Where You At, Major Matt?
Growing up in the late '60's and early '70's, I was a member of the Action Figure Generation.
G.I. Joe was the all-time standard, of course, an obsession shared among the kid-population of my entire neighborhood. Everyone had a "guy" or two, and at least one really cool accessory to contribute to the effort (I personally owned what we called the "six-wheeler," a yellow jeep that came with the Mummy's Tomb Adventure Set). G.I. Joe was a true community toy then, and a shared memory now.
The kids I played with in that neighborhood have grown up and are married with kids of their own, yet I can attach a G.I. Joe accessory to every one of their names. If we were to play G.I. Joe today, I would know that Bob should bring his Official Footlocker, Chris should have the Adventure Team Headquarters ready to go, and Steve better not forget his Rotor-Action Helicopter. Even when the Vietnam war made the idea of men in combat repulsive to many Americans, Hasbro maintained their investment by converting Joe into a nebulous "man of action." Far from forgotten, G.I. Joe thrives at an unprecedented level.
Some action figures of the past were not so lucky. I was surprised to encounter a small ad in a California weekly paper that mentioned that lesser-known but no less beloved "guy" from my childhood, Mattel's Major Matt Mason and the Men in Space. I had vivid memories of my Matt Mason "guys," coloring book, Golden Little Big Book, giant round puzzle, Lunar Trac, etc., all of which are now long gone. According to the ad, a man named Joe Ferreira was publishing a graphic novel trilogy of Matt's continuing adventures.
This was great! I enthusiastically shared the news with nearly anyone that would listen, but it seemed that only 1 in every 10 persons confronted with the name "Major Matt Mason" had any memory of the toy. Those who were aware of Matt's existence responded with enthusiasm equal to my own, startled at the triggered flood of memories, but many people had simply never heard of him. Clearly, Matt Mason did not benefit from the same corporate support as G.I. Joe and simply vanished without a trace; a forgotten toy.
I was flabbergasted. Why would an entire toy line, the size and scope of which easily rivaled that of G.I. Joe, suddenly disappear? I had to contact Joe Ferreira, if only to convince myself that one of my favorite childhood memories wasn't simply a figment of my imagination.
While today's heroes are most often works of fiction, one had only to turn on the news in the late sixties to see living, breathing examples of valor strapped to the tip of a barely controlled bomb on a Cape Kennedy launch pad. A smallish, wire-reinforced figure made of bendable rubber with accordion joints--- at 6-inches tall only bit larger than the current plastic Batman the Animated Series and Star Trek: the Next Generation dolls --- Major Matt Mason was a homage to the acknowledged heroes of the day; NASA and the Gemini astronauts.
"Major Matt was someone we could use to connect us kids to the NASA moon-shot effort," Joe related during a very nostalgic discussion from his Redondo Beach headquarters, Pendragon Studios. "Everything about the figure was very close to authentic state-of-the-art or proposed space equipment, and we appreciated that. Matt's spacesuit closely matched that of the real thing, and his removable helmet featured a working retractable visor. We saw these things on NASA astronauts during T.V. reports, so it had to be right. It was a very cool toy."
Ferreira knows of which he speaks. A 34-year old package designer who has done work for products including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Dick Tracy lines, Ferreira collects and fully enjoys the playthings of his youth. His enthusiasm for all things fun is positively infectious, and there's no mistaking the glee he feels for the coup he was able to pull off – he now owns the full rights to Major Matt Mason and the Men in Space line ("He's mine, all mine!" he's fond of enthusing). [This is no longer the case: see part II].
His search for Major Matt started innocently. During an early-'80's stint at Mattel, the home of Matt Mason, he made inquiries into the whereabouts and licensing possibilities of his favorite astronaut, only to be stonewalled at every turn. "I was very curious as to what happened to Matt Mason, 'cause he was one of my favorite toys as a child, a real inspiration. I figured that working at Mattel would make it easy to find him, but I was wrong; the people there were no longer the same people who worked in the Matt Mason era. I'd ask some 'higher-ups' at Mattel to explain the position of the Matt Mason property and how I could perhaps do something with the character, and they basically told me to just forget about it," Ferreira recalls. Enlisting some professional legal help, he was surprised to find that Mattel had never bothered to protect their copyright, which made it possible to procure the full rights to the character for a standard legal filing fee.
