Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Sordid Tale of Action Figures

--Editor's Note: A big welcome to Luke Jones, the newest author for Hobson's Buffet! *applause* Luke is a fellow Harding-ite and an English major, so maybe he'll help our post average a bit. I know he'll at least have some interesting things to say.--

I'm going to be honest. I was asked to make this post over a month ago. My excuses are: Flying South for the Winter; Using an Off-Brand Controller; the Tunguska Event.

Now that that's out of the way, let's cut to the chase. I'm here to talk about action figures. Specifically, the best action figures, the ones that came out of the '80s. More specifically, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and The Transformers. I grew up with these guys. By the time I was coherent, though, it was already the '90s, which were not kind to these humble toy lines. Eventually, they crumbled, bowing to the more visceral forces of Nikelodeon, TMNT, and other slime and mucus-charged properties. Later they returned triumphantly, but that's another tale.

Before this defeat, GI Joe and Transformers languished in the hard-rocking '80s, often meeting each other halfway in both comics and cartoons. Poor Bumblebee was actually mistakenly blowed up by the Joes at least once. Cobra helped rebuild Megatron once, and much later on, the two groups actually met in the middle of WWII.

But did you know that these iconic '80s toy lines are tied up in each others' origins?

Get this. So my Dad grew up playing with the original '60s GI Joes, the ones that were 12-inch military replicas. Back in those days, mothers were still calling action figures "dolls." But Japan, because they can be awesome, knew they were more than just dolls. So in the '70s, they licensed the basic body of old Joe, and turned him into an awesome robot dude! Like I said, Japan can be awesome.

But Japan is only like 12 feet long, so that space didn't allow for too many 12-inch robot dudes for kids to play with. This necessitated the downsizing of big 'ol Henshin Cyborg to the 10cm short "Microman." His small size allowed for extra extravagance in the realm of vehicles and whatnot. Microman flourished! His line was successfully brought to the US in the '70s by Mego under the name of "Micronauts."

As the '70s came to a close, Microman started to wane in popularity. Takara's goal of a unified sci-toy line (including both "real" and "giant" transforming robots) of magnificence was becoming more and more difficult. Around 1981, they introduced a line called "Microchange," featuring household objects which transformed into vehicles and robots that Microman could interact with. Near-simultaneously, Takara also rolled out Diaclone, a toy line consisting of transforming vehicles, robots, and bases. They scaled Microman down to a minute 1-inch figure with magnetic feet for this line.

Meanwhile, across, the pond, Hasbro relaunched the dead 12-inch GI Joe line as "A Real American Hero" in 1982. They downsized the figures to 3 3/4", based on the popularity of Star Wars and--you guessed it--Micronauts.

By 1984 or so, Takara had manufactured a small army of transforming robots of various sizes and scales. But the '80s were already in full steam, and where were the transforming robots in the US of A? Not to be outdone, Hasbro scanned the wide world and found Takara's army of robots, bought the molds to many of them (and a few other assorted robots from more obscure places), and did their own thing with them. They removed the 10cm Microman and 1-inch Diaclone figures, focused solely on the transforming robots, and Transformers was born.

Ironically enough, Hasbro accomplished what Takara itself was trying to: create a unified sci-fi line. For that reason, Takara simply called it quits on Diaclone and Microchange, purchased the rights to sell Transformers in Japan, and did that. It was awesome. There was dancing.

These days, Hasbro owns the rights to dang near everything. I hope you know that there are Star Wars Transformers. Will there be GI Joe Transformers? Only time will tell.

I want to leave you with a vintage commercial for Battle Convoy, the Diaclone toy which would later become Optimus Prime. You will find that commercials for Japanese toys beat American ones by about 6000%.


Jeremy said...

That commercial is so cool, with special effects and toys that transform themselves. Stupid American false advertising laws.

Kelsey said...

Yay Luke! I'm glad you're going to be a permanent part of the Hobson's community.