Mattel Launched Big Jim in 1973 as a sportsman. This separated the line from being an adventurer like Hasbro’s GI Joe Adventure Team or the Western themeing of Marx’s Johnny West lines. Inside Mattel, Big Jim was always viewed and often described as “Barbie for Boys.” Much of the design work was performed by Carol Spencer of the Barbie Design Team and whose primary responsibility was designing clothing for Barbie. There were no soft goods designers in the Boy’s Design Team, so Carol supplied all that work. When there were vehicles or new accessories, those were designed in the ‘Wings and Wheels” group; one of the Boy’s Design Teams.
Big Jim was a hit and grew in the US market and internationally. The line had a reboot in theming and visuals in 1976 with Big Jim’s Pack. Now Big Jim could be an adventuring crime fighter, although many of his original accessory sets and clothing styles stayed the same. In the late 1970s, Mattel tried to bolster sales with licenses action figures using the Big Jim body including Tarzan, Grizzly Adams and the Best of the West. Unfortunately, none of those took off, and by the late 1970s, Big Jim fell from the US toy shelves.
However, Big Jim continued in Mattel International sales with expanded characters, vehicles, and accessory/uniform sets. The 1980s, saw Big Jim expanding into multiple themes such as Western, Pirates, Space and Spies. These were all logical progressions, but the original Big Jim kept their basic look. Additional sculpted heads were added the villain Dr. Obb and many new heads added for Carl May; the Western version of Big Jim. The lines were particularly popular in the UK, Italy, Spain, and Germany.
The easiest way to identify an International Big Jim from a US version is the hands. Big Jim kept his (useless) karate chopping hands in the US. This oversight forced most of his handheld accessories to have odd, curved pins or slots on them to stay in Big Jim’s hand. However, Mattel International switched to a better gripping hand that was closer to GI Joe’s “Kung Fu Grip,” but looked better and was more sturdy (sorry Joe fans… but it is true). The downside of Big Jim was his limited posabilty. He could barely stand on his own, and while the arms had the cool muscle growing feature, it vastly limited posing there.
In 1985, there was a complete reboot of Big Jim that was a game changer. Mattel management decided to make Big Jim a true action figure instead of a Barbie for Boys. There was an entirely new look developed by one of the Boy’s Toys designers. Big Jim’s new look was now edgy and techy. These new outfits even made the GI Joe Adventure Team look bland. The illustration styling completely changed on the packaging, and even Big Jim’s face was given a more rugged, heroic look (instead of looking like Ken’s little brother).
As these were only sold internationally, many people have never seen the best side of Big Jim. As a costume designer and toy designer, I believe these costumes beat any dressable action figures until the GI Joe Classic Collection launched in 1996. Big Jim’s final look was ahead of its time. I was so enamored the new look after seeing it in the Mattel International catalogs that I hunted to find out who designed them to tell them how wonderful I thought they looked. As not many people knew Big Jim was even still alive, the seasoned designer was completely caught off-guard when I, a young pup of a designer, thanked him for his exquisite work. He did not now anyone noticed or cared.
I worked as a toy designer inside Mattel from 1984 to 1994. Two summers ago, I unexpectedly ran into Carol Spencer in Washington DC. She was a delegate at the Daughters of the American Revolution National Convention the same year as my wife. I went over to see if she remembered me. It had been twenty years since we had seen in each. She remembered my name and was slightly annoyed at my appearance by noting “You have not changed at all.” (I keep a portrait in the attic that does the aging for me.)
While I never had the chance to work on Big Jim, I had the privilege of being on a cross-functional team tasked to create a new Big Jim in 1990. That version did not come together in the short time we had, but we did create some great features and Mattel was not ready to give up.
What many people do not connect is that Max Steel, launched in 1999, was specifically designed as another reboot of Big Jim. My skills were brought in as a vendor to create some of the costumes for the initial launch (another fun story for another time.) So, it took me a few years, but I finally had a small influence on another of my favorite childhood toys Big Jim.
So, with all that build up, check out this great design work on the heroes.
Big Jim Commander
He wears a soft goods jumpsuit with techy gear. The futuristic boots have slots to hold a very futuristic dagger. His gear belt holds a laser pistol and a grappling hook. His chest plate has electronic components highlighted with customer applied. The helmet is a nice cross between function and Spartan. Even the laser rifle was designed to be held easily over the shoulder.
This figure appears to be more of a scientist/naturalist but armed for any action. In my mind, he looks like a high-tech game warden. He wears a camouflage short sleeve shirt, khaki shorts, socks, short boots, but the helmet is a little odd. His chest armor appears to contain more electronics but does have a separate belt to hold his high-tech pistol and the futuristic machete.
This figure has a helmet/chest plate combo that snaps open and closed. The visor flips up and down. He has the same new boots, pistol, gear bel, and laser rifle. This figure also has sewn gloves to go with his upgraded jumpsuit with detail stitching. The samples I had were preproduction, and the gloves lost their slick polyurethane coating. I assume the production parts did too – so be careful. It appears this figure is the only one to use an existing head; Big Jeff with brown instead of blond painting.
It is also worth noting that each figure has a role to play. There is a commanding hero and villain. There is a jungle fighter hero and villain. There is an outer space hero and villain. There was also a desert hero and villain though I cannot confirm if it shipped. See attached is an image of the master skin of the desert hero.
Now, stay tuned for Part 2 to see the villains and vehicles along with a few designs that never made to the catalogs or toy shelves.
What is your favorite Big Jim figure?