I’ve always been hesitant to describe myself as a collector, but the truth is that I’ve been collecting things my whole life. From stuffed animals and sticks when I was little (yes, sticks) to books to comics to toys, there hasn’t been a time in my life that I wasn’t out chasing something to add to a “collection”. And even though in my mind I always saw myself first becoming a collector while in college, as I get older I realize that the period of time from when I put away all my toys as a young adult to the time in college when I rediscovered them again feels less like a defining moment in my life and more like a rare anomaly. And more importantly, do I want to continue to be defined as an adult with a “toy room” in his house?1That was a rhetorical question. I didn’t like being known for that once I turned 30! My office at work…that’s another story. And what does collecting mean to my life, after all?2Emphasis on MY life. This should go without saying, but this whole essay relates to me, personally, alone. I’m not throwing shade on anyone else and their collecting habits. Do what makes you happy!
To answer that, let’s back up. Waaaaay back. Back to the late 1970s, and the chain of events that would ultimately end with my collecting habits set in stone. Back then, I was a pretty normal kid like any other; playing soccer on the weekends, hanging out with friends, riding my bike and exploring ponds and drainpipes after school. I played with random toys and picked up random comics at the local drugstore.3Did anyone call them “convenience stores” back then? I don’t remember 7-Elevens until later; for candy and comics, it was always Rexall Drugs or Walgreens. I didn’t really “collect” anything, just had the usual toys that you get as gifts from parents and relatives. My life was a pretty typical life for a kid in the 1970s. Until 1977, that is, when I had a life-changing event that was also typical for a (mostly male) kid of my generation: I saw Star Wars for the first time. And, like so many others, it changed me.
I can remember this like it was yesterday. It was late Summer, 1977. My family had just moved to a tiny Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama the previous month, and I felt kind of lost, having left the home and friends in San Antonio that I had known my entire brief life up to that point. Wanting to be a cartoonist when I grew up, I was obsessed with Disney.4Seriously, it was a good time to like Disney, even though it was dark days for the studio. That week alone, three Disney features were playing at the local theaters! The Rescuers was about to be released, and I was looking forward to seeing it like crazy; we didn’t go to the movies as a family that frequently when I was growing up, but my parents did drop my friends and me off at the matinees quite often.5In those days before home video, matinees played cartoons before the movies, and there was a steady stream of revival films that made the rounds. You might see something relatively new, or you might see an old James Bond or Disney live-action film. If I were lucky, a new movie would cycle quickly to the base theater where I could just bike to it. And the new movie that I really wanted to see was The Rescuers, as it would be the first new Disney animated film that I could see on the big screen when it was released. I had already started hanging out with the kid next door, Dean, who, luckily for me, was my age and even shared a wall with me in our duplex. So when he invited me to the movies one day with his family to see The Rescuers, I was very excited! We all piled in their van and drove off the base to the local theater. Except…we didn’t go to the local theater. We kept driving much farther. 6Montgomery is a relatively small city, and looking it up now, the theater was only 7 miles away, but for a little kid that never left the base, it seemed pretty far away from home. I trusted that Dean’s parents knew what they were doing, until his father asked me if I was excited that we were finally going to see that new blockbuster everyone was talking about: Star Wars.
I wasn’t. I wasn’t excited AT ALL. I wanted to see my cartoon! You see, back then I hated Sci-Fi (most likely the result of catching 2001 on tv a few years earlier. My 5-year-old self was not impressed)! So I just sulked and pouted quietly until we got there. And waited in line to see something I was barely even aware of; I’m pretty sure at that point in my sheltered life the only thing I knew was the title and nothing else. We finally got inside and took our seats. AND MY LITTLE MIND WAS BLOWN. I remember it so vividly, even today. I was always fidgety during movies but not this one. With this one I was transfixed. When Dean’s dad took the rest of the kids to the restroom during the attack on the Death Star7Seriously, what the hell is wrong with people?!? I waved him away. I don’t remember much about the year we spent in Alabama before moving back home. But I do remember seeing that movie. I think it’s tough for people who weren’t there at the right age to comprehend just what it was like to experience this thing; It was unlike anything else ever. 8Obviously, things didn’t stay that way. But it was like a dog-whistle that only young boys could hear. Much like the Twilight phenomenon that hit young girls the same way a decade ago. I walked into that movie wanting to be a cartoonist; I walked out needing to be a filmmaker. 9Fun story: I only thought I was destined to be a director until a real director, James Cameron, inadvertently talked me out of it when I was 23. Which is a longer story for another time.
So you could say that I liked Star Wars. And it was just the first step in a long journey. I still wasn’t a collector, yet. Most people know that there were no Star Wars toys to buy that year, but in a nutshell, Kenner started too late to have toys out for Christmas 1977 and instead sold an empty box with a coupon to be redeemed later for four action figures. I was blissfully unaware of this. In fact, I don’t think I expected there to be any Star Wars toys at all. 10I had some GI Joe figures and vehicles around this time, but my memories don’t include them. When I think about playing in those days I think about riding my bike and playing with frogs in the creeks. One night I was surprised by my Dad bringing home a knock-off lightsaber toy that was more or less a flashlight with a golf club protector on it that he picked up on his way home from work. I had a blast with it until it broke. But it wasn’t until right before we moved that I saw my first Star Wars toys; Dean caught me in front of our houses one day to show me that his grandmother had sent him a Luke Skywalker figure and his Landspeeder vehicle. We played with them for a bit right there, in the back of his family station wagon. I was blown away that I might be able to actually recreate scenes from the movie as I played. 11I can’t recall EVER seeing a movie more than once in the theater until I got my driver’s license, and Star Wars was no exception. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t something my family did. I did end up seeing it one more time before home video when I took my parents to see it at a drive-in during its 1979 re-release, which is also when I realized I needed glasses as it was very blurry to watch. This was around June 1978, nearly a full year since I saw Star Wars in the theater. And yet still…I didn’t get any Star Wars toys.
