06 January 2017

FWS Military Sci-Fi Toys: Air Raiders (1987)


From my own perspective, the 1980's were a great time to be a kid, especially considering the toys, pop music, and films. Throughout the 1980's, it seemed like toy, cartoons, and comics were designed to be adventurous and inventive to capture the attention, imagination, and money of children. The goal was to lure children away from the more well established toylines and to try something new. Some of these new toylines became iconic of the time, beloved by an entire generation and others became forgotten, doomed to dusty boxes and dark corners of the internet. Among the forgotten toyline of the 1980's was a rather interesting military science fiction line from established toy maker Hasbro called Air Raiders that came out and died around 1987. Join FWS now was we explore and explain this forgotten military SF toyline!

What was Air Raiders?
In 1987, Hasbro attempted to replicate their successful toylines  with several new action centered toylines aimed at new types of play via new incorporated technologies as with the Air Raiders and Sky Commandos toylines of 1987. Air Raiders was a vehicle-centered toyline with two inch figures, similar to Coleco’s STARCOM, built-in air pumps to active various functions and a strong military SF story of a war over air on a distant world. That world is Airlandia (clever writing) and two factions are battling for control over the air since the impact of a comet devastated the ecology of the planet and its people. During the post-impact chaos, an evil dictator seized power and the ability to manufacture clean breathable air. Also, there was violent new current of air that possessed magical properties and abilities, similar to the 1989 film Slipstream.  The draconian “Tyrants of the Wind” rule over the bulk of the planet, its government (lords of Winds), cities, and its air…and they meant to keep it.  Entire economy of Airlandia is constructed around air and the control of it. In the comic, air rations are the medium of exchange and by which, the Tyrants of the Wind control the flow of the air...and after all, he controls the air, controls the planet. There is a resistance faction: the Air Raiders, the heroes of our story. This was conflict in the entire series that the toys were based in: the war between the Air Raiders rebels and the evil empire of the Tyrants of the Winds. The story of Air Raiders was explained by comic inserts in the toys, the limited information presented in the commercials, and the four part comic book series by Star Comics/Marvel Comics. Just for the record, the toyline by Hasbro is not related to the 1982 Mattel/ATARI 2600 game Air Raiders.

The Historical Context of Air Raiders
Overall, the 1980's were a golden era of toys for American children and collectors, and 1987 was one of those critical years. Much like a drug addict, the toy companies are always thinking and planning on their next hit and then one after that and the one after that. No matter how big the last hit was, the next one needs to be even bigger. Star Wars and Kenner altered the toy industry in 1977 with other toy companies attempting to mimic and replicate their vast success. Successes like He-Man, G.I. Joe, and Transformers were losing ground in 1987 or trying desperately to reinvent themselves to relative. At the same time, toy companies and retailers were waiting on the next big thing to take hold. Competing with the toy segment was the reassurance of home video game consoles with the ATARI 7800, the Sega Master System, and the titan of all home consoles: the NES.
To attempt to counter some of this influence, into mix of 1987 was increase of incorporation of technology into the toy industry seen in toylines like Lazer Tag, Photon, Robotix, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, and Visionaries: the Knights of the Magical Light. With the competitive feeding frenzy of the 1980’s toy market, there was a blanket strategy to achieve maximum exposure for new toylines attempting to establish themselves : traditional TV commercials, thinly veiled 30 minute cartoon TV series/commercials, tie-in products, and comics. This worked well as proven by He-Man and G.I. Joe, and this be replicated ad nauseam throughout the decade and onward.

The Air Raiders Toyline
There were two factions that divided the entire toyline, as are many, the heroes (the Air Raiders) and the villains (The Tyrants of the Wind). Both had unique color schemes and styles to be clearly different from one another. What all of the Air Raiders toys share in common is that they are vehicle-heavy and they use "air power" pumps to fire projectiles, open compartments, and movement. Both of the toylines were about equal in terms of similar vehicles and figures, which was not always the case with 1980's toylines that had more heroes than villains. We got very lucky that the Air Raiders website has scanned an actually 1987 toy catalog for us to verify prices (the site opens spam websites...so be warned).

