The Toys That Made Us: Doc Looks At Companies That Sold Imagination
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For kids of a certain age, those born as Generation X gave way to millennials, art and commercialism joined in a way that some think was a cheap ploy to get parents’ money and others believe shaped a generation of dreamers. The new documentary series The Toys That Made Us takes a look at four of the most recognizable toy/media properties of that time: Barbie, Star Wars, The Masters of the Universe, and G.I. Joe. It tells the story of how these toy lines happened and touches on why they became such cultural phenomenons. It’s a well made documentary series that captures an interesting moment in history, and one that is deeply personal to me.
Of the four toys shown in the above image, I owned all of them save the Barbie. Even as a man quickly approaching the age of 40, I still remember my days sprawled on the floor with “action figures” all around me fondly. I would play with these articulated dolls in two places: my childhood bedroom or the living room of my childhood home. In either case, I’d lie on my stomach carefully arranging the figures and then acting out their clashes.
In the episode about the He-Man toys, I learned that a problem I faced as an aggressive toy-player is the same one that helped sink their brand. The line started with eight figures who had loosely-constructed backstories told in a mini-comic included with the figures. I have vivid memories of learning to read in kindergarten, and working very hard to master that skill so I could read these comic books. The first piece of fiction I ever read on my own was a comic book introducing the characters of Moss Man and Stinkor. (The former smelled of flowers and plant life, while the latter looked like a skunk and kind of smelled like death.)
Yet, as time went on, I found that I couldn’t buy some of the older characters (such as crucial character Man-At-Arms) because they were no longer sold in stores. I eventually found him at the Thrift Store. Two other characters — Ram-Man and Man-E-Faces — I found when I was ten years old at a flea market in Hawaii, while visiting my aunt and uncle. I think I paid for them with a travelers cheque. I was probably too old to buy them, but I did anyway. It was this lack of availability for these characters, and other more important ones such as He-Man and Skeletor, that served as a barrier to entry for kids who weren’t the perfect age for the toys when they first came out.
I had almost all of the figures though, because I had two sets of generous, childless aunts and uncles. Even though they worried about “spoiling” me, I was rarely denied a Masters of the Universe figure when the opportunity arose. Though, I was just as excited about the new mini-comic as I was the action figure. For me, toys and stories were intertwined from the beginning. I noted the inconsistencies in the comics, especially those from the early days before the iconic cartoon was even conceived. Thus, when I played with these toys, the scenarios I acted out were meant to address these plot holes.
As much as I loved He-Man and the gang (one of my figures, a battle-armor Skeletor survives to this day and lives on my desk), the toys that really lit my fire were examined in this series: G.I. Joe and Star Wars toys. My relationship with these dolls was much more intense than with the Masters of the Universe. The Star Wars toys were special because I was so in love with the movies and the music. The Joes, however, were special for just the opposite reason: I cared very little about their stories.
Sure, I watched the G.I. Joe cartoon and enjoyed it as much as I did any others, often delighted when characters whose figures I owned — such as Flint and Zartan — appeared on-screen. But the story of the Joes versus Cobra didn’t really resonate with me. Unlike the Empire, who served the Dark Side of the Force and wanted to control everybody, Cobra was evil for no reason other than to be evil. The cartoons were pointless, because there were no stakes. To put it more bluntly, no one ever died.
In Star Wars, this was not the case. Old Ben was vaporized by Darth Vader. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru were, seemingly, burned alive. An entire planet of billions of people was blown to bits just to make a point. This story, ostensibly a “kids’ movie” even then, made the destruction of a battle station that likely had hundreds of thousands of people working on it an applause moment. Sure the laser swords and the robots were fun, but even as kids we knew there was some deeper stuff to parse through in this story.
The G.I.Joe stories that I loved came from Marvel comics, where writer Larry Hama killed off about a dozen characters in a single issue. There was an image in the comic — shown in the documentary — of the Joes pulling their dead out of a trench while still taking fire from Cobra’s forces. Another issue featured an operation carried about by Snake Eyes — everyone’s favorite Joe, and whose creation was a total fluke to save money — infiltrated a castle and murdered everyone he encountered. The few times I played with my G.I. Joe figures as G.I. Joes, it was to act out stories like that, of death, of loss, of real-life consequences. (Ironically, when I joined the U.S. Army, I did so in a non-combat role.)
I was rough on my toys, too. When I would be playing with my toys in the solitude of my bedroom, I would sometimes heat up a needle to make realistic bullet holes in the figures. I would use red marker to bloody them up. I also learned, that in many cases once this was done it could not be un-done. So, suddenly, Cobra redshirts (it was literally red, a member of the “Crimson Guard,” I believe) would stand in for my destroyed Stormtroopers. I would carry on the story of Star Wars after Return of the Jedi (often playing my LP of the Return of the Jedi soundtrack to score moments of play-acting). I created my own Extended Universe with made-up characters based on whatever Joes I had available (This is probably why I never liked the real EU, because it wasn’t as good as my stories were.)
While my relationship with toys stayed strong, my relationship with comic books grew much stronger. I loved superheroes like Batman and Spider-Man and the X-Men. However, outside of the odd figurine, I rarely had those toys. However the Star Wars figures and the G.I. Joe figures were all three-and-a-quarter-inch in size. They looked like they could all be part of the same world. So I started re-casting them as characters from the comic books and other stories I wanted to experience through the medium of playing with toys.
A purple ninja nobody from Cobra became Spider-Man (because he was basically wearing pajamas) and/or Cyclops (because his visor matched the X-man’s). Another ninja character came with snap-on, three-bladed urumi, so naturally he was Wolverine. Moss Man from He-Man became the Hulk. And so on. (I also had a G.I. Joe that had a fedora-like hat, and I popped that on Han Solo for some Indiana Jones adventures.)
Since I had changed up the characters looks out of necessity, I ended up changing their backstories as well. Eventually, I had graduated from acting out fanfiction with these characters to crafting my own stories. The adults in my life were disgusted by my affection for toys and cartoons, saying that it was making my generation lazy (maybe) and that it was rotting our brains (definitely not, except when it come to embracing nostalgia-based reboots). And while it may have been less physically-demanding than going outside to play, it was a mentally rigorous form of make-believe.
I don’t remember exactly when it was that I stopped playing with toys, but I know it was much later than my peers. I was old enough that I remembered feeling shame as I indulged myself in playing with my figures, some of whom were over ten years old. When most kids at that age were locking their bedroom doors and playing with, uh, something else, I was quietly making punching sound-effects and crafting stories based on my ongoing mythology of whatever held my interest. I don’t know if my mother and grandmother were concerned about this or not. Yet, one day my grandmother gave me her old Remington typewriter, and I realized that it wasn’t so much playing with the action figures that I loved but coming up with the stories.
The Toys That Made Us tells the story of some toy company salespeople who made millions hawking hunks of painted plastic to kids by using a story as a hook. On the surface, it seems a validation of the complaints of my disapproving family members who said that I was just being marketed to, trained to be a dutiful consumer. And there may be some truth to that. However, what these toy company folks also did was develop a formula to teach creativity to kids. The stories may have just been advertising to them, but they are what lingers in the hearts and minds of adults of a certain age today.
They created a story, and then gave kids the means to reenact that story, continue that story, or tell some stories of their own. Because they were mass-marketed, it was never a lonely venture for kids. In figuring out how to play with their toys, children were doing character studies of Han Solo, Skeletor, and countless other characters. They would debate how the characters would act, why a scenario didn’t make sense, or what should happen next to everyone’s favorite heroes. The stories would go on, in our heads and our hearts, for the rest of our lives.