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Avengers Assemble! A Look at Marvel Comics Superhero Collectibles

by James Burrell (06/04/12).

A reprint of The Avengers #1 (Sept. 1963) comic book. An original copy can sell for thousands of dollars; this Marvel Milestone Edition from 1993 can be picked up for $5.

One of the most popular films of the year, the epic superhero flick “The Avengers” is shaping up to be one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. But long before Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and other Marvel Comics heroes joined forces to save the world in writer/director Joss Whedon’s big-budget, action-packed blockbuster, the beloved characters were putting their extraordinary abilities to the test in numerous comic book, television, movie and video game adventures.

The iconic superhero team made its comic book debut nearly 50 years ago within the pages of The Avengers #1 (September 1963). Riding the wave of interest generated by other comic book hero teams like the Justice League of America (a group of popular DC Comics superhero characters first appearing in the February/March 1960 issue of The Brave and the Bold), Marvel decided to assemble together several of its creations—which included the armor-clad Iron Man (the man beneath the metal suit being wealthy inventor Tony Stark); the incredibly powerful, green-skinned Hulk (the gamma-ray induced counterbeing to brilliant scientist Dr. Bruce Banner); the mighty Asgardian god of thunder, Thor (who in human form was Dr. Donald Blake); the size-shifting Ant-Man (Dr. Henry Pym); and his romantic interest, the Wasp (Janet van Dyne). Written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, the issue had the group battling against Thor’s evil step-brother Loki, who blames the Thunder god for his banishment to a desolate realm called the Isle of Silence.

Shortly afterwards, the Hulk leaves the team; but a new member is gained in issue #4 (March 1964) when the group locates the frozen—yet still alive—figure of World War II-era “super soldier” Captain America (a.k.a. Steve Rogers) in the North Atlantic Ocean. Held in a state of suspended animation for two decades, the red, white and blue-clad Sentinel of Liberty (who was actually created in 1941 by Kirby and writer Joe Simon and had already been featured in comics throughout the 1940s) goes on to become the leader of the Avengers and remains with the group through numerous roster changes, including the departure of Thor, Ant-Man (who, by that point had become Giant Man) and the Wasp, and the joining of other members like the archer Hawkeye, the super-agile Quicksilver and his sister, the Scarlet Witch. The success of The Avengers led to special comic book “annuals” and spinoff titles like West Coast Avengers; likewise, many of the characters would grow in popularity and be featured in other Marvel lines, or go on to have their own series.

Various Iron Man and Captain America comic books—Tales of Suspense #89 (May 1967); The Invincible Iron Man #47 (June 1972); and Captain America #225 (Sept 1978).

Helping to introduce the comic heroes to a new audiences—particularly those who may not have been avid comic book readers—was the heavy mass-merchandising of the characters. Over the past five decades, the visages of Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man and Thor would be featured on everything from beach towels to glassware, and the crusaders would be rendered three-dimensionally as action figures, plush toys, bobble-head dolls and more. The constant production of toys and other products throughout the decades—the majority of which was made for children, but also includes some high-end items like statues and movie-quality replica props aimed at adult collectors—has resulted in a multitude of products available. The release of various television series (both animated and live-action) and major motion pictures featuring the characters has also had a large impact on the number of collectibles available, for with the release of each show or film, a number of new items (action figures, toy vehicles, playsets, etc.) are produced.

In 1966, not only would the first Marvel superhero TV series (the crudely animated, yet still highly enjoyable “The Marvel Super Heroes”) hit airwaves, but the first collectibles would be made available as well. Aurora Plastics Corporation, a hobby company who specialized in plastic model kits, offered several comic book hero kits in 1966, including releases of Captain America and the Hulk. Featuring dramatic action poses, the assemble- and paint-your-own figures (which also came with bases and accessories) provided kids with hours of fun. Extremely popular, the kits were re-issued several times throughout the years, most recently by Polar Lights, and can be purchased for around $25. Those wishing to own the original 1966 models however, can expect to pay $300 or more apiece for specimens in unbuilt condition.

These Iron Man, Incredible Hulk and Captain America eight-inch figures were produced by Mego Corp. from 1973-79. Mego figures are now highly collectible and can sell for large sums.

