Building on a topic I had briefly mentioned on my own site’s blog recently, and one that came up last month on the AFI forum, diversity in comic books, animation, and action figure lines is a big issue for me. This is something that dates back all the way to my childhood. Since coming into its own as a toy concept in the late ’70s and early ’80s, some action figure lines have done better jobs of being inclusive than others have. Despite the overwhelming success with children of the day and the lasting popularity with collectors enjoyed by some brands, they had a lot of room for improvement in what they offered to their young fans.
Let’s start with the obvious, Kenner’s vintage STAR WARS line. Riding the craze created by the first film’s release, Kenner established the 3¾" action figure as the standard for kids in America. In eight years of Droids, aliens, and white males, Kenner released all of one female character (Princess Leia) and two black male characters (Lando Calrissian and the second Bespin Security Guard). We really can’t place all the blame on Kenner for this one, though, as they had to work within the limitations of what actors were cast in the films. Then again, I don’t seem to recall Oola, Grizz Frix, or Mon Mothma making their way into the line, but there still wasn’t much range among the choices available to the company.
Despite all the nostalgia it inspires, another line lacking in any real diversity was Kenner’s Super Powers. In three waves over three years, one of thirty-three figures was based on a female character (Wonder Woman), and one was based on a black male character (Cyborg). Yes, I know John Stewart, Black Vulcan, and Supergirl were part of the presentation on what might have been for the future, but woulda, coulda, shoulda. The fact is that no one will ever know exactly who would have made the cut in a fourth wave, and the line is what it is at the end of the three that made it into production.
Tougher to crack than an Augusta golf course, though, was Mattel’s Secret Wars line. The first wave consisted of eight white males (Magneto’s backstory had recently been altered to make him a Jewish Holocaust survivor, though), and only in the second wave was a black male (Falcon) released with four more white males. Perhaps things would have changed if the line had managed to survive for a third wave, but it ended up being a real sausage fest. Even Kenner’s M.A.S.K. line managed to produce two female characters, and they didn’t have years and years of Marvel Comics source material from which they could choose characters.
Mattel’s biggest boys’ brand of the ’80s, Masters Of The Universe, didn’t have the "quick demise" excuse. While the line featured females Teela and Evil-Lyn in the early days, it was only in the seventh (and final) year that the first (and only) black character made it as a Master with the ’87 release of Clamp Champ.
There was, however, one property that stood out from the crowd in the ’80s, and that was Hasbro’s 3¾" G.I. JOE. Beginning with the initial wave of the Original Thirteen JOEs in 1982, the team included female (Scarlett), black (Stalker), Hispanic (Zap), and Jewish (Clutch) members. Despite sticking to what seemed like a one-black-guy-per-year rule, Hasbro did a better job of diversifying their character roster with this line than any other toy manufacturer could manage to do in those days. They seemed to lose interest in including at least one female every year after Jinx. I can still remember the girls who liked G.I. JOE complaining about having to choose between Scarlett and Lady Jaye, because none of us had Cover Girl! And sure, they could have gone further than they did, especially when you consider the racial makeup of the American military. There was an overall effort that has to be recognized, though, and certainly more than you were going to find anywhere else in the ’80s. Although I’m almost positive this list is incomplete, have a look at some of the releases over the brand’s first ten years:
· Stalker (1982)
· Doc (1983)
· Roadblock (1984)
· Alpine (1985)
· Iceberg (1986)
· Hardball (1988)
· Dee-Jay (1989)
· Stretcher (1990)
· Static Line (1990)
· Heavy Duty (1991)
Hasbro also made available an action figure based on William "The Refrigerator" Perry through a mail-away promotion in 1986.
