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

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

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!

Creative Beasts
These Scientifically Accurate Dinosaur Toys Are Ready to Rule Your Desk
Creative Beasts
Creative Beasts

In May 2016, we told you about Beasts of the Mesozoic, a line of Kickstarter-backed dinosaur toys that would reflect the feathery truth about the mighty beasts and provide an alternative to the Hollywood-enhanced glamour of the Jurassic Park franchise.

Then, absolutely nothing happened. Having being fully funded on the crowd-sourced platform, Beasts seemed to be mired in production issues. Now, nearly two years after designer David Silva announced the project, the toys are finally ready to hit shelves.

A Beasts of the Mesozoic action figure in retail packaging
Creative Beasts

The Beasts line will initially consist of 11 figures due to ship this month, with six more expected to arrive in May. Included in the first wave are Velociraptor mongoliensis, Atrociraptor marshalli, Balaur bondoc, Dromaeosaurus albertensis, Zhenyuanlong suni, Pyroraptor olympus, Linheraptor exquisitus, Velociraptor osmolskae (red), FC (Fan’s Choice) Dromaeosaurus albertensis, FC Pyroraptor olympus, and FC Zhenyuanlong suni.

In his updates, Silva said the delay was due in large part to how quickly the scope of the line grew. At the time the campaign started, he was planning on just three figures that would ship by May 2017. By the end, he had 25 items, including accessory packs.

You can pre-order the first wave ($35 to $40 each) at BackerKit.

Gareth Cattermole, Getty Images
7 Shockingly Expensive Barbies You Can Buy Right Now
Gareth Cattermole, Getty Images
Gareth Cattermole, Getty Images

When the Barbie doll debuted in 1959, she flew off the shelves at $3 a pop. Today, though the price of some new Barbies can start as low as $10, the value of certain older models has skyrocketed over the years. Obviously, an original Barbie Millicent Roberts doll (yes, she has a full name!) in her black and white striped swimsuit will cost a pretty penny; this blonde version is currently on Etsy for $5800, while another is on sale at Ruby Lane for $4495. But even some that you may have played with as a child—like this $148 Talking Teacher Barbie from 1995 who is dressed like a glamorous Ms. Frizzle—will set you back quite a bit if you want to recreate your original collection. Check out these seven other surprisingly expensive Barbies that you can buy right now.


First released in 1992, Totally Hair Barbie had a mane of completely unreasonable Rapunzel-esque hair that went all the way to her toes. With more than 10 million sold, Totally Hair is the best-selling Barbie ever. But even with so many originals out there and a 25th anniversary doll that also sold well, there are plenty of boxed '90s dolls on eBay—both blonde and brunette—going for more than $50. Who knows if that Dep hair gel is still any good, though.


American Girl Barbie with bending legs
RomitaGirl67, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Barbie's stick-straight posture got a little more human when "bendable" versions began coming out in the '60s. Sure, it was just her knees that bent, but that little movement made her look much more convincing while "walking," like this Skipper doll who is ready to romp on the beach with her new-found mobility. (Now, of course, some Barbies are bendable enough to do yoga). Buying an early model of this new design can knock you off your feet though. This used, 1965 bobbed-hair American Girl Barbie with only one leg that still bends properly has set the opening bid at $400 (which seems like a lot, until you see the same doll in new condition asking for more than $3000).


Twist and Turn Christie Doll
RomitaGirl67, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The first Christie doll was a 1968 talking version, and since then, the African-American doll has been a consistent member of the Barbie family. Nice, boxed Christies can command several hundred dollars, like a 1976 SuperStar Christie asking $875 or this 1981 Golden Dream Christie priced at $300, but even a $100 Kissing Christie is a steep price compared to what she would have retailed for in 1980.

Pro tip: The black hair on the older vintage and mod Christies has a tendency to oxidize red, which is normal (like on this $295 Talking Christie from 1970). But, if you can find a doll that has retained its original black or brown hair color, those tend to be worth more.


In 1964, Mattel tried out a number of new techniques on one particular doll. "Miss Barbie" came in a box set with three wigs to alternately play with, so rather than having the "rooted" hair that is most familiar, she was the first to have "molded" hair—that is, hair painted directly onto the head mold. She was also the first and only Barbie to have "sleep eyes," or eyelids that could close while she was laying out in one of her three pink swimsuits. She wasn't a big seller then, but now a Miss Barbie without all of her accessories can go for $195 (this one, which is in a different vintage dress with none of the original swimwear, is asking $200). However, original sets—those including her three wigs and swimming cap, poolside swing, palm tree, mini magazines, etc.—can command around $1000.


Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The earliest Barbie models didn't have long hair to brush or braid—they had the short curly bangs and elaborate ponytails of teens of the '50s and '60s. The first seven models, released between 1959-1964, were all variations on this look, and any original, Japan-made ponytail Barbie will put you back a few hundred dollars. This #3 in a colorful, custom evening gown is currently going for $725, while this blond "busy gal" #3 that has been partially restored is up for $650. A small subset of this ponytail group? The "swirl ponytail" Barbies, which featured slick bangs that were swept to the side and back into her ponytail. A mint original swirl doll could go for $799, while others are available on Etsy or eBay for under $300.


The My Size Barbie craze of the mid-'90s had 3-foot-tall versions that kids could stand up to play with, rather than kneel or sit on the floor. And to pre-program a generation of girls who would later watch marathon hours of Say Yes to the Dress, there was even a My Size Bride Barbie, complete with a bridal gown for 7-year-olds to play dress-up in. Today, many are available for around $150, though some, like this unopened Dancing My Size Barbie, can go for $200 or more.


Vintage Color Magic Barbie
RomitaGirl67, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1966 and 1967, Mattel issued the extremely groovy Color Magic Barbie doll. She came with either blonde or black hair, and if you used a changer solution packet, her hair would transform to two shades of red. She also sported much more vivid makeup, which highlighted her bright yellow, pink, and blue swimsuit. A blonde one is currently available for $475, and a "Scarlet Flame" (the color the blonde becomes) is also listed for $200. But if you want the whole color-changing solution kit and caboodle, it could cost closer to $700 (though there's no guarantee that the hair will work the same magic as it did 50 years ago).


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