The Outer Space Men, the classic creation of Mel Birnkrant, are headed back into your collection as a new line sculpted and produced by Four Horsemen Studios. Here at IAT, we weren’t familiar with the original line and wanted to learn more about it to help us appreciate the new versions. We were fascinated by what we learned, but we still had a few more questions. For those answers, we turned to the greatest resource there is on the Outer Space Men, Mel Birnkrant himself.
We learned a lot talking with Mel, so much so that part of me wanted to simply post our exchanged e-mails. And that’s more or less what we’re going to do. Mel responded to our interview questions in the form of an e-mail response and rather than edit it into an article format, I’m just going to let Mel speak for himself. We’ve bolded our questions, but everything else is straight from Mel to you. Now, we’ll warn you – we let Mel have free reign to respond as thoroughly as he wanted and he lived up to our expectations! So, pencil in some quiet time, mix up a batch of Tang or grab a freeze-dried ice cream sandwich, relax, and enjoy.
Dear [IAT Crew],
In your introductory letter you posed a question that led to several days of reminiscing. I found myself recalling events that happened over forty years ago, more vivid in my memory today than what I had for dinner yesterday. I hope you won’t mind if I respond to what you wrote below, even before the interview officially begins.
IAT: People tend to look back on the past through the lens of “now” and that can make it difficult to understand the fabric of how things used to be. We can learn facts and figures about previous times, but it’s not always easy to understand what people were thinking or experiencing at the time. What can you tell us about the state of toys when the Outer Space Men were introduced?
Let me attempt to weave a remnant of that fabric for you: First and foremost, it was a World devoid of Action Figures. Before 1967, when Matt Mason and The Outer Space Men were created, there was simply no such thing! G.I. Joe was just a dress up doll for boys, and Captain Action too, in terms of play pattern, was closer to Barbie than to Batman. No one even recognized Action Figures as a “category” until Mego introduced their line of Super Heroes nearly five years later.
Although the Space Race was in full swing in 1967, Flying Saucers, as they called them, had still been glimpsed only from afar. Terms like Aliens, Extra Terrestrials, and UFOs had not yet been invented. Close Encounters and sightings of the now familiar “grays” were generally unknown. Outer Space was still an empty slate upon which any story could be written, and to populate the Universe with beings of my choosing, no previous occupants needed to step aside.
To fully understand The Outer Space Men, one must accept a concept that many action figure collectors embrace unknowingly. Few realize they are indulging in idolatry. The Outer Space Men are not “just products”, but Life embodying Idols of an alien, yet familiar, Mythology.
One must also open their mind to the possibility that an image can sometimes strike a universal note that implies, through form alone, that it not only represents a living being, but might, itself, contain a spark of Life. I always sought that element, perhaps subjective and imaginary, in the multitude of iconic images I’ve collected all my life. And I also believe that the simpler and more stylized an image is, the more powerful the life force in it is apt to be. For example: Mickey Mouse in his earliest incarnation, an exercise in pure geometry, is more “alive” than, say, a Madame Tussaud’s Waxwork, perfect in every detail of death-like immobility.
If you, like me, agree that Mickey, in his direct simplicity, radiates life energy, then you will understand The Outer Space Men.
IAT: It seems that some biographical info or copy might have been integral in the transition from products to action figures, moreso than articulation or accessories. You’ve said that the OSM biographies were a “spontaneous afterthought”, but do you think that helped them catch the imaginations of the kids of the late 60s? And what inspired you to keep the biographies from casting them as heroes or villains?
Articulation and accessories add what in the toy industry is referred to as “play value”, in other words, more things to do. But what gives Action, or its implication, at least in my opinion, is “Imagination”. A toy that is powered by imagination trumps batteries any old day. The little stories were an attempt to fire the imagination and send those unfamiliar entities out into the atmosphere of planet Earth, not altogether naked, but cloaked in a biography, a mysterious letter of introduction, to help them out along the way.
And I dare say, in 1967, kids imaginations were quite easily ignited; there was so little out there to compete for their attention on earth or in the vast uncharted emptiness of outer space. Continue to Page 2…