The History of MASK – the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand by Justin Bell
Toy images courtesy of Chris McLeod
Any child of the 80’s will tell you the apex of pop culture entertainment happened around the halfway point through that decade. It was a time when G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was releasing seven foot long aircraft carriers, where Transformers were releasing combining gestalts, and when one fine afternoon I came home from school and turned on the television, only to be greeted by the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand, an entire mythology I had no idea even existed prior to 3:00pm that Monday.
Back in the pre-Internet days it was still possible to be surprised by things like this. We didn’t comb over Google or YouTube, flocking tens of millions of viewers to a movie trailer released six months before the film hit theaters. Only in the 1980’s could an animated series and toy line that didn’t break any sales records, or even last past three years, still captivate an audience, now in their 30s and 40s.
M.A.S.K. did that.
Produced by Kenner in 1985, which was back then a Hasbro competitor, not a subsidiary, M.A.S.K. was primarily a vehicle based toy line featuring Matt Trakker and the heroic Mobile Armored Strike Kommand facing off against the evil Miles Mayhem and V.E.N.O.M. (aka the Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem). As nearly every good guy commander was back then, Trakker was blonde haired and blue eyed, most frequently decked out in a gray jumpsuit and familiar mask that has become indelibly wired into our public consciousness. You see, Kenner wasn’t happy with a line focused around a single gimmick (that gimmick being transforming vehicles), but also felt it necessary to include a secondary gimmick (that gimmick being super-powered masks worn by the heroes and villains). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t use the word “gimmick” as a negative, these two combined traits helped elevate M.A.S.K. above the numerous other also-rans from the 1980’s and are a big reason why the brand still holds at least some relevance today.
Along with the animated series launching in 1985, Kenner released an amazingly fun toy line featuring transforming vehicles. Unlike Hasbro’s popular Transformers line at the time, these vehicles didn’t transform into robots, though, they transformed into other vehicles or futuristic weapons of destruction, and in many cases both.
The first series of these vehicles included vehicles of all sizes as well as a full blown playset on the M.A.S.K. side. The Condor with Brad Turner, Firecracker with Hondo MacLean, Gator with Dusty Hayes, Rhino with Matt Trakker and Bruce Sato, Thunderhawk with Matt Trakker, and the full blown Boulder Hill playset with Alex Sector and Buddy Hawks. Along with the vehicles, a carded version of the venerable robot T-Bob came packaged with Matt Trakker’s son Scott Trakker.
Meanwhile the bad guys brought the Jackhammer with Cliff Dagger, the Pirhana with Sly Rax, and Switchblade with Miles Mayhem to the table to battle against the heroes.
Despite being horrifically outnumbered, V.E.N.O.M . inarguably had the cooler vehicles, at least in my twelve-year old opinion at the time, with an amazing blue helicopter which converted into a sleek assault plane. Yes, Switchblade was the first M.A.S.K. toy I ever owned (the Rhino was the second) and I loved it with an unbridled joy.
Along with the vehicles and the surprisingly well articulated mini figures (each agent of M.A.S.K. and V.E.N.O.M. had shoulder, neck, hip, and even knee joints) removable masks were also packaged with each figure, and each mask had its own unique name and super power, all of which were immediately etched into young minds by the time we watched the fourth episode of the animated series.
Interestingly, during the second series of the M.A.S.K. action figure line, many of the masks that came with the figures were made larger, covering sections of the figure’s chest and thus looking far less like the animated model, a fact that bugged the heck out of me as a kid, but was likely based on a decision to save me from choking on Spectrum.
Speaking of Spectrum, it was really Matt Trakker, the Thunderhawk, and the Spectrum mask that proved to be the foundation of the entire mythology, the awesome red Camaro that transformed into a jet completely defining what M.A.S.K. was at the time. As a kid I preferred the Rhino, and I still couldn’t figure out why Trakker’s Ultra Flash mask was part of the M.A.S.K. logo, but the look of that figure himself never (or rarely) appeared in media.
Now if you ask most pop culture aficionados, they’ll tell you that M.A.S.K. was all about that first series, but the fact is the toy line went until 1987 and continued to produce some impressive vehicles and figures along the way.
In fact, series two of M.A.S.K. featured some very cool, ambitious vehicles including the Slingshot (a white camper with a red jet inside packaged with Ace Riker) and the Outlaw, a fantastic oil tanker that served as Miles Mayhem’s follow up to the Switchblade (alongside new cohort Nash Gorey). Along with those two, the Firefly with Julio Lopez, Hurricane with Hondo MacLean, Raven with Calhoun Burns, and the monster truck Volcano with Matt Trakker and Jacques LaFleur made up the rest of M.A.S.K. in that second series. Meanwhile V.E.N.O.M. deployed the Stinger with Bruno Sheppard and Vampire touring motorcycle with Floyd Malloy.
All along the way through these first series there was the DiC animated series featuring many of the characters we were buying on store shelves. The first season ran for 65 episodes and is available through a Complete Series boxed set from Shout Factory, although technically Season Two ran for ten episodes, focusing mostly on the “Racing Series” angle, which comprised the third series of M.A.S.K.’s toy line. By all accounts, while the second season of the M.A.S.K. animated series floundered, from a toy design standpoint, Series Three was remarkably consistent, even though it was somewhat hogtied to a more car vs. car racing format rather than the more action-packed battle story line that made up the previous two series of toys. The nice thing about this third series, though, was if you can get past the whole racing concept, the toys themselves are spectacular and compliment the rest of the line perfectly.
