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Mel Birnkrant's “Annotated Archives”
Unpublished Interview, "Playthings" 2002
Copyright Acknowledgment: All images of THE OUTER SPACE MEN , THE WORLD OF THE FUTURE
and other Products and Images, created by Mel Birnkrant, are Copyright (c) MEL BIRNKRANT
Late in 2002, a young writer named Rebecca Cohen requested an interview with me. She was working on a proposed article about the Outer Space Men for “Playthings Magazine”. She sent me several Questions, which I answered in writing on what turned out to be my birthday. Ultimately her article was edited down to one sentence in the magazine. This interview could benefit from editing too. Nonetheless, here it is in its entirety.
Rebecca Anguin-Cohen, Outer Space Men Interview, Mel Birnkrant, 9/18/2002
1. Is it correct that you began designing the OSM in 1967, and the first series was released in 1968 after you¹d begun designing the second series? Is it also correct that the moon landing occurred after the first and only 6 sets of the second series were made, hence hurting the market for space toys?
Rebecca, I'm afraid the dates of these things are something of which I have little memory. The days flowed all together, even then, and I can do little more than guess, when trying to reconstruct an exact schedule. This much I can say with accuracy: I began them, sometime, in 1967, or it might have even been in the final days of 1966. With more research than it would be worth, I could probably hone in on the date by looking up the dates when Batman and the Green hornet appeared, as I worked on products for those, just before the Outer Space Men.
In the beginning, I set about developing the characters and doing the drawings and diagrams for the first series. I can't recall how long it took. I ended up with two identical sets of seven "Boards", one board for each of the seven figures. Each showed the proposed figure, blueprint-like, in three views: front, side and back, drawn to scale. Along side this diagram was my original sketch, showing each figure in full dimension, as I had first envisioned it. I also specified the colors using rub-down transparent colored film. There was also an additional board, with all seven figures standing next to each other, to show their relative size. Well, actually, EIGHT figures were shown on the comparative size board, because….
I clearly viewed Matt Mason as the eighth figure in the series. I recently came across my original set of boards for the first series, which had been packed away for 30 years. I had kept one set for cross-reference, and the duplicate set was sent to the Orient. I was surprised to see that I had actually mounted a real figure of Matt Mason, under a blister on the comparative size board. I did this both for scale and to make it clear that the Outer Space Men were intended to be of the same construction, quality, and feel as the Mattel product.
After a brief stop at Harry's, at which time he got his first and only peek at what I had been working for weeks, the newly finished boards continued on to the Orient.
Now there was a waiting period of several months between the time the drawings were sent and the first atrocious busted up models arrived. That brief respite from Outer Space was my only one, for the next few years. When the models arrived, I immediately embarked on a desperate marathon attempt to re-sculpt them, and save the project. Then a model maker in New Jersey cast perfect copies in epoxy, and the painting began. When all of that was finished, I constructed an intricate shipping case that would hopefully allow the re-sculpted clay/plaster and brass figures, and their fully painted epoxy twins to arrive safely. Once again, the messenger stopped at Harry's house and he got his second peek at the Outer Space Men. So far, no one at Colorforms knew!
Rebecca, I am finally getting around to answering your question. A few months passed, and then the first attempts at finished product arrived. Again there was much disappointment, as thick areas would not cure, without shrinking. I suggested some kind of inner cores to bulk them up and keep their shapes. Up till then all bendable figures had been skinny and flat. Ironically bendables continued to be skinny and flat after the OSM, as well.
Meanwhile using my duplicate set of painted prototypes, as stand-ins for the bendable figures, I had already begun working on the scenes for the packages. From that time on, I did nothing but OSM. When one aspect of the project slowed up I would switch to another. During the next two years, I worked, on and off, on the packages for the first series, the second series, and a series of 13 miniature Hot Wheels sized vehicles, with drivers, one for each of the OSM. I am not sure at what point I began to work on the second series, but I can say, with some certainty, that the first series was probably being shipped, at about that time.
The moon landing did occur, during the time I was still working on the second series. But, the first six sets of samples were, clearly, not yet, made. It was in reaction to the fall off in the popularity of Space toys that we renamed them "World of the Future". And therefore, it had to be some time after the moon landing that this decision was made, and before the packages were designed. The six sets of samples were complete pre-production samples with finished packages, engraved and printed with the new name in place.
