Like most of you who are close to my age (I’ll be 32 next month), growing up in the ’80s meant action figure sensory overload. With thirty-minute commercials on the air for The Super Powers Collection, G.I. JOE, Transformers, ThunderCats, M.A.S.K., Silverhawks, and Masters Of The Universe, is it any surprise that some of us never really outgrew our love of action figures? The internet was in its fetal stage, home video games were less than impressive, and VCRs hadn’t even made it into many homes yet. Other than a couple hours on Saturday mornings and after school, we were left to entertain ourselves. With a little help from plastic representations of our favorite characters, we used our imaginations to do it. That some of us would have a proclivity to collect them as adults is only natural. Most of us had a choice, though. I never did.
It’s true. I’m not saying I have geek in my blood, or anything, but I was doomed pretty much from birth. That happened in April, 1977, and my mother took me to see STAR WARS just a couple months later, long before it was ever called A New Hope. Yes, she was one of those people, the kind who take newborns to theaters. According to her, I didn’t make any noise during the movie, and maybe that’s why she started buying the toys and putting them away for the day when I’d be old enough to play with them. I read about other parents doing the same thing with today’s toys, although mostly from collectors. I have no idea if other parents do it. She loved the flick, though, and she had the foresight to predict that I would, too. In fact, one of my earliest memories was our trip to the drive-in to see The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. By that point, I was getting good use out of the toys she had been stashing since they debuted in ’78.
Probably thinking about all the figures I’ll need to fill that sucker.
While there was always an interesting surprise like Castle Grayskull or Manglor Mountain, the new STAR WARS toys I opened on Christmas mornings were what really captivated me. I was happy with the Indiana Jones toys and the Knight 2000 Voice Car, but I never spent much time away from that galaxy far, far away.
Is it just me, or does the kid on the right look like he’s plotting something evil?
That lasted through the holidays in 1983, the year I finally got my hands on a Millennium Falcon. After that, STAR WARS began to take a backseat to G.I. JOE, which I had discovered in 1982, and The Super Powers Collection, which made it possible to collect all of my favorite DC superheroes. Even though I wasn’t nearly as fond of Marvel, Mattel’s Secret Wars line was a big hit in my plastic world, too.
Castle Grayskull? Whatever. FALCON!
It wasn’t limited to just playing with toys, though. From pretty much the beginning, I always wanted to express my fanhood with my wardrobe, too. If we were going somewhere, I wanted to do it in one of my character t-shirts. Whether it was a Batman or Superman logo, or the Boba Fett or pilot Luke Skywalker shirts from my STAR WARS Underoos, I was wearing something from one of my favorite fictional universes if I could get away with it. Take a look in my closet today, and you’ll see proof positive of the old cliché, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Parents: Short shorts are a fashion faux pas, no matter how young the child is.
I started feeling "too old" to play with action figures in 1989, at the age of twelve, but that wasn’t really the right time to give up on them. Tim Burton’s Batman was coming out that summer, and there was Bat-merch to be had everywhere you went. The movie left plenty to be desired, but I couldn’t ignore the fun of seeing Bats all around me, so I started to officially "collect" action figures. I started with a Super Powers Firestorm that I found hanging in a small toy store. Rather than open him or the Toy Biz DC Comics Super Heroes figures I was buying, I kept them sealed on their cards and did my best to keep the packaging in good condition. Whenever I found them, more Super Powers figures soon joined Firestorm. I started putting more emphasis on my comic book collection, too, bagging and boarding everything now. While the DC Comics characters got most of my attention at this point, I also had a few carded G.I. JOE figures, and I’d kept most of the toys from my childhood, as well.
I took all of this very seriously for a couple of years, but this was also the time I decided to take up music. By the age of fifteen, I was playing guitar in a band, doing some shows in bars and nightclubs where I wasn’t old enough to get through the doors. That didn’t stop me from appreciating the figures. After long nights of getting into trouble, one of my friends and I usually ended up back at my place, where he would inevitably say, "Dude, bust out the Joes!" And we would, although we’d have never admitted it to the girls we knew. At seventeen, I had already moved into my own apartment with a couple of roommates, and boxes full of toys and comics came with me. It was around this time that a DJ friend of mine taught me how to match beats. I ended up bouncing around after leaving that place, storing all of my collectibles in a rented storage room. I got behind on the payments before too long, and that resulted in the loss of most everything I had collected through the years. I was in better financial shape at nineteen, and that was when I bought my first set of turntables. Sooner or later, I lost interest in that activity, just as I had with playing guitar, but I always loved toys and the concept of collecting. I learned that building a selection of vinyl had been more satisfying than actually doing anything with the records.
Still feeling jaded over the loss of my toys and comics, my return to collecting began with NBA and NFL trading cards, but that soon gave way to my first geek love. When STAR WARS: Episode I – The Phantom Menace hit theaters in 1999, I caught a glimpse of the action figures Hasbro released for the film. I had to have a Darth Maul to keep carded and hang on my wall, so I tracked one down, even though that was the most difficult character to find at first. After seeing the movie, I decided to buy the Jedi, too. I mean, why not? Three figures won’t take up much space. Once I had those, it occurred to me that a complete set would be nice. I had three already, and there were only eight figures from the movie after all. But then there were thirteen, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-six, and… Wait, there are vehicles and playsets, too? And variations of the Battle Droids? They just kept coming, and I kept buying them. Soon I was picking up just about everything I saw with a STAR WARS logo on it, at least until I learned how to focus my collecting enthusiasm a bit better.
Some of my STAR WARS collectibles.
I scored some animated Batman toys, the Indiana Jones figure from Disney World, and some TRON figures in the process, but it was Lucas’ creation that held most of my attention once again. I continued as a completist until early 2003, when I finally reached a point where I felt like I had enough STAR WARS figures. Perhaps my days as a collector had come to an end as quickly as the desire had been reignited. But what’s that? Mattel is releasing a line of figures for the Justice League cartoon? Wow. Hasbro never did anything for the show when they had the license, and that Batman is the bee’s knees. I’ll just stick with him. No, I definitely need Superman, too. You know what? There are only seven characters! As most of you know, Justice League evolved into Justice League Unlimited, and I’m still collecting the line six years later. Before I knew it, I was buying comics again, and the Hush series got me hooked on DC Direct figures in 2004. Along came the 25th Anniversary G.I. JOE line in 2007, and 200+ figures later, you could say that bug hit me, too. Despite buying only one Marvel Legends figure for myself during its entire run, I’ve found myself tracking down Marvel Universe figures for the last few weeks, not to mention the comic series characters from the new Wolverine movie line that go with them.
STAR WARS? Check. DC? Check. G.I. JOE? Check. Marvel? Check. I have now come full circle. I think the only thing that prevented me from diving head first into Transformers Universe was the fact that I only got those sparingly as a kid. So when you ask me what I want for my birthday this year, mom, and you’re wondering why my answer still involves Batman or G.I. JOE toys, don’t forget: It’s at least mostly your fault. Remember the time we spent trying to track down that second version of Snake-Eyes? We finally found him on a road trip, at a Kmart over 200 miles from home. What about the Cobra twins? It took the opening of a new store, Children’s Palace, before we could find them. Yes, I still do the same thing. What can I say? I was conditioned to be like this.
Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rebel Pilot me, with what I apparently believed to be a toy lightsaber.