The PopCult Toybox Bookshelf
I don’t recall ever describing a book as “adorable” before, but dammit, I adore this book. Knock-Offs : Totally Unauthorized Action Figures is the second book by Brian Heiler, the mastermind behind Rack Toys and Plaid Stallions and a driving force behind MEGO Meet.
I have a couple of disclousures here: Brian is a friend, and I’m a big fan of his work. Also, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. A quarter-century ago, when I was writing for Toy Trader Magazine, and later MasterCollector.com, I wrote a feature called “Cheesy Knockoff of The Month.” It was, like this book, a celebration of the bootleg, knockoff, unlicensed glory of the world of cheap-assed toys. I’ve even posted the occasional cheesy knockoff here in PopCult, because it’s so much fun writing about them.
Knock-offs, in case you don’t know, are those cheap, unlicensed toys you find in discount stores, flea markets and other “off the grid” retailers that are inexpensive imitations of popular toy franchises. You’ve probably seen “Spider-Hero,” “Space Wars,” or “Ranger Powers” at some point.
I love this outlaw segment of the toy industry. It’s usually hilarious, often borders on parody, and it’s ultimately validation that the original toy was successful enough to imitate. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, and some of that flattery is absolutely hysterical. When you find a knock-off of a toy, that almost always means the original toy was a huge success.
Brian has wisely chosen to let the pictures do most of the talking here. In most cases, there is little to offer in terms of background information as the makers of the toys operate in the shadows. Oftentimes the manufacturers are anonymous Chinese toy factories who sell their product to distributors who may, or may not, sell them under a particular brand. Brian does a great job of introducing the chapters, and usually says everything there is to say about the toys in the captions. The photos are big, clear, well-lit and make for a great-looking book.
I mean, look at that imitation Hulk porcelin doll on the front cover. What more could you say about that?
Sometimes the exact same toy will be sold by multiple distributors under many different names. That’s a big part of the fun of collecting knock-offs, aside from the fact that they’re almost always cheap, there usually isn’t a definite paper trail or solid answers to the questions about who made what. Who knew there were so many knock-offs of RoboCop?
Brian does a great job covering different eras, too. There are knock-offs in the book dating back to the 1960s, and much more recent things, like the multi-figure packs that combine heroes from Marvel, DC Comics, Pixar and The Power Rangers. Different chapters cover different topics: superheroes; monsters; space toys; movie knock-offs. He devotes the last chapter to “art” knockoffs made by people like Sucklord and Mr. Dan, who make small-runs of bootleg toys, usually for a higher artistic purpose (or parody).
The remarkable thing about Knock-Offs : Totally Unauthorized Action Figures is that it covers such a wide time period and crosses over so many genre. Brian must have a huge collection of knock-offs, bigger than mine, and I’ve been collecting knockoffs for over 30 years.
In fact, of all the hundreds of knock-offs in this book, I think I only have three or four of them. Maybe I need to write a book that’s a knock-off of this book. Better yet, I’ll wait until Brian does volume two.
Knock-Offs : Totally Unauthorized Action Figures is an absolute treat for a toy lover with a sense of humor. This stuff is supremely entertaining and you’d have to be totally joyless not to enjoy this book.