Sunday, December 24, 2006

AN ACTION FAMILY CHRISTMAS


"Greetings, citizens! No, it's not really St. Nick, it's me, Captain Action. I've just returned from my charity work at the local orphanage, and just in time too! Lady Action and Action Boy are waiting for me inside so we can celebrate Christmas together. Oh yeah, and Dr. Evil said he'd stop by and help us with the decorations. I'll have to keep an eye on him!"



"From the entire Action Family... and, uh, Dr. Evil too... have a happy and safe holiday season!"



"Dog gone it, Evil! Did you blow a fuse again!"

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

FOUR CHRISTMASES AND FOUR FUNERALS

My family has seen several members die right before the Christmas holidays. I suppose that’s not so unusual since the onset of winter is particularly hard on the immune systems of the elderly. Those already struggling with frail health simply cannot cope with the viruses that seek shelter from the cold in their warm bodies. I’ve had two family members buried on Christmas Eve, one on the day before Christmas Eve, and one two days after Christmas. I don’t bring this up to be a downer, but rather to share some observations I’ve made about the cycle of life during a time when we celebrate the birth of one of the Earth’s most famous former inhabitants.

I grew up in a blue collar town where most of the residents were employed at the steel mill, the auto plant, or one of the many other industrial plants that surrounded the community. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and his brother, my Uncle Jack, came from England in the 1920s to seek jobs in one of these industries and ended up working for several decades at the steel mill. Technically, my Uncle Jack had a white-collar job at the plant, but he still made his living from America’s booming industrial revolution. My grandfather, my Uncle, and their contemporaries built a community in the town. A savings and loan (which still exists today as a full-fledged bank) was started in my great-grandfather’s dining room with the help of community members. The town was loaded with clubs and organizations, many of which my great-grandfather, grandfather, and Uncle Jack were members. By the time I came along, the town was filled with gray-haired men and women, some retired, some about to retire, who made up the backbone of the community. They had made good livings, maintained their homes, supported the local businesses, and contributed to the community.

Back in the 70s, I was in awe of these people, especially when comparing them to the young people who were growing up in the same town. Long-haired, bedraggled, undereducated, and blissfully unaware of the industrial collapse that was about to grip the country, these young folks took for granted that the jobs their fathers and grandfathers had would still be available to them as a birthright. Perhaps you can forgive them for not seeing the economic shift in the country, but you couldn’t forgive them for drifting into lives of drinking, drug use, and criminal behavior. Even if the jobs had remained, many had not prepared themselves to accept the responsibilities of those jobs, or to assume the mantle of community activism the way the previous generations had.

My Uncle Jack’s funeral was the first I had ever attended, on Christmas Eve 1976. He was only 74. I was only 12 (here I am that Christmas with my Space:1999 stuff). In addition to my family, the funeral home was packed with gray-heads, blue-heads, and white-heads who were friends of my uncle. I sat through a series of ceremonies presented by various groups that my uncle had belonged to. Each time, a group of four or five elderly men, wearing ornately decorated aprons over their suits, would step up and recite some gobbledegook, then say some nice words about Uncle Jack. It seemed to go on forever, but my normally jumpy 12-year-old consciousness didn’t mind it. This was the first time I had witnessed such an outpouring of respect and affection for a deceased person, and I was fascinated by how many people my uncle had affected outside of my own family. It was a bitterly cold day, and the ceremony at the cemetery was brief. They couldn’t even dig the hole for the casket, the ground was so hard. Still, the sun shined brightly and the sky was clear, and I was filled with a sense that, although he died relatively young, my Uncle Jack had done okay.

Ten years later, on a rainy Christmas Eve, my Uncle Henry was buried. He was my grandmother’s sister’s husband. He smoked Camel unfiltered cigarettes all his life and, unsurprisingly, died of lung cancer. There were fewer old folks at this funeral, and the ones that were there seemed markedly less robust than those at my Uncle Jack’s ceremony. I was just about to graduate from college. A college degree was essential now as the job market shifted from an industrial to an information age. Those from my high school who had hoped for a factory job were finding little luck. Many were leaving town altogether. These senior citizens were holding the town together, but they “just couldn’t do what they used to anymore.” My Uncle Henry’s funeral was briefer, less elaborate, but a strong crowd of friends paid their respects.

Eight years later, my maternal grandmother died and was buried on the day before Christmas Eve. She was 89. I was 30. She and my grandfather had moved into a retirement community because taking care of their house had become a burden. I bought their house, not because I really wanted it, but because property values were down and buyers were scarce. By this time, many of the old folks, the spine of the once-thriving town, had died off. The few who were still alive, like those that showed up at my grandmother’s funeral, had also moved away. No one wanted their old houses since there were few jobs in the area anymore. Folks were selling to anyone who would buy. There was enough riff-raff in the neighborhood already, so I lived in the house and commuted 30 miles each way to work. My office was in a growing area on the other side of the county where large white collar firms were settling. That was the new thriving community.

Nine years on, and my grandfather died at the ripe old age of 102. His funeral was two days after Christmas. There were quite a few gray heads at the funeral, but they now belonged to my grandfather’s children and grandchildren (me included). All his contemporaries were gone. Members from one of his clubs showed up and performed their ceremony in their ornately decorated aprons. These members were kids or at least young men when my grandfather was active with the group. They barely knew him, but did their club duties with respect. I had long since sold my old house - my grandparents’ old house - and moved away.

The town still exists, and efforts are being made to gentrify the area with plans for new shops, night spots, improved housing. It’s a long way off, though, and what remains is something of a shell of its former self. I’m now old enough to have watched a strong community wither and die. And the residents who made it strong, who struggled through the Depression, who built the armaments of war during WW II, who helped the community grow even more during the post-war boom years, I watched them wither and die too. The loss haunts me.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

MY FIRST CUSTOM FIGURE

Hasbro resurrected the 1/6th scale G.I. Joe in the late 80s with mixed results. During the 90s, Hasbro improved the quality and design of the figures and even started producing replicas of the original G.I. Joe figures and costumes. I watched all this with passing interest, but never felt compelled to buy any of these toys. After all, I was a grown man, working for a major financial firm, with a house and a car and responsibilities. I felt silly buying toys.

My feelings changed in the late 90s when the upstart, retro-toy company Playing Mantis put out a new version of Captain Action. They also put out a new Dr. Evil and reproductions of the Lone Ranger, Tonto, Flash Gordon, and Green Hornet costumes originally offered by Ideal in the 60s. Playing Mantis was so committed to the project, they supplemented the line with new costumes in the form of Flash Gordon’s nemesis Ming the Merciless and Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato. Although not 100% like the originals, close enough to stir happy memories. My then fianc√©e (now wife) Kathy gave me a repro Captain Action and Dr. Evil for my birthday in 1999. I quickly went out and purchased the other costumed figures. I felt like I had discovered a long lost friend.

At the same time, I discovered a small army of devoted Captain Action fans on the Internet. After 30 years, it was satisfying to find so many people who shared my fascination with this super hero from the past. Also exciting was finding out that some of these fans were actually creating original costumes for Captain Action based on super heroes Ideal never touched. Characters like The Flash and The Green Lantern were just as popular in the 60s as Spiderman or Aquaman, but Ideal never got around to making costumes of these heroes. As I Googled for Captain Action Websites, I was astonished at the quality of these homemade custom action figure outfits. The frustrated artist in me wanted to try my hand at this unusual hobby.

The biggest obstacle for me was the fact that I could neither sew nor fabricate rubber masks, gloves, or boots. Eventually, I would discover craftsmen who sold costumes and accessories for the Captain, but at this point I was trying to work with what I had available. I needed to pick a project that suited my limited resources and abilities. I thought about the various costumes that I would’ve liked to have had for Captain Action when I was a kid, and one character leaped to the front of my brain: Flash Gordon.

