A deep(ish) dive into POWCO and The Graveyard Gang toyline
The Graveyard Gang was a line of 6" tall, glow-in-the-dark, bendy, THRILLER themed zombie figures released by POWCO back in 1984. Wait WHAT?? All your favorite words combined in that first sentence? Tell you more, you say? Of course.
Let me start out by saying that this line is way under most people's radar. Even the most die hard of horror toy collectors seldom have a sample in their collection. While not expensive, the line is rare, and the star - Midnight Mike - will set you back over $125 if you can find him on an always badly damaged cardback. In some ways the lack of awareness is odd to me. Not only is the line based on one of the most beloved music videos of all time, but this is (so far as I can find) the first toy line representation of the "modern" style Romero-esque zombie.
Each of the 6 figures was released on an awesome but generic cardback, the word THRILLER in bold yellow clearly there to trick unsuspecting grandmothers into thinking this was something their single-white-sparkling-glove wearing grandchild would want. The back of the card shows the rest of the line. Note the really cool coffin shaped figure bubble.
The figures themselves all share the same body mold. One piece, bendy style.
I was first made aware of this line back in 2004/2005 when X-entertainment (now Dinosaur Dracula) did a write up on Midnight Mike. Thriller being one of my top favorite things ever, I went on the hunt. That hunt for a mint on card Midnight Mike took years. Close to a decade. But I finally got one.
At the time I didn't put much thought into it. I was just happy to have one. I, like most, assumed that it was just a Thriller knock off "gas station style" rack toy. It wasn't until I saw this that I realized only some of those things were true.
In 2008, member "Dr. Terror" posted these images on the Universal Monster Army boards.
Suddenly there was a variation in this already rare and obscure toyline? One that seemed to be one-of-a-kind? The detective in me wanted to know more, and the collector in me wanted to own it. Fast forward to 2020, and I now have both!
From what I can tell, this version is a prototype / salesman sample. The cardback is entirely different - not just in art, but quality. The production versions are thin matte cardstock. This prototype version is thick and glossy. The inset coffin is hand cut and a different material, and the bubble is attached via double stick tape. The toy itself has a different body (basically the same except different hands - however since the whole body is one piece, it was clearly a different mold) different pants material, and the jacket on this version has machine cut "shreds" not present on the other versions. The most glaring difference in the card art (aside from well, all of it) is the absence of the word THRILLER. This lead me down a rabbit hole.
Something I noticed about the THRILLER style cardback but never paid much attention to was the fact that there is a TM trademark symbol on EVERYTHING. It just made me laugh before. Why trademark a bootleg? It's after the word Graveyard Gang, and each of the characters names. One thing I didn't realize before though, was the TM at the end of the word THRILLER. This confused me. I worked in licensing and I know that even the most brazen of bootleggers would never use a false TM. It's a major crime. In fact misrepresentation of a trademark is a bigger crime than actual bootlegging. At the same time I noticed that the prototype cardback does not have the TM after Graveyard Gang. What gives? Surely Michael Jackson owns the trademark to Thriller. Right?
WRONG! Turns out POWCO actually owned the trademark to the term THRILLER (and Graveyard Gang) from September 1984 through 1992 in the Toy category. This blew my mind! What kind of knock off making company bothers to register trademarks? The mystery deepened.
What was POWCO International Ltd? I know it was a Hong Kong based company which does not exist anymore, which was not a shock. But there is hardly a record of them anywhere. In researching the THRILLER trademark, I came across the name of the patent attorney who filed for POWCO. He is still in business, and I sent him an email asking if he had any further information. To my pleased shock, he wrote right back.
He said he didn't remember much about POWCO or The Graveyard Gang (which is understandable) but he recalled that POWCO may have been started by a person who was a principal at the company ANTICS, makers of Fleagle The Beagle. ANTICS, in turn, was owned by Bellstone Trading & Co, Ltd. I am not clear if POWCA was supposed to be a subsidiary of ANTICS, or a new company formed by an employee of ANTICS.
