In the interest of full disclosure…
It is time to come clean. Time to admit the truth.
It isn’t as though I didn’t know what I am. I’ve felt the guilt, the shame, the rolling eyes and hard stares from you “normal” motherfuckers.
It isn’t something I try to hide, or try to broadcast, either. I’ve referenced it, alluded to it, framed posts with it, come close to admitting it, made jokes back and forth with Poopoopachu, but I’ve never sacked up and just said what I am.
I am a toy collector.
Action Figures, mainly.
Specifically, figures based on characters from toy lines I grew up with in the 1980’s. So, Star Wars, GI Joe, He-Man, Transformers, and various other more obscure toy lines, with a hard focus on GI Joe.
Now that I’ve said it, the 30-something males reading this can sit there and go “Oh, OK, I remember this shit.”, while the women will sigh and roll their eyes while their knees slam shut and their vaginas dry up at the the thought of a man in his 30’s still buying toys.
Don’t laugh, the discrimination is real. I’ve been in a Target, and asked by an attractive (seriously, it is NEVER the ugly ones) female employee if I needed help, only to see their eyes focus on the action figure in my hand, followed by snickers or a grimace and an “Oh, NEVER MIND” look on their faces. It happens all the time. Like, I am less of a person for buying children’s toys. If I was sitting there shooting up smack, I’d at least get a sympathy dry hump for being “damaged” or “complicated”. People would want to help me with my addiction. But buying action figures? “Get a life, you piece of shit.” I regularly lie about a tribe full of nephews that love when I buy them duplicate hard-to-find figures, or a fictitious son that has a birthday coming up so can I please get a gift receipt? I can’t even explain it…On a more personal level, if a confrontation over toys came to violence, I am more than prepared to fight for my right to buy Snake Eyes, but on this meek, embarrassing, conversational level, lying is far more preferable to the “Yeah, these tanks are for me, I like them…” admission that is normally replied to with a “Oh, you’re one of THOSE” comments from some minimum wage earning whore of a cashier.
It has gotten so bad in my 30’s that I don’t even try any more. Even with the influx of nerd related Hollywood movies making millions of dollars based on franchises I wore Underoos for, and TV shows living from geek reference to geek reference in between commercial breaks for Proactiv and beer, I still feel the need to hide it. I won’t wear any of my old comic book or toy shirts any more. The odds of getting geek-IDed are too high. And not just the scoffs and giggles from hot chicks, no. There is also the less self aware nerd, the TRUE stereotype of the genre, the one that gives us all a bad name. The one that wanders up in public to say “Hey guy, nice Transformers shirt, let’s talk! You must be like me, because you like what I like, so now you can listen while I babble and intermittently spit on you while I do so…I LOVE OPTIMUS PRIME! ISN’T HE AWESOME? WHAT DO BOOBIES FEEL LIKE? I MEAN, GIRL ONES, NOT GUY ONES…”
I have actually told nerds I was cornered by that whatever shirt I was wearing came from the Salvation Army and I was wearing it because I was in the middle of painting my garage, or the Toy stickers on my van were there when I bought it and I got a discount because of them. Yeah, they are all St. Peter moments, but Cobra Commander never told me I’d deny him three times before the rooster crows, so I’ll live with it.
And so, I hide who I am. From the “normals”, from others like me, even at times from my own family. And it isn’t really out of fear, just a lack of desire for verbal confrontation. Again, not a stranger to screaming at someone who deserves it, but I just don’t feel the need to justify buying toys to people that don’t get it. I don’t demand that the bunch of man gobbling homophobic jocks that love organized sports define why they prefer to watch other men in tight pants pass, hit or “high stick” a bunch of ball or pucks around, or why they wear clothes with another man’s name on them…I mean, if we were in prison, wouldn’t that jersey you spent so much cash on mean you were Donovan McNabb’s bitch? (That is the only sports name I can think of right now). I’ve had sports dorks ask me if I was going to shove some GI Joe’s up my ass because it’s “so gay” to buy toys, but I’ve never watched a man reach between another man’s legs to retrieve a ball, pat another man homo erotically on the ass for a “nice play”, or cheered when ten men in shorts dog pile on one guy holding the ball. Honestly, if even one guy gets an erection during a group tackle, I think it should be called a gangbang. I’d love to see the team arguing with the ref that makes that call.
