Comic book icons and heroes have been appearing on toy shelves since the days of Captain Action and Mego. But sometimes, toys that win the hearts and minds of kids of all ages are given their own comics, allowing toy fans to see their favorite bits of plastic in action by some of the best writers and artists in comics.
Many toys have graced the pages of comics over the years, including memorable curiosities like Sectaurs, Madballs, Visionaries, Go-Bots, and so many more, but there have been a few properties that have transcended their humble plastic roots to become the stuff of comic book legend.
Here are but a sampling:
The Saga of Crystar: Crystal Warrior
Back in 1983, Marvel published Crystar, a concept they had developed specifically to sell the license to a toy manufacturer. Remco was wowed by the world Marvel had created and produced one line of figures in 1982. Marvel then followed the toys up with a comic written by Mary Jo Duffy with absolutely stunning covers by the great Michael Golden.
The toys were things of beauty, produced in translucent plastic, and the Crystal Warriors stood out on the toy shelves. Remco produced a bunch of good Crystal Warriors and an array of evil Magma people. The toy company also produced two dragons, one magma and one crystal (which is a sight to behold), a castle, and some accessories.
The story of Crystar was pretty simple: the good agents of order, the crystal warriors, faced off against the agents of chaos, the Magma people, led by Crystar’s brother, Moltar (because what else would you named the leader of the Magma people?). The world of the comic was well built and functioned within the parameters of the toys and still holds up pretty well today. Marvel must have wanted the book and toy line to succeed because there were frequent Marvel Universe guest stars in the Crystar comic including Dr. Strange, Nightcrawler (from X-Men), and Alpha Flight.
It seems that Marvel still holds the right to Crystar as the character made a cameo appearance in one of the six million Marvel Zombies series. The property might be obscure, but as far as toy/comic tie ins go, Crystar was a (I shouldn’t) diamond in the rough (I did).
Is there anything cooler than giant Mechs? How about giant Mechs based on an ultra-popular Japanese toy line stomping around the Marvel Universe? For two years, Marvel fans got to experience Shogun Warriors as a legitimate part of the Marvel Universe proper.
Shogun Warriors was a Mattel property that united a bunch of robot toys from Japan under the same banner. There were tons of toys and vehicles produced by Mattel, in many different sizes, but Marvel only had the license for three of the robots, Raydeen, Combattra, and Dangard Ace, piloted by an American stuntman, a Japanese test pilot, and an oceanographer from Madagascar, respectively. The humans and their Mechs had many adventures written by the great Doug Moench with pitch perfect artwork by Hulk legend Herb Trimpe.
Things took an odd turn in Shogun Warriors #16, when the Warriors’ human handlers were slaughtered by the villainous Primal One creating an odd last few issues that were kind of ponderously depressing. Marvel’s Shogun Warriors had an ignominious end, as all three Warriors were destroyed off panel by the Samurai Destroyer in the pages of Fantastic Four once Marvel lost the license.
While it lasted, the Shogun Warriors was an entertaining book that really displayed the talents of Trimpe, a man born to draw ’70 eras Japanese robots, and featured luminary guest stars like Reed Richards and Tony Stark. The oddity of Marvel destroying an in-continuity property to explain a lapsed license makes Marvel’s Shogun Warriors a great point of curiosity of the Bronze Age.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
The original Masters of the Universe toys, produced by Mattel, came packed with mini-comics of their own. These mini-tomes fleshed out the world of He-Man and his allies and enemies, and they were just the beginning of a long standing relationship between He-Man and the world of comics.
In 1982, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe appeared in a miniseries from DC that saw He-Man dwell in a much more Robert E. Howard world. He-Man was introduced in DC Comics Presents #47 written by Paul Kupperberg and drawn by iconic Superman artist Curt Swan. With Swan on board, you know that He-Man went toe-to-toe with Superman, as the Man of Steel was mystically transported to Eternia. The special team-up introduced the world to Skeletor, Beast-Man, Teela, Man at Arms, and Battle Cat. The issue, which remains a hotly sought after back issue to this day, led into a three issue series written by Kupperberg, with art by George Tuska and Alfredo Alcala which briefly established He-Man’s world as an alternate dimension to the DC Universe. DC only published five He-Man stories in the ’80s but they established the foundation for everything that would follow.
After DC, Marvel’s Star imprint, a line of comics for young readers, tried their hand at He-Man, but the books were watered down versions of the already watered down cartoon. Marvel also featured an odd little adaptation of the 1987 Dolph Lundgren movie where all the characters looked like their toy counterparts instead of the actors that portrayed them on the big screen (except Beast Man for some reason). The property returned to the edgier roots a bit in the early 2000s series published by MV Creations before returning back to DC in recent years, which features revamped versions of the classic characters.
But those original DC books remain some of the most beloved toy comics of all time as DC really fleshed out a back story that would become the inspiration for cartoons, films, and future comics. DC was the first to give life to Mattel’s enduring line of heroes, warriors, monsters, wizards, and whatever the heck an Orko is.
According to legend, one Christmas, the son of comic book great Bill Mantlo opened his Christmas presents, and lo and behold, Micronauts! As Mantlo watched his son open his toys, the writer supposedly began constructing a backstory for the little metal men. At Mantlo’s request, then Marvel got the Micronauts license from Mego and the rest is history.
