This weekend, the Four Horsemen announced the acquisition of their first license, The Outer Space Men. The 4H provided some images of the figures in the line and, as usual, amazed us with their work. While we were looking at all the pretty pictures though, we realized we weren’t quite sure what we were looking at. Who were The Outer Space Men? We didn’t have much more than a passing awareness of them, so we hit the books. And what we found out only made the 4H versions more awesome.
How old are The Outer Space Men?
The OSM were conceived by Mel Birnkrant and released by Colorforms Corporation in 1968. Now, we at IAT thrive in a world of toy nostalgia, but The Outer Space Men were largely unknown to most of us. I’m turning thirty this year, and the OSM figures came and went over a decade before I was born. For my part, I didn’t know about them until a member of our forums brought them to my attention a few days ago and one of my collaborators was able to expound on this “new to me” toy line. I’d like to think I have a good knowledge of old toys, but these guys are older than Stretch Armstrong & Big Jim, from before Lite Brites & Spirographs. Heck, The Outer Space Men had been around the block before anyone thought of the Pet Rock! That’s serious street cred.
What are The Outer Space Men?
The origin seems simple enough. In the sixties, space wasn’t the cold, lifeless place we know it as today. It was red hot. NASA was working its way to the Moon and every one seemed to have space fever. Space exploration was influencing everything: film, music, literature, comics, fashion, food, and yes, toys. Hasbro sent G.I. Joe into space. Mattel made their first attempt to crash into the boy’s market with Major Matt Mason. And The Outer Space Men were introduced by… the Colorforms Corporation?
Yep, Colorforms. If you’ve never had a set, Colorforms are essentially reusable vinyl stickers that you apply to a backdrop to create your own scenes. Throughout their sixty-year existence they’ve been available in a variety of licenses. I remember a cool Batman set that featured Super Powers art.*. If you’re not sure if you’ve played with one, you probably have.
* – Must… resist… urge to check eBay…
But long before I picked up my first Colorforms set in the late eighties, there were the Colorforms Aliens, a.k.a. The Outer Space Men.
The first wave of figures featured characters from the different planets in our Solar System. Mercury & Earth representatives were excluded from the first wave, though it could be said that Mattel’s Major Matt Mason was ostensibly the Earth agent. Placing Matt next to the OSM, it’s clear they were intended to be compatible with the space adventurer. In interviews, Birnkrant even states that a Mason figure was used to help promote the OSM line.
Now, I generally believe that toys have gotten better throughout the years. DC Classics & MOTU Classics are dream toy lines. And just yesterday, I was stoked to hear that a 25th Anniversary Low-Light was shown at JoeCon. I’ll be buying. But looking back on the old toys, I have to pay tribute to one thing they tend to have over their modern counter parts: creativity.
What I mean is, updated toys, while being overall better in my opinion, generally have to borrow the creativity from their old counterparts. I just picked up a pristine vintage Sy-Klone on Thursday. Looking at him on my desk, I think two things: one, the 4H-sculpted MOTU Classics figure is going to blow him out the water in terms of construction and playability*. But, two, it will be an update of this imaginative design from twenty-five years ago. While the modern figures live up to my expectations, it’s really the creativity of the vintage figures that capture my imagination.
* – By He, he’ll be the first Sy-Klone figure to have working/articulated shoulder joints…
That’s what happened to me while researching for this article. I know that the 4H will wonderfully execute the modern versions of these characters, but the life they have, the creativity involved, will go back to their very roots. I saw it while researching this article. I don’t find that many old action figures to swoon over, but looking back at the OSM originals… well, this is cliché, but I’ll say it anyway. Mel Birnkrant was ahead of his time.
Who are The Outer Space Men?
The first wave consisted of seven figures: Alpha 7 (Mars), Astro-Nautilus (Neptune), Commander Comet (Venus), Colossus Rex (Jupiter), Electron+ (Pluto), Orbitron (Uranus), Xodiac (Saturn). Each figure had a unique look and size, included a character specific accessory, and had an official bio.
I’ll post some links at the end of the article so you can see the old toys up close, but strange as it sounds, I most enjoyed their mixture of uniformity and uniqueness. The overall look, with the accordion like joints, is out of necessity for the bendy figures to work and matches in style to the Matt Mason figures. But after that overall design is in place, the seven figures go in wildly different directions. Being familiar with the Glyos system*, it will be interesting to see how the unique looks are incorporated into the final product.
* – More on that in a minute…
Another aspect that really struck me was the hope and open-endedness conveyed in each of the bios. Maybe it’s just because I’m still rationalizing the complicatedness of Keldor’s struggle against oppression or that the 6” War Machine’s card back had a small movie spoiler on it, but I find myself really enjoying the possibilities for these guys. The OSM could have easily been conceived as villains for Matt Mason and maybe they were by some kids, but they didn’t have to be. They could be just about anyone you wanted them to be.
The bios range from telling us that Xodiac “can tune his Staff to play upon the great rings” of Saturn, to letting us know that the very Greco Commander Comet visited the Grecian Isles millennia ago.* Colossus Rex’s bio is hopeful that’s he a good guy because he’s rather large and menacing, not to mention invincible. Birnkrant says that these bios were written as a quick afterthought, but they’re impressive nonetheless. I wonder if the modern takes, if they receive updated bios, will be similarly free.
* – Leaving us to wonder what impact he might have had on the ancient humans he met in the OSM universe.
Sadly, the second wave of OSM was never to be. The moon was conquered in 1969 and apparently found lacking. For a time, space became less and less interesting and its influence over pop culture waned. Even a name change from The Outer Space Men to World of the Future was not enough to drive interest in a second assortment. Continue to Page 2…