DesignProcessSuper HeroesToys

The Fallacy Of Memory or why big toy companies just can't seem to get it right

Or, to put it another way, when is green not the right green?

brainiacIf you’ve bought action figures from Mattel over the past few years, you know that they have had some issues in the manufacturing of your favorite DC Comics characters. But the one that really puzzles me is how often the colors of the final product do not match the paint masters or even the designs as seen in the comics.

Sure, they are the right color, per se. But they are not the right value of that color. And this should be a very simple process: you get a paint master, you match each base color to a Pantone guide, you figure out which parts are molded plastic and which are painted, you send these numbers off to the factory in China, and eventually you should get back some color chips that show the actual plastic that will be used, and what the base plastic looks like painted.  At this point you double check the samples against your original Pantone numbers AND the paint master. If they deviant, tweak them and send for new chips. This seems like a pain, but the manufacturing window is long enough that you should be able to handle at least 2-3 rounds of tweaks if necessary.But for some reason, what we see in the prototypes IS NOT what we get.

Left: Production colors, Right: Colors manipulated in Photoshop

Case in point is the Superman/Brainiac 2-pack shown at NYCC 2011. The sculpts are great, but the green on the classic Brainiac (seen on the left)  is waaaaaay too blue, and waaaay too dark. In all the original comics he was more of an olive shade of green. See the original comic cover at right, and my quick photoshop mockup above of what I think it should be (Note: this cover was Brainiac’s first appearance, and the only one where his boots were pink and not white). I just don’t understand going to the trouble of making these characters and not going all the way to get them right. Amazingly, Mattel actually made his boots and gloves white; their usual process is to treat all white costumes as grey for some reason. It’s a habit that is beyond frustrating, when there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the shade of grey or any purpose in not making the plastic at least off-white. Take a look at a sampling of Mattel DC characters next to a real white Hasbro Stormtrooper figure.

Red Hood, Hawk, Stormtrooper, Power Girl, Captain Cold

And speaking of color, check out the Superman on the right in the pic above, too.  If they had to make yet another Superman (albeit one with short hair with the new body) why not adjust the color on him, too, and give us a classic Superman in the shade of blue that the old comics used? The shade of blue that Christopher Reeve wore in the Superman movies? The shade of blue that was used for the Super Powers Superman figure? You get the picture. Fans don’t want to feel screwed with rebuying the same character,  so why not do everything you can to make it feel different?

How does something like this happen? I’ll tell you how: it’s the fallacy of memory. It’s when someone looks at an object and their memory tells them that it is correct because it has all of the right symbols, even if the details don’t match up. This happened throughout the licensing process, but it’s something that is incredibly frustrating to me, as at any point in the process any single person could stop it before it is too late to catch. And make no mistake, once it costs money to change something it’s too late. But before that stage, in the planning stage, in the design stage, in the approvals stage…it’s not too late. But we see these mistakes happen over and over, and not just with the colors. And not just Mattel, to be fair! But Mattel definitely is a repeat offender.

Edited Understanding Comics 131
Scott McCloud’s explanation of symbols in comics

So why do people rely on their memory, rather than using detailed reference materials to guide them? Well, in the decade I spent in the manufacturing world I found the simplest answer to be that they just don’t realize that their memory isn’t exact. Take a look at the image at the top of this article of the many Superman iterations over the years. If someone not familiar with each version was to be shown these images separately over time, the most common response when asked about the details would be that “it’s Superman” and that they’re all more or less than same. And when you’re talking about the symbols that make up the character “Superman”, they aren’t wrong: they all have his dark hair, they’re all Caucasian, the suit is blue with red trunks, cape, and boots, they all have his “S-Shield” on his chest. But every single “S-Shield” is different, the blues are different values, the reds are too, the hairstyles are different and so on. But if you ignore the details and just get the symbols right, anyone would be able to tell you that it is Superman. And that’s the problem for pretty much any character that you haven’t actually studied: Our memory remembers the symbols, but not necessarily the actual representation. I’m going to be mentioning symbols a lot in this article, so click on the image at right to recognize the importance they play in culture. Note: you can do a lot with just symbols! 1

