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Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected
Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected

Breaking the Mold: Kenner's Super Powers Collection

Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected
Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected

Star Wars was dead.

As unlikely as it may seem, that’s the situation executives at the Kenner toy company were facing in 1984. With George Lucas insisting that 1983’s Return of the Jedi would be the last Star Wars feature film for years—if not ever—interest in the company’s expansive toy line based on the space saga was beginning to fade. At the same time, sales of Mattel’s He-Man and Hasbro’s G.I. Joe lines remained brisk. Kenner was looking at a future without a franchise.

To improve their forecast, the company looked to another modern mythology: DC Comics. The publisher had a character library spanning five decades, an animated show (Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show), and dozens of monthly comics to maintain awareness of their brand. Amazingly, no one in the toy industry had ever pursued a line of 3.75-inch action figures based on some of the most recognizable fictional heroes ever created.

That familiarity led Kenner's Super Powers line to success. But their expansion to include some of DC’s lesser-known creations would ultimately be its undoing.

Kenner Super Powers via Facebook

From the moment of Superman’s debut in 1938, DC Comics (then known as National Periodical Publications) has been keenly aware of the value of licensing agreements. In those days, the Kryptonite-hating hero was depicted on paper dolls, wooden toys, and fan club tokens. His counterpart, Batman, enjoyed similar success as a brand ambassador, with merchandise for both spiking to coincide with both 1966’s Batman live-action television series and 1978’s big-screen version of Superman.

In the action figure realm, however, superheroes didn’t get a break until Ideal released costumes for their Captain Action line in the 1960s. Their utility player, Captain Action, could be dressed to resemble a number of comic book characters, including Superman and Captain America. Later, the Mego company would popularize a line of 8- and 12-inch dolls with soft-cloth costumes that echoed Hasbro’s large-scale G.I. Joes. While the scale was impressive, it made producing accompanying vehicles and playsets a tall order.

Mego evaporated in 1979, taking their DC offerings along with them. Despite the continued success of Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends cartoon, no one had thought to capitalize on the characters' popularity with a small-scale line until Kenner reached out. With sales of Star Wars plastic dwindling, the company that had once marketed Play-Doh and the Easy-Bake Oven wanted another deep bench of action figures. The company's attempt to entice DC with a presentation prototype of Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam) stuck on a stick so he could "fly" won them right to produce a full line of action figures.

Super Powers drew heavily upon the work of José Luis García-López, a Spanish artist who illustrated DC’s widely-referenced style guide of 1982. García-López’s style was spare but familiar, depicting the company’s characters in a way that made them accessible to licensees, without hard-to-replicate flourishes. Sculptors at Kenner eyed García-López’s drawings; consumers saw his work on the card backs that lined retail shelves.

Kenner Super Powers via Facebook

When Kenner's Super Powers action figures hit store shelves in 1984 with a 12-figure lineup—including the mandatory Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman—they were an immediate hit. At the action figure height standard of 3.75 inches, pioneered by Kenner with Star Wars and later aped by Hasbro for their G.I. Joe line, kids were drawn into a world with which they were already familiar, thanks to DC’s existing status in popular culture. The heroes could meet and deliberate in a Hall of Justice playset; Batman could jump into his Batmobile; in some foreshadowing of the more inane toy expansion ideas to come in the 1990s, Superman could deploy his Supermobile, an extraneous vehicle for a man possessing the ability to fly. (The box art lamely promised it "shields Superman from Kryptonite.")

bchick1022 via eBay

Kenner also launched an aggressive print and television marketing campaign, highlighting the ability of each figure to display an actual "super power" when kids squeezed their arms or thighs together. The Flash’s feet would begin to tremble; the Joker would smash his mallet over an unsuspecting adversary’s head.

As Kenner plotted a second wave of 12 figures, Mattel had taken notice. To compete for the attention of comic book enthusiasts, they secured a license from Marvel to produce a similar line they labeled Secret Wars. While both did well, Mattel faced criticism that they were too preoccupied with the toy behemoth that was He-Man and were devoting only minimal resources to their Marvel toys. The more ambitious Super Powers line drew on the imaginations of artists like George Pérez and Jack Kirby, with the latter’s characters (including Darkseid) driving the toy narrative for the second wave.

Yet Kenner wasn't above a little cost consolidation: When Super Powers rolled out as Super Amigos in foreign territories, their Riddler figure was nothing more than a repainted Green Lantern with question marks added to his torso.

Mattel

As the Super Powers lineup grew to 33 figures and several vehicles, Kenner saw potential to build on the popularity of their flagship line with ancillary products. They considered a rollout of 2-inch mini-figures, but the molds got lost in transit; they also plotted a line of plush dolls, but those never made it past the prototype stage.