By the end of Summer, we had moved back to San Antonio, and I went back to my old school12Total nightmare. No one “moves on” like fickle fourth graders. Some new kids supplanted me while I was gone, giving me plenty of time for toys by myself, angrily contemplating the lonely universe. But I’m not holding a grudge or anything. and picking up my old habits. I still talked about Star Wars all the time, indoctrinating my old friends at school and wearing down my family. I pretty much only got toys for birthdays and Christmas, with the occasional bribe for being good during hospital visits, etc. so it was the biggest surprise when I came home from school one day that Fall to find six of the first twelve Kenner Star Wars figures waiting for me on my bed! I don’t remember which ones they were now but otherwise, the memory is crystal clear in my mind. My mom had picked up all the ones she could find at the local AFB BX13Air Force Base Base Exchange, for non-military brats. Basically the on-base version of a small Walmart. Shortly after that, we found the other six figures and I had them all. Side note: when I got older I threw away all my childhood toys, but for some reason, I kept all the cardbacks these figures were packaged on. I still have those original twelve on the wall in my toy room …minus some mail-away proof-of-purchases. Thanks, Mom! And that’s how it went for the next five years; I would get Star Wars toys only from then on; no more GI Joes, no Disney characters. And while I do still remember some of the exact moments where I bought a specific toy14The big ones that pop up: the day my Grandmother died in surgery in 1979 my Dad took me away from the hospital where everyone was waiting and uncharacteristically bought me two Star Wars playsets: Creature Cantina and Land of the Jawas. I remember being at her funeral and my cousin showing me the Empire Strikes Back Snowtrooper that he found that morning as we were getting into the cars to leave. I remember my dog eating my Greedo figure, and biking to Winn’s in a panic to find a replacement. And I remember finding my own first ESB figure, Han Solo in Hoth outfit, in Windsor Park Mall and begging my sister to buy it for me., what I mostly remember is the feeling of being in those stores, or traveling to those stores, and the events that precipitated each purchase. Now, I know that most kids of the era will first think of Toys R Us when they reminisce about toys and their childhoods, but for me, Toys R Us meant video games. The stores I associate with Star Wars and other toys of the 1970s/and early 1980s are ones like Winn's Variety Store or TG&Y or the amazing Lionel Playworld, not to mention all the department stores that still had toy departments like Joske’s or Sears (home of the wonderful yearly Wishbook!) And above them all was our local mall toy chain, The Toy Box, operated by the Alwais family. As far back as I can remember, my Dad had been taking me to the Toy Box, where he would have nice conversations with the owners if they were around. I thought he was just very friendly15He was that, too. Dad would talk to anyone who seemed like they had a second to listen. but it was mainly because he himself had worked at the Toy Box in the 1950s as a teen. And so there was always a good excuse to visit the store and maybe come away with at least a new Han Solo or droid figure. In fact, I would get Star Wars ANYTHING . But toys weren’t the only collecting gateway that Star Wars opened for me – comics beckoned, thanks once again to Mom.
Now, like any kid of the 1970s, I grew up reading comic books. They were on every newsstand, in every grocery and drugstore, and in every mom & pop store on a nice spinner rack. Comics were made to be read and thrown away; like most of the things you acquire as a child they were designed to be disposable. I wanted to be a cartoonist very badly, so newspaper comic strips and “funny books” are all I had the time for. These were very much kids comics, as best I can recall. Definitely no superhero stuff. Anyway, the comics most kids read back then are ones that today are sadly scarce: Harvey Comics (Richie Rich, Casper, Hot Stuff, etc.), Disney Comics (Donald Duck, Super Goof, Uncle Scrooge), and those little MAD compilation paperbacks .16I seriously loved all the kind of disposable entertainment the newsstands used to offer. Weirdly, I can remember one specific line from a Jackie Joker’s comic (“It’s not Sci-Fi, It’s SCI-FUN!”) but pretty much nothing else from any of those stories. Superheroes really didn’t register on 7-year-old me, nor did any kind of fantasy characters. Until I saw (or course) a Star Wars comic on the newsstand at the Mall in 1978; I was flabbergasted that there could be ALL-NEW stories about my new favorite movie! 17Yes, I was a pretty naive kid. The internet cured that. No matter, I was buying these things every time I saw them at the grocery store…for about a year. Still not collecting, though. At best I had a handful of random comics, often not even completing the story arcs that ran through multiple issues. As I naturally aged out of such things I stopped reading comics altogether, probably around the time I turned eight years old and we moved back to Texas. I was already a voracious reader of books by then and funny comics couldn’t compete with The Lord Of The Rings. And to be honest, I all but forgot about them. Until Christmas 1980, that is.
Christmas that year was like most any other: I got some shirts, a couple of Star Wars toys, and probably a book or record. But in my stocking Mom had put something that she probably found as an afterthought: a Star Wars comics. Number 44 to be exact. The final chapter of Marvel’s adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back, the blockbuster sequel to Star Wars that had debuted a few months earlier in Summer 1980. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Mom had given me just a random issue of Star Wars (or any comic for that matter)? Would I have just read it and threw it away? In any case, that ain’t what happened. What happened was that I immediately went looking on local newsstands and spinner racks for the other issues that completed the adaptation. This was also the year that I entered middle school and made all-new friends18One of my newest friends was made the first day of class when he noticed that I had a Yoda Trapper Keeper and asked if I had seen the movie. That was all it took for a week-long discussion of the merits of the Star Wars sequel., some of whom were already collecting comics and let me know of a small used bookstore within bike riding distance: Bea's Variety Shop .
