Monday, March 22, 2010

WrestleMania Week: A Brief History of Wrestling Toys

I’m going to start this history lesson with a trivia question: Who is the only wrestler to have had figures released from every major promotion (WWF, ECW, TNA, WCW)? The answer will follow my lengthy essay!

I’ve been collecting toys pretty much since I was a kid. It all started with Star Wars, then a bit of He-Man. GI Joe will always be the big toy love of my life. When Joe waned in the 90’s, I got into Ninja Turtles and then the Batman: The Animated Series stuff. Things have just sort of snowballed since then, what with the collector boom in the mid-90’s (thanks to Todd McFarlane and the Star Wars relaunch) that never really fell off. A lot of people out there still think they’re going to put their kids through college with that mint-in-package Deep Sea Sonar Laser Vision Extreme Karate Spider-Man variant that is upside-down on the card. (Incidentally, I would absolutely buy that figure if I hadn’t just made it up.)

Wrestling toys have frequently been a part of my habit. I had a couple of the LJN donkey clubbers when I was a kid – Hogan and Piper – but I was never really satisfied with those unarticulated safety hazards. Hasbro came to the rescue a couple of years later with what I see as the gold standard of wrestling toys. Their WWF (I caught myself before I typed “WWE”) figures were awesome. Loosely based on the HUGE Hulk Hogan’s Rock N’ Wrestling cartoon, Hasbro’s offerings featured great cartoony likenesses, a tad more articulation and each wrestler had an action figure featuring his signature move. Sort of.

I took a few years off of wrestling in the 90’s, but came back right as things were getting hot for WCW – around the beginning of 1997. I was watching Turner’s brand exclusively right up until WrestleMania XIV. Then the WWF really won me back. Every Monday night we would tune in to Nitro and then watch RAW, which we taped. It was an exciting time to be a wrestling fan, an obvious fact given that pretty much everybody was following the Man Opera back then. We were selling wrestling shirts at Hot Topic. Think about that for just a second – the place where all the emo kids go to get their striped pantyhose and guyliner was selling fucking Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirts. What. The. Fuck. 
With wrestling being at the highest peak of its long and storied history, there must have been a shit-ton of great wrestling toys, right?

El Wrongo!

The biggest line at the time was WWF’s line. It was not awesome. JAKKS Pacific was a relatively new company that had nabbed the WWF license right before the upswing in business. They were producing a line of rubber figures with relatively poor likenesses that featured “Bone-Crunching Action!”. This meant that there was a plastic joint inside the elbows and knees of each figure that would produce a faint clicking sound when you bent them. It was fucking stupid. Or at least, that’s how I felt until I started writing this piece. In hindsight, it was actually a pretty clever and innovative feature when JAKKS could have just been producing the same old crap. Kids probably loved it, which brings me to something I’d like to clear up.

I collect toys, but I think an important distinction needs to be made. I have always turned up my nose at action figure lines with “action features” or limited articulation. Or worse, both. Being a toy snob, I want every action figure I buy to have 32 cleverly concealed points of articulation, a photo-realistic likeness and roughly six pounds of accessories that are relevant and can be stored on the figure itself. However, being the father of a small boy; I am starting to appreciate certain different aspects of toys. Each point of articulation is a breaking point. Likenesses that are too realistic are boring. And you may as well throw the accessories away as soon as you open the package. Granted, Lil’ Troublemaker and I maintain our separate collections, but I have a new eye for what makes for good value in a toy line; hence my newfound respect for JAKKS’ “Bone-Crunching Action!”.

Honestly, you have to respect JAKKS Pacific for what they did with the WWF/WWE license while they had it. From 1996 until the end of 2009, JAKKS produced one of the most interesting and diverse toy collections to ever be offered by a single company. Here are just a few of the innovative concepts offered out of fourteen years of wrestling toys:

A twelve-inch Stone Cold Steve Austin that could connect to a PC to download the Rattlesnake’s most current catchphrases – amusingly, this figure featured Austin in super-tight Lamanamanumi style jeans; which he never wore

Maximum Sweat figures – These were originally designed to “bleed” through use of an included red liquid and strategically located holes. The blood was deemed too gruesome (no, really?) so the clever folks at JAKKS decided sweat would be a fine replacement concept. I’m of the opinion these are now much grosser. They do have these fantastic, exaggerated sculpts – easily some of my favorites from JAKKS. 

Oh, and they also gave us the first look EVER at what Kane's hideous visage might look like:

Finishing Moves 2-Packs – These were the first super-articulated figures to come from JAKKS. Each set featured two wrestlers with about fifteen points of articulation each; the better to recreate their finishing maneuver. The coolest part was that they were packaged in such a way that they appeared to be performing those moves in the blister. Lita was giving Bubba Ray Dudley a hurricanrana, Jericho had (redacted) in the Walls of Jericho and so on.

R3 Tech figures – This line didn’t fare too well due to high production costs and resulting high retail prices, but they are some of the best wrestling likenesses ever produced. JAKKS had Gentle Giant scan not only the head, but the entire body of each wrestler in this line. Combined with the most accurate costumes seen at the time, the resulting figures not only looked amazing but were in scale with each other. The Undertaker actually towered over the other figures and physiques looked much more reasonable. A number of wrestlers from this line have never gotten better figures, including Kurt Angle, Booker T and He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Retailer Exclusives – JAKKS frequently partnered up with online retailers such as Ringside Collectibles to offer exclusives that were exciting , special and – for exclusives – reasonably priced. In my opinion no other company has been so successful at offering online exclusives (although Mattel is working on it with their Masters of the Universe and Ghostbusters offerings). Among the best were a polka-dotted Dusty Rhodes variant, a Shawn Michaels & Razor Ramon ladder match set, an “Ultimate Stone Cold” set and the very first Melina figure.

