IT'S ALL TRUE.NET, June 7, 2010
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MEL BIRNKRANT INTERVIEW PART I, by NoisyDVL5
The Outer Space Men, the classic creation of Mel Birnkrant, are headed back into your collection as a new line sculpted and produced by Four Horsemen Studios. Here at IAT, we weren’t familiar with the original line and wanted to learn more about it to help us appreciate the new versions. We were fascinated by what we learned, but we still had a few more questions. For those answers, we turned to the greatest resource there is on the Outer Space Men, Mel Birnkrant himself.
We learned a lot talking with Mel, so much so that part of me wanted to simply post our exchanged e-mails. And that’s more or less what we’re going to do. Mel responded to our interview questions in the form of an e-mail response and rather than edit it into an article format, I’m just going to let Mel speak for himself. We’ve bolded our questions, but everything else is straight from Mel to you. Now, we’ll warn you - we let Mel have free reign to respond as thoroughly as he wanted and he lived up to our expectations! So, pencil in some quiet time, mix up a batch of Tang or grab a freeze-dried ice cream sandwich, relax, and enjoy.
I always liked this interview. It appeared on the Website, “It’s All True” in 2010, and it marked the beginning of the return of The Outer Space Men. It was also my opportunity to introduce myself to the Action Figure Community. The page you see below is only a facsimile! Hopefully, for a while, you can read the whole thing HERE, in its Original form, with comments and replies! Which is what I recommend you do. I recorded the content of the interview, in the backup version that follows, simply, in case the Real Thing disappears, or gets Lost in Cyberspace! The content is exactly what appeared on line. The colored type represents the words of the interviewers, the Crew at “It’s All True”. The words in white are mine.
Dear [IAT Crew],
In your introductory letter you posed a question that led to several days of reminiscing. I found myself recalling events that happened over forty years ago, more vivid in my memory today than what I had for dinner yesterday. I hope you won’t mind if I respond to what you wrote below, even before the interview officially begins.
IAT: People tend to look back on the past through the lens of “now” and that can make it difficult to understand the fabric of how things used to be. We can learn facts and figures about previous times, but it’s not always easy to understand what people were thinking or experiencing at the time. What can you tell us about the state of toys when the Outer Space Men were introduced?
Let me attempt to weave a remnant of that fabric for you: First and foremost, it was a World devoid of Action Figures. Before 1967, when Matt Mason and The Outer Space Men were created, there was simply no such thing! G.I. Joe was just a dress up doll for boys, and Captain Action too, in terms of play pattern, was closer to Barbie than to Batman. No one even recognized Action Figures as a “category” until Mego introduced their line of Super Heroes nearly five years later.
Although the Space Race was in full swing in 1967, Flying Saucers, as they called them, had still been glimpsed only from afar. Terms like Aliens, Extra Terrestrials, and UFOs had not yet been invented. Close Encounters and sightings of the now familiar “grays” were generally unknown. Outer Space was still an empty slate upon which any story could be written, and to populate the Universe with beings of my choosing, no previous occupants needed to step aside.
One must also open their mind to the possibility that an image can sometimes strike a universal note that implies, through form alone, that it not only represents a living being, but might, itself, contain a spark of Life. I always sought that element, perhaps subjective and imaginary, in the multitude of iconic images I’ve collected all my life. And I also believe that the simpler and more stylized an image is, the more powerful the life force in it is apt to be. For example: Mickey Mouse in his earliest incarnation, an exercise in pure geometry, is more “alive” than, say, a Madame Tussaud’s Waxwork, perfect in every detail of death-like immobility. If you, like me, agree that Mickey, in his direct simplicity, radiates life energy, then you will understand The Outer Space Men.
IAT: It seems that some biographical info or copy might have been integral in the transition from products to action figures, moreso than articulation or accessories. You’ve said that the OSM biographies were a “spontaneous afterthought”, but do you think that helped them catch the imaginations of the kids of the late 60s? And what inspired you to keep the biographies from casting them as heroes or villains?
Articulation and accessories add what in the toy industry is referred to as “play value”, in other words, more things to do. But what gives Action, or its implication, at least in my opinion, is “Imagination”. A toy that is powered by imagination trumps batteries any old day. The little stories were an attempt to fire the imagination and send those unfamiliar entities out into the atmosphere of planet Earth, not altogether naked, but cloaked in a biography, a mysterious letter of introduction, to help them out along the way. And I dare say, in 1967, kids imaginations were quite easily ignited; there was so little out there to compete for their attention on earth or in the vast uncharted emptiness of outer space.
