with James “Sallah” Sawyer.
So there was that thing back a few years ago where we found out all about the plans for the final years of the Super Powers Collection including concept art for many possible figures. And that other thing, where some extension plans for the original Kenner Star Wars line showed up in a found presentation. Or the ill-fated Mattel Wonder Woman and the Star Riders? And how about when it was revealed that there was another Raiders of the Lost Ark assortment to be made in Hasbro’s Indiana Jones line (OK, that one still hurts). You’d think we would have heard all about toys that never made it into production by now. You’d think that with so many collectors and so much time having passed, there are no surprises left any more from the golden days of action figures (1970s & 1980s).
Well, partner, you’d be wrong. What if we told you that there were more gems out there? Gems that might Dazzle and Annihilate your senses with their Fantastic concepts? Can you keep a secret?
That’s right, true believer! Mattel’s toy line of Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars lives again! And it’s a crazy tale that will Thunderball you over with its twists and turns. But first, let me lay down a little background on you for those not already in the know:
It all started with a phone call. In 1983 Mattel, the largest toy company in the world, contacted Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter. Having recently lost their bid to make toys of the DC Comics characters to Kenner Toys, Mattel immediately went to Marvel for the chance at a competing toy line. Shooter was intrigued by the talks, but Mattel did have one condition: they wanted a big event to base the toys on in lieu of any TV or film support. The specifics weren’t important as long as it was called “Secret Wars”- two words that Mattel had found tested well with adolescent boys. And so the tongue-twisting “Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars” was born. Although Mattel had input into the mini-series’ direction and Marvel did everything they could to facilitate new toys (creating new characters, changing existing character’s costumes, and highlighting vehicles and play environments), Mattel ultimately used very little specifics from the Secret Wars comics itself.
Roger Sweet, the creator of Masters of the Universe at Mattel, was responsible for oversight of the new line. “I had been put in charge of managing the design creation of the 1983 He-Man / Masters Of The Universe line, and continued to do so through the 1987 line.”, said Roger. “But, in about 1984, I was also given responsibility for managing the design creation of the Marvel Secret Wars line. Mattel had gone to Marvel in the hope of picking up the Marvel line, and did so. Previously, Mattel had been to DC Comics in the hope of acquiring the DC license. But, Mattel lost out to Kenner. By Mattel Marketing and upper management, the Marvel Secret Wars line was viewed as a “flanker brand” to Masters. In other words, it was considered as a secondary brand to pick up additional male action sales for Mattel, but while cutting little into Masters’ sales. That is why the Marvel figures were designed smaller and far less muscular than the Masters figures.” So these figures were intentionally “dumbed down” to not only save production costs, but to literally be a lesser product to not compete with MOTU, but still pick up subsidiary sales, much like Marvel’s SuperHeroSquad does today (of course, we still see this theory in effect today at Mattel, with lines like JLU). This also explains how a smaller company like Kenner got the DC license instead of Mattel; because they were willing to put more money and effort into it.
Secret Wars figures were articulated only at the shoulders, hips and neck and had no special “action feature” like Kenner’s Super Powers or Mattel’s own Masters of the Universe. Most of the figures shared one of 3 basic bodies, with only minimal custom detail tooled for each character. This also meant that there would be no characters with unusual bodies that couldn’t be reused or that were oversized and would need unique packaging. Mr. Sweet explains how the direction of the line was decided: “I was quite familiar with the Marvel Comics characters. I had grown up with some of them, and had read about them in the Marvel comics. Marvel provided very little actual support, but would have if Mattel had needed it. My design group and Marketing handled the selection of the Marvel figures to go into the Mattel Marvel line, and the creation of the other product like vehicles and playsets.”
Costume seams and line were painted rather than sculpted, and even paint details such as eyes were dropped on some of the figures. There were almost no unique accessories, but all figures instead came with the same common guns and “Secret Shields”; the Heroes came with round shields and the Villains came with square shields. These shields came with a series of 4 two-sided lenticular inserts that featured art showing the characters in action. Each scene changed when the shield was tilted. Even the figure packaging had uniform art on the front with only the character name changing from figure to figure. The backs of the cards did feature a brief biography of the character, along with a short comic strip that resembled the old Hostess Fruit Pie ads more than it did the actual Secret Wars comics.
