unknown. Or at least, it is to the general market: among action figure collectors, Shocker seems to have a really bad reputation, but hopefully Indie Spotlight Series 1 will silence some of that.

No, Kabuki isn't a perfect figure, and there are some definite areas for improvement, but the simple fact is this: Shocker Toys did a better job on these toys than anyone expected they would. We got this figure free for review, so I'm not sure what the actual retail price will be, but looking at online vendors, it seems to be about $15. Yes, that's a big pricetag, especially for toys that aren't quite at the ML/DCU level of quality yet, but after playing with Kabuki, I'm sold. Indie Spotlight isn't vaporware any more.

-- 04/23/09

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