The Outer Space Men & The Forgotten History of the Rubbermanians…
1) I was friendly with Connor from the time we were in Nursery School together. This school was housed in a giant Victorian-era home in our town, and it stood complete with a covered driveway port, a carriage house, and other unusual, period amenities. It had, over the years, served as a retirement home and a hospital for invalid WWI soldiers. Failing to meet certain codes, it existed only because it was continually operating before the laws had changed – and the people running it knew that if it were ever to cease operations, it would never be allowed to reopen.
2) My mother started her career as a pre-school teacher at this very institution and I came to know it well. The woman who owned it was extremely neurotic and had grown up in a bizarre kind of genteel poverty. At one point when she was a small child, she told my mother, she was given nothing but moldy oranges to eat. The school had many distinctive smells – not all of them pleasant. When I was sick, and my mother was working, I would lie feverish and ensconced in one of the upstairs rooms where the crazy owner and her husband lived. Below me and down the long, dark polished wood stairway, I could hear the children playing.
3) Connor’s family lived not far from the school. Their house was Connor’s mother’s ancestral home. She was three years old when H.P. Lovecraft came through to inspect the town’s famous surviving examples of colonial architecture. In another cottage behind the house, but located on the same property, lived Connor’s grandmother. Connor’s home – unlike any of the other houses in the neighborhood – was covered with stucco. The rest of the property was overgrown, with the grass never mowed and the trees, blocking the front of the house, never trimmed. Later, a series of junked, ancient station wagons filled the gravel driveway.
4) I was always impressed with Connor’s backyard. Unlike my own backyard, and the ones belonging to all the rest of kids I knew, Connor and his brother and sisters didn’t have a sandbox. Instead, they had an enormous “sand pit.” Conan’s father had dug out a huge hole in their backyard and filled it with sand. Periodically, he would throw more down there. Connor and his siblings would climb down into the pit to play and carve spaces along the inside for their toys.
4.a) I first saw this layout when I attended one of of Connor’s birthday parties. I must have been about 4-6 years old. Connor’s father had taken a Tonka jeep and attached a big jar of pennies to it. He gathered the party goers together in the backyard and spun a tale of a “lost patrol” in WWII. The jeep had gone missing with the treasure. Who would find it? We scattered to search for the prize. I was hypnotized by this story and, I admit, so distracted by the spell it had cast over me that I didn’t pay too much attention to where I was looking.
5) Connor’s older brother Mark was particularly fond of a kind of ugly rubber monster toy that was popular in the 1960s. They would buy these all the time and play with them in the sand pit. Mark and Connor invented a complicated cosmology with these toys. The toys weren’t uniform in appearance or design, but they were all made out of rubber of some kind. When you peered into the pit, you could see tiny caves along its walls that housed the rubber people – or, as they called, them, “The Rubbermanians.”
6) I was never very fond of these kinds of rubbery toys myself, but I was given one, or found it. It was a large yellow spider-like thing that had a suction cup on the bottom. I would wet the cup and stick it on one of the windows in my bedroom. Connor saw it at my house when we were in Junior High together.
“My brother had one of these once,” he said as he inspected it. “The gym teacher took it away from him and never gave it back.”
I didn’t have any older siblings and I was struck by how his brother’s trauma had lingered with Connor – who had, I supposed, experienced it second hand.
7) The legends and the games involving the “Rubbermanians” and the huge sand pit stayed with Connor. Even in High School he would make reference to them. I don’t believe our other friends gave his reminiscences any great thought, as they had never seen the sand pit and weren’t familiar with its wonders. But I knew his memories of these toys were important.
8) The closest I came to the “Rubbermanians” myself was one of Colorforms’ toys known as “The Outer Space Men.” I saw an ad on TV for “Alpha 7” – the “Man From Mars” – and was immediately captivated. In the ad, a child actor placed the tiny toy on a spinning record. For some reason I thought this was just about the greatest thing I had ever seen. My mom dutifully bought me one at a toy store in nearby Pear River and I can recall loving it deeply. I still have the diminutive ray gun that came in the package along with the figure to this day.
