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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Force in Focus: Stars Wars Action Figures Wave 2

Figures Released: 
Greedo
Hammerhead
Snaggletooth (red and blue jumpsuit)
Walrus Man
R5-D4
Death Star Droid
Luke Skywalker (X-Wing Pilot)
Power Droid (aka Gronk Droid)
Boba Fett (mail away)

The second wave of figures released under the Star Wars banner, first on sale in late 1978, could be called "the alien wave", as it sees the releases of four notable aliens from the famous cantina scene: Greedo, Hammerhead (later named Momaw Nadon), Snaggletooth (aka Zutton) and Walrus Man (aka Ponda Baba, the alien whom accosted Luke and got his arm sliced off by Obi-Wan for his troubles). For the most part, aside from their heads, the figures don't really resemble their onscreen counterparts, due to a combination of sculpting limitations and a lack of visual reference material;, if part of a creature's body wasn't seen on screen, George Lucas and his team didn't bother designing a look or costume for that part, and most of the reference material given to Kenner for the figures were simply headshots of the aliens, usually in black-and-white.

This led to a curious sequence of events in the case of the Snaggletooth figure, one of the more well-known stories among action figure collectors, which resulted in the creation of one of the line's more famous and sought-after figures on the collectors market. When Kenner set about designing the Snaggletooth figure, they put him in a blue jumpsuit (the reference photo was B&W) with silver boots, and made the figure the same size as the rest of their figures (the photo was only a headshot). However, when LucasFilm saw the figure, they explained that Snaggletooth was in fact much shorter than the rest of the aliens, and wore a red jumpsuit, not blue, with exposed feet. So Kenner designed a second Snaggletooth figure, one about waist high relative to the other figures, colored red and with exposed, furry feet.


The initial blue Snaggletooth was available only via the Sear's Christmas wish book in 1978, packaged with the other three cantina aliens as part of the Cantina Adventure Set (essentially a chipboard backdrop of the cantina along with the four figures) or in a two-pack with Greedo. It was never carded, or released wide, outside of the Sear's catalog (instead, the red Snaggletooth got carded and put into stores across the country). As a result, it remains one of the more sough-after and expensive Star Wars action figures on the collectors' market, due to its low production run and the circumstances of its creation.

(Blue Snaggletooth's story doesn't end there: when LucasFilm was making the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, they reused a number of costumes and masks from the initial film, including Snaggletooth's; however, it was decided to put the mask on a full-size actor. The red costume was kept the same, but the character was given a belt buckle which matched the one Kenner designed for Blue Snaggletooth, making that figure the only one to inform a costume design, instead of the other way around. And the full-sized Blue Snaggletooth, originally just, essentially, an error in production design, lives on as a character in his own right, receiving a figure in the later revived action figure line, and appearing in an episode of The Clone Wars).

Beyond the aliens, this wave also includes in R5-D4 (the red Artoo-like droid whom Uncle Owen originally purchased from the Jawas) and the Death Star droid a sort of twisted reflection of the earlier wave's Artoo/Threepio pairing, along with the box-like Power Droid, known for the "gonk" sound it makes while walking on its two stubby legs. In the X-Wing Pilot Luke figure, it has the series' first "main character in a different costume" figure, a technique that will enable Kenner to sell multiple versions of the most popular characters, and constantly refresh the line with new Lukes, Hans, and Leias (and to a lesser extent, Chewies, Artoos, Threepios and Landos).

And then there's Boba Fett, who in this incarnation is arguably the single most famous of the vintage Star Wars action figures. While the figure would eventually be sold carded, the initial Boba Fett figure was exclusively mail-away, a clever way for Kenner to goose sales of the figures, as kids had to send in multiple "proofs of purchase", cut from the cardbacks of other figures, along with shipping and handling money, to receive the figure. Advertised as being a new character from the upcoming Star Wars sequel (it still hadn't been named The Empire Strikes Back) and featuring a missile-firing backpack, when the figure arrived in the mail, the missile was glued firmly in the backpack, which, according to an included note, was done in the name of safety.

Purportedly, the removal of the missile-firing action feature was done as a result of Mattel's missile-firing Battlestar Galactica Colonial Viper vehicle, which resulted in the death of one child and injuries to ten more, prompting a recall of approximately two million of the toys. This led Kenner to modify Boba Fett's backpack, which has in turn created something of a holy grail for Star Wars action figure collectors: an original, vintage, Boba Fett with working missile-fire action. No such figures are believed to ever been sold to the public, but some reportedly exist on the secondary market, either pre-production pieces sold off by Kenner employees, or fan-made reproductions. Even without a working action figure, vintage Boba Fetts remain some of the most valuable Star Wars figures, with mint-on-card figures appearing on Star Wars cardbacks (the rarest such version of the figure, since the time between the end of the mailaway promotion and the release of Empire cardbacks was so limited) valued in the thousands.

