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!

PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH … And Why Some People Do, Anyway

If you are a human with a job and colleagues, your coworkers probably send you links to various items on the Internet. These may include the occasional funny cat video, but most of the time the content probably has a legitimate connection to your job. In my case, people send me numerous articles about preservation and, thankfully, most of it is good news.

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“He Shoots! He Scores!”: Hockey Games for the Off-Season

Being a fan of a professional sports team can be a lot of work. Sure, you can casually flip through the television channels on a Sunday afternoon and watch a few minutes of football, or you can accept some free tickets to a baseball game just to appreciate the sunshine and some stadium hot dogs, but folks who call themselves “die-hard fans” really take their enjoyment of sports to a different level.

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Playing Pirate

It’s 9:43 a.m. on September 19, and you’re eyeing the morning’s deadlines when the usually reserved graphic artist pokes her head into your office and says, “Ye’ll have me that copy before the sun is over the yard-arm, or I’ll have ye walkin’ the plank, ye swab, ye scurvy son of a sea dog.” With a flourish, she whips an X-Acto  knife in her teeth. You notice that she’s wearing a tri-cornered felt hat with the Jolly Roger on the brim.

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An Ancient Game in a Digital Age

Recently for The Strong’s American Journal of Play, I reviewed Garry Fine’s new book on the sociology of chess, and I particularly enjoyed his discussion on the role of computers in chess.

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Playing Catch

Several years ago, friends came to visit and brought along their Australian shepherd/border collie mix and this black Ko

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A Shopping We Will Go…

Shopping. Chances are that word triggers a sensation of either joy or dread in your brain. Love it or loathe it, shopping plays a pretty hefty role in most of our lives, whether it’s a quick trip to the market for some essentials or a day-long event to find that one perfect item. Regardless of your shopping style—necessity or hobby—it’s hard to ignore that shopping represents a large part of our everyday culture, including how we play.

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My Year with Atari


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What Do Pinball and Jiminy Cricket Have in Common?

Before I came to The Strong, my exposure to pinball had been limited to the Barbie Shakin’ Pinball handheld video game that I received for Christmas 1995. I have definitely come a long way in my pinball knowledge since then, from learning the proper terms for components I never knew existed (pop bumpers are my favorite) to discovering the game’s tumultuous and sometimes scandalous past (mob connections, anyone?). Once I saw the machines up close, I became fascinated with the several different types of artwork that appear on every pinball machine.

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Through the Artist’s Eyes

My love of movable books and of antique toys and games containing the richly colored chromolithographs of the last half of the 1800s brought me to The Strong’s Online Collections. I spent four days “oohing” and “ahhing” over the vast archive of images in the museum’s database before I discovered it was possible to view the actual objects by arranging an appointment or, better yet, applying for a fellowship for an in-depth immersion.

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Why ICHEG Collects Game Company Newsletters and Magazines

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