Toys are often direct lines to our pasts, nostalgia triggers that bring on waves of happy memories. If you were a Star Wars or Superman fan as a kid, it was certainly easy to find your favorite characters on the toy shelves, and new lines with beloved characters are pumped out each and every week (as you'll find in our column Important Toy News). But if you grew up obsessed with less popular characters from movies and shows that bombed, you were unlikely to find toys that fit your niche.
Now, thanks to a new book series, you can at least see what those toys could have looked like.
As the author of Toys That Time Forgot Volume One and Volume Two, author Blake Wright is the go-to man when it comes to information about canceled toys and prototypes. A canceled toy line is a toy that never got past the planning stage and was never released. Planning is a loose term, as it can consist of just concept art or even built, sculpted, prototype forms. What causes a toy line not to get made? There are many reasons, including manufacturer bankruptcy, franchise flop, and the failure of a first line of toys leading to the cancellation of a second.
To learn more about these tragedies, SYFY WIRE hung out with Wright, who gave us the inside word on canceled toys.
You’ve become the authority on defunct toy lines and prototypes. How did you gain enough clout and knowledge that you were able to write two full books on the topic?
I’ve always loved the toy industry. And being a toy collector and journalist by trade, I was really interested in the magazines from that field, like ToyFare. By 2014, there weren’t really any more regular action figure publications, so I wanted to start one up and fill that sphere. So I started up Little Plastic Men – The Magazine!, inspired by the online toy store I used to have. It was editorially very successful, but not financially. I started feeling disheartened by the commercial failure.
However, the reception to the magazine inspired me to do one final issue, and it was going to be completely dedicated to unproduced toys. There was a column in the magazine called “Prototypically Unproductive."
It was the magazine’s most popular entry and all about unproduced toys. It would be a couple of pages of me talking to sculptors or former toy executives about a line that didn’t make it. I think we’d covered Sesame Street from Palisades, Series 2 Sectaurs, Series 2 Earthworm Jim — all things that ended up in the first book and were then expanded on. But as soon as I started researching for that final issue, I realized that it needed to be more than just a PDF on the internet.
During the time people were sending you images and documents with unproduced toy lines and figures, did anyone ever (accidentally or otherwise) send you a fake, or an urban legend, or mistake a bootleg/customized mockup with the real thing?
No, not anything that’s coming to mind. The closest thing to that was having to identify and confirm when six of the 12 prototypes from The Last Starfighter resurfaced. A lot of people were looking for those for a very long time and they were in a collector’s garage. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and got a call from a dealer in Northern California. I just so happened to be there and was planning on going to Los Angeles the next day. He told me about the collector who had these six prototypes and was going to bring them into his shop the next day and wanted me to take a look.
I postponed my trip to L.A. and went to the store to meet with the dealer and the collector. I had these Last Starfighter prototypes in my hand and I’m really pretty sure they were the real thing. You take the Galoob Toy Fair catalog from the year they were announced, 1984, and just do a lot of comparing on the paint and sculpts. I was able to come away with a fairly good feeling, and after speaking with former Galoob people, we confirmed they were the real thing. They were kitbashed, which means the toys were sculpted over existing action figures, and if you looked close enough, you could see they used Mego MASH figures a couple of times. It was one of the ways we were able to authenticate them.
Was there a toy line you found in your research that you had absolutely no idea existed and was a complete surprise?
The toy line from Volume One that I was most excited to find and had no idea that anyone had the license [for] was from the movie Krull.
With The Last Starfighter, even though they were rare, the toys had been announced in Toy Fair and images of them were all over the internet. Krull was a movie from 1983 that tried to capture the Star Wars mythos and was a hybrid sci-fi/fantasy film and had the coolest weapon. That movie from the start just screamed toys. There were Cyclops and stormtrooper-style soldiers and horses that shoot fire from their hooves — they were amazing. At the rate people were making toys in the early '80s, the golden age of boys’ toys, it surprised me no one ever made them.
Well, turns out someone did, and it was Knickerbocker. They had limited success in the action figure world at the time but had done the Lord of the Rings figures based on the Ralph Bakshi film. For Krull, they hired a pair of sculptors, paid them, but then at the 11th hour, it started falling apart.
Word was getting around that production of the movie wasn’t going well, and Knickerbocker was going through an unspoken acquisition by Hasbro. Therefore, the toy line was killed.
But then, almost 35 years later, I ended up with one of those figures in my hand. I got to see drawings of all of the figures that never got to be made. No one knew these Krull toys were even underway. It was really just amazing to see it. When it comes to failed toy lines, there’s almost never anything saved, especially with paper. It’s thrown out so easily. I found an official Knickerbocker document dated August 1982 that [confirmed] the Krull toys were being prepped for production. It was just amazing — that piece of paper had no business existing in 2017, but there is was!
Why do you think it's so important to make sure people know about these canceled toys and defunct action figure lines?
Mostly, I like to hear the stories of the people who worked so hard to create prototype toys and sculpts. Think about it, all of these canceled toy lines and prototypes that never got to see the light of day, it was really nice to be able to go back and feature some of those hard-working people and recognize and share some of the work that they did.
If you were in your 30s making toys in the 1980s, you’re in your 70s now. We’re not going to have these guys much longer, and we have to get in front of them with a microphone and capture their stories. How this happened, why this happened, and when they’re gone, we can only hope that their families go through their archives and make sure it doesn’t just get thrown out. Shows like The Toys That Made Us are really great at showing you a little bit of what happens behind the scenes. Just remember, for every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Masters of the Universe, there is a Krull.
You've written two books about prototype toys. Do you have enough material for a third?
I do — I started getting emails from collectors and industry veterans who have pieces I might be interested in. Once Volume One hit the streets, those emails increased. People wanted to share with me what they’ve collected or what they wanted to see in the next book. For that first volume of Toys That Time Forgot, I barely relied on the collecting community. High-end prototype collectors can be a secretive bunch. But for the second book, the number of collectors with prototypes and concept art that I spoke with may have surpassed the number of industry folk.
They’ve been very gracious with their time, and a few have even invited me into their homes and let me hang out for the weekend!
Toys That Time Forgot Volume Two can be ordered today for $49.99.