Monday, February 7, 2011

Who Needs A Good Bif!Bang!Pow!?

Just in the last year or so we have seen an amazing resurgence of MEGO-inspired action figures. All of a sudden we’ve got Universal Monsters, The Real Ghostbusters, The Venture Bros. and now even the very first American produced line of Doctor Who toys (coming later this year from Bif!Bang!Pow!). These 8” scale figures with cloth outfits and classic blister cards fire up the nostalgia in thirty-somethings like no other toy can. 

Plus, in a market where 6” scale figures now cost an average of fifteen bucks apiece (sometimes more) paying twenty bucks (the going rate for most of the figures, sometimes less) for a larger, clothed figure is an unbelievable deal.

Despite the fact that several different companies are producing these MEGO-style figures, they are all using MEGO as a template. Mattel, Diamond Select, Bif!Bang!Pow! and probably others I’m not thinking of are all making toys that blend together as a collection. This is a crucial element of this style of action figure; due to the fact that a large part of MEGO’s charm was the broad mix of licenses. Marvel, DC Comics, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Dukes of Hazzard and more could all play together thanks to the 70’s-era toy giant. If you’re old enough to remember Lionel Playworld, you probably recall the MEGO wall. An entire half an aisle devoted solely to MEGO figures. I still vividly recall about fifty The Thing figures lingering on clearance for years after the World’s Greatest Superheroes line died. I sure wish I’d bought ‘em.

So after Star Wars, Masters of the Universe and GI Joe successfully killed off the larger scale figures in the early 80’s; what could have possibly brought the simultaneously more complex and more simplistic 8” figures back?

In my opinion, it was thanks to the now defunct ToyFare magazine and a man named Charlie Flatt.

Toy Fare magazine started publication however many years ago (fifteen or sixteen, I’m thinking – didn’t the first seasonal special come out in Fall of ’96?) and one of its most popular features was Twisted MEGO Theater, which was basically a comic strip that utilized MEGOs – both original and custom – rather than illustrations. The humor was sharp and just a shade below dirty and the strip is easily the best thing ever to come out of Wizard Publications. Over the years Twisted MEGO Theater changed to Twisted ToyFare Theater and basically birthed the successful [adult swim] franchise; Robot Chicken. Not a bad legacy.

But it doesn’t end there. Not only did ToyFare stoke the toy collecting fires of the late 90’s, it also sparked the resurgence of said MEGOs. At least a small poriotn of the credit for today’s MEGO-style revival is due to one man – Charlie Flatt. Back in the day, Flatt was a freelance toy customizer who did a lot of work for ToyFare. But where he really set things off was with the introduction of Flatt World Productions, his self-started toy company. Flatt World released high-quality MEGO-style figures at a premium price. As far as I know, the company’s only releases were licensed figures of Bela Lugosi as Dracula and classic comic strip character The Phantom. I have the Dracula figure and it is one of my favorite toys. 

The quality is outstanding. I can’t honestly say it was worth the price at the time – costing the same as a Hot Toys release would now – and that’s probably what killed the company. Few toy collectors would be willing to drop $150 on a single 8” figure in 1997. I got mine on super clearance when I worked at Hot Topic. I think I paid twenty-five bucks for it and I balked at that. How times have changed. I wish I had bought both of the figures we had left.

But anyway, Flatt made tons of amazing customs and even managed to get two of his creations to retail. Not too shabby.

Very shortly after Flatt’s toys hit the market (or possibly even before – I’m not positive), Toy Biz revealed a brand new line of Marvel Comics action figures in a nine-inch scale, complete with cloth costumes. I believe the line was called Marvel Famous Covers and it was fantastic. I still have a shelf full of them and it is one of the few lines from the era that I just can’t bring myself to pack away. The Green Goblin from that line is still my favorite action figure version of that character.

Toy Biz’s Famous Covers lasted long enough to produce a huge assortment of characters, from heavy-hitters like Spider-Man and Captain America to guys like Red Falcon and Mr. Sinister. The figures sported significantly beefier (or in the case of the women, more voluptuous) bodies than the old MEGOs had, but with the same articulation. The costumes were also a better quality, made of stretchy spandex that looked like the comic books as opposed to the loose, baggy MEGO clothing. Rather than the vinyl mittens the MEGO figures sported, Toy Biz sculpted gloves or colored hands. Granted, the giant, rubber fists that a lot of the figures sported looked almost as silly as the mittens, but it was still progress.

