A few years ago, I wrote an article about a dozen incredible toys from the 1985 Sears Wishbook. Today, I change some pictures and words and present the very best playthings from the 1986 Sears Wishbook.
Only it's not the Sears Wishbook, it's the 1986 JCPenney Christmas catalog. And I'm writing about it in April. We're off to a roaring start.
Such forty-pound holiday catalogs are still around today, but they can't possibly mean as much. In 1986, they were treated with more reverence than bibles. This wasn't merely "one way" to help a kid decide what he or she wanted for Christmas. It was the way. We couldn't go online to make Amazon wishlists, and though some had the notion, few of us ever went browsing toy stores on an early December weekend, pen and pad in hand, writing down things that might've been interesting to play with on the morning of the 25th. Practically every gift I ever asked for was found in the pages of a Sears Wishbook. (Or a JCPenney Christmas Catalog. Errgh.)
Endless glory. Page after page after page of toys we recognized, toys we'd never seen before, toys we absolutely had to have. All of the products were beautifully photographed and often showed real kids playing with them, as if to taunt us in some sneaky, "this could be you" sort of way.
1986 was a good year for kiddy stuff, as you will see. Below are twelve of that year's best, representing stuff I had, stuff I wanted, and in one rare case, stuff that teaches us how human hearts pump blood. If being six-years-old again seems like an attractive proposition, what's seen below will cause disgusting salivation that will make everyone hate looking at you.
The Masters of the Universe "Eternia" playset, as magnificent as it is, was an ill-timed failure. The toyline's popularity was waning, and the last thing you should do with a troubled brand is hedge your bets on a playset the size of Norway with a retail price of $85000. Eternia was, even by admission of the people who created it, a flop.
This had little to do with the playset itself, which explains why I can't look at a picture of it without sprouting happy angel wings before flying around the room in pretzel-track formation. This was a huge, complex, motorized piece of HOLY FROG JESUS-level amazement. Next to Eternia, the fabled "Castle Grayskull" playset felt like a dirty outhouse.
Its three towers represented places of interest in Eternia: Castle Grayskull, Snake Mountain, and some other location that I can't quite figure out, but who needs trivial details when you have a tower with a demon head built into it, complete with grasping arms?
Forgoing all canon set by the franchise's cartoons and comic books, Eternia, Snake Mountain and this random demon tower are mutually accessible by way of a motorized Disney-ish monorail system. Logistically, it's a headscratcher: Why would He-Man and Skeletor agree to the construction of a monorail that connected their respective home bases? In reality, would any kid care? Absolutely not. The promise of sending Moss Man on random space trips always won out over logic.
Eternia had around 50,000 parts, many of the tiny-sized variety, and it's beyond tough to track down a complete specimen on the collectors' market. This explains why Eternia playsets still sealed in their original boxes seem to be priced on a per-part basis. Not many kids had it in the '80s, and not many collectors have it today: Even with its demon heads and monorails and little tiny plastic grappling hooks, Eternia isn't worth next month's rent.
For Christmas in 1986, one of my older brothers got the "medium" Photon set. It didn't come with the helmets, but there was a pair of guns and a practice target device. That was more than enough to make you thank God, over and over again, for giving the human race enough mental potential to conceptualize and produce the batteries needed to make these things shoot laser beams. Though my term of ownership was rife with controversy, I immediately claimed his Photon set as my own. My brother never forgave me and we haven't spoken since.
The bigger sets came with wearable chest targets for players to aim for. This one was a little more subsidized: You just shot at the other guy's gun, which doubled as your target. If you fired successfully 3-4 times, the "round" was won, and your enemy's gun would make a "ba-boosh" sound to indicate that he sucked at Photon. Not much by today's standards, but in 1986, I was from 2032.
There is a mistaken impression that Photon ripped off Lazer Tag. It's actually the other way around, but Lazer Tag had about 80 times more success with it. At first glance, Lazer Tag had a cooler name, and its guns looked a little more futuristic. I prefer Photon, but I guess that's an unbalanced assessment given that I never had the opportunity to steal an expensive Lazer Tag set from my brother on Christmas Eve. Don't care. Photon was better. Deep down, everyone knows that.
It's tough to talk about Mattel's M.U.S.C.L.E. collection without acknowledging its Japanese Kinnikuman roots, and that despite appearances, the random little pink dudes had actual names, personas and allegiances.
