I've said this before, and I'll say it again: I'm a huge comic book fan. More specifically, I'm a huge super hero fan. It doesn't matter who the publisher is, there's just something about those funny books that I've always loved. There was a time when I could tell you practically everything you ever wanted to know about any given character, no matter who the publisher was and how many times that character appeared. (Of course, I've gotten older now and there's been a lot more stories told, so that's gotten a bit more difficult to do.)
Back in 1990, I was in college. All of my childhood friends had long ago moved on with their lives, leaving their toys behind...or in many cases, added them to my collection! But I always held a great fondness for the little plastic men. I may not play with them anymore, but they were (and still are) great for displaying in my dorm room or apartment.
Back in the 1990s, Marvel's super heroes dominated the toy aisles. The over-muscled heroes with brightly-colored costumes were everywhere, and in so many different lines, it was difficult to keep track of who was who, and where they were from. Over the next few months, I'll be showcasing these lines, but it all started with Toy Biz's Marvel Super Heroes line!
Action Figures Wave 1
Today I'm showcasing the first wave, which was a great mix of the classic characters, right alongside some new fan favorites. After a disappointing run earlier that year with DC Comics Super Heroes (featured in Flashback Friday #002), Toy Biz quickly went to the competition and came out with more super hero figures from the other side of the city. These figures much in that same DC style: loaded with action features, limited points of articulation (in some cases, there were some added points), but this line only hinted at what was to come.
This first wave included the following figures: Captain America
The Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America is one of those classic Marvel characters that simply needs to be included in toy lines. His action feature was a "Shield Launcher" that snapped onto his arm, shooting his shield at his opponents. Pretty neat, but not something that was "real" to me, so I normally just left it off. Fortunately, the shield can be snapped onto the arm with or without the launcher.
This is one of those characters that has been around since the beginning of the Marvel Universe, but he wasn't the most popular character until much later. In 1990, Daredevil was lucky enough to have some comic book infamy, plus the general public (the "GP", or non-comic book fans) now knew who he was thanks to "The Trial of the Incredible Hulk" TV movie. While the all-black costume worn on the show looked nothing like this classic red suit, it was the same character, and that's all that mattered. The "billy club/grappling hook gun" accessory was pretty neat, but a bit of a departure from the character's normal gear.
The Fantastic Four's main nemesis, Doctor Doom was a much better version than the last figure. He comes with a pair of accessories that take advantage of the wind-up action feature in the figure's back...and he has a cape! Most fans know that Doom is the ultimate villain in the Marvel Universe, so including him was a no-brainer. I normally had him holding the drill, because who's afraid of a wind-up circular fan? Sheesh!
At least this figure's "mechanical arms" don't fall off! That being said, he's a teeny tiny figure that looks almost like the younger cousin of Otto Octavius ("Cousin Oliver" Octavius, anyone?). the suction cups used to stick pretty well, and the grasping arms can be used to grab onto Doc Ock's enemies...like Spider-Man, 'natch!
The Incredible Hulk
This figure of the Incredible Hulk was featured back in June, during a "Hulk Week" theme (I love running themed updates!) timed with last summer's blockbuster move. So you may have seen him before, but since the rest of the line is being added, what am I supposed to do, leave him out? The one thing I recall about this figure is that in the comics, the Hulk and Rick Jones poked fun at this toy because while other figures came with shield launchers, extending billy clubs, and suction cups, the Hulk figure came with.....a rock. A squishy rock, no less.
A second-rate Spider-Man villain who had a smash hit limited series (illustrated by Secret Wars artist Mike Zeck!) which spawned hundreds of follow-up comics, toys, 3 different movies, and changed the face of comics! This figure was pretty much inevitable as the Punisher remains a fan favorite character even to this day. He included a roll of caps that could be inserted into his backpack (really his back) and simulate "shots fired" from the Punisher's arsenal of weapons. The odd thing is that he comes with 4 weapons, and yet he can only hold them with one hand.
The other "newcomer" to this line was the Silver Surfer. The former herald of Galactus was enjoying a very popular comic series at the time, and his title lead directly into a company-wide crossover series, which may explain why Norrin Radd was included in this line. Sure the GP knew him from references in movies and music, but he wasn't yet a household name. His surfboard could be dragged back and set loose, allowing the Surfer to scoot across the floor/table/whatever.
To many fans, Spider-Man IS Marvel. The flagship character saw not one, not two, not even three, but FIVE versions made into action figures in this line, but this was the first, taking its cue from the wall-crawlers ability to stick to walls. In this case, via suction cups embedded into his hands. They worked pretty well, back in the day.
Which is as good a time as any to mention something sharp-eyed fans may have noticed: several figures in the photos of this line have some damage to them. Here's what happened: I've had these figures stored away in storage totes for many years, digging them out just for this update (you're welcome). However, at some point over the years (back in 2000, most likely) water got into the tub and the toys have been sitting in the water rusting ever since. While I was able to clean them, several of them have a funky build-up on them that has solidified. Just so you know...
