“Nobody understands except the toys in my hands…
Give me! I need my toys!”
—Faith No More, “Zombie Eaters”
“All my toys are broken.
And so am I inside, Mom…
I’m a little boy
No, I’m a great big man.
No, let’s be a little boy
For a little while longer?
Maybe an hour?”
—Alice Cooper, “Years Ago”
Back in eighth grade, I’d spend my weekends dropping acid with a friend who went by the name of Poptart. Weekday afternoons, however, were devoted to the solitary art of crafting elaborate stories for my legions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. It was only later that I came to recognize that while anything with a name as unlikely and unwieldy as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was arguably created by LSD enthusiasts and with fellow LSD enthusiasts in mind, I’d clearly been either much too young for drugs or much too old for toys or, most likely, both. This autobiographical anecdote fascinates me today because it marks me not as a singularly unique member of my generation, but rather as an utterly typical representative of my generation. Raised during a time of unprecedented prosperity and self-indulgence and exposed to too much, too early, by a cynical pop culture, Generation X grew up too soon… and never grew up at all.
A follow-up G.I. Joe photo ruined by the author’s daughter Maitea, who has little regard for her father’s craft.
Of course, the label “Generation X” is nearly as ambiguous and open to interpretation as “punk rock” or “feminism”. For my part, I have been included in the ranks of Generation X and then expelled and then invited back again with each new definition I’ve sought. So that we can agree to our terms, I’ll defer to the reasoned consideration of my research assistant, whose own definitions, appropriately enough, are constantly challenged and revised. Wikipedia has this to say: “The exact demographic boundaries of Generation X are not well defined: people born between 1963 and 1978 are generally considered ‘Generation X’, while others use the term to describe anyone who was in their 20s sometime during the ‘90s. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, Generation X includes anyone born from 1961 to 1981.”
One day, in that same time period during which I was alternating between hallucinogens and Ninja Turtles (I eventually outgrew the former), my friend and fellow Gen-Xer Deven Seymour and I were flipping through Hit Parader or Circus or Rip or one of the other dozens of mostly interchangeable hard rock magazines of the day, when suddenly we came across a photo of Faith No More’s lead vocalist, Mike Patton. It’s difficult to explain the intensity of the surprise and amusement with which Deven and I responded to the photo, for Patton’s pose was static and rather unremarkable. What took us aback was simply this: Mike Patton was wearing a Looney Tunes T-shirt. Here was a singer who considered it good sport to accost VJs on MTV and flop around like a dying fish on stage, who’d penned such improbable lyrics as “I’d kill my mother to be with you” and “Hug me and kiss me, then wipe my butt and piss me,” and yet for our money nothing matched the casual, cheerful subversion of that silly shirt.
Today, toys decorate cubicles in offices across America, adult T-shirts featuring such cartoon characters as Tazmanian Devil and Care Bears are commonplace, and full-grown men and women flock to internet chatrooms to debate every last thematic nuance of cartoons that are ostensibly produced for children. But it was not always so. Twenty years ago, when our love of heavy metal wasn’t yet ironic, and when lesbians could still be expected to elicit a homophobic response because they had yet to become a fetish item for dimwitted jocks and teenage boys, it was simply not socially acceptable for an adult to profess his or her love for children’s cartoons or toys.
Some might argue that this remains the case, but while toy collectors might still be commonly dismissed as hopeless geeks (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, anyone?), they are also generally accepted as little more than quirky, harmless eccentrics. Smug chuckles or snide comments aside, few citizens are legitimately bothered by grown people who pursue such geeky hobbies, and yet as recently as the early ‘90s, when Deven and I sat in my bedroom staring at a startling photo in an otherwise forgettable magazine, such interests were simply not pursued, or at least not publicly. When Mike Patton had flopped like a fish or screamed “Surprise! You’re dead!” or sang the Nestle commercial jingle in concert, I cheered readily enough but privately dismissed his antics as contrived bids for anarchic relevancy. When he sported that Looney Tunes T-shirt, however, I said to myself, “That dude’s crazy.”
One of my favorite moments from Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity is when Dick (Todd Louiso) regards a weary, wild-eyed Rob (John Cusack), who sits surrounded by chaotic stacks of LPs, and cautiously asks him by what criteria he’d organized his collection this time (“Um, what is this, uh, chronological…? Not alphabetical…?”). With the pride of someone who has undertaken a heroic and important chore, Rob responds with one word: “Autobiographical.” Likewise, many toy collectors amass their plastic trinkets in an effort to compile something of a three-dimensional, pop cultural autobiography. Perhaps this strikes you as a shallow means by which to recount one’s life story, but spend an hour perusing any of the internet’s countless social networking sites and you’ll quickly be struck by just how many people seem content to define themselves by the films and TV shows they enjoy. Toy nuts just take this tendency a bit further, seeking and hoarding pop cultural totems and arranging them into an autobiographical spectacle on their fireplace mantle or desktop or, as is increasingly commonly the case, on shelves custom-built for the inordinately tender and loving exhibition of one’s toys.
