Action Figures of My Youth

In an early post on this blog, I wrote about how my brother and I would play “G.I.S.” when we were kids. In this edition I will be going into greater detail on some of the most memorable action figures from my formative years.

The Incredible Hulk Mego figure

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. This was one of the first action figures I had as a kid and I still have that very same one to this day, and he’s still miraculously in pretty good shape. The Hulk was my gateway drug into the world of superheroes and comic books due to my obsession with the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series as a toddler. I remember the drive home from Toys R Us the day I got this action figure, and I was probably only three years old. The Mego line of toys were bigger than most standard action figures of the day; at about 8 inches tall I thought it was awesome that Hulk towered over my other toys. Many fans are probably most familiar with the Mego figures from the off-color comic strips in Toyfare Magazine and their appearances on the Robot Chicken TV show.

Stinkor

Every boy who was born and raised in the early 1980s was into He-Man. This is an indisputable fact. The “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” cartoon was made literally just to sell the toys (check out “The Toys That Made Us” on Netflix), and it did its job remarkably well. Having said that, the toy line was pretty innovative, and kept coming up with new gimmicks that really had not been done before. There was Thunder Punch He-Man, a figure where you could put cap gun caps into a pack on his back and he would do a super-loud explosion punch. There was Leech Man, who had a suction cup mouth that could stick to walls and windows. There was Modulok, a figure with two heads and four arms and legs that you could take apart and put together in many different ways. But the one that took the cake for me was Stinkor. He was a humanoid skunk with stink power, and the figure actually stunk. Who knows what Mattel doused this thing with to make it smell like that but it had a very distinct, unpleasant odor. I do still have this figure as well, and, while the smell has certainly worn off over the decades, if you hold it right up to your nose and sniff really hard (if you are so inclined), you can still catch a faint whiff of Stinkor’s original odor. Awesome.
 

The Super Powers Clark Kent Mail-In Figure

In 1985, the action figures in the DC Super Powers toyline had a special promotion. For five proofs-of-purchase, you could send away for a special Clark Kent figure! This was so exciting to me, because I was fascinated with all of the heroes’ secret identities, and thought the changing-back-and-forth dynamic of all of them was so interesting. With each trip to the store I’d talk my parents into buying me another Super Powers figure, counting down how many more we needed to have the precious five UPCs. Many of these characters looked cool but I honestly had no idea who they were at the time. Firestorm. Dr. Fate. Martian Manhunter. Red Tornado. Darkseid. It’s almost like the figures themselves were a bonus. I was getting one step closer to Clark Kent, and that proof-of-purchase just so happened to come with a cool action figure. Once we finally sent them in, the 10 to 14 week turnaround time seemed interminable to a little kid.

When the Clark Kent figure finally arrived, it just came loose in a small white shipping box. I remember being surprised that he wasn’t on a cardboard-backed blister pack like the action figures at the store (although I obviously didn’t know that terminology). He was so cool! I was so excited and happy to get him. It was kind of ironic that out of a bunch of colorful figures in masks, capes, and costumes, the one that was the most special to me was a guy in a suit and tie and glasses.

One day, my mom and I were going to take my baby sister for a walk around the block in her stroller. I wanted to bring some of my action figures. My mom, sensibly, said no – that I would get tired of playing with them / carrying them halfway through the walk, and that I might lose them. I insisted that that would not happen, and said I would not go for the walk unless I could bring my toys. We went back and forth for a while but my mom finally relented, and said I could bring them but that I was responsible for them. I grabbed Skeletor, Jitsu, Superman, and Clark Kent.

Well, you can guess what happened next. About halfway through the walk, I realized that my vision of playing a game with the figures while we walked did not work as well as I’d thought, and I got tired of carrying them. I put them in the little basket at the bottom of my sister’s stroller.

When we got home, Skeletor was still there. Jitsu was still there. Superman was still there. Clark Kent was gone. He must have fallen out of the basket at some point.

We took more walks around the block that afternoon than I’d taken in my life, retracing our steps again and again looking for Clark Kent. He was nowhere to be seen. Some other kid must have found him and scooped him up. Some other kid, who didn’t have to save up five proofs of purchase, had gotten the coolest figure of all time just by snatching him off the sidewalk.

I was crestfallen. I was mad at myself for not listening to my mom. (Mom, if you’re reading this, I admit I should have listened to you.)

I told my parents, “We need to buy five more figures so we can send away for another one!” (Funny how it becomes “we” in situations like that, right? Like this was a suggestion that would benefit the whole family.) My parents, gently but firmly, said no, we cannot do that. That those figures were not cheap, and that they were not going to buy five more just to replace the figure I had lost because I did not listen. I honestly had no argument back. My mom had told me that this was exactly what would happen. And now my most precious action figure of all was gone. It was a hard lesson to learn.

It would not be until two decades later, at a comic book convention in Chicago in 2004, that I found a Clark Kent figure for sale from a collector at a toy booth. I bought it immediately. Today, Clark stands on my home office desk, next to my work computer, where I see him every day. And he’s still the coolest.