This very cluttered storefront was full of all sorts of paperbacks, a few shelves of new hardback books, and a small room that had some comic longboxes on card tables along with lots of small boxes underneath the tables that were filled with trading cards of all varieties. For a 10-year-old kid like me, it was heaven. I couldn’t get to the newly created world of direct market comic shops in San Antonio unless my parents were going there for some errand already, but the grizzled, eccentric Korean War vet who owned the store (I never did know his name; the kids all called him “Bea” even though that was assuredly his wife’s name, or possibly the name of a store that he inherited) would make twice-weekly trips into town to pick up back issues for his store. He would also look for specific issues you might be missing and get them for you…for a modest markup, of course. I don’t remember specifically the first time I went in the store (although I’m pretty sure it was with either René Rivera or Jim Tracy, two new friends who were already into superheroes like The Hulk) but I surely remember the countless trips I made after that. And as a bonus, there was a video arcade (another fairly recent development in the early 1980s) along the way that I would stop at to waste any remaining quarters, even though I was technically not allowed to go there.19It would be years later before I realized that the constant haze of smoke inside was NOT due to cigarettes! Like I said, I was a pretty naive 11 year old. Even though it had only been 3 years since Star Wars comics began to be published it was surprisingly hard to catch-up. What was easier was to fill in the time I had in between new Star Wars issues with discovering NEW comics that I was now paying attention to in my hunt through grocery store racks : Star Wars led to Spider-Man, Spider-Man led to X-Men, and X-Men opened up the entire world of Marvel Comics. It was a Golden Age to become a comic collector, ground zero for the stories that are now populating movies and video games in present-day pop culture.
And the heydey of the comic store was going strong in San Antonio! We had the Dungeon (which started in a Fredricksburg Road flea market and eventually spread to three locations), Comic Quest, The Great Exchange, and Half Price Books. Plus every few months there would be a mini Comic Convention at Windsor Park Mall or some other location around town. At one point I was picking up nearly everything Marvel put out! 20And at $.35 each, it wasn’t a huge outlay when Marvel staggered the books so you had a handful of new titles every week.
The sheer novelty of getting new stories every week suddenly dominated my young psyche; I more or less stop watching network TV regularly during this time and spent my free hours reading countless comics with MTV as the unending soundtrack in the background. Toys, by this point, had taken a backseat. In the Summer of 1983 I was in the transition period between middle school and high school and it felt very natural to leave the toys behind, having picked up the first wave of Return of the Jedi figures but quickly losing the enchantment that colorful plastic would bring. Like many kids of my generation, I packed them all away in favor of videos games21Starting in 1980 I had an Odyssey2, TI-994A, and Atari 130XE. We’d joke that if I got a new video game system then the company would fold soon after. and my other new found collecting bug, classic rock n roll records.2245 singles were comparatively more expensive than a comic, at $2 each, so I had to really choose my music purchases sparingly until I got a job. I have many, many fond memories of rushing home from the comic shop with my newly purchased gems and putting on a Beatles or Buddy Holly album as I read the adventures of Daredevil or ROM, Space Knight. If I had picked up the latest issue at the local 7-Eleven23 Which would become Nullinson’s after 7-Eleven left San Antonio around 1983. The one within biking distance to me had a Tron arcade game in the back, where I wasted A LOT of quarters instead of buying comics. Priorities. I’d also come home with a Slurpee and a Chocolate Big Wheel ice cream sandwich, racing against the Texas heat to enjoy it in that idyllic cocoon of comic+snack+music that served to transport me to my own private world on many wonderful Summer afternoons.
I still did all the normal teen stuff: watched movies, went to concerts, drew, painted, and kept watching MTV. But comics were always there, somewhere on the periphery. One of the crowning achievements of my sophomore year was convincing the Senior (who also happened to be the head cheerleader) that drove us younger kids to a debate tournament to detour to a comic shop on the other side of town that we were near so my buddy Chris and I could pick up that week’s issues.24Chris and I met in middle school through mutual friends. He was definitely “cooler” than me, but we bonded in our little group as the only comics fans: Chris was the DC guy, I was the Marvel guy. We would trade comics as soon as we bought them to read each other’s issues immediately, then take ours home to read later. A very satisfying arrangement. And as much as I was a stereotypical geek25I carried a briefcase to class every day for a year instead of a backpack., as much as collecting comics wasn’t entirely mainstream back then, I never felt any nerd shame for being a fan. And I was openly enthusiastic enough about them that for our Senior Advanced English Class picture my classmates asked me to bring a stack of them to school as props.
By the time high school was winding down, I was becoming less enchanted with comics. Music was still a big factor in my life, although not so much the typical 1980s fare; I was deep into classic rock and, as the decade waned, big band. With the advent of the key to youth’s freedom, my driver’s license, I found that exploring my larger environment, seeing movies both old and new each week, and delving deep into the many libraries of San Antonio all took precedence over collecting comic books. But I didn’t exactly quit collecting, either. While the stories and art took a downward turn as the 1990s loomed, there were the occasional gems that really showed the promise of the medium and garnered critical praise as well. This, plus sheer inertia, was enough to keep me amassing way too many books. I never really kept them in very nice shape as I felt (and still feel) that these were disposable items meant to be read, not treasured. But the older I got, the more of an afterthought comics became. By the time I turned twenty years old, it was safe to say that I wasn’t a collector of anything, any more than you would call someone who subscribed to a newsmagazine a collector of “Time”. That state of being, however, was to be short-lived.
And now, a digression. There is another small part of the story that I need to tell, as it was, in fact, the lynchpin upon which my entire future rested.26Only in hindsight can you see the first domino that sets off the chain that paints the picture. Or something like that. When I was three years old my parents bought a house and moved our family from housing on the local Air Force Base into the suburbs of San Antonio nearby. We had already moved a few times and I didn’t have any friends yet; it was the summertime with the school year still a month away. So I whiled away my time just playing with sticks and hanging out in my new backyard. I was content to enjoy my solitary pursuits and enact adventures in my head (times have not changed). It wasn’t long before my Mom thought I should be out doing something productive and out of her hair27At Three! Boy, were those different times. so she marched me across the street to where a little boy was playing in his own backyard and made us be friends. And friends we would remain, all the way into high school.