When the line debuted, Mattel ignored its rich history and stuck with the basics: They were freaky wrestlers, there were seemingly millions of them, and they were pink. And, largely, they didn't have names. I don't care that I'm one Google search away from identifying the M.U.S.C.L.E. guy who was a big hand with eyes as "Sunigator Shotai." To me, he'll always be "Hand Guy." Same goes for "Sunshine." He'll always be "Guy Shaped Like a Building."
M.U.S.C.L.E. was an acronym for "Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere." Shitty acronym. Sold in 4, 10 and 28 packs, we gobbled them up, carried them all over the place, and at least in my circles, used them as currency. The figures depicted everything from maniacal warriors to dudes with teacups as heads, and the goal was less about collecting your favorites and more about collecting as many M.U.S.C.L.E. men as humanly possible.
Originally, all of the figures were forged in a fleshy pink rubber. Later, Mattel re-released everyone in a variety of neon colors. I cannot speak for the world at large, but the neon M.U.S.C.L.E. toys depressed me. They felt cheaper, somehow.
Accessories weren't really necessary, but Mattel gave it a shot with the M.U.S.C.L.E. "Battlin' Belt" and "Hardknockin' Rockin' Ring." The belt was just a souped-up carrying case, and though the ring seems interesting from the picture, it never seemed to work very well. Probably because it weighed 1.5 ounces, and even the smallest child was perfectly capable of breaking it in half with their bare hands.
The accessories were just gravy, anyway: The real attraction of the line was a kid's ability to grow their collection into the dozens with little fuss. After all, it was tough to choose a He-Man figure when you could get ten M.U.S.C.L.E. wrestlers for the same price. Especially when you consider that ten-packs of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures were sold in swank plastic pails.
Confident that words will never exemplify the godliness that was Inhumanoids, I resort to smiley faces.
:) :) :) :) :) :) :) :)
Inhumanoids was a short-lived cartoon and toyline about a group of ragtag heroes battling against a trio of skyscraper-sized monsters who lived below the Earth's crust. I think we can all agree that what I've just described should be the plot to everything ever.
Every Inhumanoids toy was great, but the giant monsters were a different kind of great. There was Metlar, the lava-based leader, who was pretty much a reptilian version of Lucifer. Next was slimy D*Compose, best described as a zombie/bird, whose ribcage doubled as a prison for future live meals. Finally, and most exquisitely, was Tendril. Plant-based with whipping appendages, Tendril was sort of like Cthulhu without the unavoidable eventuality of spelling and pronunciation mistakes.
Since the catalog picture doesn't provide a clear sense of scale, I'll tell you this: To my 1986 body, Tendril was around 30 feet tall.
If you're wondering why there's no Venkman or Slimer, a primer: Filmation's Ghostbusters cartoon debuted in 1986, and though it only came to fruition because of the unrelated film's massive popularity, it was actually based on a live action series from the '70s. It's also the reason why, when it came time to bring Stay Puft and Winston into Toon Town, they went with that REAL Ghostbusters moniker.
It's all very confusing, but the point is this: For as flaccid and unattractive as these Ghostbusters seemed when compared to the ones that had the neat suits and proton packs, its corresponding toy line had one of the best action figures of all time. Bottom row, far right. PRIME EVIL.
For me, Prime Evil was the one that got away. I know I put him on my wishlist, but fate intervened and he never made it into my collection. It drove me out of my mind, because I only ever saw the guy in holiday catalogs...never in stores. I didn't have to watch the cartoon to know that he was worth having. LOOK at him. Like a Satanic cross between Skeletor and the Emperor's Royal Guard!
These bastard Ghostbusters toys weren't successful. Not hard to see why. If kids weren't fans of the cartoon, and I certainly didn't know a soul who was, was this collection of figures going to make them take an interest? Random gorillas, purple guys in safari suits and fat pilots? Hell no. Prime Evil was the only character that seemingly had any meat to him. A shitload of meat, actually. Just not enough meat to succeed in spite of his horrible looking compatriots.
My Christmas wishlists looked more like order forms from the Sears Wishbook. The catalogs were my primary resource for present-picking, and within that, I'd often find myself drawn to some pretty strange stuff. I was all about the "variety" when it came to my Christmas gift spreads, and even if a bunch of action figures and video games had more longterm value, I always added a few "wacky" items to my list, for variety's sake.
