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Lego innovations, better mousetraps

2011 August 22

A while back the Robot 6 blog posted an item heralding the arrival of “a LEGO Super Heroes line,” which will bring the whole panoply of Marvel’s and DC’s most popular characters to the world of snap-together plastic bricks.

Lego Superman, Batman and Green Latrine (er, Lantern)

Look at Hal Jordan smirking, there. Typical.

Which is almost surprising in that it’s considered news, at all; given how long ago Harry Potter Legos and Star Wars Legos, etc., began appearing, it’s almost astonishing that a superhero line has taken this long to arrive. And, indeed, Robot 6 notes that “Lego already has a Batman line.”

What really makes this development amusing, though, at least for me, is that I know that the Lego company evaluated proposals for a superhero line nearly 20 years ago. How do I know? Because I sent them the proposals.

I absolutely loved Legos, when I was a kid. I created a rich and complex fantasy world from those plastic bricks, too. But I suppose that imagination still had some measure of limitation, because when involving other toys in Lego play-scenarios, I drew the line at scale disparities. Transformers were mostly quite well-matched in scale with Lego figurines, but most other toys weren’t. Ghostbuster figures, Batman and Ninja Turtles were all way too big. (Oh, I invented mash-ups too, obviously.)

So I addressed this by making my own Lego-scale versions. And the first of these may have been pretty simple; as I recall, Lego “Ghostbusters” were pretty much just regular figures plus a “proton pack” constructed of maybe five or six small standard parts plus a couple of pieces of string.

As time went by, though, these figures became more elaborate, and eventually a lot more elaborate. As one of those “art” kids, I had a lot of art supplies, and I used just about all of them. Construction paper, colored pencil, acrylic paint, foil, felt; plus a lot of tape and glue. I think some of the Ninja Turtle villains I made were probably the finest extent of my toy-crafting skill; I had an impressive version of the cartoon Krang complete with removable brain, as well as Rocksteady and Bebop figures with heads molded from Play-doh, baked in the oven and then painted.

When I started reading Marvel comics in 1991, though, Marvel characters also rapidly made their appearance in the last year or so before I put away the Legos for the last time. I had a particularly good Doctor Doom figure. (I made some good guys, too, yes, but I had my own Lego protagonists and thus less need for not-licensed heroes, probably.)

And you may be reading this and thinking “yeah, okay, that’s neat, you made stuff with Legos; that was the point of Legos.” But I’m not kidding when I write that “the Lego company evaluated proposals” for figures of this type. I know they did, because I drew them up, mailed them off and received a real response.

And this wasn’t just a child’s simple “hey you should make xyz because it would be cool” letter, either, nor was the response a perfunctory “thank you for writing” letter. I prepared detailed model sheets, styled, naturally, after the technically-precise Lego instruction sheets. Whatever made me determined to transmit these to the Lego corporation, or where specifically I sent them, I don’t recall.

But I received a reply which, at the time, I thought was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. This was a big envelope containing a thoughtful letter plus fascinating Lego brochures and things I’d never seen anywhere—and I was a kid who had a ton of Legos, remember. Ultimately, yes, the response was still “thank you for writing;” Lego did in fact go on to produce lines of licensed-character toys, but not until what, the late 1990s?

Still, I’m convinced that someone really took time to look at what I’d sent and was impressed by it, as well they really should have been, to be honest. And while they didn’t promptly adopt the idea or set up a trust fund for me in gratitude, I’m pretty sure that they did appreciate the thoughtful and detailed proposal I had sent them. They could have just 1) ignored me or 2) sent me a letter and been done with it, after all. Compared with this, maybe they did just grab a bunch of spare brochures and things that I would think were cool, but gathering them all up and mailing them to me at their expense was still an individualized gesture of appreciation which they had no obligation to make.

I dearly wish that I had some of this stuff to show you, too. Unfortunately I don’t have anything left of this episode but my memories. I never entirely lost my fondness for Legos, but I quit playing with them and so every last brick was sold at a garage sale in the mid-1990s. Unlike the cliché, my comics survived; the Legos didn’t. As for the envelope full of stuff from Lego, it was cool, and I pored over it for some while, and then I put it away somewhere in my room and eventually lost track of it.

By the time that licensed-character Lego playsets began appearing, whenever that was, it was nearly a decade later at least; I’d gone off to college and I believe my family had probably moved by then, as well. So when the arrival of the same concept in stores prompted me to recall my own long-ago proposal of such a product line, and to think how it would be cool to pull out those papers again and bask in the knowledge of my own genius… I sought but did not find. Maybe they’re still in a box, somewhere, even now; most likely they’re just gone along with the other reminders of those days. (Update 6-2013, one single item did indeed turn up in a box.)

Ah well. It was a fun project, and it’s fun to recall. (And it will give me an appropriate story if I’m ever a washed-up has-been, crouched at a bar bemoaning my failure in life.) And in fairness it isn’t like I believe I was the first or only person to have such an idea; I just might believe that no one had brought a more-professional presentation of such an idea to the Lego corporation before I did, but as I’ve learned since, great ideas aren’t that hard to come by really. Just building a better mousetrap does not mean that the world will even take notice, let alone beat a path to one’s door. Little technical details, not to mention marketing and negotiation with existing commercial entities, play big roles. Lot of people had the idea of a great online bazaar for legal sale of digital music before the iTunes store, for example, but it didn’t happen until Steve Jobs and his RDF convinced hostile recording executives to finally work out licensing agreements.

Still. Lego superheroes? Hey, kid, I can tell you about Lego superheroes…

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