I spent a good portion of this afternoon playing Pokemon Go with my daughter. A game that inspires young (and old…er) to go out searching for thousands of strange, little creatures that appear anywhere, and “catch them all”. As we played, I was reminded of a time when I was inspired to capture Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere. Or M.U.S.C.L.E. Things as we called them 30 years ago. Except they weren’t virtual nor did they appear in augmented reality. They were real. (Well…physically speaking, of course.) So we didn’t need smart phones, or any kind of technology to get them. We just needed a really, REALLY good sales pitch, an open-minded parent with a little bit of spare cash and a long-winded “Pleeeeeaaaaaasssssseeeee…..!!!!!?????!!!!!” at the end. It was an acquired art to say the least, but I had a few good years of practice under my belt already and the toy collection to prove it.
It all started on a typical weekday afternoon, as I was glued to the TV, unwinding from school. A tradition which included (but not limited to) Transformers, He-Man, Thundercats, She-Ra, Heathcliff and Inspector Gadget, depending on the day’s programming schedule, and usually accompanied with a few bags of fruit snacks. Sometime in early 1986 and right after a Lucky Charms commercial, it happened. This…
BAM! Just like that. INSTANTLY hooked! For me, it was the was the sci-fi aspect that grabbed my 10-year old mind. More specifically, the one pictured in the video at the 21 second mark. Yeah…the infamous Hand. Now officially referred to by collectors as “The Claw”.
NO, not THAT Claw! THIS Claw…
I wanted it. NO….I NEEDED it! But not just that one. I needed more! Perhaps….ALL of them…??? They were like trading cards….but FIGURES!! These were amazing!! I’m usually no slave to marketing *sips Coke, adjusts Nike hat and grabs a handful of Doritos* but I hadn’t seen advertising like this since the last Star Wars cardback commanded me to “Collect all 92”!! The announcer in the commercial asked me how many could I capture. Well, you better believe that I was gonna answer that call!!!
A week later, on a routine prescription drug pick-up with my dad to a local Sav-On (before it became a Walgreen’s), I saw them. First, I saw the 4-packs hanging from pegs. Then, I saw the 10-pack trashcans on the shelf.
I thought hard for a while. I knew a 4-pack would be an easy “yes”, but I was feeling lucky that night. I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed that 10-pack and went in for the kill. I didn’t wait for my dad to finish what he was doing and meet me in the toy section as usual. I took that sucker out of the toy aisle, straight to him! I may have failed to mention the smaller, less expensive option, but that is neither here nor there. All 10-packs were randomized figures. There were never duplicates inside the 10-packs, nor did any 10 ever have the same mix of figures. My first 10 were the ONLY M.U.S.C.L.E. figures I had for a few months so they got quite a bit of playtime, which is probably why they are so ingrained into my memory.
My first 10
As with most new toy purchases, these got opened up in the car, before we even got out of the parking lot. The first thing I remember (and will NEVER forget) is the amazing smell that emitted from that little plastic trashcan as soon as it popped open. It’s right up there with a fresh box of Crayola crayons, Play-Doh, and Elmer’s Glue…and equally reminiscent of my childhood. The best part is that you can STILL get that scent from them if you store them properly. I won’t lie…..I sometimes have to open up the bin I keep these in and take a good whiff. Come to think of it…maybe that was their secret all along…Maybe these things were spiked with some sort of nerve gas that…nah, nevermind. If I keep speculating down this road, I may have to give them up, and today is the wrong day to give up sniffing M.U.S.C.L.E.s.
Had I seen these in the store prior to seeing the commercial, I may not have thought much of them. I say that because they were marketed as “Weird, Wild Wrestlers”. Obviously loosely inspired by the Mexican Luchadores, with a sci-fi, Japanese anime twist. Well, even though WWF was a runaway success during this time period, I was never much into it. I had a few schoolmates that were, and I watched the Saturday morning cartoons from time to time, but I was never one for competitive sports, much less wrestling. However, my dad was into wrestling and the occasional Luchador movie that would show up on the Spanish channel on Saturday afternoons. That may be why he was the one who bought me my first set of these. He probably thought they were cool. This might sound irrelevant, but as a parent, I can tell you that this is a HUGE factor in what toys I decide to buy for my kids.
