18 Comics Based on 1980s Toy Lines that It’s Safe to Assume No One is Rushing to Turn into Next Summer’s Blockbuster Movie
1. Centurions (DC, 1987)
When most children of the ’80s are asked to name their most cherished toys from that totally gnarly era, chances are they’ll rhyme off the massive toy lines that came complete with accompanying cartoons, comic books, breakfast cereals, and other licensed folderol: your G.I. Joes, your Transformers, your Care Bears, your Masters of the Universes. This list is not about those toys. Oh sure, the toys mentioned here may have inspired their own (short-lived) cartoons and/or (barely remembered) comic books, but for the most part their impact on the public consciousness disappeared as soon as the last comic rolled off the presses or the last episode of their series went off the air. First up: the Centurions, those action figures whom we were assured possessed the “Power XTreme” needed to take on Doc Terror and his army of Doom Drones. Their shtick was that these super-soldiers (the three main ones represented land, sea and air) used “assault weapons systems” (sold separately, natch) that could be attached to their “exo-frames” for different types of missions. With scripts by Bob Rozakis and pencils by Don Heck, the four-issue comic series hewed closely to the cartoon scripts, which is another way of saying “check your brains at the door” should you ever pick this up — which makes it all the more surprising to learn that comic legends Jack Kirby and Gil Kane contributed to the source cartoon’s designs and concepts. Let’s hope they spent their paycheques on something fun.
2. Visionaries (Marvel, 1987)
Their tagline was “Knights of the Magical Light,” and that pretty much covers it. The Spectral Knights and the Darkling Lords are the forces of good and evil on the planet Prysmos, and both groups received magical powers from Merklynn after successfully completing a quest to reach Merklynn’s shrine on Iron Mountain. Each character in the series came with a different animal totem power that reflected their personality, and each knight could also temporarily transform into that animal (on the cartoon and in the comics, anyway). It was pretty standard fantasy stuff, but the cool thing about these toys was that the staffs and chestpieces that came with each action figure sported holographic stickers depicting that character’s animal totem. Only 12 figures and four vehicles were ever produced and the line-up lasted only a year, probably because of a combination of cost (holographic stickers don’t come cheap) and consumer indifference to this odd mesh of science and magic (it didn’t help that the figures — unlike, say, the many characters in the Masters of the Universe or Thundercats lines — were supremely interchangeable, looks-wise). The cancellation of the toy line meant a swift end to the comic series, which was halfway through a four-part storyline when the sixth and final issue was rolled out. Fans of Ultimate Spider-Man should note the Visionaries series featured early artwork by a young Mark Bagley, who won a chance to work for Marvel by beating out thousands of hopefuls who applied for a job through the Marvel Try-Out Book, a one-time experiment to find undiscovered talent. The term “paying your dues” comes to mind here.
3. Air Raiders (Marvel, 1987)
Speaking of paying your dues. This series features some of the earliest professional work by Kelley Jones, later of Batman and Sandman fame, who probably hauls out old copies of these issues from time to time just to keep himself humble. The back story: the Air Raiders were freedom fighters on Airlandia, an alien planet where Aerozar, leader of Tyrants of the Wind, cornered the planet’s air supply (cue the “I’m All Out of Love” song dump) after a comet incinerated most of the planet’s oxygen supply. How he and his cronies managed to secure the planet’s remaining oxygen was never made clear, but it allowed him to make a simple deal with the survivors: total subservience in exchange for the stuff of life. The rebels, who didn’t take kindly to this form of non-representative government, were led by Admiral Fury and General Rokk, and as befitting a group of rebels fighting for the right to free air they did most of their fighting in aircraft. Coincidentally enough, Hasbro’s line of Air Raiders toys was heavy on vehicles (with names like Twin Lightning and Thunderclaw), each of which came with an air-powered launcher to propel it through the air. It wasn’t one of the bigger-selling lines of the time, probably because it had no accompanying TV show to send little imaginations soaring, and kids who wanted to follow the adventures of the Air Raiders had to content themselves with this five-issue comic drawn by Jones and written by Howard Mackie. Their battle cry in the book was “Ride the Wind!”… but by the time the last issue came out in 1988, the toy line was pretty much dust in the wind.