Born just four days apart (I was the older one), Richie and I were fairly inseparable for most of our youth outside of that one year I spent in Alabama. When I became obsessed with Star Wars, he started collecting the toys, too (even though he hadn’t seen it yet). When I dove into the world of comics, he started making parallel trips to Bea’s Variety Shop, and sometimes competed for the very same back issues that I was trying to find28I’ll never forget “Bea” offering to let me buy Spectacular Spider-Man #12 one day, even though he had specifically picked it up for Richie. You’re damn right that I bought it, too! I believe that such betrayals are the stuff of a deep, lasting friendship. But as close as we were for so many years, Richie and I were actually not very much alike. Where I disappeared into the stories and obsessively learned about the creators of movies and comics, he saw them more as things to collect and preserve; my comics were randomly stacked in misshapen piles, to be returned to again and again while his were bagged and boarded in longboxes, sorted in order and read only once then never touched again.29Because acid in your fingers will degrade the paper, man! He treated his toys the same way, arranged pristinely on shelves and rarely played with.
As we grew older we also grew apart. Middle school had introduced new friends (although we remained part of the same groups) and high school broadened the pool even more, especially once cars were factored into the equation. Our groups of friends split and split again, and while I became “popular”30I was actually having this discussion with an old friend the other day. I moved in and out of the many cliques in our school, not exactly part of the “popular crowd” but friendly with everyone. And somehow ended up part of the handful of people planning both the 20th and 30th class reunions!, Richie was more withdrawn and increasingly active with just a handful of people. Still, we remained living directly across the street from each other so we did see one another quite often.
And we were friends all along, if no longer “best friends”. It was in this vein that he gave me a present for Christmas in 1984, our sophomore year of high school. As stated above, I was a few years past buying toys at that point, but was still picking up comics every week like clockwork, something that he had grown out of himself.31As an aside, it’s worth pointing out here that while my generation of comic collectors grew up to dominate the world of today’s pop culture, they were still very much deep nerd territory in the early 1980s. But then, popularity aside, recall that I also proudly carried a briefcase to class for one year. One of us was definitely more concerned with appearances than the other. This present consisted of three action figures based on comic heroes: Batman, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. I’m guessing, since we no longer knew each other all that well, that he fell back on the one thing he did know still about me: comic books. Now, I knew who these characters were, of course, thanks to years of merchandise and cartoons invading the public consciousness. But I almost strictly read Marvel Comics at the time (these were all DC Comics characters) and wasn’t even aware they were making superhero toys. So I responded to the gift with a half-hearted “thank you” and moved on to whatever party there was to go to (there was ALWAYS a party going on somewhere in 1984). The figures were put into a drawer and forgotten.32Totally not unusual as I often tossed things into drawers or boxes, only to rediscover them years later in puzzlement.
Somewhat ironically, I’d work for one of the first Disney Stores right after high school33Which is the subject of a future article that is in the works! and that led to working for Toy R Us soon after as it was the closest type of store for me to transition to…even though I still wasn’t paying attention to toys. By the time I got into college, comics had been replaced by an insatiable curiosity for “new” – new art, new stories, new things. Movies were definitely taking over for me, with VHS rental stores springing up all over giving me ample opportunity to broaden the depth of my knowledge past what basic cable had to offer and trips to the library to research classic film history were a near-daily occurrence after my classes were through. If you had asked me if I was interested in toys during this time in my life I would have been hard-pressed to name a single current toy line on store shelves34I did still hit the toy stores now and then, but it was mainly for the awesome video games like Atarisoft and the new Nintendo System, or even recognize that being a toy designer was an actual career that one could aspire to become. And had all things stayed the same, I would imagine that my life would have turned out very differently indeed from the path that I had been on, and in retrospect, I can say that it would have been probably not for the better, either.
In any case, two events happened to change the course of my life, both of them related; the first one was probably the single-most impactful thing to happen to me up to that point: one night a few months before our 20th birthdays, my lifelong best friend Richie killed himself. I was visiting a high school buddy in Houston when it happened, but we still lived across the street from each other. I remember my mother calling me in Houston in tears and my first thought being that something had happened to my sister, who recently had moved back home. And then the relief I felt mixed with a different kind of grief when she told me what had happened. I wish I could say that it was a shock, but it wasn’t. The last times I talked to him, Richie had been both angry and depressed. To this day I don’t know for sure why he did it, though. We still saw each other occasionally; where I was foundering in college he had excelled, graduating in three years with a business degree. I don’t know what his future plans were going to be, we never discussed those things. Although he wasn’t the first person in our school to die young35He was actually the 15th person that I knew from school to die since our Junior year. It was getting to the point that we were taking morbid bets on who was next, but he would end up being the last for over a decade. he was definitely the one who had been closest to me. For much of my childhood, he had been my ONLY close friend; it very much worried me that I lost the one person that I could reminisce with about those days and that once I forgot something the memory would be gone forever. I wasn’t overly sad, though. We had been estranged enough by this point that if anything it deepened my already fatalist bent and made me even less serious about my own future, expecting to die at any time from that point on.
Into this atmosphere came event number two and of the two this one by far may have been the most important day of my life, even if I can only recognize it as such from my current vantage point. A few weeks after Richie’s funeral my comic-collecting buddy, Chris, was hanging out at my house, reading comics and listening to music. Per his usual habit, Chris was aimlessly rifling through my stuff and starting pulling out junk that was in the bottom of my fully loaded desk drawers. As I’ve said before, Chris was the DC Comics fan, and when he found three very specific action figures in the back of one drawer he got very excited.36This would have a better outcome than the time he found my beloved Patrol Dewback toy in my closet and proceeded to paint its eyes with white-out out of boredom. I was not amused. It was the Kenner Super Powers figures that Richie had given me back in 1984, exposed to the light maybe for the first time in years. Of course, Chris wanted to take them. And had he found them at any other time, I would have given them to him. Gladly! But these might have been the only things I still had that tied me to Richie (I tended to throw stuff away pretty easily growing up, and while I would soon get in the habit of NEVER throwing anything away, at the moment these figures were all I could think of to remind me of my one-time best friend). Chris wasn’t thrilled with that answer; he understood about the Richie aspect of it all, but I didn’t even read DC Comics! Surely, the figures were better off with him? But I didn’t budge. Who knows what our lives would be like if I had? But I didn’t. And he left, saying he’d find his own DC figures.
