The nineties get a lot of flack nowadays from comic fans, and some of it is very well deserved. Many things happened in the nineties that made it a very dark decade for the comic industry, many things we would like to forget happened at all, and some things we just can’t seem to let go of. And pouches, so very many pouches.
For as many reasons as there are to speak in hushed tones when referring to comics in that rather fateful decade, there are many more reasons to shout at the sky in praise. Each Tuesday I discuss the many things that made that decade truly a great time to be a fan. This week, I bring you another reason the nineties weren’t all bad.
Toy Biz’s line of Marvel character action figures.
I grew up in the eighties and nineties, both great decades for superhero action figures. The eighties gave us the DC Superpowers Collection and the Marvel Secret Wars line, both of which started out small with more well known heroes and villains, getting into the more obscure characters as they went along. In the nineties Toy Biz just took the idea further.
Toy Biz started out as Canadian company Charan Industries, mostly focusing on licensing American toys for import or creation within Canada. After the toy division was sold off, it became an American company, renaming itself Toy Biz. In 1990, Isaac Perlmutter purchased the company, becoming chairman, and in 1993 he acquired an exclusive, perpetual, royalty-free license for Marvel characters. This would prove a brilliant decision for the company, as well as the fans. 1995 saw Toy Biz topping Mattel’s profits with a 24% profit margin.
Before the Marvel line, Toy Biz had a terrible DC line loosely based originally on the Tim Burton film, full of bad sculpts and worthless action features. The line was short lived, but paved the way for their Marvel line starting in 1990. The line was small, consisting of only eight figures, including the first ever Punisher action figure! The original figures were not great, but as a fan I didn’t care, I was just excited to have a Silver Surfer to play with!
The X-Men soon joined the battle the following year, again starting small with only nine figures. These figures were not much better than the Marvel Superheroes line, but I finally got a Wolverine with popping claws, and a Magneto with actual magnetic powers. These early lines expanded rapidly, with a new series every year, eventually bringing in much more obscure and fan-favorite characters, as well as a few even the fans didn’t want. I still remember when I first saw the Alpha Flight box set in my local Toys R Us store, and how excited I was to see one of my favorite teams getting some love.
As the line grew the sculpting got better and more detailed, with new painting techniques, making the figures that much more awesome! These figures had increasingly cool action features, such as an Iceman figure that changed color in the freezer due to its Thermochromatic paint. Toy Biz began basing its line off of Saturday morning cartoons, and they split it up into lines specifically for Spider-Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and even Ghost Rider who didn’t even have a cartoon series to base it on.
The Spider-Man Classic and Marvel Legends lines were the game changers though, upping the ante for other toy manufacturers. With incredible sculpts, paint jobs, and many more points of articulation, these larger scale figures became even more popular. Toy Biz was on a roll. They moved into other territories, making figures based on popular video games, WCW wrestling, Lord Of The Rings, and others, but even the video game figures featured Marvel characters extensively in the X-Men vs. Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom lines.
Toy Biz and Marvel were merged in 1998 to bring Marvel out of bankruptcy, with Toy Biz becoming the new in-house toy division, Marvel Toys. Marvel Toys still produced figures up until 2007 when Jakks Pacific and Hasbro bought the Marvel rights, their last line being the Legendary Comic Book Heroes series, consisting of non-Marvel characters such as Judge Dredd, Madman, the Savage Dragon, and a PITT build-a-figure. The line didn’t go down well, and series three was never produced.
After hundreds of Marvel characters being given tiny plastic form, with some better represented than others, you have to give it to Toy Biz. They started out small, with big dreams, and became one of the preeminent makers of action figures, influencing so many other toy companies, and one of the reasons it was awesome being a comic fan in the nineties. Next week I’ll bring you another.