When the astronauts in the film, or whatever they were called, then, landed on their Destination: i. e. Moon, there was Nothing there. This discovery was followed by a bit of semi weightless jumping around, with clearly visible strings attached. After that, the only "drama" came from a crappy plot twist, in which the rocket ship is discovered to be a few pounds overweight, so one guy has to sacrifice himself and stay behind. It was almost un-watchable, which was why I only saw it ten times.
Mattel's Matt Mason seemed, to me, to be hardly any better off than the guy in the film. Alone and bored, he had landed on the lunar landscape of the sandbox, or the playroom floor, and there was NOTHING there. But, I could fix that, and I Did!
Nevertheless, I could never have anticipated a lack of wonderment so great, inherent in the human race, that when we really did land on the moon, in 1969, and found that there was Nothing there, the whole world would lose interest. Everyone on Earth watched the first moon landing on TV. Almost, No One watched the second! Like the extra astronaut in Destination Moon, all interest in Space was left behind on the barren surface of the moon. Space toys fell down to earth with a thud, and "one Giant Step for Mankind" turned out to be one foot in the grave for The Outer Space Men!
Throughout the toy industry "SPACE" became a "Dirty Word". I didn't just coin that phrase; I actually heard it spoken, often. We knew we had a problem. With the Second series well underway, we tried to disassociate them with "Space" by changing their name from the Outer SPACE Men, to the "World of the Future". Ironically, my conscious effort to imply a visual connection to the now dying Matt Mason made the association impossible to cover up.
Colorforms might still have introduced the Second Series, with some success. But, at the time, the company was far from financial health, and ordering more OSM would have been an expensive risk. Thus, the factions within Colorforms, who managed the finances and hated the OSM from the start, won out. And the whole company, with Harry at the helm, in spite of the window that the OSM had opened for them, chickened out.
Had Colorforms maintained the course that Harry and I had originally charted, our often discussed, next project was to have been the entire spectrum of Comic Book Super Heroes, From Superman to Buck Rogers. And thus, Colorforms might well have become the king of Action Figures. As it was, it remained for Mego, a few years later, to do what we had planned.
3. I read that some aspects of the copy you wrote for the characters were tongue-in-cheek, but I still find it compelling. What was your inspiration for the mesmerizing copy on the backs of each toy? Did you consider the concepts in the copy when you designed each character for either the first or second series?
I did not consider the copy or the stories at all. Not even a little bit, all the while I was working on the figures. In fact, I did not have any idea of what I was going to say, until I actually sat down to write them. Indeed, the whole idea of even having stories was a spontaneous afterthought. I guess I just thought toy packages were supposed to have some kind of copy, so I quickly wrote some. I say quickly, because I don't believe the stories took me much longer to write than they do to read.
I loved the crazy pun filled copy under the photos of Famous Monsters magazine. I would like to add "as a kid", but I, actually, read them as a young [and newly wed] adult. I came across the second issue in the candy shop at the University Of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in 1959, and continued to buy every subsequent issue from then on, for many years. I remember a photo of a Morlock from the film "The Time Machine", being menaced by a man with a flaming torch. The caption read "You're Fired!" I thought that was hilarious! The little stories on the package backs had a lot of that in them. Cliches and puns that I liked to turn around to imply an unconventional, but surprisingly appropriate, double meaning.
I might add, that I once heard a quote from Picasso, who, when asked how long it had taken him to do a particularly quick looking, but nonetheless, masterful drawing, answered, "All my Life". That is true with those stories. I did them in minutes, but I had spent my entire short lifetime filling my head with cliches that now spilled out and settled on the page.
4. How did you get the idea to make each first series Outer Space Man from a different planet in our galaxy?
I didn't get the idea. It just seemed obvious. Well, that is the short answer! Here, for your amusement and enlightenment, is the long one. I didn't know much about astronomy, but like every kid, I did know the names of planets. So, if something was to come from outer space, what place could be better than the planets I knew? As a kid, I was, actually, rather fascinated with the solar system and the planets. I had even painted one of the walls of my bedroom black and replicated all the known planets from various sized balls that stood out from the wall on rods.
