Let me explain myself.
I was 4 years old as of 1986. The Star Wars trilogy had happened, two Indiana Jones films had been released, Back to the Future was a thing, The Goonies were in the Goondocks, Transformers existed, and a slew of other intellectual properties (that may or may not have been developed solely as vehicles for selling plastic to children) were burrowing into the collective psyche of the western world. It was an age in which cultural icons were born and etched into the pages of history; new mythologies grew and evolved from classical roots. It was a RENAISSANCE of live action and cartoon entertainment.
Some of my earliest memories involve seeing and receiving toys. I have a lot of memories from year 4; I was an American in an extremely commercial culture. My parents weren’t rich, but we were always comfortable as far as I could tell. Like many my age, Saturday mornings (and mornings in general) were spent watching cartoons on a small TV with a dial that rotated between about 12 channels. Those cartoons were not JUST cartoons; they were advertisements, and I became KEENLY aware that there were shiny, articulated, tasty plastic things out there that I didn’t have. One of my earliest plastic memories was my dad coming down the stairs with a brand new Kenner Super Powers Lex Luthor figure, given for no reason at all. That bright blue / primary color packaging teased my retinas and tattooed my brain with an enduring memory of action figure excellence.
The BIGGEST toy lines that were a part of my life and childhood collections (in historical order):
1. Kenner Super Powers
2. Kenner Silverhawks
4. Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
5. TYCO Dino-Riders
6. Kenner ALIENS
7. Kenner Jurassic Park
8. Playmates Star Trek
9. Kenner Star Wars (90s POTF line)
LET’S TALK ABOUT STAR WARS. Since I came to consciousness in about 1986, I MISSED out on the commercial mega-glut that was Star Wars between 1977 and 1985. I remember the very first time I saw Star Wars – it was on HBO at my Grandma’s house, and a switch flipped. Star Wars was what I wanted – any and all of it. But, it was no longer in stores, and my parents SOMEHOW weren’t focused on tracking down toys that weren’t conveniently located in normal store aisles. If they were into flea markets, we could have done some SERIOUS damage, but unfortunately that wasn’t in the cards. The only vintage figure I had was a clearanced Return of the Jedi Squidhead, which I anally kept 100% complete with all accessories from day 1. It was a sign of great things to come.
While my family lived comfortably, I had exactly $0 spending money. My birthday is the day after Christmas, which meant that if there was something I wanted, I REALLY had to luck out. I depended on the unpredictable generosity of parents / family if I wanted anything for the rest of the year. I’m not AT ALL saying that my family was cheap or selfish with their money – I had plenty of great toys, but adults gotta pay the bills; the insatiable plastic obsession of a financially undisciplined child SOMEHOW wasn’t a priority. Obviously, plenty of kids tragically go hungry in every country around the world today, so this is not meant as a valid complaint – but if we’re talking about collecting action figures based on media properties, I was doing POORLY. Eventually, I did get an allowance (25 lousy cents a week), which meant that I could maybe afford a low end figure 1.5 times annually. Somehow, I made it through this dark time (no, please don’t applaud- I’m touched) and soon “aged out” of playing with toys. What I had went into a box in my closet (thankfully, my family is comprised of generations of hoarders, so things didn’t get sold off in yard sales). I started playing guitar and hanging out with friends / girlfriends, pursuing other socially acceptable age-appropriate endeavors. The prize my eyes were on was no longer plastic representations of childhood heroes; it was the instinctual drive to be able to attract a mate. Toys went by the wayside.
Still, I had always been the artistic kid in class. My family has always had artistic / musical talent, and I wasn’t really interested in watching / learning about / obsessing over sports. No judgment of that drive- I just didn’t / don’t have it. My confidence and drive was in creating and making (ok, and collecting) things. In high school, my dad and I started experimenting in making electric guitars, the perfect marriage of our interests and abilities. For years, that was my creative outlet- making weird and unusual custom guitars, both from existing bodies and starting from scratch.
