We recently had the good fortune to review a copy of Mark Bellomo’s newest book, “Totally Tubular ‘80s Toys” and ask the author a few questions. If you haven’t seen this book, it is a veritable treasure trove of information on the toys of the 80s. With great photography of the toys and a year-by-year structure, this is as much a reference work as it is a fun trip down memory lane. For each year, he leads off the chapter with all the movies, TV, music and cultural happenings of that year so that the toys are placed squarely within their cultural context.
LT80’s: I love how the introduction starts, “Was there ever a better time to be a kid than in the ‘80s? Oh sure, people who grew up in other decades may feel differently, but they are wrong.” We quite agree. Tell us a little about you. How old were you in the 80s? What made the 80s the best time to be a kid?
MB: In the early 1980’s I was turning the corner from elementary school to middle school, and regarded American popular culture with wonder and amazement. I attribute this to the fact that I spent a LOT of time by myself during my most formative years: both by choice and as a matter of necessity. As a kid, I was raised with a European upbringing, and my mother (who is a Belgian émigré) and Italian-American father each worked seven days a week. Although this type of childhood (one that thankfully stressed cultural acceptance and tolerance) gave me an immeasurable advantage when I left my hometown of Seneca Falls in Central New York (a town which many claim to be Capra’s inspiration for Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful Life) to pursue a post-secondary education, as a kid I was often left on the outside looking in: INITIALLY, I didn’t watch the same shows, wear the same clothes, ride the same model of bike, affect myself in the same manner as the rest of the kids in my school, and so I was branded a pariah.
Yet, as a result of this early ostracism, I immersed myself in all aspects of escapist fantasy and feasted on the heart of the 1980’s: Marvel and DC comic books during the heyday of many brilliant comic book runs and mini/maxi-series such as Roger Stern’s The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers, Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again, Batman: Year One, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s The Watchmen and Swamp Thing, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and The Doom Patrol, and Neil Gaiman’s Cages and The Sandman, as well as TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons role playing game (I believe this was around the time of the third revision of the basic rules, and supplemented of course with the inimitable Dragon Magazine), science fiction and escapist fantasy novels (such as Weis and Hickman’s ingenious and revolutionary Dragonlance Saga), and the endless world(s) of action figures and other toy lines—video games, plush toys, board games, trading cards, etc.
Ahh… the TOYS. The magnificent toys of the 1980’s! You ask me, “What made the 1980’s the BEST time to be a kid?” Well… most specifically, it was when President Ronald Reagan de-regulated children’s television in 1983 in order to increase revenues for toy companies. This ruling opened the floodgates and allowed corporations such as Hasbro, Mattel, and Kenner to concoct (no, to FINELY CRAFT) some of the most ingenious, well-constructed toys in American history.
For instance, if you take a look at the 7 ½’ long G.I. Joe aircraft carrier that Hasbro released in 1985 (named the “USS Flagg”), you’ll note its massive combat desk chock full of play features: a three-level superstructure that essentially functioned as both mission central and the crew’s quarters, an admiral’s launch lifeboat, and a working sound system (among many other unique play features). Early on in the line’s development, the accessories, playsets, vehicles, and weapons systems were created only after Hasbro’s design team were sent on field trips to compile research at Natick Army Labs (currently the “U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center) and other real-life military facilities. Which toy company in the year 2011 would send their toy designers out to gather empirical data in order to simply construct a better toy?
Fortunately, it was those companies’ development of canonical television shows—which were essentially half-hour long toy commercials—that launched these toy lines into the hearts and minds of American children and into the collective consciousness as media franchises that would endure for 25-30+ years. The well-rendered back-stories and fictional worlds that these companies created for their toy lines (thanks to the minds of Jim Shooter, Donald Glut, Larry Hama, and Bob Budiansky) allowed myself and millions of other kids to find solace in a singularly wonderful brand of escapism, where Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance battled the black-robed Darth Vader and his master’s evil Empire; where the elite G.I. Joe team fought against the terrorist organization of Cobra Command, where the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons traveled to Earth to co-opt our planet’s natural resources in order to save their home planet—the techno-organic world of Cybertron, and where He-Man and his noble Masters of the Universe battled the sinister Skeletor and his deadly hordes of menacing warriors.
Everyone knows these stories nowadays; everyone knows Luke Skywalker, Optimus Prime, He-Man, and Lion-O…
And let’s not forget the many fabulous toy offerings for girls that I watched my younger sister collect and have recently delved into collecting for myself: Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite, Cabbage Patch Kids, Jem and the Holograms, Glamour Gals, the Care Bears, and many, many others.
The 1980’s was CERTAINLY a great time to be a kid.