Now, I know, Ideal made a Flash Gordon costume and Playing Mantis put out a reproduction version 30 years later. However, this Flash Gordon was based on how Flash Gordon appeared in the comic strips in the 1960s; that is, in an astronaut suit similar to those worn by the Gemini astronauts of the day. I think Ideal probably saw this version as a two-for-one: it would attract the Flash Gordon fans and also provide an alternative to G.I. Joe’s Astronaut suit. That’s fine, but the Flash Gordon I knew and loved was seen in the old movie serials starring Buster Crabbe. The look of those serials was based on the Alex Raymond artwork of the 30s, which was more Prince Valiant than Buzz Aldrin. When Playing Mantis put out their Ming the Merciless figure alongside the repro Flash, the difference was glaring. All this is to say that I wanted a Flash Gordon costume that looked like the old Flash Gordon.

The major hurtle, the mask, was already taken care of since Playing Mantis Flash Gordon figures were plentiful. I decided to model the costume after Buster Crabbe’s outfit in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and the version in the Flash Gordon cartoon from 1979. This meant a red shirt with a wide black collar studded with gold rivets. He also wore blue pants with a yellow stripe up the side, and knee high black boots. The belt would be the most complicated part as it was a white cummerbund with a thinner black band around the middle. Not too bad for a beginning project.

For the shirt, I found a white turtleneck and dyed it red. The black collar was made from black felt, cut into a circle with an inner circle cut out of the center for the figure’s neck. I also slit it down the back and attached Velcro strips so the collar could be taken on and off easily. Originally, I was going to sew gold beads onto the collar to simulate rivets, but I couldn’t find any beads that I liked. As an alternative, I found a thick, metallic gold paint at the crafts store that you could dab on fabric and create neat little round blobs of gold. You had to be careful, but it was a quick and effective solution to my problem. I also made some black cuffs with the black felt to complete the authenticity of the shirt.

Navy blue pants were easy enough since I took them off a G.I. Joe figure that was on the market at the time. I attempted to attach strips of yellow felt on the sides of the pants, but I thought that they would not create the proper effect, so I abandoned the stripes and left the pants as they were. The knee high boots were taken from a 12” Stars Wars action figure.

The belt required me to purchase some scrap fabric from the local Jo-Ann’s Fabric Store. I cut some off-white fabric to size, allowing extra at the top and bottom so I could fold the edges over and glue them down on the back with fabric glue. I then cut a thinner strip of black felt and glued it across the center of my off-white fabric. For the buckle, I stuck a brass thumb tack in the center and secured it by bending the pin part to one side on the back of the belt. Velcro fasteners on either end allowed the belt to be secured on the figure from the back.

To create the finishing touch, I outfitted him with a sword I swiped from my Marx Toys Silver Knight action figure. I have a picture of the finished custom next to the Playing Mantis Ming the Merciless. I dare say they look more appropriate together than the original Ideal design.

I admit this was a fairly simple project, but it proved to me that I could make custom costumes for action figures. This project started a hobby that has stuck with me for years since.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A VERY JOHNNY WEST CHRISTMAS

I’m thinking it must’ve been Christmas 1968. It’s one of my earliest memories. I can recall that, for some reason, my parents set all the toys in the dining room rather than the living room that year. We had a rather sad, shapeless fake green tree in the living room, but in the dining room, we had a shimmering three-feet-high creation that looked like a stack of silver pipe cleaners. Fully decorated with mirror finished balls of blue and pink, it was the physical manifestation of commercialized, 60s-kitsch Christmas. I loved it! My mom set it up on the credenza, covering the bottom of the tree and the table top with cotton wool studded with metallic confetti. I remember the room glowing with shades of pink and silver.


Rather than wrapping the presents, my parents made an artful arrangement of a western scene underneath the metallic tree. The western part came courtesy of the Marx Toys Best of the West line. I especially remember Johnny West’s son, Jay West, perched atop his colt or pony or whatever the small horse was supposed to be. The whole vision was like Bonanza meets the Jetsons. I wish I had pictures from that Christmas, but then again, it’s probably just as well. Nothing can match the images in the viewmaster of my cranium.

The Best of the West toys, a huge line of western figures, was likely the most successful of the Marx Toys action figures. Their run was about as long as G.I. Joe’s and covered a wide assortment of characters. In addition to the Johnny and Jay West that I received that Christmas, I also received a Captain Tom Maddox figure and a Sam Cobra figure from my Aunt Pat for Christmas 1972. Captain Maddox was a cavalryman, but I didn’t quite understand that. Military figures prior to WW II were alien to me. I just treated him like a cowboy. Sam Cobra, on the other hand, was clearly a Western style bad guy through and through. You could tell right off because of his devil-like van dyke beard and all-black ensemble. This one was a favorite, although I felt bad about liking the bad guy more than any of the good guys. The main reason I liked him so much was because he came with this wonderful line of accessories. He had a cane with a knife hidden in the handle, two rifles (a short one and a Winchester), pistols, skeleton key, time bomb, pool cues, and a doctor’s bag. He even had his own safe to crack and a special hole in his right palm to hold the tiny derringer he hid away. This was a bad mother – shut yo’ mouth! I’m talkin’ ‘bout Cobra!!

Flash forward 30 years. I was reading Tom Heaton’s terrific book titled The Encyclopedia of Marx Action Figures, and I discovered that Captain Tom Maddox and Sam Cobra had an interesting connection. The head of Maddox was originally designed to go with Sam Cobra’s body as a Wild, Wild West action figure. Sure enough, the head did look a lot like Robert Conrad, and the Sam Cobra body looked exactly like Jim West’s suit, right down to the “W” notches in the lapels. I was determined to make my own Jim West custom out of spare parts. As luck would have it, I was trolling eBay for Marx toys when I came across a figure that someone had already customized with the Maddox head on the Sam Cobra body. With only a little painting to the body, I had a ready made Jim West action figure!

Although G.I. Joe was the gold standard of action figures back then, Marx figures offered some tremendous thrills. They were sturdy, hard plastic toys that could take a great deal of punishment. They also offered a wide assortment of accessories complete in the box with the figure, so you could hit the ground running with imaginative adventures from the minute you received it. I didn’t realize how much I loved those figures until long after they were lost or sold in my mom’s various yard sales.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!


Thanksgiving is upon us once again! Time for ol' Tom Turkey to hide from the intrepid hunter. Despite the modern convenience of frozen and refrigerated turkeys in our local supermarkets, some still like to nab their bird the old fashion way: with just a shotgun and cunning.



And then there's the mavericks who combine traditional hunting techniques with the latest in modern technology.


Tom Turkey doesn't stand a chance! For the rest of you, happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

DEAN MARTIN AS MATT HELM

I’m sure I’m not alone in my belief that Dean Martin was the coolest actor to ever appear in movies. There are plenty of actors that I think were pretty cool (Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, etc.), but none of these actors combined manliness with impeccable comic timing like Dean Martin. Who else could’ve held his own next to Jerry Lewis for 10 years, and still had a long, successful career afterward both in comedy and drama? He played a wide range of roles, but he was always essentially Dean. That may sound like a put-down, but I really mean that as a compliment. No matter the character, whether he was an alcoholic gunslinger or an airplane pilot, you always sensed an underlying truth to his performances because the essential person that was Dean Martin always came through. And that person was damned likable.

I didn’t always feel that way. When I was a pre-schooler, I became frightened of him whenever he would come on the t.v. screen in his variety show. To this day, I don’t know what caused this irrational fear, but whenever Dean popped on the screen, sliding down the fire pole with his glass of scotch, I would start to cry and my mom would have to put me to bed.

