Wednesday, December 13, 2006


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 fiancée (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.

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