Secret Wars: Toys and Merchandise That Saved Marvel

by Ryan Kirksey

012323F-1024x536 Secret Wars: Toys and Merchandise That Saved MarvelConsidering the original 1984 Secret Wars series, key issues, various sequels, toy lines, variants covers, and a movie on the way in a few years, it’s easy to forget there was a time before there was ever a concept known as “Secret Wars.” But not long after Marvel inaugurated a new Editor In Chief (Jim Shooter) in early 1978, the seminal comic label was ultra-diversified and struggling. Publisher Stan Lee was in Los Angeles overseeing a whole crop of Marvel on-screen products, but the comic label, left to the unproven Shooter, was losing readers and market share to DC.

After DC signed an exclusive toy deal with Kenner – who turned Star Wars toys into something every child in the world had to have – and accompanied the move with a series known as Super Powers Collection, Marvel knew they had to punch back to help regain their top position in the market.

In early 1984, Marvel signed a deal with Mattel Toys that stated Mattel would create several series of action figures, accompanying playsets, vehicles, and merchandise. But the agreement included that Marvel would develop a crossover series to help draw attention to the toy line. By May 1984, and armed with focus group data that showed kids loved the words “secret” and “war,” the famous Secret Wars 12-month run would begin.

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Toys That Captured a Generation

As a five-year-old boy in 1984, I was one of literally millions of people who were introduced to Marvel superheroes and Marvel comics through the Secret Wars toys. There were two series of heroes of villains toys that were released in America (and a third series released only overseas). Each of these packages included a very smart addition. On the back was an original four-panel comic about the character, giving a quick explanation of who they were and what they could do.

“You mean to tell me there is a superhero who has claws grow out of his hands and can heal himself when he is injured? Where else can I find more about this guy?!” In the Secret Wars comic run, is where.

I don’t remember exactly what the first comic I owned was, but I can all but assure you it was some issue of Secret Wars. My first lunch box (pictured below) was Secret Wars. My first superhero toys I remember playing with were Secret Wars. As a kindergartner, I had a yellow Hulk Secret Wars t-shirt. I still remember it.

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The author’s own lunchbox from 1984

The goal Mattel and Marvel set out to accomplish was to capture the imagination and attention of every four- to ten-year-old in the country. Toys, comics, clothes, merchandise, and more? Mission Accomplished.

Series 1: The Iconic Heroes and Villains

The first series of toys released in 1984 featured four heroes and four villains, including some of the most iconic names of Marvel lore. The four heroes were Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine, and Spider-Man (classic suit). Pitted against them were Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus, Kang, and Magneto, basically the Mt. Rushmore of Marvel villains.

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Series 1 toys. Photo courtesy of plaidstallions.com

Despite them being major players in the comic run, we would never get characters like Hulk, Thing, or Colossus. Mattel and Marvel wanted to save money on production costs, so they used the same body type for every figure that came out in Series 1 and 2. That worked just fine for your normal human heroes, but oversized or oddly-sized heroes and villains were left out of that galaxy.

If you’re a collector of vintage toys, you can find incomplete set for as cheap as $100 out of the box or more as much as $3,500 complete in box AND signed by Stan Lee.

Series 2: From Eight to Five

The toys were popular but still did not sell as well as Marvel and Mattel had hoped. This led the Series 2 characters to be cut from the originally-planned eight to just five. Those five figures were Daredevil, Baron Zemo, Falcon, Hobgoblin, and Spider-Man (black suit). The black suit Spider-Man was a hot item as Secret Wars #8 famously was one of the first comics to introduce Spider-Man in a new suit.

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Daredevil from Series 2. Photo courtesy of finalfrontiertoys.com

The remaining three characters that were planned eventually were put in foreign language boxes and sent overseas to be sold there.  These are much scarcer and harder to find in complete sets. But individual toys out of the box can run anywhere from $20 for Baron Zemo to $100 for black suit Spider-Man.