The first series to hit store shelves featured the customary stalwart Marvel characters along with some new fan favorites getting toys for the very first time. Roger Sweet’s design group, “along with Marketing, selected the figures. They were selected largely because they were the main known Marvel good and bad guys at that time, or appealed to someone at Mattel”. It’s safe to say that colorful characters and ones that were easy to produce also played a factor in figure selection.
Series 1- Wolverine, Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man,
Doctor Octopus, Doctor Doom, Kang, Magneto
Series 2 hit shelves in early 1985, but by this time the line was already ceasing production overseas. Whereas the first series featured characters that all played a big role in the Secret Wars comic, nearly all of the characters in this next series didn’t appear in Secret Wars at all! Even during production then, some concepts never made it to shelves. “There was one vehicle that I created and designed that was very neat. And, I commissioned an outside designer to do a beautiful full-color styled illustration of it. The vehicle had one figure sitting inside a cockpit and another figure standing on the back manning a machine gun. But the vehicle later was deleted in the Mattel visual design department and replaced by a much less appealing vehicle of another type.” laments Mr. Sweet.
Series 2- Falcon, Hobgoblin, Baron Zemo, Black Spider-Man, Daredevil
Unfortunately the toys were not a giant hit on the scale of He-Man and his pals and within just 2 years of launch, the Secret Wars line was already in clearance bins at toy store around the country. The cancellation of the line was so abrupt that three figures for the third series were already in production. Rather than destroy these toys, they were released in Europe only as there were not enough of them to distribute to all the American markets.
European Figures- Constrictor, Electro, Iceman
Once again, the only three new characters never appeared in the Secret Wars comics, and in fact they were not even very well known or popular in the comics of the day. The cost cutting could readily be seen by this point: outside of new heads, each of their bodies are recycled from earlier figures with no added details. Like much of the other characters, this would be the first time any of them had been made into toys. Unlike the other series, these three are by far the rarest pieces in the entire line, and even at the time of their release were hard to find if you didn’t like in Europe.
And that’s where it ended, as a pale shadow of other contemporary lines, yet the only glimpse fans had of their favorite characters in plastic during Marvel’s heyday. But was it really the end?
Well, apparently Mattel had further plans for these stalwart heroes and heroines. Yep, now it can be told: there were TWO more assortments planned and it seems that they were a good ways into production when the line was cancelled. We’ve done a little detective work coupled with the find of some artwork for those final waves to bring you the whole story. The artwork in and of itself is quite a find. This isn’t concept art, but actual production art to be used for one of the most overlooked items in the Secret Wars saga: the lenticular shields used by all of the figures! Each figure came with four lenticular inserts- one in the shield and three in a baggie. The inserts showed unique scenes on front and back pertaining to each character; some of them showed secret identities, some showed a demonstration of their powers, and most showed them in battle with other characters that had figures so kids could act out the mayhem on their own.
And that fact is key to figuring out what was going to be made: no shield produced featured characters that were NOT a part of the Secret Wars line. So looking at the artwork created for the unmade figures’ shields we can see that the characters that were previously unknown are: Mr. Fantastic, the Abomination, Annihilus, Thunderball, and Dazzler! Yes, as crazy as it seems (and really, this entire line-up is pretty crazy) the first female figure that the toy line was going to have was not Phoenix, not Invisible Girl, not Scarlet Witch, but Dazzler. Oh kay.
But maybe she wasn’t going to be the first. There were two more characters featured on the shield artwork that hadn’t been seen before, but didn’t have full set of art themselves: the Hulk and Mystique. And this is really the final piece of the puzzle, because some of the existing characters seen on the artwork include Iceman, Electro, and Constrictor: the 3 “European” Secret Wars figures. If we assume that Mattel’s plans going forward were to mirror the second wave, and offer 5 new characters with some re-released older figures in each assortment, then it seems apparent that wave three would have actually been Electro, Iceman, Constrictor, The Hulk, and Mystique. The Hulk has long been reported by multiple sources to have been sculpted, and Mystique would have made a very striking, colorful figure. Especially since the prevailing mantra of the time was “girls don’t sell” in the action figure world, having an “alien” looking girl just might help counter that wisdom. It also makes sense why only three of them were released to Europe: these figures only needed tooling for new heads, and their bodies were straight repaints of earlier figures and therefore were cheap to produce and recoup costs on what was already in production. But tooling new bodies like the Hulk or Mystique would cost much more, giving them no chance to make their money back unless they were released wide in a big market like the U.S.
