In the 1990s, Todd McFarlane pioneered a sort of
hybrid mass consumer/collector market by making toys with adult themes
and more detail than ever before, and in the process, managed to suck a
lot of life out of trading cards and comic books and spit it back out
into action figures. Today, his company is best known for its stab at
making toys for a more Wal-Marty audience, with Halo, various major league sports, and even cartoons like The Simpsons and Hanna-Barberra a few years ago.
But back in the 1990s, these newly-forged toy fans were rabid.
They couldn’t get enough demons, warrior princesses-of-Hell, vikings,
robots, or whatever else Todd McFarlane and his house crew could come
up with. To witness the transition from toy collecting as a casual
pursuit of older, discontinued items to a rabid pursuit of brand-new
products was a bit of a shocker, and that would go on to become the
norm for so many fans for years to come, and to this day the focus for
most toy junkies continues to be on the latest and the greatest.
It didn’t help that McFarlane also came up with numerous variations —
that is, little tweaks and changes — in each figure, so not only did
people buy one, they bought several. Extra bloody repaints? Weird
variations on panties? This company had all this, and more. McFarlane
Toys even gave the world stunning takes on characters from Alien, Friday the 13th, The X-Files, Austin Powers, Robocop, video game toys from the first two Metal Gear Solid
games, and numerous music acts like Alice Cooper and Metallica. Truly,
the company ruled the adult figure roost until NECA would take the
crown early in the 21st century. McFarlane Toys will always be
remembered for its original creations like Spawn, as that’s the
property that made the company what it is. Some were awesome, and still
are. Others, a little iffy by modern standards. We’re not as interested
in building up as we are tearing down, so let’s take a gander at some
of the less desirables from the 1990s, shall we?
Depending on your movie buff level, you may never have heard of Slap Shot,
particularly if you’re the kind of person that collected action figures
at the turn of the century. Fans were confused — why would Todd
McFarlane make these figures from a comedy that a lot of people either
forgot or never heard of? They would eventually go to the clearance
rack, but it turns out there really was a good business reason to do
them– it gave Todd the chance to show professional sports teams the
level of quality they could put into an officially licensed sports
figure, which we’d start seeing at the end of summer in 2001. But at
the time, this was a baffling choice when put against monsters of
music, film, and the comic book world. Today, the bloody variants of
the brothers Hanson go for a good chunk of change, so perhaps they
weren’t that horrible.
The Clown was one of the first characters from the line, and if you
used to shop at Toys “R” Us you might recall him hanging around on
shelves for a while. Well, he eventually took his revenge as you can
see on this most tasteful figure, a 2005 McFarlane Club exclusive . He’s standing on top of a guy and has
just ripped both of his arms off, meaning that your sketches from your
high school biology book have finally come to life. This figure
probably is the best example of what McFarlane Toys really aspired to
do as they created a toy that will probably get you at a real gut
level. Todd always did go for “extreme” figures, and that’s a word that
applies to this figure quite nicely.
This figure has achieved no small amount of fame for having the very
first release out of China produced without — gasp! — panties! That’s
right, her crotchial region is unpainted. It’s not like there was a
racing stripe down there or anything, but this was a huge deal back in
the 1995, when she was released in the second wave of Spawn figures. This figure used to command a premium price at comic stores,
but eBay being the great equalizer that it is shows closed auctions at
under a buck with no bids. Time is indeed in the fire in which prices
A fun side note for you figure trivia buffs, the first batch of “Slave
Leia” action figures from Kenner in 1997 were like this too. None made
it out to stores, but if you know a Kenner employee from that era they
might have a “party Leia” in their desk drawers or private collections.
The original Violator was a pretty poor seller, yet McFarlane’s company
continued to crank out new versions of it over the years, including this lousy 1997 club exclusive. The little
bendy guy was pretty ugly, not just because of the design, but as a toy
it was pretty iffy. Nobody really
wants Gumby construction on a high-end collectible action figure,
particularly when it doesn’t look anything like the kid from the Mr.
Show sketch on which it was clearly based.
In the 1990s, a number of companies ramped up a robust KISS licensing
program that continues to this very day. One of the really cool lines
was McFarlane Toys’ action figures, which had rocket-firing missiles,
variants galore, rooted hair, and a massive fan following. They were,
after all, some of the only toys based on a musical act available in
1997. By 1998, Todd McFarlane’s studio redesigned the already
redesigned costumes with a circus theme for series two. Peter Criss came with someone
whose moustache was a little too “Village People” for the Village
People. Ace Frehley came with a guy on stilts. Paul Stanley came with
some clown thing, and of course Gene Simmons came with some sort of
ringmaster. There were no instruments with any of these guys, which was
a little disappointing, but not as disappointing as McFarlane Toys
missing out on the obvious. If you’re going to put Gene Simmons with
someone in a photograph, it’s usually some babe in KISS makeup.