11 comments:

  1. Boba Fett was my first introduction to the mail-away figures. Waiting 6-8 weeks as a 5yo might as well have been a year. Checking the mailbox every day but bitterly disappointed when nothing arrived. Then when that little, thin white box of cardboard with MY NAME printed on the outside showed up was like Christmas Day all over. I even tried to get Boba to fire his missile or at least get my tiny kid fingers to remove it from his launcher, when my dad informed me of that anonymous kid who got himself killed by a stupid toy (which I had and I didn't get myself killed, so why did I have to be denied a firing Boba Fett?!)

    Oh well. Boba's still cool.

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    1. I didn't mail away for many toys, and I really only remember one vividly: Clark Kent from Kenner's SUPER POWERS COLLECTION. You're right; 6 - 8 weeks was basically an eternity for me back then! In the modern age of Amazon Prime and online order tracking, I'm a little disappointed my own child won't enjoy the exquisite agony of waiting for a mail-away item. Heck, sometimes I miss it myself in a weird way!

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    2. My big foray into mail-away toys was GI Joe. Like a lot of things, they took what Kenner did with Star Wars toys and improved upon it, such that in this case, GI Joe had a pretty steady stream of mail away offers running at all times, which enabled me to get older figures I missed out on. That's how I got Quick-Kick, Bazooka, and the hooded Cobra Commander back in the day.

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  2. I hadn't remembered Snaggletooth at all until you described the outfit(s). Since I’m pretty sure I didn't have the Cantina Adventure Set, unless the Greedo two-pack was sold in stores either I got it in a trade or I never even owned it but remember playing with it at a friend’s. While not all my figures have survived, I definitely want to check for it next time I’m visiting Mom’s basement.

    A few comments on the previous action-figure post were contrary to my view of preferring aliens, no matter how briefly seen on screen, to what I considered boring human characters. I do know that Greedo, Walrus Man, and Hammerhead figures were, at least in my circles, the least scarce and thus least valued; whether grown-ups chose them as gifts for kids under the assumption that weird characters would be most fun or just because they were most abundant on picked-through shelves, we all seemed to have duplicates of at least one of them if not multiples of all three.

    I recall being fascinated by the mail-away figures but never trying to order them, for whatever reason, just as I never subscribed to comic books nor sent away for any other mail-order stuff advertised there.

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    1. Everything I've read suggests that Blue Snaggletooth was only available via Sears (in either the set or the two pack), but those sources could be erroneous.

      As far the alien peg warmers, it could be that they remained behind simply because they weren't "main" characters. Diehard collectors (such as they were back in the day) probably wanted everyone, but I can easily see kids wanting, given a choice, Darth Vader or Han Solo before Hammerhead and Walrus Man.

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    2. Back when these were first on sale I worked for a while in a toy shop. The toys in general were in great demand, shops could only get limited numbers of mixed character boxes. What they actually wanted was a box of Skywalkers, Darth Vaders and a few others. Consequently the select few disappeared as soon as a box opened and the Hammerheads and Snaggletooths were left on the shelf in fairly large numbers. If an uncle or aunt just popped in to buy a quick gift, that may have been all they could find.

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    3. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “peg warmers” before. That’s great. In my experience the single saddest epitome of the phenomenon will likely always be ol’ Bob the Goon from 1989’s Batman — although Penguin from 1992’s Batman Returns might have been just as bad if not worse in terms of being a character with actual Q rating amongst the general public.

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    4. Anonymous -- that's fascinating, and totally opposite of what goes on nowaways (or at least last time I seriously collected action figures a few yeas back) -- the main characters usually sit on shelves while all the rarer ones get snagged up straight out of the carton, though in that case it's usually scalpers rather than collectors doing it.

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  3. I somehow never noticed tall Snaggletooth in CLONE WARS! I'll have to go back and check on that. I've been meaning to re-watch the series anyway, if I can find the time...

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    1. I'm actually slowly making my way through the series, sort-of for the first time. I watched all of season 1 as it aired, then it piled up on my DVR and I ended up deleting it in favor of eventually watching it on Netflix. I watched a few of the buzzier episodes as they aired (like the Mortis trilogy), and then when Netflix released their exclusive, final season, I watched all of that.

      So now I've gone back and started with season 2 and am working my way forward from there. I don't think I've ever watched a show in such a bizarre manner before, certainly not as an adult.

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    2. It's an unusual way to watch it, but given that the first three or so seasons jumped around the timeline periodically anyway, you probably won't be too confused.

      When I do finally get around to re-watching CLONE WARS, I think I'll watch it in the correct story order rather than original airdate order. There are some weird jumps early on.

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