In early 1981, Reagan appointed a new FCC commissioner named Mark S. Fowler who fell in line with the president’s “deregulate everything” philosophy. Consequently, kids’ TV shows could now hawk toys with impunity, though cartoon producers didn’t get around to taking advantage of the new regime for a couple of years. However, they didn’t drag their oversized feet when it came to turning illustrated characters into toys. In fact, that kind of thing had been going on decades before TV existed, way back since the Yellow Kid became a phenomenon in the late 19th century. Comic and cartoon characters found lives outside newspapers, funny books, and television for decades as stuffed animals, bubble bath bottles, and PEZ dispensers, as well as featured faces on lunchboxes, record sleeves, pajamas, Halloween costumes, Christmas ornaments, Valentine’s Day cards, Little Golden Books, View-Master reels, cars, motel signs, food packaging, and even envelopes of vegetable seeds.
Colorful images of the sundry merchandise manufactured between the Yellow Kid and Fowler eras is the main draw of Tim Hollis’s new book Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise, but there are plenty of tidbits that make the text equally fun. Whether he’s hipping us to the paranoid economic reasons behind Disney’s reintroduction of Mickey Mouse’s Depression-era look in the seventies, relaying the mutual hatred of rival lunchbox companies, or simply mocking the often horrid representations of such characters on the merchandise in his vast personal collection, Hollis is an entertaining tour guide… and quite the cartoon character, himself. In his introduction he explains how he created a museum containing recreations of the rooms in his childhood home. And I thought I was a nostalgia freak.
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