Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Hitman Goes Yellow

Everyone loves when their interests crossover.  Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't, but you always end up with something that you never thought you would have seen.  Being the popular phenomenon that it is, wrestling usually ends up appearing with every other form of entertainment in one way or another, even with television's favorite family, The Simpsons.  But it wasn't Springfield's own grapplers such as The Shrieking Sheik, El Bombastico, or even Dr. Hillbilly that appeared on the cover of WWF Magazine with Bart Simpson, it was Bret "The Hitman" Hart.

I think everyone my age watched at least the first several seasons of The Simpsons.  It was on every kind of item marketed to kids despite having adult humor, yet was just tame enough not to elicit any objections from parents.  Some viewers stayed on as the show moved forward, while others moved on.  I'm in the latter group, as aside from catching an episode here or there, my viewing habits were elsewhere.  Around 2001, this changed.  Playmates Toys picked up The Simpsons license to produce an action figure line known as "The World of Springfield."  The figures were not only great looking, but also spoke lines from the show when plugged into playsets of various Springfield locales.

In all, over two-hundred "World of Springfield" figures were produced.  Fairly early into the run, I found myself drawn to them despite not being a regular watcher of The Simpsons for years.  I couldn't believe that so many random, goofy characters of an animated sitcom were being produced. This also led me back into the show itself where I remain a fan to this day.  Unfortunately, the toy line would only last a fraction of the years that the sitcom has, leaving many collectors yearning for more.

In 2014, a company called NECA picked up licensing rights for The Simpsons, most notably more action figures. Other figures of Bart, Homer, Krusty, and the gang have been produced since the Playmates line ended, but you can't top greatness.  Nothing aside from adding figures to the Playmates line was going to appease longtime collectors, so that is exactly what NECA did.  Calling their line "25 of the Greatest Guest Stars," NECA began producing figures of some of the most memorable stars who have appeared as themselves on the show.  NECA has rounded out the line by throwing in some regular characters such as Homer and Milhouse in designs not produced by Playmates.

The topic of this entry, Bret Hart, arrived in Series 3 of the line.  So far, Hart is a true standout as many of the guest stars chosen have been musicians.  For those of you who don't remember, Hart appeared in the episode "The Old Man and the Lisa."  Springfield's power plant owner and evil billionaire Montgomery Burns suddenly learns that his fortune has dwindled.  Before receiving help from little Lisa Simpson, Burns is forced to sell off his infamous mansion.  One of the potential buyers is Bret Hart.

The figure appears exactly as Hart did on the show.  In fact, a picture of the scene in which Hart appears in the same pose as the figure is shown on the back of the card.  All of the NECA figures so far have been released on a slim cardback with a large image of Homer applauding the star.  On the back is a great synopsis of the celebrity's appearance on the show as well as several images.

The figure does not have much articulation, nor should it.  These figures are intended to fit right in with the older Playmates figures which had neck, shoulder, and waist movement.  If you want a wrestling figure of Hart, you have countless other options.  This figure is all about Bret joining the denizens of Springfield, and it does a great job.  From the hot pink color to the hair to the shades, NECA did "The Hitman" right.  Hart himself has allegedly spoken of an exclusive version to come down the pike in the future, but nothing else is known nor can I think of how it would differ and remain true to the show.  Fox is very particular about toys from The Simpsons appearing just as they did on screen.

I already know fans who do not normally buy figures that have picked this one up.  It's the perfect example of a crossover collectible, as many in this line have become.  Many fans are already hoping that this line continues after the first twenty-five celebrities (bands count as one) have been produced.  My votes?  Barry White, Betty White, Adam West, and Linda Ronstadt.  And, in case NECA is watching, how about Maude Flanders?  Please?  Longtime collectors will understand.  When it comes to The Simpsons, the possibilities have proven to be endless for over a quarter of a century!

Ay caramba!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

WWE Magazine Bids Farewell

Two weeks ago on this page we were celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of one wrestling magazine.  This time we are lamenting the loss of another.  The issue cover dated October 2014 is indeed the last installment of WWE Magazine. Though it barely resembled the magazine that many of us grew up with, seeing it on the shelves was almost comforting.  Along with the main monthly title, the WWE Kids title and special titles released periodically will also be seeing their end.