On the M.A.S.K. side of series three you had Billboard Blast with Dusty Hayes, Bulldog with Boris Bushkin, Bullet with Ali Bombay, Goliath with Matt Trakker and Nevada Rushmore (a fantastic transport truck with launching race car/plane), Meteor with Ace Riker, Razorback with Brad Turner, the Collector with Alex Sector, and Wildcat with Buddy Hawks. It’s evident with the expanded roster and increased ingenuity that the Kenner designers were really getting their feet under them with the M.A.S.K. format, and it’s truly impressive what the size and scope of the toy line was in this third series.
Racing against M.A.S.K. was V.E.N.O.M. as usual, this time with the Buzzard with Miles and Maximus Mayhem, Iguana with Lester Sledge, Manta with Vanessa Warfield, and the Pit Stop Catapult with Sly Rax. The real shining star of the entire third series was the Manta with Vanessa Warfield, as it represented the first time in the toy’s history that one of the main female characters was featured with her trademark vehicle. At this point, Gloria Baker was still an obvious omission, but that wouldn’t last long.
It seems remarkable that after such a strong and impressive showing in the third series, the M.A.S.K. toy line would end with a relative whimper, once again shifting formats to the “Split Seconds” concept, where the vehicles would split to become two separate vehicles rather than transforming from one to the other. Each vehicle also came with two figures, a standard deco figure and a translucent figure described as their “clone” a digital version of the pilot who could drive the secondary vehicle. Honestly the concept is pretty fun, but compared to the past series many of the designs felt lackluster and the response was not the same.
That being said, the Split Seconds line did produce a decent number of toys including Afterburner with Dusty Hayes, Detonator with Jacques LaFleur, Dynamo with Bruce Sato, Fireforce with Julio Lopez, Skybolt with Matt Trakker, and finally, after four long years, the Stiletto with Gloria Baker, finally giving fans the female M.A.S.K. agent they’d been after since the first episode of the animated series aired in 1985.
Along with the roster of M.A.S.K. agents, we had V.E.N.O.M. operatives, Barracuda with Bruno Sheppard, Vandal with Floyd Malloy, and the Wolfbeast with Miles Mayhem.
Complimenting these vehicles were two concepts – the Ramp-up with Hondo MacLean and the Thunderball with Cliff Dagger, however these two particular sets never got released at retail.
Some of the designs for this fourth series were downright odd and the fact that the themes were shifting so much in the last couple of series seemed to forecast a desperate attempt to recapture some of the interest from 1985, but alas too little, too late. In 1987 Kenner also released a pair of M.A.S.K. “Laser Command” sets taking advantage of the infrared sensor craze at the time, featuring the Hornet with Matt Trakker versus the Ratfang with Miles Mayhem, but unfortunately these two sets along with the Split Seconds were the swan song of the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand toy line at retail.
In the years since Kenner made at least one slight attempt to recapture some of the spirit of M.A.S.K. with their Vor-Tech toy line in the 90’s, but ultimately as popular as M.A.S.K. was for that short sprint in the 80s, there has been no serious consideration towards reinvigorating the brand, which now falls under Hasbro’s umbrella. Hasbro threw M.A.S.K. fans a bit of a bone in 2008 when they released a Matt Trakker action figure in the G.I. Joe 25th Anniversary toy line, but it was ultimately a one-off situation and not an actual attempt to relaunch the brand.
But perhaps M.A.S.K.’s time is now coming. Already announced as being a part of Hasbro’s large scale Cinematic Universe fans and 80s kids alike are holding out hope that perhaps this will see the resurgence of Matt Trakker and his venerable team of masked warriors fighting against Mayhem and V.E.N.O.M. Already IDW Publishing has announced their Revolution theme with a relaunched M.A.S.K. ongoing title front and center, leading many folks to hope that this could finally be the relaunch and reinvigorated look at the great concept we once knew and loved. If any 1980’s toy line deserves another try, it’s the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand, and even though they had a relatively illustrious run at retail throughout the mode to late 80’s, I think it’s safe to say it’s overdo for another try. As we whether the storm of the endless reboots, relaunches, and re-do’s it’s not often that you run across a great property with a rich mythology that hasn’t been squeezed dry, but M.A.S.K. could be poised to make their big return, and if Hasbro and IDW Publishing handle this property right, we could all benefit.
Now if you’re reading this, you are likely, as I am, a fan of the M.A.S.K. property and clinging to any last desperate hope that perhaps now, after three decades, the brand is ripe for a rebirth. While I share that excitement, I’d encourage faithful readers to take any anticipation with a large sized grain of salt. The retail world of the twenty-first century is a far different place than it was in the 1980’s, and experienced collectors would argue the current atmosphere isn’t especially friendly to lines based entirely around vehicles and potentially larger scale sets. Keeping in mind a film franchise is in the works certainly makes those chances better, especially with a toy juggernaut like Hasbro at the helm, but recent experience tells me that movie themed toys without a proven, strong, existing collector base will most likely be focused on the younger set, and chances of these items being scaled down heavily to better fit current retail strategies are pretty good.
I get it. You want M.A.S.K. back at retail, and even better you want a resurgence of the 80s brand that you loved so much. Hey, I want that, too. I’d just caution folks to remember what the current situation is around mainstream retail and temper your expectations, just a little.
Who knows, when the Hasbro Cinematic Universe launches in a couple of years, maybe we’ll all be pleasantly surprised?