LT80’s: Your book pursues the idea that the toys of the decade are a natural result of their cultural context. Talk to us about how the cultural climate of the 80s can be seen in its toys.
MB: Toys do not exist in a vacuum—they are artifacts that reflect current mores of popular culture. For instance, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe line was created in the early 1980’s as a direct result of the many different cultural and political factors which influenced the toy industry: e.g. the patriotic fervor that gripped the U.S. in 1980 as a result of the triumph of the amateur U.S. Hockey Team over our dreaded opponents of the Cold War—the Russians; the Reagan Era of pro-American sentiment, Reaganomics, and the President’s aforementioned deregulation of children’s television (which would profoundly affect children from 1983 until the present day); and many other factors such as trends in fashion, music, and economics which would conglomerate to impact “Generation X-ers”—those of us who were born between 1961-1981, according to the 1991 book Generations.
More pointedly, if we look a bit closer at Reagan’s handling of the toy industry, his manipulation of the FCC allowed Americans to witness a generation-level bombardment of adolescents with mass-marketing—from breakfast cereals to clothing to films to dolls and action figures to clothing to television programming to video game systems. Corporations wished to cash in on Gen X’s amalgamation of capital which they made via their allowances and through their afterschool, weekend, and summer jobs. Gen X’ers didn’t have the need to ask mom and dad for money anymore, as these kids pursued their own means of making a buck.
This is not to say that the 1980’s was the very first time that teenagers had money, but it was the first time that they were courted so blatantly by the media for their cash. These poor kids were no match for such a powerful force which urged them to yield to this absurd degree of demanding media pressure. Of course, we all know that SPENDING this hard-earned cash is always MUCH easier than working for it. Even back in the 1980’s many of these toys we knew and loved were prohibitively expensive. Heck, I was searching through my boxed Atari and Intellivision games just last week and took a glance at the price tags on these systems’ game cartridges: newly-released Atari cartridges from the early eighties sold for between $49.99 and $59.99 each. And these prices are NOT adjusted for inflation! Could you imagine plunking down $59.99 back in 1981 for Intellivision’s Tron Deadly Discs, Colecovision’s Donkey Kong, or Atari’s Space Invaders? That’s the same cost as a new X-Box 360, Wii or Playstation 3 game today!
LT80’s: How do you feel about all the re-makes of 80s movies being made? Specifically, how do you feel about the new iterations of iconic 80s cartoons/toys like The Smurfs (scheduled for release later this year)?
MB: I LOVE the fact that there are so very many “re-makes” being produced for the past ten years! Remember, in the late 1970’s, Generation X-ers were treated to many curious super-hero programs on television—all of which never made it to the big screen. Among these: CBS’ singular thirteen-episode Amazing Spider-Man program (1977-1979) starring Nicholas Hammond which performed well but was cancelled in spite of this; the über-successful Wonder Woman series featuring Lynda Carter (which ran for one season on ABC before CBS [the 70’s “superhero network”] picked it up for two more); and I witnessed a memorable performance by Bill Bixby that foiled his belligerent gamma-irradiated alter ego (played by Lou Ferrigno) in the long-running hit The Incredible Hulk. And let’s not forget the brief and peculiar small screen appearances of Dr. Strange, Daredevil, and even the Mighty Thor.
More recently, the super hero film renaissance—which began in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men franchise, which, combined with Sam Raimi’s trio of successful Spider-Man movies and Christopher Nolan’s lucrative and critically-acclaimed Batman films helped to establish the legitimacy of the super hero film genre and ushered in a new age of super hero filmmaking which has lasted well into the current new decade with such blockbusters as Thor, Green Lantern, and Captain America. More importantly (and more germane to the discussion), other licensed fantasty/super hero/sci-fi properties from the 1980’s have followed suit: from G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra to Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy.
And now, the floodgates begin to open on other 80’s properties: this year we’ll see the aforementioned live action-CGI hybrid Smurfs film, we’ll receive a Voltron cartoon which will premiere on Nicktoons, and even the revered ThunderCats will see an animated revival by STUDIO4°C and Warner Bros. Animation as well.
The most miraculous aspect of it all is that when I walk down the toy aisles of any major department store, I am confronted by all the toys that children growing up in the 1980’s loved the most: Star Wars, G.I. Joe, WWE (well WWF) wrestlers, Pound Puppies, Marvel and DC Comics super-heroes, Transformers, Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, Masters of the Universe (as Toys ‘R Us Exclusives), and even the (soon to be) ThunderCats. The 80’s are back with a vengeance. And it’s JUST wonderful.
LT80’s: You mention in the book that all the toys featured in its pages are from your own collection. That is a mighty impressive toy collection! How many toys would you estimate you own? How do you store them?