Then my dad took my brother and me to see Airport. This was the first grown-up movie I ever saw in a theatre, and I was mesmerized. So much action, so much tension, so much excitement. And right in the middle of it was Dean Martin, saving the day as the cool, in-control pilot Captain Demerest. I suddenly saw Dean Martin in a whole new light. He became a hero.

Around the same time, the Matt Helm movies were seeing regular rotation on television. They were clearly inferior to the James Bond films, but I got a big kick out of Dean Martin playing the hero again. Unfortunately, not only were the films trying to spoof James Bond, they were also caught up in the era of camp where the thinking was, the more ridiculous the better. In fact, audiences quickly realized that, not only was ridiculous not very exciting as it killed all sense of suspense, ridiculous was also not very funny when ladled out in heaping spoonfuls. The Matt Helm movies were devoid of any suspense since we were presented with the premise that our “hero” would escape all peril and save the day even though he was drinking and fornicating through most of the picture. Still, as a kid, I didn’t worry too much about these issues, and enjoyed the films for the action and gadgetry.

In college, I took to reading the James Bond novels and was struck by how different they were from the movies. I knew the Matt Helm books had to be light years away from the movies, and after reading The Silencers, I was proven correct. Although all four Matt Helm movies borrowed characters and plot points from the novels, the elements were shaken vigorously with several shots of scotch and a dash of absurdity to create the final scripts. It’s a shame too, because the literary Matt Helm was about as tough a spy as you will find. He was, in fact, a government assassin who, while not entirely lacking in humanity, kept it well hidden while on the job. Think Lee Marvin rather than Dean Martin.

While I’m still trying to collect and read all the Matt Helm novels, I still have a warm spot in my heart for the Matt Helm movies. I even bought them all on VHS, then again on DVD. And when Sideshow Toys started putting out their James Bond action figures, I kept longing for a Matt Helm figure. I wanted a nice rendering of Dean Martin as Matt Helm standing between my Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan James Bonds. Of course, Sideshow would see no strong bottom line in such a creation, so I had to make my own.

The big issue was the headsculpt. Where would I find a head that looked like Dean Martin? My answer came while I was flipping through my book on Marx action figures. Marx made a Best of the West figure called Sheriff Garrett and, for reasons lost in the sands of time, created him to look exactly like Dean Martin with a moustache. The likeness was uncanny. I quickly went into eBay mode and finally won a vintage Sheriff Garrett figure. Once I had it, I repainted the head to cover over the moustache and change the gray hair to black. I used a skin tone to match the hands, but I’ve never been satisfied with it since it’s very pale. Dino had a darker complexion than my figure, but it works okay. The outfit was relatively easy, since the movie Matt Helm was partial to turtlenecks. I put him in a yellow one like in The Silencers, and used some mod checked paints from an old Ken doll. I couldn’t get a jacket that matched the suede one in The Silencers, but this mod tan jacket works pretty well. I’m still looking for new clothes to make a version that will look exactly like one of his outfits in the movies.




Thursday, November 09, 2006

THE DOWNSIZING OF THE ACTION FIGURE

I got my first indication that a change was in the wind when I looked at the Christmas catalogues in the fall of 1975. That year, the boys’ toys section was dominated by the increasingly odd G.I. Joe offerings and the super hero figures from Mego. None of this particularly interested me. What did intrigue me was the new toy line called MAC Men. This was long before computer geekdom, so this MAC stood for Mobile Action Command. The catalogue offered a set of six 3” figures, each with his own vehicle. There was a MAC man with a helicopter, a Mac man in scuba gear with a pontoon boat, a military MAC man with a jeep, etc.

This was pretty standard stuff, except for the fact that these 3” figures were fully articulated. Prior to that time, any figure this size, like the traditional toy soldiers, were solid plastic with no moving parts. These little fellows had joints at the shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees. This was a new development. Despite my general disinterest in action figures at this point in my life, I did ask my parents to order these for me for Christmas. Frankly, gift receiving had become sadly routine by this time. I would simply pick out stuff from the catalogues and my parents would order the items for me. Never any surprises on Christmas morning.

Anyway, these little figures were the highlight of that Christmas season. My friends and I were no longer playing with action figures as a group, but I must admit to playing around with these little MAC men in the privacy of my house. During this time, I also became a first class science fiction nerd, and I noted how the MAC emergency medical vehicle looked somewhat like the moon buggies on Space: 1999. Soon, I was painting my MAC men to look like Moonbase Alpha personnel. (For more on MAC men, click here.)

This was my only personal brush with really small action figures, but the movement was underway. By 1977, Mego had introduced The Micronauts, 3 ¾” fully articulated figures that looked like androids and robots with bodies of chrome and colorful, translucent plastic. As a more economically minded adolescent, I could see the practical nature of these smaller figures. Smaller figures meant smaller cost. Smaller cost meant smaller price per unit. Parents would be more inclined to buy their kids a pile of Micronauts rather than shell out big money for a G.I. Joe and some costume sets. Still, they just seemed too darn small to get all that excited about.

Of course, the explosion in the tiny action figure market occurred when Kenner finally released their Star Wars figures in the spring of 1978. Almost a year after the movie came out, children across the country could start breathing again as they were at last able to hold little Lukes and Leias in their peanut butter and chocolate stained hands. I thought these runt-sized replicas were laughable compared to the 1/6th scale figures I had played with, but I couldn’t argue with success. Apparently, neither could Hasbro. By the early 80s, G.I. Joe was resurrected as a stylized, paramilitary Real American Hero in the now standard 3 ¾” format. It would be another 10 years before the big, strapping Joe of my youth would rise again.

Friday, November 03, 2006

OH, HOW THE ADVENTURER HATH FALLEN

The G.I. Joe Adventure Team saw its last mission in 1976, the year I turned 12 years old. In retrospect, it seems appropriate that the action figure who saw birth the same year as I would also see his demise the same year that I gave up on action figures and entered adolescence. I can make a romantic connection in hindsight, but at the time, I barely noticed.

The truth was, I had abandoned G.I. Joe a couple years earlier. Not only were there newer action figures on the market to catch my attention, but the G.I. Joe Adventure Team line was becoming increasingly low-end. The initial changes were okay, like the addition of Kung Fu Grip. These new, rubbery hands had fingers that were turned under so that Joe could actually hold onto his accessories. The only drawback was, after a few months of active play, the rubber fingers would break off. Hasbro also introduced the Muscle Body, which gave Joe a more buff physique. The truth was, although the body looked more muscular, it was made of lighter weight plastic and the bodies tended to wear at the shoulder joints. G.I. Joe was becoming a cheap toy.

The first major indignity came with the introduction of Mike Power, the Atomic Man. Clearly a rip off of The Six Million Dollar Man, Mike had a clear plastic arm and leg with quasi-mechanical bits embedded in the plastic. He also had a clear plastic eye and a hole in the top of his head so light would shine out of the eye. Creepy! Not only that, he didn’t have the “life-like” hair. He looked like Ken’s older brother, and his main costume featured shorts. Not cool!

The following year, Joe himself was subjected to humiliation by making him Eagle Eye G.I. Joe. First of all, no one really needed an action figure with moving eyes like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Second, in order for the effect to be visible, Hasbro had to widen the eye holes to an unnatural size, giving our intrepid hero a perpetually scared expression. If you moved the eyes rapidly from side to side, he looked like Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

During the Adventure Team’s final year of 1976, the increasingly desperate people at Hasbro unleashed the death blow of demoralization. No, I don’t mean the Intruders; alien cavemen appealed to my cheesy sci-fi sensibility. I’m speaking, of course, of Bulletman, the Human Bullet. Dressed in a red, one-piece bathing suit and a silver, bullet-shaped helmet, I couldn’t tell whether this guy was a super hero or a State Fair headliner. If you took off the helmet, things only got worse. He had lacquered down black hair, huge Groucho Marx eyebrows, black eye shadow and mascara. That’s such a jumble, I don’t even know where to begin. All I can say is, if Hasbro wanted to create a comic hero, they should’ve looked at Superman and not Dagwood Bumstead.