2. Was the innovative second series not released because toy companies felt like space toys would not sell after the moon landing? My understanding is that this is why the next set is referred to as "The World of the Future."What a shame--it has such amazing play value!
YES! That was essentially the reason, at least part of it. There was an air of excitement throughout the country, in anticipation of the first moon landing. That was clearly the rationale for Mattel doing Matt Mason. Other similar products had also appeared, "Billy Blast Off" was one. I greatly admired the technical attributes of Matt Mason. I thought he was really neat, but also very BORING!
I remember a film that I both hated and adored when I was 13. It was a really big deal, at the time, George Pal's "Destination Moon". The special effects, although, comically crude, were then, considered cutting edge. And, everyone went to see this Technicolor simulation of mans first landing on the moon. It was generally regarded as one of the most exciting films of the year, 1950. It was also one of the most Boring films of all time.
In the upper corner of the wall was a clock that I had fashioned in an abstract image of the sun with rays of polished copper. Two moving sunspots told the time.
The sun and planets, as well as all the stars and constellations were rendered, with some accuracy, in Day Glow colors. And this Suburban Cosmos glowed under the light of two Black-light florescent fixtures in the ceiling.
An article about it, with a picture of big fat me, lying on my little bed, beneath the stars, appeared in the Detroit Paper. I still have the article today.
So every night I slept under the planets, but I rarely turned on the Black lights, as someone told me they were bad for your eyes. The long answer gets Longer:
When I was around 15, or so, Flying Saucers were beginning to be sighted and written about. They were mostly the subjects of Jokes and ridicule. But my friend, Bucky and I stood outside many a night, looking up at the sky, hoping in vain to see one.
There was some jerk, who wrote a book at the time that was a little different from the then usual far encounters variety. He claimed that he had met a space entity in person, who had taken him on a flying saucer ride to visit all the different planets, and that there were civilizations on all of them. I believe his name was George Adamski.
My God, I just looked him up on Google. He's all over the place, still with the same double talk. The book contained a blurry photo of what looked like a garbage can lid he claimed to be a flying saucer.
Bucky and I went to hear him lecture when he visited Detroit. He described the cozy life on every planet from Mercury to Pluto. When he asked if there were any questions, I was so driven by incredulity that even though I was painfully shy, I stood up and asked one. "How there can be life on Mercury, where the very surface is boiling rock, or on Pluto where the atmosphere, if any exists would be frozen?" His answer seemed to be pure schoolyard squabble stupidity: "How do you know?" he replied, "Have you been there?" I felt ripped off, spending my parent's hard-earned money on this level of "scientific absurdity"!
But in later years, I occasionally thought back to his seemingly idiotic answer. Could it be that there was wisdom, beyond my comprehension, in his words?
5. You explain that the Outer Space Men were in many ways intended to be integrated into play with Major Matt Mason. Is that why the good and bad nature of the characters was left ambiguous?
No, the fact that they were intended to be either good or bad, or both, depending on the imagination of the child, was not because they were intended to be used with Matt Mason. It was partly born out of my sense of play, and fair play, and partly born out of my sense of Mystery. It also had something to do with prejudice, and the feeling that every bad guy is a good guy to someone. Who was I to judge? How was I to know? But mostly I made them ambivalent out of Intuition; Intuition tinged with timidity!
There had never been Bad Guy toys, before. I remember playing with lead soldiers, as a kid. It was wartime, and all boys' toys were War toys. But all the soldiers were American troops. No one dare market Nazi or Japanese soldiers. We often had mock battles, building opposing forts in some kid’s living room using all the books and stuff we could find around his house, then we would divide the troops, Americans all, and the battle would begin, first by throwing small projectiles at the opposing fort. In the end, we would throw the troops, themselves, and then the books, in a cataclysmic free-for-all. None of the soldiers were enemy troops. No kid wanted to be the enemy. It was strictly, Americans versus Americans.
GI Joe, who pre dated the OSM by a few years was actually an 11 inch Fashion Dress-up Doll for boys! He got all dressed up with no place to go and no adversary to fight. Bad guy toys were rare or nonexistent. Captain Action was another dress-up doll, who could be one super hero at a time, I believe he did get a bad guy doll to dress and get cross with, later on.
