The 80s Called To Say They Had the Best Action Figures
Hi, I’m calling from the EXTREME ’80s! Yeah, I’m at a pay phone so I can’t talk long ’cause I have to save my quarters for Pac-Man. You know, me and Hulk Hogan and Mr. T were just kicking back playing some Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo while listening to Prince’s Purple Rain CD when the Hulkster turned to me – after getting picked off by a turtle shell and losing his turn – and said “You know, this is probably the greatest decade for action figures ever.”
“Hmmm,” I opined nonchalantly as I slurped my Snapple and flipped through my binder of Garbage Pail Kids cards. He just might have a point. There was something about the 1980s that made it a focal point in history for pop culture. God knows, we still re-live so much of it today. There was a nexus of a booming global economy, more saturated media, and a wanton abandon in kids’ marketing. This last part was so crucial that concerned parents petitioned the FCC to ban cartoons that marketed toy product lines, estimating that “at least 73 product-based children’s programs” were on the air.
But what a bonanza of lasting franchises there were! So many product-based children’s programs would live on for decades to spawn endless sequels. It’s hard to know what to include. Let’s just start anywhere:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TMNT Classic Collection Figure 4pc Set
The quartet of juvenile martial-arts-trained amphibians seemed like they’d never catch on. Their name was too long, and they were a hugely transparent toy marketing gimmick. Check the timeline: Comic launch (1984 Mirage Studios), first action figures (1986 Dark Horse Miniatures), first TV series (1987). They were actually launched as a parody of popular comic titles at the time, and like all the most popular parodies, the irony flipped over into sincerity and the parody was gone before the first episode aired. That first comic is worth money now. But what’s really worth money is the uncomfortable squirming audience when Oprah Winfrey gave us one of the best televised moments ever:
In America, no Generation Xer can ever forget The Day The Smurfs Invaded. You see, they were a thriving little franchise over in Europe, more specifically Belgium. They were introduced in a comic called Johan and Peewit, first printed in 1946, which introduced the little blue freaks in a story arc in 1958, who then later got their own spin-off and immediately trumped the original work. There they festered for decades in European culture, so when they got exported westward in 1981, they just appeared! Everywhere at once! There were millions of them, all in clever little unique poses. No foreplay, no buildup, no ad campaign, just “This is your god now!” So here’s Papa Smurf, the only one you can tell apart except for the only girl Smurf.
And if you came here to hate on the Smurfs, watch this instead:
No, we didn’t have Funko Pops in the ’80s, but bet your bottom dollar we had He-Man! Launched in 1983, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a typical toys-first franchise that has endured to the present day, despite being a pretty obvious Conan the Barbarian rip-off. But all was forgiven when the greatest action playset of all time came out: Castle Grayskull! If you weren’t into He-Man, nay, even if you despised him, you still did everything in your power to get your hands on this masterpiece. You could always have Spider-Man fight the Green Goblin in it. Or make it the nightclub on Dagobah where Yoda goes to unwind. And if you think we’re going to stoop so low as to post the moldy old Four Non-Blondes video… nope, we’re taking the high road and posting the original commercial for Castle Grayskull instead. Bow and worship before its mighty mightiness!
Yeah, forgot all about this guy, didn’t you? Stephen Spielberg’s Gremlins came out in the banner pop culture year of 1984. While the good little mogwai, Gizmo, was cute and voiced by Howie Mandel, all the kids wanted Stripe. Stripe was the last name in menacing action figures guaranteed to scare the cookies out of grandma. He looks like a demon you’d summon after drinking too much Ecto Cooler. Speaking of drinking, we can’t let this pass without including the epic bar scene from the original film. We have a bartender being held hostage, forced to serve as a galley wench to drinking, smoking, and even flashing gremlins. You could show this to kids in the ’80s, because we were all going to ride home with no seatbelt or airbags and put each others’ eyes out with lawn darts anyway.
We mentioned Ecto-Cooler, so now we have to talk about Ghostbusters. The movie was the most hilarious thing anybody had ever seen up until then, but the marketing was beset on all sides with such skulduggery that to this day we’re still not sure who to trust. First came the rocking theme song, which immediately got slapped with a lawsuit from Huey Lewis and the News because it was a clear rip-off of their song “I Want A New Drug.” Then they were about to market the toys when – surprise! – Filmation, the Spam of studios, said they had a 1970s show called “Ghost Busters” that nobody cared about – but they would just flood the market with their own toy deal anyway. This forced the merch for the movie to brand itself “The REAL Ghostbusters,” which Filmation countered with a rushed-out cartoon rebranded as “The ORIGINAL Ghostbusters” until everything was lies, deception, and treachery. Lawsuits and counter-suits continued into the 2000s.
The funniest part: Ghostbusters star Dan Aykroyd was so traumatized by this legal fiasco that he set out (“As God is my witness!”) to write, direct, and star in a horror-comedy which would be so original that nobody could claim it was ripped-off. We don’t talk about it today because everybody is still in therapy. Even me. Sing along with copyright infringement:
NECA They Live: Aliens 8 Inch Retro Action Figure 2 Pack
It’s eerie how a budget indie flick with a Wrestlemania wrestler in the lead role can resonate for so many decades after. No sequels, no marketing, nothing, yet its cult status lives to this day. They Live is the poster child for New World Order Illuminati conspiracy theories today. Computer geeks, this one’s for you: What if I told you that one of the world’s most popular web browsers is tied to this movie through one of its original developers, the living geek legend JWZ (Jamie Zawinski)? And it also ties into Andre the Giant and Godzilla? JWZ has a story far greater than any I can tell, and tells it better than I can, so here’s the link, enjoy on your next rainy day when you’re up for a long read.
And now, here is the scene nobody will ever forget:
Transformers Toys Heroic Optimus Prime Action Figure – Timeless Large-Scale Figure, Changes into Toy Truck – Toys for Kids 6 and Up, 11-inch(Amazon Exclusive)
See, this is why cartoon toy marketing got such a free pass in the ’80s. They’re robots that turn into vehicles – you mean they’re just making this franchise to sell the toys? Well, duh! Frankly, we’d love it if modern day toy / media companies cared this much about their franchise. An “extraterrestrial species of sentient self-configuring modular robotic lifeforms” is actually enough to sell us a toy right there. In fact, many attempts were made at a robot toy line just before Transformers hit the market, but that is literally a book and a half of franchise history we’re not getting into here.
Maybe next time. You’ll just have to check back. You never know what we’ll come up with around here.
Well, time to go kids. I have to put Pee-Wee Herman to bed (his scandal won’t hit until the ’90s), rewind my Alf VHS, and find somewhere safe to bury this truckload of E.T. Atari 2600 cartridges somebody pawned off on me. Anybody know a good spot? Join us next time and remember – knowing is half the battle!