Written/Created by: Matt
Posted on 4.08.03.

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While we've reviewed hundreds of action figures, plastic playthings, and remote-controlled alien pigdogs here on the site, there exists very few items synonymous in the world's eyes with the word 'toy.' A Slinky? Sure. The Etch-A-Sketch? Definitely. The severed bear claw in a jar of water tinged just orangy enough to pass as prop formaldehyde? No, but they probably should be. Still, there's perhaps nothing more in tune with doing what a toy's supposed to do than a little ditty put out by Playskool decades ago: the infamous, luminous, expealadocious Lite-Brite.

A creature of intrigue, the Lite-Brite is a proven commodity - one of the only things stocked in toy stores that's always assuredly there, past present future. Everything else comes and goes, and while you might've never became obsessed with Lite-Brites in the same manner you were with your He-Man warriors and My Little Pony dolls, you could always count on the ol' bitches to be on a Toys R' Us shelf during those cold years when there's no good cartoon spinoff lines to hold your interest. I think we've taken this thing for granted. You know, sales have been consistent, but if people don't start paying more attention to the perpetually inviting Lite-Brite, stores are gonna stop stocking them and Playskool's gonna send out a pretty depressing press release. I find the thought almost too much to handle. Oh, the webs we do weave. It's time to give the Lite-Brite the respect it so richly deserves, and this article is just my little tribute to the only toy I've ever had to gave my thumb a sewing callus.

For the uncultured swine in the audience who've never experienced this holy lamp of color daggers, Lite-Brite gave kids the chance to 'draw' pictures that'd light up with the help of a low-watt bulb chilling out behind the black grate. You'd put a piece of black construction paper (they gave you 'official' template sheets, but who really held on to those?) over the grate, and with the magic of the included bag of small pointed pegs, you could create scenes in the whole spectrum of colors. My statement assumes that the spectrum of colors is limited to seven colors, but I'm standing by it sheerly out of thickheaded spite.

Playskool also sold template sheets with color-coded pictures for you to lay out, and while the process was fun, it didn't match the excitement of creating your own works of art. For me, the mission usually focused around the idea that I could spell out obscenities with the pegs. I can't explain why, but 40% of my time spent during childhood was trying to sneak the word 'shit' onto anything that involved any sort of writing. Pencils, crayons, markers, paint, colored glue, cake icing - even the stupid Lite-Brite pegs. As much fun as making the illuminated box tell my family to fuck off was, there was certainly something to be said for the pre-made template 'refill' kits.

Using strings of redundant words like 'pre-made template refill kits' is how I get these things to 2,000 words, folks.

To give you a closer look at what glories could be found by the intuitive Lite-Brite owner, I've gone out and purchased one of the choice refill kits from years past. The package, from 1982, was still sealed and remained untouched by soiling, grubby kid hands. These traits made the kit's value skyrocket much higher than I'd care to admit spending, but let's just say that if my eventual kids don't go to an eventual college, it's because I bought really expensive G.I. Joe Lite-Brite sheets before they were born. I've spent less money having teeth removed and turned into miniature, tooth-shaped robot housemaids meant to collect all of those stems of lint the vacuum can never seem to pick up. Was it worth it? Is it possible to successfully render Cobra Commander using Lite-Brite pegs? Time will tell...

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Essentially, the kit is just a pile of black paper. Not the kind of thing most kids would grow moist with delight over, but there's more than meets the eye with these sheets. See, they've coded each of the templates to give you the opportunity to create some of your favorite G.I. Joe characters as a Lite-Britey work of art, along with some templates for tanks and patriotic helicopters thrown in for good measure. The kit contains twelve different pre-made pictures, along with an additional two dozen blank sheets for the advanced artist.

I haven't played with a Lite-Brite since I was a kid, and I must admit, it's a little more time-consuming than I remembered. Completing just one single sheet took almost a half an hour, and I quickly realized just why every kid in town had one of these things. They're a parent's best way to get kiddies out of their hair. Lite-Brite isn't the sort of thing that required parental supervision, and even if the instructions said differently, few children wanted to spoil the chance to fuck with a working light-bulb by having their mothers around. For the young spirits, Lite-Brite was a very personal and very Zen activity. We didn't want help. This was our calling.