· Zap (1982)
· Shipwreck (1985)
· Storm Shadow (1984) [Japanese-American]
· Quick Kick (1985) [Japanese and Korean]
· Tunnel Rat (1987) [Chinese]
· Jinx [Japanese] (1987)
· Budo (1988) [Japanese]
Native American Characters
· Airborne (1983)
· Spirit Iron-Knife (1984)
· Armadillo (1988)
· Altitude (1990)
· Clutch (1982) [Jewish]
· Gung-Ho (1983) [Cajun]
· Torpedo (1983) [Polynesian]
· Slipstream (1986) [Armenian]
· Red Dog (1987) [Samoan]
· Scarlett (1982)
· Cover Girl (1983)
· Baroness (1984)
· Lady Jaye (1985)
· Zarana (1986)
· Jinx (1987)
This isn’t just some random idea of political correctness, but something that can have a real impact on children. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read or heard a G.I. JOE fan talking about how it was the only line growing up that actually featured characters, "that looked like me." That can be important to a kid in a world where various forms of media expose them predominantly to people who look nothing like them, and it’s often easier for a child to relate to characters who share not only similar physical traits, but also a similar cultural identity. Check out this great interview with Darryl Jefferson on Collectors’ Quest, where he describes what led him to collect what he calls "Blaction". That’s not to say that kids of various ethnicities cannot enjoy Batman or Spider-Man, but asking a non-white child to play in an all-white world will eventually lead to questions that shouldn’t have to be asked.
Of course, some of the people working for toy manufacturers seem to be operating under some serious misconceptions. When I had the pleasure of meeting Milestone Media cofounder Dwayne McDuffie at the 2006 Cine Noir Festival of Black Film, the topic of toys came up in a discussion. A lack of lucrative licensing deals was the reason the hit animated series Static Shock was not renewed for a sixth season, despite its stellar ratings and glaring popularity. I remember being shocked by something Mr. McDuffie said, and in order to avoid misquoting him, I contacted him to revisit the issue last week. Here’s what he had to say:
It was a consultant for one of the major toy companies. He said, "African Americans don’t buy toys for their children." This was in reference to why they didn’t make any toys based on Static Shock, at the time the #2 show on Kids WB. I was astonished, as I clearly remember my parents buying toys for me, not to mention that Static’s audience was upwards of 80% white.
Huh? Where does someone get an absurd idea like that, and why is a toy company paying him?
Mattel has done a very solid job of including female characters in their Justice League Unlimited line, releasing twenty-two unique characters (plus variations on Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl) with even more on the way. There have only been three black characters, though, and one of them (Steel) is covered completely by armor. Having said that, one of them (Vixen) is a black woman, something not often seen in action figure lines, and another (Amanda Waller) is going to be part of a future wave. Cyborg and Black Vulcan figures are also planned for the line, and if recent eBay auctions are any indication, so is a Mr. Terrific figure. Yet another of the female characters, Fire, is Brazilian. JLU‘s first Puerto Rican, Vibe, was released last year. The company is off to a good start with its DC Universe Classics lineup, as well, offering several female and black heroes and villains in the first nine waves of its existence.
Hasbro, on the other hand, has not gotten off to the same kind of start with its new 3¾" Marvel Universe line. While they’ve included Black Panther and Blade in waves 1 and 4 respectively, only one female character can be found in the first five waves. That’s Ms. Marvel, the only female out of the twenty-two unique characters released thus far. Fortunately, Mary Jane Watson and Mystique finished in the top five in a poll of fans, so we’ll see those two released next year. The women of the Marvel Universe are seriously underrepresented at this point, but then again, so are the Marvel villains.
And getting back to G.I. JOE, the 25th Anniversary/Modern line didn’t do the best job of building on the success ARAH had in this area, either. Including the two upcoming Cobra Island seven-packs, there have been three black males (Roadblock, Stalker, and Alpine), three white females (Scarlett, Lady Jaye, and Baroness), four males of Asian ancestry (Storm Shadow [Japanese-American], Quick Kick [Japanese and Korean], Tunnel Rat [Chinese], and the Hard Master [Japanese]), two Hispanic males (Zap & Shipwreck), two Native American males (Airborne & Spirit Iron-Knife), one Cajun male (Gung-Ho), one Jewish male (Clutch), one Armenian male (Slipstream), and one Polynesian male (Torpedo). In addition to all the G.I. JOE troopers, Cobra Troopers, Cobra Officers, Vipers, and various other army builders, there are almost sixty unique white males in the line. The list of everyone else is limited to eighteen characters, fifteen of whom are males. There are nineteen if you count the mail-away Doc figure that was never released at retail.
