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Al Gore's Action Figure Legacy

Other than the action figures themselves, there is one thing feeding, nurturing and, in some ways, destroying our hobby. It has been the source of great joy for me as well as of angst and, in at least one case, anguish. It is the one thing that has done more to both unify and destabilize our collector community than anything else.

I’m using it right now.

So are you.

It is the Internet. I love it, and I hate it.

When I was a kid, there was no way to know what figures were coming out for a given line until the new wave actually hit the pegs and the cardback or enclosed pamphlet told the glorious tale. I remember flipping a new G.I. Joe figure over in Toys R Us and devouring the little explosion-backed boxes as quickly as my wee brain would allow.

Whoa! A Cobra snow trooper!

Awesome! A new Snake-Eyes…with a wolf!

Dreadnoks!

I had similar experiences with Masters of the Universe, Transformers, Star Wars, WWF and even lesser lines like Power Lords and Rambo. Hell, I was even giddy when new Smurfs turned up at the card store. Even as late as the mid-90s, as a collector, I can remember walking into TRU with a friend and being floored by the new Playmates Star Trek figures I had no clue were on the way.

Data as a Romulan! Hugh Borg! Wow!

Those days are over. Now, thanks to the Internet, there’s not a figure, vehicle or playset we don’t know about months in advance. Surprise has been replaced by anticipation, which isn’t bad, but I can’t help but feel something has been lost. Of course, something is lost in the transition from childhood to maturity, however technical and alleged that maturity may be, so I don’t know if it’s the advent of information technology, my own diminished sense of wonder or a combination of the two that makes finding new figures on the pegs much less cathartic than it once was.

Perhaps ironically, the Internet giveth as well as taketh away when it comes to nostalgia. There is a place collectors can go and, with some persistence, find any toy he or she played with growing up. Ebay is the reason I have the Generation 1 Transformers I do, as well as my small, reconstituted collection of original series Masters of the Universe figures. These toys are now considered “vintage,” a term I find simultaneously amusing and distressing.

Over my collecting career, I’ve used ebay to get into lines I couldn’t afford as a kid, lines I was considered too old for when they came out, and lines I missed altogether because I was too busy growing up. Ebay has been a boon for children of the 80s looking for one more go at what was once, or never was, theirs.

But it that a good thing?

In my experience, going back to action figures of my youth has been both richly rewarding and a colossal waste of time, money and space. Through Mattel’s commemorative releases and originals via ebay, I treasure the Masters of the Universe figures I mentioned above, but with few exceptions I could do without the G1 Transformers. I was in my last years of toy eligibility when BraveStarr came out, so I was unable to get into them. A few years ago, I picked up a few figures through ebay, and my interest waned. Same thing happened with C.O.P.S. and Hasbro’s WWF line. On two occasions, I dipped further into the action figure past then even I go and purchased two mint-in-box Big Jim figures at no small cost. I resold them, on ebay, for about what I paid for them.

Perhaps you can’t go home again. Or perhaps you realize, more often than you’d like, the things you loved as a kid aren’t as cool or well made or fun as you remember them.

Or maybe we’re the ones who aren’t as cool, well made or fun as we used to be. The toys, after all, are the same. It’s the people who’ve changed.

Before this gets too depressing, I’ll tell you something I’m sure will make you feel better about your lot while you laugh at mine.

Far too often, I’ve used ebay as a means to correct toy elimination decisions. Last time we were together, I told you about the latest in a series of major toy purges I’ve done over the years. Well, there have been several occasions where parts of those purges have found their way back to my doorstep through ebay. I’ve collected Kenner’s Gargoyles line twice. I’ve collected the Spawn movie line twice. I’ve collected The Lost World: Jurassic Park line twice, and gotten rid of it twice. I collected the Hasbro Planet of the Apes line three times before it stuck.

By the way, it was the Tim Burton Apes line.

Provided I still have any audience at all following that last sentence, you can see ebay has been quite enabling for me. Before the Internet’s domination of our hobby, I’d either have to live with the consequences of my choices, or learn to make better ones. With ebay, thankfully, neither is necessary.

Another effect of ebay on our community is the I Must Have It NOW factor. If it’s on the pegs anywhere in the United States, and in some cases the world, it’ll be on ebay and you can Buy It Now before any of your virtual friends can lay a keystroke on it. Of course in most cases, they’ll be rewarded for their impulse control with their pick of figures at retail price while you paid twenty times as much for one with crossed eyes and a loose hip, but that’s beside the point, you Got It Then.