Dunno if we can consider stamp and coin books as "wacky," but that's what I went with. Asked for the stamp set on the upper right and the coin book on the bottom left, and got 'em both. I was a lazy stamp collector for a while, ushered into the hobby by way of the many "stamps on approval" ads that permeated the back pages of comic books and "Boys' Life" magazines. These stamp companies would send you a truckload of stamps, and you were free to purchase the ones you liked, and send the others back. While this may have been a sound business strategy on paper, the truth was, no seven-year-old kid fears jail. I kept all of the stamps and never sent a dime. It's probably what allowed me to so freely rip off Columbia House later in life.
I'd wager that, male or female, anyone remotely in my age bracket had at least one of the "hobby sets" shown above. Even if you never asked for one of them, they weaseled their way into our lives in some random, mutant, rite-of-passagy way.
Everyone I knew had a bunch of LJN's WWF "Superstars" figures. Even the kids who didn't watch wrestling had them. Actually, for a lot of us -- myself included -- these dolls were how we became wrestling fans.
Big, heavy and with painted-on details that could never survive the perils of our at-home main events, LJN's WWF figures were made of a seemingly indestructible rubber that had to be chewed endlessly to show much wear and tear. And that's good, because there wasn't much you could do with these guys besides trying to figure out how to destroy them. They had no joints and couldn't be posed, and aside from looking interesting on a shelf, they were meant for beating up.
The collection was popular, or at least, it was popular enough to warrant the inclusion of such World Wrestling Federation duds as S.D. Jones and Ken Patera. They were immensely fun, especially if you bought the official LJN WWF wrestling ring to give your grudge matches a more faithful backdrop.
Of course, anyone who had these guys probably remembers their least advertised point of delight. When you threw one of them at your friend, it really hurt. And throwing them was not possible to resist, because the wrestlers' scale, weight and flexible rubber made them fly like Hillbilly Jim-themed ninja stars.
When Transformers toys first debuted in the States, you didn't have to be a hardcore fan to comprehend them. With few exceptions, you had good guy cars that turned into good guy robots, and bad guy planes that turned into bad guy robots. As the line's popularity continued, Autobots and Decepticons got a lot more complicated. Take one of the featured figures in the above scan, named Sky Lynx. Sky Lynx was a space shuttle that turned into a dragon that turned into a lynx. To ensure that fans realized just how far Transformers had come from its humble beginnings, Sky Lynx was given a British accent in the cartoons.
This new wave of Transformers never seemed to shake the world as much as the originals did, owing partly to the fact that it was easier for kids to persuade someone to buy them a $5 Bumblebee than a $40 shuttle/dragon/lynx. Or maybe kids just weren't into shuttle/dragon/lynxes. You know, it's been around ten years since I wrote about him, but Sky Lynx still sucks.
Speaking of horrible Autobots, Ultra Magnus was one of the featured new figures. I would've killed for an Ultra Magnus back then, because I was too young to recognize his complete and total failure in everything he did, and was blinded by thoughts of "omg big huge robot" and "omg his chief colors are red and blue, I love red and blue!"
I had plenty of Thundercats toys, but I wouldn't count them among my favorites. In part, I think it had something to do with not being able the reconcile the idea that lame tigers in acrobats' uniforms could so consistently defeat Mumm-Ra and his froggy minion with the big eyeball. There was a difference between suspension of disbelief and enabling. I could not let the toy industry believe that Panthro KO'ing Mumm-Ra was acceptable.
I mainly went after the villains in the line. They were more diverse, and had cooler clothes. In fact, the only "heroic" piece of the toy collection that I can ever remember really wanting was the "Cat's Lair" playset. Course, in my hands, it would've been Mumm-Ra's summer home.
While the Cat's Lair eluded my grasp as a kid, I played with it at friends' houses, and later acquired one when I was too old to shamelessly enjoy it. The pictures never did it justice. Aside from all of that weird shit going on in the front, there was a whole environment on the other side, with prisons and elevators and stairwells, and one of those crude cardboard backdrops designed with all manner of colorful rooms and super computers.
Plus, since those Thundercats made for some comparatively large action figures, the Cat's Lair was pretty humongous. Toys this big didn't have to be any good for kids to want them, but when they were, we kissed plastic.
I spent my youth begging for a pet rodent. Mouse, hamster, gerbil, it didn't matter. My mother was deathly afraid of the things, and it was not a battle I stood to win. So began an obsession with lifelike rodent facsimiles. If only they had Zhu Zhu Pets in the mid '80s.
