I read once that they did a study on recognizable superheroes and that Spider-Man was far and away the top dog. Seems like a no-brainer when you consider that the only film to beat a Star Wars movie at the box office for the year was the cinematic debut of the web slinger in 2002. But to hear that Webhead beat out Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and even Lobo, yes Lobo, for the top spot really says something about the staying power of the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. They always say that Batman is more popular than Superman because Bruce Wayne is a normal guy without any superpowers, save for the overwhelming desire to right wrong and the ability to create cool gadgets. If that’s the case, then Spidey does the Bat one better by being a regular guy and a high school student, or a college one depending on which run you’re delving into. There’s just something about the nerdy Peter Parker with all his personal problems, combined with the most iconic superhero costume ever that puts Spider-Man at the top of the hero food chain.
I’m a Star Wars guy – have been since the first trailer zapped my eyeballs back in early 1977. I used to run in from the front yard when my mom would yell that it was on. But even though Darth and his minions have dominated most of pop culture ever since, there was actually a time before Star Wars – a time when the toy aisle was a bit more colorful: a time when the heroes were grounded on earth (for the most part) and not the outer reaches of space. Sure, just like every other kid in my generation, I had the usual bucket of Hot Wheels to race around the living room rug. I even had a couple of die-cast metal airplanes that were so heavy and pointed they could double as a medieval weapon. And even though Star Wars was lighting up the box office, Luke Skywalker action figures were still a year away.
The first licensed toys I ever remember playing with were Spider-Man toys.
I loved Spider-Man. There was a late 1970’s television show that I never missed. It only ran a short time but I thought it was the coolest show ever. I even made my mom sew patches on my sport jacket to match Peter Parker’s on the show. I didn’t have a Spidey costume, but I did run around as ace photographer Peter Parker with my leather elbows and Mom’s Polaroid instant camera.
The first toy I ever remember loving was one that was completely disposable. The Chemtoy Spiderman Web Maker came out in early 1978.
It was a cheap “rack toy”, so called because it was made for supermarkets and sold on a spinning rack alongside cheap baby dolls and cap gun sets. It lasted only a couple of days but what a glorious time I had with it. It came with teeny-tiny figures of Spider-Man, Green Goblin, Mary Jane and, for some odd reason, a bright yellow spider. The real star of the toy was the small tube of “spider web” that you fitted into a Spider-man themed dispenser. A little squeeze and web fluid flowed out and onto whatever surface you were playing on. You then stretched the web out and connected it to another surface, creating a line you could hang one of your figures on. It seems lame by today’s toy standards, but back in 1978 I LOVED this toy. We lived in a house with a fireplace and the webbing stuck perfectly to the brick chimney on the outside. I would squeeze webbing out, hang the Goblin on it and pretend that he had kidnapped Mary Jane…and that he was going to sacrifice her to the giant yellow spider. Spider-Man would swing in and save the day every time, leaving Goblin trapped in the soot chamber at the base of the chimney. There was a cardboard city you assemble by cutting the back of the package, but I saved the bubble to keep the figures and web fluid in when I wasn’t playing with it.
The Chemtoy Spider-Man didn’t last long, probably 3 days or so, but it sure left an impact. It’s hard to describe what that tiny, cheap toy meant to me. It was the best $1.89 my mom ever spent, let me tell you. A lasting testament to the power of the fuzzily remembered rack toy is that this little beauty commands over $100 when it shows up on ebay! And it doesn’t show up that often!
The other Spider-Man toys that dominated the marketplace right before Kenner’s Star Wars line took over everything were the very cool larger size figures put out my Remco. They had a series of television commercials that made their Energizer Spider-Man figure seem like the greatest toy ever!
You know that commercial in Toy Story for the Buzz Lightyear Toy? Like that. Only better. This guy could lift himself up when you attached his spider-clamp to a shelf and then flipped a switch. Or you could hold him still and he would pull items closer to him. Hey, in the world of action figures this was revolutionary! He even came with a flashlight that shone in the dark! A flashlight! The image of ol’ Spidey climbing up while holding a tiny working flashlight was like magic back in the late 70’s. And since no toy can be complete without a vehicle of some kind, Remco created a Spider-Copter for our hero to sit in.
Plug the chopper wire into Spider-Man and his power made the rotor spin! If you’ve never seen the helicopter in person, rest assured it’s massive – big and clunky with room for one. The Remco Energizer Spider-Man was a tough sell back in the day – he was expensive, took batteries and required arduous amounts of begging to procure. He was as coveted as his Marvel cohort and neighbor on the toy aisle: Rom The Space Knight, another electronic toy in the same vein.
But, of course, with great power comes great responsibility, wait, strike that, let’s reword it: With Great Power Comes Great Drawbacks. Sadly, the Remco Energizer Spider-Man was barely an action figure. He was pre-posed with one arm in the air and none of his extremities moved. He was a plastic statue with a motor inside.
Imagine the Academy Award as a toy, only with a better paint scheme and you’ll get the idea. It’s unusual for the toy industry to take a step backward after the super poseable Mego line of toys, but there must have been simply no other option to make the electronics and motor functions work. The other noteworthy difference was the plastic used to make the figures – super shiny and super brittle, these guys would shatter if you dropped them. A dismaying danger when you think of the toy actually telling you to swing it around and hang it from high shelves! Remco must have sold quite a few of these as they expanded the line to include not only a Green Goblin for Spidey to fight but a Hulk and a Captain America to fight alongside.
Some catalog pictures even show a Batman and Superman in the same scale and with similar abilities, but I’ve never actually seen one in the wild.
Star Wars would dominate the toy aisles not long after these guys swung into our memories, but ol’ webhead never really went anywhere. There have always been Spider-Man toys available for those kids and collectors who love him. Mego tried to compete with the Star Wars scale with their Pocket Heroes line that featured Spidey, and if you’ve been paying attention you know a vehicle is coming, The Amazing Spider-Car!
I’ve never figured out what Spider-Man was doing tooling around New York in a souped up dune buggy, but toy manufacturers weren’t far off considering that the Marvel Comic Spider-Man actually drove around in one in Amazing Spider-Man #130 in 1974.
Part of some bizarre scheme to promote a more earth friendly car, Peter Parker agreed to license his name to the vehicle only because he was nearly broke at the time. This was yet another example of us readers being able to identify so well with the character – he had real problems and sometimes had to resort to embarrassing solutions to keep a roof over his head and food on the table. Bruce Wayne never had such problems!
Through my many years of collecting I still have one Spider-Man toy on my desk – it’s been with me since I was a kid. Remember that bucket of Hot Wheels I mentioned in the beginning? The best vehicle in that bucket was my Corgi Spider-Man Helicopter.
Brightly colored with Spider-Man logos on the side, a web for a top rotor, and the best part, giant hairy spider legs for the landing gear, this was my go-to vehicle for fighting vehicular crime. Sure, I had a beat up Batmobile from the Adam West show, but there was nothing as cool as watching that spider legged chopper take to the air to fight crime.
Even back then I wondered why Spidey needed it, since he could swing from building to building, but the landing gear sealed the deal and I played with mine for years. Like a tiny time capsule, it sits on my desk as a reminder that sometimes the best toys are the ones that make zero sense to the character but do what they’re supposed to do – make playing fun. I think I hear Mysterio robbing a bank somewhere in the big city – time for Spider-Man to take to the skies and put things right!
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