Friday night, I’m in a hotel ballroom trading action figures with other grown men. We’re playing nicely. No one’s mom interferes when a deal goes bad. No one tells me not to mix beer-drinking with toy-trading.
A hotel employee sells me a pricey domestic bottle and observes us with a barely concealed smirk. Twenty-odd guys circulate around tables bearing action figures from the 1970s. It’s the swap meet/social to kick off MegoCon 2004, an event honoring Mego, the greatest action-figure company ever. It’s fitting that the first convention devoted solely to Mego would be held at the Hotel Pennsylvania, on the corner of Thirty-third and Seventh in Manhattan, just a block down from Macy’s, site of past Christmas miracles. Mego is best known for making action figures for superheroes and characters from TV shows such as Star Trek, CHiPs, Happy Days, and Starsky & Hutch. The company closed its doors in 1983, partly a result of a fateful decision that’s now legend: Mego passed up the chance to make toys for Star Wars. Common wisdom holds this to be Mego’s chief blunder, akin to losing the high ground at Gettysburg.
I flew up this afternoon from Tallahassee. “What are you really doing?” my friends asked when I said I was going to an action-figure convention. People came from all over the country for MegoCon. Some dropped down from Canada. True believers, every one—they buy cereal for the toy inside the box—and only a few could pass for Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. I meet a bunch of eccentric and creative folks, a subculture of thirtysomething men who spend a lot of time repairing outfits and painting resin heads. I gradually recognize people who’ve posted their photographs in the online forum at the Mego Museum (www.megomuseum.com). “What’s your screen name?” we ask each other, then run out of small talk. I note very few women at MegoCon.
No one wants my toys. It’s OK, I brought parts anybody accumulates in time—a bag of Kirk and Spock heads. Along with Batman and Robin, they’re among the most abundant Megos in the world. I pack them up and head to my room.
Mego (pronounced “Mee-goh”) began in the early 1950s, specializing in eighty-eight-cent novelties known in the trade as “hush ups.” The name derives from what founder David Abrams’s young son Howie would say when he felt left out: “Me go, me go too.” In 1971, Abrams’s son Martin assumed the role of president. Fresh out of NYU with a marketing degree, Martin Abrams helped Mego become the sixth-largest toy manufacturer in the world by the midseventies. First, he made an eight-inch hero, Action Jackson, competitively priced against Hasbro’s twelve-inch G.I. Joe. The term “action figure” had been coined to win over boys reluctant to play with dolls when G.I. Joe was introduced in the sixties, so Mego didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. In 1972 Mego introduced Dinah-mite, an eight-inch rival for Mattel’s Barbie.
Abrams’s next big idea was licensing. Today it’s standard, even necessary, for toys to tie in to TV shows and movies. Before Mego, licensing had limited success, and quality had been disappointing. Mego revolutionized the toy industry through its success with licensed figures from films such as The Wizard of Oz and King Kong and celebrities such as Joe Namath, Diana Ross, and even the rock group KISS.
Mego’s biggest hit was a lucky accident. Neal Kublan, Abrams’s right-hand man, saw the potential to use the existing Action Jackson bodies to create a variety of characters. This could be done inexpensively by swapping heads and changing outfits. Frugal reuse of clothing and accessories made the figures easy to produce quickly. In 1972 the World’s Greatest Super Heroes were born. Superman, Batman, Shazam, Green Arrow, and Captain America wear the same type of boots in different colors; Joker and Penguin have the same shoes as John Boy Walton. (Yes, Mego made figures and playsets for The Waltons.) The folks at Mego were geniuses at finding ways to use and reuse materials. Dinah-mite’s beach house was slightly modified and sold as a treehouse for Planet of the Apes. Attention to scale is not a high priority—Robin and Batman are the same height. The Incredible Hulk is shorter than Robin.
So what? That’s Mego. Soft, rubbery heads, removable costumes, lovable flaws, goofy charm. Many figures wear body suits resembling sleepers, feet and all. It’s hard to take the Riddler seriously in his pajama outfit festooned with question marks. Tarzan has wicked sideburns and a flesh-colored body suit. With his Barbie-like rooted hair, Thor can be easily mistaken for Morgan Fairchild. Mister Fantastic—the guy who stretches—does not stretch, and Invisible Girl is perfectly visible. You’ve got to use your imagination. Corniest and most infamous of all, Batman and Robin wear gloves that resemble oven mitts. The Dynamic Duo stand ready to fight crime and handle the hottest of casseroles.
