When I spoke to Stan about The Body Building we talked about a lot more than M.U.S.C.L.E. figures. Stan was not only a nice guy; he was a fascinating guy. When we spoke I specifically asked him about something from his book: Mattel & Me (If you haven’t ordered it yet, and you read this site, then you are missing out. It is absolutely awesome!).
I asked him about Marbleheads. It was an prototype toy that never went into production. I asked him about it because I wondered if it was Mattel’s effort to get back into the collectible toy market. It was not.
However, I think the Marbleheads story and the M.U.S.C.L.E. story are very analogous. Understanding the Marbleheads story provides us both the fullest-picture and best insight, we will ever receive, into the cancelation of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures.
I don’t want to fully recreate Stan’s story from his book. Again, I can’t stress enough that you should be reading it – plus all of the pictures and videos. I will repeat some of the highlights that I feel are relevant to M.U.S.C.L.E. figures.
First and foremost, kids loved them. I think this is critical. Mattel has always been painted as a doll and toy car company by everyone I have spoken with about the company. But Mattel was always looking for something new. In this case, Marbleheads was the idea. Specifically marbles would be created with famous people (e.g., famous athletes or cartoon characters), positioned as a collectible, and given added games and playsets.
Stan worked with two of Mattel’s sculptors (Hussein Abbo and Mike Lehman) to sculpt the various heads. The unique challenge was that the sculpts had to be very accurate, and very small, because the glass marble would act as a magnifying glass.
Here’s where I believe Mattel handles Marbleheads and M.U.S.C.L.E. in the same basic way. It isn’t a single event at Mattel, but a slow, subtle erosion.
While there was initial excitement it took time to get things ready and presentable. The “slow burn” allowed lots of Mattel people to become aware of Marbleheads. But that became a blessing and a curse. It took too long, which started to cast a negative aurora over the brand.
The politics of Mattel were important to peoples’ careers. This meant it people would start slinking away from a brand if it was starting to get the “stink of failure.” I think this happened with M.U.S.C.L.E. too. Kids liked M.U.S.C.L.E. figures; they sold well; but nobody was going to become a hero “copying” figures from Japan.
After lot of little issues a bent platinum tube finally sealed Marbleheads fate (seriously – read the book). We can only guess the final issue for M.U.S.C.L.E., but it’s probably as simple as deeply declining sales early in the year. I wonder if it could be even smaller than that?
I thought my discussion with Stan was its own gift. But Stan held one more surprise. He asked for my address.
A few days later a package arrived. I couldn’t believe that Stan had let me into the, very small, Marbleheads club. I was amazed how awesome the sculpt was for Hulk. I was instantly hooked on these little things. I told Stan thank you a million times, but that I was also frustrated. he had made me a collector of something I can never collect again.
I told Stan I could imagine kids and collectors still loving these things. He agreed, but said Mattel still disagreed with both of us.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe other people won’t see the two stories as analogous. But I do.
There was a part of me that always imagined the fate of M.U.S.C.L.E. being contentious and dramatic. Hereoes and villians fighting to save or kill the line. But maybe M.U.S.C.L.E. just faded away without any fanfare.