And honestly, what’s better than reading some sad sack’s post on a message board about finding something that’s graced your shelf for the last month and a half?

Nothing, and you know it.

As much a parody as that last statement may, or may not, have been, it brings me to the single biggest effect the Internet has had on my career as a collector, the message board.

I feel it no great admission to say I check a particular action figure message board about a dozen times in any 24 hour period and anything less leaves me feeling like a roadie in the port-a-potty while the tour bus pulls away. If you know me away from this space, you know which message board I mean because it’s the one you’re all over, too. That place, as well as our own growing forum here at AFI, has given me so much joy and camaraderie over the years I cannot begin to express it. And I know I don’t need to, because I know it’s done the same for you.

Those are the good days.

Perhaps due to my investment, or over investment, in what that message board can do for my collection and for me as a collector, there have been times I’ve been hurt by what’s been said to me there. Once, now many years ago, I got into a political debate (for which I now realize I was ill-prepared) and ended up feeling the other person got the best of me to the point I questioned my own views. That turned out to be good thing, as now my views are more refined and stronger than they ever were. Today, I don’t care for the person who forced me to scrutinize my views at all, as I’ve seen his manner in other discussions and debates, but I thank him for making me stronger. That said, it took a long time to recover from the anger I felt toward myself for letting an Internet person, for all intents and purposes a non-person, affect me so deeply.

But of course my adversary that day is not a non-person, and that’s the wonderful, horrible nature of message boards.

I have enemies. It’s a strange, almost surreal, and certain petty thing to say in reference to the on-line action figure collecting community, but it’s true. I suppose we all have a short list of screen names whose appearance in a thread makes us clench, but that’s a microcosm of life, is it not? Through school, work and bitter, awkward socialization, we all encounter people who take an instant dislike to us, or we to them. Likewise, there are times when someone in the background of your life comes to the fore and, through incident of malice or misunderstanding, ends up on your bad side. So it is with Internet message boards, I’ve found. Especially with those message boards entirely populated with nerds.

But, if the dark side of human nature carries over to the virtual world, does that not mean the light side prevails there too?

I have few friends in my “real” life. There’s my wife, my best friend of 27 years, and that’s about it. I work at home, so there’s no opportunity for work friends and the friends I did have while working are, at their strongest, faded acquaintances now. So, I may value my message board friends more than most, but somehow I doubt it. I see what’s said when one of us in crisis. I see what’s said when one of us is in pain. I see what’s said when one of us accomplishes something great or passes one of life’s milestone. I see what’s said and I know there is a great deal more passing over our DSLs than data and electricity.

A few years ago, someone I knew only in passing on the boards sent me a Superman: The Animated Series Supergirl figure mint on card simply because I said, to someone else, I didn’t have one. More recently, someone I’ve always enjoyed talking to, much more so than he suspects, I’d imagine, sent me a Teen Titans Gizmo/Red X Robin 2-pack, for nothing, because he knew how much I’ve anticipated the Gizmo figure and he happened to find it first. These are events that yield wanted toys, certainly, but for me, they’re so much more about what it’s like, what it means, to be a part of something bigger than you are. Something that, every once in a while, let’s you know it knows you’re there.

Ten years ago, companies made what they made and parents either bought it or didn’t. Today, industry professionals from line managers at Mattel and ToyBiz to executives at smaller companies like Mezco and Palisades listen to, and sometimes consult directly with, the community of action figure collectors that’s risen in the last decade. That’s important, and it will change the toy industry even more than it has as we go forward, but it’s not the most significant thing the Internet has given our hobby, certain not the most significant thing it’s given me.

The Internet has made it ok to be who we are. It has encouraged us, embraced us, coddled us, at times corrected us, but it is always here for us. The Internet is a part of every collector’s life and daily routine, but it should never be mistaken for anything other than what it is, a vessel.

We, that is you and I, are what make our community so special. We support, we talk, we listen, we provide, we take care, we love and, yes, sometimes we hate each other not out of necessity or compulsion, but because we choose to be a part of each others lives. The Internet allowed us that opportunity, we took it, and we have built something wondrous. A place where who you are is exactly who you're supposed to be.

We never know what’s going to be on these news sites and message boards when we sign-on each day. In that way, perhaps we have reclaimed the childhood surprise we lost to the Internet in the first place. But more importantly, through the currency of common interest, we’ve found each other.

I don’t know you.

You don’t know me.

I’m glad we have each other.


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Got a comment? Send me a line at jjjason@actionfigureinsider.com!


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