Matt Mason was the first figure to appear in a size of what would, one day, be known as "Action Figures". He, in my opinion, because he had no one to interact with, was the first Non-Action Figure. Then along came the Outer Space Men. They were the FIRST FANTASY ACTION FIGURES, and suddenly Matt Mason saw Action. But dare I be so bold as to make the Outer Space Men bad guys? No, I would play it safe, and thus, I would, inadvertently, make them more interesting than that.
The OSM, furthermore, needed a reason to exist on their own terms, and not just be there to fight with Matt Mason, who was essentially unarmed and on a peaceful Moon Mission. But I knew that in the hands of many a kid they would be Bad Enough to generate real Play.
6. I’ve learned that you got ideas for the first series from movie monster magazines. Was it a personal love of monsters, and special effects that influenced your designs? Can you reiterate the origins and references of the design of each of the first 7?
YES! I grew up in Detroit Michigan, where there was little fantasy to be found. But, somehow, in that simpler world, there were glimpses, albeit tiny ones, into exciting other worlds of Fantasy. Walt Disney was my salvation, through his films I could escape to a beautiful land, where 24 exquisite works of art flashed before my eyes, every second, and created the illusion of a more exciting world than the dull one around me in Detroit. Monsters and Special effects? Yes, I became a connoisseur of both.
Up until the age of 25, or so, there was not a movie containing either monsters, or Special effects, that I had not seen. There was an old movie house in Detroit, where it was rumored that, people threw up in the aisles. Surly, it did smell bad enough. But it showed a different double bill of horror films, every weekend, and Bucky and I, somehow, managed to get ourselves dropped off there, every Saturday or Sunday. It was more than a little unpleasant. Bugs flew before our eyes, silhouetted against the screen, or looking up; one could see them as little flashes illuminated by the projector beam. But we gritted our teeth and endured it, scratching and squirming, all to see some third rate, awful, almost horror film, from the in-between years of the 1940s; stinky films in which Bela Lagosi and Boris Karloff, often, played humans, rather than monsters. But it was a glimpse of Fantasy, and Glimpses of fantasy were rare in those days. Therefore, I sought them out; as they were the thin veneer of icing that disguised the flavorless cake of my life.
The origins of the first designs are, pretty much, documented in the earlier Interview, but I will try and touch upon them here to refresh your memory. I must preface a discussion of what inspired the various designs by saying that the origins of many began by seeking and using images from the pages of Famous Monsters Magazine, much as one would use a flint to ignite a fire. The monsters that one saw on screen for, sometimes, only seconds, usually in the final minutes of a film, were being shown here for the first time in rare stills. These fan magazines supplied me with many a spark that kindled an idea, and then I fanned it into flames.
So I gathered my 60 some issues together, and looked through every page of every one, placing strips of paper in any page that had a visual image that attracted my attention. Then, I went through every page that I had marked, glancing at the image, and then looking away as I built an idea around that starting point. I was, in a way, looking for inspiration, but not wishing to merely copy outright, or outrageously. So one rule, I set for myself, was to grab the spark, and then, never look back. To do so would be cheating in this little game I had created.
Sometimes an idea left me cold, and I could make nothing of it. Other images led to more exciting things, and I would work on several variations as one led to another. In retrospect, I can go back and trace the origin of most of the figures.
Electron plus is, quite literally, the man from planet X,
Colossus Rex was dissected from a tiny postage stamp sized image, further obscured by coarse offset dots, in an ad for a magazine, with a cover by Frank Frazetta.
And Orbitron was the Metaluna mutant from This Island Earth.
Alpha Seven was, believe it or not, "Original". That image has become so commonplace today, as it has bears resemblance the standard, now often seen, Alien. But the image was unknown, when I did that. About the only difference is the eyes, which these days, are solid black, and the color, which is today, more gray than green. To me, he was just a little green man from... Only later did I decide he was from Mars.
Xodiac was original too. He came from little more than just an abstract doodle.
Commander Comet was based on an 18th century painting, in a book on Antique Erotic art I had purchased, while living in Paris. I looked through many books and magazines for inspiration, not just Famous Monsters.
