Masters of the Universe

Brand Me! (My Favorite Non-Toy and Giveaway Merchandise)

So my son and I were at at our LCS this weekend and we took some time to sift through their selection of Funko Pop! figures.  We do this pretty regularly, and while we’re not hardcore collectors or anything, we do like seeing what the company is able to license and sometimes even buy them because we’re suckers for a brand. Then again, we all are and have been since my parents were little and could buy merchandise that tied into Howdy Doody and the George Reeves Superman television series. My generation, of course, took it a step further and spent the 1980s immersing ourselves in the franchises that made up our childhood, gobbling up not just toys but everything from trading cards and video games to the most random piece of merchandise that had a logo or character slapped on its side.

Not surprisingly, seeing these items posted by people on Twitter, in scans of old Sears catalogues, or up for sale on eBay gets me nostalgic and so I decided to sit down and talk about six non-toy merchandising tie-ins that I remember with serious fondness.

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The G.I. Joe Flashlight (image: yojoe.com)

1. The G.I. Joe Flashlight: I think this is the closest thing to a toy that is on this list, and I am including it because it was the first G.I. Joe item that I ever owned and was the second-coolest thing that I got for Christmas when I was five (the coolest thing being my General Lee Big Wheels). When the Joe line was revived in 1982 under the “Real American Hero” subtitle, Hasbro came out with a superior line of figures and vehicles. But as anyone who flipped through the Sears catalogue int he 1980s will tell you, there was also a slew of other stuff. A quick look at YoJoe.com shows that in 1982 alone there were 48 different products ranging from the typical sheets, pillows, cups, and beach towels to Colorforms, View Master reels, and Lite Brite sets.

But the coolest stuff was the merchandise that had you playing army as hardcore as possible. There were dog tags, pins that showed off your rank, a whistle, walkie talkies, a canteen, and even a mess kit. The official G.I. Joe flashlight was a real working flashlight that took the same batteries as the red Eveready in my parents’ closet, but unlike the Eveready, it was colored army green and was positioned “military style” so that you had to hold it vertically. It also had a belt clip so you could take it with you on secret missions, unlatching it when you needed to crawl around and look into tight spaces like the ventilation shafts of Cobra HQ or under your parents’ couch because you think that’s where Han Solo’s blaster got kicked.

2. Masters of the Universe Puffy Stickers. Quite possibly the greatest things that ever came out of a box of cereal were the puffy stickers featuring five Masters of the Universe characters in Rice Krispies. A quick look at this old commercial shows that they were: Battle Armor He-Man, Skeletor, Teela, Evil Lyn, and Orko.

These prizes were given away in the summer of 1984 and this is one of those instances in my life where my parents’ strict adherence to non-sugary cereals paid off. Basically, the only cereals allowed in my house were Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Chex, Kix, and Raisin Bran (yes, I know the raisins are coated in sugar, but it wasn’t Frosted Flakes, and my sister’s love for Pro Grain Cereal is a topic for another day). That meant that for the entire time the promo was active, I was eating boxes of the stuff just so that I could collect all five stickers. Of course, collecting them wasn’t easy because the box didn’t tell you what sticker was inside, so any time you opened up a fresh box, you ran the risk of getting yet another Orko sticker instead of the Skeletor sticker you so desperately needed.

My big get, by the way, was Evil Lyn because I negotiated that with my cousin Brian when we were staying at my grandma’s house and came across her sticker in the Rice Krispies box. I can’t remember what sort of bartering went on between us as seven year olds 35 years ago, but I remember feeling pretty psyched because I really liked Evil Lyn. Who wouldn’t? She’s second only to the Baroness when it comes to awesome 1980s cartoon villainesses.

Anyway, I am sure that if we wanted to back then, we could spend our allowance money on a sheet of Masters of the Universe puffy stickers at the local stationary store, but that would have kind of been like cheating. What made the stickers so special was the snap, crackle, and pop of the hunt.

Return of the Jedi Party Favor

Party favor bags from a galaxy far, far away.

