Diorama-Rama: Can Playtime Produce Art?

Action figures and other toys are evocative. They enlarge rather than constrain our imagination. They allow us to get our hands on the central myths and icons of our culture. They are sold to us with an implicit invitation to assume the role of author in a text. — University of Southern California Professor Henry Jenkins

It takes a certain level of fearlessness to do this. How do you tell a woman that you take pictures of your “army guys”. Not everyone has the self-assurance to pursue a medium that is perceived as a bit dorky or immature. – dancontrino, JoeDios.com

Wikipedia defines “diorama” as “a three-dimensional full-size or miniature model, sometimes enclosed in a glass showcase for a museum.” You’ve seen dioramas. Hell, you probably made one in elementary school; you most likely used a shoebox.There was even a Simpsons episode (“Lisa’s Rival”, from 1994) which revolved largely around Springfield Elementary’s diorama contest, Diorama-Rama.

But for a growing number of men (and a woman or three), a diorama (or “dio”) is a comic book whose panels are comprised of photographs of action figures. There is at least one website (JoeDios.com) devoted exclusively to the eccentric hobby of creating dios, and most any internet forum concerning itself with G.I. Joe will at least boast one sub-section dedicated to sharing and discussing fan-created dios.

It gets stranger, or at least more confusing. Peruse the comment threads at these forums and you’ll quickly discover that the term “dio” applies not just to photographic comic books, but also to any standalone photograph of an action figure. Bringing “diorama” back to some semblance of its original meaning, “dio” can even apply to custom-built playsets and backdrops for one’s action figures.

But it’s the stories that are compelling. Not the fan-made stories themselves, for while I admire their enthusiastic spirit, they’re amateurish affairs, filled with typos and bad grammar and off-putting PhotoShop effects. What’s intriguing is the simple existence of these stories.

Really, fan fiction is fascinating in and of itself. How curious, that people feel compelled to take the characters and settings of other writers and make them their own. This is to say nothing of the form’s various offshoots like erotic “slash” fiction, which has mutated from its original male-on-male, Kirk-bangs-Spock sex to embrace such disturbing phenomena as humping Pokemon.

Some authors, Anne Rice famously among them, do all they can to suppress works of fan fiction based on their properties. Others seem content to ignore it, so long as no attempt is made by the fan-author to benefit financially. It seems unlikely that anyone will make money from dio comics. They’re mostly poorly done, as I’ve noted before, and even if they eventually come to boast more consistent writing and production values, one has to assume that the potential audience for comic books starring action figures will always be small.

Ultimately, as little more than an extension of a hobby and something of a subgenre of fan fiction, dioramas have all the cultural relevance and mainstream appeal of your aunt’s scrapbook. But for all its clumsiness and lack of discipline, the dio is a uniquely pure medium, owing to the fact that it is arguably the lone creative medium owned by its fans; the only regularly published dio comic that could qualify as professional or corporate would be the Twisted Toyfare Theater feature (formerly Twisted Mego Theater) in Toyfare Magazine. And while Twisted Toyfare Theater is sporadically entertaining, it is produced for laughs and has never represented a serious effort to advance the craft of dios.

Perhaps this is as it should be. The more professional dio comics get… hell, the more competent they get, the more their creators risk having their quirky little medium co-opted. But perhaps there is little to fear in this threat; the dio may never become more polished or relevant, for the simple reason that the dio cannot evolve without a new generation of toy nerds to take over when the current crop of amateur storytellers moves on; kids today are nowhere near as enamored with action figures as were the children of the ’80s. A child today opts to become his favorite character not through toys or role-playing, but through video games.

Whether it lasts forever or fades into (deeper) obscurity, the dio is a medium with much potential and unprecedented creative freedom. In other words, with obscurity comes the freedom and courage to tell any story you want to tell. Dios may not be the most polished stories you’re likely to come across, but you can bet that every dio you read was written and photographed from no shadier a motive than the simple desire of its creator to tell a story. Put simply, you don’t photograph your G.I. Joes and type words into their speech balloons to impress others. (Save, perhaps, your fellow geeks.)