Playsets
Normally one of the most expensive items in a toyline is the playsets due to their size, packaging, and complexity. These are often the base-of-operations for one of the faction in the toyline’s lore, such as Castle Greyskull from He-Man, the SDF-1 from Matchbox’s ROBOTECH line and Headquarters command center from G.I. Joe.  Air Raiders was to receive two playsets, one for each faction, but only one was released. The Air Raider faction “command outpost” was an orange and red hued base constructed into a rocky base with a fighting position and air powered turrets. This has been considered one of the cooler toys in the entire line next to the “Man-o-War” and the unreleased “Air Refinery”. This was priced at $31 in 1987. The other playset was the unreleased Tyrant faction playset called the “Air Refinery”. Please read in the Lost Toys section for more information on this playset. 

Vehicles
The vehicles were the heart and soul of both of sides of the conflict featured in the Air Raiders toyline. All of the vehicles were designed for "air power" pump system that mostly seemed used to fire projectiles and often these vehicles were fitted with a switch to fire either the left or right turrets. What is impressive about the Air Raiders toyline was that the first series was how extensive it was, given the gamble that Hasbro was undertaking at the time on the toyline in 1987 without a supporting cartoon series.  With the set of the conflict being over air and the power to control it, the majority of the vehicles were aerocraft of some type, some were ground based using wheels or hover. The two most common were the Air Raider “Twin Lightining” and the Tyrant of the Wind “Hawkwind” fighters, both priced around $13 in 1987. The more budget vehicles were the “Battle Dashers” that were launched via a large hand air pump and came in at $8.99. The most expensive (and awesome) was the Air Raider faction “Man-o-War” mobile command center that was price back in 1987 at $39, which is $89 in today’s money and was the only vehicle of the line to require batteries. In sum total, there were five vehicles for the Air Raider faction and four for the Tyrants of the Wind.

Figures
At two inches, the Air Raiders figures rank up there with the long forgotten Eagle Force die cast figures, and Starcom: The US Space Force, the British Manta Force toyline, M.A.S.K., and the 1982 Kenner Micro Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back toyline. The figures were packaged with the vehicles and due to their size, five of general combat infantry soldiers were sold on a single standard action figure cardboard packaging. Each faction got a release with four grunts and one squad leader figure with more detail and different styling. The back of the package had a informational card explaining the difference between the Air Raider and Tyrant faction soldiers or the "Battle Squad" and the "Enforcers". The packaging art is pretty amazing especially for Air Raiders orange hued Squad that shows them scaling a mountain while engaging in  mountain-side combat. It is explained that the Air Raiders soldiers are specially trained freedom figthers designed to mount special operations and raids. The Tyrant forces received the purple hue and are called "Enforcers" that are brainwashed shock-troopers with their leader having an Conquistador-type helmet design. When the toyline was not selling, these figures were deeply marked down to less than a buck causing some to amass vast armies of Raiders and Enforcers. One eBay auction I saw was for a huge lot of over a hundred Air Raiders figures.

Comic and Coloring Books
The 1980’s toy industry is known for developing cartoon shows to promote and advertise the line. Some of these were just as iconic as the toy that were designed to boost, such as Transformers and He-Man. However, one of the oldest methods of promoting to children was the comic book. Since the dawn of comics, there have been specifically designed series based around a product.  Some were merely shells; others were able to translate to being a more “real” and respected comic book series. In 1984-1991, Marvel Comics had a spin-off brand called Star Comics that was all about being an vehicle of promotion. This brand was targeted at children and the majority of the titles were based off cartoons of the time like Droids, Ewoks, Heathcliff,Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos (yes…this actually existed) and the  Muppet Babies.  In 1987, Star Comics began printing an Air Raiders comic that would last four total issues, with the last two published under the Marvel logo for some unknown reason.  Added to the four comics, were two coloring books that were also pretty standard marketing fair. Both of these do not command a heavy price on the resale market. Classic Game Room did a review of the comics here.  