Never Played With
Megos are among the first toys I ever had. I thought they were long gone. I didn’t know people had saved them; I didn’t know you could buy them on the internet. Gradually it dawned on me that these figures were available and even affordable, if you didn’t mind the smell of somebody’s attic clinging to Superman’s cape.
On eBay hardy collectors pursue figures untouched by grubby hands: Mint in Box (MIB) or Mint on Card (MOC). Those figures fetch from $200 to $2,000 a piece—even if the original K-Mart price tag reads $2.44. Collectible variations abound—five or six different package designs exist for many figures. The completist wants them all. Toys without packages are termed “loose.” I steadfastly avoid referring to Wonder Woman that way.
Another common phrase in online-auction descriptions is “never played with,” which always makes me imagine a kid dying on Christmas morning before unwrapping his presents. The gifts have been on a closet shelf since 1976. Now they’re for sale. Hand me an outline and I’ll sketch in the saddest story.
Last year I purchased my first Mego over the internet, a loose Star Trek figure, Scotty. The guy brought back rarely triggered memories of playing in my grandmother’s room when I was too young for school, using the vacuum-cleaner cord as a rappelling rope for my figures. I posed Scotty on my desk for an hour. Then I resumed my routine: grading papers, drinking coffee, writing essays, worrying.
But I was hooked. I’d launched a quest to reacquire bright, simple objects from childhood. I told myself I would only buy figures I used to have, replace what I’d given to charity when it seemed like I was growing up. I certainly wouldn’t “Collect Them All” as the Mego packages advised. My resolve faded fast. I bought not only figures I’d had, but some my siblings had owned. Together, we had the entire Enterprise crew plus a Klingon baddie to knock about. I bought Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and lovely communications officer Lt. Uhura. Spider-Man broke my self-control. I never had one as a kid, and that seemed ridiculous now, what with eBay offering dozens for under thirty bucks. After that it was easy to slip into buying figures from Planet of the Apes. With my credit card fulfilling childhood wishes, I became my own Santa Claus.
Even worse, I became a collector. I didn’t want to collect anything—it takes money and space and I’m low on both. Collecting is an extremist activity. If I like a shirt in a store, I might buy two—I don’t buy one in every color. With Megos, I do feel like I must have the complete series, from ape general down to hapless human astronaut. It’s a good thing I don’t covet Mego’s scarcer lines: Teen Titans or Space 1999. For what they’d set me back I could buy a used Toyota.
I own more figures than I’m willing to count, but I’m sure it’s a perfectly sane number, probably less than a hundred. It’s hard to know when to stop. What are the warning signs that a nostalgic diversion has become an obsession? Is it the day you realize you have enough parts and accessories in a shoe box to make six Batman figures? Perhaps the moment you see a MOC Human Torch figure for $89 and think, “That’s not a bad price.” Maybe it’s when you’re gently cleaning the Batmobile with Q-tips and water while your own car—a real car for driving around in the real world—sits in the driveway unwashed, unwaxed.
Saturday morning I hit the dealer expo early, wish list in hand. I’m scared of the dealers. With their collection of MOC, MIB, and pristine loose figures, they seem otherworldly to me, an admittedly low-rent collector. My figures came into my possession slightly soiled, broken in minor ways, neglected by previous owners. These dealers offer clean and whole figures. Their quality and condition amaze the dozens of fans milling about the tables. It’s as if someone pulled a heist at Toys “R” Us three decades ago and has waited until now for the goods to cool off. I can’t get anything for under $50. So I don’t.
Still, I’m entertained by the haggling all around me. A would-be buyer has almost reached a deal with an overburdened dealer but they can’t bridge a $5 gap. “C’mon, that’s the price of a hamburger,” the dealer says. “My point exactly,” says the would-be buyer. No sale.
Mint-in-Boxers make me wonder: what exactly is the appeal of owning a figure still in its package? These toys were meant to be played with; they have movable joints. I don’t think I’d have as many Megos as I do if I couldn’t play with them a little. Maybe it’s comforting to know that you can open the package anytime you want and have a brand-new figure. In case of emergency, break glass.