Now give the team credit for including a wide range in the line, but we’re left with just four percent of the unique characters being female. Less than six percent are black, and in addition to Doc never being sold in stores, Alpine was part of a DVD multi-pack that made it to retail in such limited quantities, most collectors have never seen him. Despite mixing things up a bit in the Cobra ranks in recent years with black Cobra Troopers and Crimson Guards in the 2004 Operation Crimson Sabotage set, the 2004 Cobra Infantry Forces set, and the 2005 Cobra Night Watch set, every Trooper and Viper in the new line was an identical white guy. It wasn’t until the Extreme Conditions Cobra Desert Assault Squad seven-pack was released last year that the 25th/Modern line saw its first black Cobra Trooper. Of course, the only way to get one was to order the online-exclusive seven-pack, and even then, he was in a desert-specific uniform.
Even though I had no interest in the Desert Assault Squad pack, I knew I had to get my hands on some of those figures. I had already started customizing 25th-style figures due to the lack of available female characters (Zarana, Zanya, and a female Viper Officer), and now it was time to do something about my Cobra Troopers. I bought a couple of loose figures on eBay, swapped the heads, and then resold the figures on eBay with the bald heads from Cobra Legions Troopers. That wasn’t particularly cost-effective, though, so when an online retailer recently had a nice sale, I picked up a few of the packs, swapped heads, and then sold all the extras in eBay auctions. This time, I got the heads I wanted for free, and all that was left was painting gloves on the figures’ hands. The Legions Troopers don’t wear gloves, and I really wasn’t keen on the prospect of trying to match colors with the new faces. Gloves were a much easier solution, and here is the end result (for now, anyway, as I have a few more seven-packs on the way):
If I can do that, Hasbro can certainly do it. After taking such a progressive approach in the ’80s, doing things no one else even attempted at the time, do we really have to regress in the 21st century? Honestly, with no new tooling required, we’re talking about something that can easily be done without even denting the bank, never mind breaking it. I’m happy to see a diverse group in the forthcoming The Rise Of Cobra movie line (the Breaker figure is based on the likeness of Saïd Taghmaoui, who is of Morrocan descent, quite possibly a first for the property), but I sincerely hope that will become a lasting trend, rather than starting and stopping with the cast of the film. This isn’t going to be a niche line geared toward collectors who grew up in the ’80s, but a huge investment in the future of the brand, a future that depends on children asking their parents for G.I. JOE toys. Believe it or not, a lot of those parents won’t be caucasian. It’s just a minor inconvenience for a guy like me to buy some extras and swap heads, but I’d recommend making the line you want kids to buy a bit more representative of the world in which we actually live. I’m not suggesting more changes to previously established characters, either, because it’s never too late to create new ones.
And you know, we’ve all heard the argument that it’s difficult to sell female action figures in a boys’ line, but I think Ahsoka Tano did a fantastic job of disproving that old way of thinking. When it comes to something like 25th Anniversary G.I. JOE, though, and the majority of your consumers are adult collectors, it’s definitely not the case. Give the ladies their due, Hasbro. Let’s see Zarana, Jinx, and Cover Girl get the modern treatment after you cash in on the movie hype from The Rise Of Cobra. Although I’m happy to see a new female character (Helix) joining the team, please remember some more of the classics. And hey, if you get around to it sooner than later, you just might win over some female fans along the way. Girls can enjoy playing with action figures, too. While you’re at it, try not to forget the women of the Marvel Universe. You know we’ll buy ‘em.