To draw another controversial comparison, I have always been this way. I didn’t make a choice when I was a kid to only play with toys well into my teens while the rest of my peers were getting naked in locker rooms and rolling around in leotards “wrestling” with each other, or putting on tight pants to pass balls around. I never played organized sports, no inter-murals or teams, and I hated gym. I liked being the class clown, but not enough to join the theater groups. That didn’t leave much for High School activities, other than drawing and playing with GI Joes. I hid most of my interests while I was in High School, sneaking into KB Toys and Kiddie City in downtown Philly when I got off the bus and was sure my friends had all gone to catch their trains to get home.
I guess it started in my childhood (when most of us played with toys). I was a chubby kid, and again, never had any interest in sports or even ran around outside much. I just liked watching cartoons and playing with toys. I grew up with a single Mother. My Father wasn’t around, but the few appearances he did make, he would bring me well-meaning but completely incorrect gifts. Once it was a baseball mitt and ball, another time it was a football, but the closest he got was a bog box full of Hot wheels cars. Another male stereotype I have little interest in…Cars. I do still have the mitt and the football, though. They are as fresh and new as the day he got them for me.
I did have a Godfather, a good friend of my Mother’s that would step in when a male role model was needed, and I loved him like a father. But even he seemed at a loss to handle my love of toys and cartoons. Don’t get me wrong, he was one of my greatest supporters when it came to toys. In 1987, he bought me ALL the GI Joe Night Force figures and vehicles from Toys R Us, and he bought me my first Terror Drome, which I still have today. But he also tried to get me interested in more social activities as well. He took me to boy scouts at least twice, which ended badly both times, once with me just walking out in the middle of a meeting saying “I don’t want to be here.” Basketball, summer camp, fishing, even hunting were all tried or suggested, but nothing worked like a brand new GI Joe figure to really make me a happy kid.
So it began, and never really stopped. As a kid I would work to buy or just steal every new GI Joe figure as it came out until about 1990 when I started High School. I kept buying them then, but as I mentioned before, I would do so secretly, hiding them in my backpack until I got home to add them to the rest of my toys. By the time I was a senior in High School, I was less objectionable to being who I am, and started a more cohesive “collection” of “collectibles”, over simply a box of childhood toys I would “play” with when no one was looking. I was SO rebellious, I didn’t care if I was seen as a geek or nerd. I had a girlfriend, I got laid, I bought the toys I wanted, what the fuck else was there? I’d travel to flea markets, toy shows and swap meets to find figures and vehicles I didn’t have, or buy duplicates of figures I really liked, a habit which slowly built a huge pile of extra toys that were used for sale or trade. I transitioned into setting up my own tables or booths at local toy shows, buying and selling more and more. Then, in the mid to late 90’s, I found out there was this thing called the internet, and another thing called Ebay…And that would be when the real sickness began.
While the size and focus of my collection may have ebbed and flowed over the years, changing with interests or situations (I sold off a ton of extraneous toy lines while I was unemployed around 2003-06), the main driving force has always been Hasbro’s GI Joe: A real American hero line, the smaller figures (33/4″ to be precise) that started in 1982, and have been in almost constant production for close to 30 years now.
And now, I’ll share just how far this particular rabbit hole goes. Anyone reading as just a casual observer, I’ll tell you right now, a lot of this shit will be tenuous, and is gonna go right over your head. I’ll do my best to hold your hand and at least explain some of it.
