Learned #45: M.U.S.C.L.E.

In which we get nostalgic for a certain toy.

If you were a kid in the 80s, especially a boy kid, you probably had or knew about or coveted a bunch of weird little plastic-y, rubbery toys called M.U.S.C.L.E. I had a few, I think. I think my friends did, too. We traded them and made them fight each other and, I, at least, marvelled over just how weird they were.

Turns out, not only are they making a comeback, they never left Japan. And they've inspired a whole new generation of artists who are Kickstarting and funding toys so weird they make the original M.U.S.C.L.E. figures look downright dull.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: The Wall of M.U.S.C.L.E.

  • What We're Reading: (something about toy collecting)

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Army Men

Let's get to it.

What We’re Learning:

The Wall of M.U.S.C.L.E.

Japan has an odd relationship with recycling and thrift shops - second-hand stores are everywhere and they're full of the same bric-a-brac, oddities, and detritus that you'd expect, but the items for sale in them are almost always in great shape and the price is not all that discounted. They're also huge.

Pictured: Toys, figurines, collectible cards, and games. Not Pictured: books, CDs, DVDs, blu-rays, video games, musical instruments, jewelry, clothes, and your soul.

One of my favorites is a combination bookstore, CD shop, video game shop, and toy store. (It's a dangerous place to be on payday after a few too many happy hour cocktails. Don't ask me how I know.) I went in there a while back looking for toys for my classroom toy box and stumbled across an entire display of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures, all bagged up and ready to go, for a mere ¥500. Well. Yes, please.

(The kids I teach had two reactions: The boys were ecstatic and immediately began making the figures wrestle each other. The girls were disgusted and made me put them away somewhere else.)

M.U.S.C.L.E. stands for Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere and back in the day, they were the oddity of oddities lurking in every kid’s closet:

Here's the TD;DR:

  • The toys originated in Japan as a series of figures parodying pro-wrestling called Kinnikuman (literally Muscleman).

  • Bandai began producing the figures in the 1970s

  • They were based on a manga series that in turn produced an anime series.

  • They called the figures "keshi," because of their resemblance to pencil erasers.

  • The toys became so popular that they spawned an entire genre of "Kinkeshi."

  • The original production run (through the late 1980s) created over 400 unique characters.

  • Mattel bought the license and rebranded the figures as M.U.S.C.L.E. in the mid-1980s.

  • Eventually, both companies (Bandai and Mattel) experimented with different colored figures.

  • Italy and France had their own versions.

  • They are all highly collectible.

Sources:

  • Mental Floss - A Brief History of M.U.S.C.L.E. Figures

  • MetaFilter - They're ugly! They're weird! They're tiny! They're terrible! And they're pink! They're Kinkeshi, er MUSCLE Things!

  • Wikipedia - Kinkeshi

The Lifecycle of a Kinkeshi: vending machine to capsule to figure.

Legacy:

In the 1980s - as now - everything was collectible. You had to have every figure in whichever line of toys you were into. G.I. Joe, Star Wars, Care Bears, My Little Pony, whatever, there was a range of figures and to play along with the cartoons or comics or your own imagination, you NEEDED every figure. M.U.S.C.L.E. was no different.

I remember buying the ten packs in a little plastic, see-through trash can and trading some with my friends; the internet tells me that there were other packaging options available but I'm not sure I ever got anything but that trashcan. The original figures, in Japan, were sold as capsule toys and that's a whole different article, but the point is, these little figures were small, cheap, and there were hundreds of figures to collect.

Naturally, every toymaker on the planet, including Bandai and Mattel, the two companies who started it all, were making variations and knock-offs. Mattel couldn't produce a boys' toy line without an equivalent girls' line and so C.U.T.I.E.s (coolest ultra tiny individuals on earth) were created. There were the Exogini and Cosmix lines in Italy and France, and, as I said above, the success of Kinnikuman toys meant that dozens, if not hundreds, of new keshi-style toylines were produced in Japan.

Top: Various incarnations of Kinnikuman Keshi. Bottom: Far more common (and more popular) keshi-gomu toys being sold today.