WWE Magazine officially considered their first issue to be the WWF Victory Magazine.  Victory lasted two issues before it evolved into WWF Magazine.  Despite the company not really wanting to acknowledge it, their first in-house publication was actually Wrestling Action.  Five issues were produced in all in midst of the transition between WWWF and WWF.  I was once offered an explanation as to why they did not consider it part of WWF/WWE Magazine, but it didn't amount to much.  If you want to see the true evolution of WWE Magazine, you start with Wrestling Action.  It captures an amazing time in the history of the company and the fifth and final issue features the first magazine cover of Hulk Hogan, or so The Hulkster himself told me.

Whereas the Wrestling Action issues showcased amazing cover art, the first Victory/WWF Magazines had great photography of the "Rock N Wrestling" era stars.  Jimmy Snuka, Sgt. Slaughter, Hulk Hogan, Wendi Richter, Captain Lou Albano, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Cyndi Lauper, and even Mr. T shined on those early covers. Inside was an interesting mixture of features on WWF action and some stories that might surprise readers today.  Articles on wrestling's past were not uncommon, and despite being well into the WWF's national expansion, even the first WCCW David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions was covered.

As the WWF grew further and further away from anything aside of their own bubble, so did the magazine.  In fact, the magazine began to almost directly reflect the formats of WWF television programming.  These days, WWE pay-per-view lineups often don't seem settled upon until the weekend or day of.  In the early days of the magazine, lineups for WrestleMania, SummerSlam, and other events were often included, in print, months in advance.  In the instances where bits and pieces of shows were changed, those magazines offer an interesting glance at what could have been.

The magazine also helped with the company's direct merchandise sales long before Shop WWE existed. Most every issue included a merchandise catalog full of items that weren't usually available outside of attending an event.  Shirts, posters, caps, and teddy bears were just some of the items featured, often modeled by young Stephanie and Shane McMahon.  That shirt of "The Rebel" Dick Slater?  Here.  The poster of Miss Elizabeth actually donning bikini?  Here.  Mine?  Yep, he was here, too.

As the WWF steered more towards an adult slant, the magazine followed.  Edgy covers and content eventually led to the spin-off of Raw Magazine.  When the brand split and change to WWE occurred, the original WWF/WWE title was switched to Smackdown Magazine.  In 2006, the title was finally amalgamated back to WWE Magazine.  This version tried to be a cross between Maxim and a wrestling magazine.  It included seemingly "shoot" interviews, "Best of" lists, and features on fans both male (even me!) and female.

One of the coolest issues in this final form of the magazine was April 2010.  In honor of WrestleMania XXVI, twenty-six different covers were produced, each featuring a different WWE Superstar.  John Cena, CM Punk, Bret Hart, and Santino Marella are just a few of the stars featured, and others like Drew McIntyre and Evan Bourne may have received their only cover thanks to this gimmick.  Distribution was not even as far as the variant covers upon their initial release.  Since then, various back issue sales have evened up the ability to acquire certain covers.

Although Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns all have a great shot at making the cover of Pro Wrestling Illustrated in the future, the final issue of WWE Magazine is their cover debut. It's a great shot, and the issue itself makes no secret that it's the end.  Budget cuts have been the reported reason as to why the title is ending. There were rumors that an outside company would pick up the publication, but that does not seem to be the case.  With the great characters that continue to churn out of WWE, it's a shame that they will no longer have this sort of exposure that once meant so much to the warriors of the ring.

A 30 (or 37...depending on your belief) year run is nothing to sneeze at.  Thanks for the covers, the articles, the merch catalogs, the Sunny centerfolds, The Informer, Scoop Sullivan, and...the memories.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Business Is About To Pick Up...At Toys "R" Us

Mattel's "Build-A-Figure" program has been one of my favorite aspects of their WWE line for the past two and a half years.  It's enabled collectors to obtain figures of non-wrestlers that Mattel (often foolishly) feels will not sell packed on their own.  Michael Cole, Ricardo Rodriguez, John Laurinaitis, Teddy Long, Paul Heyman, and commentator/General Manager Booker T are all figures that have seen their debut this way.  In short, a series of four previously released figures (with new attire and accessories) are sold exclusively through Toys "R" Us.  Each of the figures represents the way that the wrestler appeared at a specific pay-per-view event.  The figures also each include separate pieces of the "Build-A-Figure," thus a collector must buy all four of the wrestlers to complete the fifth.

