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Spider-Man & Venom Action Figure Retrospective

Spider-Man has worn many costumes over the years, every once in a while feeling the need to change up his iconic red and blue outfit. As you might have guessed from my avatar, I've always been partial to the black and white color scheme from the 80's that eventually became the signature look of one of the wall-crawler's most deadly foes, Venom. Both characters have inspired many action figures over the years, which has been the focus of my personal collecting for over a decade. Today I am "opening the vault" to share with you a look at the evolution of the Black Costume Spider-Man toys from the 80's through the 90's.

For those who only know the story of Spidey's darker look from Spider-Man 3, I apologize. Allow me to give you a brief history from the original comics. In 1984, the Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars mini-series led to Spider-Man's original costume being shredded in battle on an alien world, so he turned to a strange machine that delivered him an oozing black ball instead of a webbed piece of cloth. The new black costume gave him increased strength, unlimited organic webbing and the ability to mimic clothing so he never had to take it off.

After some strange occurrences, Spider-Man found out that the costume was actually a living "Symbiote", an alien being looking to bond permanently with his body. He managed to remove the creature through sonic frequency sounds, but it created resentment in the entity, which then found another host who hated Spider-Man just as much, a disgraced reporter named Eddie Brock. Bonding with Brock, the Symbiote took on a more monstrous appearance and the two went on to terrorize Spider-Man for many years to come, while creating a very devoted fan-base in the 90's and beyond. Get it? Got it? Good. Now let's get to the toys!

The first occurrence of the black costume in action figure form was appropriately enough, a part of the Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars line from 1984. This really is the crown jewel of my current collection, though I only owned the the original costume version as a child. While this offering from Mattel wasn't the most articulated, the character design is right on with a dynamically posed body against a stormy backdrop with a dramatic lightning strike. At the time of it's release this change in costume color was being announced as the permanent new look of the "Web-Head" and it stayed that way for quite a while, so the epic presentation seems to herald the coming of a new era. I love how Mattel re-caps the origin of the new costume in a 4 panel comic on the back of the box. Notice how they added the "secret shield" to the illustration, to tie it in with the accessories of the figures?

It wasn't until 1991 that we got another look at the black and white in molded plastic with the Marvel Super Heroes Venom figure by Toy Biz. Isn't that box art awesome? Big and bulky, the sculpted muscles and mouth really capture the menace of this psychotic villain. If there is a downside, it's that the toy had "Frankenstein" arms, meaning you could not bend it at the elbows, so Venom could only attack with Mummy-like outstretched limbs. The character was a big deal in the comics at this point, so I actually did buy this off the shelves in '91 and I still have him today after many hours of playtime.

The action feature here was "Living Skin Slime Pores", which basically meant a hole in his chest that you could squeeze black slime through with the use of a plunger on the figure's back.The "Venom Slime" was kind of watery and did not burst out in tendrils as shown in the example on the back of the box, where the slime is comically drawn on. Really, it just slowly "splooshed" out like grape Jell-O (yum!). One amusing bit from the back of the box is the fact that you could call the toy company directly to order more slime. It cracks me up to imagine the Mom that had to make that call, "Uh, yes, do you have the...what's it called again, Derek?" "Venom slime, GOSH!" "The, uh, Venom slime?" 


I should mention that there was a talking version of this Venom as well. It was the same figure, minus the plunger & slime, instead equipped with an electronic backpack that spoke 3 phrases, the best of which was, "I want to eat your brain!". I didn't personally own this, but I had The Punisher and once orchestrated a prank call with my friend to his Dad, where we played the ominous catch phrase, "Vengeance is mine!" over the receiver. There was no response on the other end and no repercussions, so we decided to leave the comedic calls to Bart Simpson and The Jerky Boys.

Venom got himself a personal trainer and physical therapist by the time of his second Marvel Super Heroes action figure release in 1992. More svelt and with bending elbows for better play value, this toy featured a flicking tongue action to emphasize Venom's most famous appendage. I think it's awesome that Toy Biz also included a less gooey "living slime vest" that I always assumed was meant to attach to a victim to trap them, but could just as easily have been placed on a more human looking figure to act out a transformation sequence. This particular scuplt was actually recycled in 1996 as part of the cheap-o Marvel Hall of Fame series sold at Kay-Bee Toys, with box art that was nowhere near as impressive as the original. 

