My Grandson Was A Robot! (Mania.com)

By:John Denning
Date: Saturday, September 09, 2006

This week in Out of the Box, we look at the convoluted genealogies of the toy industry in the hopes of better understanding the strengths behind our favorite toy lines. Where do we draw the line between a company's contribution to a toy's quality and a corporate umbrella that does little more than skim the profits?

Those of you who know a little about the toy industry have heard this one before. When Hasbro's G.I. Joe became the first action figure, Takara picked up the rights to develop the toy in Japan. Looking for a cheaper way to produce the toy, they scaled down the size, eventually including transparent cyborg limbs and calling it Henshin Cyborg-1. From there, Takara eventually started to produce the Micromen with interchangeable parts. Micromen birthed Diaclone figures (kind of like Neolithic Transformers), Takara brought it back to Hasbro to be recast in the states as Transfromers and the circle was complete.

The formula seems to follow an unlikely evolution: take one immensely popular Barbie doll, give her a gun and a square jaw to spread the market to boys, then transform her piece by piece into a machine thanks to a sprinkle of Japanese technological obsession. Behold, the evolution of man to Autobot. The manufacturing process also plots a path. You have the initial sales pitch ("Barbie for boys"), add a foreign license that puts the toy into a brand new market with its own demands, and watch the necessary innovations that result.

There are a number of examples of mergers in the toy industry influencing their ultimate make-up. In the 60's, when Mattel was expanding through the acquisition of smaller companies, they ended up with a lunchbox manufacturer. The lunchboxes were cheap and unprofitable, but the company's use of formed plastic was a valuable process. By connecting them with Matchbox, whose diecast cars were having trouble rolling on their wheels, they used the formed plastic to produce better bearings in the wheels. With this happy match, Hot Wheels were born.

Obviously, whose making the toys influenced their style and quality, but as corporate America grew, the toy world started to look more and more like an oligarchy, where everyone was affiliated with everyone else. As an example, General Mills bought Kenner in 1967, which was acquired by Tonka in '87 all of which was acquired by Hasbro in 1991. This means that G.I. Joe and the original Star Wars line, much as I might have contrasted them with one another in my already critical 8-year-old mind, eventually became step-siblings. This is almost as disturbing as watching Luke and Leia kiss in Empire.

Eventually it wasn't as much manufacturing concerns as it was the marketing. The 80's saw the explosion of toys designed to be cross-marketed with their own cartoons, the patented one-two consumer hit of the day. Kenner had M.A.S.K. and Care Bears, Mattel did Masters of the Universe, and Hasbro had the new era of G.I. Joe and its prodigy Transformers. The toy lines themselves were taking the forefront, since kids would buy anything related to their favorite cartoon regardless of the quality of its construction. Granted, toys like the Transformers were a brilliant and entertaining gimmick, but by and large you didn't need a bold new design to make a profit. Rather than developing or acquiring new means of manufacture, you could just as easily come up with something already in your means and give it its own TV show.

The toy industry displays the same natural progression as the rest of the 20th century: the rapid innovation of the early decades, followed by the refinement of the modern era, which is then rehashed to death by the desperate search for something new in the postmodern era at the end of the century.

So where does that leave us in the post-postmodern era of the 21st century? Like a lot of various mediums and art forms, the toy industry seems to be thriving off mining its past. Name recognition with some toys are as powerful as ever, especially as toys root themselves further and further in an adult market. To many of us, Transformers are not only an established brand, they're also nostalgia, allowing for our childhood to be repackaged with such figures as a collector's edition Optimus Prime, or the expansion of a whole new series of comic books. Similarly, any TV show or movie with a cult following can manage to make a tidy profit off including a line of toys with its other merchandise. With the adult market, this can include such shows as Lost or the obviously-not-suitable-for-children films such as Scarface.

Catalog page from the Wiggins Teape catalog featuring the Flash Gordon Mego figures

Of course, finding a market for your toys through licensing other media is nothing new. Kenner rocketed into the big time with the Star Wars license, and before them, Mego was hitting up everything from Planet of the Apes to Happy Days. In fact, Mego somewhat laid the groundwork for recent toy companies that are nearly entirely based on licensed toys, from Todd McFarlane mining his own art to Mezco churning out all the pop culture references it can afford.

The nice thing about the growth of the toy industry in the not-so-distant past is that there is room again for newer companies to establish themselves in a niche as it appears. A company like NECA, not even 10 years old, can build an entire corner of its empire on the short-lived bobblehead craze. Meanwhile, thanks to the growing budget of the aging nerds of the 80's, Sideshow Collectables can produce mostly 12" figures and larger statues that are outside the range of a child's allowance.

So a toy's company lineage only takes it a certain distance and no further. With such broad holdings as Hasbro, you're making everything from Marvel Legends in 2007 to Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks, but it seems unlikely that the two divisions will influence one another. On the other hand, within a decade, a company can still establish itself as a source for quality figures and take advantage of a growing base of licensed products as well as interchangeable parts and reusable in-house talents. A toy company's name is primary sign of quality based on its track record only so long as its subsidiaries don't become like second cousins once removed. Meanwhile, most toys being made these days look to name recognition in the license to create the market, regardless of the specialties the company brings to the table.

Next week, we'll look at the toy industries own postmodern efforts with the invasion of vinyl figures from the west coast. Pack up your Turtle Camper, we're going to the beach.