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Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected
Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected

Breaking the Mold: Kenner's Super Powers Collection

Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected
Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected

Star Wars was dead.

As unlikely as it may seem, that’s the situation executives at the Kenner toy company were facing in 1984. With George Lucas insisting that 1983’s Return of the Jedi would be the last Star Wars feature film for years—if not ever—interest in the company’s expansive toy line based on the space saga was beginning to fade. At the same time, sales of Mattel’s He-Man and Hasbro’s G.I. Joe lines remained brisk. Kenner was looking at a future without a franchise.

To improve their forecast, the company looked to another modern mythology: DC Comics. The publisher had a character library spanning five decades, an animated show (Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show), and dozens of monthly comics to maintain awareness of their brand. Amazingly, no one in the toy industry had ever pursued a line of 3.75-inch action figures based on some of the most recognizable fictional heroes ever created.

That familiarity led Kenner's Super Powers line to success. But their expansion to include some of DC’s lesser-known creations would ultimately be its undoing.

Kenner Super Powers via Facebook

From the moment of Superman’s debut in 1938, DC Comics (then known as National Periodical Publications) has been keenly aware of the value of licensing agreements. In those days, the Kryptonite-hating hero was depicted on paper dolls, wooden toys, and fan club tokens. His counterpart, Batman, enjoyed similar success as a brand ambassador, with merchandise for both spiking to coincide with both 1966’s Batman live-action television series and 1978’s big-screen version of Superman.

In the action figure realm, however, superheroes didn’t get a break until Ideal released costumes for their Captain Action line in the 1960s. Their utility player, Captain Action, could be dressed to resemble a number of comic book characters, including Superman and Captain America. Later, the Mego company would popularize a line of 8- and 12-inch dolls with soft-cloth costumes that echoed Hasbro’s large-scale G.I. Joes. While the scale was impressive, it made producing accompanying vehicles and playsets a tall order.

Mego evaporated in 1979, taking their DC offerings along with them. Despite the continued success of Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends cartoon, no one had thought to capitalize on the characters' popularity with a small-scale line until Kenner reached out. With sales of Star Wars plastic dwindling, the company that had once marketed Play-Doh and the Easy-Bake Oven wanted another deep bench of action figures. The company's attempt to entice DC with a presentation prototype of Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam) stuck on a stick so he could "fly" won them right to produce a full line of action figures.

Super Powers drew heavily upon the work of José Luis García-López, a Spanish artist who illustrated DC’s widely-referenced style guide of 1982. García-López’s style was spare but familiar, depicting the company’s characters in a way that made them accessible to licensees, without hard-to-replicate flourishes. Sculptors at Kenner eyed García-López’s drawings; consumers saw his work on the card backs that lined retail shelves.

Kenner Super Powers via Facebook

When Kenner's Super Powers action figures hit store shelves in 1984 with a 12-figure lineup—including the mandatory Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman—they were an immediate hit. At the action figure height standard of 3.75 inches, pioneered by Kenner with Star Wars and later aped by Hasbro for their G.I. Joe line, kids were drawn into a world with which they were already familiar, thanks to DC’s existing status in popular culture. The heroes could meet and deliberate in a Hall of Justice playset; Batman could jump into his Batmobile; in some foreshadowing of the more inane toy expansion ideas to come in the 1990s, Superman could deploy his Supermobile, an extraneous vehicle for a man possessing the ability to fly. (The box art lamely promised it "shields Superman from Kryptonite.")

bchick1022 via eBay

Kenner also launched an aggressive print and television marketing campaign, highlighting the ability of each figure to display an actual "super power" when kids squeezed their arms or thighs together. The Flash’s feet would begin to tremble; the Joker would smash his mallet over an unsuspecting adversary’s head.

As Kenner plotted a second wave of 12 figures, Mattel had taken notice. To compete for the attention of comic book enthusiasts, they secured a license from Marvel to produce a similar line they labeled Secret Wars. While both did well, Mattel faced criticism that they were too preoccupied with the toy behemoth that was He-Man and were devoting only minimal resources to their Marvel toys. The more ambitious Super Powers line drew on the imaginations of artists like George Pérez and Jack Kirby, with the latter’s characters (including Darkseid) driving the toy narrative for the second wave.

Yet Kenner wasn't above a little cost consolidation: When Super Powers rolled out as Super Amigos in foreign territories, their Riddler figure was nothing more than a repainted Green Lantern with question marks added to his torso.

Mattel

As the Super Powers lineup grew to 33 figures and several vehicles, Kenner saw potential to build on the popularity of their flagship line with ancillary products. They considered a rollout of 2-inch mini-figures, but the molds got lost in transit; they also plotted a line of plush dolls, but those never made it past the prototype stage.

Interest in the line began to wane in 1986. What had initially attracted Kenner to the license—a deep bench of characters that would fuel years of comic book, television, and movie releases—wound up being problematic for consumers. While Superman and Batman were among the most recognizable people real or imagined on the planet, DC’s supplementary library was not. Kids passed up toys like Kalibak, Red Tornado, and Tyr; retailers cut orders. So Kenner turned their attention to a line of Real Ghostbusters figures based on the animated series.

DC would go on to feed a near-endless array of figures throughout the 1990s and beyond, fueled by the success of Tim Burton’s Batman films and their animated offerings. Toymakers realized it was better to offer endless iterations of the same popular hero than put an unfamiliar face like Firestorm on shelves.

Despite those fumbles, Super Powers was never destined to be a footnote. Thanks to García-López’s attractive art and the efforts of sculptors, collectors routinely chase original figures and swap stories about characters that never made it past the prototype stage. The biggest homage to the line may have come in 2014, when Mattel released a line of oversized figures in Super Powers packaging to commemorate the series’ 30th anniversary. Sandwiched between Superman and Batman was the Riddler—deliberately colored and styled to look like the repainted Green Lantern he originally was, mangled ring finger and all.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
Chartaediania, eBay

Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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