Zoids – Our Plastic Toys at War, Part Two.

Contexts 2 – Comics to sell toys by...

A discussion of toy-related comics.

This is the second post in a series looking at Zoids, a Marvel UK strip which included Grant Morrison’s earliest work on a continuing series for Marvel Comics. In my first post I gave one fan’s-eye-view of what Marvel UK’s publishing efforts looked like in the years up to 1986, when Zoids began to see print. In short I had stopped buying Marvel Comics a few years before as I was annoyed at Marvel Uk’s short-sighted policy of cancelling titles I was collecting and starting over with new first issues. The increasing prevalence of comics based on toy lines also turned me off as I began to leave my own toys behind. It seemed very apparent to me that blatant marketing, rather than good comics per se, was what the industry was becoming all about.

Smart as I thought I was as a 12 year old, I have to revise my youthful scorn against comics based on toy lines. I’ve recently picked up partial runs of Rom and Micronauts comics, both written by Bill Mantlo, that do raise the bar for such comics. Rom, in particular, takes a very simple toy concept and elevates it into a mythic and tragic hero quest, where a Spaceknight in shining armour grapples with the cost of becoming an instrument of vengeance and cold justice. Under Mantlo’s pen, Rom has the heart of a hero, and his suffering has pathos. Not bad for a lump of plastic. That he was licensed to Marvel for a finite time also means that his story has the dignity of an ending denied to most of the other heroes he met on his travels through Earth 616.

Micronauts too, from the few issues I've read, was a fun space opera, and allowed Mantlo to smuggle in a kind of storytelling that pushed what could be done with a narrative set in a superhero universe. In fact Mantlo used the Micronauts concept to bring back a “lite” version of Kirby’s aborted New Gods project.

One of my Rom issues happens to have an editorial by Jim Shooter in which he declares that Marvel were flooded with licensing offers, presumably from toy and movie producers mainly. He avers that Marvel only picked the ones that had a strong potential for great stories. Judging by what I’ve read of Rom and Micronauts, I’d have to give credence to this statement of artistic integrity. As far as I know, (ie, not much!), neither Rom nor the Micronaut toys were exactly top-drawer mass-market breakthroughs, with the comics probably making more of an impact on pop culture than the toys themselves. Again this gives credence to Shooter’s statement.

The later licensed properties, such as GI Joe and Transformers, however, were emphatically HUGE mass-market, corporately advertised presences, where the comics line was but one facet of a hydra-headed marketing machine that included multi-million dollar TV advertising campaigns and cartoons as well as comics. Transformers would seem to have been the most successful of these, establishing such a presence in the minds of a generation that a potential audience for the recent movies was guaranteed before they’d even shot a frame of film. The popularity of Transformers, being the story of opposing teams of robotic fighting machines, no doubt led indirectly to Marvel UK licensing and producing their later Zoids strip.

The Transformers comic was hugely successful in its own right, initially featuring the robots mixing it with the mainstream Marvel heroes, as Rom and the Micronauts had done before them. As the marketing cycle turned, Transformers toys peaked in popularity and the comic produced by Marvel Comics eventually ceased. Interestingly, Marvel UK perceived that their audience still had a huge appetite for the Robots in Disguise and continued to produce their own UK-produced strips which developed cult popularity and are fondly remembered by some to this day.

GI Joe and Gemworld were two other toy licenses that Marvel took on. I’m unfamiliar with them, but know that they are highly regarded in certain quarters. I’d be interested in hearing what any fans of theirs might have to say.

I would contend that the licensing of toys into comics has become a much slicker operation in the 21st Century than ever before. As far as the popular superheroes go, the comics are now a subsidiary of the ‘brand’. The superhero comics for children are just another facet of the marketing of candy, merchandising, cartoons, DVDs etc. Superheroes and marketing are now inextricably linked, with kids being familiar with heroes while hardly ever being exposed to the comics. Luckily, the selling of the toys, duvets and assorted flim-flam doesn’t interfere with the kinds of storytelling that goes on in modern comics. Indeed, mainstream superhero comics have never been so ‘adult’ in their content.

