Mego Museum Cards !
By Kurt Kuersteiner ©2008Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards for The Wrapper Magazine
Like many Wrapper readers, I'm usually more interested in the older vintage cards than I am the newer sets. But every once in a while, something new comes along that is interesting and unique enough to make me really want it bad . That happened late last year when I read a short mention about Mego Museum cards in Non-Sports Update. They are cards featuring the children's classic action figures from the 1970s, and they covered a wide array of different genres. There were comic book super heroes, Star Trek characters, the Planet of the Apes cast, and best of all (from my perspective), monsters.
The cards are given away free, so I figured it would be cheap and easy to finish a set. Was I ever wrong!
It took six long months and a lot of stamps to get really close to the finish line. During the course of the chase, I discovered an interesting history of a hobby I knew little about (Mego action figures), and I was reminded that the harder it is to complete something, the more satisfying the accomplishment.
There are a number of reasons this set is tough to collect, the main one being that they are not supposed to be bought or sold. Beginner lots are given away on eBay for the cost of postage (which is around $8 from Canada). You're supposed to trade for the rest. But if you only have 25 cards of a 90 card set, what can you trade with? Well, you're supposed to buy stuff from various Mego dealers and they'll give you more cards. And what if you don't collect action figures? Then you can always beg for free handouts in the Mego web forums.
Like I said, it was a long six months!
So what's so neat about this set? For starters, it has been released just a few cards at a time over several years (starting in 2005). The last several cards still haven't been printed, but the finished set will be at least 90 cards. (They've printed 74 so far, plus four checklists.) The card stock is flimsy and many of the card backs are identical, so obviously, it's the images and subject matter that make it popular.
After all, what boomer can resist the nostalgia Mego figures evoke? They epitomized a time when parents were spoiling their kids rotten with mass produced pop icon figures. The 8 inch plastic dolls were renamed "action figures" so little boys wouldn't feel too sissy carrying them around. The strategy worked marvelously. Mego started out as an unknown toy importer in 1952, but after a new executive took over in 1971, it rocketed to success and became the 6 th largest toy producer within five years. The new President was Marty Abrams, the grandson of founder David Abrams, and he was only 28 years old when he took the helm.
Marty realized that it was worth paying significant license fees (plus 5% royalties) to get exclusive rights to produce popular TV show and comic book characters. They struck it rich when they started producing various DC & Marvel comic book heroes. Other hits included a line of Star Trek characters, which Mego acquired for a measly $5,000! Mego wasn't afraid to spend big money however. They received quite a reputation for putting on lavish parties at the New York Toy Fair. In the mid 1970s, they flew in every surviving cast member of The Wizard of Oz to introduce their new line of figures based on the classic film.
Normally, Mego avoided movie properties because they thought TV was a much better deal. A movie only played several weeks and then disappeared (unless it became a classic like Wizard of Oz). TV, on the other hand, kept playing month after month, and often year after year, like a constant commercial to promote their products. So when a young Hollywood director showed up at Mego headquarters to try to sell a license for characters based on his yet-to-be-released film, the fact Abrams was away in Europe didn't cause any of his staff concern. They knew what their boss would say to the young upstart: No thanks! And with that stinging rejection, the young George Lucas was sent off to lick his wounds. Unfortunately for Mego, the director didn't give up. He went on to sell his Star Wars license to Kenner, and it became the biggest hit in action figure history. In fact, Kenner was so overwhelmed with demand for the blockbuster movie characters, that they instituted the infamous "empty box campaign". That's when they sold flat, empty boxes with mail-in certificates promising the owner they could redeem the slip later for the actual figures when they were finally made. Believe it or not, the boxes sold by the truckload!
Kenner made their figures smaller (3 3/4 inches) so that they could also sell matching space ships to house the characters. The new size soon became the industry standard, leaving Mego's 8 inch figures to fight over the scraps. The smaller molded figures did not have the polyester cloth costumes that larger Mego characters had. More of them would fit on the store shelf, and they were cheaper to produce and sell. Mego responded by introducing their own smaller figures, but in so doing, they surrendered their position of trendsetter and become one of many followers.