4. Sectaurs (Marvel, 1985)
“Somewhere in space spins a planet known to its insect-evolved inhabitants as… Symbion.” True, it may seem odd that insect evolution on another planet would create a race of beings exactly like humans except for tiny antennae and compound eyes, but hey, who are we uncles of monkeys to judge? Obviously placing its bets on the fact that little boys love bugs and creepy crawlers, the Sectaurs line soared into toy stores looking for a piece of the Masters of the Universe action. Take away the giant insects and funny-looking eyes and it’s a standard sword-and-sorcery saga set in space, with Prince Dargon leading the good guys of Prosperon against the evil Empress Devora and her minions in the Dark Domain of Synax. Heroes and villains alike are on a quest to find the key to ultimate power, but the real draw for the kids were the insectoids, the giant insects that acted as horses for the warriors, and who shared a telepathic bond with their riders. (The insectoids in the toy line were part toy, part glove — the user’s fingers became the “legs” of the insectoid, with the action figure riding on top). Marvel workhorse Bill Mantlo (Hulk, Alpha Flight) pounded out the script for the eight-issue series, with Mark Texeira (Ghost Rider, Black Panther) and Steve Geiger (Hulk, Web of Spider-Man) taking on the art chores. The interesting (well, “interesting”) thing about the Sectaurs series is that, while it preceded the 1986 Sectaurs cartoon and established the whole premise, the cartoon chose to tell a different origin story, establishing the giant insects as the result of a genetic experiment mishap and Spidrax and his Terror Troops as the main villains, with Dargon and his comrades specifically created to defeat the bad guys. So at least aspiring screenwriters in search of the next ’80s toy-based hit film have a choice here.
5. Team America (Marvel, 1982)
Not to be confused with the 2004 movie by the makers of South Park, this comic followed the adventures of a team of stunt motorcyclists as they traveled the land in search of races to win and wrongs to right (though not necessarily in that order). After a tryout in Captain America #269, the team, based on a line of motorcycle toys by Ideal, debuted in their own book in ’82, making it one of the first toy tie-in books to hit the market during that market-savvy decade. Fans of racing yarns and displays of machismo were well served by Jim Shooter’s scripts, which alternated with Bill Mantlo’s more… er, interesting tales of espionage and environmental disasters — which only a quintet of stunt riders can make right, of course. Oh, and there was also the continuing mystery of the Marauder, the mysterious rider who may or may not have been one of the riders in disguise. The stories were positively breathtaking in their insanity (evil arcade owners are shoving runaway kids inside video game machines and using their brainwaves to power the machines’ microchips!), but there was something almost sweet about how everyone involved kept soldiering on regardless of how ridiculous it all got. On the cover of the twelfth issue, Marvel ended the series with a bang (“Because YOU demanded it… the End of Team America!”) and Shooter noted on the letters page that the comic was more successful than the first year of Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. If only Miller had thought to add a surly Hispanic stunt rider to the payroll at Nelson & Murdock…
6. MASK (DC, 1985)
“Masked crusaders/working all the time/fighting crime/fighting crime!…” Obviously created to grab a piece of the Transformers’ action, Hasbro’s MASK (which, to the dismay of English teachers everywhere, stood for Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) toy line featured a wide range of vehicles and playsets that transformed into combat mode with a click and a push. For example, flip up the gull-wing doors on leader Matt Trakker’s Trans Am car and you get… a flying, shooting car that defies the laws of physics. OK, so engineering verisimilitude was not a priority, but kids did enjoy the idea of, say, a motorcycle converting into a helicopter, and the line did achieve a moderate level of success in the toy aisle. As a bonus, each MASK or VENOM vehicle (for Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem, in case you thought they were ambiguous about the whole bad-guy thing) came with a figure who wore a detachable helmet that conferred superhero-like powers on the wearer (any child of the ’80s who heard the cartoon’s catchy theme song can tell you that Trakker’s mask offers “super vision” to the wearer). The toy line’s popularity is reflected in the fact it spawned not one but two comic series: a four-issue mini-series in 1985 and a seven-issue ongoing series in 1987. The books were pretty simple espionage/adventure stories designed to highlight the vehicles, with scripts by Michael Fleisher and artwork by veteran Superman artists Curt Swan and Kurt Schaffenberger… which is really more talent than any toy tie-in ought to expect, all things considered.