Regarding toys that become comics, rather than the other way round, the scene presently looks very bleak. If there are Ben 10 comics I’m sure that they are watered down versions of the cartoon rather than excellent comics in their own right, like Rom, Micronauts and Transformers were.

Perhaps there are examples I’m missing, but I think there is a certain trend to be seen in a survey of the last few decades. Where the writers were allowed to use the toys as a springboard to telling their own saga, satisfying comics seemed to follow, whereas comics that stick too closely to the continuity of films or cartoons obviously don’t allow the creators any scope to tell meaningful or memorable stories.

So where does Zoids fit on this spectrum? As we will see in a later post, the creators of the comic were free to establish their own mythos for the Zoids and greatly expand on the scant notes that came with the toys. Indeed, their take on the mecahnical monsters and their world is very different to that established in later Japanese cartoons and toys. To be honest, I'm not even sure if the Zoids toys were marketed in the US at all in the mid-eighties. I'd be interested to find out if any of the comics cavers were exposed to them then.

In any case, the freedom enjoyed by the creators allowed them to produce an enjoyable comic, which had an ever-evolving storyline with a large cast and a huge amount of incident for only 50 short chapters. The original storyline had some derivitive elements as the creators pinched a few scenarios from then-popular movies, but Grant Morrison's sections expand on the history, mythology and perhaps 'deeper meaning' of the Zoids and their world. He provides the story with what turned out to be its apocalyptic climax, as it was discontinued just after that storyline.

One little drawback to toy-related comics that I’ve mentioned a few times is that licensed properties are notoriously difficult to collect and reprint after the original license expires. I’m not sure why that should be so. I’d have thought that Mattel or Hasbro or whoever wouldn’t object to a little more income from a property of theirs that peaked in popularity long ago. I’d hazard a guess that the companies involved normally deal in huge sums of money and by the time they’d paid their copyright lawyers to iron out a deal with a comics company, they’d have blown any likely income from the reprint project before they’d even begun. The toy companies are just too big compared to modern comics companies, which, let’s be honest, only service a niche market.

The UK Zoids strip itself was a victim of this circumstance and only a devoted fans website allowed me to study it at all, as it has never been collected or reprinted.

There is a final little point to make, much more relevant to today’s cross-platform marketing model, of which comics are a tiny part, and cartoons and toys are a huge part. There is a chance that advertising to children may be the asbestos or tobacco scandal of our generation. Early studies have shown that the more TV children watch, the more likely they are to suffer from depression as they get older. Further, the likelihood increases the more TV with advertisements they watch. Child experts the world over are very concerned about many aspects of the colonisation of young minds as a route to their parents’ wallets. Like the asbestos and tobacco companies before them, it’s a fair bet that the companies involved in marketing to children know better than anyone the effects of their relentless campaigns on young minds. Already some countries have moved to ban all advertisements aimed at children from the TV schedules.

This issue will probably be a hot topic within the next 5 to 10 years. Don’t expect to find out about it first from TV companies that make profits from advertising toys and junk-food to children and which feature cartoons tied to junk food and toy marketing. It’s relevant to our present topic of toy-related comics insofar as modern marketing campaigns are cross-platform, inter-related programmes, with the toy, comic, t-shirt, cartoon and happy meal all seen as both the end-sale and the means to further project brand familiarity onto their young market.

The point I’m making is that there might come a time when the very idea of (ab)using a child’s leisure time, loyalty to what they like and sense of wonder in order to cynically create a young market for unsatisfying junk will seem like a destructive and unhealthy pursuit, much like how building houses with asbestos and getting people hooked on cigarettes is viewed now. Personally, I agree with the argument, but it’s hard to know where to draw the line. A line of comics based on toys with the chief aim of increasing sales of the toys isn’t too far removed from a TV advertising campaign after all. Still, the world would be a much poorer place without the comic adventures of exiled space-travellers Rom and the Micronauts, and the awesome battling machines like the Transformers and Zoids.

