Of course I am dimly aware that there’s an element in all this of the desire being deliberately externally enforced (“Buy all our playsets and toys!”) but at the same time I’m pretty sure I have some kind of innate predisposition to respond strongly to those outside influences. So, read this as an unwitting testament to unbridled capitalism’s willingness to exploit children (particularly good old Gen X before we knew any better) or read it as a self-indulgent geek out with no axe-grinding agenda, either way.
1. Comic books = DC Comics Presents #46. Right off the bat I am starting with a cheat of sorts, because I’m not 100% sure this was legitimately the first comic book I ever owned. (The list gets more definitive as it goes along, though.) And, honestly, as a very young kid I didn’t really collect comics; it wasn’t until middle school that I had a dedicated place in my room set aside for comics I had already read, and my full-blown convention-going, bagging-and-boarding curating of a massive personal library of comics didn’t hit its stride until I was in 10th grade or so. Still, my interest in comic books seems to go back as far as my conscious memories do, and the jump from reading other people’s (like my uncle’s) to owning my own had to start somewhere. I’m arbitrarily declaring that it began here:
In a comic that is 110% bonkers, which makes it a worthy spiritual founder of my lifelong devotion to a goofy artform. In fact, the more that I think about it, the more I believe that this story featuring a team-up between Superman and the Global Guardians in order to prevent an international cabal of evil sorcerers from resurrecting a powerful (also evil) ancient wizard truly deserves its own post, so let’s leave it at that until such time as I can return to it with greater focus.
I will add this, however: like many comics I owned when I was 7 or 8 or 9 years old, this one was eventually lost. Much, much later (like, sometime in the past three years) I bought a replacement copy from an online reseller, out of purest sentiment. Because I am in all ways a sucker for completism!
2. Star Wars action figures = Chewbacca. Once more, I wouldn’t want to have to swear to this one in a court of law. I couldn’t have been more than four years old the first time I saw the original Star Wars movie, and not much older when my parents started buying me the toys. I seem to recall having a lot of them all at once (including R2D2 and C3PO and Luke and Obi-Wan and Darth Vader and some of the weird obscure ones like a Tusken Raider and the Hammerhead alien from the Cantina) so its hard to distinguish a true starting point, yet there’s this gut-level insistence in me that Chewie really was the first among the firsts, so let’s go with that.
Star Wars of course arguably single-handedly launched the very notion of being a collector of entire sprawling lines of toys. On the one hand, I benefited from having a Little Bro who was getting old enough by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out to also collect the action figures (and vehicles, by that point) which meant that our household pool of the toys was that much deeper. On the other hand, collecting Star Wars was my first object lesson in where my parents would draw the line in buying outrageously expensive toys. The action figures were small and cheap and unobjectionable, and some of the creatures and vehicles and playsets were on the right side of reasonable, as well. I had a Landspeeder before too long, and after Empire Little Bro got a Snowspeeder and we both got tauntauns, and one of us got a Hoth playset and the other got a Dagobah playset. But the really big ticket stuff like the Death Star playset or the Millennium Falcon or the AT-AT? Much too over-the-top. Of course I had friends (even cousins) whose parents did buy them those massive, high-priced toys, but I figured out pretty early on that those were unlikely to ever show up under my Christmas tree, alas.
3. Masters of the Universe = Stratos. So sometime in the lull between Empire and Return of the Jedi came He-Man and his friends (whom I have discussed at some length before, so apologies for repeating myself somewhat). This is also right about the time that my memories start to get a little sharper, and I remember that my MOTU collection and my Little Bro’s both started the same Christmas. I also remember that we each got three action figures that morning. By that point in having two little boys, my parents had figured a few things out, and not least was that in the newly toyetic decade we were living in, getting a child one action figure is all but pointless, because at least one good guy and one bad guy are necessary components for satisfying playtime. My parents could have, therefore, just gotten me and Little Bro a He-Man each and a different bad guy each, but they opted to toss in a second good guy for each of us. And Stratos was my second good guy.
Despite the simultaneous arrival of He-Man, Mer-Man and Stratos in my playroom, I’m considering Stratos the most important one if only because he’s so little-known, except by me, and that makes him a little more mine. My brother’s second good guy, Man-at-Arms, would soon be a prominent part of the He-Man cartoon, but Stratos was more or less forgotten. I always thought he was cool, though. He’s the one who can fly, and who doesn’t dream of being able to take wing and disappear into the sky? He’s a ludicrous example of the MOTU’s fever-dream blend of sword-and-sorcery barbarians and future-tech, in that he has wings AND a jet pack, but who are we kidding here, I have rarely been put off by excess. The last time I pondered deeply on the old MOTU toys I wondered idly why I stopped collecting ardently after the first wave of toys; maybe it was because to me, Stratos was too hard to top.