MB: In my opinion, my collection is essentially my life’s most important work. Even though I’ve written scholarly articles on Hemingway and Faulkner and Madox Roberts and Penn Warren, and I’ve created multiple college-level textbooks, and I’ve authored nearly 250 articles on pop culture and action figures and six books on toys (and contributing heavily to another three tomes), of all these accomplishments, I’m most proud of my vast toy (and comic book) collection. When I kick back and think of the hours upon hours and days upon days that morphed into weeks upon weeks that would eventually transform into years upon years of time spent tracking down a certain figure, accessory, or playset part… I’ve dedicated more time into compiling this massive collection than anything else in my life. Every Saturday morning I spend a few hours recording all of my new comic book acquisitions into a 211-page document titled “Comic Books 2011” and my new toys & action figures into a 173-page document titled “Toys 2011.”
Perhaps the best illustration of how “higgledy-piggledy” my life is (in respect to collectibles), would be to point you in the direction of the YouTube film titled The Collectable Spectacle: Mark Bellomo. If you analyze this independent movie made in 2009/2010 by Flophouse Films in anticipation of the release of my second edition of The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe: 1982-1994, you’ll realize that what I do (writing books, drafting articles, constructing essays, building a website) is a one man operation: It’s just me. And lots of space to store the stuff; OODLES of space, such as two 15’ x 20’ storage spaces. AND a full attic. AND a full office. AND a full basement. AND a full dining room. AND a full living room. AND a full garage. AND one more 10 x 15 storage space about 250 miles away (a space reserved JUST for comic books).
The vast amount of toys, collectibles, and comics I’ve amassed comprises a pretty big collection: this is both good and bad. As stated by Mr. Adrian Monk on more than one occasion, “It’s a blessing AND a curse.” It’s a blessing that I’m the only individual who could be involved in maintaining my massive collection because I’m the only person who knows where everything is located… yet it’s a curse because I’m the only individual who could POSSIBLY be involved in maintaining this massive collection because I’m the only person who knows where everything is located (!).
Apart from memorizing what toys I have and what toys I need, and beyond that–which weapons and accessories go with each respective individual toy and toy line–I must also contend with the immeasurable amount of recording & categorizing that takes place with each of these artifacts. Then there’s preserving & protecting the toys, and buying & selling (I only sell doubles and triples of toys and comics—furthermore, if I have one particular toy Mint in Box and the same one Mint Loose and Complete—I’ll keep BOTH samples).
Maintaining a collection of this magnitude is VERY time consuming; it’s one of the reasons I work nineteen-to-twenty hours a day. But I digress: Getting back to the 18-part Collectable Spectacle—many people who watched that documentary were VERY upset at me for the way I kept my collection because some items were literally shoved into paper-thin plastic grocery bags. Unfortunately, since writing books on these artifacts is NOT my ONLY job, I can only spend so much time organizing my collection: I run an entire department at a college where I have to report our units’ production to the USED (United States Department of Education), since our department is entirely grant-funded. For my university, I write multi-million-dollar grants in order to obtain the operating costs for the staff and programs for our entire department for a five-year period (my department’s goal is to “level the academic playing field” for first-generation, income-eligible [essentially low-income] students attending our university).
Although I’m (nearly) always overwhelmed with work to the point of exasperation, fans of my books shouldn’t fear that I’ll stop writing and working on new projects. Based on the outpouring of concern and overwhelming unconditional positive regard as a result of the aforementioned YouTube documentary, I’m QUITE DETERMINED to upgrade the methods of preserving my collectibles—an amalgamation of artifacts consisting of the multitude of toys and comics featured in my books and articles: 30,000+ toys and 120,000+ comic books.