Action Figures Wave 2
By 1991, the Marvel Super Heroes toy line had gained some ground and fans were clamoring for more action figures of their favorite super heroes. Toy Biz changed the design of the cardbacks so that the "Marvel Super Heroes" logo was much smaller, in favor of the individual character's logo. This made is a LOT easier to find the new figures in the stores, since all I had to do was just scan for the logo....nice!
Once again, there was a nice mix of characters from across the Marvel Universe, although the main focus was naturally on the most popular character: Spider-Man. The hugely popular figure of The Punisher was re-released, only this time he included "real machine gun sounds" instead of "cap firing weapons". Since I already had the first figure, I didn't get this "new" one. This is a rule I would break quite frequently, before just giving in and getting an entire line, but back then, I tried to stick to it.
The second wave included the following figures: Green Goblin
Punisher (Machine Gun Sounds)
Sadly, this figure suffered the worst from the water/rust damage, but you can still get the general idea...he included his traditional "goblin glider", and he included a pumpkin bomb that could be thrown with the press of a button. That feature doesn't work any more, and the figures barely stands on the glider without falling over, but he's still pretty neat.
This is a figure that no doubt sounded great on paper...a "quick change" figure from Tony Stark to Iron Man! The problem with most of the "quick change" or "removable costume" figures is that in order for the figure to look right "dressed", the body underneath is weirdly proportioned. There are very few figures (in this scale) that can get it right...and this is NOT one of them. However, it's worth noting that the Tony Stark underneath the armor is actually a pretty decent likeness. Thankfully, they left off the mullet...
Spider-Man (Real Web-Climbing Action)
Obviously, Spider-Man is Marvel's most recognizable character, so there were going to be several versions of him. This figure features a web-climbing feature that was weird...the webbing comes out of his chest and he climbs the wall (or window) with the help of a wind-up motor and a suction cup. I broke both of mine years ago, probably during a drunken party showing off how the thing worked. But I did save the pieces, which are shown. The concept of Spidey being able to generate his own webbing from his body...hmmm, maybe Toy Biz WAS onto something here...
Spider-Man (Real Web-Shooting Action)
This Spider-Man figure was fun. While it's just the standard missile-firing action feature, the over-sized web attached to it allowed you to shoot down the bad guys and that was cool. The spring mechanism in the arm doesn't work anymore (it rusted away into dust...which was cool in its own way, really), but you can still get the idea of how it worked.
One of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe get the goofiest-looking figure! Thor NEEDS a cape. He just doesn't look right without it. The colors are wrong too, although they show it correct on the cardback. Speaking of the card, some of the artwork isn't even of the correct Thor: the Eric Masterson Thor (later known as Thunderstrike) is shown. I may have liked the action feature (Thor could throw his hammer) more if he was able to hold it better...it was always falling down.
Another first-time figure for Marvel: the popular villain Venom. The "living skin" slime pores was just a bottle of slimy goo that made a huge mess out of pretty much everything...BUT HOW COOL IS THAT? Kids dug it, and the character was nice and bulked up, just like his original comic appearances.
Action Figures Wave 3
By 1992, the Marvel Super Heroes line had grown in popularity, and the focus once again changed. The cardback now included a "Cosmic Defenders" tagline, which didn't make any sense, but it sure made it easier to find in stores. The focus this time was split into two sections: more Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Add in some upgrades and a brand-new version of a obscure character, and this was a great selection of characters.
Once again, since I already had a Silver Surfer figure, I didn't get the new version, which was really just a repainted figure (contrary to what was shown on the cardback), and I was tired of Spider-Man figures, so I only bought the poseable one this time around.
The third wave included the following figures: Annihilus
Silver Surfer (Speed Surfing)
Spider-Man (Enemy Tracking Tracer)
Spider-Man (Multi-Jointed Action Poses)
Venom (Flicking Tongue)
This wave was more focused on the Fantastic Four and their John Byrne-designed costumes (an after-effect from an adventure in the Negative Zone), and since that storyline featured Annihilus as a major villain, it was great to see him plucked from obscurity and made as an action figure. The "anti-matter wing thrust" was the standard wing-flapping motion that other such characters had in those days.
Here's a great choice for an action figure. Marvel took an obscure character from the 1970s and upgraded him with him with a new version, a new comic book series, and alongside many guest appearances in other books, introduced him to the public as an action figure. I always liked this guy, because he was so different than the rest af Marvel's "anti-heroes". Although he has since faded back into obscurity, a zombie cyborg super soldier is always welcome back!
At long last, the Fantastic Four are made into action figures! This first version of the Human Torch features fireballs that he can hurl at his enemies, or store on his back if he wants to keep them for later. Very cool!