Incredibly, on a catalog page featuring such high-tech and legendary toys as Teddy Ruxpin and Petster the Robot Cat, I aimed for a simple toy hamster with wheels for feet and batteries in its ass. Never did manage to snag one, but we've all seen them in action: The hamsters typically impressed us for about five seconds before getting stuck or toppling over.
To be fair, I doubt I was all that interested in the fake hamster's ability to run around in a ball. More likely, I had plans to house him in a ten gallon cage, feed him real hamster food, and play pretend until someone pitied me enough to take me to Petland.
Ultimately, I won the war. There are still three real hamsters unaccounted for, their corpses somewhere in the walls of my mother's house.
I had as many G.I. Joe figures as anyone, but I was never too obsessed with the cartoons, and only a handful of the characters really spoke to me so convincingly that I had to have their action figures. Cobra Commander, sure, even though he was a bitch to find. Destro, of course, because his head was silver. Then began a much longer list of characters who really didn't mean much, but looked too awesome for a back-story to matter: The Battle Android Trooper, Croc Master and T.A.R.G.E.T., for starters.
And then there was Serpentor.
I didn't need to be a religious viewer of the cartoons to know who Serpentor was. His origins were retold in the toy commercials, and considering that those origins involved everything from the exhumation of Genghis Kahn's corpse to shots of Dr. Mindbender trolling around a secret laboratory with beakers full of DNA samples, you can imagine how powerful they seemed when condensed into a thirty-second TV spot. Serpentor! The new ruler of Cobra! More important than Cobra Commander! Guy with a cape! Holy shit, I had to have him.
Because there was absolutely no way that any child even remotely interested in G.I. Joe toys was willing to continue breathing without Serpentor, Hasbro rather cleverly forced anyone who wanted him to buy his Air Chariot vehicle, too. They came packaged together, and while it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he was sold as a standalone "standard" figure later, he definitely wasn't at first. It was masterful move of dickery on Hasbro's part, but hey, it wasn't my money. Plus, while I hadn't given them much consideration before, I soon realized that golden, snake-themed air chariots were pretty god damned epic.
When I think back on the action figures I had and the many cartoons and movies they found root in, I didn't always adhere to the rankings provided to me. When I played Star Wars, Boba Fett was just as likely to lead as Darth Vader. More blasphemously, I often allowed Gnaw the Sharkticon to order Shockwave around. With Serpentor, no way. They told me he was the boss, and I agreed. In the grisly trenches of plastic men at war, a guy in a cobra costume with a real cloth cape could not avoid his destiny of becoming capo di tutti capi. Expectedly, writing that made me want candy.
I didn't know what to say as I peeled the wrapping paper to reveal an Anatomical Pumping Heart kit, and I cannot stress how sincerely I mean that. What the? What was this? Why did my parents get me an Anatomical Pumping Heart kit? What possible sequence of events could've led them to believe that this was an acceptable Christmas gift in any way, shape or form?
I admit to being a little frivolous when the time came to pen my holiday wishlists, but I can say beyond any shadow of a doubt that I never put anything even closely resembling an Anatomical Pumping Heart on one of them. I could not comprehend it. I still don't comprehend it.
Usually, when you got a bad Christmas or birthday gift, you could kind of see the logic behind it. Gift-givers could mistake one interest for another, or maybe they just went with something that would've been mildly okay if you were anyone else on the planet besides you. But an Anatomical Pumping Heart kit? I remember being polite about it, but that was only because I couldn't shake the notion that this was some kind of test.
A few months later, I turned the kit into that year's science fair project. Total last minute bullshit deal. I didn't even have a piece of posterboard to go along with it. Only the few "winning" science projects were graded; everyone else just had to show up with one. I obeyed that rule to the letter. Never had a clue what it was supposed to do, much less how to make it do whatever it was that it did. I just set it up in the school library, put my name next to it, and that was that.
Every kid gets a few Christmas gifts that makes him or her wonder if life is really just some colossal joke, or maybe an obtuse game show broadcast for the entertainment of aliens. This was one of mine. I still have no idea why an Anatomical Pumping Heart came into my life, but I'm glad it got me out of having to make a volcano that spat red-dyed Palmolive. Perhaps, in the original timeline, that red-dyed Palmolive poisoned and killed me.
I have written enough. I do not believe this article needs a conclusion paragraph.