Passing on the Star Wars license was a mistake that Mego never really recovered from, but it is not (contrary to what many suggest) what killed the company. (We'll save that sordid tale for last.) For now, let's have a look at the colorful cards and the people who made and collect them.
Brian Heiler is one of several Mego fans involved with the Mego Museum ( www.megomuseum.com ). The giant website is a vast repository of Mego information, photos, and interviews with former Mego employees. "I was printing something for my business and my printer asked if I wanted to tag on some business cards," Brian explained, "This printer had made a hockey card of himself to promote his business and I thought it was the perfect vehicle to promote our site. My friend Steve Leach designed the first card. When I shared the concept with Scott Adams, the site's creator, he loved it and created special artwork for the project. We printed 500 of each card and honestly, I thought that would be that. I started leaving them at toy shows and sending them with eBay parcels and it just ballooned into something we never anticipated. This is strange in hindsight because we're collectors ourselves, we should know our own mindset."
Soon, the Mego forums were begging for more, so Brian offered to let members sponsor specific cards for a small fee (to help pay for printing). In return, the sponsor got his name printed on the card back plus a certain number of the cards to give away.
The series took on a life of its own. It is currently 74 cards in size. How big will the completed set be? " I have no idea," responds Brian, "it depends on when we decide to call it quits. So far we're committed to the Legends and that puts us at 90 cards." It certainly has plenty of room for expansion. Mego produced more than just 8 inch characters. For example, in 1975 they launched a 12 1/2 inch celebrity doll line, to challenge Mattel's Barbie doll. It began with Sonny & Cher, and became a big hit. The Fonzie figure from Happy Days followed, which was also a tremendous success. Mego then produced the popular Lynda Carter Wonder Woman doll in 1976. Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, Diana Ross, Suzanne Somers, and the Captain & Tennille dolls followed in 1977, but not all of these popular icons translated into big sales.
Fortunately, Mego had devised a concept to recycle unsold figures. They would pop off their heads and reuse the bodies for the next product. It's still used today to eliminate excess inventory. Alas, this did not eliminate the mounting debts the company was building up in escalating license fees for failed properties. After the Star Wars debacle, Mego over-compensated by paying too much for Hollywood licenses that didn't pay off in toy sales. Examples include Buck Rogers, The Black Hole, Moonraker, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture . The Dukes of Hazard TV figures became an unexpected hit (Mego only paid $2,500 for that license!). Unfortunately, other TV figures like The Love Boat, The Waltons, Starsky & Hutch, and ChiPs fizzled.
It would be difficult to over emphasize how enthusiastic some Mego fans are over their action figures. Richard Lee is a good example. He collected Megos as a kid, and now, as a working adult, he has devoted an entire room of his home to house his figures. His favorite Mego is Shazam! and he remembers buying several when he was younger. "I was about 7 years old back in 1974," the 41-year-old recalls, "I would go with my uncle and buy a new Captain Marvel whenever the last one wore out. We would also try to find the various Star Trek characters. I had all the regular crew but only one of the nine aliens (Cheron, the black/ white character played by Frank Gorshin). Kenner had good distribution, but Mego was terrible about it. They made fewer aliens to begin with, and Heaven only knows where they sent them all."
Richard wasn't the only kid frustrated by Mego's haphazard distribution. Fans would see all the characters pictured on the back of the box, but could rarely find them all. That has since changed. Aliens like the blue Andorian are not as difficult to find today (thanks to eBay), but at $600, you'll probably have a tough time finding the money to pay for it!
Mego wasn't always very accurate with their characters. According to one of their execs, many of the Star Trek aliens were "designed" at the Hong Kong factory with little research or understanding. The results could often be unintentionally humorous. The Gorn creature was a lizard-like biped with a tunic in the TV show. The Mego version recycled The Lizard's head (from the Spiderman villain), a body from Planet of the Apes, and the uniform from a Klingon. Meanwhile, the Mugato was supposed to be a white horned gorilla with a spiked covered spine and long tail. "The Mego version of the Mugato had it wearing a ridiculous clown outfit!" Richard exclaimed, "Then they made The Keeper from The Cage episode look like the giant puppet alien from The Corbomite Maneuver (in which Clint Howard played the puppet master)." As if to make it more confusing, Mego also made a proper Keeper alien, but called it Talos. And to top it all off, they also created the "Neptunian", which was a green alien with no relevance to any episode whatsoever!
