For young action figure collectors in the 1980s, the most desired, treasured, magical items were those enigmatic mail-away (or “mail-in”) figures. Unavailable at regular stores, they required a quest in order to get them.
It was a quest that required begging one’s parents for enough action figures to cut out the required number of Proof-of-Purchase cards, then begging them again to write out a check for the $5 or so needed for “shipping and handling.”
And even once that was done, you had to wait six to eight weeks for the figure to arrive–an eternity in childhood.
But one day, your parents would come back from getting the mail and hand you a small, nondescript brown or white box, labeled only with your address and a return address of “Hasbro” or “Kenner.” And inside would be a little clear baggie, and inside that…
At that moment, you knew what it felt like when Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb–or when Indy first laid eyes on the Ark.
While many mail-in figures were simply popular “regular” characters (like the Emperor or Boba Fett), the best mail-ins were for figures that were unusual in some way. Some were bigger and more complex than the figures sold at retail (e.g., the B’omarr Monk), and others were completely different sculpts of another figure (Mumm-Ra).
Here’s a list of some of the coolest mail-in figures.
10.) B’omarr Monk (Star Wars: Power of the Force, Hasbro, 1997)
You may vaguely recall the scene in Return of the Jedi where C3P0 and R2D2 enter Jabba’s Palace. As they walk in, a giant spider-looking thing skitters across the background, scaring the crap out of Threepio as usual.
Now, you might think a character seen for a half-second in vague silhouette in the background wouldn’t even warrant a name, much less an action figure, but if you thought that, you’re apparently very, very unfamiliar with Star Wars fandom. Not only does that thing have a name–the B’omarr Monk–but it’s a member of an entire fraternity of monks living beneath Jabba’s palace who often put their brains inside BT-16 perimeter droids. Right, whatever you say, nerds.
What’s more, according to the endless Star Wars “expanded universe” fiction, Bib Fortuna eventually had his brain tossed into one of these things, until he had it transferred to another Twi’lek body. Kudos to you if you even know who Bib Fortuna is!
Ridiculously extensive background story aside, the B’omarr Monk did make for an awesome mail-in figure. With its completely unique design and fairly low cost (about $8), it’s a great example of what a mail-in figure can be. I was lucky enough to get one of these back in my Star Wars collecting days. I eventually must have sold it on eBay, though.
[Updated] A reader rightly pointed out to me that I’d forgotten about good ol’ Clark. Superman’s alter ego cost 5 proofs-of-purchase. He was originally supposed to be released at retail in Super Powers’ fourth wave, but that wave didn’t happen, making Mr. Kent a relatively rare item.
This is another example of what I think makes for a good, inexpensive mail-away (or exclusive) figure. Most kids may not have really wanted an action figure of Superman in his day-job clothes, but it’s a nice treat for those who did, while making sure those kids who didn’t get one wouldn’t feel as if there was a gaping hole in their collection.
8.) Reflector (Transformers, Hasbro Direct, 1986-1987)
While appearing only briefly in the 1980s Transformers cartoon, Reflector is probably the best-known mail-in Transformer from that time. While he was released at retail in Japan, in America you could only get him by mailing in $10 and two robot points. Remember those?
The figure was composed of three different robots who combined to form the camera. I seem to remember my older cousin Elye owning it, since he had pretty much every G1 Transformer made, but other than that Reflector remained one of those impossible dreams for young Poe.
7.) Crystal Skeleton w/ Throne (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Hasbro, 2008)
OK, so George Lucas managed to lucasify Indiana Jones. But at least it was an occasion for Hasbro to produce new Indiana Jones toys from all the movies, and it even produced at least one cool figure of its own: the Crystal Skeleton w/ Throne.
And what a figure! For a mere $6 and 6 “relic stickers,” you got a throne and a super-articulated 3 3/4″ alien skeleton. It was probably the best of Hasbro’s revamped Indy offerings, which is ironic considering it comes from what’s arguably the worst movie.
6.) Steel Brigade (G.I. Joe, Hasbro Direct, 1987)
The Steel Brigade figure was a particularly clever gimmick, because the idea was it was a figure of you. Since the face was hidden in a helmet, Hasbro didn’t have to worry about sculpting thousands and thousands of little kids’ faces (or even a few generic faces, which might have been a decent idea).
You filled out the application and got a unique filecard based on your character. The promotion proved so popular, Hasbro offered it from 1987 to 1994.