And Astro Nautilus began as a glimpse of a tiny image of a giant squid in a Ray Harryhausen film.
7. How did you narrow your 75 monster designs down? The first series is designed in a beautifully understated way. They are both timeless and classic‹and ahead of their time. How do you account for this innovation?
How did I narrow my choices down to seven? Clearly, seven is an odd number. Six would have packed in assortments better. Among the many rough sketches I had done, there were some designs that were simply awful. One of the wisest lessons I ever learned in art school was that in order to learn to do good art, one must not be afraid to do bad art. And believe me, many of the ideas I whipped out were bad or worse. In the end, through gut feel and intuition, and an attempt to achieve variety and dramatic contrast, as well as, a variety of sizes, I narrowed the choices down to seven. At that point, there were no more that I was willing to give up.
You will find this hard to believe, but I had not yet assigned any hint of place of origin to any of them. My choices were based, entirely on their visual aspects only. Perhaps, that is why the figures are, as you put it, "Designed" in an understated way. The visual design was all I cared about. Who they were, and where they came from, and what their names might be, at this point, never consciously crossed my mind.
This much I can say about what you call their timeless and classical quality: Yes, I was aware of that. I saw these figures as real in the sense that the icons of ancient Egypt depict gods as real beings and real beings as gods. I saw these images not as astronauts, but in fact, as Deities, and the figures, not as toys, but as Icons representing Deities. I often work in a way, in which I ask an inanimate object to tell me what it wants to be. And designing the Outer Space Men was, not only, such an instance, but it was one of the first times this had happened. In a way, the OSM taught me a way of working in the future. I consulted them and asked their advice on the choices too. And the ones that made it easy for me, and became themselves, loud and clear, without my mixing up the message, were the ones I chose.
A curious thought about the Outer Space Men of both series occurred to me, for the first time, while brushing my teeth, on this, the morning of my 65th birthday:
The Outer Space Men were distant, and mysterious, when I first "created" them, some thirty-five years ago. And, they remain enigmatic, aloof, and far away, to this very day. One can hold them in the palm of the hand, and yet, they never become familiar, nor do they step Down to Earth. Even though, their little stories are now known, we know them not, these stoical Idols of an unknown Idolatry, for they hold a secret beyond and outside time and space that resonates with the few, who by seeing them, can "hear" their silent message.
8. How did you develop the sophisticated concepts of the geographic origin of each second series action figure--which is, again, written about in such a compelling way on the back of the card?
Rebecca you're a Sweetheart! The second series was a whole different process from the first. When I was trying to discover who the first series Space Men were, and where they came from, I asked them, and they told me. I did the first series with little confidence and let chance dictate the outcome. But the second time around I had confidence, where none had been before. So, rather than asking, I dared to tell them who they were.
I felt that Colossus Rex needed someone his own size [and price] either to "pick on" or to keep him company, and thus, I paralleled him with Cyclops, who was inspired by a giant from, either Harryhausen, or Jack the Giant Killer, I can't remember which. He had lots of armor and lots of stuff, and because he had only one eye in his head, I gave him two others to hold in his hands. "The All Seeing Eye". That was right out of my, all time, favorite film "The Thief of Bagdad" with Sabu.
Commander Comet was something between a Greek God and an Angel, [no relation to the one in Barbarella, which came after Commander Comet was born], and so he needed an opposite. Who else, but a Devil? From where else, but the depths of Hades, otherwise known as the Hollow Earth? Hollow Earth was a little known theory, intended to explain the origin of Flying Saucers. In first year art school I painted Mephistopheles for a costume design assignment, now he returned again, as one hell of a handsome devil, with a touch of Michelangelo's Moses in his face, later to be named Mystron.
I looked at the list of planets and realized that there were some that I had missed, Mercury for one, and so I offered up a better answer than I had previously been given, to the question of how life could exist, on a planet so close to the sun. No, I had never been there myself, but nonetheless, I knew that on Inferno's planet, the mighty Volcan Peoples live - beings of living fire that burn eternally. Protected by suits of thermal alloy, lest the freezing cold of outer space should snuff them out! SNUFF THEM OUT! Don't you love it? And yet, beneath the humorously inappropriate cliche, there lies the terrible threat of a life, so fragile, that a puff of cold air could extinguish it. This was poignant stuff!
