Boys love their superheroes. Bodyweight expert Todd Kuslikis states it thus: “There was a time in every kid’s life when all he ever wanted to do when he grew up was to wear a mask, a cape, maybe even tights and save the world.” Or maybe wield a sword or light saber as a muscle bound defender of justice with superhuman powers. Animated TV superheroes were their idols—and that was especially true when my kids were growing up in the 1980’s.
When we baby boomers were growing up in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, there was no dearth of cartoon entertainment on TV. Who could forget Casper the Friendly Ghost, Woody Woodpecker, Yogi Bear (greater than the a-ver-age bear), and Rocky and Bullwinkle? There was Huckleberry Hound, Mister Magoo, and the esteemed Looney Tunes, my favorite. But the closest any animated characters came to a superhero were Mighty Mouse, Underdog, and maybe Popeye the Sailor Man. We weren’t so deprived of role models, however, that we would idolize four-legged creatures, and who could get excited about a middle-aged man with a mammoth chin who sucks spinach (yuck) through his pipe?
I guess that’s why our heroes were the likes of Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax. Those and TV cowboys, on whom I expounded in my last post, “1950’s/1960’s Cowboy Heroes and the Toys They Spawned.”
By the late 1960’s, more and more “superheroes” were turning up in televised cartoons. In 1966 came the Marvel Super Heroes show with Captain America, the Hulk, and Iron Man, among others. Following on their heels came such childhood idols as Superman, Spiderman, Aqua Man, and Batman, which continued through the 1970’s and into the 1980’s.
A hero of a different sort came about in the early 1980’s with the animated children’s show G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, running from 1983 through 1986. Although G.I. Joe action figures had been around since the 1960’s, it was the TV show of the 1980’s that really brought the hero to life for kids.
Primarily US Army personnel, the G.I. Joe team defended the world against the evil Cobra Command. My son Frank, who was aged 6 – 9 at the time, still remembers its intro: “G.I. Joe is the code name for America’s daring, highly-trained, Special Mission force. Its purpose: To defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”
I don’t remember any boys playing with the G.I. Joe action figures in my Pittsburgh suburb back in the 60’s. As my husband bluntly puts it, “They were dolls.” My son Frank never had one in the 80’s, either, nor did his friends as far as I can remember. Their fathers, products of the 50’s and 60’s, probably didn’t encourage it.
In the 70’s and early 80’s, advertising to children became a highly controversial subject. Many argued that the cut-throat toy industry unfairly and unethically targeted young children, whose naivete muddies their ability to understand advertisers’ motives. Children can easily be deceived, they argued.
In 1978, The Federal Trade Commission proposed a trade regulation law that would have severely restricted or banned all television advertising to children. That proposal set off a firestorm among consumer organizations, product manufacturers, advertising associations, individuals in academia and science, and parents. Political opposition was immediate and uncompromising, and in 1980, Congress squelched any further action on the proposal.
By 1984, with impediments on advertising to children removed, the way was cleared for the new product-based television program. In other words, like putting the cart before the horse, toys were manufactured, in particular superhero action figures, by such toy companies as Hasbro and Mattel, and then children’s programs were created around those superheroes to entice children and their parents to buy them.
Therefore, a deviation in the standard fare of cartoon heroes seemed to take off in 1984 with the TV series the Transformers, which lasted for four seasons. I am no expert on TV rankings, sales figures, and other analytics; I know as a parent of young children in the 80’s that the Transformers were a huge hit, mostly among the boys. After school, if it wasn’t a banner day to be riding bikes or playing street hockey—or maybe even if it was—my son Frank, who was 7-10 years old throughout its run, as well as a legion of boys, would be riveted to the TV watching the Autobots wage war with the Decepticons. Even I, no lover of science fiction cartoons, knew who Optimus Prime and Megatron were.
Frank had a few Transformer action figures (not to be confused with “dolls”), robotlike figures that, with some maneuvering, turned into vehicles, devices, or animals. With further adjustments, they could be transformed back to their original forms once again.
I found the transformer below in my attic. It is an Insecticon named Kickback, which transforms from a robot to a grasshopper creature.
A similar animated series also debuted in 1984—The Challenge of the GoBots—which involved two opposing forces of transforming robots from the planet Gobotron: the heroic Guardians and the evil Renegades. I also found in the attic this well worn little Dozer, a Gobot that transforms into a bulldozer. It is missing the dozer roof/robot’s table.
At the same time that Transformer and GoBot action figures were flying off the toy shelves, the Masters of the Universe toys were doing the same thing. He-Man quickly became The-Man to a whole generation of boys. And believe it or not, 30% of its audience were girls.
Wikipedia summarizes the main premise this way: Masters of the Universe “revolves around the conflict between the heroic He-Man, aka Prince Adam, and the evil Skeletor on the planet Eternia, with a vast line-up of supporting characters in a hybrid setting of medieval sword and sorcery and sci-fi technology.”
