What was the first comic book based on a toy?

Today we look at what the first toy-based comic was.

In “When We First Met,” we highlight the various characters, phrases, objects, or events that eventually became notable parts of comic lore, like when someone first said “Avengers Assemble!” or the first appearance of Batman’s giant dime or the first appearance of Alfred Pennyworth or the first time Spider-Man’s face was shown half-Spidey/half-Peter. Stuff like that.

Longtime reader James T. wrote in to ask, “What’s the first published comic about a real toy?”

It’s fun, because I can talk a bit about something that always interests me when it comes up, which is the fascinating (to me) history of toys in the United States. Whenever I start discussing this topic, I always want to make sure I’m well balanced. The last thing I want to do is give the impression that I’m acting like today’s commercialism is superior to the commercialism of the past, but at the same time I also don’t want to romanticize the past as some sort of of a glorious time when commercialism did not exist. Commercialism has always existed, it’s just that the modes of society and mass production have altered the very NATURE of commercialism.


One of the main things to keep in mind is that toys have been a constant in American society since the mid-19th century. They certainly came out BEFORE this point, because toys have always been around as long as there have been children, like children were always playing with SOMETHING, it’s just that the APPROACH to children’s toys has changed drastically over the centuries. Much of this has come from changing the way we view children. Don’t forget that we are literally less than a century away from the most definitive regulation on child labor (although to be fair it was more like 1906 when child labor ceased to exist there where “childhood” did not really exist do exist for many children as it does today). It wasn’t really until the 18th century that something clearly defined as “childhood” started to exist and it wasn’t until the 20th century that it became a generic thing in the United States. So, just as “childhood” was usually something that only existed for people who had money, so toys also only existed for people who had money. Toys were obviously there, but they were niche items, so generic toys dominated the day.


Amusingly, in 1933 Eastern Color did a cartoon ABOUT toys, but it was just a giveaway to entice customers into buying toys at a department store (this was the early days of comics where their only real value was thought to be as giveaways)…


Here is an example of the niche of most toys. Betsy Wetsy was invented in 1934 by Ideal Toy Company (the same company that invented what we think were teddy bears in the early 20th century). Here is a 1947 advertisement for Betsy Wetsy…


The bare bone doll was selling for $5 ($62 today) and the full package was selling for $10! They were luxury items. However, there was one toy that tried to challenge that idea a bit…


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WAS RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY THE FIRST COMIC BASED ON A TOY?

In 1915, cartoonist Johnny Gruelle had the idea of ​​producing a rag doll which he would then write a children’s book about, so they could sell the two things together, using the series of books to promote the dolls and vice versa. The doll was called Raggedy Ann and the original late teens/early 20’s versions of the doll were much more stripped down than they would later become…


To give an idea of ​​the magnitude of what it meant to be a “successful” toy at the time, when mass production was not yet quite a thing, the greatest years for dolls would see around 3 000 dolls sold, which of course was a huge success, but that’s nowhere near what you’d expect for a popular toy these days, is it?


Anyway, the book series was even more popular than the dolls (although it’s important to note that the toy came first) and in 1942 Dell Comics published its first Raggedy Ann and Andy cartoon as part of his Four color comics series (Raggedy Ann and Andy then had their own series, a few years later)…


So what do you think? Does that count? Raggedy Ann WAS a toy first before being a book character, so I think technically that counts. However, I suspect that wasn’t quite the sort of thing James was looking for, so let’s keep looking!

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WAS BARBIE AND KEN THE FIRST COMIC BASED ON A TOY?

After the end of World War II and the baby boom, the toy industry boomed and suddenly niche products like Betsy Wetsy were major hits. All these new little baby boomers wanted toys and the new American middle class (and more generalized “childhood”) made toys a much bigger deal than it had been before, and then television took allowed toys to be advertised nationally easily and soon we had hits like Barbie that were successful in a way that previous toys (including hits like Ideal’s Shirley Temple dolls from the years 1930) have never quite equalled.

And of course (I say of course because that was James’ answer when he sent the question), Dell’s 1962 Barbie and Ken was the first comic where the comic was clearly just related to the toy (unlike how Raggedy Ann and Andy was also a popular book series)…


The comic’s hook is that it would feature girls in Barbie fan clubs…


And that each of the girls would tell a fictional story about meeting Barbie (all the stories were by the brilliant Norman Nodel), whether as a “flight attendant”…


or a ballet dancer…


or a labor and delivery nurse…


Two years later, DC made its first toy comic with two comics based on Hasbro’s newest toy, GI Joe…


DC was so new to gaming that the “tie-in” comics were really just generic war stories from DC’s leading creative war teams of the time, Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, Bob Haney and Russ Heath and Haney and Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. …


So the choice is yours, friends, Raggedy Ann or Barbie!

There you go, James! Thanks for the suggestion! If anyone else wants to learn about an interesting comic first, message me at brianc@cbr.com!

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