Side Note: I had a pretty good number of MEGOs when I was a kid. I had Batman and Robin and a Batmobile. I definitely had Spidey. But my clearest memory is of returning home from a trip to my grandparents’ and being sure I had left Superman’s gloves there. My mom called and asked Granny Troublemaker to look around for them – nothing. Then Mom – who obviously knows nothing about superheroes – realized that Superman doesn’t have gloves. But she absolutely could not convince me of this. I kept showing her the Dynamic Duo and their vinyl oven mitts and insisting that Superman must have some, as well. It wasn’t until years later – reading ToyFare, in fact – that I recalled this little tale and phoned my mother to apologize. She didn’t even remember it. I was probably three or four when the Supermitten incident happened. I know it was before we moved to Georgia.

Anyway, Famous Covers eventually ended its run the same way so many other late 90’s toy franchises did – as closeout exclusives at K*B Toys. A few new ones still rolled out – notably the Spider-Man/Spider-Woman sets, which came in regular colors and black variants – but for the most part the line died at K*B.

Shortly before Famous Covers met its demise, Kenner rolled out a line of – guess what? – 9” scale DC Comics figures with cloth costumes! I believe the initial offerings were Aquaman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and Green Arrow; available only through the Direct Market. I got mine at Electronics Boutique (I passed on Aquaman, though). These were much higher quality figures than the Famous Covers, with more complex glove and boot designs (that didn’t look stupid) and sturdier construction. If memory serves they cost a bit more, too. I think the Famous Covers ran about fifteen bucks apiece while DC’s versions might have been twenty or even more.

Apparently that first wave of second-string DC characters was moderately successful, because Target picked up a line of exclusives. I don’t remember everything that was released, but I know there was a Bruce Wayne/Batman set, a Clark Kent/Superman set, a Joker and a Penguin. I’m sure there were more, but I think their price points kept me from collecting. I didn’t even buy the Batman, so that should tell you something. I think his head might have looked kind of stupid, though.

The DC (All-Stars I think it was called) line died out shortly after it began and that was the last we would see of MEGO inspired action figures for a while.

Except that I just remembered that Playmates did several Star Trek figures in that scale (though they were also bulkier than the MEGOs). I have no idea when they came out. I have a Kirk at home, that’s what jogged my memory.

About five or six years ago, Previews offered new action figures that were a more direct derivative of the MEGO line. This is where things get a little foggy for me, because I never bought any of these, I just remember seeing them offered. I believe this was the company that got started by one of the original MEGO fellows; and might even be the company that evolved into Bif!Bang!Pow! by way of creating products for Diamond Select.

I seem to remember the company (whose name I am going to have to look up - Classic TV Toys, it turns out) simply bombed the market with an astonishing amount of product, seemingly all at once. They released licensed figures of The Munsters and Happy Days; and unlicensed versions of the Universal Monsters. The company also produced pirates and the scariest clowns you have ever seen in your life.
All of these were only available through the direct market, but they must have been a success, because the next step was Diamond Select Toys releasing probably the best Star Trek toys ever. And they are basically just reproductions of the MEGO Star Trek line.

DST has released all of the main crew and even a playset just like the old MEGO carry case/playsets – vinyl construction with cardboard inserts with scenes printed on them. It is a phenomenal line and what I think truly brought in the wave of 8” figures we are seeing today. DST has also produced a Planet of the Apes line.

Now we have a veritable smorgasbord of 8” cloth-costumed figures available. The Dude, Pavel Chekov, Brock Samson and Scott Ian(!) can all hang out and solve mysteries together. Egon Spengler and The Doctor will soon be able to pick Batman up and travel back in time with Charlton Heston (just imagine a huge, vinyl TARDIS playset!).

The different manufacturers of these lines are doing an amazing job of keeping their figures on-spec with the MEGOs, right down to the packaging all looking like it comes from the same company. If you don’t look closely you’d never know that The Venture Bros., Star Trek and Real Ghostbusters lines were produced by three competitors. My only problem is that the packaging looks so darn nice and evokes such strong nostalgia that I don’t want to open it. I’ve got the Ventures hanging on a wall with The Dude and Scott Ian. The Real Ghostbusters are currently in a neat stack nearby. I just can’t bring myself to tear up those beautiful blister cards.