There's the first completed sheet, succinctly titled 'Cobra Enemy.' I've gotta say - completing these is probably the most boring process involved with any of the toys we've reviewed here on the site. I felt like a factory worker, constantly repeating to myself that the 'P' spots stood for 'pink,' not 'purple.' I originally believed otherwise, and it wasn't until consulting the instruction guide that I realized the truth: Lite-Brite considered 'purple' more of a 'violet,' and those spots got a 'V.' If you can't follow this last paragraph, don't worry - I can't either. Finishing a Lite-Brite sheet is a mind-numbing process, one that sucks any semblence of individuality or unique thought from your soul. I guess I can understand why Playskool neglected to mention this little side-effect, but it still feels somehow wrong.

When finished and ready to put the toy away, you face the ungodly task of having to remove all of the 6,400 color pegs from the black grate. It's difficult to put this under the 'pro' list. The only conceivable upside is that the once-barren template sheet pops off the grate with hot new holes that prove your accomplishments forever more. After all, there's always going to come a time when you've gotta take the pegs out of a Lite-Brite. Even if you make the most heavenly picture, it's still a labor with temporary effects. The used black sheets are the only real lasting proof you have. If nobody believes that I successfully crafted the 'Cobra Enemy' Lite-Brite picture, I have the means to prove 'em wrong.

Plus, you can use the finished sheets as makeshift salt sifters whenever you're cooking a big roast. And really, isn't that what it's all about? Creating crude and illuminated Destro faces is fun, but like the world's great minds always say - to salt is divine.

There's the Joes' counterintelligence specialist, Agent Scarlett. Given what we're working with, that's a pretty dead-on interpretation. You might think Playskool crass for emphasizing her substantial chest, but c'mon, they needed to put something in there to make sure we didn't confuse Scarlett with Duke or the guy with the parrot. Knowing Scarlett as I do, that's a crossbow in her right hand and a communicator in her left. To those a little less clear on the lore, it looks like she's using an electric toothbrush on her forehead while playing with a Kenner Star Destroyer. The scarf looks more like some mystery item I only finished halfway, but make no mistake - it's a scarf. Scarlett loved scarves. Remember, there were no set uniforms in the world of G.I. Joe. The quickest way to rise ahead wasn't by having the best aim or the highest number of captured Cobra troops - you just had to have goofier clothes than your contemporaries. Why else would they have sent a rookie basketball player to take care of a world domination plot involving the use of alien spores to transform the planet's population into snakes and rats? You're ranked according to how interesting your pants look.

The second I opened that bag full of colored pegs, all of our cats became really curious. The one shown above had the best m.o. - while pretending to sleep, she quietly and gradually used her front paws to pull herself along the carpet, all the time making sure to shut her eyes the second she felt my haunting glare being thrown her way. Within minutes, she was just an inch or so away from the pegs, patiently waiting for my back to turn so she could go apeshit in a claw-throwing peg-frenzy. She was masterful, turning the most mundane feat a cat could perform into a highly artistic reconnaissance mission. I considered what I was seeing for a moment - after all the trouble she went through, it seemed so unfair to deny her the enchanting color pegs. By supplying the reward for a job well done, I felt as though I'd be leaving the door open for future feline missions which made my cats a whole lot more fun to look at. As she lifted her paw in an almost-pantomimed gesture of peg-stealing meant to gage my attention, I wondered if I should just let her have some of the pegs. Then I remembered the time she pissed on my new jacket, and smacked her over the head with an old Snapple bottle.

Cobra 1, Joes 0.

Lite-Brite called this one 'Cobra Attack,' and it wasn't until just now that I noticed who this was supposed to be: it's Cobra Commander! In the Sunday church alternate hooded uniform! And hands that looked like mailboxes!! The G.I. Joe franchise would never have made it as big as it did in the 80s without this guy's help. In an era of transforming robots with god complexes and tan bodybuilders who beat up magic skeleton people, there was no way G.I. Joe would've survived by staying true to its 60s roots. There's a time for realism, and there's a time for guys with hidden faces voiced by Chris Latta. This was a time for the latter. Latta. Latter Latta. Latta Latter. To celebrate Cobra Commander's first and only forage into the land of Lite-Brite make believe, they've included several graphics of fireworks in the background. Or bike spokes. Either way, joy is spread.