Spider-Man and Black Costume Spider-Man

In the early 1980s, Marvel Comics did an epic year-long storyline called Secret Wars which featured all of their major characters. Of course, this was a great opportunity to do a tie-in toyline. I had Spider-Man in his classic red-and-blue costume, Doctor Octopus (whose tentacles all promptly broke off), Captain America, and Magneto (more on him in a moment), who were all part of the first wave of toys.

Then one day at pre-school, a kid named James brought in something for show and tell that nearly made my head explode. A black-costumed Spider-Man. What was this?? How and why did it exist? I had no idea that in the comic book event Spider-Man had just acquired a sentient symbiote black costume, and that this version had just been released as part of a new, second wave of figures. All I knew was that James had a different Spider-Man than me. As soon as I got home that day I begged my parents to get me this new Spider-Man. (This post has a lot of me begging my parents to buy me things, I am now realizing.) Long story short, a couple of weeks later I brought in the red-and-blue AND black costume Spider-Man figures for show and tell, to make sure everyone knew that there were two different ones. (And that I had them both!)

Magneto

Speaking of the Magneto figure from the Secret Wars toy line… the master of magnetism apparently survived the fight with The Beyonder only to suffer some severe battle damage many years later due to a run-in with a light fixture. One day I came home from school to find my little brother playing G.I.S. with my dad, and as part of the plot of that particular adventure they had tied Magneto to the chandelier in the dining room. Upon taking him down, we noticed that part of his left leg had melted. (See picture above.) I was pretty mad that this figure I’d had since preschool was now messed up. To make it up to me though, my brother somehow managed to find another Magneto, in mint condition, and give it to me for Christmas. I had already gotten over my annoyance about it by then, but, the fact that he took the time and trouble to track down a new one for me meant a lot. Plus, the fact that we now had two Magnetos, one with battle damage and one without, opened up tons of new story possibilities!

Templeton (a.k.a. Splinter)

This figure is, of course, Master Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line. But, in G.I.S., my brother and I repurposed him as Templeton, a rude, crude version of the character from the beloved classic “Charlotte’s Web.” Templeton contributed lots of toilet humor and inappropriate comments to our action figure games. Apologies to the TMNT’s wise old sensei, but I will always think of this figure as Templeton.

Dupp De Dupp (a.k.a. Dick Tracy)

I don’t have much to say about this one other than we had a Dick Tracy action figure for some reason, even though we had never seen the movie and barely knew who Dick Tracy was. My brother decided his name was Dupp De Dupp. He became a cop/detective character in our G.I.S. games who helped out the superheroes, or, as would frequently happen, try to arrest them due to some misunderstanding. If you can imagine a cross between Chief O’Hara from the 1960s Batman, and Detective Bullock from Batman The Animated Series, that was basically this character.

Charles (a.k.a. Ryu)

This is another example of a figure that took on a completely different persona than was originally intended. For some reason in our G.I.S. games, we pretended that Ryu was Charles from the TV series “Charles in Charge.” This may have been prompted by the fact that I had a CD of TV show theme songs, and we would play the Charles in Charge theme song whenever he appeared. I don’t remember for sure if wanting to use that character prompted us to play the theme, or having access to the theme prompted us to use the character – it’s a real chicken or the egg situation. In any event, we eventually killed off Charles in one episode, and played the theme once more as he floated up to Heaven. It became a running joke after that; any time a character died in G.I.S., we would play the Charles in Charge theme song.

Alfred (a.k.a. Dr. Smith)

Continuing the many examples of figures that my brother and I would re-purpose in our action figure adventures, we had a figure of Dr. Smith from the “Lost in Space” movie that we pretended was Alfred the butler. Kind of ironic that this figure was based on Gary Oldman, who would go on to have a prominent role in the Batman mythology as Commissioner Gordon. In our version, Alfred probably owed more to Geoffrey the Butler from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” – he was very sarcastic and would throw wild parties at Wayne Manor whenever Master Bruce was away.

Austin Powers in his Underwear

In the late 1990s, Austin Powers was all the rage, and McFarlane Toys put out some very detailed action figures that came with stands that played sound clips from the movies. Many of them were sold at Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Target, all the usual places you would buy toys of this nature, but there were a few that were harder to find. Some of the figures like Fat Bastard and the Austin-in-his-Underwear figure were considered too risque for those family friendly stores, so you could only find them in stores like Spencer Gifts and Record Town. Because they were seen as rare, those figures tended to disappear pretty quickly from the shelves.

In the summer of 1999, my family and I were visiting my grandparents (Mema and Pepa) in Atlanta. We went to a toy and collectibles show while we were there, and I happened to find the Austin-in-his-Underwear figure, and I bought it. When we got back to Mema and Pepa’s house, I went up to Pepa’s office, which was where my brother and I were staying. I opened up the figure and put it on the stand it came with, and then just absent-mindedly set it on Pepa’s bookshelf for the time being.