Getting back to Superman, you can see how getting the symbols right but not the details wasn’t an issue when a toy line might only have ONE Superman figure in it. The symbols were all you needed to worry about for a mom or kid to recognize the character. But as the collector base grew in the past two decades to be the main force pouring the sales, being faithful to the details and the symbols is now paramount. Case in point: Mattel continually recycled the same Superman figure without even a revised paint job, often pairing it with a new or revised character. This is fine for a child buying his first Superman figure, but for long time collectors it forced them into purchasing the same one over and over. Worst still, NOT purchasing it, leading to lost sales and consumer dissatisfaction. The easiest way to rectify the situation would be be to simply repaint the figure, chaining the details to match the different iterations that have existing throughput Superman’s 75 year history. If they could replace the head, that would be all to the better! But even with paint alone, all of the mock-ups below would be achievable. It’s just one more area where a little bit more time spent planning might have extended the life of the line even further.

Mullet, Fleischer Animated, John Byrne 1980s, George Reeves 1950s TV, Earth 2 Old, Kingdom Come

To be honest, these issues would be minor if these figures were still selling for $6 or $7 each. But with the recession and the price of oil skyrocketing in the past ten years, the cost of one mass retail figure has reached the level that boutique toys are at, but without the commiserate jump in quality. In fact, quality seems to have gone downhill in the same timeframe, no doubt due to trying to keep the same profit margin in the face of decreased sales. It’s even worse when you couple the decline in quality with poor decisions on character choices that were made solely to recoup Mattel’s development costs at the expense of collectors. And that’s the kind of “tone deaf” decision making that makes me hate giving Mattel any money. Unlike the majority of toy companies in the past, most Mattel brand managers come from marketing/copywriting, and I think have almost no judgement for manufacturing at all. QC nightmares notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem like any figures ever get sent back for quality modifications, whether it be color correction, making things more on-model, or just getting details right. That they make collectors pre-buy subscriptions online since the fall of the retail lines is really disappointing as a collector.

Mattel’s Watchmen subscription line

As a case in point, The Watchmen subscription really, really made me angry. Based on the seminal comic series from 1985, collectors have been wanting a comic-based line of merchandise for nearly 30 years. And for what will most likely be the ONLY comic version we will ever get of these characters, Mattel really did a poor job. Again, I understand the constrictions of not having much budget (because Mattel sucks every drop of profit margin out of everything; NECA could do wonders with the same money. But I digress…), so the scale problems, reuse of existing bodies, etc. are all understandable. Less understandable (and this applies to all DC subs) are the expenses put toward packaging instead of the figures, but we know Mattel loves it’s packaging so that’s a losing battle.

Let me get some positives out of the way: at least they all have new heads. And Silk Spectre and Nite Owl are acceptable. The others, though, are total train wrecks when compared with the source material. Looking at the finished products, it comes back to “the fallacy of memory” when these were being created. And likewise, all of the people defending these must be going off their memory of what these characters look like. Because they don’t look like they’re supposed to. The bottom line is that memory is fine for symbols, but for the details you have to study actual reference materials and continuously compare your product to the source. No matter how sharp you think you are, your memory will fool you at every step of the way. Just look at that picture up there: you can easily tell who these characters are, sure. But for $35 each with shipping, these deserved to be a lot better than the knock-offs in dollar stores.

Before I get into specifics, I do want to address the defenders: I’ve had a few people tell me “I don’t have a problem with it” or “it looks fine to me”. I get that. But would you really choose the wrong version over one that was on-model? Because a good sculpt costs the same budget -wise as a bad sculpt. It just takes work on the Brand Manager’s part to make sure it’s right. And again, I think if you’re not used to having a critical eye on these things it’s easy to see the symbols of Rorschach (spots on mask, wearing fedora) and take that to mean that it matches your memory. And Watchmen of all things have a very specific style, by a singular artist (Dave Gibbons) who didn’t really deviate in how he drew them (unlike, say, Jim Lee who changes things from panel to panel). Note: I’m ignoring the recent “Before Watchmen” comic series, as it’s so new and so all over the map it doesn’t really impact most fans’ idea of what these guys look like.


