Friday, October 08, 2021

A Look Back at Bandai's Qonto Toys of the 1970's: An Interview with Bruce Handler

In 2008, I posted here on the blog about my Christmas morning in 1978, and the amazing gift of Qonto, a small toy robot.  

My parents bought me this pint-sized robot, his flying-saucer like spaceship, and the Eagle fighter.  The only Qonto toy I didn’t get (and which I have sought ever sense…) is the large God Phenix spaceship. I kept all of these toys (after playing with them) and shared them with my son when he was little.

So, in the Muir house, Qonto survived two childhoods!

Some of these toys may be recognizable from Message from Space (1977) and Battle of the Planets, but in America, they were all part of Qonto's 'verse.

Just a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a gentleman named Bruce Handler, who served as the graphic designer for the Bandai America Qonto die-cast line of toys in the 1970's. He very graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about Qonto, and his career in the toy industry.


Q: Please tell us a little bit about your background and education, and how you came to be a graphic designer.


A: I was born and raised in the Bronx, NYC and lived in the projects until we moved to Co-Op City. As far as I can remember, I was always drawing or copying pictures from American History, comic books and Mad Magazine.


Living in the projects, you tend to stay inside a lot because it’s safer and you stay out of trouble and to take up the time, I volunteered for all the painting assignments in school, like stage decoration, lobby paintings for various subject matter or events like the holidays. Junior High School was tough, so I used to draw nude girls for the gang members in school and they left me alone. After getting reported by a teacher, I was sent to the guidance office in school, and they asked me to stop drawing the pictures but encouraged me to try out for the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. 


My art teacher was my mentor who reviewed with me what I needed for a portfolio and other requirements for testing at the art school. I was accepted and that was the start of my career. I had other school mentors and the high school had many professional artists to help me decide where my strengths were, and I went into graphic design. 


I was accepted in 1971 to Parsons School of Design and did my degree work at the New School for Social Research. My parents and grandparents were always very supportive, and my dad would always ask people he knew if they might help me to get art supplies. To help my family, I was also working odd jobs and selling artwork since 1968. 


After graduating Parsons in 1974, my first job was as package designer at Doyle Dane Bernbach. DDB was the agency that started the creative revolution in advertising with the “Think Small” ad for VW.


Q:    You worked for Hasbro, on Hungry Hippos and Superman and Batman board games.  Can you tell us about your work on each of those projects, and what you contributed to them?


A: Every year Hasbro would assign an agency to design that year’s toy line. I just got a job at Werbin and Morill and handled many packaging projects, including Hasbro. This was always a group project with a few other designers, but I was lead designer. We created the “arrow” graphic that started at the top of the package below the Hasbro logo and went down the right side of all boxes.


Being a good packaging firm, the graphics and photography were well done. You have to understand, toy packaging assignments had tiny budgets and the worst designers started in that field. We would get a written briefing from Hasbro product managers about each toy, the problem/concerns, and redesign according to the brief. 


On Superman and Batman, they were redesigns of the older board games and the bad guys, graphics, art were upgraded to be more exciting and the game itself was changed to be exciting. Similar to updating a food package. Make it appeal to kids. I also designed Terron for the Action Team, part of GI Joe line. That was fun, and I did some work on Charlie’s Angels tree house and accessories. 


Q:    In the late 1970’s you began to work for Bandai. What was your experience with the company?  What were your tasks as graphic designer and marketer?


A:  I was freelancing and looking for a full-time job when Sue Motsumoto (Design) offered me a 6-month freelance job for $18,000. I agreed and I started redesigning all the toys for LJN Toy Co. On a side note, a low budget toy named Silly Sammy the Seagull became a cult type toy for some reason. Nobody knows that the box art was done by the great cartoonist, Jack Davis. I don’t have the toy, but I still have the artwork from Jack Davis. 


Bandai approached Sue to work on Bandai’s line of new products to be introduced under their American distributor, Bandai America. They included Bandai Electronics, and some other children’s games. In my portfolio are some sell sheets of the toys. Most were for 5 and up children. 

The fun project was QONTO. First, this project extended my contract with Sue and the toys were cool. I knew nothing about Sci-Fi or robots, or their history. We were given toy samples of the Japanese market toys which were written in Japanese, and the assignment was to design them for the American market as a “collectible” toy. I loved the idea and started to come up with designs that would project the toy to the consumer as premium, collectible, and you must have it. 

The work was started in 1977 and introduced in 1978. The line consisted of Qonto, Qonto in a spaceship, Eagle, and Phenix God (Birds). 

