Wednesday, November 22, 2006


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


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


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


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.