What inspired me not to cast them as heroes or villains? Looking back now I’d have to say intuition, a commodity that all my life has served me as a viable substitute for book learning and brains. That, and a sense of fair play. At the risk of convincing you I’m “F-in Goofy”, let me pose a question I’ve often asked myself, and sometimes others: Can an inanimate object have a soul? I’ve received affirmative answers from people I respect immensely, artists and puppeteers, etc, who should know. Suffice it to say that like Adam and Eve, the Outer Space Men were sent forth from the place of their creation with the ability to choose between both good and evil. Is that not how it should be?
To fully understand The Outer Space Men, one must accept a concept that many action figure collectors embrace unknowingly. Few realize they are indulging in idolatry. The Outer Space Men are not “just products”, but Life embodying Idols of an alien, yet familiar, Mythology.
Ironically, Matt Mason, the very object that inspired the Outer Space Men, albeit a mini masterpiece of toy technology, was for me a soulless entity, an empty space suit, with neither mystery nor history. Designed with purposefully bland anonymity to allow the mind of any child to enter and become him. But as a person, he held no interest for me. Tom Hanks is the perfect “everyman” to portray him in the upcoming movie.
Because The Outer Space Men were born into a world where action figures didn’t yet exist, the special features were not the latest update on a known established entity, as was the case many years later when Kenner introduced action features. The features in Series Two were just an attempt to make the Second Series bigger and better than the first one. And knowing antique toy history, the features didn’t seem all that special to me. Baby dolls with three bisque faces hidden behind their baby bonnet existed as early as the 19th Century.
Furthermore, I felt I knew each of these characters intimately. Therefore, the light-up parts and action features were simply integral to their characterization, and thus were a necessity. Like Popeye, each one said to me, “I yam what I yam”, and I knew, intuitively, just what it had to be. As for the three faces: I felt the first should be somewhat human, but with a slight exotic twist. The second was based on a sketch of a sort of lizard man I did for the First Series. But I felt, at the time, he was somewhat redundant next to Colossus Rex, who I liked better, so he was eliminated.
The third face was just plain scary, resembling a monster I once glimpsed in person, just before waking, in a never forgotten childhood nightmare.
As for the twist of, long ago, forgetting his own identity, Yes, I liked that line too. It implied a certain bitter-sweet poetic poignancy: to cast aside one’s own identity, but come to know and understand the Oneness of all life everywhere.
Oh, by the way, you might have noticed that all the Outer Space Men have a long history, one that hints at immortality. Perhaps they might be gods.
Once again I am reminded that you guys are all so young. And the World we live in is a very different place, today, than it was two generations ago. The answer to your question: “Did I ever consider an Outer Space Woman?” alas, is a resounding no. The very name Outer Space Men says it all. As I reader of comic books in the Golden Age, I can tell you Wonder Woman, to many, was a joke. Guys didn’t want to admit they read it, and girls thought it was a lame attempt to expand the comic market. Archie and Veronica were more their cup of tea. The fact that she later became a sometimes symbol of the feminist movement did little to enhance her Amazonian appeal.
As time went by, I became aware that in the fascinating field of Japanese Anime the protagonists were, more often than not, young powerful attractive women. This was a stunning concept that slowly seeped into our culture. It burst forth convincingly, for me, once and forever, in the person of Sigourney Weaver in the best, most perfectly constructed, well written and exciting science fiction movie of all time, Aliens.
Yes, today and in the future, there should be “Outer Space Women”! And who to better realize them than the 4 Masters of the 7th Kingdom? And, by the way, Yes, I do believe, without a contemporary Matt Mason to accompany them, the “New” Outer Space Men might finally need a “Man from Earth”.
…but he may turn out to be a woman.
DC’s Alanna Strange… we just like her.
SilntAngl5: I know the attitude towards action figures of women was even less friendly back then, but did you ever have any plans for an Outer Space Woman? If the new line grows beyond the original thirteen designs, is that something you’d like to see happen? In that same vein, without a contemporary Matt Mason to accompany them, do you think the “new” Outer Space Men might finally need a “Man from Earth”?