3. Return of the Jedi Party Supplies. I can’t remember which birthday was my Return of the Jedi birthday. I turned six when the movie came out, and since the Star Wars franchise as a merchandising juggernaut by then, it’s very possible that I had an Jedi-themed party one month after it premiered in theaters. But it could have been the next year, considering how long Jedi stuck around in my life before it got replaced by Transformers.

Anyway, I have to say that a kid’s birthday party in 1984 was pretty much your friends coming over to your house for Carvel cake one afternoon and not your parents renting out an entire trampoline park for three hours on a Saturday, so a Jedi-themed birthday meant that mom and dad bought a bunch of cups, napkins, and plates that had the movie logo on it and that’s what you ate cake off of and drank punch out of after you ran around in the backyard for two hours. And hey, they might have even been feeling fancy and sprung for the paper tablecloth.

I think my parents did, anyway. Those supplies were easy to find and weren’t very expensive–they were always right by the entrance to Toys R Us and there were usually piles of them for sale at a decent price. Plus, they managed to get a Carvel cake with Darth Vader’s picture on it (back in the days before entertainment companies started cracking down on copyright) and they even wrapped the party favors–which I think were Star Wars coloring books–in Star Wars wrapping paper. I am sure there is a picture somewhere of said birthday party in an old family photo album and my mom has pictures of the cake or at least the cups and napkins in crowd shots, but just looking at an eBay listing has me feeling cool for being a Star wars party kid when I was young.

4. Masters of the Universe Plastic Cups. Another giveaway that really had us captivated was this Burger King promo from 1983.

These were plastic cups with original Masters of the Universe comic strips printed on the side. I don’t know if these comics were four separate stories or if they were four parts of one big story, but what I do know is that BK released one each week for four weeks in the fall of 1983 and my sister and I spent four weeks begging my parents to take us for burgers.

This wasn’t exactly a small feat in 1983. My parents had nothing against fast food, but going out to eat, even at Burger King, was definitely a “sometimes” type of thing, so to do it for four straight weeks to get a souvenir cup? That was pushing it. I mean, I was six years old and couldn’t care less about that because I stopped everything–even my umpteenth watching of Star Wars–when He-Man came on. I wanted those cups and would eat as many Whalers or Whoppers as I needed to.

Or just hamburgers. I was big on just the BK hamburgers. And the Italian chicken sandwich. Come to think of it, those cups may have been what started what became a pretty regular trip to the Burger King in Blue Point, especially after our weekly piano lessons. And I honestly don’t remember if I got all four cups–I think that I might have only wound up with two of them and they lasted a year or two before the comics peeled off and faded because of repeated trips through the dishwasher.

Voltron Lunch Box

The 1984 Voltron lunchbox.  Kind of makes me wish that I had it now.  I’d be the king of the break room.

5. Voltron Lunch Box. I blogged about Voltron years ago, but I still can’t get over how Voltron just sort of was there one day without prior notice. The cartoon dropped right around the beginning of second grade and beyond my insane quest to collect all of “Lionbot”, I rarely, if ever, saw much merchandise until probably the end of that school year and into the beginning of third grade when Panosh Place’s toy line came out and there was a lot more merchandise in the stores, including this.

Manufactured by Aladdin, who made a number of lunchboxes of mine back in the day, this was one of the plastic lunchboxes that were becoming more common as the Eighties wore on, replacing the metal ones that ended, I believe, with a Rambo lunchbox circa 1986-1987. The illustration on the front was straight from the cartoon and the thermos inside was a wraparound image of Voltron and the lion force. I never used the thermos, though, since I bought milk every day or packed a boxed Yoo-Hoo.

I treasured this thing. It was, quite possibly, the coolest lunchbox that I ever owned and I walked around the halls of Lincoln Avenue Elementary feeling so boss because I carried a much-coveted Voltron lunchbox. So you can imagine how terrible I felt when I left it somewhere and never saw it again. I think my parents were pretty annoyed because my absent-mindedness caused yet another thing they had to pay for to go missing, a motif throughout my childhood that also included jackets, a camera, and a mountain bike (which was stolen but I wound up taking the blame anyway).