Then we designed the blister cards for little Qonto. Today, the graphics looks dated but back then it was cool-looking, and we also worked with small budgets. The photography budget was $150 for each toy, and I designed and hand-lettered all the logos. I used a silver ink for the premium look and blue matched all the toys. I felt black was an easy solution for a color. The border in yellow framed the toys and became a graphic for the panels, and the back panel would show off the toy and the benefits of why you should buy it. Basically, how the toy works and what’s included. 

The big disappointment is after sending all the art to Japan to be printed, the printer changed the artwork. You can see that in the width of the borders, or they deleted the border on the top of Qonto. Sadly, nobody cared, and that was one reason I didn’t like the toy business. It was done with little supervision to make sure production was done properly. This was common during that time. Asian production was very cheap, and nobody wanted to upset the bottom-line profit.

Qonto was a big success in the collectible/investment market. Looking back, maybe Bandai could have introduced the good guys vs. bad guy robots so they could expand possibilities of action fun and make it less boring for kids. Star Wars came out in 1977. Maybe Bandai should have learned from the movie and toy line. Also, make Qonto into a cartoon show or movie. Toys support the TV cartoon show and the cartoon show encourages new toys and sales. Why not? That’s where they fell short. 

Qonto was just another package design assignment from Bandai and they didn’t make a big deal about it. It seems the toy companies invested in their best ideas for children’s toys at different age levels and hoped for a winner to pay for the entire line. The big money in toys was when a toy company won the bidding to make the toy line for a movie. That was a crap shoot because you bought the rights before the movie aired. LJN Toys was asked to by the rights for all toys for Star Wars and turned it down. Yikes!

Q: As marketer and designer for the Qonto products, did you have a “universe” or story in mind for Qonto and his associated products (the ships, for example?) Did you imagine things like enemies, and allies, capabilities, and storylines?

Honestly, I had a small time period to produce so many toys, mock-ups for Toy Fair and mechanicals for printing that we knocked them out day and night. It was exhausting and we took direction from the product managers and sales folks. Looking back, Qonto could have been a lot more then it was. Sometimes, I think Japan assumed American kids knew about the robots and their exciting toys and would love to own Qonto and the few toys in the “investment” collection. 

Q:  How did you see your mission in selling Qonto to the world?

A: To design the graphics that would make the toy the hero in the box. The black inner plastic “clamshell” would hold the toy and make it pop out of the package. It’s always easier to look back when you have more time to think it through. 

Q:     Did you have the actual toys and what did you think of them, in terms of quality?

A:    I had the entire line and sold them to Forbidden Planet in NYC in the 1980s. We needed the room and I sold off all my toy samples. Wish I saved them!  The quality was excellent! The original Japanese market Qonto worked. The missiles fired off the chest plate and there were more movable parts. A 1970’s law forbade toys from shooting stuff because of child safety. I had a collection that I sold recently of nearly all the Mattel cap guns that shot plastic bullets. Can’t produce that toy today.

Q:    Was the toy line successful? Any thoughts about why, or why not?

A:    It was a success but without adding new toys and “Bad guys” to cause a war or something, it becomes dull and fades away.

Q:    Were there any plans to expand the Qonto line to new robots/characters or ships, after the first round?

A:   Nope. Just a one-time collectible toy. 

Q:  After Qonto, what other toy lines did you work on? 

A:  After Qonto, I worked on Bandai Electronics. Those are the first handheld computer games. Mostly sports games and one space fighter game.

Q:  For this author, Qonto is a beloved toy and memory from childhood. How does it feel to know that there are many folks out there, like me, who are nostalgic for these imaginative toys you worked on?

A: Short answer, love it. I designed so many products since, in different industries, and can walk into a supermarket, gun store, toy store or pharmacy and see packages I designed. But I’m still a kid at heart and collected comic and Mad Magazine artwork so my heart is into toys, and it means a lot.

Q: Is there anything I haven’t covered that you would like to share with readers of the blog?

A:  First, thank you for the opportunity to have a voice on my short-lived Qonto experience and to everyone who loved playing and collecting the toy-line. Toy packaging has come a long way since I started designing toys. All toy packaging today looks great and is well-designed even though the toys are less exciting to play with then back in the 1950s - 1960s. As a kid, if your parents bought you a playset, you could play all day creating battle scenes in your room or backyard. There’s less imagination in toys today, and less toys. The market is smaller and forget board games. Times change and everything changes with it. 

1 comment:

  1. John,

    Long time, no post. I hope that all is well with your family. I am still reading your blog weekly. You were great on the SHOUT SPACE:1999 Blu ray. Have a fun Halloween with your son.

    All the best,



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