4. G.I.Joe = Rock ‘n Roll. I’m going to go out on a speculative limb here and say that the combined forces of Star Wars toys and MOTU toys remade the world of children’s playthings to such an extent that any toy which came along after was automatically viewed as the potential beginning of a new collection. And that was always kind of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, whenever you need an unruly child to straighten up and behave, and you’re not above bribery, and the unruly child happens to collect a vast if not limitless series of toys which are individually cheap, then you have a ready made behavior-modifying currency at your disposal. (And we all know I am as big a believer in this from the parenting side now as I was from the beneficiary tyke side back in the day, if not more so.) But on the other hand, the individually cheap elements can add up quickly, and they take up space, and it’s very easy to cross the line into a child feeling that they have to have every last toy in the series, which can be a drag.
I remember going to visit my grandmother (my mom’s mom) when I was a kid, for a week every summer, during which time me and Little Bro were essentially guaranteed that we would get some new toys, despite the fact that neither of us had summer birthdays, but did always get birthday and Christmas presents from grandma as well. She was a sweet but sedentary old lady and we were expected to amuse ourselves, away from all our friends, while she basically watched tv all day, thus blocking that potential source of entertainment. So (I assume she reasoned) the least she could do was buy us a few new toys to amuse ourselves with. And it was an easy no-brainer, really, because we were primed to be happy to be adding to our collections. I also remember that on one of those visits Little Bro and I were taken to the toy store by our uncle, as well, and told we could each pick one thing, and I grabbed something that looked interesting and my uncle asked if I had any of those toys already. I have zero recollection of what toy line it was, but I didn’t have any and I answered truthfully to that effect, which I actually thought would make my uncle more inclined to get me the toy, because I had actually been starting to hear variants of “don’t you have enough of those yet?” back home. But my uncle actually said, “oh no, I’m not going to be the one to start a new collection for you” which makes a ton of sense in retrospect, but man, the cruel whims of adults when you’re a kid and feel like you just can’t win, amirite?
Anyway, before the “no new collections” rule went into effect, Little Bro and I got our first G.I. Joes at grandma’s house on a summer visit. Unlike Christmas, this was not a windfall of a half-dozen characters all at once. I got one and only one 3.75” soldier to start, and that was the machine-gunner codenamed Rock n’ Roll.
Little Bro got Grunt, as I recall, who is quite possibly the most boring of the Joes. Things got more interesting from there. Again, we never got the absurdly huge toys like the Joe Headquarters or the Aircraft Carrier, but we assembled pretty sizable forces. A few years in, I decided the ideal way to continue pursuing both my collection and my brother’s was for each of us to collect one side of the eternal conflict. So we traded some toys and from then on he got G.I. Joes exclusively while I only collected the villainous Cobra army, and when we played together we would stage massive battles with me controlling all the bad guys and him all the good. No doubt this foreshadowed me eventually getting into RPGs and being very accepting of game-master duties, since players generally control heroes and game-masters control the enemies. BUT! Rock ‘n Roll and his totally non-regulation blond beard have always had a soft spot in my heart.
5. Transformers = Ironhide. Transformers was the last major toy line I got into as a kid before I hit adolescence and started reorienting my interests. My zeal for them faded quickly, relative to the longevity of the line, but when they first hit big in the U.S. I was fairly insane about them. So much so that I pestered my father to buy me one that summer just cuz I reeeeaaaaally wanted one. Little Bro was right there with me, and I think we wore dear old dad down via brute-force whining. So we went to Toys R Us and my brother picked out Jazz and I settled on Ironhide.
Who is basically the Stratos of the Autobot set. He’s not Optimus Prime, and he’s not Bumblebee, and he’s not any of the others who gained notoriety from the syndicated cartoon, the Marvel comics, the 21st century movies, or anything else. He’s a weird-looking toy, for sure, but I think that’s what initially drew me to him. Instead of just transforming from a van into a robot, he breaks apart and the lower chassis and windshield transform into a (blocky stick-figure) robot while the cargo area transforms into a futuristic mobile missile-launcher on snowmobile treads that the robot can ride on. Actually it occurs to me in this very moment that by the time I was ten or so, having spent years collecting action figures and their vehicles (and having recently albeit belatedly learned to ride a two-wheel bike) I was intensely fascinated by vehicles (see also the A-Team van, the General Lee, KITT, etc.) which of course was the whole high-concept hook of Transformers (Little boys love robots! Little boys love cars! These are both in one!) but they kind of missed the opportunity to give these robots their own vehicles, BUT Ironhide was the exception to the rule. So of course I dug him a lot. (Technically, Ratchet the ambulance was the co-exception, a repaint of the exact same build. But Ratchet was never part of my Transformers collection.)
Well, I feel pretty good now having spread the nostalgia-worship around a bit to some of the franchises I deemed too grandiose to fit into my previous dream team post. Tune in next time when I move on to documenting which works seeded my CD, DVD and trashy genre paperback collections! (Note: I may not get around to that stuff for a while. If ever. But you never know!)