9) Like Major Matt Mason and the more familiar Gumby toys, Alpha 7 and the other “Outer Space Men” were bendable rubber figures with wires inside. This made them less than ideal toys in the long run, since the wires tended to break after awhile and poke through the rubber. Nevertheless, it was not uncommon to spot a surviving alien in this series buried in someone’s toy chest or stuck on a shelf. I believe that one or two of them even made it into the sand pit at Connor’s house – though I cannot be sure. They would not have been out of place there. A friend notes that Major Matt Mason and the Colorforms aliens worked very well together – the aliens were perfect for the astronauts, made by Mattel, to “encounter.” Recognizing this natural affinity, many vintage collectors tend to display both sets of these toys together.
10) A few years ago, while shopping in NYC at the Japanese toy store “Toy Tokyo,” I came across new, and very small rubber versions of the Outer Space Men. I greedily snatched them up. They had been produced specifically for the San Diego Comic Convention and they commanded a high price – but I didn’t care. As I inspected them later in our hotel room, I wondered if larger, new iterations of this series would appear. I also thought about Connor and his family’s sand pit.
11) Sure enough, a company has begun producing new versions of these toys. Instead of the “rubber” type toy with the wires within, these are more conventional-looking, small “action figures.” In addition to recreating the original aliens, the company has gone on to make reproductions of the “second series” which, while planned, was never carried through to completion. Needless to say, I bought all of them.
12) While delighted to have a new version of my old pal, Alpha 7, back in my life, I admit to being particularly captivated by “Astro Nautilus” – “The Man from Neptune.” I do not ever recall seeing an example of one of the original versions of this toy as a kid – and I believe I would have remembered it, since it is so impressive.
13) I love the new version of this toy.
So splendid and imposing!
14) People are going to see these pictures and think “Cthulhu!” But I feel compelled to point out that, at this point, “Astro Nautilus” is so much cooler. How many people blast pictures of “Cthulhu” and other associated, cutesy and boring HPL crap all over Facebook all the time? Aren’t we all sick of it by now? These guys are so much better.
15) Unsurprisingly, Japanese toy makers stole the idea of the “Outer Space men” and made their own versions of these toys. Check out their version of “Astro Nautilus”:
In its own way, it’s quite impressive and evocative.
16) The smaller, new version of the Colorforms Aliens synch up with the smaller version of G.I. Joe – a scale that first became popular with the Kenner “Star Wars” figures. The increased cost of oil after the ’70s crisis meant that the larger,’60s era, “sixth scale” G.I. Joe toys and accessories were too expensive to make any longer. Everything had to be cut back. I went to an Ikea store a few months ago and saw a sign that read, “Don’t Give Up on Your Dreams, Just Shrink Them.” When I consider all the ways these toys have been forced to scale down, that’s what I think about.
17) Neither the original G.I. Joe, nor the Outer Space Men came attached to any established narrative. True, each alien had a brief description on the back of the packages, but no kid in the ’60s paid even the slightest attention to anything but the truly inspiring pictures that were there next to that paragraph. It was assumed that the kids playing with these toys would come up with their own stories about them – powered purely by their imaginations. This changed, obviously, with the Star Wars toys and the latter, diminutive version of G.I. Joe. Now, kids have the “master narrative” for the toys provided for them. No wonder people today lack interior lives, or seem to posses any kind of rich ability to imagine anything. It’s all been made for them ahead of time. Conner and his brother created the world of the “Rubbermanians.” My friend John and I invented whole countries for our G.I. Joes to play in. Who is going to be able to do that now?
18) The first edition of D&D concludes with this message:
“There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?”
Why indeed? “Cthulhu” you already know about. That narrative has been supplied. “Astro Nautilus”? He remains a mystery for you, and only you, to solve.
19) Connor’s house and his grandmother’s cottage was demolished years ago. The owners constructed a new house, built on spec. This place went unsold for a long time. Older houses like this are being bulldozed all over the town.
My father’s girlfriend, Lois, once suggested to me that my family’s home merited a similar fate.
“Someone could knock it down and build something really cute there,” she explained.