Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Which Came First—The Comic or the Toy?

Since their inception in the early 20th century, comic books have been synonymous with American youth and playfulness. The colorful, action-packed stories in the pages of comics translated into creative play in the backyard with capes and masks and into elaborate worlds scaled to the action figures on the playroom rug. As comics and action figures evolved, lines became blurred: which came first, the comic or the toy?

 REMCO, 1983 Catalog and Marvel Comics Saga of Crystar: Crystal Warrior, February 1985.

In most cases, the comic precedes the toy: kids get hooked on the adventures of Superman and Wonder Woman, and stores are soon stocked with red capes and gold lassos. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created as an inside joke by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984. The comics caught on with readers and licensing opportunities appeared quickly. Between 1988 and 1991, Playmates sold $1.1 billion worth of action figures, vehicles, and playsets. The Turtles have been mainstays in American popular culture for the past 30 years.

Where the creation of TMNT and the resulting licensing windfall was quite serendipitous, the origin of the Saga of Crystar was more calculated, with drastically different results. Marvel Comics developed the Saga of Crystar in the early 1980s for the sole purpose of finding a toy company to produce licensed toys based on the characters and story. Remco produced a Crystar line for one year, and the comic lasted for 11 issues.

In other cases, the toy comes first and is then licensed to a comic book publisher. In 1984, Hasbro adapted the Japanese toy company Takara's Diaclone and Microman toy lines to create the Transformers. A comic book series, first published by Marvel, and a television series quickly followed. The Transformers have become a global media franchise with toys, comics, movies, and videogames to keep the brand thriving.

Parker Brothers, ROM: Spacenight toy. Marvel Comics, ROM, February 1986 In 1978, Parker Brothers decided to dip their toes into the electronic game market with a robot toy called ROM (for Read-Only Memory). ROM’s story line was licensed to Marvel Comics, who integrated ROM into the Marvel Universe and enlisted writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema to enrich the robot’s story. The ROM comic series outlasted the toy, publishing issues from 1979 through 1986. The ROM toy only lasted a year on the market. ROM has a comeback in the works however: in 2015 IDW Publishing began putting out new issues in the series.

DC Comics, Showcase, November-December 1964. Marvel Comics, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, August 1987. In rare instances, there’s a comic, then a toy and another comic, and then another toy and comic a decade later! G.I. Joe made his debut in a comic book series published by Ziff-Davis from 1950–1957. Capitalizing on the popularity of military comics, the G.I. Joe of the 50s and his sidekicks made war “good clean fun.” In 1964, amid the Cold War, Hasbro introduced the 11-½ -inch G.I. Joe “action figure” (to distinguish it from dolls) and created a variety of vehicles, equipment, and play sets to accompany it. DC Comics featured G.I. Joe in two issues of Showcase from 1964–1965 and included ads for Hasbro’s action figure. The polarizing Vietnam War sent G.I. Joe looking for a career change, and he faded from the market in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Joe returned as G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. This time, a Saturday morning television show and a long-running comic book series published by DC Comics fueled G.I. Joe’s revival.

Some toys and comics are simultaneously created and packaged together. Toy manufacturers include mini-comics with action figures and their accessories to expand on the character’s backstory. In 1982, Mattel produced four minicomics, packaged with the Masters of the Universe action figures, to flesh-out the story of He-Man and his rivalry with Skeletor. DC Comics picked up the licensing for additional series of the comic, and an animated series sustained the Masters of the Universe’s popularity through the early 1990s.

Kenner, MASK, “Flaming Beginnings,” 1985. Kenner, MASK Mobile Armored Strike Kommand, Ali Bombay, 1986. Kenner’s M.A.S.K. toy line followed a similar trajectory: the original series of mini-comics describing the world of M.A.S.K. (Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) and its clashes with V.E.N.O.M. (Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem), were packaged with the toys beginning with their debut in 1985. Again, DC Comics secured the license for the comic after the initial series and published the story line through 1987.

In the age of the franchise reboot and cross-over action movie, it is only a matter of time before these toys and comics reemerge. In 2015, news broke that Paramount and Hasbro planned to create a movie universe connecting G.I. Joe, Micronauts, Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, M.A.S.K., and ROM. This tantalizing prospect has yet to come to fruition, but this year a M.A.S.K. movie franchise got one step closer to happening. Paramount also announced 2020 release dates for a G.I. Joe movie and a Micronauts movie. The ultimate toy-comic cross-over might be hitting the big screen before we know it!

A Museum is Born

If you’re one of the more than half-million visitors to The Strong museum each year, you may have spotted the gallery wall about the life of founder Margaret Woodbury Strong en route to the admissions desk (and later, when you mosey back over to the food court). The museum in its current state grew out of the original collections of dolls, dollhouses, and other playthings amassed and cherished by Margaret Woodbury Strong during her lifetime.

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More Stories from the National Toy Hall of Fame

Get out your library cards and alert your book club! As far as we’re concerned, National Toy Hall of Fame season never ends, making it a fine time for another edition of Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love. Last year, I recommended books about 11 Toy Hall of Fame inductees and their inventors.

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Oral Histories in the Archives

In this age of sharing every idle thought online, younger generations might find it hard to believe that publicly documenting one’s own life wasn’t always the norm. The most ancient forms of memory were kept in the oral tradition, and the keepers of records were individuals entrusted with the task of memorizing details and transmitting them through recitation to others. As writing systems developed and literacy rose across the globe, the written record became the rule (and oftentimes, entire groups of people were left off the pages).

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Velocipede Ventures

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Sidewalk Surfing: The Gnarly History of Skateboarding Part I (1940s to 1972)

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Tournaments, Contests, and International Scoreboards: A Prehistory of Esports in the 1980s Arcade



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A History of Video Games in 64 Objects

How do you tell the history of video games?

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Play It Again: Enjoying Music Through the Ages

“I love songs!”

This short phrase is something I’ve been known to say (or occasionally shout) with great enthusiasm. Yes, I could simply say I love music, but that wouldn’t encompass all of those catchy little improvised (and largely a cappella) ditties made up with friends or family while driving, working, cooking, or whenever else inspiration may strike. The word “songs” seems more fitting given the broader creative terrain it covers. Not to mention, most people chuckle or at least crack a smile when I utter those three words.

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Game Changers: The 2018 World Video Game Hall of Fame

 “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

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From a Coquette to a Mystery Date?


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