Unlike just about every other toy-line of the time, M.U.S.C.LE. didn’t initially have a corresponding cartoon, comic book, movie, video game, candy, cereal or any sort of other promotional tie-in. That’s saying a LOT for the time period, where EVERY plastic thing that was marketed towards kids had spawned from some sort of other familiar source material. Most toy/80s aficionados already know of M.U.S.C.L.E.’s Japanese (Kinnikuman) history, but at the time-for those of us in the United States-these toys were a complete surprise. Their lack of cross-promotional marketing may be why they were only popular for a few years, but here we are…30 years later still talking about (and collecting) them, which speaks volumes about their influence. A few other toy-lines tried the same tactic, but they never reached the same level of popularity. (*cough*Rocks & Bugs & Things*cough*) I’m sure the low price-point was a major factor in how they were able to compete with the major franchises of the time, and that was a bonus for those of us whose parents couldn’t afford Castle Grayskulls, Metroplexes or U.S.S. Flaggs. For less than the price of a single action figure, you could get about a dozen of these INaction figures. Sure they were smaller, not articulated, and uni-colored but they had other advantages that out-weighed their taller competition.
The BEST part about them was their sheer indestructibility! Unless you took a pocket knife or a lighter to them, these things were practically invincible. Save for a few scuffs, it’s rare to find one that is destroyed, even 30 years later. I did everything to them from freezing them, dropping them from the stairwells, stepping on them, throwing them across the playground, running them over with my bike and even giving them repeated slime baths. They survived my symphony of destruction far longer than any of my other toys. Secondly, with the exception of only 2 characters, all of these guys were nameless. In a world dominated by Lion-Os, Mermen, Megatrons and Sgt. Slaughters…these guys could be whomever you wanted them to be, good or bad! I’m not sure if every kid back then took advantage of that opportunity, but I sure did. I named my first 10 the day I brought them home like an over-joyed parent! Not only that, but I took it one step further and even assigned them special attacks/abilities, too! You can’t do that with real kids. (Trust me….I tried, but my kids STILL can’t melt bricks with their eyes or levitate objects with their minds.)
Over the years, their Japanese canon followed them, and we discovered that a lot of these guys DID actually have names, factions and abilities, but this was long after most of us had grown up. (Figuratively speaking.) I’m sticking with the original names and abilities I assigned to my first 10 and a handful of other notable favorites. These 25 (which includes my first 10) were my star players.
The first one that got his name, was the most peculiar one of that first 10-pack I got; the pyramid guy. Except, it was upside down, and therefore not really a pyramid. After looking at the others, I was still puzzled as to what this…thing…actually was. I asked my dad. He looked at it briefly and said, “Oh, that’s a plumb bob.” I didn’t know what the heck that was, especially at the age of 10, so I had to ask him to elaborate. Well, being a forklift operator, he had worked at construction sites before, and proceeded to explain to me what it was and what it was for.
I could explain it, but I’ll let the Great Wikipedia do it’s job here: “A plumb bob or a plummet is a weight, usually with a pointed tip on the bottom, that is suspended from a string and used as a vertical reference line, or plumb-line. It is essentially the vertical equivalent of a “water level”.
So that’s what I called him from that moment. He also served a very important role in how I played with these things. He didn’t have a special attack or ability like the others, but he was the one who decided who “won” in a battle between 2 figures or even who would choose which ones would “fight”. See…before the wrestling ring came out, I still knew these guys were fighters, and fighters needed a referee. That’s where Mr. Bob came in. I would spin him like a top (or just drop him), and when he landed, the figure that he was pointing at was the winner…or loser, depending on my mood that day. About 6 months later, I ended up getting a new figure in a different 10-pack that was an actual top (“Topspin”) that you could actually spin, so that put poor Plumb out of the referee business. Though, you’ll be happy to know that I did recruit him as a fighter and his special attack was an instant, body-piercing kill for his opponent.
Plumb Bob also became one-third of this transforming space-sled that Mr. Roboto would ride into battles on. (Yes, I even found a way to make M.U.S.C.L.E.s into Transformers!) Here is Mr. Roboto, combined with Archie, Topspin and Plumb Bob.
My second set of M.U.S.C.L.E.s was a 28-pack from the shelves of a Kay-Bee toy store. This time, it was my mother who would be the unsuspecting procurer here. The set I got was #3: Mighty Maulers, and that set contained several figures that would become lifelong favorites. One of which I lost that same afternoon in the bushes of my mom’s work. I went back several times as a teenager, looking in those same bushes for it, with no luck. Sometimes, I wonder if “Trashman” is still lying there…waiting for me to return for him. *Insert sad, cliché, Toy Story-esque, musical montage here*
One of the things I wanted most, and truly regret not getting was the exclusive mail-away poster, which showcased all the available figures. It’s a beautiful piece of 80’s greatness but an original sells for hundreds of dollars these days, IF you can even find one for sale. For now, i’ve settled for a reproduction, and it adorns the backside of the door to my bedroom.