Richard also recalls the cardboard vinyl playsets Mego sold as accessories to their figures. "They packaged Batman as if they were based on the comic book," he chuckles, "But they were clearly exploiting the popular TV show reruns without paying for it." Mego offered the Batmobile, the Batcycle, a Wayne Foundation playset, and a Batcave playset, complete with bat-signal, bat-computer, and sliding bat-pole. It was up to the kids to imagine the Biff! Bonk! and Bammo! fight graphics.
"The Holy Grail of Mego collectors is the elusive Alter Egos collection," Richard adds, "but it was only sold through the 1974 Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog." The kits allowed you to create the secret identities of four super heroes by providing interchangeable non-hero heads and regular civilian clothes instead of tights. The four characters were Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Dick Grayson. If you happen to have these four unassuming characters, then congratulations: You have a doll set worth $10,000 to $15,000!
All of the characters Richard mentioned are in the Mego Museum card set, plus many more, including some Universal monster types (although altered enough to avoid law suits), plus (soon-to-be-printed) cards of various Camelot- esque knights, Robin Hood characters, classic Pirates, and famous cowboys & Indians. Only 500 of the first three cards were made, (Spiderman, Superman, and Wonder Woman), but those have since been reprinted in regular quantities of 1,000, so collectors can finish their sets. The new 1-3 backs are different though. The easiest way to tell the first printing from the second is that the originals have a 2005 copyright, while the reprints have 2006. There is also an error card worth mentioning. Supergirl is normally number 23, but there are also 1,000 of them with #38/ Mego Jet Jungle backs.
So what caused the polyester curtain to finally fall on Mego? Your kids may want to leave the room before you get the seedy details.
By the 1980s, Mego had fallen into deep debt due to lavish licenses that bombed, and a big investment in handheld computer games that went nowhere. The crowning blow, however, was when CEO Marty Abrams was indicted on federal wire fraud charges in January of 1982. The indictment accused Abrams and his general counsel/ vice president, Leonard S. Siegel, of defrauding the company of more than $100,000 over a nine-year period.
Federal prosecutors proved that the two made unrecorded cash sales of clearance merchandise. Mego had no system to track merchandise returned by stores, and the items were quietly sold for cash to street vendors. Prosecutors said the secret slush fund money was used to enrich themselves and bribe toy company buyers and labor union officials. Abrams and Siegel were found guilty on 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of tax fraud. Abrams received a four-month sentence for each count and Siegel received three months on each count. The judge ordered the punishment for each count to run concurrently for a total of seven months imprisonment. Despite the break in the sentencing, the two appealed the verdict but lost.
Mego filed for Chapter 11 protection on June 14, 1982. As part of the reorganization plan, Mego stopped manufacturing toys. They entered a desperate agreement with Pac Packaging to distribute its toys instead. Mego had become a shadow of its former self. They had gone from 1,400 employees in 1976 to just 30 in early 1983. So when Pac pulled out of the deal the following year, it left Mego with few options other than to merge with a subsidiary and abandon the toy business altogether.
Fortunately, we still have the toys to remind us of an earlier decade when Mego represented a wholesome way to celebrate more innocent times. And we also have the cool cards. They really are a nostalgic catch-all set. If you wish you could relive some of your youth, collecting the cards is one way to simulate the experience. You could also collect some of the figures from eBay and watch the 1970s Mego TV spots on Youtube.com. It won't remove any wrinkles, but it could help you feel young at heart.
For a complete checklist to this series, (and partial checklist to the new sister series by Brian Heiler, called Plaid Stallions) see http://www.monsterwax.com/megochecklist.html
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