And you know what, dear reader? That’s exactly what he did. Chris remembered seeing toys at a local flea market that we used to ride our bikes to37In fact, I used to get old issues of Playboy from a dealer at this Flea Market, who probably shouldn’t have been selling them at $.50 each to a 13-year-old kid. I eventually had a nearly complete run from the mid-1960s to the 1980s before selling them all back to him for $35 to go on a date. Ha ha! The circle of life. and went there that weekend to see if he could find those same figures. But he didn’t just find those…he found Superman! The Flash! GREEN ARROW! Wait, what?? They made a Green Arrow figure!?!? And so it was: Chris came straight to my house in a fit of excitement for a world that neither of us had known to exist. And once we got our first taste, toy collecting became a mania. The first thing we did was scour our parents’ houses for our childhood toys: nada. Apparently, we threw them ALL away as neither one of us could find anything more than a couple of random Star Wars weapons that had been left behind as the rest raptured their way to the great garbage dump in the sky. But no matter; the world of flea markets and garage sales in 1990 was ripe for the taking, not just for Super Powers action figures but also for all the Star Wars toys we had or never had. All of it was there, all of it relatively inexpensive. Heck, I was again working at Toys R Us during the holidays and my store still had Return of the Jedi PrestoMagix and Ewok kites for sale! So that became our afternoons and weekends that Summer: circle and map all promising garage sales in the San Antonio area, hit the two or three flea markets, check for old stock in out of the way toy stores and comic shops, and make road trips to Corpus Christi, Austin, Waco, even as far as Houston to attend the nascent Convention circuit, all to look for “old” toys.38At the time, these seemed ANCIENT to our young eyes, but the reality was that we were chasing merchandise that was at most a decade removed from stores, with the more recent items having been for sale while we were obliviously attending high school. After a brief period of time where we went into each location together then split up to compete for the same toys, we decided that it would make a lot more sense to separate our interests: I would collect superheroes, Chris would collect Star Wars.
And now, another digression: of all my friends that I’ve made over the years, Chris will always remain the one closest to me. In no small part because he’s the only one who I knew growing up that was equally excited and passionate about comics and toys and for the same reasons. To have that tether in high school was a wonderful thing. We would get unabashedly excited about finding new things old and new, always ready to explore a new city by first finding the comic shops. Over the years we were roommates four times39At his wedding, he leaned over and said to me, “I just can’t believe we’re not going to be roommates again.” While there’s always a chance in the future, 18 year later he’s still happily married with a great family, and I couldn’t be happier for him. and even when he wasn’t collecting it was great to never worry about what my roommate would think about coming home to a pile of toys and comics thrown around the living room. Ok, back to the story.
You have to realize, this was all pre-Internet as we know it. Sure, there were collectors online and on local BBS services, but for us, we were operating in the dark. Our memories couldn’t be fully trusted, there were no resources for what got made, and every time we found a new Mint In Package toy it was almost more exciting to just look at the cross-sell photos, either on the backs of figure cards or in tiny pamphlets included with boxed items, and these colorful print materials would shine a bit more light on the toys we had never heard of before. Dr. Fate! Mr. Miracle! Amanaman! Romba!! Those names (and many others) would become momentary grails as we searched through bins piled high with loose figures and answered ads for “children’s toys” in hopes of finding gold amongst the Barbies and Legos. There was no nostalgia industry back then, no articles about toys of our youth, no magazines dedicated to the pursuit of shiny things from the near past. So we treasured each new word-of-mouth building block in our toy history database. For every “My neighbor got a rocket-firing Boba Fett in the mail!” that we would hear we’d also find an odd gem of information like when we ran into a district Judge at a Corpus Christi doll show that was buying up all the loose superhero figures he could find in the dollar bins. “Why do you need six beat-up Green Lanterns?”, we asked him. He told us he repainted them as new characters to display in his comic shop. This kind of thing (“Custom figures?? That’s so cool!”) was what kept us going past the sheer nostalgia factor of it all. And our timing was impeccable; we weren’t the only neophyte collectors entering into the nascent world of toys. A whole generation of young adults was dawning that saw NEW toys as something to buy and cherish for their own sake, not out of nostalgia for their youth. It was a 6 am trip to Waco, Tx that started us on the path to purchasing brand-new action figures in stores and not just hunting down old ones. We had been collecting for around six months at that point and had seen a newspaper ad for a “Toys & Comics” show in Waco and we knew by that point that if you didn’t get there first you weren’t going to make the big score. Waco was over 2 hours north of our homes (the national speed limit was 55mph in those days) and for young folks such as us, waking up to get there first was a cruel and unusual hardship that we endured strictly due to the lure of finding a new grail. We even called ahead to the show organizer to verify that we would indeed have a shot at plastic riches. But when we arrived at the hotel that was mentioned in the ad the marquee mocked us with one lone message: “Welcome Power Boaters of America!” We sleepily made our way inside, slowly acknowledging the evidence that no toy show would be held here today (or at least not one worth our time). The organizer was set up on a folding table at the end of the entrance hall. When we inquired about the show that he had confirmed over the phone he just shook his head, “No toys. Cards.” And sure enough, tucked away in the corner were a couple of tables where trading card dealers were unloading stacks of assorted cards for the denizens of Waco to peruse.