In my next post, I'll be looking at last at the Zoids strip itself.

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  • Regarding CRYSTAR, I picked up issue 1 yesterday for 50 australian cents, which is even less than 50 yankee cents.

    (There were a few extra copies too, LJ, if you wanted one...)

    Big page count, no ads, striking painted cover. Jim Shooter's editorial and the ownership info at the bottom of the first page confirms that Marvel came up with and owned the rights. Some big names of the day were involved in coming up with the concept - Macchio, Gruenwald, but I didn't recofnise the names of the actual creators of the comic.

    I'm only conjecturing, but perhaps Marvel were worried that Mego had cancelled the Micronauts line of toys a few years before and would perhaps withdraw Marvel's right to publish further Micronaut adventures at any time.

    No doubt also they wanted all the profits of a hit toy series like Micronauts without the expense of paying for the licence. WIth hindsight it looks like trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice.

    Reading more of my Micronauts since the original post here, they were indeed strong comics. Mantlo obviously put everything he could into them. The big difference I see with modern comics is that he is throwing out new ideas and concepts in every issue, without worrying that he won't own or profit from any of them long-term.

    He created a whole other universe for Marvel with its own cosmology. This is a huge contrast to the continuity-obsessed comics of today, which seem lost in a hall of mirrors.

    I'm guessing CRYSTAR won't be as strong when I get around to reading it. From a quick flick, it looks very like He-man in the fantasy/castle setting. Not sure if it preceded He-man though...

    Funny that Marvel thought through the toy gimmick as far as using translucent 'crystal' plastic for the bodies instead of the normal plastic.

    Interesting indeed why the characters and world hasn't been used since. Would have been a good one for Busiek to obliterate to show how high the stakes were in the Avengers/JLA crossover.

    "Quick, get me a fondly remembered world we can blow up!"

    2) ... afterward the art quality diminished and the stories are more buffoonish.

    Aha - just backs up what I said about the cartoons really screwing up the comics and the creativity that could go into them.

    I mentioned Ben 10 above. I think he's the biggest toy/cartoon superstar of the moment. I don't know what you CAN'T get with his brand on it.

    Well, my suspicions about the comics were backed up by my brother, of all people, someone with very little interest in comics. His 4 year old son is into Ben 10, and so he was able to tell me the comics, which are short and in little compilation magazines for kids which are filled out with wall-to-wall branding, are really poor and almost unreadable.

    I pity the children!
  • 1) An interesting side point about CRYSTAR: According to one source I read, Marvel is the one who came up with the idea of the toy line and designed the characters. Once they had the concept all created, the comic company licensed the characters to RemCo, the toy company. (There's at least mention of it on the Crystar Wikipedia page)
    I find it kind of surprising that no writer (to my knowledge) has ever revisited the Crystar world for further adventures, even if it was to just kill everyone off, make fun of them or steal some of the better characters. I guess the most likely place for this would be EXILES or even something sillier like DEADPOOL or GREAT LAKES AVENGERS, but I've only read GLA.
    Also, the covers for the CRYSTAR comics are something to behold. Many of them were painted, which was a rarity for the time. I even think it was the first comic that featured a solo Nightcrawler cover and the first painted Nightcrawler cover.

    2) I've been meaning to get back to my He-Man commentary. I've got another dozen or so issues to look through. regarding that "series," after the first year of publication, the mini comics took a nosedive in quality. The reason? It seems that by that time, the Filmation cartoon had become a hit, and the minicomic creators were directed to make the stories more like the cartoon. Before they had a decidedly "Conan" feel to them, afterward the art quality diminished and the stories are more buffoonish.
  • Thanks for the input LJ. There's a lot of info there. You obviously know way more about this area than myself. Good to know that the name Zoids is at least faintly recognisable to US readers and isn’t just something meaningless, as I haven't done much to describe them yet.