So, Rorschach: again, his scale is off, but body re-use dictated that so it is what it is. But the head is the wrong shape entirely, the hat is completely off, and his facial pattern look to be made up by Mattel. I went through the whole trade and couldn’t find that pattern anywhere. It looks off from what Gibbons designed, and I get the feeling it outlines his nose with the negative space to make the tampo easier. It doesn’t help that each one I’ve seen has the tampo printing slightly off-center and crooked, a QC problem that could have been easily corrected when they got the first samples back from the factory. If you look at the above image, you can really see how incredibly off this is. I made a quick photoshop mockup of the production figure for comparison. As an aside, every place I’ve worked does these when we get pics of sculpts in, to make corrections and demonstrate what is off for the factory to correct. I have a feeling Mattel only does this for engineering, not aesthetics.


 Dr. Manhattan has other issues. His head is basically a generic blue bald guy. Gibbons drew him as being an ideal physical from, so his face is quite muscular and angular. The 4H sculpt has softer features, and the geometry is fairly off, especially the eye area. But even so, I can accept what they sculpted more than I can Rorschach. But then Mattel did a tremendously bad job in manufacturing that sculpt; just look at how misshapen that head is! And to cap it off, the eye deco is even farther off than the 4H paint master AND it goes incredibly soft, not even fully covering painted areas. Couple that with the short stature, bad wrist molding (again, compare it to a shot of the 4H sculpt), and skinny neck, and Mattel really messed up what should have been the easiest figure to produce. (I included a shot of the never produced Tim Bruckner sculpt, to show that even that isn’t quite right, although the overall sculpts for those figures were very good in general.)

To me, this is the same thing as movie likenesses, but people get much more bent out of shape of a movie figure is off-model than a comic or animation figure, probably because their memory of Harrison Ford’s features is pretty strong (but unlike an actor their memory of a comic character is mostly based on those pesky symbols, not details. For example, this new movie Spider-Man costume is the first one to get the webs on his face right. But they were always in a similar pattern, so most people didn’t see them as “wrong”. Again, I digress…  But it’s all relative. Most consumers would be more upset over a Han Solo or Batman ’66 likeness being off than a Robert Forster Black Hole figure. Or even a Luke vs Wedge figures. We’re just very familiar with certain actors. The new Brad Pitt World War Z figure is no worse than these Watchmen, but boy did everyone hone in on that likeness!

And that’s why it’s such a disappointment to be collecting Mattel toys. Nearly $30 a piece nets us figures that have lower quality than $10 retail figures. And a big chunk of the problems could be corrected for the same cost! Every place I’ve worked, the mantra was you don’t go home until it’s right. Yes, things do happen. But it’s so institutionalized at Mattel, and for the “biggest toy company in the world” it should be the exception, not the rule. But they are so driven by marketing and selling/branding rather than producing quality product it makes me insane. That thinking serves Barbie and Hot Wheels well, where the product lines are built on endless variations of the same thing but it’s murder for unique figures. Everything they do is built around a sales gimmick, not to mention the custom packaging for such un-custom figures. For toys on such a limited budget, I wonder what the cost is to go to an outside artist? Especially since all the artwork is on the back of the package, and it’s all pre-sold, so illustrations do nothing to entice purchase at shelf (which is the point of fun packaging!)

Hasbro’s Star Wars Black 6″ line.

You might think at this point that I’m trying to make an example solely out of Mattel here. But the truth is that when your company gets to a certain size a lot of the attention to detail tends to fall away while looking at the bigger marketing picture. So now it’s Hasbro’s turn in the spotlight, specifically shining on their current “Star Wars Black” 6″ toy line. For this being the “ultimate” Star Wars line and all, it’s pretty tough not to be disappointed in a few of them, starting with R2D2. He’s just terrible, and for a character that is all hard geometry and has multiple perfect CG models floating around (not to mention the actual digital model from Lucasfilm!) it’s just stupid for his sculpt to be off at all. It must be said, however, at a lower price point than Mattel’s figures Hasbro gives us all-new sculpts and plenty of detail work. The intent is clearly there, it’s the execution that is off on some of these. And I’m only focusing on those that fall short; other figures like Boba Fett, Luke X-Wing, Stormtrooper, etc., are excellent.