Thankfully, the lunchbox was recovered. Sort of. I found one in the school’s lost and found but I knew it wasn’t mine because it had a thermos in it. Still, I had seen only one other kid with a Voltron lunchbox and thought that maybe he picked up mine by accident one day and what I was holding was his. Not having yet developed my social anxiety, I approached him at lunch one day and politely suggested that we had accidentally switched lunchboxes. He responded by yelling something at me–I can’t remember what it was but even at the age of eight, I knew that this kid lacked in basic social skills. My parents told me to keep the lunchbox, which I guess is technically dishonest, but it had been unclaimed, so Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk, and Princess Allura continued to protect my sandwiches.

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When the four puzzles were locked together to form the mural, they would look like this (although these are just the boxes put together).  Image: 3Djoes.com

6. The G.I. Joe Mural Puzzle Closing this out where we began, there is the most action-packed exercise in patience you will ever see or experience. According to YoJoe.com, this came out in 1985, but it was still available in stores as late as 1987 when i was at the height of my Joe fandom. And I wouldn’t have wanted it if my mom hadn’t dragged me to go clothes shopping with my sister at Swezey’s, a local department store that I still associate with off-brand clothing and mind-destroying ennui.

Anyway, Swezey’s had a random rack of accessories and pseudo-toys near the girls’ clothes (purses, pencil cases, some stuffed animals, games) and among all of it, I spotted a puzzle featuring G.I. Joe. It was a 221-piece puzzle that, as I saw on the box, could be linked to three other scenes to form a giant mural.

Now, badgering my parents to schlep to Burger King when I was six was one thing, so asking my mom to make special trips to buy puzzles was probably something else. Surprisingly, getting all four of these came easy because puzzles were always an approved form of entertainment–they were challenging, they kept you occupied for a long time, and they were done without the television being on. I can’t remember how long it took me to get all four puzzles, and I’m pretty sure that I paid for one of them with my birthday money one year, but I eventually did get them and assemble them and when the day came that I was ready to make the mural, I got ready to connect them, and … nothing.

To this day, I have no idea what I did wrong that prevented the giant awesome battle mural from coming together, as i stared at the directions on the box for several minutes, made multiple attempts to connect the puzzles, and ultimately said, “Forget it.” I am sure the puzzles were eventually donated to charity, so if I wanted to try one more time as an adult, I’d have to track them down at a thrift shop or on eBay.

Toys, comics, movies, and television shows will always be in the front of my mind whenever someone mentions Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Voltron, or anything else I was into as a kid. But what’s special about these things is that although they eventually faded away or were set aside for something new, when they were there, they shared a part of my life and became attached not just to entertainment nostalgia but memories of significant events as well as the everyday.

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Sometimes, you learn that you have to settle for less.

The Autobot known as Huffer, who would play a more significant role in my childhood than it should have.

I am sure that in the annals of our toy collecting histories, there are toys that we remember so vividly and consider so important that the day we received them ranks as high as the senior prom, first kisses, and getting married. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but ask any child of the Eighties about Castle Greyskull, the AT-AT, or Optimus Prime and you’ll probably get an enthusiastic response followed by a wave of nostalgia appropriate to key toys to the era.

You probably won’t get the same if you mention Huffer.

If you’re unsure of who or what “Huffer” is, he was one of the Transformers “mini-bots,” a line of small, affordable Transformers that came out with the first wave of the toys in 1984. As most Transformers were sold in boxes, mini-bots were placed on cards and hung in aisles as if they were regular action figures, and although I don’t know their exact retail price, they probably cost as much. The most famous of the mini-bots was Bumblebee, who in his first incarnation was a yellow VW Bug (in the current iteration, he is a Camaro), but in that first wave, you had characters like Cliffjumper, the red car voiced by Casey Kasem on the cartoon series, and Huffer, an orange semi who was an Autobot that had very few appearances in the cartoon and seemed to be around when Optimus Prime needed someone to take his trailer. The times when he did have a speaking role or a spotlight, he was kind of gruff and obviously homesick for Cybertron. So for the most part, he was a supporting or background character.