What Happened to the Air Raiders?
Air Raiders was experiment in boys' toys that did not garner enough sales for Hasbro to create and release a second line and by the end of 1987, Air Raiders was discontinued with remaining toys sold at deep discounts as in-the-box toys with several price changes will attest. What happened to the toyline? The most American thing: marketplace competition! Air Raiders was against a furry of other new toylines attempting to take their place along side the other established toylines, and there will always be casualties. Some of these casualties of the 1980's toy wars were toylines with more presence than Air Raiders, namely a cartoon on television.
These gravestones were marked with names like: Bravestarr, Sliverhawks, and The Inhumanoids. Without a television cartoon, Air Raiders lacked the presence or foothold of those other titles that failed, dooming the toyline. It was not just the lack of cartoon, it was the size of the figures. At the time, there were several attempts with other less than standard size action figure (3 3/4inches) and all failed to catch on due to the lack of cross play application with your Star Wars and G.I. Joes figures. Why did Hasbro makes such a fatal decision? Money. It was quite a bit easier to develop vehicles and playsets for a two inch figure over the more standard 3 3/4 inch, and you could charge a cheaper price as well. This was the rationale for Coleco designing their entire ill-fated STARCOM: the US Space Force toyline around the smaller figures as well. The another factor in the choice to make the figures smaller than standard was the vehicles being the center of attention for the toyline, especially considering the addition of the "air power" pumps. Hasbro wanted Air Raiders to be a more economical hit, but their cost-cutting methods did not give the Air Raiders toyline the chance it deserved. Unlike a few other toyline we've covered here on FWS, there is no known second series prototypes and no lost cartoon episodes.

The Lost Toys: The Mail-Away "Survival Pack" and the Mythical Air-Refinery
Due to the unsuccessful nature of the entire Air Raiders toyline in 1987 there are two "lost toys" of the line that are subject to much rumor and speculation even onward to the internet era: the Survival Pack and the Tyrant Air Refinery. Mail away special figures and items were big in the 1980's, and they were annoying as hell when you had to collect proof-of-purchase, as we did for some Star Wars and G.I. Joes special figures and Air Raiders had their own send away "survival Pack". Like many of the original mail-away figures, the Survival Pack in the original package, this can go for $500 and many think it was not actually released until a few came up for auction or were photographed. The Survival Pack came with two special figures (Emperor Aerozar and Baron Jolt), a map of the planet Airlandia, an glider, and a pack of extra of 24 missiles for both sides of the conflict.  Given the short amount of time Air Raiders was an active toyline, there were rarely ordered for the $6.50 original price with the $1.50 shipping and handling fee. This is one of the two Air Raiders items to garner big bucks today on the resale/collector market...the other is the released Air-Raider "Man-o-War" mobile command post. The other lost toy of the Air Raiders 1987 line was the "Air Refinery".
This playset was to be the counter to the Air-Raider faction "Command Outpost" and this location was mentioned in the Star Comics Air Raiders limited run series, seen in catalogs, and according to rumor, in-stores as a display piece. There is little information on the Air Refinery and there is debate on if it was even released or if it was indeed used as for in-store promotion displays as the rumors suggest. There is nearly nothing on the Air Refinery online and seems for the few references I found, most agree, it was a prototype and was not produced before Hasbro pulled the plug on the Air Raiders toyline sometime in 1987. With the only the scans of the catalog included in the vehicle box being the basis for information about the Air Refinery, it seemed featured four missile turrets, an escape vehicle, an built-in "air blaster)?) and it appears to be an air powered tube to shuttle figures up and down the levels of the complex. Included would have been figures and missiles. I firmly believe that there is someone out there that has this prototype toy in a forgotten dusty box somewhere waiting to be discovered.

