From Skin To Skeleton: The Visible Man And Woman

Anatomical education, morbid fascination and comic strip inspiration – the iconic model kits of the Sixties continue to be a fascinating and unique creation.

Sitting alongside the Aurora monsters and assorted Airfix vehicles as iconic model kits of the 1960s and 1970s is a weird scientific figure that was, for a long time, a mainstay of the modelling section of toy shops. The Visible Man was that rarest of things – an educational toy with widespread mainstream appeal, a sort of anatomically correct version of Operation that allowed you to assemble and disassemble human figures while gazing in wonderment at the miracle of internal organs, the skeleton and the body, all in a child-friendly yet scientifically sound casing. I always wanted a Visible Man but for some reason never had one – perhaps the Aurora kits always had more of a pull on my pocket money; perhaps The Visible Man was just too costly; perhaps my parents disapproved of the whole concept. I suspect that it was a combination of all three reasons. In any case, it is to my eternal regret that I have never owned this remarkable figure, as much for the box art as the actual model kit.

The man who first conceived of The Visible Man was Irving Rosenbloom, who was apparently inspired by seeing a human skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History. Believing that the 1950s boom in scientific development and the fascination with the space race meant that there would be a ready market for an educational model kit, he asked his team at model-making company Renwall if such a concept was feasible. Head of Production Irving Ludbow took a look at the idea, figured that yes, it could be done and passed it on to the company’s model maker, Marcel Jovine, who sculpted the original 18-inch version that would be used as the template for the final figure – a clear plastic shell that contained a skeleton and vital organs, making it a solid, if rather basic anatomical study of the (male) human body. Any concerns that parents might have had about Junior exploring a naked male body were assuaged by both the scientific validity of the model and the lack of genitalia other than in the most rudimentary sense. With a name that punned on The Invisible Man, a pamphlet offering an introduction to anatomy and packaged in a fantastic, very much of-its-time illustrated box, The Visible Man was launched in the autumn of 1959 for the price of $4.98.

The Visible Man became immediately popular with kids of a scientific bent, but it also found an unexpected market. Doctors found the model not only a fun thing to assemble but also an unexpectedly useful teaching tool, handy for explaining to patients just what part of their body was ailing and where the errant organ sat. That, and the figure made a nice prop in many an examination room. The sales of the model kit were boosted by medical professionals and other scientists who needed to show the basic working of our internal organs.

Of course, The Visible Man not only appealed to would-be biologists and doctors. Ghoulish little kids rather relished the idea of not only being able to see all the internal organs but also being able to remove them, like a mad doctor. You see, this was a model kit that could be disassembled as well as assembled, all the better to enhance the model maker’s understanding of the human body and the functions of its organs. If some owners chose to enhance the playability of the model by removing it from the stand and allowing their action figures to disembowel him, where is the harm in that?

The success of The Visible Man quickly led to The Visible Woman, which was an equally genital-free study of female anatomy that invariably became more controversial than its male equivalent, not least of all in the expanded version that included the ‘optional extra’ of The Miracle of Creation – a religiously pious description of pregnancy. Kept in a separate brown box, the eight-part expansion pack (as we’d call it now) allowed you to turn your Visible Woman into one who is seven months pregnant, with an alternative breastplate that held the uterus, associated organs and, of course, the foetus. Just how the woman became pregnant or how she was supposed to expel the foetus once fully developed was a question left unanswered.

Predictably, the Visible Woman – especially in its pregnant variation – proved too much for the more prudish members of society, with demands that it be restricted to adults only. Presumably, the sight of a naked female – even a pregnant one with her internal organs on display – was seen as likely to inflame male lust and encourage female wantonness. Despite this, though, both model kits remained popular into the 1970s – and beyond, as Renwall bit the dust and other manufacturers took up the concept – either as a continuation of the original model kits or as knock-off imitations. The original, iconic illustrated box would give way to more basic photographic and plastic transparent packaging that makes everything a lot less fun. Along the way, there would be additions to the line, most notably The Visible Dog, which allowed kids a pet-friendly way of examining Rover’s innards.

Given its ubiquity in toy shops for decades, we should assume that it wasn’t mere coincidence that saw Pat Mills create The Visible Man comic strip, which ran for six weeks as a short story in 2000AD during 1978. Originally planned as one of the opening strips, it instead had to wait until the comic was well underway – perhaps its gruesome visuals, showing a man who has become ‘visible’ after a nuclear waste accident, and horror theme made it a bit of a gamble for the newly-launched sci-fi comic in the wake of the Action outrage. Although it was a brief, self-contained story, the character was revived several years later to meet – you guessed it – The Visible Woman.

You can still buy Visible Man and Woman model kits, sadly lacking the great artwork of the originals but sometimes packaged with educational books on anatomy to help kids understand just what these colourful organs actually do. The concept seems to have spread to full-sized figures in medical museums like the Wellcome in London, and I’m sure that many a doctor still has one or both the figures in their surgery (I’ve yet to see The Visible Dog in any vet’s practice though). It’s one of those classic toys that never really ages.


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