So with DC Comics, The Venture Bros., Big Lebowski, Real Ghostbusters, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Flash Gordon and more all currently available; which other licenses might benefit from the MEGO treatment? Not just anything can live up to the cool factor required to successfully pull of that style.

Now, after what is officially the longest intro I have ever written (2600 words), here’s the article:

9 – The Expendables
This one might run into some licensing problems, but I still think it would be a great idea. Stallone, Statham, Li, Lundgren; all depicted as 8” murder machines with tons of accessories.
8 - The Princess Bride
Yeah, somebody made a figure of Wesley. But what about the rest of the outstanding cast?
7 - The Walking Dead
Kirkman and Darabont’s baby (because let’s be honest – Darabont is almost as responsible for the success at this point as Kirkman) presents not only a large cast of human characters with tons of accessory options, but also a literally unlimited variety of zombies. Repaints and retoolings would be very easy for this line and vehicles and playsets would be practically unnecessary.
6 – Star Crash
Yes, it’s just one movie that a lot of people have never even heard of, but it fits the MEGO aesthetic perfectly. And at the very least we should be able to get David Hasselhoff and a few Caroline Munro variants out of it.
5 – The John Carpenter Collection
Big Trouble in Little China. They Live. The Thing. Vampires starring Jon Bon Jovi. Halloween. The Fog. Just put all of Carpenter’s great horror flicks (which does not include Ghosts of Mars) under one banner and give me some Kurt Russells.
4 – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
The sequel may not ever happen, but I still badly want toys of Ron and the rest of the Channel 6 News Team. Here’s the lineup as I see it:
Ron Burgundy with scotch glass and flute
Brian Fantana with microphone and Sex Panther
Brick Tamland with lamp and pitchfork
"Champ" Kind with cowboy hat and “whistle” feature
Veronica Corningstone with microphone and purse
SDCC Convention Exclusive Ron Burgundy in bathing suit with bathrobe and Baxter
3 - Firefly
I think this would be the perfect scale to finally realize Firefly action figures. It’s marketed to collectors, so sales expectations would not be through the roof. The characters are all human, so all you need are head sculpts. A Serenity playset would be easy enough. All that need to be represented are the bridge and the cargo bay. If the line did well enough crew quarters and the sick bay could probably all be made from the same sets. They could even sell one set with different inserts and then separate accessory sets to complete them. Or include the accessories with the figures. Doesn’t matter to me – I just want Firefly figures. If you want to get really crazy, when the line takes off (yeah, right) a set could be made of Niska's torture chamber.

2 – Hammer Horror
Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster; not to mention The Reptile, Quartermass, countless vampire variations and – my personal favorite – Captain Kronos. All gruesome horror movie icons with a crazy, 60’s sensibility. Guys – toys from Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Seriously.

1 – James Bond
One of the greatest media properties of all time has never really had a proper toy line. Sure, there were some Micro Machines, a Sideshow line and the Godawful James Bond, Jr. but Bond has never had a true line of action figures. And that is completely fucking insane.
Somebody should have snagged that license while MGM was at rock-bottom, back when they thought there wasn’t going to be a new movie. I bet it would have gone for cheap. But either way, it needs to happen and this is the scale it needs to happen in. 
Just imagine all the fantastic characters from the Bond mythos that could be made – Jaws, Odd Job, Scaramanga, Blofeld, all the ladies. And of course, we’d have to have Christopher Walken’s character, Max Zorin from A View To A Kill. Hell, we might even need a special Duran Duran set! Yeah, likenesses might be an issue, but if Mattel can sign Bill Murray and Rick Moranis, I’m confident anything can happen.
Plus, at this size we could actually get some really cool vehicles, like the gyro-copter and the jetpack. 
Maybe even an Aston Martin!

And just for shits and giggles, here’s a quick list of random other personalities I think deserve the MEGO treatment, a la Scott Ian:
Neil Diamond
Tiny Tim
Conan O’Brien (with SDCC exclusive Flaming C variant)
MF Doom
Gary Busey (with voice chip)
Biz Markie
The Beastie Boys (I know they got 12” figures when Hello Nasty came out, but those were a limited edition of like, 10 sets that sold for eleventy billion dollars each)
GWAR (who have been slated for action figure treatment two times now that I can remember but the companies have folded)
King Diamond (he could actually be a whole line)
Henry Rollins
Glenn Danzig (his 8” figure would be in scale with the 12” Misfits figures that Ultimate Soldier produced!)
Mike Patton
I could go on and on. But that’ll do for now.