My collection is so vast that I’m essentially postponing my next book (which I can’t talk about since I’ve signed an NDA [non-disclosure agreement]) in order to better clean, preserve, record, and inventory my various toy lines. Moreover, in order to best place the size of my holdings in the minds of collectors, here’s a rundown of the toy lines I own (please note each and every toy in all of these lines are—at minimum—mint (c-8.5+-C-10), loose (no package), and complete (with ALL appropriate accessories and USUALLY paperwork as well [e.g. Transformers’ tech specs, G.I. Joe file cards or blueprints, etc.]), and oftentimes my collection is supplemented with hundreds (thousands?) of extra samples of boxed and carded pieces:
Complete vintage domestic 3 ¾” and 12” Star Wars collection (every figure, vehicle, creature, playset, weapon, carrying case, accessory, etc.); complete POTF, POTJ, Shadows of the Empire, Episode I, II, III collection—3 ¾” & 12” (every figure, vehicle, creature, playset, weapon, carrying case, etc.) + MANY 12” Sideshow Exclusives…; complete vintage domestic 3 ¾” G.I. Joe collection (every figure, vehicle, weapon system, accessory, playset, etc. [1982-1994]); complete modern domestic 3 ¾” G.I. Joe collection (every figure, vehicle, weapon system, accessory, playset, etc. [1997-present]); complete vintage Generation One Transformers collection, + MANY samples from every other line (G2, Armada, Alternators, Japanese Exclusives (e.g Headmasters, Godmasters), Armada, Cybertron, Masterpiece, Animated, etc.); complete vintage Masters of the Universe collection (every figure, vehicle, playset, creature, accessory, etc.), complete MOTU Reissue collection, and complete MOTU Classics collection; complete M.A.S.K. collection (every figure, vehicle, weapon and accessory [including Laser Command and some Euro Exclusives]); complete Mego Official World’s Greatest Super-Hero collection (every figure [and a few accessories/playsets, eg. The Batcave and the Hulk Hide-Away] including Secret Identity Outfits and Teen Titans: all MIB or MOC except for the playsets and accessories)…
…and here’s a list of the toy lines that a I either have a complete collection of, or near-complete: A-Team (6” + 3 ¾”—both complete [missing the 6” headquarters, of course...]), Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (near-complete—ONLY missing shield-shooter Young Male Titan [!] and Tiamat [of course], including the line’s PVC and bendable figures), Alpha Flight, Avengers (Toy Biz), Batman: The Animated Series (+ Batman: the New Adventures; The Adventures of Batman & Robin, Mask of the Phantasm, Mission Masters, and Batman: the Movie [mostly figures except for the original animated Batmobile [MISB] and the Batcave Command Center [MIB]), Battle Beasts (figures only—Series 1-3 only [a VERY few select Laser Beasts]), Battlestar Galactica (vintage Mattel [yup... with both Daggits]), Beetlejuice (figures only), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (figures only), Bionic Six (figures only), Blackstar (missing Mara; figures only), Bravestarr, Buck Rogers (3 ¾” Mego; figures only), Captain Action (have ALL the reissues by Playing Mantis; slowly accumulating the originals…), Captain Power & the Soldiers of the Future (figures only), Care Bears (a full set of 13” plush including the two babies and Grams Bear; no plastic figures), Centurions, Charlie’s Angels (figures only), ChiPs, Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos, Clash of the Titans (minus the Kraken…), C.O.P.S.’ n Crooks (only missing the C.O.P.S. Air Raid helicopter and the Crooks’ Roadster [have both drivers of these vehicles]), DC Comics Super-Heroes (figures only), DC Direct 6” (too many to list), DC Direct 13” (Deluxe figures; too many to list), DC Universe Classics (full run—both single-carded and multi-packed), Defenders of the Earth (figures only), Dukes of Hazzard (complete 3 ¾” and 8” collection), Family Guy (20+ figures), Fantastic Four (Toy Biz, 1990’s, full run), Futurama, Ghostbusters [The Real], G.I. Joe Hall of Fame, G.I. Joe 12” Commemorative Collection, Go-Bots (not a full collection; 40+ pieces…), Green Lantern Classics (full run), Happy Days (Mego originals + Classic TV Toys reissues & new characters), Hulk Classics, Incredible Hulk (1990’s series), Indiana Jones—The Adventures of, Inspector Gadget (12” Galoob figure), Legends of the Lone Ranger (3 ¾” figures only), Marvel Famous Covers, Marvel Legends (full run—both Toy Biz and Hasbro—single-carded and multi-packed), Marvel Super-Heroes (1990’s series), M*A*S*H* (every 3 ¾” figure, vehicle, and playset), M.U.S.C.L.E. (all 235 domestic figures), Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Police Academy (missing the mail-away Captain Harris of course…), Princess of Power Collection (every figure [except for a MOSC Loo-Kee], vehicle, playset, creature, and accessory [missing four of the rarer Fabulous Fashions]), Rambo and the Forces of Freedom (without the second series characters [as of yet]), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (without the Sherwood Forest playset), Robocop (Kenner series, figures only), Robotech (Matchbox series, all figures, playset, and some vehicles), Robotech (Harmony Gold series, all figure variations, some vehicles), Rock Lords (series 1-3 complete, some select others…), Secret