Rack To The Future
Rack Toys -
Cheap, Crazed Playthings
Second edition by Brian Heiler
Nacelle ISBN: 9781737380108
Rack Toys, subtitled Cheap, Crazed Playthings is a wonderful little memory tome by Brian Heiler, the man behind Toy Ventures magazine (first issue reviewed here) and the Plaid Stallions website, which is here. I’ve been wanting to grab a copy of this for years but have always been put off by the fact that Amazon always used to list it as being only one page long. So I was really pleased to see that the author has just brought out a second, revised edition of the book.
This tome is aimed squarely at people like me, who spent most of their childhood in the 1970s and can remember either a lot of the toys pictured between the pages or, if not, remember another toy just like it, often using the same mould and repackaged. For these toys are the things of childhood legend... the kind of obviously cheap, lower grade toys hanging up on racks in chemists and cut price goods shops of the time. Many of these were licensed properties which were often reworks of a previous toy and you always knew, even as a kid, that there was a lot less thought involved in the production of these things than the regular children’s toys, where the policy was not just to give the product a different colour and put a sticker belonging to the latest license on it... which is exactly what the rack toy manufacturers often did.
Asides from a foreword and afterword, the book is comprised of six chapters and, if it’s word count you’re looking for, well... the book is a bit sparse in that area but what’s there does enlighten and it’s more about the brilliant full colour images of hundreds of these toys which are the main allure of the book. I’ll quickly take you through the six chapters now, although there are some overlaps and ‘creative categorising’ in this tome too, it has to be said...
Chapter One is entitled Comic Action Heroes (which is also the name of a line of a much loved set of Marvel and DC figures from my childhood but, alas, these are not featured in this book because they weren’t mere rack toys... although, you know, they still hung on racks in the shops). This section focuses on super-hero licenses and is perhaps the best to re-introduce you to one of the wonderful conundrums of the contradictory world of rack toys... that some of these things just don’t make any sense when you relate them to the licence in question. So, okay, I can just about accept a Spider-Man parachute because I saw him spin a web and use one as such in an early Spider-Man comic but, a Superman parachute? That’s a different proposition... the guy can fly and has no use for such contraptions. And as for the Spider-Man The Exterminator set... seriously? This is a gun, handcuffs and police ID badge branded with Spider-Man on the packaging. What were they thinking? It makes even less sense than the Spider-Man miniature ten pin bowling set depicted on the same page. So, yeah, there’s stuff here which will certainly bring a smile to your face... whether you remember the toy in question or not. At least the Superman water gun has a little comic strip on the packaging explaining why the last son of Krypton might have a use for such a thing. And, if you were always agonising over the origins of some products, Heiler will put you out of your misery and reveal that the Batman branded water pistol really was repackaged later as Doctor Who’s Anti-Dalek Fluid Neutraliser. And who knows what evil was lurking in the hearts of men when they repainted the 1966 Batmobile and put a figurine of The Shadow in it to rechristen it the Shadowmobile?
Chapter Two - Spooky Fun shows us a lot of figures and other products based on the various horror franchises such as Universal’s classic monsters... so Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy and Creature From The Black Lagoon are all present and correct. As are some of the larger monsters such as King Kong and Godzilla. Heck, there’s even some Jaws tie-ins. I never saw Jaws when it first came into cinemas because I was only seven years old but even I had a tie-in rubber shark when I was a kid (or more likely a knock off... I’ll get to those a little later).
Chapter Three - The Future Is Fantastic covers many of the science fiction based toys such as Planet Of The Apes (again, an abundance of parachutists and some completely out of continuity items like an Apes helicopter), Star Trek, Space 1999 and even... and I would have loved one of these as a kid but I had no idea these were even being manufactured... a tie-in action figure from the TV miniseries of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. There are also tie-ins for such sci-fi shows as Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and Flash Gordon. Another surprise was the ‘bend-em’ flexi-figure based on the extra terrestial from the final scenes of Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Chapter Four is branded TV And Movie Superstars and contains a large number of licences including a Police Woman crime lab play set, a M*A*S*H helicopter and a Trapper John MD medical kit to tie in with the largely unsuccessful M*A*S*H spin off show. Plus loads of other stuff you may or may not have forgotten such as toys inextricably... and often inexplicably... linked to franchises such as Manimal, Street Hawk and Laverne And Shirley (although, as the writer points out, how could you have a Laverne And Shirley Pocket Calculator when this Happy Days spin off show was set in the late 1950s and early 1960s?).
Chapter Five - Saturday Morning Fun focuses on toys based on the three or four hours of shows and cartoons which would be laid on for kids on TV on a Saturday morning. Again, you have to wonder why a submarine and a deep sea diver (you know, the ones you put in the bathtub and then suck water through the attached tube to make it sink) would be branded up as a Woody Woodpecker submarine and diver. I was surprised to find some Disney stuff in this section too.
Chapter Six - Generic Joy deals with the products which weren’t tied to any famous licence and there’s some very interesting stuff here... such as the old staple of plastic infantry men in various packaging. And a whole fleet of really interesting looking toys based on the moon landing and the space race from the late 1960s. And, wow, Squirt Rings! I’d forgotten about those but used to love them as a kid. A moulded plastic ring which you wore on your finger, careful to hide the squeezy, water filled bulb attached to it in your hand so a quick clench of your fist turned the ring into a water pistol. Those were great fun.
Chapter Seven, the final chapter is called Hey, Knock It Off! This one is an extremely interesting and outrageously entertaining section which deals with unlicensed copies (or knock offs) of licensed properties in all their strange forms. So four plastic ‘soldier-like’ musicians are branded with an illustration of The Beatles, but the band is renamed The Swingers for copyright purposes. Or there’s the Sonic Man and Sonic Woman... nope, nothing bionic about these. And the Space Visitor, which seems to be some kind of science fiction vehicle with Superman’s head and arms growing out of it is... well... it’s an abomination of science and must have come out of the mind of some crazy, plastic figure of a mad scientist somewhere. I’d love one of these bizarre and somewhat unhinged toys. And of course, there’s the famous Mr. Rock... who is now worth much more money than the original Mego Mr. Spock action figures that it was riffing on.
Okay, I have some light criticisms based around the wording in this book. The typography is appalling with many typos throughout. Normally it’s not enough to hinder communication and, for example, I know an action figure was more likely to have come onto the market in 1974 as opposed to the listed year being 1074. I’m pretty sure that, in the wake of the Battle Of Hastings, for example, the kids weren’t playing with plastic action figures. There’s also the odd sentence with words left off the end completely and also a repeated caption on a page. And there’s one glaring layout where it looks like the designer came off the rails and forgot the runaround value on a section, where all of the last words on the right of a paragraph are half cropped out completely... which can impair comprehension a little.
However, I can live with all these errors and I’m sure they’ll correct them for the next edition. I was just grateful to be able to pore over the pictures in this epic book and be transported back to my youth (I’m currently in the process of living through my fourth childhood, of course). So, yeah, if you’re into the toys of the late 1960s to early 1980s then Rack Toys - Cheap, Crazed Playthings is absolutely for you. A wonderful archive of a simpler but, perhaps more fun time to grow up in. And now I just need to figure out where to grab a Wonder Woman pencil sharpener from.