A Brief History of M.U.S.C.L.E. Figures

filed under: toys
Image credit: 

You probably had dozens of them in a shoebox. They were strange and awesome and … pink. But just what were those M.U.S.C.L.E. figures anyway? Let’s take a look.

The Manga

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that M.U.S.C.L.E. figures originated in Japan. The figures were the toy line for Kinnikuman (above), a manga introduced in 1979 by Yudetamago, the pen name of creative duo Takashi Shimada (writer) and Yoshinori Nakai (artist).

When Kinnikuman first debuted in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, a manga anthology magazine, it was billed as a parody of popular chojin (superhero) staples like Ultraman and Superman. Instead of being an impressive figure, though, the titular fin-headed hero was an inept, bumbling wannabe who was reluctantly called upon to fight the bad guys when all the other chojin were busy. As the series matured, the stories shifted focus to an intense intergalactic form of professional wrestling, where an ever-revolving stable of surreal combatants with specialized, bone-crushing, blood-spouting finishing moves fought it out in the ring. This shift allowed the dramatic mythology of the series to develop, as alliances formed, characters switched sides, deaths were avenged, and honors restored. But the series never lost its comedic edge—including the fact that the hero was still a bit of a buffoon.

The wrestling also ushered in what would become one of the most defining aspects of Kinnikuman: the character designs. Taking a cue from Kinnikuman himself, which translates to “Muscleman”, most of the characters follow an old superhero naming convention—thing + “man”—with an over-the-top twist. For example, instead of Batman or Spider-Man, Kinnikuman battles wrestlers like Oil Man, whose body is made entirely out of oil cans; Mammothman, whose head and feet look like a Wooly Mammoth's; and Benkiman, a porcelain-tiled wrestler with a Japanese-style benki toilet embedded in his chest. With the character formula in place, readers started getting into the spirit of things and coming up with their own outlandish designs. As the fanmade drawings started pouring in, Yudetamago began featuring them in a special section of the manga, and even adopted many of the best designs as canon characters.

With an intriguing mix of drama and comedy, Kinnikuman has been going strong for over 30 years. The manga is still published today, with the latest collection—Volume 41—coming out in December.

The Japanese Toys

The Kinnikuman manga spawned an anime series in 1983, produced by Toei Animation and broadcast on the Nippon Television Network (NTV). The series ran until 1986, for a total of 137 episodes, and even branched into seven theatrical films. As was so often the case in the 1980s, the cartoon also had an accompanying toy line for kids.

The Kinnikuman toys were produced by toy company Bandai in the keshi (eraser) style. Keshi figures are usually about 2 inches tall, often feature highly-detailed sculpts, and are made out of solid, durable plastic. They were introduced in the 1970s, and saw their first worldwide success with the well-known Monchhichi characters. As is common with keshi, the tiny Kinnikuman toys were molded out of a single color of plastic (flesh-colored, in this case) to keep production costs down. This meant that school-aged children could easily buy a figure from a vending machine using loose change, making them an instant hit with kids. With a low price and high collectability quotient, as well as the crazy character designs, the Kinnikuman keshi were extremely popular; so popular that it created its own subgenre of toy, known as Kinkeshi.

By the time Kinkeshi fell out of popularity in 1988, Bandai had cranked out 418 unique figures. More traditional Kinnikuman action figures have since followed, but few have matched the popularity of the kinkeshi toys. To celebrate the toy line’s 29th anniversary in 2008, Bandai released a massive collector’s box set that included every figure, plus DVDs of the complete anime series.

M.U.S.C.L.E.-ing In On America

Although the anime was never adapted for America because it was too violent to get past the censors, toy company Mattel took a gamble and launched their own line of kinkeshi toys in either late 1985 or early 1986 (accounts vary). Re-branded as “M.U.S.C.L.E.” (Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere), the line used the same molds and flesh-colored plastic as their Japanese cousins. However, instead of vending machines, the figures were available in a variety of retail-friendly packaging options.

The most common way to get M.U.S.C.L.E. figures was a cardboard and plastic 4-pack, which typically sold for around $1. You could also pick up a semi-translucent garbage can full of 10 M.U.S.C.L.E. figures for about $3. But if you’d saved up your allowance, the 28-pack could be had for $7. The first two 28-packs were available in different factions to establish some kind of story behind the figures: the “good guy” Thug Busters, led by Muscleman/Kinnikuman, and the “bad guy” Cosmic Crunchers, led by Terri-Bull, based on Kinnikuman’s long-time rival, Buffaloman.

Although the bread and butter for Mattel were the M.U.S.C.L.E. figures, they naturally had accessories to offer, too. For $9.99, kids could pick up the Hard Knockin’ Rockin’ Ring Wrestling Arena, which let you and a friend stick your M.U.S.C.L.E. figures into plastic clamps and bash them back and forth like Rock’em, Sock’em Robots. There was also the Battlin’ Belt carrying case, modeled after the WWF’s World Championship belt, which held 10 figures and could be worn around your waist. This being 1986, there was of course a Nintendo game, though it’s generally considered to be one of the worst video games ever made. One of the more unusual offers for the M.U.S.C.L.E. line was the Mega-Match board game, where matches were played by twirling the arrow of a cardboard spinner.

