Category Archives: store memories

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.


Geek wish list: EC Comics library

They sat there, on a high shelf of the comic book shop, calling to me.

It was the late 1970s or early 1980s, I don’t remember exactly when, and my friends and I were regulars at Comics Carnival, a comic book shop in the Broad Ripple neighborhood of Indianapolis. We were all college age with too much time on our hands, too much of the geek in us and not enough money.

The store had thousands of geek-pleasing items for sale, from comics to genre film magazines to posters and superhero statuettes.

Besides going to school, I was writing freelance for a Muncie newspaper and a couple of free monthlies in Indy. Freelancing didn’t — still doesn’t — pay a lot; I never got paid for at least one article for the latter of the free monthlies.

So I didn’t have a lot of money to spend. What I wasn’t spending on hanging out with my friends, going to movies and, you know, living, I spent on the finest geekery.

But I couldn’t afford those books on the high shelf.

Russ Cochran, a small-press publisher, had undertaken, in about 1978, an ambitious effort. Cochran set out to reprint the classic EC Comics of the 1950s.

If you’re familiar with EC, you know that they were sister publications to Mad magazine but for the most part focused on cleverly written, beautifully drawn and incredibly lurid tales of horror, science fiction, the supernatural and suspense. Artists like Graham Ingels and Wally Wood adapted classic tales by Ray Bradbury as well as illustrating new stories.

ECs were before my time, but I grew up reading about them. They were Exhibit A in Fredric Wertham’s crusade against comics. Wertham was a quack psychiatrist who wrote a 1954 book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” and testified before Congress about what a horrible influence comic books were on children.

Although superheroes were among Wertham’s targets, EC Comics — with their funny but ghastly tales of zombies, killers and gruesome revenge — bore the brunt of the scrutiny of Congress. Outrage over stories of bloodthirsty creatures and strewn body parts radiated out of Washington.

Virtually overnight, EC’s “New Trend” line of horror comics was shut down.

While horror comics finally struggled their way back onto spinner racks in the 1070s, when Marvel introduced titles like “Tomb of Dracula,” EC passed into the realm of legend.

Until Cochran began his ambitious plan to reproduce virtually every EC Comic.

Cochran started reprinting the classic EC books with the company’s horror comics — “Tales from the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror,” to note the most familiar titles — and moved on through science fiction, westerns, detective tales and the rest.

The comics were reprinted not in color, as they were originally released, but in clear, beautiful black and white. Several issues were collected, in order of publication, between colorful hardcovers.

The guys who ran Comic Carnival were nice geeks who, on more than one occasion, allowed me to gingerly look through the bound and slip cased EC collections. They did this despite knowing that I was unlikely to have the $100 or so for each multi-volume collection.

I looked at several volumes but could never bring myself to spend the money.

Today, of course, I wish I had. The long-out-of-print boxed sets sell for hundreds of dollars online — I saw one set for as much as $900 — and are much too expensive to try to collect now.

If I win the lottery or fall under the patronage of a benevolent billionaire, I’ll go looking for Cochran’s EC reprint volumes. Until then, they’ll remain on my geek wish list.


Calvin, Kmart and the Blue Light Special

For some of us of a certain age and with a good memory, that “Calvin and Hobbes” strip — in which Calvin’s dad tells him he came not only from a store, but from Kmart, where he was a Blue Light Special — is particularly funny. Because some of us grew up at least within earshot of the Blue Light Special.

For a kid growing up south of Muncie, the center of  my shopping universe was the Southway Plaza, where I bought comics and had my first — and only — shoplifting experience (a story for another time).

But right up there with the Southway — figuratively and geographically — was the nearby Kmart.

Considering the sad state of Kmart today — struggling financially and spurned by even discriminating Walmart shoppers — it’s hard to imagine that Kmart was once the retail powerhouse that it was.

But my whole family shopped there. My toys came from there, I bought records there — vinyl LPs — and a lot of our clothes came from there.

And if you went to Kmart often enough, you were familiar with the Blue Light Special.

At random times during the day, the management decided it was time to push some slow-moving product. An employee was assigned the task of rolling out the Blue Light Special, which was a metal cart with a pricing gun and a metal pole with, literally, a blue light at the top. The lights were not unlike those at the top of a police car.

Some store employee would get on the P.A. system and announce, for example, a Blue Light Special on baseballs in the sporting goods department. A special price on baseballs would be available for the next 15 minutes, they would note. Customers who wanted to buy baseballs — or ham sandwiches from the deli, or sneakers from the shoe department — would make their way there and fill their carts.

I don’t remember my family often buying Blue Light Specials and to this day it seems like a curious marketing strategy. While the promise of a Blue Light Special might draw shoppers to Kmart, there was little to attract them but the hope that sometime while they were there a random item might go on sale. It was kind of like an internal Kmart lottery.

Apparently the Blue Light Specials, introduced in 1965 — during my early Kmart shopping experience — held on until 1991. A couple of years ago, the retailer tried to appeal to Baby Boomer memories by referencing Blue Light Specials and adopting a blue lightbulb mascot. But it was a little like when KFC made Colonel Sanders a hip-hop granddad; it’s hard to imagine who they thought they were appealing to.