Wars, Marvel Super Heroes (full domestic collection), Sectaurs (full collection), Shogun Warriors (full domestic 24” collection), Silver Hawks (full domestic collection—figures only), Six Million Dollar Man (near-complete collection—missing Venus Space Probe, Bionic Mission Vehicle, and S.M.D.M. Biosonic Arm [of course...]), Smurfs (a “hefty” collection of figures and playsets), Spawn (many dozens upon dozens), Spider-Man: The Animated Series (full set of figures, assorted other items), Spider-Man Classics (full run of first series; only villains from the second series), Star Trek: The Next Generation (Galoob), Star Trek: The Next Generation (Playmates; assortments 1-5 plus 1701 series; with a few playsets), Star Trek (full Mego series), Super Powers (full collection), Superman: The Animated Series (figures only), Talespin (figures only), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (first four years+; all figures, select playsets and vehicles [Technodrome, Sewer Playset, etc.]), ThunderCats (full series except Tongue-A-Saurus), Tick (figures only), Total Justice (full series), Tron (full series; figures only), Video Games (Atari 2600, 5200, Intellivision, Colecovision, and many other systems in mint condition with a minimum of 20+ cartridges each [each cartiridge has its original box and instructions]), Vintage Board Games & Puzzles (from Pictionary MISB to Trivial Pursuit Genus I MISB to the original Rubik’s Cube, Missing Link, magic Snake, etc [all MISB]), Visionaries (full series except for two vehicles), Voltron (Matchbox: I-III complete), Voltron (Panosh Place: full series), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (full series except for Bennie the Cab), Wizard of Oz (Mego, full series except for Munchkins & Munchkinland playset), World’s Greatest Heroes of the American West (full series), World’s Greatest Mad Monsters (full series), World’s Greatest Robin Hood & His Merry Men (full series), World’s Greatest Super-Knights (full series), World’s Greatest Pirates (full series), Wrestling (WWF: LJN’s Wrestling Superstars; many figures), X-Men (1990’s series; X-Force, X-Men, etc.; all figures), X-Men 2099 (full series), X-Men: Generation X (full series), X-Men: New Mutants (full series).
And then there are the toy lines that I have just a FEW samples of, such as Alf (plush), Alvin & the Chipmunks, Annie…the World Of, Barbie (Astronaut, Western, and a set of original Barbie and the Rockers), Barnyard Commandos, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (select figures), Bionic Woman (1st and 2nd versions, Bucky O’Hare, California Raisins (original hardee’s PVC’s), Crystar, Darkwing Duck, Dick Tracy (figures only), Dino Riders (quite a few—all MLC), Dragonriders of the Styx, E.T. (both the larger poseable and smaller PVC figures), Evel Knievel, Food Fighters, Gremlins, Gummi Bears (PVC set only), Hot Wheels (Crack-Ups, Flip-Outs, and a few Sizzlers from the seventies), Infaceables, Inhumanoids, Inspector Gadget (Tiger Toys), Karate Kid, Knight Rider, Michael Jackson (12”), Micro Machines, Micronauts (Mego), Mork and Mindy, Muppet Babies (plush, Hasbro Softies), a few Planet of the Apes (Mego), a few New Kids on the Block dolls with their Stage playset (don’t ask…), Pound Puppies & Pound Purries, Robocop (both the Kenner & Toy Island series—just a few samples of each…), Saga of Crystar (some figures), Simpsons (select figures), Skeleton Warriors (a few select items…), Sky Commanders (select figures), Starting Lineup (select figures), Super Naturals (select few), Teddy Ruxpin (MIB with extra outfits), Toxic Crusaders (select figures).
Keep in mind that I also have a lot of pre-production and post-production toy information, paperwork, etc. that hasn’t seen the light of day; and WILL NOT until my website is up and running.
LT80’s: Are you surprised that toys like My Little Pony, Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake are still readily available and as popular as ever? What do you think accounts for their timeless appeal?
MB: My WORD, no. I’m NEVER surprised by the timeless appeal of toy franchises that were established in the 1980’s, regardless if these franchises were created for girls OR boys. The success of these brands to create revenue for their respective companies has never ceased to amaze me or any other die-hard collector. But on a less clinical note, the appeal of characters such as Strawberry Shortcake, Blueberry Muffin, Orange Blossom, Funshine Bear, Grumpy Bear, and Share Bear has endured the test of time. However, it should be noted that when a company tweaks these beloved franchises too much—although these updated toy lines are warmly embraced by children—devoted aficionados often rail against the new products.
For instance, even though American Greetings/Hasbro’s Strawberry Shortcake characters and American Greetings/Mattel’s Holly Hobbie personalities still capture the essential formulae and flavors of the dolls’ original late-seventies/early-eighties personalities, the characters’ physical molds look FAR different and more modern: Strawberry Shortcake and Holly Hobbie and their friends resemble modern, trendy and hip teenagers now, whereas their original manifestations bore a more striking resemblance to young children (you can recognize this by yourself by heading to American Greeting’s website.
