Top 10: Toys for TTMU Season Three by Jerry Whitworth
On May 25th, the second season of The Toys That Made Us debuted on Netflix bringing an end to the eight-part documentary series about toylines that helped define the generations that grew up with them. Covering Star Wars, Barbie, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Transformers, Lego, and Hello Kitty, TTMU went over each toyline’s broad history while touching base with the effect they had on the people who collected them, at times weaving in celebrities whose lives’ were impacted by the toys. Stated within the opening sequence of each episode, TTMU was created as an eight-episode series however the concept could easily be expanded much further. Should Netflix order future seasons of TTMU, lets see what toys could be featured next.
Following the success of brands like Lisa Frank and Strawberry Shortcake, the latter’s creator in greeting card giant American Greetings capitalized on the interest in products targeting young girls with new brands like the Popples and Get Along Gang. However, it was the creation of the Care Bears that became a massive success. Featuring colorful teddy bears with unique designs on their tummies known as belly badges, several of Strawberry Shortcake’s designers and creators were tasked with the development of the Care Bears which initially started with six bears. With plush teddies manufactured by Kenner (whose Star Wars license transformed them into one of the biggest toy manufacturers in the world), Care Bears only grew from those initial bears as Parker Brothers produced story books and Kenner financed the television special The Care Bears in the Land Without Feelings (1983). Another special would emerge the following year as the brand extended into the Care Bear Cousins, more plush animals with belly badges but this time across the animal kingdom featuring a lion, elephant, penguin, lamb, rabbit, and raccoon in its initial offerings. It would be 1985 when The Care Bears Movie hit theaters to become the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of its time leading into an animated television series from DIC as Nelvana, who produced the first film, quickly went into development for a film sequel for the following year. Like most toylines, Care Bears fell in interest with the popularity of electronic toys and video games around 1987. But, the strength of the brand has seen it persist, relaunching in 1991, 2002, 2007, and most recently in 2012.
Developed by greeting card company American Greetings, Strawberry Shortcake was an original character featured on their products who proved so successful she grew into her own brand. The same year the property debuted on American Greetings’ products, Kenner licensed its characters producing a rag doll in Shortcake’s likeness. Proving successful again, Shortcake exploded in popularity featured on dozens of different kinds of merchandise and starring in her own video game from Parker Brothers and in a series of animated specials as Kenner would adapt 21 of the brand’s characters as scented dolls in a variety of styles. Like most toylines, Strawberry Shortcake fell in interest with the popularity of electronic toys and video games around 1987. But this wouldn’t be the end as the brand persisted in relaunches in 1991, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2010 with another relaunch planned for next year.
Beginning its life as an animated series produced by Rankin/Bass (known historically for their Christmas specials) and animated by Topcraft (which would be bought out to become Studio Ghibli), ThunderCats became one of the most popular animated series of its time unofficially spinning-off two similar series in SilverHawks and TigerSharks. Telling the story of the titular ThunderCats, the noble class of the planet Thundera, the series featured the destruction of their world and their move to Third Earth to begin anew where they faced foes old and new. Young toy company LJN, which had success with licensed lines in Dungeons & Dragons and WWF Superstars, was given the ThunderCats license and the line was one of the most popular toy brands of its time. Only three waves of ThunderCats toys would be produced by LJN (though more were planned) due to the 1987 collapse of the toy market caused by the popularity of electronic toys and video games (as LJN transitioned into a video game developer). It should be noted, Kenner produced a SilverHawks line and LJN a TigerSharks line in the midst of the 1987 collapse. ThunderCats as a brand would continue to live beyond the collapse but wouldn’t largely return to the toy landscape until 2011 with action figures from Bandai to coincide with the release of a new animated series on Cartoon Network. Sadly, the line did not sell well enough to continue. In 2015, Mattel would acquire the ThunderCats license and produced a Classics line in the vein of its similar Masters of the Universe and DC Universe lines. However, the following year, its Classics lines transitioned under license to Super7 only for Warner Bros (who had acquired ThunderCats in 1989) to pull the ThunderCats license in 2017. It’s likely this move was part of a new animated series in ThunderCats Roar set to debut on Cartoon Network in 2019 which took a controversial departure in its design and story style from previous versions of the brand (certainly different from the Mattel Classics designs) which will likely have its own toyline.
