Why did I spend a perfectly pleasant Sunday afternoon driving an hour across town to look at piles and piles of old toys, in a hotel ballroom? Why did I think it is okay to spend hundreds of dollars on children’s toys, on molded plastic for myself? I’m still not sure.
Until recently I had been searching for an action figure of South Park’s Cartman dressed as Awesom-o for over three years. I’d poke around in comic shops and infrequently check eBay, but it wasn’t only that I wanted this toy, I wanted it at the right price. The right price is roughly the original retail price (or less, if you’re fortunate). Paying more than that makes me feel stupid for participating in the speculation. Maybe the constraints add to the thrill of the hunt.
As a child I spent hours playing with GI Joe figures. I amassed a collection primarily to enhance my play. While we invented our own stories and adventures, we relied on the character sketches in the file cards and the background details from the comics. The different characters had different attributes and incorporating these attributes into our own play made our stories feel like they were part of the larger GI Joe universe. Although we watched the cartoon, we never incorporated it into our stories. Even as children we thought it was a lame approximation of the comic book, and not to be taken seriously.
I didn’t begin collecting action figures for the sake of collecting until the mid 90’s when Hasbro started producing its Power of the Force line, coinciding with the theatrical release of the Stars Wars Special Edition films. I picked up a few figures, mostly out of nostalgia for the hand-me-down originals I had spent hours bashing together before I was old enough for GI Joe. I opened these new Star Wars toys, played with them a little, before posing them on a shelf to collect dust. This initial dabbling quickly devolved into a mild obsession. I wanted them all.
In the era before eBay, determining a figure’s worth was a bit of a guessing game. Certain figures were impossible to find in retail stores like Toys R Us. In specialty shops those figures would much higher prices than the manufacturer suggested retail price. I spent months looking for a Princess Leia figure, only to see the occasional one behind glass in a comic shop, at roughly ten times more than the cost of a figure at Toys R Us. I finally found one for the retail price at a convenience store that sold no other toys. My hands were shaking as I paid, and gathered the bag from the merchant. I didn’t open the Leia figure. I thought it was worth much more than I had paid for. I thought it would be worth even more in time.
I kept up with the POTF line for a few years. In spite of the distinct Masters of the Universe style of the sculpting, the toys generally bore a strong resemblance to their onscreen likenesses. The complete-ist in me died when I couldn’t afford (or store) the large sized vehicles. As the line expanded with more tertiary characters, it was easier to be selective. Fortunately for my budget, Hasbro discontinued the POTF line in favor of newer liens with a slightly different scale. The new figures did not look right next to the old ones and my interested waned.
Before I stopped collecting POTF toys, two figures were released that I was desperate for: Slave Girl Lea and Darth Vader with Removable Helmet. These two figures both showed the increased sophistication of toy companies. They were clearly aimed at older collectors rather than children. Most children with limited budgets preferred a toy of a character they didn’t have, rather than getting a different version of Darth Vader (who they presumably had already), just because they could take this one’s helmet off. Slave Girl Leia was always more popular with older Star Wars fans than with children.
The illusions I once had that my collection might be a lucrative investment were shattered with the rise of eBay. The only 80’s toys that sold for high prices were the ones still in sealed in their original packaging. It was hard to foresee any of the toys produced for the retail market ever being worth much more than their original retail price. Over the past 15 years this has generally held true. The only toys that have appreciated significantly from their initial purchase prices were the ones produced in limited runs (convention exclusives, mail-aways, promotional figures…etc). Action figures were not an investment. Unless one intends to play with the toys or likes them posed on a shelf, there is no reason to collect them.
Like adherents to Alcoholics Anonymous, who remain alcoholics even when they have been sober for years, collectors will always have that impulse to accumulate, even if they have stopped actively collecting. Once a person sees value in pieces of molded plastic, it’s hard to change that thinking. Also, there are strong memories of the thrills of the hunt.
A couple years ago Hasbro began producing GI Joe figures in anticipation of a new movie. They release two 5 packs that sold so well, and so outpaced the company’s expectations, that Hasbro scaled up production. To date they have released approximately 200 different figures and assortment of small vehicles. Hasbro’s marketing for the line was simple and brilliant. They ran full page adds of images of their 1982 toys next to toys from the 25th Anniversary line (now the Modern Era). I was blown away. As much as I’d loved the original toys as a child, the new toys benefited from much more detailed sculpting. The new toys were also loaded with accessories. I purchased a few of them, but it wasn’t long before I was completely hooked.
eBay may be a perfect market if you live in the United States, but shipping costs and fluctuating exchange rates impose inefficiencies for Canadians (like me). To avoid some of these transaction costs I made a trip to the 80’s Toy Expo near the Toronto airport. It was disappointing to see so many loose toys being sold for so little. I still had a couple boxes from my own childhood in my parents’ basement, but it wouldn’t be worth the effort to sort the figures with their original accessories to list them on eBay. Also, the POTF Leia (now affectionately known as ‘Monkey Face’), the one I’d spent months hunting for was on display for $5, less than I’d paid it for year all those years ago.
The 80’s Toy Expo was great fun. I saw toys I never knew existed (a Voltron robot whose constituent parts were Cars!). There were lots of families in attendance, and many children were playing with their recent purchases in the hallways. The vendors were all excited to talk about their items on display, even when it was clear I had no intention of buying them. They all seemed to enjoy their businesses, even if their commercial aspirations were as modest as covering their gas costs. Shortly before leaving, while one vendor was showing off a prototype statue he’d purchased, I spotted a Mezco South Park toy out of place among his wares. Picking it up for a look, I discovered it was the Awesom-o figure I’d been after. For $20 it was mine. I’ve been quietly giddy about it since.
You can follow JMT’s obsession with action figures in real time on twitter: http://twitter.com/jayemtee, although lately a lot his updates have been about the NBA playoffs. Go figure.