Toys bulk up the biblical

GI Joe begets action figures from Bible, including beefy Moses wielding a sword

January 01, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

He led his people out of slavery in Egypt, parted the Red Sea and received the Ten Commandments. Now, cast in plastic, he's poised to do battle in playrooms across the country.

Meet the new Moses. His pecs ripple, his biceps bulge and his waist is narrow - just the right size to fit in a 5-year-old's sticky grip. The thick Charlton Heston beard is gone, and so is the wooden staff.

This Moses is an action figure, armed with a tiny sword and shield. Teamed with an equally muscle-bound Samson, David and Noah, he's prepared to conquer the Christian toy market. At least, that's what his creator, Don Levine, hopes.

Levine knows action figures. Indeed, he claims to have invented them. In 1963, while with toymaker Hasbro, he created GI Joe and taught the world that boys would play with dolls, so long as they were called action figures.

Now, at age 78, Levine has created the Almighty Heroes, beefy versions of biblical characters, and a new company, Family Values LLC, to produce them. He has enlisted the help of his friend, Steve Geppi, president of Timonium-based distributor Diamond Comics, to back the company and place the dolls on store shelves.

"I believe the thing that we are pushing in the figures - that there is a battle between good and evil," says Levine, speaking by phone from his home in Providence, R.I.

To some, the Almighty Heroes might look better suited for a wrestling ring than a moral struggle. Samson sports a blue cape, fingerless gloves and a gold vest that exposes his midriff and brawny chest. Noah, his flowing brown hair pushed back in a headband, is obviously represented early in his 900-year life, perhaps centuries before he built the ark. King David, in his purple-and-silver bodysuit, looks like a 1980s rock star, save for his slingshot.

The action figures have chunky bodies and enormous feet that make them easy for preschoolers to handle. More svelte versions of the heroes, brandishing more intricate weapons, will be introduced for older children in the near future.

Each action figure, which comes with a small book retelling the character's biblical adventure, sells for $12.99 on the company's Web site. Deborah the Warrior and Queen Esther, two dolls included in the line, cost $24.99, presumably because they're taller than their male counterparts and adorned with plastic gemstones.

Geppi helped finance the biblical figures, and his company is getting them placed on the shelves of Christian stores across the country as well as online at amazon.com. Once they catch on, Geppi hopes to sell them through major toy stores and mass-marketers.

The two men met when Geppi bought the prototype for the original GI Joe from Levine for $200,000 in 2003. The figure is on display at Geppi's Entertainment Museum at Camden Station.

"These Almighty Heroes fit in exactly with what I'm trying to do here," says Geppi, sitting in his Timonium office, which is crammed with pop culture collectibles, including a sparkling blue pantsuit that Britney Spears once wore in concert. He explained that he had long hoped to crack the Christian market and to hook kids on comics at even younger ages. Plus, he says, he likes fostering a more wholesome side of his industry.

Although the toys are based on Old Testament characters familiar to Jews and Christians, Levine says that the latter make up his target audience.

"I have to be a businessman, too," says Levine, who is Jewish. "There are 2 billion Christians in the world. To me, that's a big niche market."

Levine's creations are not the only toy designed to catch the eye of Christian parents - and the attention of their children. For more than a decade, an animated television series called Veggie Tales has provided children with moral lessons to chew on and a host of merchandise to covet. Other companies also make talking Jesus, Virgin Mary, Esther and Moses dolls, as well as glow-in-the-dark Jesus dolls that come with tiny loaves and fishes. About the only other religious- themed action figures are Bibleman and Biblegirl, which zip around with light swords teaching lessons from the Bible.

Toys such as these help parents pass their faith on to their children, Christian retailers say.

"We have to start competing with the secular market if we want to get our children interested in biblical things," says Sammy Reid, an employee of His Way Christian Store in Ellicott City. "We have to start getting up to date on those things so that kids can see that being a Christian is fun."

The Almighty Heroes are the only action figures based on biblical characters and designed to appeal to little boys, says Reid, adding that her 4- and 5- year-old grandsons love them. Though the New Testament emphasizes loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek, she says that she doesn't see a problem with biblical characters being cast as action heroes - not even Noah, who is not usually associated with battles.

By nature, little boys are drawn to weapons and warfare, the store clerk says.

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