Little men, or the love affair that never ends
October 29, 2009

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.

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Glenn Moss
Born in 1952 (you do the math), making me one of the proverbial "old farts" involved in toys, comic books, and other juvenile activities that everyone said I should have outgrown decades ago. Fortunately, my wife of 36 years is an understanding soul. A firm believer in the philosophy of Groucho Marx, George Carlin, Robin Williams and Chris Rock. Am now indoctrinating my grandchildren to carry on so that when I finally fade away there will be another generation of odd neighbors who seemed nice and kept to themselves.
Read other articles by Glenn Moss.

 

 

 

17 Comments »

  • JuliusMarx says:

    If only you had a time machine! Now Hasbro os making those Marvel “Handfull of Heroes” that you could take back and play with your green army men!
    Great blog Glenn.

    • Glenn Moss Glenn says:

      I recently saw those and I picked up a bag of them. And, you’re right about wishing I’d had them “back in the day” to assist my army men!

  • Hourman says:

    What a great read!

  • chad says:

    nice article though never understood why any one would want those little soliders that looked like they were ment to try and destroy a persons foot. though given the cost of figures heroclix and the smaller figures may be the new way of collectors getting their fix

    • Glenn Moss Glenn says:

      Chad, It was simply a case of using what was available at the time. You always preferred the guys shooting or throwing hand grenades or using a flame thrower to the minesweeper or the radio man. Ant the last choice was the guy marcing. What a bore. The marching guys were the first ones killed in battle.

      And, yes, I am really getting into collecting the HeroClix figures. Just got a custom Negative Man to complete my Doom Patrol. AND, I got a Hammer of Thor chariot for under $20 including postage!

  • bnjmnrlyr says:

    I never had more than a handful of army men but I always had plenty of Cowboys and Indians. I remember playing with some of my uncles hand-me-downs as well, and I had the remnants of Fort Apache. That really was one of the best playsets.

    • Glenn Moss Glenn says:

      Yea, the Fort Apache was the coolest. The original was a rectangle, but later they introduced a covered top for soldiers to fire from and they made the wall attachments for the watchtowers L-shaped so they would remain in place better. They also produced a damed cool blockhouse that was two stories. You could remove the roof to position pioneers and soldiers to shoot at the marauding indians.

  • Jason says:

    Very cool read, Glenn! Didn’t Marx make a ‘Guns of Navarone’ playset?

    • Glenn Moss Glenn says:

      Yea, Jason, they did. It was a giant hard plastic mountain with an opening near the top for the guns. Came with a butt load of german soldiers and some green army men.

  • Danny CantinaDan says:

    LOL@ “the Marx military industrial machine”

    Thanks for this glimpse into the past, Glenn. I’ve always kinda wondered what I would have been playing with had I been born a decade or two earlier. I’m sure it would have been exactly as you’ve just described. The other kids can keep their Tonka trucks, baseballs and chemistry sets!

    Great blog.

    • Glenn Moss Glenn says:

      You guys were lucky to be born in the age of action figures, but I gotta say that army men and their brethern were a damed fine way to pass the hours of my youth. Although I had to live with static poses I did have enough troops to mimic the mongul horde. I even had my stuff divide up into army men to take outside and play with others and army men that stayed in the house and were played with only by me.

      I could never see the interest in trucks. All you could do was either crash them into one another or play construction. Little men, however, gave you a chance to command forces and pit the lives of your men agaist others in epic battles that could change the course of history!

  • Tanner says:

    Great blog, Glenn. I was wondering if you’d ever touch on a few other Marx toys? My dad would go on and on about how one of his two favorite toys was his Johnny West figure.

  • UncleMarsellus says:

    I was born in ’78 and I had a ton of little army men, and some cowboys and indians. I’m not really sure how I ended up with them but I’m guessing my dad got them for me out of nostalgia. I did play with them but not as much as He-Man or GI Joe or whatever came down later. They were from another era but I still remember having battles with my dad when I was home sick from school. They never defined my inner toy-nerd but I understand the affection others have for them. I’m still amazed when I see bags of them for sale in drug stores.

    Great blog!

    • Glenn Moss Glenn says:

      UncleMarsellus,

      Thanks for the kind words about my humble blog!

      Belive it or not, I actually asked for a full size ironing board for christmas once as I was always using my mom’s to set up my “little me” and stage battles. I loved that I could adjust it to the right height and didn’t have to sit on the floor and deal with the carpets making it hard for the soldiers to stand up!

      There were only certain kids that “got it” regarding the rules of engagement and the strategy of playing with little men. Many oafs thought you were supposed to blow them up with black cat firecrackers or set them ablaze with lighter fluid (yes, the stores would sell lighter fluid to kids back in my youth – it was assumed you were sent to the store by your mom because her lighter needed refilling.) and turned into goo.

      I think the static figures from Hasbro and Mattel (Super-Hero Squad, Batman Brave & Bold) are rekindling some interest in little men…

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