My fourth grade year is represented by G.I. Joe figures, posed alongside Simpsons characters who symbolize my high school and college years more succinctly than concert ticket stubs, photos or even journal entries could ever do. I recognize Transformers today as nothing more than a poorly-animated extended commercial designed to sell cheap toys to impressionable kids, but when I was 10-years-old, I found a deeper meaning in their implausible adventures, and as an icon from those innocent and magical times, my Optimus Prime toy has even deeper meaning for me today than he did in 1987. He has earned his place on my sacred, silly shelf, just like Batman and Buffy and the Iron Giant, ‘cause while they’re all just licensed characters owned by uncaring corporations, I’ve claimed them as my own, and they are each an important part of who I am.
Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon with Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern toys.
Whatever his or her emotional or intellectual justifications for surrendering to toy lust, a collector’s hobby can take many paths. There are The Speculators, those lonely but driven souls who camp out at Toys R Us and even Target and Wal-Mart, following employees inside at daybreak in order to procure the rarest and most sought-after toys, not out of admiration for the toys or the characters they represent (and certainly not to actually play with them), but rather to sell them for ridiculously inflated prices on eBay. I’ve long regarded this lot as the enemy, and I make it a point to stalk the toy aisles in order to subtly crease the cardboard packaging of any toy they’re likely to purchase for their nefarious gains.
But among the more honest, earnest, geeky breed, of which I myself am a proud member, there are divisions along such preferential lines as articulation versus sculpt (or play versus display; do you require your plastic chunk of Kurt Cobain or Charisma Carpenter to look exactly like the real deal, or is it more important to you that the toy be flexible enough to accommodate your desire to pose it in comical, compromising positions?), nostalgia versus art (do you seek to rekindle childhood memories, or simply yearn for something cool to place on your shelf?), and completist versus casual (do you need to possess each minute variation of every goddamn figure in a given line, or are you content to pick and choose favorites from any toyline you might stumble across?).
Finally, there is the line separating fans of traditional properties like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe or My Little Pony from the new breed of toy fan, who might purchase and proudly display anything from a Hannibal Lecter figure or a Scarface doll to any of the dozens of action figures based on real-life porn stars.
Coincidentally, I went to college with a guy who I realize only now was something of a visionary: his sole motivation in life, by his own admission, was to indulge in his dual passions of G.I. Joe and pornography. His unabashed explanation: “It’s all about my childhood.” I felt this was an inadequate account for the pornography, but perhaps his childhood was simply more troubled than mine. And I wonder whether these unsettling hints at a psychological connection between toy collectors and porn aficionados might stem from some mysterious mental or emotional deficiency that results from having lived a spoon-fed, overprotected life?
At any rate, college was nearly a decade ago, and I’m still trying to reconcile my own lingering passion for G.I. Joe, Marshall Bravestarr, Bionic Six and the other strange artifacts of my childhood with my desire to move forward beyond the goofy material trappings of my early years. I feel a slight burst of nostalgia whenever I pose my G.I. Joe figures, but I am also a bit unsettled by those who cling to childhood relics with a passion, intensity, or desperation that dwarfs my own. Tim Burton reported to Mark Salisbury in their interview series Burton On Burton that he’d been wary of comic book fans ever since he saw Richard Donner engage in a Q&A session with convention attendees before the release of the first Superman film; at some point during the proceedings, an irate fan stood and loudly announced his intention to boycott the film strictly because the filmmakers had failed to include a scene wherein Clark Kent changes into his Superman costume in a phone booth.
Closer to home, for me, is the striking case of the sometimes frighteningly enthusiastic men and women of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Action Figure Forum, fierce activists who a few years ago began a series of frantic campaigns to protest the cancellation of their beloved action figure series. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these indignant voices had ever protested a case of legitimate injustice. And yet for all my condescension, I only knew about their histrionic protests because I, too, was incensed at the imminent cancellation of the Buffy toys. And like a petulant poseur who skips the anti-war rally and consoles himself with a subscription to Adbusters, I dismissed each “Save the Buffy Toys!” campaigner as a self-important geek before conveniently forgetting my smug superiority just long enough to submit a poem about Spike the vampire to the forum’s “Bloody Awful Poetry” contest. I won, too.
My prize was a toy.