7. Inhumanoids (Marvel, 1987)
Unusual in the sense that the book was named after the villains of the series, Inhumanoids told the story of a group of scientist heroes named Earth Corps that battled a trio of subterranean monsters. Yeah, in retrospect I’d go with “Inhumanoids,” too — “Earth Corps” sounds too much like a Greenpeace black ops team. At any rate. The Inhumanoids cartoon debuted in September 1986, quickly followed by a toy line-up that included the three monsters standing a full 14 inches and a couple of scientists and vehicles, as well as a few “Mutores” (the good monsters — sorry, “elemental beings” — that long ago cast the Inhumanoids down into their subterranean cells). To a child of the ’80s, the cartoon series simply rocked, with amputations and death by corrosive acids proving a nice counter-balance to whatever the hell the Smurfs were up to that day (the visually stylish series was also unusual for the time in that its episodes were linked by a strong narrative flow, with continuing storylines and subplots aplenty). The book, which lasted all of four issues, was… a very good attempt at re-creating the cartoon series, let’s leave it at that.
8. Power Lords (DC, 1983)
There’s obscure, and then there’s Power Lords. If you got these action figures for Christmas in 1983, chances are you also had parents who couldn’t understand the difference between these toys and those way-cool Masters of the Universe figures that all your friends were playing with — well, the friends that you still had when you showed up at the playground with these sad pretenders. Adam Power (no relation to MotU’s Prince Adam) is given the cosmic Power Jewel to protect the galaxy from Arkus, an evil dictator. The jewel allows Adam to transform into the Lord of Power, which his action figure accomplishes by the simple process of turning the torso around so that the “normal” human side is on the back and the blue “power” side is on the front. Like He-Man, Adam is helped by other Power Lords in his quest, while the forces of evil are represented by various monsters and mutants. Revell hired sci-fi painter Wayne Barlowe (Barlowe’s Guide to Extra-Terrestrials) to design the toys, which they shipped out to stores in 1983 and just as quickly stopped producing a short while later. The three-issue comic series, drawn by a young Mark Texeira, is of no interest to anyone anywhere.
9. Robotix (Marvel, 1986)
“Robotix” was the name given to a series of construction sets that, when properly assembled, created moving, mechanized robotic dinosaurs. Milton Bradley produced the line between 1984 and 1994; an animated cartoon premiered in 1985. The comic followed closely the plot of the first three episodes of the animated series, which saw the starship of Captain Exeter Galaxon crash-land on the ruined planet of Skalorr. He and his crew survive only to immediately find themselves caught up in a battle between two factions of gigantic robot creatures, the Protectons and Terrakors, that emerge from the ground. After the Terrakors flee the scene, the Protectons befriend Galaxon and his crew, and help them to rebuild their ship. During the repairs, they discover that humans can interface with Robotix to enhance their abilities, and a renewed attack by the Terrakors forces them to put this discovery to the test. Don’t let the “Spectacular Action-Packed 1st issue!” starburst fool you — like the cartoon it was based on, the comic wasn’t long for this world, and it never saw a second issue.
10. COPS (DC, 1988)
The best part of this series? On certain covers sold through the direct market, there’s the lovely irony of a book starring cyborg cops declaring “DC Comics aren’t just for kids!” in the UPC logo space. Writer Doug Moench (Batman) did his best to inject a bit of sophistication into this title over its 15-issue run, but it’s a hard row to hoe with character names like Dr. Badvibes and Buttons McBoomBoom to deal with. The Central Organization of Police Specialists (or… aw, you guessed) is “fighting crime in a future time” with the help of cybernetic enhancements that give them a leg up on the criminal scum… or they would, if not for the fact that similarly enhanced criminals are prowling the streets of Empire City under the direction of the ever so imaginatively named Big Boss. The comic series and 65-episode cartoon were both based on Hasbro’s C.O.P.S. ‘n’ Crooks toy line, which came out in 1988 (and had absolutely nothing to do with the insane popularity of 1987’s Robocop, of course). As a bonus, each figure came with cap gun accessories that allowed kids to fire off their weapons with a bang. Which must have thrilled skittish parents to no end, I’m sure.