Also, I promised my friends and fellow collectors on YoJoe, Hisstank, and JoeIntel that there would be pictures of my collection in this post (I don’t post a lot of pictures of my collection publicly due to…Various issues). So I have included links to many photos, culled from 5 different photo sharing accounts, that span at least 5 years, everywhere I can put them, in many words or phrases. So, click the links, even if they don’t match up with whatever I am saying at the time, you’ll still get a pic of something.
I started out collecting loose GI Joe figures and vehicles. By “loose” I mean a toy that isn’t in it’s package, but is complete with all it’s parts, accessories, weapons, etc. Loose is how most toys are found, because most toys out there have been played with. Toys that have been gently played with and show less wear or damage are more sought after. Toys that are damaged, missing pieces or badly worn are not worth much to a collector, except in certain circumstances.
Since GI Joe has been continually produced in several formats and under many themes and titles over the last 28 years, I have kept up with all the modern releases as well. So even though I buy the older stuff, I maintain a “one of each” collection of all the newer stuff as well. Hence, the nasty treatment at the hands of Target and Toy R Us employees.
After some time, I moved into intentionally collecting duplicates of certain figures, in an attempt to build and army for display or diorama purposes. This activity is referred to as “Army building” or Troop building“. In many toy lines (but GI Joe especially), there were certain figures that represented a nameless, faceless individual in a standard uniform, a common soldier that would fight for one side or the other in large groups. To make a super easy example, in Star Wars, there are hundreds of Storm Troopers running around on screen at any given time. Kenner makes a Stormtrooper figure, but it isn’t “Bob the Stormtrooper”, it is just a Stormtrooper. So, if kids want multiples of the figure to bash in Ewok skulls of burn a teenager’s family to death, they can buy them. As adult collectors followed suit, the trend grew, and in the last 10 years or so toy companies caught on and would offer multi packs of soldiers to help satisfy demand. On the vintage level (BTW, I will continue to use “vintage” as a term for older toys, from the 1980’s or so, rather than toys you can buy in stores now) this demand drove up prices for many trooper figures since so many collectors would want 10, 20 or more of them, as opposed to only wanting one of a single character figure like Han Solo or Luke Skywalker.
I also engage in a particularly nerdy activity called “customizing“. Basically, it’s a variation of model building or “kitbashing” that revolves around using old figures or vehicles to make something new, with paint, glue, styrene, and some guys even do a lot of their own sculpting. When it comes to playing with toys as an adult, customizing is by far the purest form of the idea. I can literally make my own toys that I wanted as a kid, but didn’t have the skill or access to tools I have as an adult. It is also the most difficult to justify as a “collector” since you are pretty much destroying an existing toy to create something that has very little value to anyone but yourself, and it does look pretty nerdy to be sitting at your dining room table painting camouflage on a little dolly…But I do it.
Slowly I moved into buying boxed and sealed or graded items. “Boxed” mean just what it sounds like-a toy that has it’s original opened box, and may be assembled and loose with that box, or might be completely unused inside the opened box. A lot of kids and parents saved boxes, especially from the GI Joe line because the artwork was so cool and action-packed, so finding boxes isn’t too difficult, but finding unused boxed items is a good bit tougher.
“Sealed” or “MISB” for “Mint in sealed box” refers to toys that have never been opened, the boxes are still glue or tape sealed, and the toy inside was never touched by the grubby hands of some idiot kid. Generally, this is the most difficult condition to find older toys in. Most toys purchased for kids were opened and played with, so unless a child got a duplicate toy that was put in the attic and forgotten about, or a forward thinking adult bought the line while it was in stores and collected it (this isn’t uncommon for the 1980’s, and finding collections like these are HUGE news when they happen), or the very slim chance of “old store stock” showing up, sealed toys are considered pretty rare.
“Graded” is a reasonably recent term for toy collectors. It is a process where an “expert” in determining the condition of a sealed item would assess the toy based on the how nice and new it looks, how it was or wasn’t handled, damaged or worn. The toy is then assigned a “grade” on a standard scale, giving its condition a rank among other graded examples. The toy is then put in a protective case to preserve the condition and allow for easy display without fear of damage. Grading can add a lot of value to an older toy, especially if it receives a high grade. In the last 10 years or so, there have been a few third party grading companies that have popped up to offer grading and casing services for the toy hobby. Their merits are frequently debated, and grading is a polarizing issue among many collectors, but one thing you can’t argue with-a graded toy looks damn pretty all cased up.