Huffer as featured on the Transformers cartoon series.

But he was a supporting character who seemed to be everywhere. Huffer was the Transformers equivalent of Prune Face or Squid Head, a figure that seemd to come out for the toy line as a way to just suck more money out of our parents’ wallets but had little or nothing to contribute to the overall storyline. Plus, everyone seemed to have him because he was an “introduction level” transformer. Mini-bots were easy to transform (and probably easy to make) and were very cheap; therefore, they were ubiquitous in both toy stores and Christmas stockings. Optimus Prime, Megatron, Jetfire (Skyfire?), or Shockwave would set your parents back a decent amount of money and might require that they fight their way through a horde of shoppers in the early hours of Black Friday, but your lazy aunt could pick up Huffer on Christmas Eve and have money left over to buy Squid Head.

Most importantly, though, or at least to me, is a symbol. He’s the toy you got because you couldn’t get anything else. There were others like this in the line–Thundercracker was a blue version of Starscream, but still a pretty cool toy–but Huffer was relatively useless. Going to a toy store and walking out with Huffer meant that you were either a completist or it was a consolation prize. In my case, it was the latter.

In 1984, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was still pretty popular, especially because the cartoon was still on the air and Mattel had started releasing action figure versions of some of the characters on the show. One particular character that got his own action figure was He-Man’s alter ego, Prince Adam of Eternia. Now, looking at that figure now, it’s kind of ridiculous that you’d want it–he was basically He-Man with purple pants, a white shirt, and a maroon jacket. I mean, it wasn’t even a good alter ego figure like the Super Powers Clark Kent figure. Still, I watched He-Man every day (and my sister would watch She-Ra) and there was a point in every episode where Prince Adam would hold aloft his sword and say “By the power of Greyskull … I HAVE THE POWER!” and transform into He-Man, then transform his tiger named Cringer into Battle Cat. Playing with my He-Man figures, I wanted to be able to “play” that transformation. Transforming Cringer into Battle Cat wasn’t hard–Battle Cat’s armor came off–but I had no way of transforming anyone into He-Man.

Prince Adam, the alter ego of He-Man. A toy that I broke down and cried over, something which defies rational explanation now that I think of it.

Until, that is, I first spotted Prince Adam in the toy aisle of TSS. It was in the middle of the fall and I had no idea that Prince Adam had been made into a figure and despite the purple pants and maroon jacket, I wanted him right away. I wanted to be able to take him, have him hold his sort aloft, say “By the power of Greyskull … I HAVE THE POWER!” and become He-Man (either original recipie or battle-damaged … I had both). I ran and got my mom, dragged her over to the aisle, and enthusiastically declared that I wanted the action figure and that I’d been a good kid and wanted it right then and there. Her response was something along the lines of, “Not right now but if you’re good, dad will take you back tonight.”

This seemed like a good enough response to me and we left TSS. My dad got home later that night and took me up to TSS because apparently I had “earned” my Prince Adam action figure. Remembering what aisle in the toy section it was found, once we entered the doors, I ignored the smell of fresh soft pretzels (which I lived for back in the day and to an extent still do) and made a bee line for the toys.

But it wasn’t here.

I began to cry, and my father probably got the same “Are you kidding me with this?” look that I get on my face when my son cries over insignificant things–only my son is five and I was seven at this time so you think I would have gotten over it by then–and he did what so many dads have done in that situation over the years, which is said, “Well, you can get something else.” Since TSS was not Toys R Us and what was there wasn’t much, so I grabbed which was the most readily available toy at the moment, and that was Huffer.

We went home, and while I did eventually get Prince Adam that Christmas, I never forgot that I missed out on my chance to get something because my mom had said, “Oh, we’ll come back later,” which is one of the most rookie fo mistakes you can make when shopping for toys, a mistake I’m sure I’ve made a few times these past few years (although my son doesn’t realize that). And every time I looked at Huffer, I thought of that moment and the disappointment I felt and how I made solemn vow to never let that happen again.

Okay, it wasn’t that dramatic, but the seven year old me hated that toy for that reason and nearly 30 years later I still kind of do.