At the time, I looked at the ads for these new additions and laughed, but there was a hint of sadness inside. During my short lifetime up to that point, G.I. Joe had dominated the toy world as the premier action figure; the first and the best. Now, he had become a joke, and I felt bad. Still, I was too old for action figures, so I didn’t expend too much energy on mourning his demise. There was a new trend in action figures on the way, and I had no interest in it…well, maybe a little.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

NEWS BULLETIN - ACTION FIGURES ON THE LOOSE!

This just in - our Polyvinyl News Chopper has just spotted some suspicious activity near the cemetery. Our investigative reporter "Big Jim" Jackson has reached the cemetery in mobile unit one and is about to give us an eyewitness report.


Polyvinyl News Chopper is touching down on the cemetery grounds now. They are reporting that film legend Christopher Lee, Captain Action's nemesis Dr. Evil, and an unidentified associate appear to be trick or treating. Preliminary reports also indicate that "Big Jim" Jackson attempted to interview the unknown man, but was abruptly cut off...or cut up.


It now appears that our audio feed from the Polyvinyl News Chopper has been terminated, but prior to losing sound, the three men could be heard mumbling something about "smelling feet" and getting "something good to eat."


We'll report back with more as events develop. In the meantime, Happy Halloween everybody!

Friday, October 20, 2006

JAMES BOND VS. BLOMOLD

It’s a real shame that the action figure licensing for two of the biggest franchises of the 60s, namely James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., was given over to Gilbert. Although they produced some nice toys, their 1/6th scale action figures were horrible. The standard body was a blow molded affair with the only movement at the shoulders and hips where the arms and legs attached. Literally, these figures were like cheap baby dolls you would buy at the drug store.

The head sculpts were not much better. The James Bond figure had a head sculpt that looked like a very jowly Sean Connery. Even the Sean Connery of today is not as jowly as this funny looking figure. The likeness of David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin was not too bad, but he had a slightly childlike appearance. The Robert Vaughn/Napoleon Solo head sculpt was way off.

The only redeeming feature of these figures, along with all the other Gilbert action figures, was the accessory sets. The guns, scuba gear, etc., that were sold separately for these figures were nicely detailed. Gilbert put out a version of the Thrush rifle that was spot on. Still, really nice accessories for really junky figures seems like child abuse, to me.

These guys weren’t cheap either. In 1964, Sears offered an exclusive version of the James Bond figure in a basic suit, with a gun that went inside a small briefcase. And this bonanza could be had for only $6.99. $6.99!! This is 1964 money we’re talking about! You could feed a family of four for a week on $6.99 back then. For the same price, they offered an OddJob figure that was rigged to throw his bowler hat like he did in the movie. Problem was, the figure was permanently in a crouched position with his right arm cocked at a funny angle. If he wasn’t throwing the bowler, he simply looked like he had a back problem.

I never owned any of these figures as a kid, an
d I haven’t actively pursued collecting them as an adult, mainly because of the cost. For Christmas a few years back, my wonderful wife thoughtfully got me an Illya Kuryakin figure. I was thrilled, but I really wanted the head on a more useable body, so I decapitated a generic figure that I had purchased at a warehouse store (they came five to a box for $14.99). I then set about creating a gun that looked like the one they used on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I used left over bits from accessories I stockpiled from other action figure purchases. He turned out pretty good.

Later, I discovered that a man by the name of Dale Van Slyke makes and sells action figure heads made out of resin (he has a store on eBay called Diver4’s Treasure Chest). He makes heads of Illya Kuryakin, Napoleon Solo, Sean Connery as James Bond, and OddJob. I purchased a Napoleon Solo head, painted it, and
mounted the head on yet another decapitated action figure.

This picture shows my Man from U.N.C.L.E. figures: one with the Gilbert Illya Kuryakin head and one with Dale’s Napoleon Solo head:

I also have a picture of an Illya Kuryakin I made for a friend using Dale’s resin head:

Dale Van Slyke has an amazing collection of resin heads for 1/6th scale figures. The heads resemble a wide range of favorite actors like John Wayne, Tom Hanks, Steve McQueen, and Al Pacino, just to name a few. It’s well worth checking out his eBay store if you are into making custom action figures.

Friday, October 13, 2006

BUDDY CHARLIE AND FRANKENSTONY

Buddy Charlie was Marx Toys’ strongest effort to compete directly with G.I. Joe, and I was not aware of the figure’s existence until just a few years ago. Unlike Stony Smith and the other Marx figures whose clothes were molded as part of the body sculpt, Buddy Charlie was a nude action figure with cloth uniforms. His body design and articulation were almost identical to the early G.I. Joes, except his hands were a definite improvement. While Joe’s hands were contorted in some arthritic tangle only good for holding a rifle, Buddy Charlie had hands that were formed in a semi-grip, so you could put just about any accessory into them and he would be able to hold it. The hands are very similar to the type that Captain Action would have a year or so later.

Buddy Charlie came in four different versions representing each of the armed services (Soldier, Sailor, Pilot, and Marine). This was similar to the G.I. Joes of the day. Marx was uncharacteristically skimpy with the accessories for Buddy, but I think they were trying to make him as much like the Joe figures as possible. Accessory sets were sold separately, featuring the same accessories that came with Stony Smith.

When I discovered Buddy, what struck me first was the head sculpt. G.I. Joe had the ultimate in bland faces. From what I’ve read, that was done intentionally so that a wide range of boys could relate to him. Heck, they used the same head sculpt for both the Caucasian Joe and the African American Joe and it works perfectly, so neutral are the facial features. But that very blandness was always a turn off for me. Buddy Charlie had a distinct face. He looked mature and battle weary, but also decent and kind. He reminds me a bit of the late Darren McGavin in his younger days.

So scarce are these figures that I never thought I’d own one. Luckily, I managed to snag one on eBay as part of a Marx toy lot for a reasonable price. He came cheap because he was not 100% original. His arms had been replaced with new ones taken from a repro Captain Action. With his clothes on, you can’t tell the difference…from a distance.

Speaking of Buddy Charlie and Stony Smith, there are some Marx Toy enthusiasts who have been selling what I can only describe as build-it-yourself Stony Smith kits. Apparently, in the early 90s, Marx Toys was asked to make Stony Smith figures for a special order, but the deal fell through and the parts sat in a warehouse. I purchased one of these kits and had a great time trying to figure out how to build it. I dismantled a busted up Geronimo figure to use his hardware. The head and hands that were provided with the kit were not of Stony Smith, but of Buddy Charlie. They didn’t fit the design of the Stony body, so I swiped an old Sam Cobra head and set of hands and put them on the body. I then repainted the head so he looked a little different from Mr. Cobra. Here is the result:

By the way, if you want to learn more about Marx action figures, go to this site.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

EVEL KNIEVEL

In the 1970s, people were looking for the modern equivalent of the Old West Cowboy, someone who was strong-willed, courageous, independent, and played by his own rules. You could see it in the romantic representations of truckers in songs, movies, and television. You could see it in just about every good ol’ boy character Burt Reynolds ever played. And you could see it in the real life persona of Evel Knievel.