The imitation Mego packages for sale astound me even more. Here’s an instance of people voluntarily imprisoning their figures behind plastic and cardboard. Back in the day, kids played rough with Megos, destroying them by BB gun or backyard bonfire. Those grown-up kids now protect Megos from light, heat, and moisture—treating Aquaman figures like original copies of the Constitution. Some collectors put boxed figures inside clear acrylic cases—a box in a box. Others make replica boxes and blister cards, painstakingly matching the originals. Why stop at boxes? Why not smuggle the toy into a store and put it on a shelf? Hire actors to play your parents. Tug at “Mom’s” sleeve and point at the figure. Ask for it. Beg. Then take it home, because it’s yours, after all. I guess repro boxes are harmless, maybe even tidy. But the self-delusory aspect of repro packaging reminds me of people who have sex with robots.
The real bargains in the dealer expo are in reproduction parts—that’s parts reproduced, folks. MegoCon’s two sponsors, Dr. Mego and Not Dolls, manufacture accessories and outfits. Dr. Mego is having a two-for-one sale. I’m all over it.
Dr. Mego’s website’s mission statement touchingly reads: “To get back to every Mego all the accessories they were created with. To make them whole again.” Dr. Mego started out by casting parts in his garage with silicon rubber molds and resin. Now he has dozens of parts made for him in China, just like Mego used to do.
Collectors who’ve been searching for Batgirl’s belt to no avail can purchase a cheap substitute and go on with their lives. Customizers can make countless figures with Doc’s inexpensive Mego-like parts. Yet some collectors have been burned by unscrupulous eBayers who pass off reproduction parts as originals. Originals command the high prices—a MIB Batman might bring $300. But with repro gloves, belt, cape, boots, or emblem, he’s just another $10 Mego.
Dr. Mego stands behind tables arranged in a horseshoe, loaded with colorful resin heads, body suits, helmets, cowls, enough fodder to create hundreds of heroes and villains. Dr. Mego and his nephew nearly laugh their asses off when I buy an Abraham Lincoln head. Not a top seller, I gather. It needs to be painted. Brown hair or black? What color eyes? Should I have learned that in school? I buy a business suit and a white shirt, though deep down I know I’ll give him a cape and a utility belt.
As a kid, I didn’t have a lot of figures, but I had lots of ambition. When I wanted Scotty to be Spider-Man, my mom sewed a fabric swatch into a mask. Other times, I’d switch the heads. I wasn’t strong enough to pull the heads off the bodies. My mom would help, or I’d use a letter opener. It’s how I punctured Mr. Spock’s neck plug and accidentally decapitated him. Last year I found him in my parents’ garage, missing a hand, wearing a dress, his face inexplicably painted yellow. Poor Spock had been handed down to my younger brother, who nearly customized him out of existence. As the only Mego to survive my childhood, I treat Spock better now. Still, I don’t know how to say I’m sorry.
Customizers correct mistakes of history. Green Lantern and the Flash were featured on TV’s Super Friends, and Mego had a license to make any DC Comics character, but they never got produced. Fans have rectified the situation by casting heads, sewing body suits together, and creating emblems for the figures’ chests—done with such reverence for Mego style that they fit right in with Superman and the gang.
Customizers also redo figures that Mego didn’t quite do justice to. Every now and then Mego phoned one in. The Gorn, a reptilian alien who battles Captain Kirk, wears the Klingon’s clothes and his head is the same as the Lizard, Spider-Man’s foe. Thanks to Captain Dunsel, you can make your own realistic Gorn. Buy Dunsel’s specially crafted Gorn head, forearms, and feet, then stick them on a Hulk body. One customizer makes a “belly shirt” for Captain Kirk—a wraparound green shirt that resembles one William Shatner wore in a few episodes.
The convention has a customizing contest I wisely stay out of. Contestants show up with semi-obscure villains from comics, plus never-mades like the Village People. These guys have serious talent—most of the custom jobs resemble authentic Megos. Mego customizers remind me of guys who chop up classic cars to make low-riders. They understand each other, their spouses tolerate their hobby, and the rest of the world looks on in wonder.
These toys are thirty years old. Plastics become brittle, cracking or breaking most commonly in the feet, knees, or forearms. Heads become discolored. If you’re going to collect loose Megos, you have to learn how to repair them—restringing the elastic that holds them together, replacing limbs, cleaning and mending outfits. MegoCon features several how-to lectures on topics such as degraying heads, casting, squish molds, and sculpting techniques.