11. Madballs (Marvel, 1986)
What, you say you can’t build a viable comic around a toy line that consists solely of rubber balls with grotesque faces? Shows how much you know. Incredibly, Marvel was able to squeeze 10 issues out of the very slim premise, pitting the balls against the evil (but in a G-rated way) Doctor Viktor Frankenbeans. Produced by AmToy, a subsidiary of American Greetings, the novelty rubber balls were a bit of a fad in the mid-’80s, with stickers, Valentine’s cards and even shampoos part of the marketing blitz. The Madballs also had a two-episode animated series in 1986, where some of them were renamed “Badballs” to set up opposing sides. Gross-out humor and bad jokes were high on the agenda for both the cartoon and the comic series, though what else can you expect from a line with characters named “Slobulus” and “Swine Sucker”? (Fun Fact: Bash Brain, a ball shaped like a head with an exposed brain, was originally called “Crack Head” until someone realized that might not be the best name for a child’s plaything. Go figure.)
12. Popples (Marvel, 1986)
Lest you think that boys were the only target market for toy-based comics, here’s a book based on the Popples, a series of cutesy animals that come with a pouch on their backs; just fold their head, arms and legs back and inside the pouch and you get a ball full of fun! Another creation of American Greetings, the line-up included Rock Star Popples, Baby Popples, Sports Popples, Pocket Popples — things were popping, let’s put it that way. This five-issue series, similar in look and design to your standard Richie Rich comic, was produced by Marvel’s Star imprint, a mid-’80s attempt to capture younger readers with a mix of licensed properties (Get Along Gang, Care Bears, Fraggle Rock) and original titles (Top Dog, Royal Roy, Planet Terry).
13. The Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior (Marvel, 1983)
The way it usually worked was this: (1) toy company launches a new action figure line; (2) toy company hires animation studio and comic publisher to promote the toys to kids; (3) everyone sits back and counts all the money that flows in. Crystar was different, in the sense that Marvel came up with the idea for the characters before Remco came on board to produce the action figures (although the toy line came out just before the first issue hit the stands). The first issue of Saga of Crystar sets up the premise: the kingdom of Crystalium, where personal names tended to suggest rocks and such, had fought the Demon Lord and his forces of chaos. The conflict resulted in the death of Crystalium’s king and a prophecy that Crystalium would soon be divided against itself. Sure enough, a wacky misunderstanding pitted the king’s two sons against each other, and their followers are soon choosing up sides. On the good: Crystar and his crew were transformed by the good wizard Ogeode into crystalline warriors. On the bad: Moltar and his associates were turned into hideous lava men by the evil wizard Zardeth. Wizards, feuding princes, half-naked women, dragons, prophecies, pacts — writer Jo Duffy (Power Man & Iron Fist) packed them all in, but it was hard to overcome the created-by-committee feeling that blanketed the entire project. With low toy sales and no cartoon series to speak of, Marvel resorted to guest stars to keep the comic going, with Doctor Strange (3), the X-Men’s Nightcrawler (6) and Alpha Flight (11, the final issue of the series) all popping by, no doubt cursing their agents the entire time.
14. Dino Riders (Marvel, 1989)
Guns and dinosaurs — how could you lose pitching this toy concept to red-blooded boys? The Valorians are on the run from the evil Rulon Empire when their spaceship time travels back to prehistoric Earth. But — d’oh! — a pursuing Rulon ship makes the jump right behind them, effectively stranding both groups in the past. While the telepathic Valorians gain the trust of dinosaurs and use them as riding animals, the Rulons use “brain boxes” to force their animals to obey their commands. Mass battles between gun-toting dinosaurs ensue. Tyco released the toy line in 1988 and stopped production in 1990, but that wasn’t the end of the line — highly praised for their attention to detail, the toys were revived in the 1990s by a partnership between Tyco and the Smithsonian Institution, which was impressed by the technical accuracy of the toys. No such reprieve for the comic, though, which folded after three issues.
