Excuse me, not “toys” — “action figures.” You know, the little chunks of plastic molded into the shape of things like Spider-Man or Darth Vader.
Maybe I’m not the most objective person to ask, since I’ve been collecting action figures since I was a baby. Don’t believe me?
There’s photographic evidence: Christmas 1983. Me, as a 6-month-old clutching prized yet admittedly age-inappropriate “Masters of the Universe” toys of characters like He-Man and Skeletor. Despite getting older and ostensibly more mature, I still scour Targets, Wal-Marts and various smaller hobbytype stores in a 50-or-so mile radius of my house, searching for new Transformers or comic book figures as if I were hunting for the treasure of the Sierra Madre. I’m not alone.
Jason Williams, 28, of Scottsdale, is a well-adjusted guy. He’s married and works as an e-learning trainer at the Phoenix-based Western International University. But that doesn’t stop him from collecting action figures — not for potential financial gain, but just because he likes them.
“I buy mostly a lot of the horror movie stuff that comes out,” says Williams, referring to lines like the NECA Cult Classics, which include figures of film characters like Jason Voorhies from “Friday the 13th.”
A comic book fan, Williams says, “I get some comic stuff, too,” but only what he refers to as “the good stuff” — high-end products like DC Comics’ “DC Direct” series, which can mainly be found at comic book stores and set you back $15 to $20 a figure.
Although Williams (who has been collecting figures since childhood) still keeps up with his hobby, a wake-up call while searching for “Star Wars” toys a few years ago caused him to cut back on his furor.
“I was at the toy store one day, and a new batch had just come out, and I was getting as many as I could, and I saw another guy doing the same exact thing and it was a really weird moment of like, seeing yourself in a fun-house mirror,” Williams says of the sobering experience.
“That was kind of the moment where I was like, ‘OK, maybe I need to back off a bit.’ At the time I was in college, and all my disposable income was going to that.”
Williams, who says his wife is totally accepting of his hobby and even has a few toys of her own, realizes that it isn’t exactly the hippest thing in the world for a man his age to be doing.
“Co-workers definitely think it’s a bit nerdy — it is a bit nerdy,” he says. Still, Williams cites a simple lack of space in his apartment as the main thing slowing the pace of his collecting.
He also wants to make sure that people know he’s buying these figures because they’re cool, not because he’s taking them in the tub to play pretend.
“I stopped playing with them at a point, but I never stopped buying them.”
Not everyone collects action figures just to put them on a shelf. Some, like Great Barrington, Mass.-based artist Jarvis Rockwell, have found a perhaps nobler use for them — putting them on display at museums.
Starting this week, his “Maya II” will be on display in the atrium of the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It is, as the name suggests, a sequel to “Maya,” an installation he did at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2001. Inspired by a 1996 trip to India, Rockwell made a modern version of what he saw there: pyramids and temples featuring rows of sculptural depictions of deities. He envisioned action figures as the current equivalent, and had a head start — a collection with tens of thousands of pieces.
“My father died, and the money started to flow a little bit,” says Rockwell, the son of famed Americana painter Norman Rockwell, of the origins of his collection. “I didn’t even think about it that much. I just started buying toys.
“I ended up with four rooms and two large closets full.”
In typical artist fashion, Rockwell, 75, is vague as to exactly why he started this mass accumulation, other than it was in 1979 and began with figures from the original “Battlestar Galactica” series.
“I was just fascinated with them; I didn’t even necessarily know why I was at first,” he says.
It’s worth noting that Rockwell’s collection and the “Maya” installations aren’t the kind of old-time toys you might expect given his father’s Saturday Evening Post magazine cover pedigree. He’s still buying the toys, and doesn’t discriminate between toys meant for children and those for older collectors; he gets them all.
Anyone who helped construct the “Maya II” saw that. The exhibit, which also has scenes and dioramas of figures staged by Rockwell, was constructed with the help of volunteers who assembled the pyramid.
“I just set them out on the table, and I want everyone to know that we’re all working together,” he says.
