I absolutely loved this concept! I thought it was fantastic at the time, and could still be great today. Imagine an Intergalactic Boxing Federation, in which the greatest Gladiators in the Galaxy gather, from the farthest reaches of the Universe, to compete in in The All-Galaxy Championship Gladiator Games.
OK, so it wasn’t all that original! Clearly, the toy’s mechanism and play was based on Rock‘em Sock‘em Robots, and even more specifically, on a crazy puppet that had crossed my path. It was a cheap imported piece of crap, a kind of unpackaged Christmas stocking stuffer that sold for just a buck, and for some surreal and illogical reason was configured in the likeness of a nun, a long-armed nun in boxing gloves!
Our intention was to expand upon the Rock‘em Sock‘em concept, which, by then, had become generic, geriatric, and almost obsolete. In those days, I believed that Action Figures were misnamed, for, although, they were based on so-called Action Heroes, they were generally immobile. Thus, Galaxy Gladiators would be a line of animated boxing figures with true action features, never ending characters, and interesting story possibilities. The boxers would be liberated from the rigid confines of a boxing ring, and given the ability to walk. Their animated faces could communicate emotion. And each would incorporate an additional wild feature that expanded the animation, and fired the imagination.
I dove into this project with enthusiasm, and in less than two days, built a working model from scratch. By “scratch” I mean that there were no preliminary sketches, not even an idea in my mind. I had not visualized what the creature I was creating would look like. I just let it become what it wanted to be, embarking on a voyage of pure discovery, and, feeling myself to be more of an observer than its creator, as it materialized by itself, before my eyes. I loved working this way, communicating with the clay, and letting some unknown force, like the unexpected happenings in a dream, decide what the outcome would be. I built the Creature from Invasion Earth in much the same way. I took my conscious self out of the equation, and let my subconscious mind, or, perhaps, some force that was simply “out there” create the creature. The end result turned out to be a surprise to everyone, including me.
But some would say that the content of dreams, at times, come from some other place. Whole religions have been based on that belief. Either way, in dreams we never know what is going to happen next. That is what the waking state of pumping out characters to populate a concept like the Galaxy Gladiators was like for me. I loved the excitement of watching passively to see what wild imaginings were hiding in my head, and waiting to be seen.
I made the Sculpey model in a single day. First by fabricating an armature out of brass, and whatever spare parts were lying around the house. That was a given; the mechanics of it had to happen. Then, I shut off my mind, and applied the Super Sculpey. And when the creature told me it was right, I stopped! Knowing when to stop is key! If you miss that magic moment, when the thing you are creating is complete, you enter the indecisive world of overworking. Overworking is a terrible place to be, a state of confounding complexity, in which you can’t decide what to do next, and realize with a sinking feeling that the perfect moment has been missed, and spontaneity is lost. But, in this instance, I stopped at the right time. Then, I baked the Super Sculpey model in the oven to preserve it for posterity. And went to bed happy that night.
Wow! I can’t believe I just said that. After all these years, I have stumbled on the words to illuminate what the ability to create a seemingly inexhaustible flow of imaginary imagery was like to me: “The unexpected happenings in a dream!” It is generally accepted that we author our own dreams, and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Most people agree that dreams originate in the deepest recesses of our own subconscious mind.
The next day, while the newborn Gladiator remained unpainted, I drew it in black and white. Then. with pencil and paper, I added an entire cast of adversaries, worthy opponents for our Champion to fight.
Now, twenty-five years later, I look back on those days as a brief, but incredible moment in time, when images and ideas flowed from the tip of my pencil with facility, like water gushing from a stream, emanating from a bottomless reservoir of ideas, deep within the forest of my mind. And to my constant amazement, there appeared to be an inexhaustible supply. I turned the faucet off, only when I ran out of paper, or time, but never from a lack of creative energy.
Working on any would-be property, I always gravitated towards the creatures. Human beings, if they appeared at all, were just a necessary element of the concept, but not an exciting one to me. Now, years after I did The Outer Space Men, I realized that this concept would need to have a couple of combatants, representing Planet Earth. So here they are, two Earthmen, one white, one black. “Kid Universe” is the standard blonde-haired, blue-eyed action hero stereotypical superstar. “KO Kosmos,” on the other hand, with his bionic arm is the more interesting, and better boxer of the two, by far.
The Galaxy Gladiators would come in three sizes, three weight divisions, heavy, medium, and light. This would add up to three price points, in what could have been an endless line. I did all the following drawings in a day, but I could have “Knocked Out” many more, continuing another day, another week, a year, maybe, or if this thing caught on, the rest of my entire life.
