Little men. I can still hear my dad and mom’s voices calling my toy soldiers that in my mind. Usually it was in some derogatory sentence such as “ pick up all these damned little men”, or some really good expletive followed by “little men” when someone stepped on one in the night going to the only bathroom in the house.
Some kids were sports kids with baseballs, basketballs and footballs (who the hell ever heard of soccer in the states until the arrival of Pelé?). Some kids were into trucks with Tonka, Buddy L and Ertl vehicles (and Matchbox and, later, Hot Wheels) of various shapes and sizes to fulfill a multitude of construction or general maintenance work. A few kids were into chemistry sets and telescopes – but you didn’t hang around those kids. Me, I was a toy soldier kid.
Marx was the primary producer of toy soldiers. Oh sure, there were others. Ideal, MPC ( They made the weird ring-hand soldiers that came with weapons you put in the hands and always lost within a couple of days), Tim-Mee, Remco, Britans, Swoppet, Elastolin (if your old man was in the military and you lived in Europe) and Airfix (who had a plethora of HO scale soldiers). But, Marx was the main supplier of toy soldiers.
Depending on your whims, allowance, birthdays and holidays you could have a varied collection of figures from cavemen to spacemen. Along with a smattering of the aforementioned, I also had calvary; cowboys & indians; revolutionary rebels and British; Zorro and Mexicans and Texians; Romans; and, of course, army soldiers. All manufactured by Marx. When you tossed in the assorted collections from other manufactures it was a significant collection.
In addition to the figures, there were the accessories and the playsets . Again, the other manufacturers put out some half-hearted playsets, but Marx ruled the domain. Tin lithographed buildings, all sorts of hard plastic accessories. Cannons that actually shot tiny plastic shells/cannon balls. Animals too, Camels, cattle, dogs & cats, sheep, chickens and, of course, horses. Fort Apache was probably the most famous of all the playsets. Thank the stars that John Ford always had a wooded stockade in his westerns to authenticate Marx’s bastion of the wild west.
And as much stuff that Marx cranked out for the non-army playsets; they shined with the military equipment to support the green troops. Pillboxes, jeeps, trucks, tanks, landing craft, halftracks. Even aircraft! And if the Marx military industrial machine wasn’t enough to satisfy your lust for mobilizing your forces, the other manufacturer’s cranked out vehicles as well. Auburn made this great half-track out of hard rubber that had a machine gunner moulded into it. It actually would hold a few of your Marx soldiers. Ideal made a tracked Howitzer that was huge in comparison to the Marx vehicles, but was probably closer in real scale to the troops.
The thing I always wondered about was why the Marx tanks for US/allied forces were M-48 Pershings and not M-4 Sherman. Marx did eventually crank out both Panther and Tiger tanks for the german troops they began manufacturing in the mid-60′s. In fact, they created British, Russian, Japanese and French forces as well as the green US G.I.’s. And, they began to sell them in small packages in the 5 and Dime stores so that, for a portion of your allowance, you could have a few krauts or brits to augment your regular forces.
Then 1964 and the world of “little men” would never be the same. In February of that year, Hasbro introduced G.I. Joe, the 11 ½ inch tall “action figure” and his plethora of equipment and the proverbial handwriting was on the wall. The growing dissatisfaction with the war in Viet-Nam also contributed to the demise of the toy line. In addition to growing up, we were growing out our hair, listening to rock and roll and discovering girls. Getting a driver’s license became more important than looking through the Sears catalog.
A gaping hole in the toy soldier production was super heroes. Oh, Ideal came out with a playset that included Batman, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Joker and Riddler in 1966 as Batmania took the nation, but by and large the spandex crowd never really took off (no pun intended). You just didn’t have the opportunity to have Superman or Captain America kick the crap out of the Nazis or have Spiderman help tame the wild west with the 7th Calvary. Oh, Marx put out some oversized figures of Ironman, Spiderman, Thor, Captain America and Daredevil, but unless you were going to do the Godzilla thing and have them step on the enemy they were really useless for make believe battles.
Fast forward to the new century and WizKids began to manufacture HeroClix. Originally designed to be gaming pieces, old fart comic and toy soldier fans like me became enamored with the cool static poses and the variety of figures available. I tried to resist the siren song of these multicolored “little men and women and creatures of undetermined sex, but the combination of being super hero focused and the possibility of recreating hordes of figures became overpowering.
The one thing that drove me crazy with HeroClix was the fact that you had to buy a box and it was up for grabs as to what you got in the box. Sort of like cracker jacks, but without the popcorn and peanuts. Several decades ago, I would have traded with my friends the duplicates I had for something they might have that I wanted, but today that isn’t an option. For better or worse I don’t give a rat’s ass about the game itself. I only am interested in the figures and I simply am not going to waste a day at a game session to see if some kid wants to trade figures. Thank the heavens for ebay! Although it’s more expensive, I’ve been able to amass my DC, Marvel and Independent heroes and villains without the frustration of having six or seven mole men or mirror master figures. Considering the continuing escalation of the price of regular action figures, this may be my solution to the problem of deciding whether to pay the mortgage or buy that latest series of figures.