I went to college and became an adult. Newly employed, I suddenly had INCOME. Glorious, expendable income. Old passions started to revive; I started with the pursuit of vintage Star Wars figures. In the future, I began building up my vintage Turtles collection. Later, I started picking up toy lines that I had ignored as a kid in the store aisle due to a total lack of funds. Today at age 36, I have Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ninja Turtles, Jurassic Park, ALIENS, Star Trek, Super Powers, Marvel Super Heroes, X-Men, X-Force, McDonald’s toys, Dino-Riders, M.U.S.C.L.E., He-Man, Voltron, Ghostbusters, Batman and a variety of other gems in a collection that I have trouble organizing well. Basically, anything nostalgic from my childhood, which roughly translates to boy’s toys that were available between 1977 and 1995. These are the things that were in my toybox, and in my friends’ rooms. This is the era I collect, with some exceptions.
I think it can be difficult to explain to some why a grown man might collect children’s toys; I don’t sit in my basement and play with them. I don’t get lost in imaginative adventures and invite other adult men to spend a few hours creating storylines with plastic characters. For me, all of this revolves around the childhood nostalgia; I remember and re-experience how these things made me feel as a kid. I remember the feeling of getting them, of wanting them, of spending hours with them with friends. The colors and even THE SMELL of the plastic and rubber parts instantly transports me to a time when I thought the world was perfect, and I didn’t have to worry about the concerns of adulthood and the world in which we live. Today, I appreciate the imaginative artistry of each individual figure and often the packaging that was developed to market them. Finding these things now grants me the same level of unquenchable joy as when I was 4 – there’s a strong level of wish-fulfillment and taking advantage of financial resources that are available now, as opposed to when I was a kid. When I see countless hordes of brightly-colored plastic beings organized into displays, it’s a feast for the eyes, and a launchpad for cascading memories. Today, I love hunting down missing pieces from various collections; I love finding random impossible parts in flea markets or obscure eBay lots. It’s a kind of game that makes life a little more fun, and it gives me something tangible to look forward to: the hunt goes on. There are things so rare that they are practically impossible to find, and they are all the more rewarding when they can be discovered in unremarkable piles of detritus at the flea market or thrift store. SOLID. GOLD. It’s like discovering King Tut’s tomb under the Egyptian sands.
In 2013, I became a father. It’s an amazing experience, and family is the most rewarding part of my life; but mysteriously, the time for me to spend hours cutting wood, sanding, drilling, painting, finishing, etc. in the creation of electric guitars simply disappeared. Tiny humans require time and attention, and I found myself spinning my wheels on projects that I didn’t have the time or energy to complete. As I didn’t have time to invest in putting out a polished guitar, I started focusing more on smaller, more manageable projects: customizing and restoring action figures, as well as building dioramas and displays. The guitar building led to a knowledge of power tools, glues, wiring, carving / sculpting, repairing wood & plastic damage, and all sorts of useful skills that apply directly to action figures.
For some, the hobby of toy-collecting comes across as immature, developmentally regressive, or entirely age-inappropriate based on the social norms within our culture. I would challenge that. People value different things: some collect sports memorabilia, recipes, travel experiences, power tools, hunting equipment, animal heads, vehicles, weaponry, coupons, clothing, expensive purses, food, artwork, antiques. There is no reason that toy collecting should be considered any different. For thousands of years, men and women have created masterpieces in stone and paint – artistic representations of their gods and heroes. Just imagine if ancient Greek, Roman, or Renaissance sculptors had figured out a way to do 5-point articulation in marble; what Michaelangelo could have done with ball-jointed stone WOULD HAVE BEEN A MIRACLE. The tiny plastic representations in my basement tap into that same artistic excellence, but I’m #blessed with hundreds of masterpieces produced by (largely) nameless artisans. In this life, people are driven to pursue different passions; they spend their money and time focused on something. People are gonna buy stuff. Are vintage toys any less valid than anything else, so long as you’re able to function as a responsible adult?
So, today I am a father, husband, working-professional, indoor kid who makes custom figures and guitars based on nostalgic media properties from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. And yes, my wife is a saint.