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Official Article

Colorforms, Shrinky Dinks, and Monster Makers

Hey kids! Do you like stickers but hate that you can only attach them to one surface for all eternity? How about the lack of arts and crafts that involve sticking plastic in the oven? Major Bummer! Surely you’re bored with leaf and grass rubbings that plague your kindergarten art class. Well then today’s article is for you, ‘cause we’re about to look back at 3 toys that made the mundane majorly fun!

Colorforms were a cheap gift for a birthday boy or girl that guaranteed fun for at least fifteen minutes of your day. Consisting of thin vinyl strips cut into shapes that could be placed and re-placed on a glossy cardboard backdrop, it was the poor man’s action figure playset. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t have a good time with them though. Especially since the majority of these sets were based on popular cartoons or TV shows of the day. Although recognizing your favorite characters did sometimes involve a little bit of imagination.

You see, depending on the quality of your set, you might get nice 4 color cut-out of say, The Smurfs to frolic amongst their mushroom homes or a basic black line sketch of Hanna-Barbera’s animated superstars printed in any of the primary colors. Most cartoon characters were easy to duplicate since they were drawings to begin with, but live action icons like the stars of the hit film E.T. The Extra Terrestrial ended up looking like refugees from the funny papers that got left out in the rain. As a 3 and 4 year old I tended to be less discerning, so no matter which quality I got, I found a way to make the most of it.

Given my admiration (obsession) with super heroes growing up (who am I kidding? It’s still out of control), it was only natural that I found myself in possession of a Colorforms set inspired by Marvel Super Heroes, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. What I always appreciated was that they didn’t just include the characters, but “accessories” as well. Things like webs, trash cans and sound effects really made it feel like you were laying out a comic book page. I also thought it was neat to overlay multiple pieces to add “armor” to the familiar heroes.

One of the weirder Colorforms themes I’ve come across is the Mork and Mindy set. I mean, unless the kid was an amazing improviser like the late, great Robin Williams, how could the backdrop of an apartment be any source of enjoyment? “Mork, where’s the remote?” (woo-hoo!) As a huge KISS fan I see the obvious reference to the KISS Meets The Phantom of the Park TV movie in that 2-D adventure set, but it seems to me that giving them one of their classic stages to rock out on would have been just as good. The truly baffling set to me is the one inspired super-turd Batman and Robin. Not because of the subject, but the date it would have been produced. I had no idea you could still get Colorforms in 1997, who knew?!

Very briefly I feel the need to mention an odd variation in the Colorforms formula called Rub n’ Play. It was basically the same concept, except that the application of the figures to a surface was permanent. The characters were printed on thin plastic which you placed over the surface you wanted to decorate and rubbed the area until it transferred over. I used to see remnants of these things in school text books, bathroom walls and pay phones, it was kind of a starter kit for future graffiti artists. Oh and don’t think the example photo above isn’t intentional, the Moonwalker is aces in my book, but it was just too easy.

Research tells me that Colorforms were hardly an invention of the 80’s or even the 70’s, they actually date all the way back to the 1950’s, so it makes sense that after 30 years they eventually branched out by acquiring the rights to Shrinky Dinks. Baking cookies was fun, but baking toys was a whole new experience. The process was simple: 1) Pull out a clear plastic sheet featuring your favorite characters 2) Color them in using the special pencils, 3) Bake them on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees and you’ve got yourself a little plastic charm or replacement game board piece.

I remember going through this process with both the Pound Puppies and Popples kits and having a great time. The best part was staring though the oven glass to take in every second of the plastic melting/shrinking and hardening. Once the figures had cooled I was able to stick them in these little plastic stands and bounce them around the dining room table. The only thing is, the preparation process and anticipation was where the real thrills came from, once you held a fully shrunk Shrinky Dink in your hands, the fun was pretty much over.

While Shrinky Dinks may have been a one trick pony, the Mighty Men and Monster Maker was the toy that kept on giving! If you were one of those kids that loved mixing and matching parts from your G.I. Joes to create awesome mash-ups (Scarlett body with a Destro head? You’re messed up, dude.) then this was the artistic endeavor for you. I had so much fun with the endless possibilities of this art kit, which relied on the principle of putting something textured under a piece of paper and rubbing a coloring device over the top to reveal the shape.

So much more than your run of the mill craft item, the Mighty Men and Monster Maker set arrived with multiple plastic  torso, head and leg plates, that when assembled “correctly” created your standard Mutant, Alien, Space Adventurer or Super Hero (Yaaawn). But when kids got creative with their mixing and matching you ended up with some pretty impressive creatures. For some reason I really dug the Mummy head on top of the Gorilla torso breaking chains with its pecs combined with the Frankenstein’s monster legs featuring a wind mill between them, but to each their own.

Who would have thought that some vinyl cut outs and a few hunks of plastic could have provided so many hours of playtime? I don’t want to call them simple toys (that term is reserved for blocks or jump ropes in my mind) but the ability to immediately grab a child’s understanding and interest is very special indeed. While not the “coolest” playthings I ever owned, they are the ones that I can actually remember the playtime with, at an age when everything was a new experience.

So tell me, what Coloforms and Shrinky Dink sets did you own? Were there other toys of this style you miss? Oh and if you had a Mighty Men and Monster Maker kit, you get a virtual high-five. From your ol’ pal, Hoju.

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pikachulover Posted on Feb 01, 2015 at 05:00 AM

I had Sesame Street set. I didn't know what they were I thought they were stamps. So I licked them. I got them when I was 3. My parents had to explain to me how to use them. I had a Show White and a dress up Minnie N Me set. I also had a few Presto Magix sets of Beauty and the Beast and Strawberry Shortcake. I have a Lisa Frank set, but I'm not sure who made it.
I liked to use colorforms and window clings to stick on the sliding glass door wen I lived at a house that had one.

I had Barbie and Mickey Mouse rub-on transfers and some bootleg Sailor Moon ones.

echidna64 Posted on Jan 31, 2015 at 11:10 PM

Brings back memories!I think I had one for Crash Dummies

Vaporman87 Posted on Jan 31, 2015 at 10:04 PM

I would say I had a pretty extensive collection of all of these items. But, every time I would become bored with any of them, they would be placed in a drawer somewhere and eventually disappear altogether.

Even so, I can still feel my hand rubbing a pencil across that molded plastic, and smell the vinyl stickers of the Colorforms.

The thing I hated was when the Colorforms had characters in colors that were nowhere near correct (like Rhino in the picture you provided above). Seriously? Was it THAT much more expensive to make him gray?

I also attempted to manufacture my own "stencils" for use with the "monster maker" style toys. They never turned out any good though. Still, it was fun to try anyway!

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