As you might expect, Rockwell sees a higher purpose in what are commonly regarded as playthings.
“I think action figures are just a way of expressing ourselves,” he says. “I think we’re very lonely trying to be so perfect and wonderful, and make so much money, and be so superior, I think we need other little figures that represent us that we can almost talk to.”
Sure, some people make money from toys, keeping them in their packages and selling them on eBay for a marked-up price. But very few people are really, you know, making money from toys.
Todd McFarlane is one.
The 45-year-old Ahwatukee Foothills resident was already a successful comic book artist and writer when he started Tempebased McFarlane Toys in 1994. But the toy company, which produced figures with greater detail and effectively raised the bar for the industry, transformed him into a mogul who could afford to famously pay millions of dollars for historic home-run baseballs.
But he’s also still a fan who understands why adults like him are hooked on toys.
“We can say to the real world, well, it’s going to be worth money some day,” he says. “That’s our easy out. We just say that to get past the scrutiny of it.”
He challenges the notion that an adult collecting action figures must be developmentally arrested, socially awkward or some combination of the two.
“I know that people who don’t collect this stuff, they sort of see a geek mentality,” says McFarlane. “I don’t think that’s true. I think the stuff that we collect is the equivalent of wearing a baseball cap or a T-shirt with our favorite team’s logo on it, or band or something like that.”
His company does indeed offer folks lots of things they might like — McFarlane Toys has done action figures of movie characters from “Napoleon Dynamite” to “Shaft,” music legends including Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin, nearly every current major sports star and is releasing figures based on ABC’s hit “Lost” this month.
“The stuff that we collect isn’t necessarily that we want to sit around and play with it and re-create scenes and be a little 5-year-old,” McFarlane says. “I think that’s what society thinks we’re doing.”
McFarlane, often animated in conversation, puts on an impromptu one-man show while detailing his thoughts on why things from childhood — like action figures — can still hold a strong appeal later in life.
“The average person that thinks we’re geeks can understand this: ‘Why are you a Cubs fan?’
‘When I was 8, I watched a game, it was the first game I ever went to.’ ‘So how old are you?’ ‘I’m 38.’ ‘And you’re still a Cubs fan?’ ‘Yeah.’ So why can’t a kid go see ‘Star Wars’ when he was 8 and 30 years later still like ‘Star Wars?’ ”
There’s a lot of places to find action figures these days — grocery stores, big-box discount retailers, mall stores like Suncoast or Hot Topic. But the discriminating toy fan might want to make a trip out to Toy Anxiety in Phoenix, a store that specializes in action figures, many of which will never make it to more mainstream retailers, both new and old.
Store manager Dan Summers says the clientele is more diverse than you might expect.
“We have a lot of kids coming in these days,” he says. “It’s anywhere from 4 or 5 years old to 67 years old.”
The store, which has been in the Valley for 14 years, carries a variety of products but has always specialized in “Star Wars” merchandise (its old name was “Empire of Toys”), and Summers targets that as one of the reasons for the younger crowd trickling in.
“There’s definitely more kids and families than we’ve had in the past, and probably that’s improved over the last two or three years,” he says.
“Most of the time it’s kids who are interested in ‘Star Wars’; they were at the right age to enjoy the prequels.”
Summers says that most of his customers are there because they want the toy for what it is, not because it might appreciate in value over time.
“I don’t know if there’s as many people investing, buying figures now that are going to be worth something in the future,” he says. “A ‘Star Wars’ figure that came out in 1997 that’s worth $500, that’s never going to happen again, generally, because there’s so much more produced.”
Also, at that time, a resale market didn’t really exist for toys, and almost all of them were taken out of their packages to be used and abused. Ironically, the large number of savvy collectors may actually be driving down prices of their purchases.
Summer says that figures have changed greatly over the years, essentially “growing with” the collector.
“The detail in the sculpts and the articulations have drastically improved,” he says, while adding, “I think that helps, but I don’t think that a lot of people would necessarily stop if they weren’t as good as they are.”