‘Realm of the Underworld’: The Greatest 1980s Action Figures Never Made

Don’t call it a knock-off.  ZoloWorld’s “Realm of the Underworld” line of figures, which launches their second wave today, pays homage to the less-heralded fantasy toy lines of the 1980s – the ones that weren’t quite He-Man, but that your parents were likely to buy you at a drug store or Kmart.

“It’s an alternate history toy line,” says Michael Zolotorow, owner and founder of the Pennsylvania-based ZoloWorld, which is best-known for its blank toy bodies and protective cases for action figures  “The idea I had in 2009 was that this line had existed in the 1980s, and to explore what would have happened if this line had continued to the present.”

The Greek mythology-influenced story of “Underworld,” which sees Hercules journeying into the Underworld to battle the dead-rising Acromancer, should be familiar to fans of classic storytelling – and for those who grew up collection action figures in the 1980s.

The 5¾“ line pays homage to the figures that sprung up around the success of Mattel’s “Masters of the Universe” line – figures that depicted any number of heavily-muscled fantasy characters with armor, swords, and the occasional monstrous head.

“I loved the Masters of the Universe toys growing up, but I also loved those fantasy lines like ’Pirates of the Galaxseas’ and ’Blackstar’,” says Zolotorow, who adds that he’s been a fan of action figures “since Mom was pushing me around in a stroller at the flea market.” “My favorite was Skull Man from Remco’s ’Warrior Beasts.’ I played with that figure so much that I broke off the bottom half – and it was so cool, I played with the top half for a year!”

Zolotorow says that “Realm of the Underworld” has drawn in a number of fans of these types of fantasy figures. Though they’re not as well-remembered, lines like those have a cult following among figure fans, and their smaller production runs makes them fetch high prices on eBay. There’s even a popular Tumblr, Knock-Off Collector, that explores different lines. “I think what happened was people collected the whole He-Man universe, then realized there were toy lines out there with the same spiel that were just as awesome,” Zolotorow says.

As the line continues, Zolotorow hopes to evolve the style of the figures to reflect the changing face of toys as well. “The idea is to be able to adapt these figures and evolve these figures,” he says. “In the second wave we’ll release a battle pack where you’ll be able to change your characters.  As we go on, we’ll have new torsos, new arms and legs, and new battle packs.  We’ll have adaption packages that will have slightly longer limbs and new articulation, so you can plug them into your retro figures and have them stand alongside your newer figures.”

His long-term plans include 16-inch figures that could feature characters such as the Cyclops and giant skeletons (“For me, true fantasy is all about skeletons”), with harnesses to let the smaller figures ride on them, along with all manner of gods and monsters, including characters that would combine plastic and bendy parts for wings and snake tails. The story involved with the line, chronicled on cards that come with the characters, will continue to evolve as well, with characters’ fates and natures changing as the line goes on. “Why not toss as many ideas as possible into a series to make it cooler?” Zolotorow asks.

Still, Zolotorow doesn’t consider the lines he’s paying homage to as knock offs.  “Every toy could said to be inspired by something else – you see a doll and you think, ‘that’s a knockoff of Barbie,’” Zolotorow says.  For now, he just wants to focus on the future of his figure line – while keeping one foot firmly in the past: “My goal is just to continue to raise the bar.”

The new “Realm of the Underworld” figures go on pre-sale today at www.underworldfigures.com.