Saturday, June 20, 2009

Shooting Man From Mars (Irwin / 1952 / U.S. / 11 inches)

No vision of the future would be complete without a few space heroes to help keep those planetary colonies safe. With his ray guns, bubble-helmet, and spiffy uniform, the Shooting Man from Mars was the right guy for the job. Never mind his bright, freshly-scrubbed, child-like face -- this was a man of action!

I've always liked this toy; he captures the wide-eyed wonder of Fifties TV space-adventure shows like Tom Corbett: Space Cadet and Space Patrol. The Shooting Man from Mars, despite his violent title, has a naive, gee-wiz quality that often defined children's science fiction during that period. It inspired optimistic dreams about the future, dreams that included rockets to the moon, robot friends, and flying cars. (I'm still waiting for that last one, by the way.)

The Shooting Man from Mars was made of an early, brittle, cellulose plastic. It features a wind-up walking mechanism similar to the pin-walking mechanism found on many early robots. Instead of pins though, it uses two off-center wheels that move in and out of the toy's feet as they rotate. This moves the toy forward while also giving it a slight side-to-side wobble. At the same time, the arms move up and down.

The toy was available in two colors, a reddish orange body with a clear dome, and a much rarer yellow version with a green-tinted dome. Mine, which has a green dome, is a rare variation that probably resulted from someone in the factory not paying attention to which dome they were grabbing. 

The domes themselves were made from a cheap form of acrylic and often "spidered" with age, a process by which thin surface cracks appear vertically across the surface. Finding clean domes isn't difficult, and I'd normally have waited for one without any marks. However, the green dome is so striking, I just had to have it. In this case, aesthetics definitely trumped condition.

A final thought: The Shooting Man from Mars embodies some of the weird ideas that people in the Fifties had about the future. For all the optimism, there was an expectation -- among regular Joes and Jills -- that outer space would be a lot like the Wild West, and that astronauts, like the cowboys before them, would need a nice pair of pistols to defend the orbital homestead from marauding aliens, interstellar bandits, and rocket rustlers. Reality proved very different, though I'd argue no less exciting. We're not getting into fights with aliens, but the exploration and discoveries made by astronauts in space and scientists down on Earth have helped expand our view of the universe, and our place in it. 

Throw in a green bubble helmet and I'd call that just about perfect.

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