As I drew, I thought up spur of the moment names, most of which were just OK. We had learned, that names did not mean much, at this stage of the game. Anything would do as a “working title.” For a name to become final it would have to be searched for Trade Mark violations. So, in the haste of the moment, any names would do. But there was one or two I loved. My favorite name was “Sucker Punch,” with suction cups on his boxing gloves. “Fly-weight” was also a good one.
Then, I got my Magic Markers out and colored eight, which I thought was enough to get the idea across. Some of the others seemed worthy of coloring too, but, simply to save time, I stopped. That is not to say that those that were not colored were not a good as the ones above . I particularly like the guy with a spring loaded boxing glove, hiding in his gut.
Last of all, I painted the Sculpey model to match the colors of the drawing.
All images and photographs of “Galaxy Gladiators” are Copyright MEL BIRBKRANT and The OBB.
Next came the video tape. Videos had proven to be the means of presenting a product in a convincing way. Or, at least, it was a way in which I could get in my say. As I was never at the presentations, a video was my way of adding my two cents worth. And, in this case, the video, like the drawings, simply authored itself. There was one aspect of this tape that even I thought was rather brilliant. It seemed only logical that there should be a second working model for our Gladiator to battle. But in a flash of inspiration I solved the problem, and circumvented the need to fabricate a second character for our single working Gladiator to obliterate.
He begins his rampage by knocking out the three leading action figure contenders of the day. As he clobbers the competition, they scream like little babies! They are no match for our mighty Gladiator. This sequence also establishes his impressive size. But how could he battle one of his own kind, without a second working model? I really love this work-around. Sometimes laziness can be the mother of invention! He pulverizes his opponents, by knocking out their drawings! Then, after a victory roar, I manage to really piss him off by demonstrating what happens when he receives a knockout blow. He loses his head! And when I push it back down again, he vents his rage. Then, he spots us looking at him, and with one mighty blow obliterates our camera. Unlike most of my overlong and wordy video tapes, this one gets its point across, briefly and powerfully, without uttering a word.
The leading manufacturer of action figures of the day was Kenner, so KISCOM, brought the product to them first. They “loved it,” and asked to have it sent to them. Kenner held it for a long time, several weeks. We felt, for sure, we had a sale. Then, without any explanation, they gave it back to us! The fact is, throughout the years, we never managed to sell Kenner anything.
From the days that I began attempting toy design to the present time, I have seen the world of toy manufacturing, and, indeed, the entire entertainment industry change. In the beginning, the challenge was to come up with something fresh and new, something really original that didn’t reek of Deja vu. And because there was so little out there, that was a relatively easy thing to do. Designing the first action figures was simple when there were no other action figures in the world. But, today, a brand new concept, or an original property doesn’t stand a chance of being approved. Everyone is looking for the pre-sell of a proven known commodity. My partners have remain successful, today, by supplying accessories for Barbie.
Toy inventing is not for the squeamish, one has to learn to play by the manufacturer’s rules, and, from time to time, take a sucker punch on the chin. Most companies are fair, but others are ruthless. My partners KISCOM, had the good sense and self-control, to NOT speak up, or make a fuss when they were getting screwed. To complain would mean losing a customer, of which there were increasingly few. So, they were reluctant to say anything, when several months after they got our Galaxy Gladiator back from Kenner, I was walking through Target, and I saw Kenner’s “new” Karate Chop Batman.
KISCOM was too frightened of the repercussions to complain. And I could also see Kenner’s point of view. Even though, we had brought the item to their attention, after studying our product for several weeks, they realized that the mechanism was not unique. If we could borrow it from a well-known game, or a boxing nun, so could they borrow it from us. And so, they went with the sure sales appeal of Batman’s name, instead of our unknown Gladiators from Outer Space. With Batman doing 500 million in business every year, I suppose they couldn’t be blamed? But to be ethical, they could have tossed a point or two our way.
This Super Sculpey Gladiator is one of the few things I have made that I still enjoy seeing every day. It has stood on my desk for years. But the drawings were lost, until last week. The original write-up still remains misplaced. Nonetheless, the presentation is back intact, and nearly complete. I was excited to see the art again. It still looks pretty good to me. Maybe, better than I realized at the time. This is another concept that would have changed my life if it had managed to succeed. Looking on Google today, I see that in the years that followed, more versions of Rock‘em Sock‘em Robots have appeared, with Batman and Robin, and also Superman. Nonetheless, in my humble opinion, spoken with the humility and objectivity of a person who never believed he actually authored them, the Galaxy Gladiators remain one of the best toys never made.