TOYHEM! Sometimes simple is better…
Welcome to TOYHEM! For the third straight 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. Click here to check out the complete index of stories — and have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah and Happy Holidays! — Dan
UPDATED 12/7/21: This week, we posted Chris Franklin’s TOP 13 BATCAVE PLAYSETS EVER — RANKED. It’s a really groovy piece, so click here to check it out. But one spoiler — the 1973 Ideal Batman playset didn’t make his list. Hey, different strokes, y’know? Anyway, I LOVE this set, so we’re re-presenting this INSIDE LOOK from 2019. Dig it! — Dan
My first Mego superhero was Batman with the removable cowl, which probably comes as no surprise to regular readers of 13th Dimension. I got him when I was about 5 years old.
But what is Batman without Robin? So, for some time after I got the Caped Crusader — days? weeks? — I hectored my parents to deliver unto me the Boy Wonder. (Mostly my Mom, I’m sure. She was the softer touch.)
So, finally one afternoon in what I can best determine to be early 1973, Mom came home with Robin in hand.
Naturally, I was ecstatic, even though I was a little disappointed that Robin’s mask was painted on. (I missed out on the brief wave of Removable Mask Robin, which I knew about thanks to my pal Phillip Tagliaferri. Click here for that entertaining story.)
But Mom also had a surprise for me — she held out this white rectangle of vinyl with Batman and Robin painted on the front, promising something “FANTASTIC”: A playset by Ideal.
I was mystified because I had no real understanding what this was. Besides, I was too distractedly happy that I finally had a Mego Robin to go with my Mego Batman.
But then I took a closer look, popped the snap and opened it to find a miniature world of Batman adventure. The case folded out to form a diorama with three sections: Wayne Manor, the Batcave and a museum that was designed to prove irresistible to villains of every stripe.
There were working doors, including my favorite — a bookcase that led from Wayne Manor to the Batcave a la the Adam West TV series.
But it was the cast of cardboard characters, vehicles and props — printed with fronts and backs to give you a 2D facsimile of reality — that really made this Gotham City microcosm come alive.
There were 20 in pieces in all, each with a plastic stand:
— THE HEROES: Batman, Robin, Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson and Batgirl:
— THE ALLIES (AND PROPS): Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara (in what I think was his only appearance as a figure until Figures Toy Company came along decades later). Plus, items suitable for stealing from the museum — a Greek urn and a trove of “crown jewels”:
— THE VILLAINS: the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman and Mr. Freeze:
— THE BAT-ARSENAL: a blazing Batphone, the Batmobile, Batplane, Batcycle and Batcopter, which was really the comics’ Whirly-Bat.
This was Batnip, plain and simple.
The characters – a mix of Silver and Bronze Age styles, with a touch of Golden Age thrown in – moved from scene to scene: Bruce and Dick in the study, then transforming into Batman and Robin in the Batcave. The Batmobile taking them to the museum for a showdown with any number of villains attempting to steal priceless antiquities.
A post-caper meeting with the Commissioner and O’Hara, who arrive at the museum to take the defeated villains away. And, finally, a trip home, where Alfred waits, loyal and ready for the next adventure.
Or any variation thereof.
Sure, the characters weren’t poseable and sure the heroes couldn’t fit into the vehicles – remember, it was if everything had been hit by Dr. Cassandra’s Alvino Ray Gun – but that’s where your (gasp!) imagination came in.
Now, over the next couple of years, I filled out my Batman Mego collection to include all seven heroes and villains, as well three vehicles and the Batcave — which is its own story. (Click here.)
And there’s no question that Mego far surpassed what Ideal had put together here. Nevertheless, I kept coming back to this little lo-fi playset, a change of pace that gave me many, many hours of joy and fun.
And hey, the Ideal set even had Mego beat in some areas – with Mr. Freeze, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Chief O’Hara and the Batplane among the characters and vehicles that the latter company ignored.
Over the decades Mego has spawned its own subculture of websites and Facebook groups and companies dedicated to recapturing the glory days. I happily celebrate all of that because Mego was top of the heap – and still is.
But this plucky little playset – the most underrated Batman toy ever — had its place too:
Right in my heart.
— The Complete TOYHEM! Index of Features and Columns. Click here.
— The TOP 13 BATCAVE PLAYSETS Ever – RANKED. Click here.