Does anyone here remember Muscle Men? Not actual muscle men, they're still a thing, but those little pink rubber figures from the 80s that were about two inches tall. Remember them? I can still smell them, that rubbery waft, and I can still almost feel them, that slight give in an otherwise solid rubber skin.
I distinctly remember the moment they turned up in my life. I was in my pyjamas at the top of the stairs, watching people come into the house for a party. I had to go to bed and was throwing a bit of a wobbler about it. I was a child just in case that isn't clear. I might still be in my pyjamas now but I can go to bed when I like!
Anyway, one of the people coming into the house doesn't disappear below but comes upstairs bearing gifts. I honestly can't remember who they were but I remember what they brought: a strange tiny dustbin with see-through sides containing a load of little rubber men. Muscle Men, the label says.
Me and my brother both get one - he's upstairs tantruming with me - and suddenly we're all smiles. We thank the guest, the best guest my parents ever invited over, and run into the bedroom to fight over what we got. What are these things?! We tip them on the floor to see and they're incredible. They look like wrestlers. They've got big bulging chests and biceps like loaves of bread, and some have helmets and outlandish costumes on. But they get way weirder than that. Some have six arms! One has got what looks like a pasta machine for a stomach, and another another is just a big hand. Hey everybody, give him a big hand! Sorry it's just that I wasn't this razor-sharp when I was a kid so I'm enjoying myself now.
But as engrossing as these Muscle Men are to look at, they don't actually do anything. Their arms don't move, their legs don't move, they aren't "articulated" as they say in toy collecting circles, and they're all one homogeneous colour you can't paint. They're just there, lying on my threadbare carpet because it's too hard to stand them up.
I went on to use mine as the rank and file of my toy armies. I'd take over the whole bedroom, brother be damned, scatter a few obstacles around and then divvy up my teams. A few Thundercats here (we had a great red-robed Mumm-ra), a few wrestlers there (the bullet-proof 80s kind you could spin so hard they would hurt, say, your brother) and then handfuls of Muscle Men to fill in the gaps.
But they weren't cannon fodder, the Muscle Men, I was really fond of some of them. Obviously I'd sacrifice a few to get the scene going, give the bigger toys a bit of an entrance, you know, but I'd hold my favourite Muscle Men back as a kind of cautionary tale for the over confident Lion-Os of the world. Think you're going to chop them down like grass do you Lion-O? Guess again. Now they're all over you like ants. "Hooo!" your way out of that.
Come to think of it, Muscle Men were my toy soldiers, the underestimated force that worked together as a team. Only, Muscle Men were way cooler, and to be honest, I'd completely forgotten about them until today. I have no idea why they popped into my head but being the rigorous journalist I am, I decided to find out more.
It turns out Muscle Men came from Japan. The story begins with a manga comic called Kinnikuman, first published in 1978. It told the tongue-in-cheek story of a bumbling superhero called Suguru Kinniku, who one day discovered he was the long lost prince of a planet called Kinniku - planet Muscle to me and you. This planet was where all the greatest superheroes in the universe came from and in order to prove he was worthy of the throne, Kinniku would have to wrestle them. He would have to beat characters like Ramenman, Buffalo Man, and Terry Bull. They were hardly a serious bunch.
Unsurprisingly, with a premise like that, the comic took off and in 1983 became a cartoon for TV. This is an important moment because it's at this point merchandise arrived: Muscle Men. They were known as Kinkeshi (a mash-up of the words Kinniku and Keshigomu, which translates to "rubber eraser") and were apparently sold in gumball machines around the country. Everything must have gone very well because more than 130 episodes of Kinnikuman aired before the show ended in 1986.
It's here that the Western story of Muscle Men begins. US toy company Mattel was running dry on ideas and looking for something to follow the fading He-Man line, so it looked to Japan and saw Kinnikuman. It was a perfect fit. Except, oh, that cartoon is a bit violent, parents won't like that, and actually, while we're at it, can we really be bothered to translate all those comics? No, so Mattel bins them both off and decides to come up with its own idea instead. M.U.S.C.L.E. is born.
It stands for Millions of Unusually Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere, and the advertising campaign played on exactly that: the United States invaded by millions of bizarre little toys, and now it desperately needs the help of kids all over to round them up. Or in other word, buy and collect them. Just to make sure you've understood that: the marketing campaign for Muscle Men, in 1986, was for kids to collect them all. This was 10 years before Pokemon.
There were around 235 Muscle Men and you could buy them in either little boxes, big boxes or - as me and my brother found out - small bin-like plastic tubs. Evidently they caught on because Mattel expanded the range with a tiny wrestling ring, a tacky-looking wrestling belt and an awful-looking NES video game (it didn't even have the homogeneous pink colour). But what it couldn't do was create more Muscle Men designs because it didn't own the rights, Bandai did (and I believe still does). Mattel tried to relaunch the same Muscle Men designs in different colours but collectors lost interest. The fad faded and in 1988 was done.
But Muscle Men or Keshi, to be more specific, are not completely dead. A company called Super7 still makes them, albeit not with the official Muscle Men licence though they look identical. Super7 also does pop culture crossovers with brands like Transformers, Toxic Crusaders (remember them?!) and I don't know why but Pee-Wee's Playhouse.
There are also plenty of places on Etsy and beyond where you can buy the original Muscle Men figures if you want to collect them. They're a bit pricey, though, at a few pounds a pop. I remember buying fists full of the things at the local market for the same kind of money. Mind you, I particularly like a poster someone made of hundreds of Muscle Men all bundled together.
Funny how slices of childhood rear their faces some days, isn't it? My memory of Muscle Men is really strong, even now, and my brother knew instantly what they were when I sent him a picture out of the blue. I spent hours playing with those toys, dreaming up little stories for them while they overpowered Hulk Hogan for the umpteenth time, giving them identities I didn't think they had. Then today I discovered they already had them, had stories, had identities, had a whole universe of lore Mattel simply hadn't bothered to bring West, and it sounds sillier and more entertaining than I ever would have imagined. And now I want to go there and experience it all. Don't you?