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The Wild World of Bootleg Toys

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Bootlegs. Counterfeits. Knockoffs. They’re the bane of any toy manufacturer, but a source of pure delight to the jaded collector. Their affordability, availability, and aesthetic all intersect into what might be the perfect toy. I know, that’s a crazy statement. “Perfect” is a pretty subjective term, it turns out; however, I’m going make the case for bootlegs, knockoffs, whatever you wanna call ’em. We’re gonna look, laugh, and maybe learn somethin’ before we’re done. Hold onto your Pop Rocks, kids, we’re goin’ in!

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In spite of an industry’s attempt to repress them, bootlegs have become de rigueur among toy collectors. Their colorful packaging, off-model character representation, and a willingness to blatantly lie their way onto store shelves give them a quirky appeal licensed toys simply don’t have. Why buy yet another Darth Vader when you can spend your kale on Space Power Warrior?

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David Prowse, eat your heart out.

There are some compelling reasons why bootleg toys are collected. They’re appealing to completionists who already have all the official merchandise, but still want to add to their collections. If you own every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figure ever produced, you may just find yourself tempted by the Ninja Hero Rider with Galloping Horse:

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Hey, those Ninja Heroes sure look like they’re havin’ fun; the horses seem pretty upset, but I guess I would be too if you were swinging a samurai sword that close to my head. A knockoff toy like this can add dimension and a sense of fun to any action figure display. It’s visually appealing and presents a new take on familiar characters. Then again, it also comes in a closed box, so it may not be all its cracked up to be. Let’s take a peek inside…

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Aw, poor little guy — he seems to have mutated into a frog. Here’s where bootleg toys lose a lot of people: the figure can barely move, it’s clearly missing a bunch of paint apps, and its plastic is as brittle as granny’s hips. The discerning collector may not feel they’re getting their “money’s worth” out of a toy like this, while a parent would be justifiably dubious about giving it to their child. That said, neither of these valid opinions can diminish the unique appeal of such a niche item.

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Another reason to collect bootleg toys is their ginchy factor. What do you mean you don’t know what “ginchy” means? You kids with your skateboards and haircuts and Prince Albert piercings… People like knockoffs because they’re quirky. A handful of key items can have much more visual impact than a sprawling collection. While visitors might quietly nod at your wall covered in carded Playmates Star Trek figures, Lincoln’s Mr Rock: Space Adventurer From Another Planet is sure to get a conversation started.

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Bootleg toys are hardly a new thing. Decades ago, before merchandising was a worldwide process, you would find unlicensed items at your local grocery store or five-and-dime. These items were inexpensively manufactured by local toy companies and produced in small enough numbers that they slipped past most lawyers’ notice. It helped if the knockoff Superman was molded in red rather than blue and his “S” was conveniently left off. By the 1950s, however, National Periodical Publications (that’s DC Comics, natch) was enjoying success with the Man of Steel on television and clamped down pretty hard on unlicensed product. That said, they’d let you put Superman on any stupid thing for a couple bucks. Ever see this?

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Imitation Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread? No wonder they used a picture of Supes cracking a rat on the box — that stuff is bound to make you gassy. But I digress. To get us back on track, here’s one of the absolutely original and not-a ripoff-at-all Terminate and Destroy figures.

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Ah, very clever. Instead of using Ahnold’s face on the package, they used Jean-Claude Van Damme, and instead of using Jean-Claude”s face on the figure, they used your dad’s! Lawsuit dismissed! You’ll note our hero is sporting the same bowed legs and furry briefs that appear on roughly seven out of ten bootlegs from the 1980s onward. Heck, they appeared six times in this line alone!

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It’s the weirdest thing: those fur panties were like candy to counterfeiters — it boarders on the fetishistic. Even today you’ll see tenth-generation copies of those molds reused for dollar store toys. Here’s some nightmare fuel, Rambo-style:

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There were actual Rambo figures manufactured, so this is uncalled for on many levels. Imagine the poor kid that found this monstrosity until the Christmas tree — that oft-threatened coal would have been preferable. But not all boots are flesh-biscuits; you might get something more colorful.

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As you can see, Egon “Spook Chaser” is better equipped than Rambo — he’s got a full-on Proton Pack, uh, spook-chaser as well as something that isn’t even pretending to be Slimer. Corny? Sure. Consistently selling for over $500 bucks on the secondary market? Absolutely. That brings us to another reason people collect knockoffs: they’re often worth more than the toys they’re ripping off. Think about it — like today’s designer toys, knockoffs have limited production runs. Carded examples of bootleg figures are that much rarer. After all, these were cheap toys that were meant to be played with. Most people (collectors included) never expected them to be worth anything; they were saving items from more successful toy lines like GI Joe and Star Wars. Speaking of…

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Star Wars was a world-wide phenomena, but the demand for product far outstripped Kenner’s humble means of distribution. While companies like Palitoy attempted to fill the void in Europe, some countries simply went their own way when it came to George Lucas’ iconic characters. This resulted in some of the wildest, weirdest Star Wars product ever produced. You may be familiar with the Snowtroopers, but have you ever met the Blue Stars?

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I have to assume this is environment-specific armor that allows troops to survive on planets made entirely of rising bread dough — it’s pretty stylish, considering. But wait, there’s more: check out the AT Driver, Che Bacca and the Dark Lord himself — Dart Vader!  My the Forse be with yo!

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Bootleg toys today run the gamut from inspired to god-awful. As a stay-at-home dad with a two-year old, I end up watching a lot of kid’s TV — okay, “watching” isn’t the right word; being driven bat$#!t crazy by it is a better assessment. It’s the mind-numbing consistency that kills me. Once, just once, I like to see Thomas the Tank Engine morph into a towering engine of robotic destruction.

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Yeah, like that. This is my primary motivation for collecting bootlegs: a toy like “OpThomasPrime” here is just unapologetically bizarre. Instead of just counterfeiting some preexisting TtTA train, the company went the extra mile and gave us something inspired. I love the fact he’s standing on Percy and James’ faces — serves those stinky steamies right! But it’s not just Really Useful Engines that get the off-model treatment: peep this pic of a certain wall-crawler using a very uncharacteristic weapon:

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“COME ON ENJOY THE PLEASURE TOGETHER?” Something tells me I don’t even want to know!

Bootleg toys are a contentious topic, and toy collectors may be opposed to them for a variety of reasons. There are legitimate concerns when it comes to the safety of unlicensed products: they could be made of easily-breakable plastic, have loose magnets or springs, or use potentially dangerous lead paint. As a kid growing up in the 1970s, these concerns didn’t exist, and I turned out fine (har har.) That said, I’d never fault a parent for protecting their child. Another thing —  knockoffs are illegal. They cut into the profit of legitimate toy companies, cause licensing costs to rise, and potentially undermine the value of the brand. And while it’s unlikely you or I would be arrested for owning a few, if we were caught with over a thousand bootleg One Piece figures, like a Chinese student living in Japan recently was, you may just be headed to the hoosegow.

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So here we are. It would be impossible to cover even a fraction of the wild and wonderful world of bootlegs in a single article, but I hope I’ve at least provided you with an entertaining overview of the subject. These toys are certainly interesting and worth taking the time to discover, if only to make yourself a more well-rounded collector. On that note, I leave you with my personal favorite. The future of law enforcement — ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Robert Cop!

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Jason R Mink is the Man in the Ant Hill!