Series 3: Shipped Overseas

Three names got relegated down to the minor leagues when Mattel and Marvel decided not to sell them in the U.S. Those three characters were Iceman, Electro, and the much-lesser-known Constrictor. In addition to the “Secret Wars” packaging, these were also packaged with a Spanish translation so they could be marketed in Spain and other Latin American countries.

But what that has done almost 40 years later is create a very scarce market for those trying to collect a complete set. For example, a complete-in-box Iceman can be found listed for more than $1,000 when you locate one on eBay.

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Photo courtesy of vintageactionfigures.com

Playsets, Vehicles, and Merchandise

In addition to the action figures, Mattel sold a Freedom Fighter playset, which was basically a rotating hideout for the heroes. They also sold Dr. Doom’s Tower of Doom that looked like something straight out of the 1980’s  version of Latveria. These provided the structures on which the action figures could battler, but there were also vehicles available.

Four vehicles were made available: a car, two types of glider, two types of motorcycle, and two types of helicopter. Some of these vehicles were sold in sets and can be purchased today for as low as $40, even inside the box.

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Photo courtesy of Hakes Auctions

During this time, Marvel also rolled out trading cards, lunch boxes, clothes, decoder kits, radios, weapons, and various other items all with the Secret Wars name on it. They stuffed ads in Sears Catalogs and in kids’ magazines all over the country. If you were a kid paying attention at all from May 1984 to April 1985, you were bombarded.

King of the Copper Age

What the original Secret Wars run (plus its sequel one year later) did for Marvel is set them up as the king of the Copper Age. Six of the ten highest value comics from that age come from Marvel, with none of the top ten coming from DC.

This would, of course, lead directly into the incomparable comic boom of the early 1990’s that would cause Marvel, DC, indie labels, and many others to go way out over their skis in terms of production, kitschy gimmicks, and new characters and books. But while that decade became about which of the behemoths could outdo the other with a big story (Think X-Men #1 and the Death of Superman hype), the 1980s were about the hearts and minds of the little ones.

There is a reason such a hot market exists for vintage toys, especially from the 1970s and 1980s. For many of us, these were the items that defined our youth, and led us to become comic book collectors, investors, and fans for a lifetime. And while Marvel may not have started from a position of as much strength, they ended up winning the Secret War with DC thanks to a comic series and toy line that still resonates today.

AAA-Footer-CL Secret Wars: Toys and Merchandise That Saved Marvel*Any perceived investment advice is that of the freelance blogger and does not represent advice on behalf of GoCollect.

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3 comments

Sean January 27, 2023 - 4:18 pm

This article is a little misleading. Yes, DC was outselling Marvel in the late 70’s when they launched the DC explosion, but it was soon followed by the DC implosion. Marvel was by far the bigger seller of comics in the 1980’s. Secret Wars was not needed to boost sales of Marvel comics. Marvel had Uncanny X-Men as a consistent #1 seller every month. DC had New Teen Titans in the #2 position, but other than that, Marvel was dominating the top 10 hottest titles every month before Secret Wars came out in 1984. If my memory is wrong, correction is welcome.

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Randy W. DeBower January 27, 2023 - 10:34 pm

The grail of the first release Heroes of the Secret Wars line is the “famous” black clawed Wolverine figure! It can sell MIP for 2-3 times it’s silver-clawed ounterpart! –And now, since the popularity of the MCU the fairly “common” figures of Iron Man and Captain America have increased dramatically in price, particularly nice MIP examples. I was fortunate enough to find the entire first release set marked down in 1985 at a five & dime store!! And lucky for me, there were two of the black-clawed Wolvies! Still have one complete set of the 8 initial figures in nice packaging. Added the Black Spidey to the set 15 years ago, just because it’s so cool! Have thought about getting the rest of the second wave before they get even spendier!! The Hobgoblin looks pretty cool! Great toy line to have when you’re a Marvel fan for life!!

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Zach January 27, 2023 - 11:45 pm

True story – my aunt brought me and my cousins to a comic book store on my 12th birthday in May 1984. Secret Wars limited #1 was one of the first comic books I ever bought.

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