Then the project went into a period of suspended animation while the Horsemen tended their other obligations and searched for an affordable solution. Finally, they presented me with the Glyos concept and I said OK. There were also many original ideas in their approach to the OSM that took me by surprise. One was the 3 ¾” size. I didn’t want to knock off the original series by replicating it exactly, so that was more than fine. I also liked their brilliant idea of introducing the figures in groups of two, one from the Original Series and one from Series Two.
But I had never seen the Glyos joint system, which was described to me verbally not visually. Conceptually, I began to anticipate problems with it. I was afraid the universal parts would dominate. To me the accordion joints were the feature that unified the original OSM to each other and Matt Mason as well. And all the rest was, by design, “diversity”.
Eric began to send me photos that represented what the 4 Horsemen were doing, and in particular, their sculpting of a universal body. Meanwhile, I sent back persnickety overlays asking couldn’t this or that be thinner etc. etc. And I was taken aback, somewhat, when I discovered
that all the joints had to be a certain universal size. On the other hand, learning that there were more joints there than meets the eye was a trade off worth the sacrifice. As time went on, I was relieved and pleased to see that each body was being adapted in some way to appear unique from, yet still be interchangeable with all the others.
Then one day, Eric sent me a photo that made me a Glyos convert, Astro-Nautilus’s head on the universal body. My God, It worked! I beheld a combination so convincing that I suddenly began to worry that when I finally saw Astro-Nautilus with tentacles, [which at that point were not made yet] instead of arms, I might not like them quite as well. I hope and trust the 4H will not mind my sharing that early photo with you.
At this point I stepped back in awe and admiration, put my tracing paper pad away, and gave the 4 Horsemen free rein do their thing. Now that I understand what they are doing, and better still, where they are going, I absolutely Love it. There are Surprises up their sleeves. You’re going to be Amazed!
My thoughts on the new line? How many ways can one say Thrilled… and Honored … humbled even, to see the OSM In hands as talented as the 4 Horsemen’s? I also love the endless possibilities and variations made possible by Onell Designs: jewel-like clarity, pristine frosted transparency, armies built and customized to fulfill the owner’s own design. The future plans I’ve heard discussed boggle my mind.
What are my hopes for the future of the Outer Space men?: Simply, that they survive me, and are still around when I am gone.
Astro-Nautilus Head on universal body
Never before seen photo of The Outer Space Men
Noisy: Of the original Outer Spacemen, Metamorpho is my favorite. I’m intrigued both by this action feature (used on other figures in my childhood) and his copy that he likely no longer remembered his true face. What led to the decision to give the proposed Wave Two figures light-up parts and action features? And what inspired the three Metamorpho faces? Were they from other possible aliens or simply created for Metamorpho?
In the end, yes, absolutely! But at first I didn’t get it. We had spoken of the many ways the Outer Space Men could be handled, each idea more exciting that the one before it. And if the 4H’s first efforts are successful, you will see many of those other possibilities become realities too.
Vault: Speaking of Onell Designs, and the Glyos joint system, collectors of the modern Outer Space Men line will be able to use the interchangeable parts to create near endless variations and new Outer Space Men from their own imaginations. Was that something that appealed to you about this project?
Most things in life are either done for Love or Money. Onell and the 4 Horseman are about Love; Large companies are about Money. Harry and I were naive dreamers. We dreamt of creating toys and having them accepted. That’s all we hoped to do.
Big companies can be horrible, but exciting, places to be. They sap all your creativity quickly, and once they’ve drained you dry, you’ll find yourself spat out and cast aside. Bottom line: they are only interested in the bottom line. Small brave independent toy companies like Onell and the 4Horsemen, along with their ever growing legion of appreciative and dedicated fans, are the toy industry’s salvation.
Vault: The Outer Space Men are being brought back by Four Horsemen Toy Design Studios working with Onell Designs - two popular and particularly innovative smaller toy companies. To me, it echoes your and Harry Kislivitz’s work on the original line. What do you think about independent toy companies like Onell and the 4H trying to carve out some space in an industry dominated by large companies?
IAT: Finally, what are your thoughts on the new line? Are you excited to see some of the fabled World of the Future characters finally making it into production? What are your hopes for the future of the Outer Space Men?
Nonetheless, I still had lingering doubts about the interchangeability concept altogether. Did I want to see Colossus Rex’s massive head on Alpha 7’s tiny body?