And so it was, there was a reason for each of the second series. The designs and the ideas, like myself, were bolder than before; some were old, some were new, some were borrowed, but all were “Blew” ... for Colorforms Blew ...their Golden Opportunity to become Master of the Action Figure Universe!
9. I understand that for the first series there was a shipping delay, after a great deal of advertising, Did this seriously hinder sales? In what ways was the marketing inadequate?
Did this hinder sales? You Bet! It was a disaster. Several hundred thousand Spacemen invaded the USA with the TV in full blast, and they flew off the shelves. That is just an expression, actually they were merchandised on a rotating rack that stood in many stores, and they flew off the racks. Then, with hundreds of thousands more OSM "on the water" in ships at sea, there was a dock strike, and the ships remained at sea for FOUR MONTHS. By the time the Space Men disembarked, the season was over, the TV was over, and the Outer Space Men were, all but, over too!
The marketing itself was Great. Colorforms had been an early pioneer in putting toys on TV, and this was no exception. The video taped ad was kind of stupid, My hand appeared in it wiggling the figures, This big fat hairy hand was supposedly attached to the skinny arm of a nerdy looking kid, who simply couldn't wiggle them right.
In the stores, there were the racks, and cards, and giant window posters that screamed "THEY'RE HERE!" The marketing was terrific!
10. Other than the knockoffs that Gary showed me, where else have your Outer Space Men designs had an influence? I feel like I've seen Alpha 7 numerous times, and Colossus Rex reminds me of Mer-Man from Masters of the Universe.
That is an interesting question, Rebecca. I feel compelled to answer it, in a rather unexpected way, switching it from where else to WHO else. But first, I will toss in the fact that Alpha sevenesque images are everywhere, influenced not by him, but by the coincidental fact that most of the now thousands and thousands or reported sightings and close encounters involve beings that greatly resemble Alpha Seven
Now, in regards to who the OSM designs have influenced, I have heard, one way or another, that the Outer Space Men have, actually, influenced and inspired many a person in the film industry. OSM were even instrumental in their career choice. That is certainly true of Tim Burton, who I believe has written about the OSM, and I am told Steven Speilberg, too, knew and loved them. George Lukas's name has been mentioned, in that respect as well.
My friend Bill Basso, who helped with the type, mechanicals and the design of the packages, has a talented son, Bill Basso Jr. who actually became a special effects make-up artist, in Hollywood. He became the portage of the two greatest living special effects specialists, Dick Smith and Stan Winston. Intimately familiar with the OSM, Bill junior tells me that he has learned, first hand, that nearly every Special effects Wizard in Hollywood, including Stan Winston, claim to have been at some time inspired by the Outer Space Men.
11. You mention that, at the time of the previous interview, Orbitron was your least favorite, and Cyclops was your favorite. Does that still hold true?
That is, probably, still true. Cyclops is surely the most spectacular. I like each of them, I guess, equally, but each in a different way. One thing is also still true; I like Orbitron the least. First of all he is, in retrospect, the least original. I swiped him, quite consciously, from the Metaluna Mutant, and I didn't much like the Metaluna Mutant, to begin with, or the movie it was in. Of all the figures, Orbitron is the one that is most organic, and has little of my touch and proclivity to abstraction and stylization. It's sort of down right icky, none of the others are. I like Astro Nautilus, and Colossus Rex, and Inferno, and Metamorpho, a lot, too.
Please add any other comments or reflections of your choosing.
Rebecca, have you not heard more than you ever wanted to know about the Outer Space Men? It's been fun for me to think back and remember a moment in time, when I was still inclined to pour my heart and soul into my work. Creating toys took precedence over collecting, for me, then, but not for long. I created the Outer Space Men, just before I was swept away by a Passion for collecting the Images and Icons of other Gods; those in the Pantheon of Comic Characters, Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, and all the rest. Although Comic Characters are more gregarious than the Outer Space Men, their powerful abstract images are not so very different from the OSM, after all.
Thanks again, so much, for your time!
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