Brief rundown of what irks me: Most importantly, the head is the wrong shape. It’s too bulbous. The body is slightly too squat. The “face” details have some issues, as the outer “eye” shape is off and too flat and the eye itself is too big and needs to be off center. A lot of the sculpted details are just a bit wrong (see the shapes of the body vents). The blue shapes on his torso are wrong and too small. Let’s take a look at a photo comparison:


Again, at a glance this looks like R2D2 should. But it’s almost like they went completely off of memory on this guy, albeit a decent enough memory. The parts are there, but all just off enough. His shoulders and legs are too thin, and a bit out of proportion. His ankles are way too thin (the side cylinders are too small and in the wrong place). Mine has one leg longer than the other, so he leans slightly (I stole Daniel’s pic for the comparison, so the one below is not mine). His feet are off model, and the inner feet pieces too small. I think that even though the blue parts are probably the correct color, on the actual prop they are metallic and show up much brighter in direct light and IMO could have been cheated to be lighter (or better yet, metallic paint!).

All of these things would be minor nitpicks that I could ignore if there was just a couple. But all together they annoy the heck out of me for something that was digitally sculpted and should have been near perfect. The head shape really bothers me most of all; I could ignore the rest if that was right. Well, that and the fact that he’s crazy small. Let’s take a look at how tall he should be in a still from the end of The Empire Strikes Back:

swar height

You can see he’s a pretty good size, about to Luke’s mid-chest. As you can see in the group shot up above, the Hasbro R2D2 barely comes up to Luke’s hips. Fortunately, unlike with the Mattel figures, if you put in a bit of work a lot of the problems can be solved. And even better, Bandai Japan actually is releasing model kits in the same scale as the Hasbro figures that are absolutely perfect (OK, R2’s feet are a bit too big, but still). The Japanese in general tend to put a lot more effort in their consumer products, and these are no different. The main drawback is that they are actual model kits and do take some time putting them together, along with painting them. And they are kind of light, being hollow and all. But the price isn’t too far off from the Hasbro figures. Check out the Hasbro R2 next to the Bandai one and a Bandai C-3P0, who has yet to be produced by Hasbro. (Side note: I painted the R2 kind of dirty as the only shots that he’s totally clean like the Hasbro version are at the very end of Star Wars. But the model comes in a clean state if one is so inclined.)

Left to right: Hasbro Black Series R2, Bandai Kit R2, Bandai Kit C-3P0
Yoda is a tiny dude, Hasbro!

R2 isn’t the only figure with scale problems. For some reason, Hasbro has a really hard time getting Yoda right (Even on the smaller 3 3/4″ figures they can’t seem to get his proportions right, or even include the hump on his back, like the vintage one did)! The Black Series figure is no exception. This little guy isn’t quite as little as he should be, but it’s strictly a matter of his arms and legs being too long, with really wonky articulation built into them. And the paint job is too dark, but the sculpt on his head is probably the best one they’ ve ever made. Just giving him an easy new paint job on his head, hands, and feet and cutting 3/4 inch off his legs is enough to get him back in proportion and looking great!

Production Yoda, Modified Yoda, Painted Final Yoda, Vintage Kenner Yoda

The figure that needed the most work (so far) is another one that makes you shake your head that they got so wrong: Darth Vader. It’s hard to know where to begin on how bad their Vader is: misshapen helmet/faceplate, overall bad proportions, silver chain attached to his cape, cape itself bad…it’s really a mess. Again, you can easily tell it’s Vader. But boy did they not pay attention to the details on this guy! To be fair, all three original movies (and the one prequel appearance) had different Vader costumes, with slight variations. Ostensibly, the Hasbro one is based of Return of the Jedi as it has a removable helmet and the tunic is tucked into the shoulders. But it as has a silver chain like the Star Wars costume. To fix this figure, I needed a lot more help than just building the Bandai model kit, which had an admittedly strange cape.

