Category Archives: action figures

Classic toys: G.I. Joe

gi joe beard

In the 1960s – before the horrors of the morass developing in Vietnam became obvious – World War II was a fascinating period in history for young boys. We played with green army men and watched “Combat” and “Rat Patrol.” For me and other friends, World War II was an experience that our fathers didn’t talk about much but was obviously a big part of their history. The subject of my 1960s fascination with World War II is a topic for another day.

But out of that interest in the war grew the popularity of G.I. Joe, the doll – action figure – for boys.

Marketed by Hasbro beginning in 1964, G.I. Joe was a 12-inch action figure that earned the name: Unlike the stiff Barbie for our sisters and female cousins, Joe had joints at his elbows and shoulders and knees that made it possible to us to pose him in elaborate fighting scenarios. (Not to mention the “kung fu grip” added later, but that was really after my time).

Like Barbie, Joe had a variety of outfits and accessories – only the manliest, though – including guns and canteens and inflatable rafts. I believe it was those accessories that added to Joe’s lasting appeal. Unlike Johnny West – another action figure I had and enjoyed – Joe’s wealth of outfits and accessories made him immensely variable and playable.

GI Joe space capsule

The most elaborate accessory I had for my G.I. Joes was the Mercury space capsule. I played for hours and hours with the capsule, being a big fan of the space program.

gi joe space capsule box

Joe went through a lot of variations, including weird fuzzy hair and beard. Online sources say that in 1969, after Americans were soured on Vietnam, Hasbro thought Joe should be recast as an adventurer instead of soldier. That led to sets in which Joe hunted the Abominable Snowman, for pete’s sake.

But for me, G.I. Joe was a soldier and remained one. He was a great toy, but he was always a reminder of the war that so fascinated me as a kid.


Classic toys: Major Matt Mason

G.I. Joe, Captain Action and Johnny West were the toys of choice in my childhood, but Major Matt Mason and his moon base were cool playthings that had the advantage of being timely.

The United States was deep into the space race in 1966, when Mattel released the Matt Mason action figure, his cohorts and their gear. The astronaut figures — military types with flat-top haircuts — were obviously inspired by real-life space jockeys.

The Mason characters were different from the hard plastic action figures of G.I. Joe and Captain Action in part because of their size — a little more than half the height of the 12-inch action figures that dominated the boys’ toy market at the time — and because they were rubber figures with accordion-like joints.

I was about six or seven when Major Matt Mason came out and I probably had one fairly early. I base that on the fact that characters introduced later in the toy’s run, according to online sources, are totally unfamiliar to me. While I had Mason and some of his fellow astronaut figures like Sgt. Storm, I have no memory of Captain Lazer, the “giant” figure that was part of the set.

Truth be told, the Major Matt Mason gear that I loved the most was the moon base. Molded white plastic floors and red support beams with blue plastic windows, the moon base could be built and stacked in “creative” ways. I suppose Mason’s moon base was the equivalent of Barbie’s dream house and maybe it shows my frustrated architect instincts, but I liked playing with the moon base best.

I have no memory of what happened to my Major Matt Mason stuff. More than a decade ago, I saw a few of the figures and part of a moon base at a nostalgia shop. The prices were outrageous and, needless to say, I didn’t pay to recreate my memories.

There’s been talk about a big-screen Major Matt Mason movie starring Tom Hanks. If the project happens — and why not, in these days of movies based on Transformers and games like Battleship? — it’ll be interesting to see if the toys make a comeback.

Dreams in a cardboard box: Captain Action

So the TV was on today and there was a commercial for Squinkies.

If you’re not already totally lost, you must have a kid or grandkid who is still young enough to be in the demographic for toys.

I can’t with utter confidence explain what Squinkies are. We don’t have any in our household but they appear to be squishy little plastic figures that come in about a thousand variations so your kids can collect them all (of course).

What really struck me about this commercial was that it was for Squinkies for boys. The spot featured comic book character versions of the squishy little figures. So while they still looked like something that would be lost in every nook and cranny of your couch within a couple hours of purchase, the makers are obviously trying to appeal to the male subset of toybuyers.

Which makes me think of my childhood and the dawn of the action figure.

While Barbie and her legion of high-heel-wearing imitators beat them to stores by several years, the action figures of my youth changed the play habits of a couple of generation of boys — all of a sudden, it was okay to play with dolls and please call them action figures by the way — and made millions for a few toy companies.

Hasbro launched the GI Joe line in 1964 at a time when little boys were still re-enacting the battlefield exploits of their fathers in World War II and Korea. The 12-inch figures introduced millions of little boys to machine guns, sandbags and footlockers.

I loved my GI Joes and my Johnny Wests (the latter an old west action figure) but for me there was no toy that compared to Captain Action.

Introduced in 1966 by the Ideal Toy Company, Captain Action was unusual in that his schtick revolved around becoming other heroes.

Somehow Ideal and GI Joe developer Stan Weston worked out character licensing agreements with Marvel and DC Comics as well as King Features Syndicate, the company that owned the rights to many popular newspaper comic strips.

So Captain Action, who wore a black and blue unitard and jaunty cap in his everyday mode, slipped into the costumes of other superheroes when needed. Captain Action could be Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man, the Lone Ranger and several other heroes.

The business dealings necessary to make this happen were above my head at the time and still seem kind of improbable, but even as a grade-schooler I knew that Captain Action was special. Like Barbie, he had a limitless supply of outfits. Unlike Barbie, Captain Action could go out and kick evil butt when he slipped into Superman’s spandex or the Lone Ranger’s chaps.

And if heroes are only as good as their villains, Captain Action was great. His bad guy was Dr. Evil. No, not the “Austin Powers” baldie. Captain Action’s Dr. Evil was a bug-eyed, blue-skinned alien of some kind with — get this — an exposed brain. That’s right. The top of his skull was missing and his pink brain was right there for all to see. Kind of makes you wonder why Captain Action didn’t put an end to more of their clashes by sticking his finger in Dr. Evil’s brain and stirring.

While Dr. Evil’s exposed brain might have been his oddest feature, his wardrobe was likewise offbeat. This baddie wore a Nehru jacket, sandals and a medallion on a gold chain.

Yeah, I know. But believe me, as a kid, you didn’t think about how unlikely that outfit was. Plus — exposed brain. Kind of trumped everything else.

My Captain Action figures didn’t survive many, many hard days of play. unfortunately, and neither did Captain Action as a toy in general survive changes in the toy market. The good captain never got a second wind in a smaller size, as GI Joe did, and couldn’t sustain the licensing agreements that made him so unique. With the nostalgia business in mind, new Captain Action figures were released a few years ago but couldn’t possibly thrive in today’s toy market.

But who knows? Maybe Captain Action and Dr. Evil are still out there, waiting for their comeback. All the captain needs is a few good costumes to borrow and all Dr. Evil needs is a bike helmet.