But I'm more interested in, and more curious about modern toys that are half knock-off and half-tribute to the originals.

  • S.L.U.G. Zombies - One of the first of the new breed to come across my radar, the name stands for Scary Little Ugly Guys and is an obvious play on M.U.S.C.L.E. style branding. The figures are interesting, but look, to me, more like Army Men than anything else.

  • S.U.C.K.L.E. - Simply Unimportant Collectible Kitchy Little Eyesores by toy artist The Sucklord. The name kind of says everything, doesn’t it?

  • H.A.C.K. - Artist Amerikaiju began making small batches of custom keshi toys under the brand “H.A.C.K.” (Handmade American Custom Keshi) several years ago. These are interesting.

  • Murks - Ironhouse productions makes these odd little things. No acronym though, so they can’t be that cool…

  • M.U.S.C.L.E. - You didn’t think the originals had gone anywhere did you? With collectibility at an all-time high, Bandai is still producing new figures every few years. Get yours today!

Why are there so many new toylines in the keshi style? How have they become so popular with collectors?

Kickstarter is one part of the answer, of course. Low production cost is the other. It is so easy (relatively speaking) to get funding for a new toy and to then have it manufactured in Chinese factories that artists have taken the ball and run with it. A new toy-line is a great way for artists to get their name out as well as have a salable product for collectors to buy.

As for the other side of that equation, why we're buying them - who knows? If you are one of the rare people who can figure out what makes a new product desirable and get it to market, chances are you're already rich and working in the industry.


What We're Reading:

I Am Plastic

and

I Am Plastic, Too

by Paul Budnitz

From the Amazon page:

In barely a decade, the designer toy craze, which originated in Hong Kong, has taken the world by storm. Children and adults, celebrities and design aficionados now line up to pay anywhere from five dollars to thousands of dollars for these highly inventive designer creations.

It's no secret that I love designer toys. I don't collect them - I don't have either the money or the display space - but I follow the industry closely and make excursions to various galleries and toy stores when designers present new works. It's fun. It's weird. It's art that just happens to be an unconventional blend of painting and sculpture in a pop-art package.

It's also a hard, strange world to break into. Arguably, most people by now are at least aware of the industry and its aesthetic because of Funko Pop's relentless assault on pop-culture. But for anyone wanting an insight into how and where this all started, Budnitz's books offer a great history and overview of the scene.

Not to mention that the books are gorgeous, coffee-table level books that are full of glossy, color photos of the toys in question. This are the perfect gift for the pop-art ephemera collector in your life.


Elsewhere:

joeldavidneff.net | joeldavidneff at gmail | @smileytoad | @joeldneff | coffee

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Another ubiquitous toy, albeit from an earlier age, is the green plastic army man, recently made famous all over again by their inclusion in the Toy Story movies. And, just like the M.U.S.C.L.E. figures, they have spawned a wave of tributes and knock-offs by modern artists. Here are a few of the ones I found interesting:

  • Breakdancers - Kidrobot is a professional toy design firm with all kinds of weird and strange toys under their collective belt. When they set out to make a tribute to the little green army man, they ended up with something that was neither green nor army, but really fun and cool never-the-less.

  • Skate, Surf, & Snowboard - Toyboarders figured that if these little army men could promote war, then maybe they could make different figures that promoted fun, energetic lifestyles: Surfing, Skating, Snowboarding, and Biking. Really cool.

  • Yoga Joes - Here’s another set made to promote a healthy lifestyle and alternative to violence; these soldiers are managing to get in a good yoga workout in between battles.

  • Casualties - On the other side of things is this art set that tries to show what happens after the battles are finished. Somewhat sobering, to say the least.

  • Zombies vs. Zombie Hunters - And then there is this set of hunters and their prey. For fans of The Walking Dead and all things zombie, presumably.

  • Everything Else - And then there is just the “Plastic figure” category listing on eBay where you’ll find cowboys, native Americans, pirates, skeletons, international armies, and all kinds of oddities. Good hunting!

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.