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The Knock-Offs: Destroying Your Toy Innocence

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“What’s wrong with him?”

I’m surprised, but don’t let on.

“What do you mean? It’s Batman. Go play.”

Eyes narrow suspiciously under her fringe of hair. My kid is only 4 years old, but she’s already pretty smart. She can tell something is off about the figure. Oh, sure, at first glance he looks like Batman: the black suit, the pointy ears, etc. But the toy is also wrong in ways a legitimate Batman toy never would be: the figure is hollow, the proportions are weird, and he’s wearing Superman’s boots. Even at this tender age my daughter knows. She says nothing, taking the figure but leaving me with a sense of troubling unease. Did I just betray some unspoken trust? By giving her a knockoff, did I just destroy her toy innocence?

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We’ve all been there. It might have been Christmas, it might have been a birthday, or maybe Aunt Mabel just hadn’t seen you in a few years and wanted to give you a nice present. The thing is, Mabel isn’t exactly up on the sort of stuff kids are into these days. Mom tells her Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so she brings you this:
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“Is that the one you wanted, dear? Your mother said he’s the one you’d want.”

Now, unless your 13-year-old self had a keenly-developed appreciation of the absurd, you’d feel pretty betrayed. I mean:

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I know it’s all part of the ninja bit, but is it really necessary to wear a mask to disguise yourself when you look like this? Your facial features aren’t exactly your defining feature in these circumstances. Does this guy expect to take the mask off and pass as a regular person on the street? Why is he dressed like a sanitation worker? Most importantly, how did he get those pants on? Lots of questions, but don’t look to Aunt Mabel for answers. How could she know that she’d been duped by a knock-off?

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knock·off
ˈnäkäf/
– a copy or imitation, especially of an expensive or designer product.

Toy manufacturers have been producing knockoffs for decades. While GI Joe had to deal with wannabes like Big Jim, Fighting Ace and The Defenders, it was Star Wars that truly felt the force of the knockoffs. This was in no small part due to Kenner’s inability to get product on the shelves before 1978, which meant if you had the tooling for an old toy ray gun or robot you could be in the knock-off business. Depending on how you look at it, I was lucky or unfortunate enough to be a kid at the time, so I had a lot of these toys first-hand.

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British company Tomland’s Starroid Raiders stood 3 3/4″ tall and had five points of articulation. Hmmm, sounds familiar. The scale allowed Tomland fit in with Kenner’s Star Wars figures, but aesthetically they were light years apart. While the Star Wars aliens were unlike anything we kids ever seen before, the Tomlands had a dated quality that was more in line with our parents’ childhood sensibilities. I had fun with the figures, but there was no way anyone was going to convince me they were from Star Wars. Like I said, kids are sharp and it was easy to laugh at the goofy aliens and smiling robots. But Tomland’s 8″ Star Raiders figures? Not so much. Some of those things were downright terrifying.

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The Star Raiders featured recycled heads from other Tomland lines given new costumes and absurd “space names.” But hey, don’t take my word for it:

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Tago, Dagon and Oov, attorneys at law. As a kid, I knew something was definitely odd about the Tomland Toys, but I just figured they were based on comics we didn’t get in my neighborhood. At the time Atlas Seaboard was the new publisher on the block, trying to give Marvel and DC a run for their money: it seemed entirely possible these odd-looking figures came from there, Dell, Charlton, Red Circle or any of those other smaller comics houses. It never occurred to me that these characters were “made up!”

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The 1980s saw an explosion of knockoffs thanks to Mattel’s Masters of the Universe line. It seemed everybody and their sister had tooling from that line and the number of He-Man “inspired” toys produced in those years is unguessable. The molds were re-purposed for wrestlers, ninjas, super heroes as well as less-exciting occupations, but they all had that ‘roided-out blown sphincter pose. It took a discerning eye to tell the difference between these and the real deal, and most grownups didn’t seem to know or care. One ugly hunk of plastic was the same as any other to them. Still, sometimes you lucked out and got a good one. Case in point: Sewco’s Galaxy Fighters Mace Ape:

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All the MotC goodness without that pesky quality control! I’m not sure what’s going on with his face, but he’s a damn sight meaner than any official Mattel figure, and attitude can go a long way when you’re a kid. I’ve talked to many collectors who remember making the best of these “almost” figures, sometimes growing to like them more than the actual licensed product. Me? I’d roll with Mace Ape.

GI Joe also experienced a resurgence in the 1980s thanks to the success of the cartoon and the 3 3/4″ action figures. That’s not to say 12″ Joe went away. In fact, he really came into his own during this period. True, he changed his name to Mike, but he also embraced his “double action,” whatever that means.

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Photo courtesy of John “Toyzilla” Marshall

That’s a good look for him: I wouldn’t have thought it possible to pull off combat boots and powder-blue lycra tights, but Mike makes it work. And that “life-like hair?” Two words, baby: All. Over. And lest you think this guy is some kind of joke or one-off (shame on you for doubting your Uncle Anthill!) here is Mike’s brother from another mother, Bruce Action:

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Bruce Action aka Johnny Strong was produced for the overseas market by Fairland Toys. In a cost-cutting move gone horribly awry, Bruce/Johnny’s gun is made of the same flesh-colored plastic as his body. Shades of Naked Lunch! His unbearded head was later used for the notorious Gay Bob doll, but that’s not a knockoff, so movin’ on…

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The 1990s were the era of the X-Men. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a mutant back in those days and the runaway popularity of Marvel’s mutants led to loads of knock-offs. The above figures are certainly mutated-looking. The lack of paint and articulation is par for the course, but Wolverine’s lack of claws is just unforgivable. Come on, fly-by-night operation no one has ever heard of! Make an effort! I couldn’t find any information out about these, but the Google search results made me chuckle.

Of course, no look at the 1990s would be complete without acknowledging the Simpsons. If you attended a carnival or flea market between 1990-1995 you are no doubt familiar with the twisted visages of America’s favorite animated family. They may be the most knocked-off property since Batman. While there are probably hundreds of examples to choose from, I’ll be selective and just show one:

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Looks like Bart went ahead and took the brown acid anyway. If you’d like to experience what Bart is experiencing, click here. But I warn you, you will never be the same again.

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Spider-Man is no stranger to knockoffs. We could easily dedicate an entire article to the web-slinger’s lesser-quality incarnations but that is another day. Until then, let’s enjoy The Super Spitting Silk-Man!  Not spinning, mind you — I guess that creates the impression that this thing does more than actually sit there. Check out that Goblin Glider: Norman has really fallen on hard times!

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Everything old is new again, and the aforementioned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are more popular than ever. This is actually the image that finally inspired me to write this article, as it pretty much sums it all up:

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Who needs swords when you’ve got these babies? Raphael is obviously intoxicated with his new-found power over life and death and no one in the sewer is safe. Shredder never knew what hit him!

Finally, no article on the subject would be complete without acknowledging the King of All Knockoffs, the always-enigmatic Mr Rock. Liver lung and prostate!

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For more knock-off goodness, check out The Wild World of Bootleg Toys!

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