New Doll Friends for GI Joe

… And Other Toy Stories

By Buck Wolf

Feb. 12, 2002 --  Calling GI Joe, calling GI Joe: Are you still the ultimate action figure hero? Mayday, mayday!

It's bad enough that some people still think of him as a doll. These are times of war, and Joe's coming under heavy fire from the likes of "Tora Bora Ted" and other patriotic playthings. At New York's annual toy fair this week, even teddy bears are dressing up like rescue workers, and the World Trade Center lives on as a cuddly souvenir pillow.

In post-Sept. 11 America, military heroes are definitely in style. U.S. sales for action figures rose 36 percent last year to $1.62 billion, according to the NPD group, making it the fastest growing sector in the $23 billion toy market.

But these are scary times. Kmart, a discount retailer that once accounted for 7.5 percent of domestic toy sales, is in bankruptcy, and toymakers are desperate to find the next Furby, the next Tickle Me Elmo.

Joe has to compete with a whole new litany of action heroes, some, like Blue Box Toys' "Freedom Force," specifically developed for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

Joe even has to compete against Jesus. That's right, Jesus action figures are among the hot novelty items at the toy fair. This 5-inch plastic messiah, retailing for $6.95, is mounted on little wheels and ready to roll.

Years ago, toy purveyor Archie McPhee scored a major hit with Boxing Nun Puppets, and now he thinks he's on to something bigger. Jesus fans may be disappointed to learn that this savior is made in China and not suitable for children under 3 years old.

Yeah, maybe that's stupid. But stupid sells. Look at Bill Bass, the mounted rubber fish that sings "Take Me to the River" If people will buy that, why not a Jesus toy on wheels?

Strolling down the aisles of New York City's Javitz Convention Center, where some 1,700 toy purveyors showed their wares, here are some items that jumped out at The Wolf Files. [Click on the links on the right to find out more about these toys.] Strange Toy Stories