Dejected, we left the hotel. However, we couldn’t bear to have driven all that way just to turn around empty handed. There must be some sort of toys to buy, somewhere in town. Now, this was on a Sunday in Texas in 1990. The Blue Laws had recently been partially repealed, but most stores in small towns would still be closed that morning. Toys R Us, on the other hand, would open at 10 am. We just had to bide our time at a Denny’s or driving around before we could get our hands on those riches. Now, you may ask yourself, why would we stay longer than it would take to drive back, just to shop at a chain that I actually worked for? Well, in those days not only did most department stores still have deep stockrooms, but they also didn’t turn over stock the way our modern inventory systems allow them to. There was a chance (not a good one, mind you) that a place like Waco might have toys that were five or more years old still hanging around, as we had made some good scores at Walmarts and 5&10 stores in towns in the middle of the countryside. It was not destined to be, though. The only thing awaiting us for all our trouble was the same brand-new toys that we could have found in San Antonio. And so, as to not leave empty-handed, we decided to go ahead and buy some new toys for the first time: Chris selected some random GI Joe figures and a vehicle and I decided on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, having owned a few issues of their comic when they debuted as a black & white Daredevil ripoff in 1986. They had since become kiddie friendly cartoons and as such were now making inroads into the toy arena in a big way. All of these random choices made on this trip changed collecting for both of us; by the time we landed back home I was now fully convinced that collecting Ninja Turtles was the way to go40Three years later I would sell all my Ninja Turtles figures to a little kid and his grandma for the $13 the kid had on him. I was never really that interested in them., while Chris was seeing the boondoggle of collecting for what it was, an overwhelming all-consuming obsession. It wouldn’t be long before he made the decision to stop collecting and “sell” me all his Star Wars toys for a nominal $15, with the proviso that he could get them back for the same amount once he was ready to resume collecting.41Spoiler: he never did resume collecting, but I sent him the entire vintage figures collection about 15 years later for his young daughters when I moved away from Los Angeles. They had been in storage for years by that point. So now I had new toys to collect and at least two vintage lines to keep going. Chris still occasionally accompanied me on toy runs for the vicarious thrill of it, or I might get a frantic phone call at any given moment from him (“I was just in the Circus World in Ingram Park Mall and overheard a kid saying that he found a Panda Kahn figure! They made a Panda Khan?!?”) but collecting from this point on would become more of a solitary pursuit for me, especially once I moved away from home. At the same time, the collecting universe was opening wide, with upstart companies like Toy Biz and Playmates targeting collectors specifically with lines such as X-Men and Star Trek, respectively, toy expos becoming more common42In Austin I regularly dealt with Harry Knowles for vintage toys, well before he would become infamous with Ain’t It Cool News, and magazines like Tomart’s and Wizard popping up to cater to collectors.
I was on the cusp of it all. While I can’t claim to be one of the first modern collectors, I was ahead of the wave of most of the mania that was coming in the 1990s and beyond. And in 1992 I discovered something that would put me at the forefront of the collecting world, at least for a while: I entered the Internet for the first time. But like the other pivotal moments in my life related above, it was a distinct chain of events that let me be somewhat ahead of the curve. In January 1992 I was going to college at the University of Texas and working for the Texas House of Representatives after class each day. I was still collecting comics, but solely out of inertia from having “complete” collections of many titles: Spider-Man, X-Men, Star Wars, etc. The curse of collecting a monthly comic is that it can NEVER be complete as there is a new issue every month to add. But fate was about to relieve me of that burden; one cold, January night I came home to my apartment after the Special Session had adjourned for the day43Normally, I left the Capitol around 6 pm every single day. But when the House is in session, no one leaves until they adjourn, which can often last late into the night. about 1 am in the morning. I was greeted by an unusual sight, water running down my front steps, water that was originating from the crack under my front door! I opened the door to find about four inches of water filling my entire apartment; a pipe had burst under the bathroom sink and had apparently been flowing all day. After slipping and falling in said water, then getting a shock from grabbing the non-grounded bathroom pipe that had a current running through it (did I mention that I lived in a very cheap establishment in a less than savory part of town?) I went door to door until I found the maintenance man and together we got the water turned off. What was now facing me was the ruin of nearly everything that touched the floor…including a number of longboxes containing the fruits of over ten years worth of comic collecting. Richie apparently had the right idea all along, as I did not bag any of my comics, leaving nearly all of them a soggy mess along the bottom edges. And while my 22-year-old self did feel momentary panic at this first personal disaster that is a rite of passage into adulthood, what followed soon after was a blessed wave of relief. I no longer had to make a decision to quit collecting comics, it was made for me. Never once did I entertain the thought of trying to rebuild that collection. Through the magic of insurance I received a windfall of around $14,000 for the whole collection44If the flood had happened a year later at the hight of the comic speculator market, but before the immediate crash, the value would have been nearly triple what I received! As is the comics were still readable enough that the insurance company let me donate them all to the Ronald McDonald house for sick kids, a total win-win in my book! and I used a lot of it to buy my first personal computer. Which was good timing, as shortly thereafter one of my professors idly asked at the end of class one day, “Does anyone want an email account?”
I didn’t even know anyone who used email at the time, but I jumped at the opportunity. He added us to his school account which came with access to the internet. At that point, the World Wide Web was still in its infancy and could be viewed as text-based browsing, mainly using a program called “Lynx” (for “links”, get it?) and searchable with tools like Archie, Jughead, and Gopher. I was instantly captivated by this new world, especially as I was directly linked to the internet and not constricted by a portal such as Prodigy or Compuserve. Email, USENET groups, and the nascent WWW all opened up a treasure trove of toy information and a collecting community that I was unaware of at the time. Even so, the best was yet to come, when in June 1993 the Mosaic browser was launched, creating the first graphic interface to the Web. I had just transferred to Texas Tech in Lubbock at the end of that Summer and being stuck in a small town with nothing to do was the perfect time to become immersed in the birth WWW as we know it. Between online exploration and the launch of the game Doom I rarely left my apartment outside of going to class or to work (Toys R Us, yet again!), except, of course, to hunt for toys.