Couldn’t the ringmaster have been some crazy hot chick with a whip or
something? That’s a little more in line with what McFarlane Toys does
and does well. Shame on you, McFarlane Toys, you put Mrs. Claus on a
stripper pole but missed out on the sexy ringmaster!
While sold on toy aisles at stores like Walmart and Kmart, the Spawn
figure line was generally squarely focused on its teenage to
twentysomething audience. Sure, kids bought some of them, but other
than the fact that they were toys, it didn’t seem like they were meant
for younger kids. Of course, everybody knows you can throw a motorcycle
in anything and kids freaking love it.
2000’s Spawn Nitro Riders included smaller scale action figures with big goofy
bikes and figures with names like “Green Vapor” plus other things you
may use to name your farts. If the motorcycle thing worked for
Spider-Man, Wolverine, and even Darth Vader, why not Spawn? It’s a sign
that Spawn truly was a toy line on some level, which is really one of
the most horrible things you could do with it.
McFarlane Toys was so hot in the 1990s, they had a few spinoffs of Spawn with its Wetworks and Youngblood
lines, mostly forgotten to the mists of time and covered by layers of
dust in comic shops everywhere. These offshoots weren’t enough, so in ’96 Todd
came up with Total Chaos, which was basically an excuse to
crank out cool-looking figures with no existing comic or license to
back them. Or so was the idea. Thresher here is a blue-skinned girl
with red hair, a mutant foot, some sort of crab claws coming out of her
back, and of course, a huge rack. Oh, plus some guns and various spare
parts form Home Depot’s plumbing aisle are glued to her arms and back.
This is not some delayed April Fool’s gag, people actually rushed to
the stores to buy her. All McFarlane Toys female figures used to be
incredibly popular, which was unusual as it was an era where the rule
was that people buying toys do not want to play with girls, ever.
The invisible hand of the market has proven its value over time, it
used to sell at $10 and today, you can find auctions on eBay close at
$0.01 with no bids. And yes, that includes the green-armor brown-skin
variant, thank you for asking.
Clearly, this figure is the manifestation of someone’s long-held
fantasy. But who might this soul be? The McFarlane house style — big
monsters, big boobs, and so forth — proved so popular that the
manufacturer decided to apply it to a number of public domain
characters, like Dorothy Gale from the Oz books. Given that movie buffs and people like your mom typically buy Wizard of Oz
merch, one has to wonder who the market was for this 2005 figure, which is
less the wide-eyed innocent as played by Judy Garland as more the
poster girl for a BDSM community in a town near you. It’s not every day
you can buy a toy which features a girl wearing a belt instead of a
shirt, blindfolded, and being led around on a leash by a gross naked
little person riding around on a grosser naked little person. Dorothy
largely defied categorization and proved so popular– unlike the other
figures in the Oz series– that McFarlane went back to the well to make
a giant version of this very figure. Their only mistake was not making
it as a high-end resin statue.
McFarlane’s Austin Powers
figures were supremely impressive. Keep in mind this was in 1999, and these came out
before it was popular (or a requirement) to bag on people for liking
and/or quoting the Austin Powers films. The disgusting level of
realism caused stores like Target to sell these as “computer accessory
figures,” helping to trend the notion that you, dear reader, buy toys to
keep around your Mac or PC. This particular figure was notable in that
it included a rare first, rooted hair on the figure’s chest.
McFarlane’s sculptors also probably took a few pounds off of his chest,
and at the time this was a shockingly popular figure with all sorts of
rumors surrounding it. People actually spread a rumor that this was
recalled for being “too sexy,” which really speaks volumes as to what
people seemed to find attractive at the end of the 20th century. It was
about $10 when it came out, but today you can get it for less than
you’d pay for a drink of your choice at Starbucks.
Adam Sandler is an extremely hot property, and he made numerous films. Some were almost completely forgotten, such as the 2000 flop Little Nicky
in which he played the son of the devil and hung out with his dog and
his buddy, played by Kevin Nealon with a set of boobs on his head. That
isn’t what made this line interesting, though, as you might expect a
pair of naked boobs on a man’s head might. No, Beefy was one of few
McFarlane figures to sport an action feature, which was an arrow that
shot out of his crotch. That’s right, a cock rocket. Truly, McFarlane
Toys could and would try absolutely anything, which is why they
deserved their reputation as true innovators that perpetuated horrible
crimes against toy collectors while pioneering non-traditional licenses
which their competition would copy down the road.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.