Interest in the line began to wane in 1986. What had initially attracted Kenner to the license—a deep bench of characters that would fuel years of comic book, television, and movie releases—wound up being problematic for consumers. While Superman and Batman were among the most recognizable people real or imagined on the planet, DC’s supplementary library was not. Kids passed up toys like Kalibak, Red Tornado, and Tyr; retailers cut orders. So Kenner turned their attention to a line of Real Ghostbusters figures based on the animated series.

DC would go on to feed a near-endless array of figures throughout the 1990s and beyond, fueled by the success of Tim Burton’s Batman films and their animated offerings. Toymakers realized it was better to offer endless iterations of the same popular hero than put an unfamiliar face like Firestorm on shelves.

Despite those fumbles, Super Powers was never destined to be a footnote. Thanks to García-López’s attractive art and the efforts of sculptors, collectors routinely chase original figures and swap stories about characters that never made it past the prototype stage. The biggest homage to the line may have come in 2014, when Mattel released a line of oversized figures in Super Powers packaging to commemorate the series’ 30th anniversary. Sandwiched between Superman and Batman was the Riddler—deliberately colored and styled to look like the repainted Green Lantern he originally was, mangled ring finger and all.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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When Topps Fought Terrorism with Trading Cards
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

On the morning of September 11, 2001, John Perillo looked out of his office window at 1 Whitehall Street in Manhattan and saw a plane flying at a dangerously low altitude. Almost instantly, his building began to shake. Seven blocks away, the plane had struck the World Trade Center.

It would be hours before Perillo and other New Yorkers were able to grasp the gravity of the situation. A terrorist attack on American soil stunned the world and created a widening panic and confusion before a kind of resolve set in. For Perillo, the vice president of operations at Topps Trading Card Company, and Topps CEO Arthur Shorin, it would become a time to memorialize the events of that day in the medium they understood best. Which is how Osama bin Laden came to have his own trading card.

Two kids sort through a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card set
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Although they were best known for sports cards, Garbage Pail Kids, and other entertainment properties, Topps had already recorded a significant history with real-world events. In 1950, they found success with a line of Korean War cards. More than a decade later, they memorialized the Civil War. A set reflecting on the life of John F. Kennedy following his assassination was released in 1964. In 1991, a line of cards depicting Operation: Desert Storm received endorsements from Colin Powell and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Within a week of the attack on the World Trade Center, Topps executives decided to pursue another—and substantially more controversial—line based on current events. Titled Enduring Freedom, the line featured 70 cards of figures like President George W. Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Governor George Pataki, and bin Laden. There would be cards of military vehicles and weapons; on the back were biographies of political figures and descriptions of the hardware. The goal, Shorin told the press, was to give kids information about the rising conflict in a format with which they were already familiar.

"Kids need to get information on their own terms," he said. "This is their medium."

While the plan came together quickly, the company largely avoided depictions that might upset children or their parents. One card featured a smoke-filled view of the transformed Manhattan skyline, but no pictures of the destruction or rubble were considered. In a departure from conventional card sets, no "chase" cards—or rare inserts that prompt consumers to buy more packs—would be involved. There was some internal debate about including bin Laden, but the company ultimately decided that kids might want the opportunity to defile his image by ripping it up. It's the only black and white card to appear in the set.

"We wouldn't be surprised if they tear, stomp all over it, and dump it in the garbage," Shorin said.

A photo of a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card wrapper
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Enduring Freedom was released in October 2001, which marked a rapid turnaround time for the card industry. (Sets typically take months to come together.) Hobby shops and larger retail outlets like Walmart accepted shipments of the 7-card product, which sold for $2 per pack, but not everyone was comfortable monetizing the tragedy. Stores in Chicago refused to carry the line, citing concern over appearing insensitive. (An unrelated 2002 card set by Chestnut Publications eulogizing victims of the 9/11 attacks, which was created with their families' permission, drew related headlines and accompanying criticism.)

In interviews, Shorin argued that the cards and their explanation of America's military would be comforting to children: Topps had consulted with child psychologists to make sure the content was age-appropriate. Though they were reticent to publicize it, the company was also donating a portion of proceeds to relief efforts. They even shipped 1 million cards to troops stationed overseas.

Ultimately, the notion of potentially trivializing the War on Terror never caught on. Topps never released a planned second wave that would feature high-tech military hardware, a likely result of the cards selling only modestly. As one store owner pointed out, it wasn't that the cards were offensive—it's just that kids were too preoccupied with Pokemon to bother.

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