The massive success of Kenner’s Star Wars toys in 1977-1978 transformed the industry and forced other toy companies not only to come up with innovative concepts, but to creatively market them. Mego’s Micronauts, a popular sci-fi line that originated in Japan and preceded Star Wars, was very popular initially but stalled after George Lucas’s space opera hypnotized the world. For Series 4 and Series 5, released in 1980-1981, Mego’s Director of Design John McNett did something unusual at the time: he commissioned Ken Kelly, a fantasy artist known for his edgy, lurid magazine covers (especially Warren’s Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, and Famous Monsters of Filmland), to do card and box art for the new alien figures and vehicles.
Kelly’s Micronauts paintings—there were eight pieces in all, and you can see them here and here—were important for a number of reasons. While high quality art on toy packaging was certainly nothing new, the Micronauts commissions leant the toys the kind of epic, realistic quality seen up to that point only in more adult fare, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy publications that had been gaining momentum since the late 1960s. Kelly described his assignment as making a “4-inch piece of plastic look like it’s a living breathing menace,” a philosophy well received by the speculative, independent-minded kids who made up the first geek generation.
Over the next ten years, respected illustrators in adult fields became a mainstay in the toy and games industry and played asignificant role in shaping, selling, and elevating most of the major franchises, including Hasbro’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Mattel’s Masters of the Universe. Earl Norem and Bob Pepper are just two of the many tremendous talents who introduced high art to juvenile audiences.
Ken Kelly’s next foray into the toy world, package illustrations for LJN’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons action figure line (1983-1984), was nearly as defining as his first. His AD&D work was markedly different from the “fantasy realism” style used for the Micronauts paintings, but just as compelling: the high concept comic book atmosphere was a perfect match for the line. His box art for Tiamat: The Five Headed Evil Dragon marks yet another high point in toy illustration.
What marketing executives figured out after Star Wars was that the fantasy-obsessed kids of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had to be taken very seriously as a demographic: the era marked a high point in novel kid’s entertainment, from role-playing and video games to incredibly detailed and articulate action figures, but our middle class parents were not made of money—competition was fierce, and toys, like books, are almost always judged by their covers, for better or worse. The fact that action figures today are collected primarily by adults, and the fact that “card art” is nearly as important as the figure itself, can be directly traced to Ken Kelly’s sensational Micronauts paintings and the revolution in toy art that followed.
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– 2W2N writes 2 Warps to Neptune, a blog covering the 8-bit era and the origins of geek culture. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, daughters, and the longest cat any of them have ever seen.
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