I think it was during the summer of 2020 while spending one of the many days of that year inside and isolated that I stumbled upon a Twitter post about an upcoming book titled Rad Plastic. I believe the tweet was from the account The Toys That Made Us, which is (was?) a Netflix series that chronicles the early days and success stories of toy lines from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It was interesting the tweet came from that account as one of the disappointments of 2019 for me was the episode of that show concerning the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The Toys That Made Us is the brainchild of comedian/director Brian Volk-Weiss. His background seems to be in television and comedy and it seems the approach to the series The Toys That Made Us is to select an important franchise and then find the story. It makes for an entertaining documentary, but Netflix constrains it to a mere 45 minutes or so per episode which just isn’t enough time to really dive deep into a subject that spanned years, or even decades. The unfortunate side effect of this approach is the series really doesn’t have much time to talk about what I want to hear about the most: the toys! And with the TMNT episode, it was able to talk a lot about the development of the property and its eventual acquisition and launch by Playmates, but then pivoted to a story about reuniting the co-creators of the franchise Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. It was a nice a story, it just wasn’t a story about the toys, which is what I wanted to hear about most. When I found out about Rad Plastic, it seemed like it would be the thing to fill-in that missing information for me.
Rad Plastic is a book by Chris Fawcett and it’s all about the vintage Playmates toy line. Specifically, this is a book about the creation of an action figure. It goes into great detail spotlighting the incredible sculptors contracted by Playmates, most of which worked for either Varner Studios or Anaglyph. Fawcett confesses upfront he wasn’t big into TMNT and only really became interested in the toy line in 2017 when he stumbled upon some materials he felt really showed off how intricate these figures were. And while it’s easy to look back on that vintage toy line through the lens of a modern toy enthusiast and wonder what’s so special about it, those of us who grew up and owned those figures likely remember how wild and detailed those sculpts were. A character like Muckman was particularly incredible and much of the detail put into that figure by sculptor Alec McTurk went unpainted for the finished product and maybe was unnoticed by some. It’s not something that shows well in pictures online and it’s easy to overlook a figure from 30 years ago that’s been beat up and played with, but they really were something special.
After pre-ordering my copy over the summer, it was quite a long wait before the product arrived. Which is fine, as these things take time and COVID surely made its presence felt. The book is designed by Chance Sanderson to resemble the classic Party Wagon. Since this is an unofficial release, it doesn’t feature the classic logo or any of the turtles on the cover, but does feature their silhouette in the windshield and the book’s title is done as an homage to that logo. And I love that on the back of the book is a seemingly perfect recreation of the sticker that went on the back of the Party Wagon itself. The interior of the book is loaded with plenty of official artwork though and the pages are nice and thick. It’s also a heavy book as this is designed to go on your coffee table. It’s a hardcover and is approximately 11.25″ x 11.25″ and is about an inch thick.
The first chunk of the book goes over the creation process for an action figure. It covers everything from the design phase, to concept art, sculpting, mold creation, and finally production. It’s not exhausting, so it isn’t a particularly long section. The entire book is rather breezy and even though it’s 400 pages many will probably finish it in one sitting. That’s because the main meat of the book is a walk-through year by year of the vintage line that unfolds mostly in pictures. A lot of the pictures are test shots and resin models of the figures before production and in some cases there are prototypes for unreleased figures. There are blurbs to go along with each page as well as a handy checklist of the product released (and cancelled, in some cases) for that year. It’s not a complete capture of the product for that year as Fawcett is basically limited to what has survived all these years so if a hardcopy or test shot of a figure no longer exists, it won’t be shown here. He also covers play sets, vehicles, and extensions to the line like the giant figures and plush dolls.
By far, the part of the book I enjoyed the most is the material concerning the inaugural wave of figures from 1988. That section contains a lot of the concept art that existed before the line was launched. This includes an interesting character sheet that shows Leonardo was originally going to wear orange and Michelangelo was going to sport blue. I found this amusing since, if you recall, the original title cards for the cartoon were miss-colored with Mikey as Leo wielding twin katana and Leo as Mikey getting ready to scarf down some pizza. There are several shots of the early villains in the line which were all going to be humans as well as shots of the original sewer lair which had some kind of god for a wall called The Face. Yeah, I’m happy that didn’t make it into the line or the show.
The year-by-year stuff is all color-coded and the colors are visible when looking at the book from the side so it’s easy to jump to a section. Still, I find myself wishing there was an index in the back of the book so if I was looking for a picture of Sewer Samurai Leonardo, for example, I could quickly find it. And while the checklist is nice, I feel like this book would have greatly benefited from a visual guide as an appendix. Just a simple visual checklist that included a picture of each, finished, figure in its final packaging or loose, if that’s all that was available. Surely, there are collectors out there with an entire run of the Playmates line that would have been happy to show off and have their stuff make it into a book. I think even Peter Laird used to make sure he got copies of everything Playmates released, though I have no idea if he is still in possession of all of that material.
Since the book is right at 400 pages, my suspicion is adding even a single page would have upped the costs by a non immaterial amount, but it’s also possible that just wasn’t Fawcett’s goal with this book. This is not a guide for collectors nor does it contain much information on where these characters originated, outside of the ones in the first wave. I would have loved to hear who came up with Monty Moose or Walkabout and where the inspiration came from. It’s possible such information has been lost to time, or maybe it wasn’t particularly interesting to begin with. That would be a different book though. This one wants to highlight the sculptors and designers who worked on the line. And if you’re someone like me who enjoyed and collected that line growing up, it will probably satisfy your thirst for nostalgia. I know I couldn’t suppress my grin as I flipped through this book and remembered the figures I owned and the ones I coveted and even the ones that let me down (those talking turtles were trash). It wasn’t planned to work this way, but this was a welcomed tandem with the recently released Super7 action figures which celebrate the Playmates line in their own way.
If you’re a fan of the turtles and want to check this book out for yourself, copies are available at www.radplastic.com. I do not know if more printings will be done, so consider this a limited time released for now. If you want it, don’t wait, and if you do get it I have a feeling you’ll enjoy it quite a bit.