A view of the back of the card packaging for the Incredible Hulk eight-inch figure released by Mego Corp. in 1979. Shown are the other figures available in the line.

A Marvel Superheroes Captain America action figure produced by Charan Toy in 1990.

 

Another stellar Captain America item from that year came courtesy of Ideal’s Captain Action line. Intended to be competition to Hasbro’s incredibly popular G.I. Joe series of figures, Captain Action was a 12-inch-tall doll in which kids could transform into television and comic book characters by dressing them in separately sold costumes sets. Comprised of a rubber mask, fabric costume, plastic boots, and accessories like a shield, belt and holster, laser gun and “Ultrasonic Intensifer” pistol, the Captain America set was one of the nicest in the series. One of the most coveted of ’60s toy lines, Captain Action costume sets (of which other releases included Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Buck Rogers, The Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet) can fetch hundreds—and sometime thousands—of dollars apiece nowadays.

Other memorable merchandise produced during the ’60s included Halloween costumes from Ben Cooper, coloring books from Whitman and a set of non-posable six-inch hard plastic figurines from the Louis Marx Co. that consisted of Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, as well as Daredevil and Spider-Man.

An Iron Man Viewmaster reel set, manufactured by GAF Corporation in 1977. Value: $10-$20, approx.

An Iron Man Wacky Wobbler bobble-head figure based on his appearance in the 2008 film was released by Funko. Value: $12-$14 approx.

These Incredible Hulk and Captain America Klik candy dispensers were released by Au’some Candies Inc., in 2002.

In the 1970s, the manufacturing of superheroes toys were dominated by four companies: Mego Corporation, Azrak-Hamway International, Inc. (AHI), Remco and Mettoy Co. Ltd. (the maker of Corgi vehicles). Of the four, Mego is often cited as having the greatest impact on the toy industry due to the company’s large and varied output, which included a plethora of fondly remembered eight- and 12-inch action figures. Acquiring the rights to both Marvel and DC properties (a practice that would be practically impossible nowadays), the company debuted its eight-inch “World’s Greatest Super Heroes!” line in 1972 with four DC characters: Batman, Superman, Robin and Aquaman. Sporting colorful, highly detailed cloth outfits and accessories, the toys were an overwhelming success and Mego went on to release nearly three dozen more superhero (and villain) figures over the next six years, including Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and other Marvel Comics mainstays like the Fantastic Four, Falcon, Green Goblin, Lizard and of course, Spider-Man.

Various examples of Marvel super heroes on home video: Iron Man, Captain America and Mighty Thor cartoons from 1966; “Captain America” 1990 film; and 1970s “Incredible Hulk” TV series.

With the airing of the live-action “The Incredible Hulk” TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno and two Captain America TV movies starring Reb Brown in the late-1970s, Mego released 12-inch figures of Hulk (complete with white lab-coat) and Captain America, both of which came packaged with a “Fly Away Action” accessory that enabled them to “fly.” The company also put out a series of five-inch bendable rubber figures, large plush “talking” dolls, smaller-sized 3¾-inch figures (featuring both bent and non-bent knees), as well as numerous vehicles and playsets. Mego toys are highly coveted among collectors, with many items commanding hundreds of dollars apiece when found in mint, complete condition in their original boxes or bubble cards.

AHI specialized in inexpensive (and often crudely made) “rack toys,” often found in discount retail outlets and pharmacies. The company released numerous items throughout the ’70s, such as Captain America and Hulk parachuting figures, a Hulk friction-powered “stunt” cycle, as well as car and boat sets, helicopters that could be whisked into the sky with a hand-held launcher, water guns and much more. The company did put out higher-priced remote control vehicles for Cap and the Hulk, but for the most part, the majority of AHI’s output was of a lower quality, which may explain the relative scarcity of the items nowadays. In 1978, AHI’s subsidiary, Remco, put out various “Utility Belt” sets for Captain America, Hulk and other heroes. Along with the actual belt, Cap’s set came with a communicator, watch, handcuffs, “decoder” glasses, ID card and map; while the Hulk’s set featured a “gamma radiation detector,” voice modulator and green-colored wrist gauntlets. The company also released “powerized” nine-inch figures of the Captain and Hulk, which featured small motors within and allowed Cap’s shield to spin and Hulk to throw a plastic log from above his head.