Eventually, my interest grew to include items that were released in other countries. Internationally, GI Joe has been released all over the globe, even in some countries like Russia and China where you would not expect “A Real American Hero” to be welcome. Many international items are very hard to find, due to many factors. In the 80’s and 90’s collecting these items were extremely difficult, but the internet and Ebay have really leveled the playing field there. In South America or India, where there where less items produced and they were frequently done with lower standards for quality and materials, vintage Joe items can command a very high price from American collectors. Anything that was produced in different colors, or in some cases, completely new figures or characters, are particularly sought after.
Where does that lead next? Well, several years ago, I started doing some research into the GI Joe line, how it was conceptualized, created, developed, and there wasn’t a ton of information out there. I found a lot of pictures of canceled or unreleased items, a few scans of old artwork used for design, but very little information for a toy line that spanned 12 years in it’s initial run. There were very few examples of artwork that had escaped from the toy company, making it especially rare. Through some networking and a lot of time, I tried to track down some art, find out more about the production process, and learned more about prototypes and unreleased items. I was lucky enough to meet and interview several key creators of the line, as well.
On Ebay there were a ton of oddly colored figures, referred to as “test shots“, or VSPs”, or most commonly, “protos”, short for “prototypes”. That last one is a misleading term, as far as how the toy industry itself classifies these pieces, but if someone says “Give me a Kleenex” you still know what they mean. Basically, they were trash and junk from the Asian factories that made their way on the gray market. Figures missing paint, in odd colors or in some cases not fully developed became highly collectible because they were interesting, hard to find, different, and before Ebay you had to really know someone to get your hands on something like that. On top of that, Hasbro looks down on them being available to the public, due to various legal issues, so they have that sense of danger to them (as dangerous as toys can be, anyway). Those were my first foray into the world of collecting pre-production items.
Since then, I have been lucky enough to own a lot of rare and unreleased items, a lot of hand made prototypes for figures and vehicles, and quite a few pieces of original art, both used for development and retail packaging. I won’t go into the minutia here. Suffice to say, I could go on for hours about canceled figures, unreleased this and that, concept toys that were never made, resin prototypes and my favorite items called “2ups” or “Paint Masters“, but if there is even anyone still reading, I should probably wrap this up before I lose them too.
As of this day, the display of my collection takes up one full room, an entire attic, and a good chunk of my basement is full of boxes of toys that are either for sale, or a few items that didn’t make it on display yet. I have a glass case full of Non–GI Joe childhood toys in my living room. I try to keep the toys confined to those areas (read:TRY, as in NOT FREQUENTLY SUCCESSFUL), out of respect for my wonderfully patient and understanding wife, who rarely complains about my addiction. The only thing that sets her off is when she is tripping over stuff. And I get that, so I try to keep things tidy.
Which brings me to the current state of the collecting union in my house. One word: BABY. Yes, if you’re been following my work here on 30POV, then you know, we had a little Wrecked-um about three and a half months ago. Generally, babies herald the toypacalypse for most collectors. I have decided to assume the worst-that my collecting is over, my collection is what it is, and won’t be growing much at all for the rest of my life. Babies are EXPENSIVE. I can probably still grab a figure at retail here or there for $7, but my days of spending thousands of dollars on a piece of art or rare international toy are done. It isn’t easy to look down the barrel of that gun, but I haven’t pulled the trigger yet. I can still enjoy what I have (before I have to sell it all to pay for something kid-related) and there is always the chance that we’ll win the lottery or I will successfully rob a bank or I have some long lost wealthy relative that will leave me a boatload of cash.
Huh, didn’t think I’d end on a downer. Ummm….YoJoe!!!