My Own Experiences with Air Raiders
Unlike other 1980's toylines that we've discussed here on FWS, I did not own any of the Air Raiders toys nor the comics, but I did have a few friends that had one or two of the toys. Needless to say, they were impressive overall. How I knew of the toyline was mainly due to its commercials that were on heavy rotation in the Saturday morning cartoons in 1987 and after-school time slots. I can recall seeing the toys briefly at the Tulsa Toy R Us. but they were not there for long. Despite the falling prices, I was not that interested in the failing toyline that I barely knew. I was more interested in saving my allowance for comics, video games, and RPG accessories.

Why Didn't Air Raiders Get an 1980's Cartoon?
The primary strategy of toy companies at the time was to create an 30 minute syndicated cartoon series that was a thinly veiled colorful advertisement for the tie-in toys. The majority of the time, the toys were created prior to the series, and both the toys and cartoon had their destinies linked. One could not ordinarily exist without the other in some sort of symbiotic relationship. If the tie-in cartoon was so important to the longevity  of the toyline, why the hell didn't Air Raiders get one? There were animated portions fo the Air Raiders toy commercials that were in a similar style to the G.I. Joe: Real American Hero cartoons along with the same voice actors providing their talents to the commercials. It is my believe is that was one planned and it was either rejected or delayed. Once the toyline died, there was no reason to develop the cartoon. If the cartoon was so critical to the success of most of the core 1980's toylines, why was Air Raiders not given the chance? Hasbro already had a massive market effort with a similar toyline, Sky Commandos, and it decided to give the cartoon series to it and let Air Raiders take its chances with the comic book series from Marvel's Star Comics and the commercials. There was not just the market budget to develop another cartoon. There could be another reason...Hasbro knew that Air Raiders was going to be a loser and why waste money on a loser? Again, there is nothing official on this.

The Air Raiders Toyline Impact, Current Status, and Its Legacy
Lasting only a single release in 1987 and being in bargain bins by 1988 with deep discounts, Air Raiders had little impact on the common culture or toy industry of the 1980's. As for its current status, it can best be summed as: for every toyline, there is a fan, and Air Raiders has a few that populate the internet with information, pictures, comments, and scans. There is an entire website devoted to Air Raiders and it is one of the only collected sources of information on the interwebs. The true legacy of Air Raiders is its inclusion on those popular internet lists. Often popping up on "80's Toys that we miss" or "Forgotten Toys of the 1980's", Air Raiders is always there, being mentioned, and keeping the fires alive with its mere existence. In some ways, Air Raiders got lucky when it came out to allow for long term survival given the popularity and nostalgia value of 1980's culture. Children of the 1980's, like me, are attempt to collect/amass the toys they had or did not have via the online marketplaces and then posting about said toys...such is true of Air Raiders. Will there be future for the series? I doubt it. Simply put, Air Raiders is not He-Man, GI Joe, or even the super creepy Inhumaniods, nor does it have a super nostalgic 1980's cartoon that could be reissued on DVD to spur interest and relight the fires of Air Raiders. However, the toys of Air Raiders will outlast as all being made from plastic...

Next Time on FWS...
In the second installment of the Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War blogpost series, we will examining the role of nuclear weapons in the realm of politics, diplomacy, and the military...along with some other topics thrown like was it right or wrong to drop the bomb on Japan and if total disarmament is the answer and if nuclear weapons will be considered old technology. Watch for it about 10 to 12 days!

3 comments:

  1. My son had most of the Air Raiders and the Captain Power stuff....his dad thought they were cool...lol

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  2. That is amazing! I am planning on article on STARCOM and Cpt. Power in the near future. To this day, I still want an Starmax bomber for the FWS offices.

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  3. I wonder if I still have my Captain Power spaceship gun

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