In this edition of Five Random Action Figures, I’m standing up for the little guy.
Smaller figures just had so many plusses! Because they were sold in multipacks and were individually cheaper than “regular” action figures, it was easier to build armies, and very easy to convince ourselves that we had to collect all of them. In effect, we treated little figures much in the same way we did trading cards: Quality was nice, but quantity was better.
In 2015, there are several popular toy lines banking big on their dwarfishness, from Squinkies to The Trash Pack. All of those lines owe a huge thanks to the ones featured here. These older weirdos were the pioneers!
To me, M.U.S.C.L.E. will always be the gold standard for “little figures,” forever imitated but never duplicated. I’ve written about my fondness for M.U.S.C.L.E. before, but stopped short of naming my favorite figure in the set.
It’s this guy. It’s gotta be this guy. Before anyone chimes in with Claw’s real name from his Japanese Kinnikuman origins, I’ll remind you that kids in the States largely had no idea about that stuff. Most of us named the wrestlers as we went, and accepted their visual personas at face value. If one of them was a claw with a face, that’s all he was.
Every M.U.S.C.L.E. figure was weird by our standards, but Claw was weird even by M.U.S.C.L.E. standards. He was literally just a sentient hand, one whose methods of locomotion must’ve been similar to that of a banana slug.
Only serious M.U.S.C.L.E. collectors are aware of the super rare (and often even stranger) figures. For the rest of us, Claw seems way in the lead as the fan favorite.
Battle Beasts, 1987
I haven’t written much about Battle Beasts, but rest assured, they ruled my world with as much of an iron fist as they ruled yours. Their reign was brief, but we were crazy about them. Going home with new Battle Beasts was as much a point of social pride as getting a new Nintendo game. You didn’t just play with them: You showed them off.
Scores of anthropomorphized zoo animals dressed like enemies from Mega Man delighted us with bright colors, posable arms, and oh yeah, rub signs. See that little black box on Pillager Pig’s chest? You could rub it to reveal his allegiance.
Battle Beasts were divided into teams of “Wood,” “Fire” and “Water.” The game worked like Rock, Paper, Scissors. If your figure was on Team Wood, he’d emerge victorious over anyone from Team Water… but be destroyed by any character from Team Fire.
(Note: I’m ignoring the much rarer Laser Beasts only for the sake of brevity. You do not need to tell me about them.)
In the States, Battle Beasts was its own brand, but in Japan, the line was known as Beastformers, and was very much presented as a Transformers spinoff. Believe it or not, Pillager Pig is technically an Autobot!
Army Ants, 1987
Between M.U.S.C.L.E. and Battle Beasts, smallish figures had suddenly become a viable market, which led to more and more more lines catering to kids who preferred their toys pocketable. Enter: Army Ants.
These warring armies of neon ants were buff and weaponized, but what really drew us to them was their oddly-removable rubber abdomens — colloquially known as “asses” — which bore no function other than to add splashes of color and maybe give kids some new chew toys. How integral were those rubber abdomens? Just ask a collector what it’s like to find Army Ants with their asses removed. Spoiler: It SUCKS.
I adored Army Ants as a kid, and still do. As for Blak Jak, he’s nice and all, but everyone knows that the blue Army Ants were better.
Monster in My Pocket, 1990
The thing with Monster in My Pocket is that it debuted at precisely the right time. By 1990, most of the “small figure” lines had been discontinued, leaving nothing but a few stragglers clinging to clearance racks as proof that they’d ever been in stores to begin with.
And then, boom, in came Monster in My Pocket — essentially M.U.S.C.L.E. with a horror slant. I was overjoyed! Most typically sold in packs of 4 or 12, the figures were soft, bright and impressively detailed.
All of the figures were based on already-known monsters, but given the size of the line, they had to dig a lot deeper than mere mummies and witches. Just how deep? Well, there was a MIMP figure based on the goddamned Chimera. And another for the Kraken!
A “point system” assigned the figures some semblance of value. Mummy, for example, was only worth 5 points — the lowest a MIMP figure could go. Monsters with high values were hard to find in the smaller sets, so if you wanted 25-pointers like Hydra or Great Beast, you had to pony up.
Tree Trunk Monster!
Diener Space Creatures, 1970s
Even if the name “Diener” rings no bells, I guarantee that you’re familiar with their work. Well, so long as you’re exactly as old as I am — or better yet, five years older.
Famous for their immense line of figural erasers, Diener tackled everything from sports cars to teddy bears. If you’ve ever owned a pastel-colored figural eraser, there’s a 50% chance that Diener made it.
All of the erasers looked like cousins, but each had an immediately family, too. This “Tree Trunk Monster” was in the Space Creatures camp, where various B-movie monsters were flagrantly aped. (His name may evoke Swamp Thing, but Tree Trunk Monster was actually based on the creatures from 1958’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space.)
Some of Diener’s erasers were also released as hard plastic figures, such as the one pictured here. From what I’ve read, the Space Creatures set was even given away in a very early version of the McDonald’s Happy Meal!
Keep an eye out for the next edition of Five Random Action Figures — that’ll be our “100th figure” celebration! Who will take the coveted slot? Probably just some rando.