The Daredevil from Montana looked every bit like a modern day version of Roy Rogers, with the flashy red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit and motorcycle helmet replacing the white Stetson and ornately decorated cowboy shirt. His custom Harley-Davidson motorcycle was just as familiar as Trigger. The major difference was that, instead of proving his manhood by catching cattle rustlers on the plains, Evel Knievel jumped his bike over stuff – big stuff! And instead of singing ballads about the prairie, he lectured impressionable young kids about the evils of drugs in a plain speaking drawl that conveyed confidence with splashes of well-placed humility. In an era filled with public figures you loved to hate, Evel Knievel was one person who really embodied the image of a hero.

Each time the motorcycle wrangler launched his bike over a pile of cars or school buses or flat-paneled trucks, I watched at home with exhilaration whether he crashed or landed safely. Both outcomes brought about tremendous excitement. I couldn’t fathom at that age that he could ever really die. The hero never dies.

I gave this lengthy preamble only to give some sense of why the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle was the hot toy of the 1973 Christmas season. Every boy wanted one, and they were near impossible to find. Parents were literally beating each other up in stores, fighting over the remaining stunt cycles. My father scoured every toy store, discount store, and department store in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor, but could never land one by Christmas time. I was mightily disappointed. My Aunt Nora, who thought my parents would get me the stunt cycle, gave me the Evel Knievel Winnebago. With no Evel figure to drive the thing, it was a heartbreaking reminder of what was missing.

Ironically, my Aunt Nora was the one who finally found the toy I longed for. On a balmy Saturday afternoon in March, she came to our house bearing that oblong box with the action painting of Evel flying straight at you on his tricked out Harley. Immediately, I ran in the backyard, set up the ramp on the back of the red-white-and-blue Winnebago, and forced Evel to jump that thing repeatedly. For the next year or so, I shot Evel and his Harley over just about every rock, ditch, and Tonka truck I could find.

As an action figure, Evel Knievel wasn’t much: a wire-framed, rubber figure about six inches tall like Major Matt Mason. The stunt cycle was the real attraction. The bike was so well balanced, once you wound up the rear wheel with the cranking device and set it loose, the bike would pop wheelies, flip, bounce, and always land on two wheels. I really have to hand it to the guys at Ideal for designing such an amazing vehicle. They came out with other vehicles for Evel to crash around in, but the stunt cycle was always the best in my opinion.

My mania over Evel Knievel came to an abrupt end on September 8, 1974, when he attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon. Watching Evel strap himself into the makeshift, Popular Mechanics rocket he called a “skycycle,” he no longer appeared heroic, merely foolhardy. Anyone could’ve gotten into that thing provided he had a sufficiently strong death wish. I was actually relieved to see the parachute deploy prematurely as I had no confidence that the rickety projectile would provide a safe landing on the other side. I was glad that Evel survived the jump, but suddenly the emperor was decidedly naked.

Unaware of my disillusionment, my parents got me the toy version of the skycycle for Christmas. Since I also received a complete set of Mego’s Planet of the Apes figures that same Christmas, I found that the skycycle made a nifty spacecraft for the Charlton Heston figure (okay, Mego said it was a generic astronaut, but we knew better).

All these years later, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about. I mean, this guy jumped a bike over stuff and occasionally got smashed up in the process. But every once in awhile, I pop in my VHS tape of Viva Knievel and rediscover a little bit of that 70s vibe.

Friday, October 06, 2006

HAS IT BEEN SIX YEARS ALREADY?

Tomorrow marks the sixth anniversary of my wonderful marriage to my amazing wife, Kathy. In reference to meeting his wife Nancy, Ronald Reagan is quoted as saying, "She saved my soul." I know exactly how he felt. I was about as lost as a man could get when I met Kathy, and she reawakened in me the person that I had abandoned piece by piece over the years. She encouraged me to reconnect with my creative side, both in writing and through the crafty things I once loved, like model building.

Kathy also reignited my interest in action figures by giving me repro versions of Captain Action and Dr. Evil for my birthday in 1999. Ever since then, I've been collecting vintage figures as well as creating new custom figures. My interest in m
odel building came in handy as I learned to create tiny accessories on a 1/6th scale and painted heads to look like celebrities and super heroes. She even encouraged me to create this blog so I could share my experiences with the rest of the world.

I have to share one action figure project that was directly influenced by my wife. I had purchased a W.W. II Japanese soldier figure specifically to swipe his jodhpurs for a Doc Savage custom. Just fooling around, I took the Japanese figure and put on him black paints, white shirt and tie,and a white lab coat. I took a boning knife from my fisherman figure and put it in his hand. Then I proudly presented him to Kathy as Sushi Man. She replied, "Now all you have to do is make a sushi bar for him." I laughed and promptly forgot about the comment, but Kathy would periodically remind me of her statement. "When you gonna make that
sushi bar for Sushi Man?" she would ask. Ohmigod, she's serious.

The pressure increased when she purchased these Japanese snacks which included as prizes these 1/6th scale plates of sushi. I mean these were really detailed plates and sake carafes and sake cups and chopsticks. The pieces of sushi themselves were oversized, but nicely detailed, looking exactly like sushi you would eat in a restaurant. Now I really had to make that darned sushi bar.

I decided the sushi bar would be a present for Christmas 2005 and promptly started work that fall. I had to work on it at my brother's house to keep it out of sight. Fortunately, my brother Craig took an interest in my project and lent his wood working experience to my feeble design. While my concept was basic and not too structurally sound, Cra
ig set about to create a sushi bar comparable to a real life piece of furniture, only on 1/6th scale. He built a sturdy frame on which we attached the balsa wood panels and table top. He also decorated the sides with strips of rich looking wood and carved a fish for the front panel. As a finishing touch, Craig made a brass railing piece which divided the Sushi Man's workspace from the diners. I was left with the painting and varnishing. Thanks to Craig, the piece was far nicer than my wildest dreams.

On Christmas Day, Kathy was totally blown away by the gift, much to my relief. We set the bar up in the living room with action figures and those amazing sushi accessories. For a while, we felt like kids again playing with dolls on Christmas morning. The photo below shows what the finished product looked like:

That experience is only one example of how Kathy has made the last eight years such a fun and wondrous ride. I hope the ride continues for many more years to come. I love you, sweetie!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

JOHNNY HERO

I was never much of a sports fan, probably because my father was not into sports. Neither my brother nor I had any desire to participate in organized sports. I was especially unsuited for it: chubby, awkward, poor hand/eye coordination, etc. The only sport I ever held a life-long interest in was football. As a child growing up in Baltimore during the late 60s, Johnny Unitas was a god. My family worshipped Unitas and the Colts in front of the t.v. every Sunday afternoon. My mom could take on the histrionic behavior of a revival tent show regular, particularly when the Colts scored a touchdown. She’d leap off the couch, stomp, scream, and clap her hands like she had just seen Jesus. I was some times worried that she might throw herself out the living room window. Thus was the power of football in Baltimore back then. Those from outside the city can marvel at the amazing performance of the underdog Jets during the 1969 Super Bowl. Baltimore fans from that era only feel heartbreak.

I relate all this only to introduce the next action figure that loomed in my early life, Johnny Hero. This 13-inch entry into the action figure world was designed to capitalize on professional sports the same way G.I. Joe capitalized on the armed services and Captain Action capitalized on the super hero craze. Johnny himself was a bulky figure made of foam rubber molded onto a wire frame. He was dressed in a generic track uniform and his plastic head was shaped into a rather bland countenance, sort of like G.I. Joe meets the early Ken doll. His hands were giant, flat things with small points sticking out of them, designed to be inserted into the balls and bats sold separately. The accessories came as part of the outfit sets. Each set was a football or baseball uniform based on the 1965 or 1966 uniforms of Major League Baseball or the National/American Football Leagues.

