Yla Eason, the creator of the first Black superhero figure, says she’s excited to see Afro-futuristic toys roll out this season more than ever before. Sun-Man, the Black action figure she designed in the 80’s, has been growing in popularity over the last several years, an industry shift she believes is in due in large part to the Black Panther fandemonium.
“For boys toys especially, there’s lot of Black animation, gaming that’s being developed, drawn from comic books and sci-fi. It’s characters looking like you and being futuristic and magical and mystical, it’s part of the genre right now. And I’m seeing a mass of it, not just a one-off,’’ Eason told Rutgers University.
Eason, who is also a professor of Professional Practice at Rutgers Business School in Newark, founded Olmec Toys in 1985. With this company the entrepreneur developed an entire multicultural line of action figures. Eason says that she was motivated to get to work after her three year old son told her he would never be able to become a superhero because he was Black.
“If you can see yourself as powerful, you can be powerful,’’ explained Eason. “If you have to limit your fantasy world, your imagination, that’s frightening.’’
Sun-Man and crew quickly developed a loyal fanbase while Eason took a grassroots approach to marketing and sales by distributing the figures at barbershops, hair salons, and post offices. The toys had hit the big time in the nineties when major retailers agreed to stock the collection, but sadly, Eason and her manufacturers couldn’t keep up with the demand, and so eventually they were stripped from store shelves.
But Sun-Man would rise again. In 2021, Mattel partnered with Eason to recreate the popular toys as a part of its He-Man Master of the Universe collection. “There was a serious desire to see these characters again,’’ explained Eason.
The line features four of the original characters from the Olmec collection, called “Rulers of the Sun.” Also a part of Sun-Man’s cohort is Digitino, a Latin X computer wizard, and Space Sumo, an Asian a telekinetic ninja. There is also a villain among them, Pig-Head. Vintage fans will notice that the characters have updated looks like Sun Man’s fresh fade haircut, and new golden wings. The line will also feature six additional OG figures including Bolt Man, an indigenous figure who will be introduced along with the rest of the collection by the end of 2023.
Eason tells Rutgers that back in the 80’s, America wasn’t ready for what Olmec offered. She says that this was in part due to the fact that to the masses, Black action figures posed a threat unlike that of Black Barbies or baby dolls.
“With dolls and girls, there is a nurturing concept, there’s hair play and clothes play, it’s about mothering, compassion, love and beauty, it exists in another realm of play,’’ says Eason. “With boys, and action figures, you’re talking about power, dominance. It’s a different form of play that may seem frightening if the Black guy wins.”
“It was seen by the masses as a radical concept,’’ she continued. “But I didn’t think it was radical.’’
Luckily, times have changed, and Eason couldn’t be happier. “What was verboten is now celebrated and accepted as normal.”