    Looking at your post, comics based on toys were legion in the 80s. Starriors I'm not so familiar with, but CRYSTAR and M.A.S.K ring a bell. I was very familiar with He-man as my younger cousin got loads of them. Spoiled brat! The cartoon was also on every week and even my kid sister liked it. I SAW BOTH THE He-man and She-Ra movies in the cinema.

    I've just read some of the earliest of your posts you link to - nice redesign of your site btw - and I'm looking forward to reading the rest when I've time later.

    The heyday of these products/comics was in a lull in my comic fan life, between when I turned away from Marvel, and when Alan Moore's work mainly brought me back to superheroes. I would seem to be a bit older than you, because as I say, the increasing number of toy tie-in comics was one of the things that turned me off Marvel in the mid-80s.

    (My disillusion with Marvel very much coincided with poor old Tom DeFalco's tenure as EIC, as I've learned from John Dunbar's current thread. Now I know who to blame.)

    I think there was a revolution in licensing arrangements in the period between Mantlo's two toy epics and your mid-80s examples. I've read on wiki that Mantlo was inspired to work on the Micronauts after seeing his son's new toy one Christmas, and he then lobbied Marvel to buy the license. Rom too was kind of arbitrarily granted a strong comic series out of all the toys around then. The toy and explanatory material that came with him was quite perfunctory, but Marvel did somehow see great story potential in it.

    All the Mid-80s examples you cite are products of a much slicker (in a way, more cynical) marketing model, where the cartoons, toys, ads, and other merchandising were all part of the one marketing push. The cartoons were ubiquitous and I have several problems with them. One being that they 'locked in' a status quo that the comics had to follow, so none of the comics stories or characters could develop or grow. He-man was especially guilty of this as I'm sure the comics followed the cartoon template of Skeletor getting his boney butt kicked each and every week. Wasn’t there regularly published comics of He-Man as well as those mini-comics? There might have been ones produced in the UK at any rate.

    He-Man would make a great topic in his own right. To compare him to Harry Potter, as you do glancingly in your blog would be an interesting exercise. The differences are humungous, and probably illustrate a lot about huge swathes of culture over the last 30 years.

    An area I'd like to know more about is how licensing is done. I presume the comics company pays for the right to publish comics based on the property? But to my current cynical way of looking at things, the toy company should pay the comics publishers as they are getting, in effect, a long engaging advertising campaign for their product.

    But by this reasoning Marvel should pay me to wear their Ditko Spider-man T-shirt!

    In our present age of corporate giants I'd be pretty sure the toy, cartoon and comics companies are all ultimately owned by the same corporation (Can you say Warner Brothers?). The poor kids don't stand a chance!

    The low value put on these comics, especially Mantlo's, are kind of puzzling. I suppose the Byrne FFs and Avengers of the late 1970s/early 80s have a relevance of some kind to the comics published today, but Rom and Micronauts (and those ones you mention) are very much throwaway ephemera of their moment. In most cases the toys they are based on have long been discontinued. Given that they are unlikely to be reprinted/collected, they should have a higher value as back issues. I've noticed that particular cheap back issues are very easy to pick up as soon as the reprint collecting those issues first comes out.

    Over the years I've seen loads of single issues of Rom and Micronauts in the bargain bins, but there was never a run of them, so I passed them by. I think I'm going to try and complete my collections of them now, so I'm kicking myself that I could have had most of them by now.