A promotional mini-poster for the 2012 film, “The Avengers.” This double-sided 13-x-19-inch poster features images of The Hulk and Hawkeye on the reverse

The Avengers Captain America Flying Shield, manufactured by Hasbro and released in 2012. Value: $10-$12.

Mettoy—well-known for manufacturing numerous die-cast metal vehicles under the “Corgi” name, released a number of small-scale superhero cars like the Captain America Jetmobile, as well as helicopters and characters on motorbikes. Other ’70s-era collectibles include Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and Hulk Viewmaster reel sets released by Gaff in 1977; a Captain America board game (which also featured The Falcon and the Avengers), produced by Milton Bradley in 1978; a Hulk hand puppet from Imperial in 1978; and a Hulk puzzle from Whitman in 1979.

The 1980s would see a plethora of items released in conjunction with Marvel’s 12-issue Secret Wars comic book series, published in 1984 and ’85. The actual comic was created by Marvel at the request of toy manufacturer Mattel, which wanted to develop a line of superhero toys but wanted to have it tied into a comic book series. As a result, Marvel crafted a storyline in which numerous superhero characters and villains were kidnapped by an unseen force and transported to another world to battle against each other. Mattel produced various tie-in figures (which came with lenticular shield accessories), as well as various playsets and vehicles. Secret Wars-themed items would also be manufactured by other companies as well: Aladdin released a colorful lunch box featuring images of many of the heroes; a Captain America remote-control “Rocket Racer” and a vehicle set (with Hulk van and Cap motorcycle) were produced by Buddy L; gumball banks were put out by Superior; and a binocular set was released by Gordy International.

In 1990, a new line of Marvel collectibles began to be released via prolific company Toy Biz (known as Charon Toy in Canada). Having previously released numerous DC Comics-themed figures as well as toys for the 1989 Batman feature film directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, Toy Biz would come to enjoy a very good partnership with Marvel, releasing more Marvel-related items than perhaps any other company. Initial offerings in the line included Captain America (complete with shooting shield and launcher) and the Hulk, but would later come to include Thor, Iron Man (with removable helmet and armor), and many others. The company also released a Captain America Turbo Coupe vehicle and a “Training Center” playset.

An eight-inch plush Hulk doll released by Comic Images in 2008. Value: $14, approx.

A shot from the big-budget superhero epic, The Avengers. Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Iron Man and Hulk prepare to do battle.

 

Numerous other items would be released since the 1990s, including Marvel Super Hero Squad toys—a line of miniature two-inch tall “super deformed” styled figures that debuted in 2006 from toy giant Hasbro. More recently, Hasbro has released a large number of items to coincide with the release of such big-budget Marvel Comics film adaptations such as the “Iron Man” movies, “Thor,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “The Avengers,” such as action figures, vehicles, toy weapons (among them a Captain America “flying” shield and a Thor “Mjolnir” hammer) and various dress-up costume sets. Many of the figures feature likenesses to actors Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), but a few of the items have also been depicted in a more standard comic book-styled manner. Other Avengers-specific items have included eight-inch bobble-head figures and plush dolls from Funko, and mini-figures and playsets from Lego. And for the more discriminating collector, Sideshow Collectibles and Hot Toys have put out a number of stunning, high-end 12-inch figures (including Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow characters), featuring incredibly realistic head sculpts, highly detailed costumes and numerous accessories.

As evidenced by the huge box-office success of “The Avengers,” superheroes continue to resonate with both die-hard comic book fans and casual observers alike. Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor have long been icons of pop culture, and so long as new Marvel-themed television series and feature film adaptations are produced, it’s pretty much a given that toys and collectibles based on these characters will continue to be made as well.

James Burrell writes about film, pop culture and collectibles for a variety of publications and online sites, including Rue Morgue and Canuxploitation! A life-long collector of vintage science-fiction, fantasy and monster-themed toys and movie memorabilia, he resides in Toronto, Canada.

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