The one must-have item for any serious fan of M.U.S.C.L.E. was the mail-away poster. By sending in two proofs of purchase, kids could receive a 23 inch by 35 inch full-color poster that showed all 233 M.U.S.C.L.E. figures. Not only did it look cool hanging on your wall, it was the only official index of figures available for the toy line.

Later in the series, Mattel tried shaking things up by offering the same figures in colors other than the standard flesh tone plastic. In all, there were nine additional colors used, including dark blue, neon green, orange, and even pink.

Down for the Count

M.U.S.C.L.E. was an immediate success, with industry magazine Playthings naming them one of the 10 Best-Selling Toy Lines of 1986. However, its heyday was short-lived.

According to Martin Arriola, a former lead designer at Mattel, the company never completely owned the M.U.S.C.L.E. property; some percentage of M.U.S.C.L.E. revenues had to be paid to the original kinkeshi toy company, Bandai. Therefore, even though sales were strong, Mattel always considered M.U.S.C.L.E. a second-tier product, behind lines they did own, like Masters of the Universe. So when the toy industry was completely turned on its head in 1987 by the explosive popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System, most toy companies were left scratching their heads and scrambling to make up for lost revenues. This meant that many weaker toy lines got the axe, including secondary lines that came with licensing baggage like M.U.S.C.L.E. By 1988, the M.U.S.C.L.E. figures were unceremoniously discontinued.

Collecting M.U.S.C.L.E.

The short-lived, but intense popularity of M.U.S.C.L.E. has made the figures a sought-after collectible. Most basic figures can be purchased fairly inexpensively, ranging between 50 cents and $2 each, making it a fun hobby with a minimal investment necessary. But there are a few exceptions that could very well drive the completest fan batty.

One rare figure is known as Satan Cross (above), a four-armed gladiator with a hole in his lower back. The Japanese figure had a second set of legs that could be attached to this hole, giving him a Centaur-like design. The M.U.S.C.L.E. figure, though, does not include this second set of legs. It's possible that the manufacturing costs for the legs made the figure too expensive to produce, so it was canceled, and the few that had already been made were tossed onto the market. Although time has proven that perhaps this figure might not be as rare as initially thought, the figure's reputation has made it highly collectible, pushing its value up quite a bit.

Aside from Satan Cross, there are rare M.U.S.C.L.E. figures that are even harder to come by. Some, like Spinning Head Ashuraman, and the purple-colored Claw are rare, but still common enough to occasionally be found on eBay. Others, though, like Dark Emperor, Drunken Master, and Warsman with Spikes, have only one known example. For one of these rarities, collectors pay thousands of dollars—a very rare, never-before-seen salmon-colored Shouting Geronimo recently sold for over $3,000.

With such a large difference between the number of M.U.S.C.L.E and kinkeshi figures, it's hard to know how many “non-poster” M.U.S.C.L.E figures could be out there that have yet to be discovered.

Check Your M.U.S.C.L.E.s

With the overnight success of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures, bootlegs started appearing on the market and are still floating around on eBay today. So how do you know you’re getting a real M.U.S.C.L.E.?

For one, M.U.S.C.L.E. figures are made from very solid plastic. The Kinkeshi, as well as most bootlegs, use a rubbery plastic that gives them a bit more malleability. Genuine M.U.S.C.L.E.s also have a stamp on their backs: Y/S*N*T. This mark is actually a copyright code for Kinnikuman that breaks down like this:

Y = Yudetamago, the manga team behind Kinnikuman
S = Shueisha, the manga publishing company
N = NTV, the network that broadcast the anime series
T = Toei, the animation company behind the anime

A Tiny Legacy

Although it was short-lived, M.U.S.C.L.E. has proven to be an influential toy line. Not only did the 1990s see popular M.U.S.C.L.E.-like toys such as Monster in My Pocket, N.I.N.J.A. Mites, and Fistful of Aliens, but the M.U.S.C.L.E. legacy is still strong in today’s toy market.

One of the biggest successes lately has been Squinkies, those tiny, rubbery figures of Disney Princesses, Barbie, The Avengers, Star Wars, and WWE wrestlers, among other popular properties. There are also S.L.U.G. (Scary Little Ugly Guys) Zombies, Pokemon figures, and even Mario and Luigi. Hop online and you’ll find many small companies doing limited runs of plastic figures in the M.U.S.C.L.E. tradition. Perhaps the best-known is October Toys, whose Z.O.M.B.I.E.S. (Zillions Of Mutated Bodies Infecting Everyone) and OMFG! (Outlandish Mini-Figure Guys) lines have both found great support from grown-up kids who once had Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere.

To learn more about M.U.S.C.L.E., check out Nathan’s M.U.S.C.L.E. Blog, The University of M.U.S.C.L.E., and LittleRubberGuys.com.

How many M.U.S.C.L.E. figures did you have? What was your favorite one? Tell us about it in the comments below!

More from mental_floss...

November 28, 2012 - 8:00am
webby
submit to reddit