Perhaps the premiere toyline for young girls in the 1980s, Cabbage Patch Kids was mass produced in a license to Coleco (known mostly for its electronic toys and video games) in 1982 to become a phenomenon. Featuring large vinyl sculpted heads with fabric bodies, the dolls were supposedly born in a cabbage patch and children would adopt them so they wouldn’t be enslaved by the dastardly Lavender McDade. Popular among children, the dolls were highly collectible to the point of incidents of violence in stores across America as people attempted to acquire them (to the point of riots in 1983). Coleco filed for bankruptcy in 1988 leading the CPK license to be snatched up by Hasbro who produced the dolls until 1994 when Mattel acquired the license. Subsequently, Toys “Я” Us, Play Along Toys, and Jakks Pacific would hold the license for a time with Wicked Cool Toys the latest to secure it in 2015. This means that Cabbage Patch Kids has been mass produced virtually uninterrupted for the last 36 years making it comparable in staying power to titans like Barbie and Lego.
In the vein of The Toys That Made Us‘ Star Trek episode, DC Superheroes are a brand that has persisted for decades across many formats. The earliest superhero action figure was Superman in 1940 produced by Ideal Novelty and Toy Company and was a 13” jointed wooden doll. From there, a number of companies would adapt DC’s heroes in a variety of ways, many notably in tin early on with windup features (as the 1960s Batmania saw Batman toys emerge en masse across the globe). What really changed the game, however, was Mego who was featured in the Star Trek TTMU episode as a company making licensed poseable dolls with clothing. In 1972, Mego created “The World’s Greatest Super Heroes” brand featuring both DC and Marvel characters including vehicles and playsets. Being wildly popular at the time, the sales juggernaut that was Kenner’s Star Wars line became all-encompassing and Mego reported massive losses prompting them to shift toward electronic toys and games. Many companies saw the market Star Wars and then He-Man created and wanted to take advantage of it, DC Comics included. In 1984, Kenner would secure the DC license giving birth to the Super Powers line, arguably the most revered DC toyline in the company’s history. Still, the gorgeous figures were no match for the action figure bubble burst of 1987. The molds for the figures, however, would make a comeback when little known company Toy Biz produced figures for the 1989 Batman film employing the molds leading into the company’s DC Super Heroes line that same year again recycling the molds (but with a cheaper plastic and generally poorer production process). Kenner regained the Batman license in 1990 which saw them produce product lines based on Batman Returns (1992) and its subsequent film sequels. 1992’s massively popular Batman: The Animated Series opened the flood gates as on the screen, DC’s popular stable of characters emerged in shows like Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League while Kenner made toys based on these series (though, Hasbro would acquire Kenner in 1991 and replace Kenner’s name with their own on the toys circa 1999). In 1998, DC founded its own toy and collectible production company in DC Direct which henceforth all but ensured a steady stream of action figures based on their characters would be in constant production. That said, DC entered into a licensing agreement with Mattel in 2003 which continues to thrive today producing toys for many of the adaptations DC has seen produced for film and television. Arguably, the most touted line from the DC/Mattel partnership was the DC Universe Classics series which ran from 2008 to 2014 and featured sculpts by Four Horsemen Studios who were influenced by the Super Powers toyline (so far as producing variants and figures based on the line and ending the series with a 30th anniversary celebration of Super Powers).
