We love action figures — but not action figures are created equal. Some action figures have totally awesome attention to detail, and a great concept that opens up lots of avenues of play. And then there are the other kind of action figures... the ones which just kind of suck action figure ass.
We asked Doug Goldstein, former editor of ToyFare Magazine and founding member of the Robot Chicken team, what the most useless action figure of all time was. And here's what he told us.
Top image: Clash of the Titans toy, via Universal Monster Army.
Oh, man... The worst action figure line in history, in my opinion, is still the Rock Lords from Gobots. God, I love the Transformers. And God knows, when they first hit there were a lot of knock-offs. And I don't know who the hell thought the next Gobots movie at the time should be Rock Lords, about these alien robots that turn into rocks. But that guy somehow convinced some other guy that we should all go for it. And so in the eighties, there was a line of robots that when you transform them, are rocks. If someone wasn't fired, somebody should still be embarrassed about that to this day. What are you going to do with it? A rock as a toy.
Even when it's a rock, even if it has like a layer of Nerf or foam or something, so you can throw it at a friend and not break his face, that would make sense. But no, it's a plastic brown rock. I guess it's the fun of having a rock on the floor that you know is secretly a robot, and you get to imagine that for however long the dumbest of kids could possibly imagine such a thing. There was a robot form. I'm sure the robot was very proud of being able to turn into a rock.
In the movie Big with Tom Hanks, there was a joke where someone in the board room was trying to suggest a line of robots that turn into skyscrapers and buildings. And Tom Hanks' character, the little kid inside, was like, "I don't get it. They turn into a buidling, and then what do they do?" And it was a big joke, and the guy in the boardroom was laughed at. I don't know if that came out before Rock Lords, but they should have watched that movie and said, "Yeah, turning into inanimate objects. That's dumb."
Goldstein also shared with us his criteria for what makes an action figure awesome. It has to be an accurate representation of what you've seen on television or in the movies — especially now that almost all action figures are licensed from media creations. The figure has got to have lots of joints and be poseable, which requires a "delicate balance" between how the figure is allowed to pose, and what it looks like. That, in turn, requires some skill on the part of the manufacturer. And it's got to look as though the people who made it had respect for the characters, and for you, as the person who's going to own this toy. And finally, there are little details — like if someone's helmet visor is a sheet of see-through plastic over their face, that's a lot better than a nasty-looking white square.
We also asked Goldstein about how he came to be writing and editing the famous Twisted ToyFare Theater in ToyFare Magazine, in which action figures were posed and photographed, and these phtoos were turned into funny/weird storylines. And how, exactly this led to the birth of Robot Chicken, which does something kind of similar except on television.
At ToyFare, we were all a bunch of dumbasses. We were all too smart for our own good — a buch of wiseacres, a bunch of kids fooling around, that got the authority to do our own magazine. We would, very early on, put word balloons throughout the magazine, for all the action figures we had pictures of. Saying dumb things like "I like pie," or "This gun is bigger than my leg. How am I going to shoot it?"
And then editor in chief at the time, Pat McCallum, wanted to point out that there were so many Spider-Man action figures. There were certain characters like Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, that you've got to make them different each year, or else you're just producing the same toy every year. So there were bizarre iterations of Spider-Man over the years, to where he was wearing a bathing suit, which makes no sense. Ice warrior Spider-Man. Whatever you want to think of, they made it. So he had us shoot a conga line of all the different Spider-mans, and the Spider-Man characters were making little rippling jokes at each other. It lasted several pages. And that was a huge hit. The fans loved it, we had a good time doing it.
I don't know who it was — I have to assume it was Pat McCallum, again, who just said, "Why don't we do something like this on a regular basis, but as more of an adventure instead of just like a big photograph?" He was the editor in chief, I was the editor at the time, and I looked at the budget and said, "Oh jeez." But we just run with it. We had a photographer come in. We posed the hell out of the toys. We didn't have a set design team, we just had a bunch of guys here and there in the office who put together fun sets for these things. And then a few of us sat down and just shot the shit and made a funny story. And as long as it made us laugh, we were good to go. And thank God, people thought we were funny.
As for how this turned into Robot Chicken, Goldstein explained that Matt Senreich was the editor of ToyFare at the time, and he heard that Seth Green was a fan of action figures, so he called Seth Green's manager to try and get an interview. And it turned out that Green already knew the magazine and was a fan. So they all wound up hanging out and became friends. "We would throw parties in the house, and he would fly up to join." And at one point, Green was going to do an interview on the Conan O'Brien show to promote his latest project, and instead of doing a regular interview, Green wanted to do some kind of stop-motion animation skit of him and O'Brien hanging out.
"But I didn't know then, but know now, that whenever you have an idea for something in Hollywood, you just tell everybody about it and see what clicks," said Goldstein. Sony was launching a video editing tool online called Screenblast, and the ToyFare guys used it to create a dozen episodes of stop-motion animation, with Sony paying them to use their software. "It kind of happened organically. In Hollywood, you've got something, you show it, you try to make it into something. That's basically what happened," said Goldstein.
And in the end, Adult Swim was the "perfect partner, because they encouraged so much freedom." And they didn't want to set limits on the "stupid humor" that Green and the ToyFare guys were going for. The 10-15 minute episodes were the perfect length for short skits, and luckily YouTube was coming out at the time, which helped people pass their skits around.