Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Vintage Space Toast Tour Miami part 3: The Decline of Micronautern Civilization


Last time on Vintage Space Toast Tour Miami I touched briefly on the popularity of the Micronauts toyline during its debut year of 1977. During my last trip to the library my focus was on collecting Micronauts ads from 1978 through 1980, which is a period encompassing both the height of the line's popularity and its demise. These 3 years are also well known as the debut of the Kenner Star Wars action figure line. With both lines being primarily science fiction themed assortments of spaceships, robots, action figures and aliens it is obvious that there was competition between the two.
Lionel Playworld 12/10/78
It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the decline of Micronauts was somehow linked to (if not directly caused by) the rise of Star Wars. This is a popular belief as evidenced by sites that make statements like "the Micronauts were quickly eclipsed by a line of toys that Mego turned down, Star Wars figures" and "Micronauts simply could not compete with the Star Wars juggernaut" But is this really true? Did Star Wars really kill the Micronauts off and was the end of the Microverse as swift as some Star Wars historians think? As we look now at some of the highlights I found from 1978-'80, the newspaper ads will tell a different story entirely. I know Ben Kenobi says many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view, but that's because he's never been face to face with the irrefutable truth of a 1979 Lionel Playworld newspaper ad for the Micronauts Mega City.


If anything the explosion of Star Wars onto the pop culture scene helped the Micronauts and every other toy in the sci-fi/space toy genre on retailer shelves in 1977, especially since there were no Star Wars action figures on retailer shelves in 1977. The public loved Micronauts as evidenced by how much money they made for Mego that year and how much advertising the line saw from major retail chains (like this K-Mart ad from 24 November '77). Nothing better illustrates to me the popularity of the Micronauts and their elevation as a favorite seventies pop culture franchise as the following October 1978 Woolco ad for Ben Cooper costumes. In it there are all the big children's stars of the 70s. In the company of the Micronauts' Baron Karza are Spider-Man, Pink Panther, Holly Hobbie, Mickey Mouse, the Shogun Warrior Great Mazinga and of course Darth Vader. Somewhere along the way history has forgotten that Micronauts was just as big as all these other licensed properties. Why are the Micronauts today perceived as being so unpopular back in the seventies? I think Star Wars is being given too much credit here.

Woolco 25 October 1978


Then 1978 came, the first year Star Wars figures were available at stores. If it was true that Star Wars brought a swift and total end to the Micronauts franchise then 1978 would be the year it happened with the public's appetite for Star Wars at its absolute peak after the drought of '77, right? NAUT! Instead what I saw in newspapers from '78 was retailers running not just more Micronaut ads, but the biggest, most extravagant Micronauts ads I've ever seen. I was absolutely elated to find the following Lionel Playworld ad from November '78 because of the huge assortment of Micronauts it shows. Most of the line art here exists in other ads but this is the only place I've found line art for all three die cast vehicles and the two Micronaut horses.

Lionel Playworld 30 November 1978

Micronauts was still very much alive during the holiday shopping season of 1978 as evidenced by all the great ads being run for it well into December. One ad run by the Gimbels chain of department stores on December 15 of '78 comes to mind as evidence that retailers were still very comfortable spending lots of their ad space on Micronauts. If Star Wars was the sure thing and Micronauts was such a loser, I guarantee retailer support of the line would have dropped by October. But here they were still running big Micronaut ads. One could argue that strong wholesale orders of the line in '78 were due to its success in '77 when there was no competition. I'm still willing to examine the supposed catastrophic impact Star Wars had on the line even if it means discounting the first two years of Micronauts' success. So would 1979 be the year Star Wars finally killed the Micronauts? To paraphrase Ben Kenobi (badly) I'd say even in 1979 Micronauts were not dead – at least, not yet.


In my experience there is a somewhat diminished ad volume in '79 but that's not to say 1979 was devoid of new exciting Micronauts ads during holiday season advertising. There's a Gold Circle ad from November 25, 1979 that features new for '79 toys like the Hornetroid and the Mego designed Alien Invaders. There's also this Lionel Playworld ad from October featuring the Terraphant and the Micropolis Mega City, which at 579 pieces was truly the Omega Supreme of Micronaut city playsets. This ad is somewhat interesting because the Mega City is supposed to have been a Sears exclusive playset according to all the online Micronaut resources I've read. For it to be sold at Playworld would place it in the "ads that should not exist" category like the Micro Transformers ad from 1988, the Diakron ads not from Toys R Us and the Combattler V Zargon ad. Speaking of things that should not exist, this ad also features Karrio the infamously awful carrying case. My favorite online criticism of Karrio was from one guy who wrote "Krappio would probably have been a better name."

Lionel Playworld 25 October 1979


Zayre 11/09/80
1979 stands in stark contrast to 1980, which is the year Micronauts just about disappear from newspaper ads. This may not be retailer apathy towards the line so much as it was a symptom of Mego's financial difficulties. Micronaut fansite Innerspace Online reports that although Mego had toys ready for release they couldn't get them to the retailers. This is supported at least circumstantially from the lack of newspaper advertising in 1980, indicating to me that retailers either didn't get the toys or didn't advertise that they had them. This is really sad, especially coming off of '79 which saw the release of some of the biggest Micronaut sets ever. Until I find more, the only 1980 ads I have are two from Zayre that ran on 09 November. One was for the Battle Cruiser and the other featured the Rocket Tubes as shown here. Both ads state the toys are "special purchase" items which is a term that usually indicates a one time, no raincheck situation where the store will not be getting anymore from the manufacturer. Once I get these ads up at the Micronauts section of the Vintage Space Toaster Palace these two will represent the end of the road for Micronaut empire. (Or would that be the end of the tube?)


Seeing how Micronauts lasted for three very strong years mostly in the shadow of the Star Wars empire it is very hard for me to conclude that it was killed off by competition from any competing action figure line. To say that Star Wars was directly responsible or even played any significant part at all in the demise of the Micronauts is to look for connections that aren't there. I think a more accurate assessment of the situation would be that Mego's own financial problems did the line in. Micronauts "died" at the height of its popularity just when it was shifting into high gear with new original designs and a lot of retailer support. Mego had yet to exhaust Takara's designs and was coming up with their own. It seems to me the line had staying power and a bright future especially since Takara would eventually develop the toys that would come to be known as Transformers from the same product line that birthed the Micronauts. Micronauts was aborted by Mego's bankruptcy, not murdered by Darth Vader movies. To say otherwise is simply naut thinking!

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