    Regarding your third point (which I'm looking forward to reading more about in your blog), Morrison himself was definitely being 'tried out' in Zoids. It's his first work in an ongoing series for a mainstream company, and as we shall see, he is dropped in slowly, initially just supplying one chapter of a short sequence of interelated stories, before being allowed his head.
  • A couple of comments in general about licensed properties ...
    1) ZOIDS was indeed a toy line here in the U.S., and they certainly looked cool to me as a kid. The problem on my end is that they were impossible to find. This is actually the case for many, many toys that got licensed to Marvel and DC. I was a huge fan of CRYSTAR, and still am to this day, but I could never find the toys except at one store about 30 miles from my home. And that toy? The lame-o wizard in the line!
    Most toylines get a one-season shot in stores. If they don't show any traction with kids, they don't get reordered. That seems to be the case for many toylines in the 1980s.
    Now it seems much different since many stores also cater to toy collectors (You ever wonder why action figures from Marvel or McFarlane are never on sale? Because the retailers know that collectors will buy!)
    2) Another problem with these properties is that sometimes the comics were really tough to find. Throughout my collection of comics based on licensed 1980s properties, I have a multitude of partial stories. It took me nearly 10-plus years to complete my collection of STARRIORS through yard sale searches and comic shops. And to complete my M.A.S.K. story, I eventually turned to eBay.
    Adding to the difficulty of finding these comics is the percieved worthlessness of the titles. No collector or store seems to have kept them. This could be that they were quite exclusive to newsstands. It could be that comic collectors completely ignored these kiddie comics. It could be that the kids (rather than collectors) who bought them read them, Silly-Puttied them, colored them and then tossed them.
    It could be all of the above, but the fact remains that in a non-Internet world, they were very tough to find.
    3) Another interesting thing, which is obviously a main point of your articles, is that the various companies used these comics as try-out books. If you look at the He-Man/MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE mini comics, you see people like Mark Texiera, Stan Sakai, Mark Waid and others who built these.
    As a heads up, I've written a lot about my collection of He-Man Mini Comics here.
    And here I discuss the many shortcomings of the STARRIORS title.
  • Ah, Shogun Warriors. I forgot about them. 20 issue run which would make a nice Essential.

    They are definitely in the Micronauts/Rom classification in my mind. The sketchiness of the toys background allowed the writers a lot of room to come up with their own saga, a condition which doesn't apply today.

    I've just seen on wiki that part of the reason for the cancellation of the toy line was that the built in projectile weapons on them were deemed unsafe for children.

    The other point I didn't quite have room to make is that these toys were, ah, quite cheapo in design and construction. Rom wouldn't have had too many 'points of articulation', as they say today, and the Micronauts toys, especially, were quite silly looking, with big mecahnical-looking arms that ended in big pincer-claws. One of the issues I got was Annual #2, where the Marvel Micronauts fight animated toy versions of themselves and the artist didn't gloss over their cumbersome design. It was a fun bit of metatextuality, as it turned out that in the Marvel U, a renegade from the Micronauts 'Inner Space' had brought the designs to the toy company.

    The little copyright notice that appears at the bottom of the splash page had added text asserting the ownership of Akroyear (tm) Micronauts (tm) etc.

    I was amused to see that only the male characters were (tm) the toy company, and the female characters had to be added by Mantlo so he could bring in romance and variety to the cast.

    It was only years later that I realized that the mechas in Shogun Warriors were from unrelated Japanese stories.

    I also didn't mention that part of the fun of Marvel's toy tie-ins was in seeing the toys interact with the Marvel superheroes. They are heroes not just belonging to different companies, but from completely different mediums.

    A related topic is where Marvel licensed characters from other media, such as Godzilla, which was from the same period of Marvel history. The 24 issue series was very solid and tells a pleasingly well-structured and complete story over its course. That they managed to reprint it as an Essential gives hope that other licensed properties might see print again someday.
  • The two I remember were Micronauts and The Shogun Warriors. I enjoyed them both, although I seem to recall that the Micronauts had the better stories. It was only years later that I realized that the mechas in Shogun Warriors were from unrelated Japanese stories.
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