Like Shogun Warriors and Transformers, Micronauts were Japanese toys from a number of different toy lines joined together under one branding umbrella. The toys were cool, but unlike many toys of that era, they arrived on shelves without much of a backstory, until Mantlo came along and crafted one of the finest examples of innovative world building of the era.
Once again, Marvel incorporated Mantlo’s Micronauts into the Marvel Universe as the heroic team consisting of Acroyear, Bug, Commander Rann, Biotron, Princess Mari, and Prince Argon, took on established Marvel villains Plant Man, Psycho Mann, Dr. Doom, Molecule Man, and Hydra agents Fixer and Mentallo, plus their own adversary Baron Karza. The ‘nauts even teamed with the X-Men in an early ’80s mini-series that was quite a big deal at the time. The book featured complex characters that often flipped sides between good and evil and firmly established the team as important parts of the Marvel Universe.
It was so enduring that, despite not having the Micronauts license anymore, many of the characters that Mantlo created that never had their own toy remain part of the Marvel Universe, like Bug for instance, who was a founding member of the modern Guardians of the Galaxy! Micronauts stands as one of the greatest examples of what a skilled creative team can do with toy property. Despite its simple premise, Micronauts remains one of the best executed comics of its day.
The toys covered in this article all were very successful and each made their respective companies a great deal of money. That’s what’s so amazing about Rom, which had a very successful comic series that ran an amazing seven years, yet, the Rom toy arrived on toy shelves stillborn, selling only 200,000 – 300,000 units for Parker Brothers in the U.S. The toy barely survived a year, but the comic thrived and became a regular part of Marvel’s publishing schedule for the better part of the decade.
This was thanks in part to writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema, who brought the character to life in a way that the noisy and stiff toy never could. Yes, the same writer who breathed fresh life into Micronauts, wielded the same world building magic with Rom. Rom the toy was a barely articulated hunk of plastic that made noises, Rom the comic was a richly detailed science fiction epic centered on a group of brave Space Knights taking on the evil of the vile Dire Wraiths.
Rom’s war with the Wraiths brought more than one major Marvel character into the battle and Rom was even summoned to the first Contest of Champions. Even though he didn’t participate, his inclusion in Marvel’s first event book shows how important Rom was to the tapestry of the Marvel Universe in his day. The Spaceknights and the Dire Wraiths are still part of the Marvel Universe, while Rom has moved on to IDW.
Oh, and both Rom and the Micronauts are now part of Hasbro’s shared movie universe that includes the Transformers, GI Joe, MASK, and others.
Transformers is one of those toy properties that lives in perfect symbiosis with the world of comics. The comics, first published by Marvel for a good nine years, before other companies like Dreamwave and IDW took over the license, all fueled the stories and histories of Hasbro’s Robots in Disguise.
You might think that robots that disguise themselves and vehicles would be hard to justify in any sensible plot, but one would be wrong. Writers, particularly Simon Furman for Marvel, fleshed out their world in the pages of the Transformers comics, and gave each Transformer human motivations and personalities that went hand in glove with the toys kids were consuming at an unheard of rate. As Transformers remains a huge part of the cultural consciousness, the stories and characterization of the robots continue to be fed and informed by the work Marvel did for so many years.
Like many other Marvel licensed properties, the Transformers started as part of the Marvel Universe, with guest appearences by Spider-Man and Death’s Head (who first appeared in Transformers) but the Autobots and Decepticons were soon shunted off to their own reality. Dreamwave and IDW continue the legacy in many different forms and iterations feeding multiple generations of Transformers fanatics.
G.I. Joe: A Real America Hero
There has seemingly always been a comic called G.I. Joe on the stands in one form or another even before anyone heard the term Kung Fu Grip. From a syndicated strip from King Features in 1941, to a comic published by Ziff-Davis in set in the Korean War beginning in 1950, to two issues of DC’s Showcase published in 1964-1965. But it was in 1982 that Marvel began publishing a comic series based on Hasbro’s new line of G.I. Joe toys that the entire comic industry changed.
Writer Larry Hama was tasked by Hasbro and Marvel to create a group of modern day soldiers with specialties, codenames, and personalities that could drive the new toy line. Hama and a host of artists also came up with adversary for his Joes; a colorful group of terrorists with a perfectly colorful array of gimmicks. This new enemy, Cobra, would come to define the modern day Joes and bring to life a story that continues to this day in toys, films, comics, and television.
The Marvel Comics series allowed these characters to grow far beyond their static plastic origins. This was no easy task, as Hasbro continued to introduce new toys that had to be inserted into the story no matter how far-fetched they might be. At the time, ninjas like Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow became as popular as Wolverine and Spider-Man.
Many kids who grew to love comics in the ’80s owe this love to G.I. Joe. Marvel even went so far as to advertise each new issue on television bringing in droves of new fans to the newsstands and into the comic shops with each animated advertisement. The G.I. Joe comic legacy continues today with multiple titles by IDW, but the original Marvel series shaped a generation of comic book lovers, making it the most important toy to comic adaptation ever published.
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