With Christmas just around the corner, in this week’s Throwback Thursday column we’re taking a look at some classic toy lines. Two of the most fondly-remembered toy lines of the 1980s were based on DC and Marvel Comics’ rosters of super heroes.  Toy company Mego once held the rights to the characters from both and released the beloved ‘World’s Greatest Super Heroes’ line which ran strong through the 70s, but eventually the company folded and store shelves were devoid of super hero toys for a few years.

Then in 1984, young comic fans were delighted by their return in a more modern fashion.  Kenner unleashed the Super Powers Collection based on DC comics, while Mattel crafted the Marvel Super Hero Secret Wars line.  But the lines, despite being in the same scale were quite different.

DC invited toy companies to pitch ideas to them, but Mattel already had a cash cow on its hands with ‘Masters of the Universe’.  They weren’t interested in another massive boys action figure line.  Why compete with yourself?  They made a pitch but DC wasn’t satisfied.

Kenner on the other hand saw its existing hit ‘Star Wars’ wane now that the movie series was finished.  ‘Star Wars’ had revolutionized boys toys, but they needed a replacement and the DC super heroes, who had been headlining one of the most popular Saturday morning cartoons, ‘The Super Friends’ since 1973, seemed like a great opportunity.

Mattel, having lost the DC contract, decided to approach Marvel, who agreed to the plan.  Mattel may not have wanted a massive toy line, but they did want to secure more shelf space in the boys action figure aisle.  Both publishers supported the lines with comic book miniseries, but they couldn’t have been more different.  Despite art by the legendary Jack Kirby, DC’s ‘Super Powers’ miniseries took place out of continuity and was essentially a throw-away.  Meanwhile, Marvel made ‘Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars’ a massive event, starring Spider-Man, The Hulk, nearly all of The Avengers, Fantastic Four and the X-Men, battling an army of super villains, written by the company’s editor-in-chief himself, Jim Shooter.

In Part One of this story, we’ll begin by examining Marvel’s ‘Secret Wars’ line.  Next week, check back for Part Two, which will delve deeper into DC’s ‘Super Powers Collection’.

Marvel’s ‘Secret Wars’ toys didn’t quite live up to the huge storyline of the comic.  As stated, Mattel didn’t want a major line, so they reused a lot of the same body parts on multiple figures.  And the toys themselves were made of a cheap, rubbery plastic.  Any printing on the costumes, even belts were rendered in cheap paint that always rubbed off after a few mock battles.  Neither Doctor Doom nor Magneto were given capes and Doom’s costume was modified so he wore trunks instead of a tunic with a “skirt.”  And most of the characters came with the same accessories.  For these reasons, it’s nearly impossible to find loose ‘Secret Wars’ figures today that are intact.

Despite the comic book starring a star-studded cast, there were only eight figures in the initial wave, Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man and for the first time ever in toy form, Wolverine on the heroic side and Doctor Doom, Doctor Octopus, Kang The Conqueror and Magneto on the villain side– although in the comic story, the Mutant Master of Magnetism was allied with the heroes.

Mattel seemed to build the line on Captain America.  Every character came with a shield with lenticular artwork that changed as you tilted the shield.  In the comics, Cap rides a motorcycle and both sides got a motorcycle vehicle.  (The same toy, just in different colors.)

Several vehicles and playsets were made.  The Tower of Doom featured an interior that was too small for the figures to actually stand in.

The line sold well enough however, possibly because they were in-scale with Super Powers and were usually marketed right next to them, so I suspect a lot of parents didn’t know the difference.

The next year, Spider-Man was reissued in his new black costume and The Falcon, Daredevil, Baron Zemo and a fairly impressive Hobgoblin were added, but the odd thing is that none of these characters except Spider-Man were in the ‘Secret Wars’ series and none really played a major role in the poorly-received follow-up ‘Secret Wars 2’.

It appears that that the line’s popularity had simply faded sharply in its second year.  Mattel produced three new figures, Ice Man, Electro and The Constrictor, but American retailers weren’t interested so they were only available outside of the U.S. and are now highly valuable.

Interestingly, it was just discovered, thanks to some unearthed artwork, that Mattel planned to create yet another wave of toys which would have been quite ambitious.  It would have consisted of:  Mister Fantastic, which would probably have simply reused existing body parts, but also several characters that would have had to have been molded from scratch, including The Hulk, The Abomination, Annihilus, (presumably) Thunderball and two female additions Mystique who would have included a sled vehicle and Dazzler.

But obviously, the lack of interest in the third wave nixed this assortment.

What may have hurt the line is that outside of comics, Marvel didn’t have much other media exposure at the time.  ‘Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends’ was on Saturday mornings, but consisted mainly of reruns.  And the character selection seems insane.  Kang, Baron Zemo and The Constrictor were pretty obscure.  There were several more popular female characters than Mystique and Dazzler who would have been produced in her out-of-date Disco outfit.  In the ‘Secret Wars’ comic alone, you had The Wasp, She-Hulk, the new Captain Marvel, Storm, Rogue and a new Spider-Woman not too mention The Enchantress, and two new female villains, Volcana and Titania.  And outside that, there was the Invisible Woman, the Scarlet Witch, Kitty Pryde and many others.

The Hulk on the other hand was a glaring omission from the line, but as stated, Mattel wanted this line done on the cheap, and the Hulk would have required a brand new unique sculpt.

I’m sure many people cherish this toy line.  I know I had all of the action figures and a lot of the accessories.  But looking back, Mattel really cheaped out on the line and the character selection in the later waves seems to have been made by someone who tore apart every issue of ‘The Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe’ threw the pages in a sack and just pulled out random character bios to determine who would join the toy line up.

Tune in next Throwback Thursday for a look at the ‘Super Powers Collection’.

Source: Comics Alliance