You see, when a company “updates” and “improves upon” these 30+ year old characters, the original devoted followers/collectors of the brand (or as I like to refer to them—“purists”) sometimes… well… lose their minds and denounce the proposed changes. I often have to talk these collectors off the proverbial ledge and explain to them that companies such as Hasbro and Mattel MUST appeal to the current generation of adolescent consumers since these kids—in almost every case—comprise a much greater retail market share than do adult collectors. It’s VERY important that large toy companies sell their toys to children for the simple reason that consecutive generations of new kids (as consumers) allow a franchise to endure over time; if children become accustomed and habituated to a particular brand, they will remain loyal to that brand as long as quality products are offered for their consumption.
LT80’s: In your opinion, what were the best 5 toys of the 80’s?
MB: WOW. Many people ask me this question, and some of my answers will—for the most part—come as no surprise. The old standards are the old standards for a reason—because they’re items from fabulous toy lines. However, I’ve added a few zingers to make toy collectors think a little bit. Since I’ve ALWAYS been a PLAYSET fan, this list is playset heavy. And it’s ten items long instead of five, considering the wide variety of toy lines available from 1980-1989. Any-hoo… here’s what I could come up with (in the order of my MOST favorite placed first on the list):
#1) G.I. Joe—U.S.S. Flagg Aircraft Carrier (Hasbro, 1985): Perhaps the greatest vehicle-playset ever made, this 7 ½’ Aircraft Carrier with three-story superstructure and working sound system graced many living room floors during the holiday season of 1985. The “Flagg” was the vehicle that made every boy in the neighborhood jealous, and like every other playset on this list included many dozens of intricate parts that are nearly impossible-to-find in loose samples which is why these complex playsets command such ridiculously high prices on the secondary market. With a detailed arrestor cable that holds a Skystriker Combat Jet (XP-14F) onto the carrier’s command deck and an Admiral’s Launch lifeboat that lowers itself into the water (if the U.S.S. Flagg floated), this playset is regarded with profound reverence by thousands of collectors across the United States.
#2) [He-Man and the...] Masters of the Universe—Eternia playset (Mattel, 1987): When I bought this magnificent playset off of eBay seven years ago, my postal carrier rang our doorbell and my wife answered the door. Confronted by a 4’ x 3’ box, she thought that I had ordered a new stove for our kitchen. Fortunately (or unfortunately in her case), the box contained the most intricate, delicate, and detailed toy in the domestic Masters of the Universe toy line: the Eternia ultimate battleground playset. With three huge towers connected by a motorized monorail system, three monorail tram vehicles (the Battle Tram, Sky Cage, and Jet Pack Fighter), and over FIFTY action-packed features and accessories such as the laser-blaster cannon, Eternia blew my mind. The 31” tall central tower has four floors (a base, two mid-levels, and top level parapet) with elevator access, a super-detailed moat, drawbridge, “guard lion” with opening & closing jaws and capturing arms, computer console with movable chair, and three position-able flags. The other two towers were designed to mimic the style of the other two major MOTU playsets: the Grayskull Tower (with prison chamber and “falling” gate) is reminiscent of the Sorceress’ Castle Grayskull, while the Viper Tower (with four chain supports and a striking serpent head) evokes the design of Skeletor’s sinister Snake Mountain. Furthermore, after removing Eternia from its shipping box and assembling the vast playset, I discovered that I could assemble the largest action figure play area in existence if I attached the included Snake Ramp from Eternia’s Viper Tower to Snake Mountain and Eternia’s Castle Ramp to Castle Grayskull. I was thunderstruck; my wife was speechless. It was wonderful.
#3) Robotech—SDF-1 playset (Matchbox, 1985): Please note that this is NOT the transformable, compact, hard-plastic SDF-1 spaceship itself (ca. 1984), it is the HUGE chipboard and plastic playset produced in conjunction with Matchbox’s 3 ¾” Robotech action figure line. I’ve only seen one complete playset in my life on the Internet (at http://www.toyarchive.com/Robotech/st4/vehsdfp.html), and I convinced the gentleman who owned the site to sell it to me. I bought it MIB—complete with instructions and spent sticker sheets. This SDF-1 playset is one of my most prized possessions and is utterly irreplaceable. You MUST follow the above link to the images to believe that this playset even existed; it’s massive, intricate, delicate, and absolutely appropriate to use as a docking station for both your Veritech Fighters and Mechas.