One other fun thing I used to do with these things is find clever ways to store and transport them on trips with my parents as they ran errands. Stupidly, I never saved any of the 28-pack boxes or inserts, so I was always left with way more M.U.S.C.L.E.s than I had containers for. I used to always push the limits of the 10-pack trashcans, and was once able to get 16 inside of one. However, I only had 3 of those. I tired everything from Manglor eggs to MOTU Slime containers, but I only had one of each of those too. My solution finally came in the form of a routine trip to the kitchen cabinet. My mom had recently started buying Crystal Light drink mixes. (My favorite was Caribbean Cooler.) I just happened to notice that the cylindrical containers the packets came in were perfect, and I had an endless supply of them! I was able to fit about 20 M.U.S.C.L.E.s into each one. I peeled the labels off of 6 of them and I finally had uniformed storage for my whole collection. They were also stackable AND had color-coded lids! I had some labeled as favorites, some as non-favorites, some were “Good Guys”, some were “Bad Guys”, etc. Here’s a vintage commercial for Crystal Light in all it’s 80’s glory:
[Via] Jamie Gee
About a year after their initial launch, M.U.S.C.L.E. figures started to show up in colors other than their original “pink” (AKA “flesh”) color. For some reason, those never really appealed much to me. Aesthetically, they’re pleasing to look at, but they just didn’t fit in with the others that I had already collected so many of.
However, I did pick up one colored 28-pack…and the memory I have of that final foray into M.U.S.C.L.E.dom is one of the best from my childhood. I was on a field trip with my 5th grade class in early 1987. Several classes from a few different schools in the district took a trip to Los Angeles to go see The Nutcracker at the famous Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. After the show, we all walked across the street to a mall to get lunch and do a little shopping. (My parents had given me a $20 bill to spend.) I specifically remember getting a Big Mac meal at the mall before hitting the toy store. Don’t ask me what I had for lunch yesterday unless you want to see the dumbfounded stare of a professional dufus in headlights, but I can sure as heck tell you what I ate 30 years ago!
While eating, I ended up seeing my old friend, James from my former neighborhood. About 2 years prior, my family moved to the other side of town, and I lost touch with James, who had been my partner in crime since Kindergarten. Turns out, his class was also on the same field trip! James and I were the original Beavis and Butthead, so almost 2 years of not having seen him was a long time in kid-years. Needless to say, it was a happy moment…and how did we spend it? TOY SHOPPING SPREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
We raced over to Kay Bee Toys and frantically used the last 15 minutes of our field trip to spend every penny we had burning through our pockets! I remember he went straight for the G.I. Joe section, and I headed for the Transformers. Except, there weren’t any that I wanted or could afford. So…my next option was the 28-pack of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures calling to me. It was set #2: Cosmic Crunchers, and it was all of the new, colored versions. I didn’t want the colored ones, but by this time, the stores weren’t carrying the original color any longer. This was my final M.U.S.C.L.E. acquisition, but also my very first toy purchase with my own money. (OK, fine…it was still may parents’ hard-earned cash, but I paid for this at the register all by myself!) *sticks out tongue* So it was a significant life experience to say the least.
From the time I saw that first commercial until that field trip, I would acquire 2 more 28-packs, and 2 more 10-packs, leaving my childhood collection at just over 100 figures when you account for the few that I lost or traded off for other types of toys. Not bad, considering it’s close to half of the entire collection. Compared to the other toy-lines I had in my room, this was the largest collection I had. They also eventually made a wrestling ring toy, which I always wanted but never got. In addition to that, there were several other toys released (and 1 NES video game) to go with the series. M.U.S.C.L.E. inspired several other small, rubbery collectible figurine toy-lines over the next few years with varying degrees of popularity; C.U.T.I.E.S., Battle Beasts, Army Ants, etc. In fact, some toy companies are STILL making similar toys to this day! (Seriously. Look up “MOTU M.U.S.C.L.E.” They are awesome!)
For those of you still reading this, you may be wondering if I ever did capture that “Claw” figure that started me down this whole path to begin with. Well, the answer is no. Not in the wild, at least. (That’s collector lingo for finding a particular item through a random shopping trip as opposed to buying it outright on the second-hand market.) I did eventually pick one up off eBay about 15 years ago, as with a few others that I needed to replace some of the ones I had lost or traded off as a kid. I had to buy back about 20 to complete my First 10 and First 28 sets, also. I still don’t have a complete set, nor do I care to. I have far more than I had as a kid simply as a result of buying large sets in order to get the ones I really wanted. My current collection clocks in at 193 unique figures (out of 236), which is perfectly fine with me.
With all the many adventures I had with these little guys, I could write about them endlessly. However, I have kids, and they need to be trained to telekinetically melt bricks in case our planet ever gets invaded by Millions of Unusual Small Creatures who just may happen to Lurk Everywhere. So I should get going now. That…and I’m really craving a Big Mac for some strange reason.