Hasbro Black Series Darth Vader, ESB Darth Vader costume
Hasbro Vader, Bandai Vader, Glassman Obi-Wan, Hasbro Obi-Wan

What I needed was a pro customizer: my buddy Joshua Izzo! He ended up slicing up an old Epic Force Darth Vader statue thing from the late 1990s and married parts of it to parts of the Hasbro figure. He made the hand interchangeable, fixed the cape, and then sculpted a whole bunch of detail like the tunic onto the figure. Add to that the Bandai kit head and paint the cape chain black and there you go! A close to perfect 6″ scale Darth Vader figure! And it only ended up costing around $60 and countless hours! Ha ha. Thank you, Hasbro. I also touched up the prequel Obi-Wan Kenobi figure with a robe from eBay and a scaled up head from Glassman that puts it in proportion to the body. I then gave it a much better paint job, although the older I get the harder it is to paint these tiny details. All in all, though, my revised figures make me much happier with the line and almost make me feel like I was designing toys again. I’d still rather all the toy companies just stop trusting their memories and start matching reference materials.






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    And if Mattel needs a reminder of what substandard mis-colored product is, they need only go back and look at their JLU Booster Gold!

    Which they are correcting now…

    As the Otter says, “head these things off up front…”


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    Your right about the colours being off, even the boots are wrong compared to the comic, on that cover the boots are the same pink as his shirt and with a black trim.

    And again, I’m with you on the change to Supermans blue suit, that is a version they should do.
    In fact I would suggest every future re-release of Batman and Superman should have the colours changed slightly in tone just to make them stand out from each other. Especially with Batman, as there are so many different blues and greys you could use.

  • Jason Geyer

    A couple of things I want to clarify:

    I’m not really addressing the JLU color issues, as that’s a part of WB Animations style guide problems, not a Mattel mistake. I’ll have a blog at some point about my own crazy run-in with WB on color. It is not easy getting them to know their own properties! But DCUC is a different story, clearly.

    Also, that cover is of Brainiac’s first appearance, and his accepted “classic” outfit quickly did get refined to white boots, etc. They still need some deco on that belt, though:

  • […] Ottertorials » Use Your Brain, Brainiac! […]

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    This was one of the biggest issues at Palisades. Send paint samples to China. email that pantone codes. Fire off the digital CAD/CAM files with color mixtures impeded and when the test shots get back it is still not what you specced. I don’t know if this is an easy way for the factory to pad their profit or what but I do understand just how hard it is to get a color match out of China. For the smaller, ‘collector’ companies not having a permanent representative makes the final tweaks VERY hard. For bigger companies like Hasbro and Mattel that have a company rep on site this should be easier but still no guarantee.

    The next question for me is has anyone looked at building a modern production facility in northern or central Mexico?

  • Jason Geyer

    That’s interesting. When I did QSR toys we also got back color chips to approve before anything went to test shot. It was incredibly rare to get back something that did not look like we wanted it to.

    Of course, when you’re making 15 million pieces a month you have some leverage over the factory. 😉 I do remember our LOTR set at BK having about 25 running color changes due to the extended number of parts that month, and the compressed timeline. But that was the only time I recall needing to modify once things were in production.

    And yes, having someone on site is really imperative to getting the Chinese to toe the line on quality control.

  • Jason Geyer

    As an added note: when I was working in the factory they could make new color mixes on a dime, and new plastic mixes overnight. The biggest issues with the cost cutting was policing regrind and lead paint.

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    Springboarding off your second to last paragraph there…

    In the bygone Kenner days, they rarely reused a figure without changing the deco, unless it was a straight-up repackaging. Every item was different to some degree. That slowly changed over time, and now we see toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel including identical items in multiple SKUs. See any number of JLU 3-packs or Star Wars multipacks for examples.

    As a completist of the lines I collect, it is very annoying when dealing with a reused sculpt to try and figure out if an item includes anything new. Mattel drives me crazy with the endlessly reused Big 5 in JLU. If I’m spending $10+ dollars on something, I want to get as much new stuff as possible, even if it is only a new deco.


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    Your re-colored versions look perfect.
    Who do we have to payoff to get them to correct this?

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    Your re-coloured versions are way better than what we’re getting! They really need to be lightened up, as you have done. Make it so, Mattel!

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    pongan muñecos de artistas del metal carajo, no me jodan

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    Hey Jason. Thanks for this!

    Quick question, though. Is that Fleischer figure a custom or a Photoshop? Good job, either way!

  • Jason Geyer

    BL, it’s all photoshop. I don’t have the patience for customs anymore! 😉

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