As shown in this picture, I had a Baltimore Colts uniform to adorn my Johnny Hero. In fact, I had no knowledge that this was really a generic action figure with multiple uniforms available. I thought he was specifically made to be Johnny Unitas. Why not call him Johnny Hero, since Johnny Unitas was a hero and more to those of us in the town of crab cakes and National Bohemian beer. Johnny was another one of those figures I lugged around everywhere, and I do mean lugged since the guy weighed a ton to a three year old. I often took him into the bathtub with me; not a good idea for a toy made of foam rubber. He would lay on a towel for days drying out.

That’s what brought about the demise of my hero in blue and white. The foam rubber body eventually dry-rotted, turning my beloved Johnny U into something from George Romero’s nightmares. He eventually entered the action figure hall of fame in Trash Can, U.S.A.

A few years ago, I got the bug to create a new Johnny Unitas action figure for my collection. I managed to nab an old Johnny Hero Colts uniform on eBay. Of course, any authentic Johnny Hero figure would be rare and expensive, and most likely dry-rotted all to hell, so I purchased a figure from Cotswold Collectibles that kinda sorta looked like Johnny U, and also bought a figure that had flexible hands. I swapped the hands on the figures, put the Colts uniform on the figure, and stuck the football into the flexible right hand with a toothpick. My uniform didn’t come with shoulder pads, so I invented some makeshift pads with some strap-on armor pieces from a G.I. Joe ninja figure. As a final touch, I created some stick-on numbers so that the uniform would be emblazoned with the famous number 19. Here is a picture of the final results:

Although I am now a Ravens fan, I will always think of the Colts as Baltimore’s team. Robert “Darth” Irsay may have bought the franchise and smuggled it to Indianapolis during the dark of night, but the heart and soul of what the team once was still exists in all fans old enough to remember.

Friday, September 29, 2006

MAJOR MATT MASON

Anyone who was not alive during the Apollo space missions cannot appreciate the excitement of those heady days. In recent years, the quest to land on the moon is often viewed cynically as a show of Cold War one-upsmanship or a chance for Lyndon Johnson to give some fat government contracts to his buddies in Houston. But for a young boy who knew nothing of politics, the space program was purely about adventure. Unlike those of previous generations, I couldn’t really believe that a man like Tarzan could exist, or that a lost world of roaming dinosaurs could have escaped man’s awareness on some uncharted island. But when it came to the moon and the planets beyond, that was anybody’s guess. We were venturing into the unknown, and in the process, creating new technologies that would benefit all mankind, like anti-gravity pens and Velcro and Tang. Okay, I’m being sarcastic here, but this stuff was really exciting to a kid.

Major Matt Mason was born in this environment of gee-whiz enthusiasm for the trek into space. The figure’s costume was based more or less on the Mercury and Gemini space suits. He stood about six inches tall, and was made of rubber with an inner wire frame for posing him in various positions. Today, he would be known as a “bendy.” The part about his anatomy that I found most disturbing was that his jointed areas (shoulders, elbows, and knees) were basically a series of rubber discs pressed together. It was as if he had no human joints. I kept thinking of that creepy rock group, The Way Outs, on The Flintstones.

Some of the initial accessories were also based on early designs of what the astronauts would need during their exploration of the moon. For example, there was this moon suit, which was featured in an old Popular Science magazine. I know because I had a copy of the issue, found in a box load of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines that my Uncle Clark gave me in the early 70s. By that time, we had visited the moon several times, and I don’t think Neal Armstrong would’ve been caught dead in this goofy monstrosity.

Some of the other accessories, particularly the later entries, were more fanciful in nature, putting Major Matt Mason somewhere between NASA and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. This was a set that I clearly remember having. It consisted of a flying jet pack for zipping around in space or across the lunar landscape. The back of the pack featured one of those hypnotic spinning swirls which was spun as you extended the jet pack’s tether. I got my tether tangled pretty quickly, rendering the hypnosis feature useless. If Matt preferred to fly with something under his feet, he could use the space sled, sort of like a jet ski for outer space. I wanted a real one of those as a kid!

The piece I most wanted was the one I knew I could never have: The Space Station. This three story high-tech headquarters represented the epitome of what futuristic space living was all about in the late 60s. Even as a pre-schooler, I had a sense of how far my parent’s generosity would extend, and I didn’t dare ask for a toy as big and elaborate as this. My friend Johnny, who got anything his heart desired, had one of these. I was so in awe, I wouldn’t even touch it. I only admired it from a safe distance.

Mattel continued to push the fantasy envelope with each new Major Matt Mason offering. Soon, the intrepid astronaut had alien friends like Callisto. This nonresident alien from Jupiter had a translucent green, heart-shaped head and cool green and black outfit. He was supposed to be Mason’s friend, but since he was green and featured a pissed off expression, I always made him the villain in my adventures. He also had a giant buddy from Mars called Captain Laser. At 12 inches in height, this guy towered over the Major, and was made of hard plastic. Thanks to some batteries (sold separately) and a few buttons in his jet pack, Captain Laser could make his eyes glow, his laser gun flash, and the color wheel on his chest pulsate. I loved this dude!

As I mentioned in previous posts, I was pretty good at losing my action figures. I believe I went through four Major Matt Masons. Pretty soon, I gave up on the Major and his pals. By the time I was in grade school, we had traveled to the moon and back several times. The novelty was over and Americans focused on the more dreary realities of Watergate, inflation, and the energy crisis. As the Apollo missions ground to a halt, so too did the Major Matt Mason toy line. We could no longer afford to expend time and energy on frivolous adventures like space travel. When the astronaut disappeared from the toy shelves, I felt no loss. I simply moved on to the next big thing. In retrospect, I think Major Matt Mason was a shameful loss, since he was one of the few figures who elicited a powerful sense of adventure without resorting to weapons or fisticuffs. Like the real NASA astronauts, he was a hero simply because he was willing to jump headlong into the unknown and show us what secrets the universe held.

(Note: the links in this post are to a Web site called Keith Meyer’s The Space Station: Major Matt Mason HQ. It’s a wonderful site to learn about all things related to Major Matt Mason.)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

CAPTAIN ACTION

At the risk of sounding a little weird, I always looked at my childhood experience with Captain Action as “the action figure that got away.” For reasons I still don’t know, my Captain Action disappeared rather quickly from my life. The fact is, I lost a lot of toys as a tot, and my favorites had the highest mortality rate, thanks primarily to the fact that I insisted on carrying them around everywhere and usually left them behind when my attentions were diverted elsewhere. I recall sitting in the child’s seat of a grocery cart, playing with one of my Major Matt Masons and dropping him. I called out, but my mother was too preoccupied with her shopping to realize what had happened. I still can see in my mind’s eye the image of the intrepid space explorer left on the surface of an alien world near the canned vegetables, disappearing into the mists of time.

My Captain Action figure must have met a similar fate, but I have no memory of it. I do, however, remember how he entered my life. In my town, we had a discount store called Two Guys. They had the most amazing toy department, far better than any of the larger department stores of the day. The Corgi cars were displayed in a glass case like fine jewelry, and the latest G.I. Joes were shown off to great effect in a display case where they were arranged in exciting dioramas. The department itself took up an area similar in size to the KayBee stores you now see in the malls. This was the first place I flocked to when we went to Two Guys, unless my mom insisted on dragging me through the women’s clothing section (oh, the horror!).

So anyway, the Two Guys toy department was the place where I saw all the great Captain Action stuff laid out. For those who don’t know, Captain Action was a multi-level toy. He was a super hero in his own right, complete with a sidekick, Action Boy, and a blue alien arch-villain named Dr. Evil (no relation to the Mike Myers’s creation of 30 years later). Captain Action had accessories like G.I. Joe, but his were more James Bond in style, like his anti-gravitational power pack, inter-spacial directional communicator, inter-galactic jet mortar, and his amphibian super-car The Silver Streak. That was one level: he had his own super hero persona. The second level was that he could also change into other established super heroes. There were no less than 13 different costumes, from DC favorites like Superman and Batman to Marvel guys like Spiderman and Captain America. Like a lot of kids in the late 60s, I was a huge fan of the Batman t.v. show, so the opportunity to dress up an action figure as Batman was a big thrill. I had to have Captain Action and at least the Batman costume.