Marvel’s earliest moves in the action figure market were rather meek, this included Captain America and Spider-Man costumes (as well as Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Phantom, Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, and others) for the 1966 Captain Action figure and hard plastic figurines from Marx in 1967. It wouldn’t be until the aforementioned Mego World’s Greatest Heroes toyline that Marvel made a big break into the market. Just as DC was looking to take advantage of the toy boom created by Kenner’s Star Wars and Mattel’s He-Man, Marvel wanted to step into the field. When news came of Kenner securing the DC license, Marvel quickly signed with Mattel and a toyline was rushed to be on shelves beside the Super Powers line. Where Super Powers resurrected Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends animated series and had Jack Kirby produce a tie-in comic, Marvel created an in-universe event based on the line called Secret Wars (a name conceived by Mattel who found “secret” and “war” tested well with young boys) massive in scope teaming the most notable heroes and villains of Marvel together in one book. While the Secret Wars comic proved to be game changing for the comic industry, the rather cheap looking toyline managed to die out on its own before the 1987 bubble burst. When DC yanked its license from Toy Biz to give it back to Kenner, Marvel stepped in to see Toy Biz create the Marvel Superheroes line followed closely by the Uncanny X-Men line. In 1992, the X-Men animated series debuted to massive success as Marvel started bringing many of its brands to television which helped sell Toy Biz’s toys. By 1993, Marvel acquired a large stake in Toy Biz which freed the toy company from paying licensing fees and securing the license perpetually. The lines between where Toy Biz began and Marvel ended started to blur as executives from both companies started to crossover, notably Avi Arad who started in Toy Biz but became a major player in Marvel’s film and TV division. When Marvel went bankrupt in 1996, an internal struggle emerged that lead to Toy Biz merging with Marvel with Toy Biz’s owners taking over leadership. Amidst this, the relatively unknown company Toy Biz grew into a toy juggernaut securing nearly a quarter of the toy market in 1995, even more than mainstay Mattel. Marvel’s toys would continue to be produced by Toy Biz until 2006 when it ended its agreement and awarded the license to Hasbro where it will remain until at least 2020.
Among such names as Barbie and Lego, Hot Wheels is one of the longest lived and most enduring toy lines in American history. Featuring miniature die-cast cars, Hot Wheels emerged in 1968 by Mattel produced in competition to the Matchbox brand (which would be bought by Mattel in 1997). Producing a race track set that employed Hot Wheels’ scale, the line was an immediate success and forced Matchbox to evolve to compete. Today, Hot Wheels have become heavily collected by adults becoming a forerunner of the collectible toy market. Further, the brand has been adapted for television, film, and video games as a live action movie has been in development for several years from Legendary Pictures with Justin Lin attached to direct and actor Jeremy Renner to star.
The world’s premier professional wrestling (or sports entertainment) brand on Earth, part of WWE’s long term success is its capacity to produce merchandise. WWE (then WWF) entered the action figure arena in 1984 through LJN, who had previously released toys for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Dungeons & Dragons, with the Wrestling Superstars line (which was followed closely by Remco’s All Star Wrestlers line based on the stars of AWA). Featuring the likenesses of performers such as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and the Junkyard Dog in its initial nine figure line-up, the line proved so popular that it even survived the dreaded 1987 bubble burst of the action figure toy market. In fact, it survived LJN shutting down its toy division in 1989 to focus on electronic toys and video games (though it closed its doors in 1995), transitioning to Hasbro in 1990 who maintained the license until 1994 (the same year Hasbro won the WWE license, Galoob secured the license for WWE’s chief competitor in WCW). Jack Friedman, who founded LJN, moved on to found a video game development company called THQ in 1989 before returning to the action figure market in 1995 by founding Jakks Pacific. It would be Friedman’s new company which secured the WWE license in 1996 and produced the new Superstars line which transitioned from cartoonish depictions of its characters to realistic versions that with every year became more accurate, so far as eventually employing scanning technology to create perfect copies of their faces (and later bodies). WCW followed suite with realistic figures in 1998 with Toy Biz, who had become an industry giant due to its Marvel license, and Original San Francisco Toymakers (the latter producing toys for wrestling promotion ECW in 1999 and 2000). In 2010, Mattel secured the WWE license where it has remained since. However, while the Mattel/WWE deal remains strong, WWE also re-established ties with Jakks Pacific who has also made toys for them since 2016.