#4) Glamour Gals—Ocean Queen cruise ship playset (Kenner, 1982): Another “girls’ toy” playset that staggers the imagination. At 3’ long and over 2’ high (!!!) and including over 50 accessories, the Ocean Queen should be the centerpiece of an action figure aficionado’s collection (accessories include: 6 dinner chairs, dinner table, table cloth, microphone, 2 captain’s chairs, bars of gold, hair dryer, 18 various sized bottles, beauty chair, doctor’s exam chair, dresser divider, 2 shuffleboard sticks, 6 shuffleboard pucks, 2 hooks for lifeboat, lifeboat, 3 lounge chairs, 3 deck chairs, 3 towels, bed, bedspread, end table, phone, easy chair, telescope, railing, heart shaped pool, 2 ladders, ship flags, stickers, etc.; for a quick image, here’s the ship. Since Kenner’s Glamour Gals stand at approximately 4.25 inches tall and possess rooted hair, fabric accoutrements, and hard and soft plastic accessories, they were young girls’ equivalent of G.I. Joe or Star Wars figures.Guys: don’t be afraid of this line—although Kenner didn’t make this ship with your G.I. Joe, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones figures in mind, feel free to use your Mego 3 ¾” Love Boat characters with impunity (you can also nab the very rare Glamour Gals Ocean Queen Crew Set).
#5) Strawberry Shortcake—Berry Happy Home playset (Kenner, 1983): Good luck at finding one of these puppies absolutely complete—you’ll be essentially signing on a second mortgage. I don’t own one myself (I’m waiting until one pops up “absolutely complete” online…), but I have seen one in person, and the scale of the playset and detail of the accessories is totally overwhelming. Sadly, oftentimes male action figure fans forget the appeal of Kenner’s Strawberry Shortcake line at their own peril. Why… because it’s a girls’ toy line? Are they afraid of catching “cooties” (you know, they make SHOTS for that disease [“...circle, circle / dot, dot...”])? Regardless, the Berry Happy Home was sold as a “starter kit” with the bare-bones home itself, followed by Kenner producing add-on furniture which was sold to children in sets according to room(s) within the home (there are seven rooms total): dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living room, attic, the fun room (the rarest room to furnish). Think about $1,000-1,200+ for a loose complete set in mint condition. But I have YET to find one; I’ve been looking for six months.
#6) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—Technodrome (Playmates, 1990): Released in the third year of the original TMNT line, the Technodrome is the ultimate Turtles’ playset and best exemplifies an oft-underappreciated toy line among Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformer, and Masters of the Universe collectors (aficionados of the “Big Four” action figure lines). Although the Turtles of the late 1980’s were marketed by Playmates toward a younger demographic with the support of an über-popular campy cartoon and detailed toys whose colorful accoutrements and box text descriptions were regarded as “childish” to some (folks… they were TOYS), the Technodrome—the TMNT toy line’s premiere piece—has recently skyrocketed in value. Krang’s Technodrome affords kids plenty of opportunities for extended play; the playset possesses free-rolling wheels, a giant eye that is detachable and acts as a bowling ball, a bevy of play rooms, a huge amount of lasers and blasters, an awesome amount of decals, a secret ooze pit, a jail cell, multiple gunner stations, a captain’s wheel to steer the “ship,” and finally—a tube that allows the Technodrome to connect to the other major TMNT toy: the Turtle’s Sewer Playset. Clearly, the Technodrome is a must-have for any true action figure fan.
#7) Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye—Fortress Maximus (Hasbro, 1987): As the holy grail of the vintage Transformers line, Fortress Maximus, the Headmaster Base, demands the attention of every Transformers collector—regardless of which incarnation they came into the hobby (Beast Wars, Generation one, Armada, Energon, Alternators, etc.). Every fan of the original line of transformable robots hails ‘Fort Max’ as one of the greatest toys ever produced. Fort Max is a 2’ tall robot with a detachable head (a “Headmaster” named Cerebros) that changes into a robot which possesses its OWN Headmaster head (named Spike) and a vast array of cannons, weapons, etc. With two independent mini-vehicles (Gasket and Grommet), three different transformations (battle fortress, robot, and city mode[s]), a prison cell, helipad, radar array, communications tower, working elevator, and two long ramps with working mini-vehicle launchers, the über-expensive Fortress Maximus is the ULTIMATE Transformers toy!
#8) The Adventures of Indiana Jones—Well of Souls playset (Kenner, 1981): Notice something about this list? Kenner owns four of these ten spots! The reason for this is quite simple: like their Indiana Jones Well of Souls, Map Room, and Streets of Cairo toys, the company makes absolutely stunning playsets. The Well of Souls best exemplifies their high standards because of the bevy of cool features and accessories: a base, a two-piece breakaway wall, two golden arches with struts, two ornate poles which allows figures to carry the golden vac-metalized three-piece Ark of the Covenant (with removable lid and base), a crypt cover, grappling hook with rope, two torches, a realistic-looking mummy, and fourteen different snakes (7 gray and 7 black). The playset accurately captures the essence of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy and Marion Ravenwood are thrown into the snake-filled Well of Souls by Belloq and the Nazis. Could Kenner do no wrong in the 1980’s?