The latest "Build-A-Figure" is none other than "Good 'ol J.R." himself, Jim Ross.  The four figures required to build J.R. are "Elite" versions of CM Punk, Curtis Axel, Randy Orton, and Alberto Del Rio.  Although I've long wished that the figures in these sets were new characters, I've also outlined why they aren't.  It would be against Mattel's better interests to place a never before released character, who sell well all by themselves, in a "gimmick" series where buying all four figures is required regardless.  That being said, it would be nice to see some new faces among the BAF bunch.  This is the third appearances for both Punk and Del Rio in the BAF program.  While I'm fairly positive that we won't see anymore of those two in future sets, it might be fun to see some Divas or tag team members show up.

Although Ross is one of the stronger "fifth figures," this is one of the weaker sets of wrestlers.  Aside from a tweak of the tights or facial hair, every Orton figure is nearly the same.  Punk has a different head/facial design than the last time that he popped up in BAF, but his accessories, a megaphone and "fan" signs, aren't that exciting.  A cloth shirt or hoodie would have worked much better here.  Del Rio might be the best of the bunch with the World Heavyweight Championship and a black monogrammed scarf.  This is Curtis Axel's only "Elite" figure so far, but it comes across as rather bland.  The white-strapped Intercontinental Championship that he is packaged with has already made an appearance in the BAF line.  I would've rather seen Ryback in one of his many colorful singlets in place of Orton, especially.

Ross himself is a very nice figure, and one of the best figures to be collected as a BAF yet.  The pieces are very hidden within the packaging, possibly to avoid another "Al Snow scandal" from 1999.  As the story goes, a busybody mother happened upon an Al Snow figure while shopping in a Wal-Mart.  Snow came packaged with "Head," his female mannequin head sidekick, and the woman mistook it for a disembodied woman's head.  She created a stir that caused an unnecessary recall on the figure.  Going back to Ross, this figure not only has a head, but a trademark black resistol hat to go with it.  The facial likeness is perfect, and while I would have preferred a completely up-to-date J.R. with goatee, I have no complaints.  His "OU" lapel pin honoring J.R.'s beloved Sooners from The University of Oklahoma is even here as a great added detail.  There is an upcoming "announcer" Jerry Lawler figure coming soon that will make a perfect compliment to Ross. 

While you can never be certain, this is likely to be the only Mattel figure of Ross for some time.  The figures required to build Ross aren't the best we've seen, but if you want the fifth you absolutely have to purchase them all.  As of now, it seems that Axel is short packed.  This also happened with the Bret Hart figure from the first BAF set that featured Michael Cole.  Whether or not this will be rectified in the future is anyone's guess.  These figures are usually the "bread and butter" of the WWE holiday buying seasons at Toys "R" Us.  Closer to that time, cases of the BAF sets are often stacked to the ceiling.  An upcoming BAF series featuring "Basic" figures and a "fifth figure" of Paul Bearer has already hit overseas.  These two sets could very well be in the Christmas season WWE toy strategy for "The World's Biggest Toy Store" this year.

In any event, if you want J.R. in your Mattel WWE Universe, the time to pick up these figures is now.  Despite what is announced at press conferences and on WWE broadcasts, I doubt anyone truly buys Michael Cole as "The Voice of WWE."  After being off of WWE telecasts regularly for years and officially out of the company for a few months, Ross is still thought of when a WWE call comes to mind.  J.R. seems to be happy in his current ventures where he is once again successful, but even the biggest WrestleMania moments seem just a tad less important with the voices that WWE currently forces on their Universe.

Boomer Sooner!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

35 Years Of Pro Wrestling Illustrated

 1979 was quite a year.  Introduced were such iconic concepts as Happy Meals, The Muppet Movie, and The PiƱa Colada Song.  Jimmy Carter was President of the United States.  60 Minutes was the number one rated television program.  90 cents bought you a gallon of gasoline.  In professional wrestling, Harley Race, Nick Bockwinkel, and Bob Backlund were your NWA, AWA, and WWF Champions.  Starrcade and WrestleMania were four and six years away, respectively.  Ric Flair would have to wait two more years to reach the top of the mountain, while Hulkamania would take a bit longer than that to be born.  Nevertheless, an icon of the business began in September of '79, that being Pro Wrestling Illustrated.

