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More Than Meets The Wallet

Posted by: Lt. Clutch at 11:21 pm on Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sometime in the future, the surviving members of Generation X will be shooting the breeze at some futuristic retirement home, talking about all the cool TV shows, films, music, and junk food that the 1980’s delivered, much like their grandparents reminisced about Babe Ruth, John Wayne, and Glenn Miller. But what of the toys? Our generation will probably wax nostalgic about plastic playthings in ways no other age group has ever done before. When the Golden Age of action figures is discussed, everyone will remember how cool it was to grow up in the 80’s.

One for the team: Everybody Wang Chunged in those golden days of yore.

The year 1984 began excitedly enough for me, with a radical move from Anaheim, California to the equally sunny but much more humid sights of Miami, Florida. What didn’t make the jump was my toy collection. Most of it was stowed away in my grandma’s garage with the exception of my G.I. Joes. Our move resulting in my skipping a month or two of comic releases until I could hook up with a new comics shop (A&M Comics on Bird Road) and local toy haunts. I finished the second half of 5th grade in Miami, enough time to include a field trip to the city’s historic sites and to make a few friends along the way. I also met my cousins. That was cool because they were my age and into most of the same stuff I was. (Breakdancing, alas, wasn’t on my agenda.) Once I had settled in, my birthday came up and suddenly there were all these kids around me. Needless to say, things were less lonelier that year. Hasbro released their 1984 wave of G.I. Joe figures around then and I was quick to grab ’em. Not so quick though, to realize the perils of hanging out in uncharted territory: I lost Rip Cord’s rifle nearly as soon as I lost Chewbacca’s bowcaster back in ’79. Tall blades of grass and small accessories did not mix. Our backyard was pretty much a no man’s land as it had no fence and was quite expansive. Plus, there were frogs. Lots of ’em. My mom was scared to death of them and I didn’t exactly “dig ’em”. The Falcon Glider with Tan Grunt broke on its maiden flight, but the revamped JUMP with Silver Pads Grand Slam fared a lot better. My cousin’s own sandbox proved to be lethal as a Bantha after I lost an entire figure there – my ’83 Torpedo which I had only gotten the previous year. My cousin never found it, but then he was never much into Joes. His passion were the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons figures that LJN had released in 1983 as well.

My cousin went into graphic design not long after collecting these guys. No wonder.

The only AD&D figure I had gotten before our big move was Northlord, but my cousin couldn’t find him in stores for some reason. I remember him proposing a trade: My Northlord for a couple of cardboard weapons and shields he had created. No dice. I was actually sorry that I couldn’t help him when he contacted me later on after we left Miami. He was looking for the ultra rare second series, particularly a figure whose name I can’t remember, but possibly Grimsword or Hawkler. My cousin was the first kid I knew who owned a computer. He also introduced me to video games thanks to his Atari 2600. He owned a couple of Star Wars figures which didn’t get much love, a dog once bit off his Dengar’s feet. Not a pretty sight. In time, my cousin went on to design the Miami Yellow Pages and even worked with William Shatner. He’s led a pretty good life.

I spent around six months in Miami before our parents decided to pack everything up and road trip it to Chicago, of all places. Sunny Florida? Yeah. Sunny Illinois? Not quite so much. We didn’t know ANYONE there. It was all work based on my dad’s part. The trip itself was pretty impromptu. (Dad almost made me leave all of my Joes behind because our car was jam-packed. My mom snuck the Joes in somehow, bless her heart.) We drove up from Florida past Atlanta, Georgia and into the Smoky Mountains, then slept at a crappy Ramada motel in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (The bed sheets were stained and mom had to wash ’em in the tub. Dad and I made do by watching Trapper John, M.D. on TV.) After breakfast at a Kentucky McDonald’s we passed by Indianapolis and entered the Windy City. I would live there for the next five years. It was the first place I ever watched snow fall, which was ironic since I’d been born in New York City. During all this time, comics and toys remained in the back burner.

Transformers were the Lexus of toy collecting and a boon for knock-off manufacturers.

By sometime in 1984, Japan’s Takara and our own Hasbro sealed an enduring alliance and The Transformers first hit the shelves, comic racks, and airwaves. I was too busy adjusting to zero degree weather and thermal underwear to notice. I’m sure it was after enrolling in Catholic school. I met a kid there on the first day of 6th grade that collected toys. He invited me over to his house and there was this awesome display of open packaged Transformers (he kept them inside the boxes when not in use) with some hefty price tags on ’em. I knew I wasn’t in his league right away. It took a lot of money to collect Transformers in those days, especially if your family was just starting out in a strange new place. Our first day in the dark, dreary fourth floor apartment my parents rented in the Park Ridge neighborhood was really depressing. No furniture, including beds. No kitchen tables or seats. We sat on the floor and ate a lot of Chun King egg rolls and fried rice. No way was I gonna ask my parents to buy toys at that point. It took a year or so before I got Smokescreen. I loved all the sports cars, but I settled for Smokescreen because he looked really cool. My mom chipped in and got me Bumblebee and Perceptor (characters we both liked) soon after. In the meantime, all the kids at school were avidly watching the cartoon and reading the comic. By 1986, everyone was abuzz about the Movie. And then the other shoe dropped.

The most Messianistic figure in all of toy history.