The fourth wave probably wasn’t that far into production, with most of the artwork not even having been inked yet, let alone colored and formatted for lenticular prints (and that also explains why there is finished artwork so far out; the lenticular process took more time than normal printing schedules). But we can see how Dazzler would have been meant reuse the Mystique body, Abomination the Hulk body, and the rest reusing and repainting existing bodies with maybe new wings for Annihilus and a new neck or arms for Mr. Fantastic. (UPDATE: it is now known that at least the Hulk and Abomination WERE sculpted and reside in the Mattel’s vaults! Hopefully one day we’ll see pictures of these long-awaited figures.)
Of course, we haven’t talked yet about WHO exactly drew this artwork. Earlier series had art by comic pros such as Mike Zeck and Bob Layton. But Mattel also had their own stable of artists that they used for lines like Masters of the Universe. Some of them were established comic artists, too, like the great Mike Sekowsky, who drew some alternate Mr. Fantastic pieces, and Pete Von Sholly, who drew the Thunderball artwork. But the majority of these pieces were handed over to a young artist who was then doing a bang-up job on the MOTU mini-comics. An artist who would go on to establish himself as having not only a distinctive art style, but also a unique voice that would remake how people saw superhero animation. Yes, these images would have been the first professional published superhero art by Bruce Timm, who confirmed it for us himself. “Holy crap, I’d completely forgotten about that stuff “, said Bruce. “It was so long ago, my memory’s pretty hazy, but these were the only pieces I did for the Secret Wars line — and yes, I guess this was my first “professional” spandex/superhero art”. Another artist who worked on the line remembers that “the line was cancelled while they were working on it, but [I] really don’t have more memory of it. Bruce came in at the end, which is why I don’t believe any of his were ever produced.” According to him, they were specifically commissioned by Mattel to create this final art. His notes on the last two assignments character assignments reads: Abomination, Dazzler, Mr. Fantastic, Annihilus, Hulk, Glider (1st of two), and Mystique, Vision, Thunderball. Color was never produced for these two batches, so they got a kill fee for that aspect. This is the only mention of the Vision, as no artwork involving him has shown up anywhere (it is possible that the art for the Vision was never started,with the cancellation of the line happening before that point and much of the artwork in pencil only).
Bruce didn’t just draw the figure’s shields, though. Also included in his artwork were some new gliders (like the Doom Star and Star Dart) and “Battle Board” art that appears to be tied to new “mini-rig” type vehicles that probably would have been packaged with a figure or two for a deluxe package.
|Iron Man||Captain America||Constrictor|
With this great new look at what might have been we can only step back and marvel at how amazing, fantastically bizarre this toy line really was. To this day we do not yet have figures of Baron Zemo 2 and Dazzler, and Constrictor is only just showing up now. But the likelihood of turning up actual sculpts of the unproduced toys seems to be pretty slim. According to a source “in the know”, there is nothing in the Mattel archives concerning Secret Wars. Apparently Mattel kept terrible records back then and anything pre-1995 is kind of a lost cause.
There is a copy of Dr. Doom’s original weapon (?) that was not included with the figure in one of their display cases. And the rumors swirl that Hulk and The Thing were sculpted. But unless the prototypes were still on someone’s desk who has worked there all these years, or in a retired designer’s drawer hidden away from the world, it is doubtful we’ll ever know just what could have been had Mattel stuck it out for just one more year back in 1985.
Special thanks to Bruce Timm, Roger Sweet, and others involved in this line for the great information! Go watch Bruce’s awesome WB DVDs, and go check out Roger’s book on the making of the MOTU line. And be sure to check out co-author James Sawyer’s super Star Trek blog, “A Piece of the Action”!