The only female in the entire line! While the cardback showed a different head sculpt than what was made, this figure was a decent first attempt at a female figure: she even has articulated elbows and knees! While the catapult was "borrowed" from Cannonball over in the X-Force toy line, I never really knew what the "4" disc was supposed to be. I just left it plugged into her back...
The leader of Marvel's first family was an interesting attempt to recreate his super powers in plastic form. The extending limbs were actually handled well, as they collapsed inside the figure nicely, making for a decent-looking figure by itself. Because of this, however, he couldn't have multiple articulation points, so he just stands around.
Spider-Man (Multi-Jointed Action Poses)
Speaking of multiple articulation points...what better character to make with them? This was the 5th version of Spider-Man in his classic costume, each focusing on one of his powers. His body was "inspired by" the classic G.I. Joe figures' construction, with a rubber band holding all together, and ball joints and/or hinged limbs for a wide variety of poses. One of my favorite figures from this time!
Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew, The Thing included a "pulverizing punch" that could shatter a Yancy Street sign. He was also nice and big, which was nice and perfect for the character. At last the Fantastic Four team is complete, although there would be more versions shortly, as we'll see in an upcoming column...
Venom (Flicking Tongue)
Funny thing about comics: over time, there are different artists working on a series, each bringing a unique look to the character. Such is the case with Venom. Originally shown as a beefed-up bruiser, over time he became a little less bulky and a little more slimy, especially his disgusting long tongue, which was realized in this action figure here for the first time.
Action Figures Wave 4
By 1993, the Marvel Universe was spreading around the toy aisles, with a number of different action figure lines (which will be featured in upcoming Flashback Friday features), so the Marvel Super Heroes line was taking a bit of a back seat to those. Still, Toy Biz must not have wanted to line away completely, so several figures from wave 1 were re-released once again. Since they are detailed above, I'm only going to list them here and show the figures from wave 1.
The fourth wave included the following figures: Captain America
Action Figures Wave 5
By 1994, Marvel's domination of the toy aisles was in full swing: no less than 6 different toy lines featuring the Marvel Comics super heroes were available in stores it seemed like each week's trip to the toy aisles were full of great finds. However, Toy Biz wasn't quite ready to give up on this line, as a fifth assortment was released that included some popular previous releases (including the very hard-to-find Invisible Woman), a fan-favorite with a borrowed accessory, and a pair of repaints....one of which actually resulted in a new character!
This fifth (and final) wave included the following figures: Daredevil
Daredevil (Armored Costume)
Ah, the 90s...Really, the less said about this costume, the better. Thankfully, this armored costume was short-lived, and Daredevil returned to his classic red suit, but for awhile there, ol' hornhead wore this special armor for a short time period to generate some interest in his title. The gimmick worked, at least it got this action figure made. It's just a simple repaint (the cardback didn't even get changed), but hey, I still bought it!
One the other hand...here's a repainted figure that's actually a new character! At one point in Captain America's title, the government stepped in and took the costume, shield, and identity of Captain America away from Steve Rogers, and gave it to one of their own agents. Steve later assumed a new identity of "The Captain" and after a time, the two basically duked it own for the right to the name, and ended up swapping costumes. The government rechristened their agent as "U.S. Agent", and assigned him to the West Coast Avengers team. What's significant about this figure is that it sports brand-new artwork. I actually never got this figure back when it first came out, but only purchased it recently and opened it up just for this feature.
A special subset of both the Marvel Super Heroes line and the then-new X-Men line, this series included slightly-modified versions of the popular figures and included electronic "talking" backpacks. Push the buttons and hear them "speak" their famous phrases.
I only got one of these myself...Venom. I just got a kick out of him saying the phrase "I want to eat your brain!", so I couldn't resist. However, while preparing this feature, my son remember that he had a few old Marvel figures from his collection, so he dug them out and discovered he had a Talking Punisher figure, so I've added that as well.
The Talking Heroes line included the following figures: Cyclops
It's the original figure, slightly resculpted to fit the new backpack, and now without the hole in his torso, which of course makes him look better.
Here's the Talking Punisher from my son's collection...again, it's basically the same figure as before, but the torso is completely different...the cap-firing backpack is gone, in favor of the holes for the talking backpack. The hairline is a little different as well, but the major difference between the two figures is the blue belt and holster on this one.
Wrapping It Up
So, there you have it....the Marvel Super Heroes line by Toy Biz! This was just the start of what would become a HUGE line over the next decade, but it all started right here. With a brand-new Marvel Universe toy line debuting right around the corner, I think it's fun to take a look back at the history of these beloved action figures, and see where it all began. The sculpting, deco, and details may be dated, but these were TOYS for kids (of all ages) to play with, and from what's been shown thus far, it looks like this way of thinking is coming back at last. It's an exciting time to be fan of both Marvel Comics and toys!
See you in 2 weeks!