The problem was that, I started on this obsession early in 1969, so Christmas was a long way off, and my birthday was not until August, so the chances of getting such a high ticket item for no particular reason other than I wanted it just wasn’t going to happen. I talked constantly about Captain Action to my parents, but the usual response was the expected response: “Maybe for your birthday,” or “Maybe you can ask Santa.” When you’re four years old, even a month is a lifetime. I couldn’t bear to wait.

As luck would have it, I came down with a really nasty fever that winter. I was completely wiped out, hardly able to move or eat. I think some chicken broth was about all I could stomach. One evening, as I lay on the living room sofa covered in several blankets, praying for the ability to screw off the top of my skull and pour ice water over my brain, my dad came home a little later than usual. He handed me a paper bag with the Two Guys logo imprinted on the side. He had a habit of getting me small gifts when I was sick, so I was expecting a coloring book or a puzzle. Instead, I pulled out a long box with Captain Action emblazoned across the front in bold red letters. For a few moments, I had no awareness of my fever. I opened up the box and found the man himself pinned in place by cardboard inserts. I freed him from his prison and equipped him with his trademark Captain’s hat, laser gun, and saber shaped like a lightning bolt. Captain Action was now officially in charge of ridding the Patterson household of evildoers, wherever they may lurk.

Over the following months, I really bonded with Captain Action in a way that was different from any other action figure. I think it had to do with that incredible head sculpt. Nowadays, it’s quite common for even the most mundane action figure to have a distinctive head sculpt, but in those early days of boy dolls, the heads tended to be pretty generic. G.I. Joe had no personality at all, and every G.I. Joe, even the African-American one, had the exact same face. Captain Action was distinct. He had a tough but friendly countenance, with a slightly bewildered expression, like he was always puzzling over some problem to overcome. You could sense that he took his job seriously.

Sadly, I don’t think my Captain Action made it to the end of the year. I probably left him at a relative’s house, or unknowingly discarded him in a store like Major Matt Mason, but he was soon gone. I have a photo here of me with my family and my maternal grandmother on Christmas 1969. I’m holding a figure dressed in the Captain Action Batman costume, but I suspect that is a G.I. Joe wearing the costume. I got both the Batman and the Captain America costume that Christmas, but Cap wasn’t around to wear them. To make matters worse, Ideal stopped producing Captain Action that same year, so I couldn’t get another one. For 30 years, I was haunted by the memory of Captain Action. I held a special place in my heart for my dearly departed friend. It wasn’t until 1999, when my then fianc√© got me the new reproduction Captain Action and Dr. Evil figures for my birthday. They weren’t as precisely recreated as I had hoped, but I felt like I was reconnecting with my old friend. The experience kicked off my renewed interest in action figures that carries on to this day.

Friday, September 22, 2006

SEASON PREMIERE OF NUMB3RS

Tonight begins the third season of one of my favorite shows, Numb3rs (10 p.m. on CBS). Through all the rapid fire editing of the preview, I could discern that F.B.I. agent Megan Reeves, played by the terrific Diane Farr, is kidnapped by some baddies. This alone is enough to draw me in.

The character of Megan Reeves was added last season, along with fellow agent Colby Granger. Both were welcome reinforcements, but I was particularly intrigued by Megan. I think it started with the opening credits, for she alone looked directly at me. Anyone who watches the show knows what I’m talking about. When each actor is shown in the opening credits, he or she is looking slightly off to stage left or stage right. But Megan looks me straight in the eye and smiles, like an old friend. That’s a hook. (Now I’m despairing that they might have changed that for the new season.)

Beyond the opening credits, Megan has proven to be a strong character who can more than stand her ground with an eclectic mix of male personas. It’s to the writers’ and producers’ credit that they didn’t fall into the Hollywood trap of casting an implausibly young bubblehead as the lone female F.B.I. agent just to draw young male viewers. Megan is tough when she needs to be, gentle and compassionate when the other guys aren’t, and smart all the time. Lesser actresses would simply muss up their hair and speak in a breathy, harried voice to suggest such a character. Diane Farr makes this character completely believable because she is an accomplished person in her own right. She seems completely natural in the role, and I’m sure she draws her fair share of young male viewers.

Having babbled all this, I can’t wait to see the season premiere and look forward to more exciting Friday nights. In honor of the premiere, I present my action figure version of Megan Reeves.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

MARX TOYS

One of the first companies to tackle Hasbro’s G.I. Joe success head on was Marx Toys. Best known for their elaborate playsets with hundreds of little pieces representing everything from historic battle scenes to futuristic space ports, Marx decided that they could use their plastic injection technology to make an 11 ½” solid plastic army figure similar to the mighty Joe. The result was Stony Smith – a 1/6th scale army man with a solid body molded in olive green plastic. Only the arms had articulation at the shoulders and elbows. This soldier could stand guard forever since he couldn’t sit down! The head and hands were molded from soft poly-vinyl.

Since the figure had molded on clothing like a statue, there were no detailed costumes to buy. Nor were there elaborately detailed accessories – all accessories were molded out of solid green plastic with no painting. However, unlike G.I. Joe where most of the accessories were sold separately, Stony Smith came with dozens of accessories in the same box as the figure. What Stony Smith lacked in quality, he more than made up for in quantity. For about the same price or less than a G.I. Joe, you got Stony and a complete set of equipment and weapons to wage war anywhere in the world. No nagging your parents for more accessory sets; this guy came prepared!

My brother was actually the one in our house who received Stony Smith as a Christmas present from our Aunt Mildred. As I pointed out in an earlier post, my brother never really got into the action figure movement. His early psyche had been influenced by car and weapon toys, so while he was technically still young enough to play with action figures, he never found them appealing. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by these figures even while still in diapers. I provide proof with this photo:

The second Marx figure to grace our home was their answer to James Bond – Mike Hazard, Double Agent. This to me was the ultimate Marx action figure, providing no less than 62 (!) accessories. Mike was a rather benign looking figure, but he came equipped with disguises and numerous spy gadgets to mix and match to your heart’s content. Again, my brother originally received the toy during a Secret Santa at school, but I quickly appropriated ol’ Mike as my own. The picture above shows me putting a disguise on Mike Hazard, one of many variations you could put together. The guns could be outfitted with various silencers, scopes, and rifle stocks to turn them into exotic weapons like those seen on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He even came with an exploding briefcase! Marx knew how to please rug rats back then!

Of course, the drawback to Mike Hazard was the very thing that made his so great: too many little pieces of plastic. As a rambunctious preschooler, there was no way I was going to keep track of all those bits for very long. One by one, the accessories were lost to the vacuum or the tall grass or my always hungry cocker spaniel. Once the accessories disappeared, Mike Hazard was no longer a double agent but an ordinary guy with a dumb smile. But in his prime, Mike and I saved a good chunk of the world from the communist menace.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

SEASON PREMIERE OF NCIS

NCIS has its season premiere tonight at 8 p.m. on CBS. Today also marks the birthday of one of its featured performers, David McCallum. Although I’m only a casual viewer of the show, I am a big fan of David McCallum, stemming from the fact that he co-starred with Robert Vaughn in one of the coolest shows of the 60s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum is one of those stars that you feel like you’ve grown up with. I’ve really enjoyed him in everything I’ve seen him do. He even delivered a good performance in the otherwise awful U.N.C.L.E. reunion movie from 1983.