Here is He-Man, alter ego of Prince Adam and defender of Eternia and the secrets of Castle Grayskull. What boy of the 80’s doesn’t remember drawing his pretend sword and shouting, “I have the power!?”
He-Man was the favorite of my son-in-law Alex and of many boys. Esteemed as He-Man was, my son Frank never owned that action figure. I think he was more interested in the unique and sinister characters, especially the ones with moving parts that allowed for more diverse play.
Below is my son’s collection of Masters of the Universe action figures—the ones that survived, that is. I lost some toys long ago when I stored them in a room way back behind the game room, where they were unknowingly being ravaged by mildew. Maybe I should attribute the defilement to “Mildew Man” or better yet, “Mold Man.” But here are the hardy ones:
From what I witnessed back then, I believe that Frank’s favorite action figure was the evil Skeletor, He-Man’s archenemy, whose mission was to capture Castle Grayskull in order to obtain its secrets and thus conquer and rule all of Eternia. Skeletor was an instant hit with the boys.
One of the most unusual figures was Modulok, an “evil beast of a thousand bodies.” A “build your own” figure, he could transform into a two-headed creature, a six-legged creature, or whatever you envisioned with its 22 pieces. Frank took advantage of all its possibilities.
One of Skeletor’s crafty henchmen, Whiplash can thrash opponents with his powerful tail and even smash through solid rock.
The villain Hordak opposes He-Man, She-Ra, and Skeletor, his former mentor. He uses magic and science to transform himself into such items as a tank and a rocket and has even turned his arm into a vacuum cleaner!
Four-legged Mantenna is one of the four original Evil Horde warriors. He has highly sensitive ears that allow him to hear over long distances, and with his “pop-out eyes,” he can not only see far and wide but can also fire energy beams, such as stun beams and freeze rays. These make him an excellent scout and spy for his villainous cohorts. My grandson Mikey liked Mantenna the best of his Uncle Frank’s action figures, mostly because he can make the eyes pop in and out by moving a lever up and down on the figure’s back.
Beast Man is Skeletor’s barbaric right-hand man. He has ferocious strength and has the ability to control wild creatures.
Another member of the Evil Horde, Grizzlor is a hairy man-beast with little intelligence who was recruited by Hordak for his brute strength and savage ways, just what he was looking for to battle He-Man and the Heroic Warriors.
Meet Leech, a huge sea monster summoned from the ocean depths by Hordak to fight against He-Man and the Heroic Warriors. The suction pad hands, feet, and lips provide him with the power to suck and drain the life-force from his opponents. The action figure can actually stick to flat smooth surfaces for short periods if lightly moistened.
We also have the very cool Battle Bones, the resurrected skeletal remains of a giant dinosaur-like creature that can transport both heroic and evil warriors. In reality, it’s an ideal carrying case that holds up to 12 action figures. Next to Battle Bones are the remain of Skeletor’s Land Shark, a shark-like tank. I can’t find the remainder of the Land Shark. It’s probably somewhere in the bowels of my attic . . . or maybe He-Man had his way with the nefarious one’s tank years ago.
Here are the The Evil Horde and a hitchhiker going on a joy ride with Battle Bones:
Frank also had Snake Mountain, Skeletor’s domain on the Dark Hemisphere of Eternia. That one bit the dust and never made it to Frank’s adulthood. Frank particularly liked the microphone, which deepens one’s voice to give it an unearthly quality.
The Masters of the Universe became a phenomenon. To this day, there is a cult following, especially among many who were kids in the 1980’s.
You know, in spite of its amazing popularity, my son said that his favorite cartoon of the 1980’s “was actually the one with the plants that grew into monsters and cars and stuff. I don’t remember what it was called.” I researched it. The 1985 cartoon was called Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, and the heroes were the Lightning League. Yes, that was exactly the one he was talking about.
You know that the Transformers, Go-Bots, Masters of the Universe, and similar cartoons of the 1980’s were unprecedented when a mother who dislikes science fiction waxes nostalgic over Modulok and Whiplash.
The real fun came when I felt the irresistible urge to identify three of Frank’s action figures that I determined were not Masters of the Universe. Oh, boy! Oh, boy! I got to research the internet! It was like digging for buried treasure.
This guy is not a variation of Skeletor nor is he Skeletor’s long lost brother. He is Sir Lancelot, one of the Nightmare Warriors produced by MTC in 1983. Ghosts of historical warriors, these guys glow in the dark.
This guy is Commander Waspax, an evil sectaur of the Dark Domain from the line Sectaurs: Warriors of Symbion. These insectlike creatures were put on the market by Coleco in 1985 along with a Marvel Comic and followed by an animated miniseries in 1986.
I have failed to identify this guy. Do any of you 1980’s action figure enthusiasts recognize him? Help!
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.