M.A.S.K. was the acronym for “Mobile Armored Strike Kommand,” a cartoon turned action figure and accessory line from the mid ’80s. Correction, the cartoon series was a vehicle for the merchandising of M.A.S.K.’s toy line. So the toys came first. And what better way to create buzz with 11 year-olds in the mid ’80s than by creating a bad ass cartoon series? I was duped, I tell you. From the beginning, I was duped.
M.A.S.K. premiered in 1985. It featured a special task force of characters, led by Matt Trakker, with transforming vehicles engaged in an ongoing battle against the criminal organization V.E.N.O.M., respectively, “Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem.” The show pitted MASK against VENOM, and when push came to shove, characters donned helmets, transformed their everyday vehicles into weapons of war and did battle on the cartoon landscapes of my living room couch. This scenario was the impetus which led to me needing MASK’s toy line. It wasn’t that I wanted it. Well, I did want it. But more than anything, I needed it. The cartoon became the first hit; me the addict, toys the re-up.
In case I’ve lost you this far, I’ll take the flagship vehicle of the MASK crew and explain it. Matt Trakker, the leader of MASK (the good guys) drove a car code-named Thuderhawk. In more simpler words, it was a red Chevrolet Camaro G3, which transformed into a gull-winged fighter jet plane. And his mask was Spectrum, which fired a sonic sound wave and allowed Trakker to see in different visual spectrums. This was the basis for each character. They had a vehicle and a weapon-like helmet, the vehicle changed into a weapon of war, the 11 year-old essentially getting two toys for the price of one: a cool guy with a cool car, and a warrior with an attack plane. (And that’s an important point, so don’t forget it.) There were other toys too. Dusty Hayes had a motorcycle that turned into a boat; Bruce Sato had a semi truck which transformed into a mobile command center; Hondo Maclean had a pick-up truck which transformed into a mobile weapons platform. And that was just the good guys.
Have you ever noticed that the bad guys always have the more bad ass equipment with which to be bad? MASK fell in line with that paradigm. VENOM’s Miles Mayhem piloted a black helicopter which also became a jet fighter; Sly Rax piloted the Piranha, a motorcycle with releasable submarine sidecar; and I’ll close it with Cliff Dagger, who drove Torch, a Ford Bronco turned fire-throwing assault vehicle. Good might always prevail in the world of the 11 year-old, but the bad guys always give them a run for their money in style.
I’m 11 years-old, with everything I had ever owned in the way of money spent on G.I. Joes, comics and Slurpees the summer before. Now remember how I mentioned that MASK toys were essentially two toys in one? Well, the price of MASK’s line reflected that. I’m sure it had more to do with the intricate manufacturing of a Camaro that became a gull-winged fighter plane, but I instead interpreted it as an injustice perpetrated by Kenner Toys on the consumer.
My brother had a solution though. An easy one, only available before the advent of the barcode. It wasn’t stealing. It was changing price tags. You’re not exactly stealing anything, you’re only making the product more affordable. And MASK toys weren’t like everything else on the market at the time. The action figures were about half the size of a traditional action figure, with the vehicles appropriating the action figure size. So even though they might’ve been two toys in one, they were still smaller and more expensive than everything else in the action figure aisle of Service Merchandise. Every few weeks, my brother and I would head on into the local department store, peel off some $2.99 price tags from something else within the store and reapply them to whatever more expensive item we wanted to purchase. If push came to shove, we could always say that we didn’t do it. Barcodes didn’t exist at the time, and store clerks getting paid $4.00 an hour could give two shits about some kids buying cheap toys. The plan worked, numerous times, and it wasn’t long before most of the MASK and VENOM collections had been amassed in our basement.
As expected though, it’s impossible to please an 11 and 9 year-old duo. Even childhood thieves have aspirations, and we couldn’t leave good enough alone. Much like MASK and VENOM’s vehicles, the somewhat honorable act of price tag changing transformed into something much more destructive. We resorted to straight up stealing. But it wasn’t long before we were caught. The remaining cache of MASK, G.I. Joe and Transformers toys was taken away, we were punished severely, and for perhaps the first times in our lives, we were forced to look back, reevaluate our actions and try to come to grips with the fact that the mantra of “If only we’d done this differently…” really matters.
It mattered then and it still matters now, which is why I cringe every time I see the MASK intro on YouTube (no matter how bad ass it is to the 11 year-old in me…)