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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 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!

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23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

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Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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