"Experiences like what I went through at Mattel convinced me that big corporations are not the place for me," Ferreira said. "For example; I begged them to do a Marvel X-men line, and they told me to forget it. Now X-men figures are the hottest thing going. It's become obvious to me that if you want to do something right, don't sit and complain --- just go do it yourself."
Ferreira has his own theories for Mattel's sudden abandonment of Mason.
"Who was the second man to walk on the moon?" he asked me. I had to confess that I had no idea. "You're not alone, and that's the point. Mattel felt that space exploration was no longer a big deal to kids and the public once the USA made it to the moon. That kind of thinking has gotten us to the point we're at now - we couldn't get to the moon today if we wanted to, because NASA hasn't bothered to keep even one operable booster rocket. Japan is ready to go; we can't come close."
The main event, however, comes this Christmas when Ferreira's launches the first 3 figures of his updated Matt Mason line (graphic novel characters Joe Mason, Anthony Salvatore and Bart Benjamin).
"They'll be new characters manufactured using the same original process, but with updated materials," Ferreira explains. "For the kids, it'll be a cool toy. For the collector, the packaging format is the same as 'original Matt' so the new Matt Masons can be companion pieces."
A development like this can only mean one thing; Mattel's "forgotten astronaut" is about to be rediscovered in a big way by savvy collectors.
J.R. Giguere, owner of the Toy Wizard vintage toy shop in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, is among those who never forgot Matt. His shop contains a display case full of Men in Space figures and accessories.
"They do decent business. In fact, I had lots more stuff until very recently when a guy just bought up a mess of them," he explained as he opened the display case for me. "See, I've got the Space Crawler, Space Station..."
"...And the 'Big Little Book!'" I interrupted, spotting a nearly forgotten piece of childhood literature. Major Matt Mason in Moon Mission, the cover beckoned. J.R. made $10 off me that day, allowing me to re-read the
As I handled the well-preserved figures – the first time I'd held one for over 20 years – I was struck by how detailed they were. The feel of the rubber body immediately brought back tactile recollections.
"All the figures are stamped 'Copyright 1966 Mattel Inc.,' but that doesn't accurately date the piece, only the body mold," J.R. pointed out. "The Major Matt Mason figure went on sale alone in 1967, followed the next year by Sgt. Storm (red suit) and Capt. Lazer (the giant alien). In 1969 came Doug Davis (orange suit) and Jeff Long (blue suit), and 1970 introduced the aliens Scorpio and Or."
According to Giguere, a Matt Mason figure in great condition is worth around $50 to collectors, but some of the other characters in the line are scarcer and therefor more valuable. "The 'Jeff Long' figure is the only black character in the series and the hardest to find, so he goes for closer to $75. If you can locate an 'Or' figure, which was sold only as a set with his flying Orbiter, you're looking at the $700 range.
"The depth and quality of the Men in Space line was really incredible. Some of the accessories [like the Space Power Suit] were powered by plastic bellows, and the Space Shelter is an airpump-inflated tent that works a lot like a modern Reebok pump. Nowadays, all the action figures seem to talk, but back then the Voice Command Flight Pak was a real unique item."
One anomaly in the otherwise well thought-out Men in Space line was the strange "Capt. Lazer," Major Matt Mason's "Friend From Outer Space." At nearly 12" tall with lights in his eyes, chest and left arm, the hard plastic figure seemed to bear no relationship at all to Matt Mason. Indeed, Capt. Lazer looks to be the product of an completely different and aborted toy line. The Capt. Lazer molds were later used to make Battlestar Galactica Cylons, so his ambiguity followed him into his next life.
"I anticipate some new interest and higher demand if the new Matt Mason line catches on," Giguere said. "People love to be reminded of things like this; things that they thought were long gone. Matt Mason was too well done to stay forgotten."
If Joe Ferreira and his new "Men from Earth" have anything to say about it, Matt Mason and his friends will soon be checking out of the Hotel of Lost Toys and into the common conscienceness ala G.I Joe or Barbie.
"It's as if Matt Mason's soul has been under a cruel enchantment and could not be reawakened," Ferreira pondered. "My priority has become that reawakening."
For all of us who have treasured memories of exploring space with Major Matt Mason, the astronaut's return may reawaken something in ourselves as well.