I skip ’em. Believe it or don’t, I already know how to degray heads. The process requires Plasti-dip, a multipurpose protective coating for tools. Stick the gray head on the end of a pencil, spray it with Tire Wet, and dunk it into Plasti-dip. Avoid breathing the fumes. Let the head dry, then peel off the Plasti-dip. The color’s back! Who cares why it works? It’s the swinging seventies again!
As for casting, I’ve promised myself not to attempt it. My priorities run in this order: finish grad school, get a job, get married, have children, then screw around in the garage with toys. For now, when I want to customize I put Captain Kirk’s shirt on Batman and call it a day.
Though the figures may be enjoyed ironically, this convention isn’t campy. If anything, MegoCon is too serious. Other than, you know, the dolls all around, MegoCon resembles events I’ve attended for publishers and writing teachers. Nobody wears costumes. Supercollectors Robert Acquarulo and Chris Johnson masterminded the weekend, securing the attendance of Martin Abrams. Saturday afternoon, Abrams and Neal Kublan, Mego’s vice-president of research and development, sit down to tell us how it was. Both men still work in the toy industry, where they are legends.
In his early sixties, Marty Abrams projects confidence. While he seems happy to share behind-the-scenes company history, he doesn’t have much interest in Supergirl’s shoes or whether or not Peter Parker had a camera. With Abrams, it’s the big picture. He bought the rights to make Planet of the Apes toys for $40,000, quadrupling his competitor’s bid, because his gut told him to. He’d just watched an Apes film festival with his son and that was enough research—no need for focus groups or testing.
Abrams and Kublan view the World’s Greatest Super Heroes as a profitable, reliable product line. Kublan jokes that they took limousines to the bathroom. (Rise-and-fall movies like Boogie Nights and Goodfellas briefly come to mind.) They reminisce from the perspective of adults who’ve enjoyed a whirlwind success, not as awestruck kids playing with the Incredible Hulk on a picnic table while their parents complain about gas prices and contemplate divorce. Abrams keeps his cool throughout the Q&A, reserving his enthusiasm for a toy line he pioneered called Micronauts.
Kublan and Abrams once visited Cher’s home in Beverly Hills to obtain her approval for the doll that bore her likeness. Cher had already split from Sonny and was living with Greg Allman. She’d rejected the doll more than once. Kublan repainted it numerous times before obtaining Cher’s consent. This final meeting, attended by Kublan, Abrams, and Cher’s lawyers and accountants, was interrupted by Cher and Allman making out on the floor.
According to Abrams, sometimes Mego would acquire licensing rights just to keep someone else from doing it. Mego really didn’t want to make Sonny Bono dolls, but they did so to protect their Cher investment. Licenses were vulnerable to loopholes. Mego knew how these end-arounds worked; they were masters of them themselves. For instance, though another toy company had the rights to Charlie’s Angels, no one had the rights to Farrah Fawcett’s personality. Mego negotiated a deal with Fawcett to create a twelve-inch doll and a plastic bust for applying makeup.
Figure errors, Abrams reveals, are a result of judgment calls made in Hong Kong by factory employees in response to a shortage of materials. These “running changes” often resulted in curious variations: Aquaman with blue gloves instead of green, a red-headed Dracula. They blundered only occasionally, putting furry ape hands on African-American superhero the Falcon.
It doesn’t take long for the unavoidable question to surface. Star Wars. What happened? It’s never as simple as the legend, Abrams implies. If he hadn’t been in Japan working on Micronauts, and Kublan hadn’t been in Hong Kong, things might have been different. Mego had a strong relationship with Twentieth Century Fox, who had earned over a million dollars in royalties from the Planet of the Apes toys. Securing the Star Wars license would have been done as a matter of course. Mego, after all, scooped up dozens of licenses, from Muhammad Ali to Dr. Who. Why not one more science-fiction property?