In 1981, Hasbro produced a miniature horse figure that children could dress up and style its hair called My Pretty Pony. Despite a lackluster response, the toy was re-branded as My Pretty Pony and Beautiful Baby coming with a smaller, “baby” pony. This would again prove to be underwhelming. Around this time, American Greetings had followed the success of its original creation Strawberry Shortcake with the Care Bears, small colorful bears with a unique “belly badge” giving some insight into their personality. Kenner, who had turned Strawberry Shortcake into a toy, was on the ground floor of Care Bears in 1981 and by the following year had plush dolls of their likeness in stores. Prior to Kenner’s Care Bears launch featuring the brand’s six initial characters, Hasbro had seen My Pretty Pony repainted in pink and yellow variants featuring a cluster of hearts on one of their flanks. The following year, Hasbro launched My Little Pony, smaller versions of My Pretty Pony in a variety of six colors with unique designs on one flank of each pony giving some insight into their personality. The line proved to be successful, spawning two animated prime-time specials starting in 1984, a theatrically released animated film in 1986, and an animated television series named My Little Pony ‘n Friends that same year. MLP proved to be one of the few brands to survive the 1987 toy market bubble burst only to meet its end in 1992. The brand would be launched three more times, first in 1997, then in 2003, and finally in 2010 where it became a massive hit. Writer/director Lauren Faust of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends fame was approached about rebranding the franchise which resulted in what became My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Originally created in order to make content for Hasbro’s television channel The Hub, MLP: FiM became the network’s highest rated and most buzzed about original program. The toys, which were originally only slightly designed after its animated counterparts, became highly sought after and were redesigned to be much more faithful to the hit new show. What’s interesting, however, is that while the series was marketed toward young girls, adult men became a key demographic for the brand (so far as earning the fandom descriptor “brony”). As such, while MLP toys are still produced with young girls in mind, the brand also produced higher end content for the collector market making it one of the more successful non-electronic toy brands in recent years (arguably only comparable to Funko vinyl Pops in recent interest).
What developed from a parody of Daredevil and the X-Men in 1983 would become a multimedia franchise spanning over three decades. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started as a comic book series by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird self-published out of their Mirage Studios featuring four turtles raised by a rat in the sewers of New York City doused in mutagen to grow into humanoid mutants. As the title suggests, the turtles grew into teenagers trained in the ancient art of ninjutsu where they battled the evil Shredder and his Foot clan. Following some success licensing the property to Palladium and Dark Horse, Eastman and Laird hired licensing agent Mark Freedman to try and explore more options for their IP. Freedman shopped the Turtles to various toy companies only finding interest at one: little known company Playmates. However, even there, they refused to take a chance on a little known property without an accompanying cartoon to promote the line. So, Playmates produced character designs based on the original work and animation studio Murakami-Wolf-Swenson (known for 1978’s Puff the Magic Dragon and the Strawberry Shortcake TV specials) turned those designs into a five-part mini-series. The animated series and toyline were both an instant success. While the toy market crashed in 1987 following the prominence of electronic toys and video games, the Ninja Turtles line not only showed there was still interest in action figures in 1988, it made Playmates a titan in the industry. While interest in the Turtles would hit peaks and valleys over the years, Playmates continues to produce toys based on the brand to this day across five live action films, an animated film, a live action TV series, and going on four animated TV series.
Honorable mentions: NERF, M.U.S.C.L.E., Rainbow Brite, Voltron, Treasure Troll, Beanie Baby, and Ghostbusters.