When Spider-Man: The Animated Series hit FOX saturday mornings in 1994, Venom was front and center as one of the featured foes in the opening credits, so he got a figure in the first wave released to promote the show. Retaining the leaner body sculpt, Toy Biz switched out the flicking tongue for "Jaw Chomping Action", which was really a step down in my opinion. By squeezing the legs the top half of his head would pop-up as the future "Lethal Protector" did his best impression of a PEZ dispenser. Besides, the weird mouth design made Venom look more like Audry II from Little Shop of Horrors than the vengeful hybrid of man and sentient space goo.

Mr. Brock got "juiced-up" again for his second appearance in the animated series of toys in 1995 as Venom II, this one revealed his human face behind a removable mask. Unfortunately the non-articulated "Frankenstein arms" returned, as did the "Symbiote Tank Top" which clearly would not fit on this 'roided up creature, thus confirming my earlier theory that it was meant to entrap his prey. They also starting packing in bonus collector pins, which were actually more like clip-on earrings. Why do I say that? Because that's exactly what I used them for when nobody was looking. Judge me if you must, but we both know you're just jealous that you didn't think of it first.

Also part of this wave of figures was my greatest prize, a Black Costume Spider-Man. For several years I had to settle for a custom version I made by painting a Marvel Super Heroes multi-articulated Spider-Man black. Though I had to cover up my shoddy workmanship by constructing paper armor and turning him into the original "Iron-Spider", but back to the official release. I stalked the toy aisles of my local Target for the entire summer of 1995 trying to get my hands on this one. I went so far as to show up every day at store opening for a week straight to learn when their stocking day was. But finally one morning, there it was in the peg, ready to be bought for $4.99. 

The action feature on this guy was pretty unique and somehow they managed to not make him look out of proportion. You could pull a tab out of his chest that revealed a translucent, webbed plastic strip about 6 inches long. The strip was attached to a mechanism that coiled it back in and allowed you to mimic a wall-crawling action. Really though, I was just excited to have my favorite version of the character in 3-dimensional form and ready to take part in my imagined action scenarios.

The final version of Venom in this era was "Stealth Venom". It was actually just a Venom II packaged with the mask on and adding some weird snap-on alien claws, partially translucent hands and a clear tendril rope wrapped around his abs. I used to own the variant version of this where the figure was totally see-through, but sold it a few years back during one of my collector "purges". This was released at the height of the collector's market as confirmed by the "Special Collector's Series" burst on the card. The box art also tells us that this was produced in the brief period where the Spider-Clone, Ben Reilly took over for Peter Parker and made himself a new costume as the Sensational Spider-Man. The 90's were a wild time for Spider-Man fans, let me tell ya.

I am going to bring this portion of the retrospective to a close, but I'll be back soon with part 2 covering some unique offerings featuring these black suited Spider-Guys from the latter half of the 90's up to the year 2000.

What are your recollections of the action figure boom or the popularity of Venom's tongue?

Keep an eye out for other pieces in my collection on Twitter @hojukoolander
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Vaporman87 Posted on Aug 05, 2015 at 06:48 PM

Awww man! Seeing the figures on the back of that Secret Wars Spidey card back brings back my despair over not owning Hobgoblin, Baron Zemo or Falcon! I did own both Spidey versions, Cap, Doc Ock, and the others. In fact, I still own them as well as Doctor Doom's fortress thingy. I also owned (but no longer own) one or two of the vehicles.

Was it just me, or were Doc Ock's tentacles prone to breaking off? All of mine broke off in play, and what is a Doc Ock with no "Ock"? Just a "Doc", and that's lame.

My favorite was, of course, Iron Man. The whole Secret Wars comic storyline and toy line were huge in my youth. I played with them a great deal... more so than any other superhero toy line. They got their fair share of playtime amidst He-Man, Thundercats, GI Joe, and Transformers, and that's quite a feat.

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