Later that afternoon, my cousin Nick stopped over to the house to visit us. He came into Pepa’s office, took one look at the figure, and his jaw dropped. “Why does Pepa have THAT?!” he exclaimed in a mix of horror and disbelief. I practically fell on the floor laughing. Nick’s reaction at the thought of Pepa being a die-hard Austin Powers fan who was proudly displaying the figure of Austin in his underpants was too much to take. I could hardly stop laughing long enough to tell him it was mine. I wish I’d been able to play it out longer and make him keep thinking it was Pepa’s. Smashing, baby!

The World Of G.I.S.

I was going to write a blog post about games that my siblings and I used to play when we were kids.  But, I have a lot to say about this one so it wound up getting its own edition.

When we were kids growing up, three letters – G.I.S. – meant that you would not see me or my younger brother for the rest of the afternoon.  It meant we were about to haul the three overflowing storage bins chock full of action figures out from under our bunk beds and disappear into a world heroes, villains, and epic battles for the fate of the universe that would last at least until dinnertime. 

The name came from something my brother said.  We originally called it “playing guys.”  Then one day my brother, trying to be clever and spell it out, said, “Hey Russ, wanna play G… I… S?”  The name instantly stuck, and “playing guys” had now been re-christened “playing G.I.S.”

The mish-mash of characters in those bins allowed us to create a strange shared universe where Superman and Batman could join forces with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where Spider-Man could be found web-slinging alongside the Thundercats, where He-Man could become a member of the Justice League.  And if there was a character we wanted to include that we didn’t have, we improvised – like when Dr. Smith from the Lost In Space toy line subbed in for Alfred the butler.  We even had some figures that we had no idea who they were, so we re-imagined them as new characters that we made up, or sometimes pretended it was one of our real-life friends, neighbors, or family members who apparently also existed in the G.I.S. universe.

The best games though were when my dad would join us for a game. Dad, no doubt exhausted from working late night shifts on the assembly line, could still be persuaded to join his sons for a game of action figures on the floor of our small bedroom on a Saturday afternoon.  Although if Dad was laying on the floor and the scene suddenly shifted to a life-or-death battle atop my brother’s dresser, Dad would just hold up his figure and say “Just pretend I’m up there,” which would cause my brother to fly into a fit of rage.

Dad introduced probably the most memorable character into the G.I.S. universe when he re-dubbed the Splinter figure from Ninja Turtles as Templeton, a ruder, cruder version of the rat from Charlotte’s Web.  Templeton became a staple of all G.I.S. games going forward.

The plots from each game would usually continue.  If Batman quit the Justice League one week, he would still be off the team when we played again.  If last week’s game ended with the Joker going to jail, he would need to bust out before he could plague Gotham again.  But every once in awhile a curve would come out of nowhere that just did not jibe with what we’d established before – usually a major character dying and/or coming back to life – which would prompt my brother to say, “Pretend this is an unaired pilot.”  I have no idea where he picked that terminology up, and I burst out laughing the first time he said it.  But I knew what he meant.  The rules are out the window for this one, anything can happen and we’ll just ignore it next week.  Hollywood “reboots” things all the time now, we were doing it in the mid-90s. 

There were some strange events in those games.  One time we used a Ryu figure from Street Fighter as Charles from “Charles In Charge.”  We killed him off, and played the “Charles In Charge” theme as he floated up to Heaven (I had a CD full of TV show theme songs).  In homage to that moment, any time a character was killed off after that we played the “Charles In Charge” theme.  In another episode, Templeton got really bad diarrhea and flooded the toilets in Wayne Manor (I don’t think my dad was in on that game, Josh and I had taken the character to new lows at that point).  There are actually a handful of G.I.S. videos that we made that survived to this day – one where Batman and Robin fight the Oreo Cookie Man, and one where the Kingpin of Crime flushes Spider-Man down a giant toilet (a lot of toilet humor in those days, what can I say). 

Those action figure bins are all in my parents’ basement now. On Thanksgiving my dad and I took my 17-month-old son, Dominic, downstairs to run around.  I got out one of the bins of action figures just for fun, and started showing them to him.  He was especially interested in Spider-Man (not the one that we threw in the toilet, at least I don’t think so) and the Flash.  And it made me think about all the games I will play with him someday. 

In just a few days, my brother will welcome his firstborn son into the world as well.  I look forward to the day that Dominic and his cousin can haul a box of toys out and escape into a world of imagination.  Maybe they will ask their dads to join in, and Josh and I can return to the world of G.I.S. with them, although now we’ll be the ones saying “Just pretend we’re up there” when the action shifts locations a bit too quickly.  I can’t wait to watch our kids create their own stories, their own universes.  I can’t wait to see what their imaginations come up with.  And I can’t wait for the moment that Dominic says (most likely not in these exact words), “Dad, pretend this is an unaired pilot.”  The rules are off this time, anything goes.