I was born in the USA in 1979, more than a decade after the heyday of the little green army man. By 1985, every kindergartener knew that plastic army men were tired. The cool toys were the ones on TV: Transformers, He-Man, and G.I. Joe. The cool toys had cool names like Optimus Prime, Man-E-Faces, and Roadblock. Furthermore, the cool toys cared about your well-being. Cool toys made cartoon public service announcements encouraging you to try your best in school, never accept car rides from mustachioed strangers in olive sedans, and always wear a life jacket on a sailboat. Plastic army men had nothing going on: no cool names, no prefab stories, and no branded expressions of care and concern. They were the toy equivalent of generic raisin bran.
Plastic army men were tired, but tenacious. They seemed to lurk in all the world’s least-fun corners: next to a box of colored chalk on the toy shelf at the grocery store; at the dentist’s office, where you could select one as a consolation prize after getting your teeth cleaned; or forgotten at the bottom of a friend’s bedroom closet.
One day when I was in third grade, my friend Dirk abandoned me in his bedroom to go play with another friend. Digging through Dirk’s closet, I discovered a cache of army men. I picked one up, a grenadier frozen in a just-about-to-throw pose. The figure had been manufactured with very little care—probably cast from a decades-old mold—and it looked like a melting, moaning scarecrow. Its face, intended to represent the hale visage of a brave hero, was an emaciated vision of horror. Have I ever felt less like playing with toys than I did then, alone in Dirk’s bedroom, as I gazed into the hell of that grenade-thrower’s plastic face?
Speaking of dentists: the common nylon-bristle toothbrush—the disposable kind many of us still use—was introduced in 1938, the same year Bergen Toy and Novelty Company (“Beton” for short) introduced the first mass-produced plastic soldier toys. Just as plastic replaced boar bristles on toothbrushes, plastic replaced lead in the manufacture of toy soldiers. Eighty years ago, plastic was beginning to take over everything.
After Beton switched from lead to plastic, other toy manufacturers followed suit. Lead was in scarce supply during the war, and there was an increasing awareness that it was poisonous. Plastic, growing cheaper all the time, was marketed as a sanitary alternative. Plus, the new material enabled greater detail in the casting.
Beton sold plastic soldiers both individually and in small boxed sets. (I enjoy a slogan that appears on the box tops of early sets: “NON-BREAKABLE, NON-INFLAMMABLE, NON-POISONOUS.” All three claims are debatable.) The earliest plastic Beton figures were painted, as had been the custom with lead toys: peach faces and black guns, usually on an army-green body. But during the war, Beton didn’t always paint the figures before shipping them out. It was easier and cheaper not to paint them. Thus, the iconic “green army man” was born.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Beton and rival companies—including Louis Marx, Ideal, MPC, and Tim-Mee—began to sell large quantities of unpainted plastic figures by the bagful. A kid could get a huge bag of little green men for about a penny a figure. Affordability fueled the toys’ popularity and made them feel almost disposable: here were toys a child could drag through the mud and break and destroy—on purpose!—with little guilt or fear of parental retribution. Destroying an army man was one way to use it correctly.
It also became common in that era for manufacturers to mold army men in different colors of plastic, with costume details evoking foreign nations: yellow for Japan, khaki for the UK, blue for France. Green—the first color, the default—was the color of the USA.
The figure that Time magazine hailed in 2011 as one of the “100 all-time greatest toys” has undergone few evolutions since its pre-Vietnam prime. You can get a drumful of contemporary-looking army men—with state-of-the-art armor and weaponry, but still as monochrome and frozen-posed and army-manny as ever—at most Walmarts. And countless variations of classic World War II–era designs can be found online in nearly every color.
Beton folded in 1958, facing stiff competition from foreign manufacturers selling cheaper, if often inferior-quality, products. One of its American competitors, Marx, was the biggest toy manufacturer in the country in the 1950s—the company boasted that one in every ten toys in American homes was a Marx—but it was in sharp decline by the early ’70s, and folded by decade’s end. Plastic army men were in decline, too, in the wake of Vietnam and the advent of the “action figure”—an ingenious marketing term coined by Hasbro in 1964 to promote its brand-new G.I. Joe line to boys who were turned off by the word “doll.”
Plastic army men seemed to lurk in all the world’s least-fun corners: next to a box of colored chalk on the toy shelf at the grocery store; or as a consolation prize at the dentist’s office.
Marx made some of the fanciest army men, and packaged them in attractive playsets that came complete with tanks, helicopters, and bunkers. A popular Marx playset called Battleground inspired a 1972 Stephen King short story of the same name. In King’s “Battleground,” a boxed playset of little green army men comes to life and exacts revenge on the murderer of a toy magnate by bombarding him with tiny bullets and bazooka shells, dive-bombing him with tiny helicopters, and ultimately detonating a tiny thermonuclear bomb inside his penthouse apartment.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the appeal of plastic army men was somewhat revived by their appearance in Pixar’s Toy Story, as well as in a popular video game series called Army Men. And though they remain widely available, even in the drugstores of liberal cities such as San Francisco, the customer appeal seems to be mostly nostalgic.