Dusty Rhodes and Mil Mascaras were no strangers to the covers of wrestling magazines.  Although the outlaw known as "Dirty" Dusty Rhodes made a few cover appearances, once "The American Dream" was born he became a newsstand fixture with a variety of flamboyant outfits and the omnipresent "million dollar smile."  Mascaras was long touted as then-PWI Editor Bill Apter's favorite wrestler.  Known as "The Man of 1,000 Masks" the colorful and high-flying Mascaras appeared everywhere from Mexico City to Tokyo to Madison Square Garden and amassed quite the fan following.  At the time, there were no bigger wrestling stars to grace the cover of the first issue of what was billed as "The World's Biggest Wrestling Magazine" than these two.

Since then, hundreds of wrestlers have had a moment in the sun on the cover of PWI, coupled with thousands on the pages inside.  Even though companies like WWE and WCW have had their own publications, PWI is different.  In a business that is often not taken as seriously as it should be, PWI positioned itself as the printed gospel among wrestling fans of the 1980s and 1990s.  While some fans may have been subscribing to the "sheets" all of those years ago, most of us ticket and merchandise buying fans were waiting for the next PWI to find out exactly what was going on.  Title changes, talent switches, and card results were all going to be there each month ready for to us to feverishly devour as we turned the pages.

The best part?  It wasn't just the wrestling that we saw on television.  I can still remember following the feuds and battles of USWA, Smoky Mountain Wrestling, and early ECW in the pages of PWI.  While I may not have been able to see the matches in person or on tape, I knew the career happenings of guys like Jeff Gaylord, Tony Anthony, and Johnny Hot Body just as well as any of the national stars thanks to PWI.  It was the same effect that magazines such as Wrestling Revue and The Wrestler provided in the true territorial days.  The era when fans in California learned about Bruno Sammartino or mat aficionados in New York discovered Paul Jones, Johnny Weaver, and Eddie Graham exclusively through the printed page.

That knowledge and discovery is still delivered by the magazine, especially in a certain popular issue each year.  Beginning in 1991, an annual listing of the top five hundred wrestlers hit newsstands.  That issue, known, as the PWI 500, has often become difficult to find upon release.  Wrestlers still clamor to be included in the issue, and being named #500 is as coveted as the #1 spot.  Being included in a "Who's Who" list that has featured Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and Randy Savage should have that kind of importance.

My first newsstand-purchased issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated was the 1992 edition of the PWI 500.  I can still remember pouring over those beige colored listing pages for hours.  There were wrestlers that I loved, some that I had never heard of, and others that I thought had long since retired.  I was excited to learn that many of the Samoans (including Kokina who.ultimately became Yokozuna) were invading the WWF and that Andre the Giant had competed abroad recently.  I took the magazine to school, and an obviously uninformed classmate (who strongly resembled Bart Simpson's classmate Wendell) inquired if a muscular blonde haired wrestler pictured in the 500 was Hulk Hogan.  It wasn't, but I had to take to the text to inform him that it was a young grappler named Chris Candido.

Pro Wrestling Illustrated is the sole survivor.  For thirty five years the.publication has outlasted several wrestling boom periods, countless other wrestling magazines, economic downturns, and even some publisher sales.  It remains the last place that a wrestler can make a magazine cover, a monthly "Top 10" rating, or an annual "Top 500" ranking.  In a wrestling world where traditions like non-televised events are holding on by a thread, the only true top company views "wrestling" as a four-letter word, and "entertainment" outweighs the importance of a ring, PWI is still there.

Whether it be the 35th Anniversary issue, the next "PWI 500," or the 2014 Year End Review, pick up a copy.  In doing so you're helping the future while maintaining a piece of the past.  As I've said countless times over the years, you're getting a great magazine and a great collectible simultaneously.  The stars of yesteryear marvel at the magazines that they appeared on over the years.  Today and tomorrow's stars, if they are lucky enough to make an issue, will only have PWI to look back on.

Long Live PWI...The World's Biggest...and last...Wrestling Magazine!