When last we left our intrepid young Barry, he had just finished producing (with the help of his friends) a comic book for the Lazer Wars toys. And now…
Time passed. The toy guys did their jobs, and Jeff and I did ours. The comic was done, but we’d been told to come up with plans for a second series of toys, with an eye toward developing an animated TV series. I started brainstorming plots and characters, and Jeff began putting together numbers for producing further comics.
One day, I got a call from the toy guys. The rough cut of the first commercial was done and they’d overnighted it to me.
Jeff and I rushed to my house after work. Sure enough, a FedEx package awaited us, containing a videotape. (I remind you: IT WAS THE NINETIES!)
We popped the tape in and…
Well, we didn’t have the expression “WTF” in 1998, but that’s what we were thinking anyway.
The toys in the commercial didn’t seem as…sleek as the sketches we’d been provided. It was tough to tell because they were being handled by kids and so blocked a good deal of the time, but they seemed a bit…chunky.1
Additionally, the colors seemed sort of bright. Not the dark, muted palette we’d expected (and used in the comic), but more like pastels.
This was all weird, yes, but the weirdest thing was this: No visible beam.
Now, remember, back when the guys first explained that the toys shot each other and reacted to being shot, I asked if the beam was visible. I asked them: “So, a beam of light goes from one figure to another and I can see it?” And they replied “Yes.”
Try as we might, Jeff and I could not see the beam of light in the commercial. The kids were firing plenty of “lazers” at each other and the figures were falling down, but we couldn’t see a beam. Flashes of white light? Sure. But no coherent beams.
“Maybe it just doesn’t show up on film,” Jeff theorized.
That seemed possible. Still, I was uneasy. The figures looked off somehow. I wasn’t sure what to think at this point.
A little while later, Jeff and I made the trip to New York for Toy Fair. We went to Toy Island’s show room, which had been made over to look like the surface of Mars. Pretty cool, actually. The toys were posed all around the room in a mock battle. A little tough to see, though, because the lighting was really dim.
In a moment, I found out why.
Remember that the whole point of this toy line was to do “McFarlane-level sculpting in science fiction.” So, like this:
Or like this:
What we got was this:
Now, look, there’s nothing wrong with that figure. It’s a perfectly fine toy.
But it’s not McFarlane-level sculpting and detail. It’s too big and blocky. I quickly discerned why: The technology required for the figures to “shoot” each other required space. If you made these figures today, you could probably toss a cheap Bluetooth chip in there along with a cellphone motor and make it as slim as any other toy. But back then, the light sensors, the flashlight, and the vibration motor needed space. And so the toys ended up seriously top-heavy.
That was one problem, sure. But the other problem was, well…
The “lazer” guns that the characters used were basically just flashlights. Consequently, their light sensors were designed to pick up, well, flashlights. In other words, almost any light. In fact, the instructions with the figures even mention that they should not be used outdoors…because sunlight would trigger them!
That’s why the showroom was so dim. When I picked up a figure and tilted it, it screamed and shook as though it would fall down. Not because it had been shot, but rather because the regular old overhead light had set it off!2
So… Sunlight set them off. Your table lamp set them off. They didn’t look like something toy collectors would go nuts for, the way they’d gone nuts for McFarlane. And that was fine. I mean, Jeff and I thought we were developing a property for older kids and collectors, but apparently not.
Compare that picture above of Em Grosser to what was in the comic:
We didn’t make that up. That image was based on sketches we were provided. They’re hugely different from each other. I thought I was writing Star Wars, but it turns out I was writing Ewoks.
I want to make sure I say here that I don’t mean to mock or denigrate the toy guys or what they produced. I think their vision outstripped the technology and they charged ahead regardless. And they were always fair and honorable in their dealings with us; no one’s checks bounced.
They just clearly had a completely different vision of what this thing was. And the technology just wasn’t there to make it a success. The idea was great, but it fell short in the execution. If you can’t take your toys outside to play…if someone turning on a lamp at the wrong moment can make your army fall down… It just ain’t gonna work.
And it didn’t.
Well, you can imagine what happened next. The toys landed on toy store shelves…and stayed there. Months later the Toy Island guys told us that sales hadn’t been what they needed in order to proceed. The second series of toys, the further comics, the animated series… All dead. They thanked us for our efforts and our time, but that was the end of it.
I was disappointed, sure, but also pumped up. Working on this story had reinvigorated my writing urges. I wrote a sci-fi novel, based loosely on my original toy premise, the one they hadn’t bought. And then I wrote another one.
And then I wrote a novel upon which I bestowed the truly absurd title The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl.
So, happy ending after all. 🙂
Oh, and one crazy coda to this whole thing: Part of my contract was a stipulation that I receive a dozen of each toy. The Toy Island guys said, “Are you sure you want that many? The boxes are pretty big.” I stood my ground: I wanted those damn toys!
Well, one day I came home from work to discover four ENORMOUS boxes from Hong Kong on my doorstep. I wrestled them inside. These boxes were easily 2x2x5 at the smallest — at least 20 cubic feet, if not more.
I left them in the living room, figuring I would open them and figure out what to do with the toys when the weekend came.
Well, the next day, I came home from work…and there were more of the same boxes waiting for me.
And the day after that.
And the day after that.
My entire living room was packed to the ceiling with gigantic crates of toys from Hong Kong. I finally relocated them to the basement (should have put them there first!) and unpacked them. Sure enough, I had a dozen not only of each toy, but of each SKU! Meaning that I had a dozen of Col. Chance and Em Grosser as single figures…and then also a dozen of the Chance/Grosser two-pack!
It was sort of crazy, but also sort of cool. It took years to give away that many toys, but I eventually did. Nowadays, I have a single two-pack and a couple of loose figures. None of the robots or ships.
Oh, and a coda to the coda: A month or so after all the toys arrived, I got a bill from Toy Island’s parent company for several hundred dollars for the international FedEx costs of shipping the toys from Hong Kong. It took many, many phone calls, but eventually I was able to get them to reverse those costs.
And that was the end of my toy career. Well, unless you count the Goth Girl minimate. 😉
P.S. I tried to track down that commercial, but couldn’t. Even YouTube is stumped. But I did go ahead and shoot my own little video for you so that you can see one of the toys in action…