On NCIS, McCallum plays medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard (yeah, I know, but it’s a Donald Bellisario production). Ducky is a rather uptight, bookish fellow who’s often dispensing advise and wisdom to his much younger co-workers. As with other roles, McCallum brings the character to life in a way that raises Ducky above what could be a caricature. He imbues the character with a certain charm and dignity that makes you really like him, even when he’s telling one of his rambling stories.

Anyway, in honor of the NCIS premiere and Mr. McCallum’s birthday, I present my custom action figure version of Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard. The head is a resin creation courtesy of Dale Van Slyke (visit his eBay store at Diver4’s Treasure Chest), attached to a generic action figure body. The doctor’s scrubs I purchased from Old Joe Infirmary. They have a terrific Web site where they sell individual pieces for custom action figure creations. Their address is (http://www.oldjoeinfirmary.com/).

I’ll get back to my usual childhood recollections tomorrow.

Friday, September 15, 2006

BIG JIM

Even as a child, I was never athletically inclined. Always a few pounds overweight, lacking in stamina, and possessing the worst hand/eye coordination, I never could excel in any sport. Besides, I was so full of imagination, I much preferred fantasizing about amazing adventures with my action figures than confining myself to the rigid rules and procedures of a game. As a result, I developed a disinterest in sports and a dislike for those who excelled in sports, i.e., the jocks.

Big Jim was a jock. Unlike Action Jackson, who had outfit sets for any variety of activities from combat soldier to fire fighter, Big Jim’s whole milieu revolved around sports activities. He played soccer, football, baseball, and, of course, practiced karate. In fact, his gimmick was a push button in the middle of his back that lowered his right arm in a quick chopping motion. This was not a plus in my book. Just like the circle of bullet holes in Talking G.I. Joe’s chest, a collapsible back was not natural and kinda creepy.

But I digress.

During the summer of ’72, I was firmly in the Action Jackson camp. My friend Dave had a Big Jim, so we would play together, but the bulky, 9-inch Big Jim looked positively Hulk-like next to puny Action Jackson. Oh well, we had big imaginations. For my birthday that summer, a well-meaning but action figure-impaired relative bought me a Big Jim Rescue Rig. It was a cool piece of equipment, with the cherry picker on top, but it was way outsized for my Action Jackson, so I talked my mother into getting me Big Josh. He had a beard. Somehow, he seemed to me like a lumberjack rather than a jock like Big Jim. That was how I tentatively entered the world of Big Jim, but that was about it. In 1974, I asked for a Big Jim lunchbox to take to school only because it was one of the first all-plastic lunchboxes. Unfortunately, after carrying about three months worth of lunches, the plastic absorbed all the smells of the various inhabitants and turned into one God-awful stench. If you can imagine peanut butter, salami, tuna fish, and Fritos blended together, you get the idea. The all-plastic thermos was worse. Sure, it didn’t have a glass liner to break on you, but the plastic quickly smelled like sour milk. I threw it out before Thanksgiving and brown-bagged it the rest of the year.

I regained interest in Big Jim briefly around 1976 when they came out with the W.O.L.F. Pack. The team consisted of a much more macho looking Big Jim, a bald guy with a chrome hand called Dr. Steel, a lumberjack looking guy with a big whip called (imaginatively) The Whip, and a Native American stereotype called Warpath.

I think I fell for these guys mainly because of the box art, done by the comic book genius Jack Kirby. I was a sucker for his bold style, and bought some of these figures. Of course, by this time, I was approaching puberty and admitting to owning action figures was a bit like saying you wore dresses and danced to Captain and Tennille records in your room. Okay, that one time, but that’s all!

Big Jim fizzled out in America around this time anyway. I’ve since learned from the Internet that Big Jim continued on to great success in Europe. The costumes and accessories followed themes more closely related to espionage and science fiction rather than sports. If only he had started out that way in the states, I may have ditched Action Jackson a lot earlier.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

ACTION JACKSON

In the spring of 1972, G.I. Joe was the dominant action figure on the market (I’ll discuss some of the also-rans in later entries). Then these commercials started popping up on my local UHF station during their cartoons/Little Rascals/Three Stooges sessions between 3 and 5 p.m. They showed an animated figure morphing into a fireman, motorcyclist, and any number of exciting people. Then it would shift from animation to a real life action figure dressed up in any number of outfits. He wasn’t limited to adventure, rescue stuff either. He could be a football player or a cowboy or a karate expert. As the jingle promised, “Think of what you want to be, then call on me!” (For complete information on Action Jackson, check out http://www.megomuseum.com/actionjackson/index.html.)

The new action figure was Action Jackson. Once again, I was mesmerized by these commercials. Action Jackson promised even more than the Adventure Team could. In fact, the FCC felt the commercials promised too much and almost sunk the toy before it got off the launching pad. It seems the animated segments at the beginning of each commercial were against the regulations of the day regarding commercials aimed at children. I don’t know why adults back then thought kids were so stupid that they couldn’t distinguish between animation and a real toy. I guess it was the same people that were afraid kids would staple other kids’ nostrils together just because the Three Stooges did it. Okay, there was that one time, but….

Anyway, there was one aspect of the commercials that did mislead me, and that was with regard to Action Jackson’s size. Since the commercials featured few shots of the toy next to an average-sized boy, I assumed that Mr. Jackson was the same size as the other 1/6th scale figures that were on the market at the time. However, a trip to the local discount store revealed that he was only 8 inches tall. Not only that, his body and limbs were rather scrawny, and his face, which seemed rugged on screen, looked sallow and sickly. I was beginning to lose faith.

On the last day of second grade, my mom presented me with my own Action Jackson. We didn’t have graduation ceremonies for elementary school kids back then, but this toy was better than a fake diploma. Once I had ol’ Action in my chubby hands, I warmed up to him. In fact, I found his smaller size easier to handle than the bulky Joes, plus he had fewer points of articulation, so he didn’t become bent into weird positions during moments of action. Even his face grew on me.

Since Mego was about the cheapest toy company around at the time, poor Mr. Jackson came with nothing more than a blue jumpsuit and boots. I had to promptly nag my mother into buying me a couple of the numerous outfit sets available. I got the safari set (I was fond of the old Jungle Jim movies on t.v.) and the secret agent set (very similar to the G.I. Joe Mission to Spy Island set, but without the raft). I also finagled mom into getting me the strap-on helicopter. This was like James Bond’s jet pack in Thunderball, only it used a helicopter rotor rather than jets for lift. My memories of the summer of ’72 are completely wrapped around Action Jackson. I can remember playing safari in the tall grass of the backyard on hot afternoons, or secret agent while the Israeli Olympic team was taken hostage on t.v. I remember getting the Action Jackson amphi-cat for my birthday, right around the time that the Olympic Games resumed.

From what I’ve read, Action Jackson was not a huge seller for Mego, but from where I stood, he was the most remarkable toy since, well, G.I. Joe himself. For Christmas that year, I got more costumes and a black Action Jackson along with a blonde or red-headed one (not too sure about the hair color). Other figures were coming along, such as Big Jim and Mego’s super hero line, but I remained fairly loyal to Action Jackson.

Later on, I picked up Amigo, the figure offered as a Wards Exclusive. I was always a sucker for these “exclusives” offered by Wards and Sears in their Christmas catalogues. Usually, they were inferior, slapped-together pieces of junk just to be used as sales gimmicks. Amigo fit right into that category. Although the head and torso was roughly the same as a Jackson, his arms were bendy rubber and his legs were completely rigid. He also had two right feet! I think I threw him away after one of the rubber arms broke.

I said I was fairly loyal to Action Jackson from 1972 to 1974, but I wasn’t completely faithful. I still played with G.I. Joes, and I dabbled in the world of Big Jim. More on that next time…