#9) Sectaurs: Warriors of Symbion—Hyve playset (Coleco, 1985): Sectaurs is an oft-missed toy line of the mid-eighties and was produced by the video/handheld-game company Coleco Industries—the sometimes action figure producer responsible for the miniaturized outer-space figures known as StarCom: The U.S. Space Force, for introducing Xavier Roberts’ Cabbage Patch Kids to the mass-market, and also for concocting a way to adapt Rambo and the Forces of Freedom to a children’s audience. For their Sectaurs line, Coleco constructed a brilliant and HU-U-U-U-GE playset called the Hyve which came complete with a boulder that struck Sectaur figures with the force of a tiny wrecking ball, a turret gun, an interior “bio-control laboratory” (rendered in chipboard), three ladders, a trick collapsible bridge, a landing platform with trap door, and a cage for prisoners. To build on the hand-puppet concept the company established with the larger price-point Sectaur action figures, the spectacular Hyve playset also included two puppets (e.g. “Mutant Insectoids”) that would create ambushes: Narr (a gloved puppet), and Vypex (a long finger puppet). What a wonderful and curious playset indeed.
#10) Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back—Imperial Attack Base (Kenner, 1980): Although it’s a relatively inexpensive toy, no Star Wars playset sings to me more than the Empire Strikes Back Imperial Attack Base. As a kid, I purchased two of these toys with birthday money, and since I had to replace much of my collection over the past fifteen years (I was QUITE rough on my Star Wars figures), I of course picked them up again on eBay; one MLC (Mint, Loose and Complete) and one MIB (Mint in Box). With its pivoting laser cannon, exploding command post, exploding ice bridge, and faux land mine, the Imperial Attack Base (accompanied by a large white sheet placed gently onto my dining room table with all of its leaves inserted) made the perfect Ice Planet Hoth for my Star wars action figures. Throw in a couple of Tauntauns, an AT-ST or two, an AT-AT, and a slew of Imperial Snowtroopers and Hoth Rebel Soldiers, and you’ve got the makings of an all-day play session.
LT80’s: My son, 10 years old, has LOVED looking through your book. His question for you is: Where did you get the idea for the book?
MB: It warms my heart when readers of Totally Tubular 80’s Toys leave their copy around the house and the tome is picked up by either their significant other or—even better (!)—a daughter or son, who THEN sneaks away to read the book from cover to cover. It never ceases to amaze me the appeal and endurance that many toy properties from the 1980’s seem to possess! Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake, G.I. Joe, Rainbow Brite, Madballs, the Care Bears, Star Wars; these licensed properties absolutely transcend generational boundaries to appeal to a vast array of cultures, ideologies, and creeds.
As your son evinced, it’s not just Gen-X’ers who enjoy these toys: it’s their progeny. And I hope that one day I’ll pass my vast collection of toys and comics down to my own kids. It’s so much fun to share this stuff—these artifacts—with a younger generation. It’s awesome when I’m doing a book signing at a toy convention where I get to meet these kids (and their supportive parents) face-to-face. Please remember this, all you adult collectors—myself included. These kids are the people we’re going to be handing off our hobby to when we’re long gone and off this planet. We should encourage them to appreciate and enjoy what we Gen-X’ers appreciate and enjoy.
But I digress. To answer your son’s question, “Where did I get the idea for my book?” Well… the best answer is that whenever I’m working on a current book project, I always subtly suggest a new book to my acquisitions editor. For instance, when I was writing the first edition of my G.I. Joe book, The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe in 2005, I was thinking about pitching my first Transformers book (2007’s Transformers: Identification & Price Guide). I approach my writing (and work in general) as if I were a shark: if I stop swimming, I’m going to die (although it’s an untrue shark behavior, it is an appropriate analogy nonetheless). I’m a pretty restless guy who has to work every second of every day—like a ferret on amphetamines. I’m always trying to think one step ahead; I always try to work as hard as I possibly can every single day because it’s my philosophy that you only get ONE SHOT at life. So you’d better make every darned SECOND count.
For instance, right now, I’ve signed an NDA for (hopefully) a new book, I’m rendering multiple character dossiers for a new toy company, I’m writing the forewords to two comic book trade paperback collections, I’m answering the Q&A’s for three interviews, I just put a 2.5 million dollar Federal grant to bed, I’m finishing entering our department’s Annual Performance Report, I’m working on three 22-page pitches for a comic book company, and I’m trying to finish ALL my various collections in order to establish the most comprehensive action figure resource on the World Wide Web. It’s going to be a busy decade.