Flex ‘Ems – Basically super-stylized bend ‘ems. I don’t know how JAKKS made them so sturdy, though. I’ve got quite a few of them and none of the wires have snapped yet – a common ailment of regular bend ‘ems. Obviously, this format is ideal for wrestling figures. There’s almost no move they can’t perform. Also, this line featured the best Hurricane head sculpt ever:

WWE Classic Superstars – Easily the biggest and most recognized accomplishment of JAKKS Pacific. JAKKS worked with WWE to sign their “Legends” to figure deals that would see superstars ranging from Nikita Koloff to the original Sheik to Billy Graham to The Shockmaster (!) released in JAKKS’ signature Ruthless Aggression style. Each series of Classic Superstars had a lineup that was brilliant. There would be several new faces, a couple of new versions of previously released wrestlers and almost always some sort of chase figure. In short, collectors went absolutely fucking nuts for this one. The final series hit stores right after the beginning of 2010 and features the very best figures from the line’s history. It actually made me a little sad to see it, even though I stopped collecting the JAKKS WWE stuff a couple of years ago.
    While JAKKS is easily the most prolific producer of wrestling toys, there are some other companies that can’t be ignored.

    Original San Francisco Toy Company held the WCW license in the mid-90’s and created figures with the most unusual action feature ever - they vibrated. And if you don’t find something simultaneously hilarious and awful about a toy manufacturer in San Francisco making vibrating action figures then you need to seek therapy. In what would become something of a trend, OSFTC picked up the ECW license when they lost WCW to Toy Biz. While the ECW figures did not vibrate, they made up for it by not looking like shit. 

    The line ended after two series, due to poor sales (ECW was not kid-friendly back then) and the cancellation of the ECW show on TNN.

    Toy Biz was the absolute king of the toy aisles in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Having snagged the Mighty Marvel license during the comic book renaissance of the early 90’s, Toy Biz continued the comic success with lines for every Marvel property that saw a movie or cartoon between 1990 and the end of 2006. While a footnote today, Toy Biz was once so prominent that the company bailed Marvel Comics out of bankruptcy, putting Toy Biz head Avi Arad’s name in the credits of some of the biggest movies of all time. Weird.

    So anyway, Toy Biz got the WCW license and started producing what at the time were the best wrestling action figures ever seen, easily on par with Toy Biz’ uber-succesful Marvel Legends line. It was these fantastic figures that led to JAKKS Pacific changing their approach to wrestling toys and starting to produce more articulated and realistic figures, dropping the “Bone-Crunching Action!”.

    Toy Biz went without a wrestling line for a few years after WCW folded, but then along came the little engine that shouldn’t but did, Total Nonstop Action wrestling. Following the example set by their WCW predecessors, Toy Biz jumped on the opportunity to work with the up-and-coming promotion. They produced several relatively successful series of TNA toys in the same scale and style as their earlier WCW offerings, going so far as to reuse an old Sting sculpt when he joined the wrestling company. Eventually, with the loss of the Marvel license in 2007 Toy Biz – now Marvel Toys – faded into obscurity and TNA was dealt another blow.

    That blow was nothing, however, compared to the blow dealt to JAKKS Pacific at the end of 2008. It was announced that Mattel – on the rise in the action figure category thanks to the hugely successful DC Universe Classics line – had acquired the WWE toy license, effective January 1, 2010. JAKKS had already been pursuing a toy license with UFC and immediately followed the example of Original San Francisco Toy Company and Toy Biz by jumping on the TNA license, announcing it near-simultaneously with the WWE/Mattel deal. If Toy Biz were still around I honestly believe they’d be doing Ring of Honor figures right now.

    While JAKKS’ new TNA figures won’t debut until later this year, Mattel was genius enough to create an event around the official beginning of their license agreement. A month or so of mysterious advertising led up to the first new non-JAKKS WWE toys in fourteen years sitting on shelves in Target, Walmart and Toys R Us stores across the country on the morning of Friday January 1st, 2010 and they looked fantastic.

    Mattel kicked off their era of WWE toys with several lines of wrestlers, each with a different focus:
    • The Superstar line, meant to continue and be compatible with JAKKS Ruthless Aggression line.
    • The Flex Force line, somewhat of a callback to Hasbro’s WWF line. These figures are aimed at a younger audience and feature less detail with an action feature for each wrestler.
    • The Elite Collection, sort of a continuation of JAKKS’ Deluxe Superstar line, but surpassing it in every way. This line correctly scales each Superstar, features advanced articulation and sculpting and includes entrance gear. The Elite collection has a higher price point and is definitely aimed at collectors.
    • Entrance Greats feature the craziest shit top guys have worn. The first series is HHH’s Conan costume, Rey’s Aztec chicken get-up and Shawn Michaels’ “ Bondage Gear Is Okay For Christians If It’s White” attire.
    The standard line and Flex Force stuff hit the mark exactly, and I’ll be reviewing a couple of the Elite figures later this week. I feel the Entrance figures should have had the Elite body style for their ridiculous price ($24.99!), not the standard. I really would have bought that HHH if that had been the case. Now I’ll just wait for him to go on clearance, which he will because twenty-five bucks is fucking absurd. I’ve already seen those marked down to $19.99 at Target.

    So there’s what I can tell you about the history of wrestling figures, at least while I’ve been around. That’s not even including the vast offerings of bootleg wrestling toys, which I’ll get to tomorrow.

    Oh, and the answer is Raven. 


    What a fucking nerd.If you answered correctly, click on this link and give yourself a treat!

    Until next time, stay creepy,

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