Most people know that I got my start in the comic book business. I don’t talk a lot about those comics that I wrote in the early days because the experience was…suboptimal. Make no mistake — the fault for this is almost entirely (like, 99.9%) mine. I was young, brash, opinionated…and wordy as hell. Not a good mix for a comic book writer.
What most people don’t know, though, is that early on I plied my writing skills in service of a toy company, too. I’ve never really told this story, so I figured why not do it now?
Here’s how it happened: I was slaving away at Diamond Comic Distributors when one day my friend Chuck Terceira (at the time a minor Purchasing drone, but now the President of Diamond Select Toys) came over to my humble cubicle.
“Hey, you write, right?”
“Well, yeah.” At this point, I had very little under my belt, but so what?
“I know some guys who are starting up a toy line and they want someone to write something for them. You interested?”
At that point in my life/career, I would have jumped at the chance to write fortune cookies. I said yes.
Chuck put me in touch with the guys at Toy Island. One of their founders had been a big-wig at Mattel, guiding the Barbie line. Now these guys were launching their own toy business.
Realize that this was the 1990s. The idea of independent toy companies was new and flowering, thanks in part to the runaway success of Todd McFarlane’s upstart Todd Toys (later McFarlane Toys). I was intrigued by the idea of being on the ground floor of something creative and new.
So, I hopped on a train to New York and met with the two principals at Toy Island. For the first time in my life, I was asked to sign an NDA. That out of the way, they explained their plan.
“You’ve heard of Todd McFarlane?” they asked.
Well, duh. I worked in the comics biz. Of course I had.
“You know how he’s revolutionized toys?” they asked. “With all of that crazy detailing?”
For those of you who don’t know, they were talking about toys like these:
At the time, that level of detail was insane. We take it for granted now, but McFarlane Toys was pretty much at the vanguard of hyperrealistic detail in toys, similar to the way Image Comics at the time was at the forefront of over-rendered detail in comics. It was new and exciting and no one else was doing it.
For comparison, Star Wars toys looked like this in the 1990s:
Not bad, but nowhere near the level of sculpting and detail in the McFarlane Toys. This was a scrubby little startup showing the big boys how to do their own jobs.
And now the Toy Island guys wanted in. Their plan was to apply a McFarlane-esque level of detail to science fiction toys. (McFarlane was focused on horror and fantasy, mainly.) With a new Star Wars movie on the horizon, the boys toy market was understocked. Everyone knew that the new Star Wars toys would dominate, so the major toy companies weren’t producing any sort of sci-fi toys.
Toy Island wanted to take advantage of the lull with a new line that would come from nowhere. For a period of several months, the only sci-fi toys on shelves would be theirs. Until Star Wars came along, of course. But by then, they would have established themselves and their brand. Not a bad plan.
But there was more. And this was the crux of the need to sign an NDA.
“We’ve developed a whole new toy technology,” they told me. “These toys shoot each other.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“They shoot each other. One fires a beam at another, and the one that was hit screams and falls over.”
It took me a moment to digest this. Because it sounded like he’d said that these toys could shoot each other and react to being shot. Which was clearly impossible.
“Let me make sure I understand this,” I said. “I can take one toy and set it up on a table and take another one from a distance away and aim its gun and push a button and the toy on the table will fall over.”
“Scream and fall over,” they clarified.
“Because it was shot.”
“Yes, because it was shot.”
“With a beam of some kind.”
“Yes, a light beam.”
“A visible beam of light.” I wanted to be sure of this. Remember this part, Dear Reader; it will be important later on.
“A visible beam of light,” they confirmed. “It shoots out of one toy and hits the other toy…”
“And the other toy screams and falls down.”
Ho. Lee. Shit.
This wasn’t just a cool toy — this was groundbreaking. Game-changing. No more running back and forth between your toys to knock ’em over. No more yelling with your friends over who got shot and who didn’t. Actual beams of light flashing back and forth between your toys, just like in the movies!
Yeah, I was on-board.
What they needed from me, they said, was a story. They had the technology and the toys, but they needed those toys to have names and motivations. There had to be a backstory, one with dangling threads that kids could pick up to playact with. I would write a comic book, they told me, one that would set up the characters and the history, ending with a dramatic hook that kids would hang their own stories on.
Great. Sounded terrific.
The only problem was this: They also wanted me to produce the entire comic from soup to nuts. Not just the story, but also the art, coloring, lettering…
And I had no idea how to do that.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our story, as Young Barry exploits his friends…