In 2014, my sons—Alton, then six years old, and Molloy, then three—and I began to make what we called “Super Soldiers” by taking standard-issue, two-inch-tall plastic army men, cutting or breaking them into pieces, and using tweezers, knives, candle flames, and our imaginations to Frankenstein the pieces back together into new, one-of-a-kind configurations.
We fell into making Super Soldiers almost by accident after my father-in-law—who grew up playing with army men in the 1950s—mailed Alton a bag of 100 for his sixth birthday. Many of them broke during the first vigorous battle. Alton saw me sweeping up all the fragments, about to throw them in the trash, and asked if there was a way to repair them. At first, we were just trying to make the soldiers whole again, so we got out a candle and some tweezers and started melting the pieces back together. After several minutes, the surgery got more creative. We had more arms than we knew what to do with, so we stuck them all to one guy. And voilà: the first Super Soldier.
Sometimes we start with an idea. Someone will shout out, “Let’s make an army guy with five heads!” Other times, we start with a name: “What would a guy named ‘Pythonstricter’ look like?” And sometimes we start Super Soldiering with no plan, letting ideas emerge as we melt, smoosh, carve, and shape. Alton came up with the name “Super Soldiers” in 2015, and led the development of a package design.
When we finish a new Super Soldier, we bag it and attach a label with its name. Then we usually box it and ship it off to a friend. How to handle a Super Soldier is up to the person who receives it. You’re welcome to tear it from its package, strap a firecracker to its back, and watch it blow up. You’re welcome to keep it in the package and pin it to a wall. You can give it to a child to play with, or place it in a junk drawer for your grieving nephew to discover in 2067. Once a Super Soldier is out of our hands, anything goes.
We’ve made close to 500 Super Soldiers so far, each with a specific name. A Super Soldier’s name and shape will often suggest its special strengths. Mercury looks like he’d be really good at running and kicking. Maybe Biscuits works in the kitchen. Hamburger is one of the first Super Soldiers Molloy made entirely by himself, from the idea to the sculpting and naming. Hamburger has many brains, so he’s probably a leader.
When it comes to making Super Soldiers, there aren’t many rules. If we were to write down the rules, they would be more or less as follows:
1. Make each new Super Soldier different somehow. Avoid making exact copies of soldiers you’ve already made.
2. Whoever takes the lead on making a Super Soldier gets to decide when it is finished and gets to have final say on its name.
3. You can assign a gender, too, if you want. They don’t all have to be men.
4. The finished Super Soldier must be able to support its own weight. If you try to stand it up and it falls over, it’s not done yet. (The only exception to this rule, so far, is Jeff K Jeff. Jeff K Jeff is a Super Soldier whose special power is that he falls over on purpose all the time.)
5. Before you get hands-on with knives and candle flames, make sure Dad is around. (This is a 2016 rule, instituted when the boys became old enough to handle the tools themselves.) When it’s time to melt plastic, work in a well-ventilated area and wear a mask.
6. Super Soldiers ought to be deployed out in the world. Keep a few, but ship most of them off to as many different people as possible. (Our master plan is for everyone we know to eventually get one. Ideally, it will arrive in their mailbox as a surprise.)
7. Make Super Soldiers when you feel like it. When you get tired of making them, stop. Making Super Soldiers is not a chore.
8. It’s a family joke that Mom is not allowed to help because she always tries to take over every job she’s a part of. (Mom has helped us once or twice, but the truth is that she’s not very good at following rule number 2.)
In 1979, when I was 42 days old, a Vietnam vet killed my uncle Joe with a .38-caliber pistol outside a bar over a $2 debt. The killer was a Marine who’d had part of his skull blasted off by an exploding mortar shell. According to his lawyer, the injury had made him into a different person—someone extraordinarily defensive. Uncle Joe had also served in the military, as an Army paratrooper. Sometimes, when we’re forging Super Soldiers from broken plastic, I think about this pair of real broken soldiers. I think about how my dad was robbed of a brother, and how my uncle was robbed of his life at age 27, and how a dubious war robbed the killer of a piece of his body and his humanity at a young age. Some things are irretrievably broken. But wouldn’t it be nice if they weren’t?
I’ve been asked whether I feel okay exposing my sons to gun-inclusive toys. If someone wants to say that toy guns, or toys containing guns, are indefensible in contemporary America, I get that. But it’s easy to make a reasonable criticism, and harder to be a father. As a dad, I ask myself questions like these: am I logging the hours? Am I making an effort to be present with my sons?
As long as I’m doing that, I feel like I’m doing okay. And if we’re creating something together, having fun, that’s good. The point of Super Soldiers has never been educational. In fact, there has never been a “point” at all. But I can look back and see that the process of doing all of this has created space to talk about various aspects—cool and terrible—of war, soldiers, guns, family, violence, toys, and more.
Right now, my sons and I are working on a Super Soldier who’s about a yard tall. He isn’t able to stand on his own two feet yet, but we’re getting there.