Another example of Hasbro’s shrewd/evil marketing. The only Cobra Commander you could buy in stores was the one with the metal plate mask, but the one depicted in the cartoon and Marvel comics often wore a hood. Naturally, that was the Cobra Commander kids have to have.
But to get it, they needed to send in $1 and 7 Flag Points. Not too bad, considering the number of G.I. Joe figures your average kid had.
On Thundercats, the big bad guy, Mumm-Ra, usually went around dressed in a red robe and looking like a decrepit mummy. But when he left his pyramid, he chanted a spell that transformed him into a giant, muscled-up version of himself a la Skeletor.
The retail toy line only offered the muscled-up Mumm-ra, so to obtain the mummy version, you had to send away for him. However, LJN seems to have produced quite a few of the mummy Mumm-Ras, because they’re pretty easily available on the aftermarket these days.
3.) The Fridge (G.I Joe, Hasbro, 1986)
Jeez, I’m kind of glad I never collected G.I. Joe figures–you guys had to clip ‘n save those Flag Points every time or risk missing out on some awesome exclusive.
William “The Refrigerator” Perry was an integral part of the Super Bowl Shuffle. He was also part of the 1986 Chicago Bears, who humiliated us New Englanders in the Super Bowl that year and forced us to wait fifteen more years for our first Super Bowl victory.
Perry was so popular, he achieved the highest honor that could be accorded to a celebrity in the 1980s: he was made into an action figure. And not just some random character, but a figure of himself.
Yes, Perry was incorporated into the G.I. Joe mythos and given a figure complete with a football-on-chain-accessory. The figure was even featured in its own television ad.
2.) The Emperor (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Kenner, 1984)
Return of the Jedi introduced a greater evil than our childhood boogeyman, Darth Vader. This was the Emperor, a creepy old man with a face that seemed to be sloughing off his skull, with teeth that were rotten and eyes filled with hate and malice.
With Jedi, the Emperor replaced Darth Vader in kids’ minds as the main villain of the Star Wars trilogy. His gleeful lightning-torture of Luke and slow speech patterns weren’t particularly endearing traits. Of course, you had to have him as an action figure.
The only way to get him, though (initially, anyway) was to mail in 5 proofs-of-purchase–no cash required! Again, not a bad deal, although the offer warns you to allow an epic 10-12 weeks for processing.
My cousin Ed had this figure (as well as #1 below), for which I always envied him. I think I eventually got my own Emperor, but only after he’d been released at normal retail, when he wasn’t nearly as cool anymore.
1.) Boba Fett (Star Wars, Kenner, 1979)
Ah, Boba Fett. Fett first appeared in the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special before playing a major role in The Empire Strike Back. In 1979, the year before ESB hit theaters, a Boba Fett figure was offered by Kenner as a mail-away. So was Fett the first figure from The Empire Strikes Back or the only figure from the Star Wars Holiday Special? You decide!
The original Fett figure was infamously intended to have a firing rocket pack, but the feature was removed from the production figure. One wonders whether any child or parent was “dissatisfied” with this and returned the figure for a new Luke to replace the one whose hand was chewed off by the dog.
I’m not sure whether Kenner was incredibly prescient in making an early figure of Fett, who would become arguably the most popular Star Wars action figure, or whether the figure became popular because of its notoriety as an early mail-in figure for what was an immensely popular toy line.
As media studies professor Henry Jenkins states,
The action figures provided this generation with some of their earliest avatars, encouraging them to assume the role of a Jedi Knight or an intergalactic bounty hunter, enabling them to physically manipulate the characters and props in order to construct their own stories. Fans, for example, note that the Boba Fett action figure, far more than the character’s small role in the trilogy, helped to make this character a favorite among digital filmmakers. The fans, as children, had fleshed out Boba Fett’s intentionally murky character, giving him (or her) a personality, motives, goals, and conflicts, which helped to inspire the plots of a number of the amateur movies.
All of this makes Boba Fett the greatest mail-away action figure ever. Even if he eventually was released as a carded figure, the mere fact that he was once a mail-away secures him the top spot on this list.
Honorable Mention: Night Fighter Robocop (Robocop and the Ultra Police, Kenner, 1988)
I didn’t really like the glow-in-the-dark aspect of the toy, though the blue looked pretty good against the yellow-white. What made this figure so badass was the arm-minigun, a concept that was incorporated into the later movies and comics. Annoyingly, it was eventually offered as a carded figure, but hey, I had him first.