Clearly, then, where respect and creative success are concerned, dios are a far cry (so far) from such professional examples of fan fiction as Gregory Maguire’s Wicked or Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Neil Gaiman and Stephen King’s respective short stories starring Sherlock Holmes or Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But where on the creative spectrum do dios fall? When does playtime become something more?

Poe Ghostal’s Points of Articulation recently conducted an interview with University of Southern California Professor Henry Jenkins, author of Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Jenkins, who defines an action figure as “a physical embodiment of a character drawn from popular fiction which can function as a vehicle for playing out fantasies,” suggests that childhood play leads “towards the appropriation and remixing of media content as a way of expressing our own fantasies about the fictional universes that matter to us.”

Today’s television shows and movies seem designed to cater to this desire on the part of the audience to embrace the story and make it one’s own. TV in particular has changed from what it once was; as recently as the ’80s, most TV shows were episodic by nature. One episode was more or less similar to any other. Now continuity is the order of the day; every show is stuffed with cliffhangers, callbacks, and soap opera twists. To miss the latest episode of a favorite series is to lose one’s grasp on the latest developments in the series canon.

Odd, then, that G.I. Joe, more than any other property, inspires this unique breed of creativity called the dio. One sees the odd Star Wars or Transformers dio here and there, but fan-made dioramas are not an accepted, expected aspect of these properties, as they’ve become for G.I. Joe. What is it about the G.I. Joe characters and their plastic representations that inspire its fans to pose their toys, photograph them, and arrange the results as one would a series of illustrations on a comic book page? Why do G.I. Joe enthusiasts not simply write prose stories, like other fan fiction authors? Why take the time to include photographs and add speech bubbles and sound effects?

What makes this all odder still is that there has never been a truly winning G.I. Joe series in any medium. (This coming from a fan of 20 years.) From ‘toons to comics to the recent live-action movie, G.I. Joe has remained a largely silly universe with uneven integrity where its continuity is concerned. Watching or reading G.I. Joe, one seldom feels, as he might while watching Lost or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the desperate need to discover What Happens Next.

But therein lies the answer, perhaps. Professor Jenkins again, from the same interview:

One of my students — Geoff Long — talks about “negative capability” — the idea that works of fiction create loose ends which prick our imagination… parts of the story or the world which have been left for consumers to explore… spaces where we can add our own thinking to the unfolding of the larger franchise.

I suspect that most dio creators would balk at this suggestion. Their love of the G.I. Joe property is an earnest thing, as evidenced by the patriotic themes that tend to conquer the JoeDios website every 4 July. Joe fans will argue that Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe A Real American Hero comic book series in the ‘80s was nearly flawless, and that their fandom stems not from disappointment or dissatisfaction or any perceived narrative gaps, but from affection and nostalgia for the greatest toys ever created.

Still, Jenkins suggests that “fandom reflects a particular structure of desire — one which is as much about frustration over unfulfilled promises as it is about fascination with the material provided,” and for all their ostensible love of the Joe mythos, G.I. Joe fans tend to complain about every creative decision Hasbro makes; the live-action Rise of Cobra was admittedly a mediocre movie at best, but are the predictable cries of “You raped my childhood” truly warranted? Must Hasbro’s disappointing creative decisions be regarded as a personal affront?

At the end of the day, I can only speculate as to the creative motives of my fellow geeks; maybe they take photos and write dios because of some level of dissatisfaction with Hasbro’s storytelling, or maybe not. Ultimately, I am not even certain of my own motives; yes, while my tone here has been critical, I have created a number of my own dios, and I readily concede that my stories are at least as clumsy as the average. I have also struggled off and on for several years to produce a novel, and while the novel might strike the average person as a more relevant or noteworthy endeavor, it is also far more pretentious than my dios; again, when one creates a dio, he does it for himself.

Indeed, I’ll go further. In 2008, I submitted some outdoor photographs of my Sigma 6 action figures to the annual Spring Photo Contest hosted by Twin Falls, Idaho’s Times-News. The staff was so amused that they opted to interview me for the Sunday edition’s Lifestyles section. An interviewer, a photographer and a camerawoman followed me as I scaled the cliffs of the Snake River Canyon to photograph my beloved chunks of plastic, and while most of my commentary that day consisted of nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness musings on the nature of geekery, I did happen upon one personal and creative revelation: “This is the most punk-rock thing I’ve ever done.”