TOYHEM! Comics artist Ryan Dunlavey recalls the toy that changed his life…
Welcome to TOYHEM! For the holiday season, we’re bringing you a series of features and columns celebrating the toys of our youth, which often made for the best memories this time of year. You’ll be hearing from comics creators, regular 13th Dimension contributors and more. Click here to check out the complete index of stories — and have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah and Happy Holidays! — Dan
This is artist Ryan Dunlavey’s second go-around for TOYHEM! this year. He also wrote about the ever-popular Marvel World Adventure Playset (click here) and still has a groovy one to come. Not just that, Ryan and Fred Van Lente’s The Comic Book History of Animation debuts this week from IDW — aaaaaand, he’s one of our organizers of BATMADNESS: The Animated Tournament, where YOU can vote on the best Batman: The Animated Series episode ever. (Click here for the tourney.)
This time around, Ryan’s got a heartwarming story of a toy that helped alter the course of his life and put him squarely on the path of being an artist — Tomy’s 1970s Mighty Men and Monster Maker kit, which featured the art of none other than Dave Stevens.
By RYAN DUNLAVEY
When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my parents had decided to put up wallpaper in our hallway and they thought it would be fun if we all signed our names on the plain walls underneath as a secret message to the next owners.
The rest of my family all wrote their names but I went to town and absolutely COVERED the entire wall with drawings. I’d never had a canvas this large before so I took full advantage of it. I drew monsters, superheroes, cartoon characters and Star Wars ships. I drew on the walls of our hallway every day after school — delaying the wallpaper installation by several weeks. I had a ball.
Drawing on things wasn’t new for me — I drew on my ALL my school notebook covers: fronts, backs and inside, every subject, every class. I drew on the school desks (in washable pencil of course, not pens or markers — I wasn’t a delinquent!). I drew in the margins of my comic books and on the end papers of our picture books.
When my mom said my brother and I couldn’t get Batman and Robin sheets like our friends had (too expensive), I got creative and scrawled Batman drawings all over my plain, ’70s avocado green bed sheets in ballpoint pen, which never washed out and I ended up sleeping on for the next few years. Once I even pushed my bed away from the wall, drew all over it with crayons and then pushed it back afterward, thinking my mom would never find them and get mad at me (she found them less than a day later).
My parents weren’t artistically inclined at all but the hallway drawing marathon finally clued them in that I liked drawing a lot more than the average kid and they decided to encourage my joy in less destructive ways. That Christmas I got a huge box of art supplies — markers, colored pencils, paints, brushes, pastels, drawing pads, etc. — the first real art supplies I’d ever owned.
I also got what is probably the greatest toy I have ever owned, and still own — the Mighty Men and Monster Maker kit!
This thing was the greatest because it let you make drawings that looked like they came straight out of a comic book, and it let you do it super easily and FAST. The kit consisted of 3 different shaped types of plastic tiles — heads, torsos and legs — that you fit together in a frame with a piece of paper over it. Then you just rubbed the paper with a crayon and BAM! an instant line drawing of a hero, monster or something in-between that you could color.
There were six tiles for each body piece, and almost all of them were double-sided, so there would be a super face on one side and then an alien head on the reverse. In total there were about 12 different choices for each segment, allowing hundreds of combinations. It was endless fun: I would make the drawings, color them, glue them to thin cardboard and then cut along the outline to make my own paper action figures.
The monster pieces were perfect for Halloween – there were pieces that let you create a vampire, a mummy, Frankenstein’s monster — even a bootleg Creature from the Black Lagoon. The hero characters were generic enough that with a little imagination and a few extra lines you could use them as a starting point for “real” super heroes — Flash Gordon, Indiana Jones, and an overly-buff Luke Skywalker were my go-to choices.
The results were impressive (even if it was cheating a little) and it gave me the confidence to start drawing on my own without the templates as a starting point. A few years after getting this I became an avid comic-book reader and spent all my free time drawing my favorite characters, which eventually led me to art school and a career as a professional artist.
I recently discovered that all of the artwork on these templates were drawn by the late Dave Stevens, best known as the artist, writer and creator of the Rocketeer! So in a weird way, Dave Stevens was my first art teacher.
My family moved a lot and most of my childhood toys disappeared in garage sales, donations or got tossed into the trash — but my mom had the foresight to hold onto a few things that she knew were timeless and I would want to pass on to my own kids: Legos, storybooks and the Mighty Men and Monster Maker Kit. And she was totally right!
My older kid enjoyed it well enough, but my younger kid LOVES it just as much as I did and she’s spent many afternoons playing with it herself and collaborating on it with me. It sits under her desk along with all her other art supplies and we still take it out and play with it on a regular basis. She also got a set of Fashion Plates one Christmas, and we have a lot of fun mixing up those parts with the Monsters and Mighty Men to make some really funny combos.
The Mighty Men and Monster Maker Kit was a pretty popular toy and you can easily pick one up on eBay for not that much money: If you’ve got an artistic youngster in your life or you’re just a big Dave Stevens fan I highly recommend tracking one down!
— The Complete TOYHEM! Index of Features and Columns. Click here.
— How the MARVEL WORLD ADVENTURE PLAYSET Opened a Brand New Universe, by Ryan Dunlavey. Click here.