What did toys mean to me, anyway, at that point? I had since acquired all the figures for the original Star Wars and Super Powers lines. It was no longer about nostalgia, but there was a very keen curiosity about the process of manufacturing toys themselves. I became ravenous to figure out everything about how they were made, and the history behind them. From Marx to Mego, from Kenner to MacFarlane, I learned about the people behind the toys, who sculpted what and what exactly went on in a Chinese factory. And the internet just broadened my already wide net of collectors, each one passing along a bit of information that would let me assemble the entire picture. But collecting toys became a means in itself, with no end in sight. And for a long while, that seemed preferable to a short-lived toyline. It was comics all over again. Yet, there was something about seeing a physical representation of characters that you love, all lined up together in one big colorful display. It could be as intoxicating as the best drug…and just as addictive.
Toy collecting was taking over my life by that point ( and my apartment ). And I’ll never forget when my life-changing epiphany hit me: I was sitting in a country buffet restaurant with my family in Fredricksburg, Tx as we visited my grandfather and I suddenly realized that there was so much information that I had gathered about toy lines over the previous years that wasn’t available. Why not just put it all online for free? Now, from the vantage point of 2018 this seems like a pretty basic thought, but in 1993 there were next to no toy resources. There were toy groups on USENET (rec.toys.misc, which would soon branch off to many offshoot groups) and a handful of targeted websites with scattered toy info. It goes without saying that Star Wars was already in good hands with guys like Gus Lopez. And Eric Myers had just started his first website (E3) that doled out general collecting advice, but there wasn’t much out there for Superhero toys. So after teaching myself HTML and dabbling in Microsoft Paint, I was ready to launch my first attempt at a website, loosely using a cartoon character I created in high school, Uncle Grim. It was basically just a page of links (as was much of the web at the time). But it didn’t take me long to follow it up with a series of archives that laid out as much information that I could about toylines that were dedicated to Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the centerpiece, Kenner Super Powers, the very first toy line that I had started collecting. I became the sole noted “expert” for the Super Powers line for many years, eventually breaking news of unproduced toys that the collecting public at large had never heard of45With gracious thanks to Jason Liebig and James Sawyer, among others, who trusted me enough to really do the due diligence in presenting this information., writing magazine articles, and in books about the toy lines for Marvel Comics, and even appearing in the special features of the Super Friends DVDs!
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Web took precedence in my life from that moment on, over school, relationships, work…everything except toy collecting, which fed it as sort of a Mobius loop. After graduating with a degree in Mass Communications I was hard pressed to find a career. I moved to Houston to work in Industrial video for the oil companies, but with an overall industry slump in the late 1990s some months I could only count on a couple of days of shooting. I worked on local commercials, Xmas specials for shock radio shocks, you name it. But the free time was welcome (if not profitable) as by that time I had merged my website with Eric Myers’ site to create Raving Toy Maniac, the first real online toy magazine that featured archives, news, collecting tips, humor, and much more. We were featured on CNN46Not to name-drop or anything, but over the years my work has also been featured by AdWeek, TheTodayShow.com, MSNBC.com, Huffington Post, PerezHilton.com, Business Insider, io9, /FILM, The Licensing Letter, Wired.com, Gizmodo, Fark, Geekologie, Digg, Boing-Boing, Cnet, G4, and the official Star Wars blog, among others (not to mention NRO *and* NPR!, we were the first website to get press credentials for the International Toy Fair, and we hosted the first toy panels at San Diego Comic Con. More than that, working on the site raised my profile enough that when a college buddy introduced me to his friend that made fast food toys, it played a huge part in being offered a job with his company, even though I had no practical experience designing toys. It didn’t take me long to excel, though; within a year of getting hired, I was living at a factory in China overseeing the creation of Life-Size Star Wars characters for Pepsi’s promotion of The Phantom Menace. It was astounding to me that less than a decade after beginning to collect toys that I was now working on merchandise for a new Star Wars movie, visiting Skywalker Ranch multiple times and working directly with Lucasfilm. To say it was a dream come true was an understatement47When I first started designing toys I naively told my CEO that the two things I really wanted were to visit Skywalker Ranch, as he had just come back from there, and to see toys being made in China. Within 4 months I was doing both many times over! Be careful what you wish for.
It was, however, very overwhelming and took all my focus. So much so that I stepped away from Raving Toy Maniac and much of the web, starting ToyOtter.com as a way to house my online content but not as a site that I would need to update more than once every year or so48In 2005 I co-founded Action Figure Insider with Daniel Pickett, but took a backseat after only five years as my “real job” became too intense to divide my creative energies anymore. Getting old sucks!. I never stopped collecting toys, though. Even as I moved to Los Angeles to design toys for Wendy’s for many years, the toy collection kept growing and growing. My original reasons for collecting, vintage Star Wars and Super Powers figures, had long since been completed but the collector boom brought with it an endless pantheon of new toys to collect every year. No longer were a handful of action figures released every Christmas season; now you had Comic Con and Toy Fair and multiple other conventions throughout the year to break the news of new toylines and also designer toys that catered to adults with a lot of disposable cash. Adults like me! And buy them I did. Thousands of them. And while I was not the biggest collector around BY FAR, I still found myself with boxes and boxes of toys piled up in my apartments, only displaying a few at a time as each month would bring more and more new toys. When I finally left L.A. to move back to Texas I used the opportunity to pack up a lot of toy lines like my vintage Star Wars collection and send them off to friends who now had kids that could play with them, as they were originally intended. My move back to Texas was inspired in large part by the desire to own a house for two reasons: to have a yard for dogs and to have a dedicated toy room. And I did!49My dogs kick ass! Best decision I ever made. I left the toy industry and moved into marketing and promotions ( still working on some big names in the bargain ), and put together a nice toy room that was literally wall-to-wall toys. And that’s how things have remained for the past ten years. Have a look at the toy room below. For the most part, I’ve kept toys out of the rest of the house.