If it was a subsidiary, why would a toy company create another toy company inside itself? To answer this I asked a friend of mine who is a multi-decade veteran of the toy industry. He told me that in the 80's these sub-companies were very popular as a way to limit liability to the parent company. IE: If the subsidiary was sued, the assets of the parent company were safe. This isn't as common these days as laws on the subject have changed - however it was very common in the 80s.
This was the final piece I needed to assemble a theory on POWCO and the Graveyard Gang.
I know POWCO was created prior to Graveyard Gang. The first trademark I can find for POWCO goes back to March 1983 for a product called IT'S MAGIC, and online I found a date of Nov. 1977 for incorporation. I think Graveyard Gang's story goes something like this.
POWCO fully intended to create a line of zombie action figures that were unlicensed knock-offs of the THRILLER music video. They created a mock up (The prototype cardback and figure seen above) and used that to shop the product to various retailers, or display at trade shows.
Somewhere along the line, someone at POWCO discovered that the trademark for THRILLER was available in the toy category. Since they were already creating a Thriller based line, they registered the trademark in order to legally use the wording THRILLER boldly across the front in almost-music video font. Why they trademarked Graveyard Gang, I don't know. Perhaps they were afraid of getting knocked off? Now armed with a bit of legitimacy, they redesigned the cardback to have a spookier theme, closer to the theme of the music video, but not too close, and they had the ability to legally tag it THRILLER. Obviously with Michael Jackson's THRILLER being the top music video and selling album, this would lead to more brand recognition and make the product easier to sell.
So now POWCO has a fully proprietary and legal line of zombie toys, instead of a bootleg. This would allow them a level of market penetration that a knock-off would not be able to achieve, since many large toy retailers avoid knock off and bootleg products.
How did that work out for POWCO? Nobody really knows. The price sticker on mine says it is from "Child World / Children's Palace". In fact, all the carded versions I have seen that still have price stickers also say Child World / Children's Palace. A poster on the Universal Monster Army boards mentioned seeing these on pegs in the clearance aisle of that toy chain as well. Another person I spoke with said he remembered them being sold cheaply in large bins. Maybe that is why it is near impossible to find nice cardbacks? Were these only sold in Child World stores? That is possible and actually would not have been a bad deal for POWCO. In the mid-80's the only toy chain larger than Child World / Children's Palace (from here out I'm going to just call it Child World) was Toys R Us. And it was BARELY larger. In 1983, Toys R Us boasted 169 stores in the US. At it's peak in the mid-80's Child World had 182 stores in the US. So just selling to Child World would be the semi-modern equivalent of a "Toys R Us Exclusive" distribution deal.
This leads me to another theory. This is based on nothing at all other than my thoughts and experience working with Toys R Us distribution as a toy producer. Perhaps the buyer for Child World saw the prototype toy through a salesman or a trade show. The buyer is interested, but maybe doesn't want to risk souring relationships with toy companies making legitimate Michael Jackson product by selling knock offs. So, the buyer tells POWCO he will place a large order for his 100+ stores if POWCO redesigns the cardback and finds a way to legitimize the toys - ie: making them "legal" via trademarks. Big toy chains are very powerful and make requests like this all the time. This is just a theory though.
As for POWCO... It was dissolved in Sept 1996.
If you have any memories of POWCO or GRAVEYARD GANG, please drop me an email! The information above is based on research, but very little available data. Some points may not be totally accurate. For now, this is the best I can do at unraveling some of the mystery behind this obscure and awesome toy line. I leave you with this, a photo of my personal Midnight Mike collection. Putting this together is what makes toy collecting fun!
Photo Credits: IG: @geekyvixen / the Gallery of Monster Toys, Universal Monster Army forum members Dr. Terror and Toy Ranch, and myself.
Also - I didn't post pictures of every individual figure loose and carded to save article space. There are enough people who do have these that those images can easily be found via a "Graveyard Gang Thriller" google search!