15. SilverHawks (Marvel, 1987)
Silverhawks? Silver Hawks? SilverHawks? It’s sad when the Internet can’t agree on the proper spelling for a nearly forgotten toy line from the ’80s. Anyway… “those guys” were basically galactic police officers who piloted hawk-shaped spaceships across galaxies in search of bizarrely shaped criminals. In the 29th century, a criminal named Mon*Star escapes from a maximum-security prison in The Limbo Galaxy and recruits a super-powered gang by taking a bunch of other prisoners with him. Commander Stargazer sends all the way back to Earth for back-up to help bring Mon-Star back in. (Why he couldn’t find capable recruits within his own galaxy is not a question that’s really explored.) The recruits are converted into avian-themed cyborgs to withstand the rigors of space and sent off to do battle with the likes of the serpentine Yessman, the un-melodic Melodia and the shape-shifting Mo-Lec-U-Lar. The SilverHawks had much in common with the ThunderCats: both cartoons were produced by Rankin/Bass (with a lot of the same voice talent working on both shows), both had comic series published by Marvel, and both have an avid fan following to this day, though ThunderCats probably has an edge in the nostalgia competition. As for the seven-issue comic… meh.
16. Starriors (Marvel, 1984)
How can you not love a toy line where one of the robot characters was called “Auntie Tank”? I never saw these toys the first time around, so as always I’ll rely on Wikipedia to do my research for me: “In the future, solar flares threaten all life on Earth. Earth’s scientists build three classes of intelligent machines: Protectors, to restore the Earth for human use; Destructors, to ward off any potential alien invasions; and Guardians to protect humanity after they go into a hibernative state underground. The leader of the Destructors, Slaughter Steelgrave, becomes craven at the thought of deactivation upon the restoration of the humans, and enslaves the Protectors after what he believes to be a successful attempt to destroy all of the Guardians.” That is totally going to be my stage name if I ever go into professional wrestling. Marvel and Tomy teamed up to create this line of motorized robots with interchangeable parts, and they lasted about as long it took for this four-issue series to generate zero interest on the stands.
17. Spiral Zone (DC, 1988)
This toy line probably takes the prize for having the most unsettling backstory attached to it. The Spiral Zone refers to the portion of the planet that’s under the control of a renegade scientist, who uses evil science to create and distribute devices that keep half the world’s population in a zombified state. And as one would expect, it’s up to an elite band of soldiers to save the day. But finding and destroying all the generators is easier said than done, especially when the scientist has his own minions — a team called the “Black Widows” despite the fact that some of them are, y’know, dudes. (Mr. “Can’t Quite Handle the New Ketchup Bottle” on this cover is one of them.) The original toys were produced in Japan by Bandai; Tonka licensed the rights to distribute them in North America. Oh, and there was also a 65-episode cartoon series that aired in 1987, and is still remembered today by guys who are more obsessed by ’80s ephemera than I am. And that’s saying a lot. Oh yeah, the comic itself — four issues in total, representing the career nadir of Silver Age greats Carmine Infantino and Don Heck.
18. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (Continuity, 1988)
I included this one just so you didn’t think Marvel and DC had a duopoly on shoddy toy-based comics. This was based on a live-action show and a line of toy spaceships that worked together in ways that the other cartoons and toy lines didn’t. Here’s how it worked: kids who bought the toys and watched the cartoons could play along with the show by aiming their ships (actually light guns) at the TV screens during certain portions of the program; when they shot at just the right time, they would rack up points, but if they got “hit” too many times, the ship’s pilot would eject from the cockpit. It was a cool idea for a toy, or it would have been if it had come out a few years earlier when Nintendo and its cutting-edge Duck Hunt technology wasn’t around to mesmerize the young’uns; it also didn’t help that the bloody toys rarely worked the way they were supposed to. The two-issue comic series, cancelled when the show and the toy were both shelved, boasted artwork by Neal Adams (Batman, Green Lantern) and scripts by J. Michael Straczynski, a prolific sci-fi and comic writer who started out as staff writer on such shows as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Real Ghostbusters, and, yes, Captain Power. It’s kind of a shame the comic was so closely tied to a toy of dubious merit, because the stories weren’t that bad… but then, with that kind of talent at the helm, I’d be surprised if they were.