Without Abrams and Kublan, no one in Mego’s offices could approve the deal. Fox’s lawyer took the elevator upstairs and sold the license to Kenner. Kenner’s Star Wars figures revolutionized the action-figure industry, but not the way Mego had. Star Wars figures were three inches tall (diminutive next to an eight-inch Mego), intentionally small so the spaceships wouldn’t have to be huge. It’s a simple matter of scale. Star Wars guys had their clothing and most accessories painted on. You couldn’t dress Han Solo like Darth Vader or pull off Luke Skywalker’s head and stick it on Obi-Wan. Toys from the hottest movie of the decade didn’t have to be the best toys of the decade, and these weren’t. Other companies followed Kenner’s lead in making figures with limited mobility. Eventually there wasn’t much difference between the cheap toys that came with Happy Meals and the cheap toys hanging on the pegs at K-Mart. Years would pass before a major release of anything close to a Mego figure, and even then, the eight-inch scale never really returned.
Star Wars didn’t destroy Mego. Several setbacks brought the toy giant toppling down. Mego had built an expensive factory in China, a big step they could have pulled off under favorable conditions and with a little luck. They got neither. High interest rates turned the factory into a liability. The oil crisis made plastic expensive and of inconsistent quality. Abrams wrote big checks for licenses but not every gamble paid off. In 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture bombed in every possible sense, including the Mego toys. Other licenses such as The Black Hole and Buck Rogers didn’t perform as well as the apes and superheroes had. Mego filed for bankruptcy protection in 1982.
For two hours the audience listens as the former Mego execs recount licensing ephemera, design innovations, factory errors. Rumors are squelched, mysteries explained, and possibilities extended—old TV commercials for Megos reside in someone’s house at this very moment and may one day be transferred to DVD and sold to Mego junkies. While the endless debates over the fate of prototypes for The Greatest American Hero may have been put to rest by Abrams and Kublan, new battles will rage over Marty’s recollection of a pre-production batch of a thousand figures for Logan’s Run. Neither toy line ever made it to stores. So where are they? Even better, a former Mego employee somewhere sits upon a cache of Bend ’n Flex superhero prototypes.
Getting the straight dope from the fathers of these beloved toys makes the trip worthwhile. From the hush about the room when the men speak, it’s clear that we’ve lucked into something special. Kublan says he’s proud to be remembered for work he did more than thirty years ago. In addition to his children and grandchildren, Kublan considers the much-loved Megos his legacy. I look at my fellow Mego enthusiasts and realize the obvious: Kublan made those toys for us.
When it’s over, the fans rush Abrams and Kublan for autographs and grateful handshakes. I wonder: are they thanking these execs for today, or for all those toys thirty years ago? Hard to imagine it isn’t both.
“Hey, I used to have one of these”
Elsewhere in the hotel, a display room houses nearly every figure, playset, and vehicle produced by Mego—a stunning array of plastic. Two security guards protect the treasure. I tour the room with appropriate awe, taking in hundreds of brightly colored, perfectly preserved toys in perfectly preserved packages. The effect is not unlike a museum exhibit; the only thing lacking is informative plaques. Some might be redundant: “This is Superman.” “This is Superman in the yellow box.” What could use a bit of context is the assortment of jumpsuit-wearing Action Jackson figures, whose packages extol “Mod Styled Hair,” and “Stick-On Tattoos.” To the untrained eye, AJ’s motto reads like a gay personal ad: “Action Jackson is my name. Bold adventure is my game. Think of what you want to be and call on me.” Oh, those were simpler times.
This weekend I’ve wondered what drives people to collect Megos. It can’t just be that they’re fans of superheroes, or Fonzie, or action figures in general. What makes MegoCon attendees different from people who pick up Batman at a flea market, think, “hey, I used to have one of these,” and set him back down? Perhaps Megos remind us of a time when imagination trumped practicality, when homework and teeth brushing were our only major responsibilities. When we played with these toys, we had the possibility to become anyone and anything.
I remember riding in my mom’s Dodge Dart while she drove her father around Washington D.C. to see the Christmas decorations. He was a retired history professor who’d spent much of his career at Georgetown. Now he was partially paralyzed after a stroke. In the back seat I had Batman and the box he came in. The box was like Batman’s house. I’d put him in, take him out. My mom would call my attention to things we passed, like the Washington Monument, and I’d strain against my seatbelt to see out my window, then resume playing with Batman. This particular memory is part of why I love Megos, though it lacks a plot or punch line. It’s one of my few moments of uncomplicated contentment, and sometimes, when I look at my replacement Batman on the shelf, I have another.