Until next time, stay creepy
-Phantom

8 comments:

  1. Nice article. The DC line with Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Aquaman, RC Batman, Superman, and Martian Manhunter was put out by Hasbro. Hasbro also went on to do the Marvel Signature Series figures, which was also a Target exclusive. You have those figures pictured on your shelf as well (Wolverine, Doc Ock,and Spidey from what I can see).

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  2. Thanks for the correction on the All-Stars. I knew Wolvie, Spidey and Doc were from a different line, but there were so few releases that I could recall that I didn't feel like delving into it. I was definitely at full ramble by about halfway through the article.

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  3. The Marvel Signature Series was not a Target exclusive, it was also at TRU and Walmart. The full line was Spidey (regular, , Iron Spidey and black suit) Wolverine, Captain America, Green Goblin, Doc Ock, Daredevil. Then there were Punisher, Ditko Spidey, and Sandman Target Exclusives. Mr. Fantastic was to be Target, too but got clearanced out at KayBee's

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  4. TBolt - nice one. I've got a Cyclops, too. Can't remember where he came from. I remember that crazy Iron Spider now, too.

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  5. Sadly, your oversight of Doc Mego's contributions to the industry is a glaring omission and worth an update for. He rivals Flatt in many, many ways.

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  6. Phantom,

    CTVT was an early competitor for Dr. Mego. They originally were Wrestling themed merchandizers including some wrestling figures. However their intentions seemed to be to put Dr. Mego out of business by carrying virtually every item he carried. The thing is though they copied the Type 2 Mego body they screwed up on the scale and their bodies are slightly smaller. They're also not as high quality as Dr. Mego's. The plastic they use seems to be inferior and in some cases they even fall apart. You can see them broken in the packages before they've even been opened. A lot of the heads are inconsistent in size; some are too small and some are too large. CTVT were slow to respond to these quality issues and while some of their product was corrected-not all of it was. Add to that they put out figures that weren't popular like The Munsters, Happy Days, The Brady Bunch and Married With Children. SPACE:1999 was quite good but again suffered from the poor plastic bodies. That's why their prices are so low and they sell their items at great discount on eBay. Some of their accessory items have been a boon to customizers.

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  7. johnmiic -
    FANTASTIC comment! This is the sort of thing I love. If I had a prize system I'd send you one.
    I started this blog for two reasons: 1) To maintain my awareness and fight off boredom at a job that consists of 12 hour shifts of repetitive, low-activity work. 2) As a way to jog my memory and stimulate the ol' thought processes. When my son was born I realized I had had a whole lot of life experiences - a lot of things that I hadn't thought about in years. I want to be able to share my knowledge with him. Granted, I'm not going to be teaching him about Megos (why all the capitalization up there? I dunno...) and Star Wars necessarily, but just pulling together the memories to create these articles has helped knock the cobwebs out and brought forth all kinds of interesting memories. In short - my brain works better now.
    I'm not going to lie - I LOVE the idea that people out there are reading what I write. But what I write is more about my own personal experiences and takes on things. Before today, I was completely unaware of DR. Mego. Therefore, he played no part in my personal story of the resurgence of the style. However - I LOVE that somebody took the time to add the info down here. I left the comments open to everybody for a reason. This may not be Wikipedia, but anybody who wants to add something should feel free to. Even if it's mean or nasty, if it's your opinion, share it. Just be prepared for me to respond in kind!
    Oh, and as far as updating or checking things when I am posting; I post at home when the wife and son are asleep. Any other time I have I like to spend with them, so the articles go up pretty much as I wrote them. It already takes too much time to hunt down pictures (or take them) with the other stuff I have going on. So like I said, if I'm wrong or missing something - TELL ME!
    Guys - I love the input, positive or negative. Keep coming back for more if you want. I'm not going anywhere for a long time. Check me out on Facebook if you want more in-depth exchanges. I'll friend anybody who can bring some knowledge to my game!
    http://www.facebook.com/home.php?

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  8. Oops -
    http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/PHANT0MTR0UBLEMAKER

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