When I asked the kid who collected Transformers about the movie, he said: “Well, Optimus Prime got killed and they said the S-word.” Wow. Now, THAT was hardcore. I don’t remember any of my classmates turning to the priests at our school for grief counseling, however. There was a boom in toy lines around the time and nobody knew what the next hot thing would turn out to be. I was invited to join a Sectaurs club which lasted all of one day before our first meeting and I didn’t even collect the line! Gobots were casually dismissed as a poor man’s Transformer. Thundercats, Silverhawks, Rambo, and a dozen other lines were set to dethrone G.I. Joe. As it turned out, the next hot thing for me turned out to be girls. A green-eyed blonde whom I worshiped like crazy, to be precise. This turned out to be a good thing for my friends, especially the Transformers collector who soon added all of my G.I. Joes to his ever-expanding collection for gratis.

Flint was rad, but Mike Zeck covers were no match for the fairer sex.

Oh, sure. There were mild relapses. A Dial-Tone here, a Lifeline there, even a couple of Star Wars figures on closeout for old times’ sake. (But no Power of the Force, as those gems slipped under my radar. Ugh!) In the end, even my comic long box went out the door to a kid who had moved in below us. I probably had Ultra Magnus and Galvatron from the Transformers’ post-movie era for around a couple of months before this same kid inherited them. By 1987  graduation time arrived and my happy little group split up forever, including the girl I adored. Rather than stay in Park Ridge, my parents moved into an underdeveloped suburb named Woodridge where you had to walk fifteen minutes through knee-deep snow in order to catch the school bus to nearby Downers Grove and walk even further just to get anywhere. On top of that,  a lot of bad stuff went down by year’s end, making 1987 the worst I’ve ever experienced. (And there have been some doozies!) A recovery process was required. One that included nice things, such as comic books and action figures. By 1988, I was back in the game. (So soon say you, my little grasshopper?) The comic rack at Jewel’s next to the milk and eggs aisle brought me up to speed on my reading. Toys “R” Us revived my interest in G.I. Joe, and to a lesser degree, the Transformers. I was also heavily into music, so cassette tapes and Rolling Stone magazine also vied for a piece of the action. High school was a drag, but I did met some nice people there. The teachers and staff at Downers Grove North were all exceptional. So we were now living in a nice house, feeding rabbits in our backyard, and letting our parakeets run loose out of their cages during the winter months. I set up my final boyhood diorama in a tree out back, a G.I. Joe arctic battle, of course. And I also got to experience something which made for a great story to close out the decade.

Twenty carded figures for a buck each? Yes, please. Thank you.

Remember Iberoamerica Market? It’s the little grocery store that my grandfather frequented until the day he died. A Cuban immigrant opened it sometime in the 60’s after moving to Anaheim, then sold it to a Galician named Adolfo who lived to be a centenarian and ran it with his sons for the next two decades. It has provided Hispanics in the area with ethnic food and ingredients that are hard to come by in the major supermarket chains, so they’ve always enjoyed a faithful clientele. After Adolfo, an Asian couple bought it and it chugged along until the guy died a couple of years ago. His widow considered selling it to another gent who wanted to turn it into a bar, but the deal fell through and the newest owner has actually improved the place while still selling the same goods as 40 years ago. Quite an accomplishment for a small business venture.

At one point during Adolfo’s era, a friend of his brought over toys from the store he worked at. The first I’d heard of the place was after it got flooded during the 70’s. The guy knew my grandparents. Guess where most of the unsold stock ended up? I was three or four years around then and vaguely remember the first haul but by 1988 the guy was back, this time with a new supply of goods he needed to unload. So I got this phone call from my aunt asking if I was looking for any Joes because the grocery store suddenly had a bunch in stock next to the cash register. And they were a buck each! That’s how I got back into Joes in 1988. I sent out a list to my aunt and she shipped back a box of figures. I remember Outback and Dr. Mindbender in particular, neither of which I’d found at retail in the Chicago area. It was the sweetest of gifts for me.

That’s also how I became interested in close-out merchandise. I once walked for hours through the warehouse district of downtown Chicago searching for an out-of-the-way Toys “R” Us that you could only reach by treading through Al Capone’s old vicinity. I found three Super Powers figures there in 1989: Flash, Martian Manhunter, and Cyclotron. Each was represented by their respective card back, to boot. Super Powers was another line that I never gave enough notice to in those years. Aside from a couple of faves like Green Lantern and Iron Man, I never tried to collect them in general, which is weird since I had waited so long for superhero figures earlier after Mego had folded. One time, I remember passing on Green Arrow, the next it was the legendary and highly coveted Cyborg. (*choke*)

One of the greatest figures ever. Currently worth a semester's costs at community college.

By 1989, I had turned seventeen and looking to find another way to live my life. Staying in the Chicago area wasn’t doing me any favors, so I finally moved back to Anaheim… twenty years after the summer of ’79, when my love for comics and toys began at the same place my grandpa lived his final days with me.

There’s something to be said for karma, you guys.

Coming soon: A look at the 1990’s and Generation X’s transition from kid to adult collectors.

The Transformers have seen more incarnations than BaskinRobbins has ice cream flavors. The best place to sort through their various universes and character variations is the Transformers Wiki.

For the absolute raddest Super Powers encyclopedia in cyberspace, check out Toy Otter’s Super Powers Archive.

Photos courtesy of these fine sites which I highly suggest you visit:

Amok Time

The Pop Culture Network

Final Frontier Toys

Comic Vine

Dallas Vintage Toys

And the wonders of Google Images.








About the Author: Lt. Clutch
A kid at heart who loves his hobbies. Going on five decades of collecting all things playable. My interests: Movies, comics, animation, toys, art, history, and music.




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