Which brings us back to today. And the concept of inertia. I still consider myself lucky that my apartment flooded when it did in 1991, rescued from my comic collecting by fate50Just because I stopped being a comic collector does not mean I stopped being a comic reader, however. I still pick up the occasional trade book or reprints of classic stories I used to own.. A fate that indirectly led to my career, more than any overt influence that I asserted in any case. But no such “lucky break” has appeared to rescue me from the toy collecting that had dominated my life. Waaay at the beginning of this tale, I stated that in my mind I had always thought of my high school years as the period of my life that was “normal”, when I wasn’t collecting toys but instead pursuing many different interests. But looking back I see now that it was an aberration, and nearly 30 years have gone by without a toyless day among them. Sure, I’ve divested myself of large amounts of toys since moving back to Texas, mainly in the form of donations to homeless kids. Sure, I’ve rebought some of those donations out of momentary itches of nostalgia, only to pack them away again the minute that itch has been scratched. I’ve learned that having a toy room is a relatively meaningless endeavor if you’re the only person seeing it; my office at work slowly became my public showcase as I acquired ever more unique and colorful toys for the sole purpose of delighting visitors. Since leaving the toy industry, my personal painting and sculpting dwindled down to nothing, and my involvement in any online activities was long gone, having been supplanted as “the” expert over a decade earlier mainly from lack of participation on my part. For ten years toy collecting has become a long, grey slog. An exercise in inertia, punctuated by momentary excitement of something new that fades into routine. I look back at how the initial rush of collecting led to creating new memories and each new item led to more knowledge. But today, with the internet, the knowledge is already there for anyone with a phone. There is no longer a hunt or an exploration, there is only just shopping. And after 30 years, what is left to accomplish? Is it the acquiring that powers the enjoyment of collecting or is it the possession of a material item itself? I used to think it was the latter but in the past year, I’ve come around to thinking it’s the former. And possibly creating my own artworks might be even more fulfilling than buying someone else’s. That’s something I lost sight of at some point in my life.51One thing I’m not really touching on is the creation of custom action figures, which IS turning collecting into art, something I started doing early on but stopped until just recently. But it’s too deep a topic to cover in just a few sentences, so stay tuned!
And what of the opportunity cost that collecting withdraws? The constant pursuit of a collection takes time, especially when it’s never-ending. The participation in a support community for the hobby takes time as well, and when you factor social media into it it can become near all-consuming. If I had all this time back, could I be spending it in possibly a better way? How much of a collection is too much? And is there a point to having a collection if it never leaves your storage unit? These are questions that haunt me with greater frequency as I get older. Before, it was easy to divide my time between collecting, reading, painting, and school. But time is a more precious commodity now, and I’m not sure the trade-off is worth the cost any longer. I guess it comes down to one thing: WHY do I still collect toys? If the answer is just because I always have, then I’m not sure that it’s the right answer.
What I’ve come to realize over the past few years is that my collecting life is split up into two nearly equal parts: one, that nearly ALL my collecting memories are from the first half of the journey- all the people that I met, all the websites that I worked on, the big events, etc. all took place during those heady first 12 years or so when I was deep into the game. Probably the single biggest thing from the ENTIRE second half has been the connecting with great folks in the toy community through all the new and exciting social media channels. But I see very few of them in the real world, and many of them I met in real life much earlier. And two, for the whole first 15 years I was collecting toys I was always focused on the “big goal”: to have a dedicated toy room to house everything I had been dragging everywhere. I moved 16 times in 12 years, and my apartments had no choice but to house toys freaking everywhere, with most of them in boxes . My house now has very few toys that aren’t in the toy room, by design. Once I got my toy room, however…it lost its charm real quick. I live too far out from town to have many visitors and why have this room packed full of colorful goodness if not to show it off? I rarely have a reason to just walk in the room and stand there looking around. What ended up happening is that my work office became my de facto toy room and visitors were delighted by it. But once that went away a couple of years ago and those toys came back home, having the sheer AMOUNT of toys that 30 years of non-stop collecting brings just stopped making sense to me. It seems bizarre to me that I’ve now had my house and toy room for nearly as long as it was from when I started collecting to when I got the house! And to be honest, 30 years ago I never thought I’d still be collecting 30 years later because all the toy lines I liked at the time were small and finite.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love toys. But not “a” toy. It’s the thought of them, the process, the craftsmanship that goes into the manufacturing that still holds my interest. But the actual toys themselves? I’m not sure. I look back on these memories that I’ve written down and what stands out is that the excitement and the passion are all over those first ten years of collecting. The years that led to my career, and my friendships, and my legacy, such that it is, in the toy world. When I first started collecting toys, the collection was a finite thing: toys were produced maybe for 2-3 years and then the line would be canceled and the company would move on to the next new thing. But then something happened…WE happened. A whole generation of collectors, not kids, became the focus and from that point on you have so many toys that have NEVER had a break since: Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, etc. have all been relatively unbroken for 20 plus years. And the generations growing up now did not produce the same amount of collectors that Gen X did; I think it’s because my generation collected out of nostalgia, but it’s hard to be nostalgic for something that never goes away. And it’s hard to stop collecting a collection that never stops.
Or is it? A few months ago I wrote about how seeing a young YouTube star kind of woke me up from my mental stupor. I felt like I was seeing myself, age 16, and the passion I then had for creating. It woke me up enough to slowly start creating again for myself, not just for my job. And it’s not an exaggeration that I looked around and wondered why I had so many possessions that only I could see (having lost my office to an open floor plan recently, most of my toys were once again in boxes) and immediately packed away at least 1/2 of my toy room . I’ve always justified giving away large amounts of my collection and not putting it into storage with a variation of a classic riddle: “If I keep them sealed in boxes in my closet, and then give them away at some point, are they still not in my closet?” Meaning, if I’m not actively seeing them every day, but still have the memory of owning them…is that not the same thing? Lord knows I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of every toy I’ve ever owned. What else could I do with them? And I now ask myself this: do I still need to own these items? Is the fun in the collecting or is it in the possession? Do they, in fact, possess me and in doing so take up the time I could be spending on other pursuits? And without a natural disaster to let me off the hook, do I have the willpower to get rid of most (all?) of my toys? Life is giving me a natural deadline: I turn 50 years old next Summer. And having put all of my collecting history into words, I guess that’s the only question that remains:
Do I want to be a 50-year-old with a toy room?