My thumbs were beginning to swell, and at this point I made the decision not to do all twelve different G.I. Joe template sheets. Don't worry, I've still got a few more, but I don't think I could've completed this experiment without the help of a few willing apprentices or a cast iron thumb guard. As things were, I only had cats. And one fewer than before after that whole peg incident. I was on my own, and I hope everyone understands why I was forced to forgo the inclusion of the Lite-Brite army helicopter and the 'battle tank' that looked more like a 'well-endowed monkey rhino.' There's only so much Lite-Brite a person can handle in one 24-hour period, and let's face it, this article wasn't worth more than a day's effort. Sorry.

The picture shown above was titled 'G.I. Joe Watches Enemy.' Lite-Brite didn't believe in wasted words. I'm not entirely sure how jamming a giant nail into your eye is supposed to aid you in spying on your oppressors, but hey, I was never trained. I dodged the draft. Like Meathead's friend on All in the Family who ended up eating Christmas dinner with Archie. Just like that.

The 'Snake Eyes' template was probably the kit's biggest selling point. Kids loved this guy - silent and deadly, but in no way resembling anything scatological. I like how they used the pink pegs to illustrate a shadow on Snake Eyes' back - it helps me understand that this big battle happened during the afternoon. With the black grate and black paper, I could've easily been confused into thinking this was a War of the Night. Knowing is half the battle, and the other half is finding article topics that don't give me lots of blisters, and legs that fall asleep because the only way to do Lite-Brite is while sitting Indian-style, baby.

I assume that Snake Eyes' bunch of celery will prove invaluable on the field of battle. He'll negative calorie the shit right outta Cobra.

Here's the 'Rapid Fire Motorcycle' template. Their names, not mine. That's one plump Joe - no wonder they didn't trust him to use a bayonet on foot. I'm fairly sure the motorcycle shown above was also immortalized by Hasbro as one of the action figure toys, but it's difficult to tell since they had four dozen different motorcycles. I wouldn't even begin to wager what meaningless code name this thing had. Was it the HF-45, the 6-GI-T, the Snake Masher? Ah who cares - I'm more interested in finding out why the guy riding it doesn't have lower legs.

As I mentioned, the kit also included 24 'blank' sheets. These were for the free range Lite-Brite artist. I felt this article wouldn't be complete without at least one picture of a finished work using the blank sheets, so I channeled my inner child. If I was ten, and I had the chance to create anything I wanted to create with my Lite-Brite, what would it be? To what plateaus would my mind wander, and to what final standing point would the journey finish? Putting myself into the mindset of a ten-year-old, here's what I came up with...

See? This is why kids loved Lite-Brite.

Next up, 'Ranger: Stalker.' Stalker looks mightily pissed off, and it seems that 95% of the effort Lite-Brite spent on the G.I. Joe Refill Kit went into his purple eyebrows. I'd be pissed off too if I had to wear one of those stupid berets. I mean, don't they already make you shave all your hair off? What's the point of a beret? That's why our army will never realize the same success as G.I. Joe - we're still way too strict with the dress code. Our boys would get home a whole lot faster if we let them wear comfy camouflage pajamas. Morale is equivalent to output, and who isn't content in their pajamas?

Today's final picture is called 'G.I. Joe In Action,' and comes complete with the company logo. There wasn't enough pegs to complete this one, so I had to make him look a little more avant garde than I would've otherwise preferred. The kit also included five other Joe-inspired template sheets, and an instruction booklet for idiots like me who couldn't figure out that 'W' stood for 'white,' and not for 'woodstain mahogany' which would be upsetting since they didn't give me any pegs in that color.

Believe it or not, putting these things together took hours. Before spending cash on a Lite-Brite I'd assuredly only be using for this one article, I asked my niece if she happened to have one I could borrow. I found it pretty depressing that she had no idea what a 'Lite-Brite' was. There's so few traditions left in the world - families aren't having dinner together, there's no more new episodes of The Cosby Show airing on Thursday nights -- I'll be damned if we're gonna give up on Lite-Brite, too. Go out, go out right now and buy yourself a Lite-Brite. Preserve Americana for a measly fifteen bucks. As an added incentive, here's some scans of the G.I. Joe refill pages I didn't use, so you can start thwarting Cobra the second you get back from Kay-Bee...

(click to enlarge to deliciously enormous sizes)

I hope your printer has fresh ink. MOO HA HA HA HA.



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