Procrastinators in need of a gift for pop-culture purists of any age need look no further. Here are Zadzooks' best ideas for the holiday season, featuring products based on famed comic-book and movie universes.
For younger fans
* The Dark Knight Battle Station Playset (Mattel, ages 5 and older, $39.99) - Shaped like the latest film version of the Batmobile, this multifunctional play set unfolds to give 4-inch figures three playgrounds. With the flick of a few panels, the vehicle transforms into the side of a Gotham City skyscraper, a bank vault and a rooftop. Junior Bat fans get extra play potential with a spin pole, breakaway billboard and missile launcher that pops up with the press of a button. Highlights for parents abound as the smartly designed set is already assembled, the few loose pieces attach inside it for easy storage, stickers are all in place and - hold onto your cowls - the package includes Batman and Joker (not as scary as the Heath Ledger version) figurines.
* Smashin' Stompin' Hulk (Hasbro, ages 4 and older, includes three AAA batteries, $26.99).-This 11-inch-tall, hard plastic comic-book version of the Green Goliath comes to life with a squeeze of his legs. His fists immediately rise to the heavens and crash down when the legs are released. His eyes glow green, he growls, and sound effects signal his powerful smash. Poke him in the solar plexus, and he offers a pair of signature phrases: "Hulk smash" and, "You're making me angry. You won't like me when I'm angry," along with more screams of rage. The figure has surprisingly articulated arms and is rugged enough for the junior weapon of mass destruction in the family.
* The Lost Temple of Akator Playset (Hasbro, ages 4 and older, $39.99).-Based on "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," this set might look awfully familiar to serious action-figure fans. Hasbro cheated a bit, as the design steals liberally from its Star Wars Mustafar Final Duel Playset from a few years ago. However, the temple holds plenty of play value with a hidden staircase, rolling boulders, a quicksand trap, a shattering temple door and tree for Indy to use his whip swing. In a trend I really like, it includes a pair of figures - a classic Indy and Ugha warrior - so children can get into the action immediately.
* Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (Midway, for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, rated T for teen, $59.99) - Twenty-two legendary video-gaming and comic-book characters collide in this third-person fighter overflowing with slick visuals and blood. Rugged dream contests between the Joker and Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, and Sonya Blade and a scantily clad Catwoman keep testosterone levels off the charts. A player can follow a story line from either universe, engage in chosen battles or go online to challenge the world of their pop-culture gladiator. It's not as graphic as other Mortal Kombat games, but it still packs a violent punch.
* Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, rated T for teen, $59.99) -Marvel Comics' web slinger stars in another epic third-person adventure game as he saves New York from a symbiote invasion. An all-star cast of co-stars led by such pulp-page favorites as Mary Jane Watson, Kingpin, Wolverine, Luke Cage and Moon Knight help tell a great story filled with action and moral choices. Our hero has plenty of power moves and webbing thanks to a choice of both costumes (black and the traditional red and blue) as he attacks Venom and his minions. The game is a welcome homage to Spider-Man's comic-book roots.
* Lego Batman: The Videogame (for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $59.99). Enter the world of DC Comics' Dark Knight through the ultimate constructible tribute. Mayhem in Gotham City leads to 30 missions split between heroes and villains. Each assignment offers such eclectic playable characters as Nightwing, Harley Quinn, Batgirl, Mr. Freeze and, of course, the stars Batman and the Joker, along with plenty of collecting and building in the Lego tradition. A well-designed cooperative mode is a fantastic opportunity for younger fans to bond with parents.
For serious readers
* Watchmen (DC Comics, $39.99) - Soon to be a movie, this groundbreaking 12-part comic-book limited series from 1986 is back, reprinted in a hardcover format. Readers are introduced to writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' deconstruction of the superhero genre of comics. It's mandatory reading for any mature reader professing to be a sequential-art fan.
* Comic Book Tattoo: Special Edition (Image Comics, $75) - Some of the best modern comic writers and illustrators have translated multiplatinum recording artist Tori Amos' song lyrics into sequential art. Fifty stories packed into a slipcased, hardbound book the size of a record album - remember those? - offer visions from creators including David Mack, Colleen Doran, Lea Hernandez and Ted McKeever.
* DC Vault: A Museum in a Book (Running Press, $49.95) - Sequential-art lovers explore critical parts of DC Comics' history from the 1930s through today with this dense spiral-bound hardcover book filled with memorabilia reproductions. I gushed last year about the Marvel Vault, and this ode to the home of Batman is as potent. Writer Martin Pascal's succinct look at DC is interwoven among gorgeous color illustrations and photos of heroes and villains. The 192 pages almost become secondary to the treasure trove of stuff. Eyes will gloss over as collectors hold a Junior Justice Society of America Decoder (from 1942), downsized printer proofs of the Superman Buddy Booklet (originally packaged with a costume in 1954) or a history of the DC Comics Universe poster displaying dozens of creators' styles (from 1987). All told, about 20 pieces of hard-copy pop culture reside in this book, turning it more into an experience than simple comics history monograph.
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