“‘Save Me Captain Stubing! Skeletor and The Lone Ranger have joined forces and are attacking the General Lee’: The place of play

Curator's Note

This is very preliminary, so I’d appreciate suggestions on earlier known examples or other approaches There are countless anecdotes of children combining discrete toy brands into shared story-worlds through play, whether by having G.I. Joe date Barbie (or blow her up) or by pitting Transformers against GoBots. Such play has become popularized by contemporary television programs like Robot Chicken and online vidders like Aaron Brown that mix together toy lines in order to tell decidedly-adult stories through stop animation. Since the mid 1980s, Hasbro has supported crossovers featuring its G.I. Joe and Transformers properties through their comic book and cartoon licensing in the hopes of managing playful imaginations. These commercials from Mego Toys and Underoos from the early-to-mid-1980s respectively point to other early attempts to cash in on children’s willingness to ignore IP boundaries. Interestingly, while these commercials hint at the possibilities of Superman (DC Comics/TWI) and the Hulk (Marvel Entertainment), He-man (Mattel) and Optimus Prime (Hasbro) sharing the same play-world, they largely keep these properties isolated from one another (there is one shot of the Hulk, Spiderman, Superman and Batman collectively being played with), rather than have them interact. The same seems to hold true for this 1975 Ideal Toys Captain Action -The Amazing 9-in-1 superhero advert below, where identities are as interchangeable as swapping out masks and yet each character clearly occupies a bounded space. I’d love to know more about the licensing agreements and strategic reasoning that led to these properties to occupy the same commercial space. thumbnail


It may be worth pointing out that Marvel and DC had established precedent for a cross-over in 1976 with Superman vs Spider-Man, so the possibilities for trans-universe interaction between other characters (Batman and Hulk, for instance) were officially established by then.

That is a great point, Will. Thanks! The earliest Mego commercials that I found featuring characters from both universes actually dates back to 1976, so I wonder if a joint toy line release was part of both company's strategizing (this becomes a bit of a chicken and egg question though). What's somewhat different here from most trans-universe crossovers (I cannot speak specifically to Superman/Spiderman) is that the comic books usually emphasized that one or both characters had wandered into an alternate universe, whereas these commercials make no such distinction (other than possibly children's shared play fantasies).

From what I can gather online, Superman vs Spider-Man seems to have taken place first in Metropolis, then in New York -- which is a bit of a fix as I believe Metropolis and Gotham effectively replaced NYC in the DC Universe until recently, when Gotham was retconned to NJ, Metropolis to Delaware, and NYC reinstated as an entirely separate city. What the second toy advertisement seems to me to introduce well before its appearance in comic books is the idea of a multiple-character crossover. The penultimate shot shows Captain America, Captain Marvel and Robin,so there are seven characters here from the two universes -- I don't know if such a large-scale team-up across DC and Marvel happened in official continuity until the DC vs Marvel event of 1996, which led to a series of "amalgam" comics. The early issues of Warren Ellis' "Planetary" series also feature teams from the different franchises in conflict, though because of copyright issues he has to portray them as immediately-recognisable archetypes or analogues.

Don't forget the 1996 Amalgam Comics line that literally amalgamated DC and Marvel characters (Wolverine and Batman combined to be Dark Claw; Justice League of American and X-Men combined to be JLX). Of course, in this case too, this cross-corporate interaction required the creation of an alternate universe. Avi, I too would like to know more about the reasoning behind these licensing deals. If I was Mattel, for example, with a product like He-Man directly competing in the marketplace with Hasbro's Transformers, I might seek out a different licensee than Hasbro's to handle my underwear license. Underoos appear to be a Fruit of the Loom brand--why not approach Hanes? Wouldn't Hanes like to get a piece of this market too, and if they had the He-Man license, wouldn't they try to make it outsell the Transformers brand? I'm only really guessing at what would cause all these licenses to be so easily unified, but to me it suggests the possibility that these toy companies perceived licenses across media more as short term promotion and revenue boosters than long term revenue sources of their own. If I wanted a competitive advantage to make underwear a long term profit center, I'd pick a licensee who's going to try to sell more of my character than the competition's. But if I'm less worried about royalties, and just want to promote my character while collecting a small upfront license fee, it seems less important to pick a licensee who is going to give my license its exclusive attention. Then again, what do I know? I'd really like to see those agreements and see evidence about what the licensors were thinking!

I recently recovered some favorite childhood toys via the magic that is eBay. The toys in question were Soakies. In the early to mid 1960s (I show my age here), Soakies was a brand of bubble bath which came in plastic containers designed to look like popular cartoon characters of the era. I used to have a set of 20 or 30 of the Soakies containers which I would use to stage stories. At the time, it didn't occur to me that the Soakies characters came from a broad range of different media companies. The set I was able to purchase included characters from Disney, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and DC, and I am pretty sure other companies were also involved. Because each contains the same amount of bath suds, the characters were all the same size and thus they made a totally compatible set of what we would now call action figures with which to mix and match media fantasies. This is just to say that the trends of cross-corporate branding collaborations seem to go back at least to the 1960s.

Actually (channeling "Comic Book Guy") the early DC-Marvel crossovers operated under the assumption that the characters all lived in the same universe. This was true as late as the last of the original crossovers, X-Men/Teen Titans; the crossovers then ceased for a long time (about 15 years, IIRC), and when they started up again they now treated the characters as existing in different universes.

Dear Avi As I am new to this site it is a real pleasure to see people wanting to discuss topics like toys and media crossovers without the usual critical undertones of it was all to squeeze money from kids and their parents. There is something very important to say about how these fictional worlds were made to interact by companies and the opportunities this afforded to children (like myself at that time) to experiment with creating semiotic spaces for child play and interactivity. It might be worthwhile, particularly where Transformers and GoBots are concerned, to look at the toys' origins in Japan as competing toy ranges and how that sense of difference was highlighted or smoothed over depending on how they were to be marketed in the US and UK.

I'm trying to remember the details, but either Wizard or Toyfare magazine started running a genuinely hilarious series of photo-comics in the 1990s, combining characters from different comics and toy worlds, all represented by their respective figures. These were generally very "adult."

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