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Off Main: 1980s action figures have not lost their luster

Last modified: 6/4/2014 12:44:38 AM
It doesn’t matter the kind of action figure – Transformers, G.I. Joes, ThunderCats, Masters of the Universe – the children of the ’80s played with them. We fought imaginary battles. We waved tiny swords and guns around.

We then spent afternoons basking in the glow of those same characters, brought to life in terrible animated cartoon series. Yes, the shows were crass marketing vehicles for chunks of plastic. But they were still awesome. Also, rad.

A few years have passed, but I never forgot my toys. Now that I have a son of my own, I wanted to introduce him to a few action figures from my past. He’s 3, so we’re not imagining grand fantasy scenarios here. I just wanted to see what he thought. Would he enjoy the toys like I did? Or would he turn his back on them and try to find our iPad?

Getting the toys

The action figures I played with as a child have been lost to the mists of time (or, more precisely, the sludge of the landfill), so I hopped online to buy some old Masters of the Universe toys. He-Man and his awkwardly named friends and foes – Skeletor, Orko, Stratos, Hordak – were my favorites as a kid. They weren’t that expensive, either. The used, loose figures are generally less than five bucks apiece.

I was excited when the toys arrived in the mail. You might think that you outgrow them, but these were toys I hadn’t held for more than two decades. And they were great. Even the figures I hadn’t owned as a child seemed familiar (my mom exercised much more discretion in her purchases of the ’80s than I did with my recent buys).

My son enjoyed them, too. He didn’t have a cartoon series or TV ads to whet his appetite, but he appreciated the figure dressed like a bee and another figure who squirted water from his mouth. He enjoyed trying to cram the staffs and spears into the figures’ tiny plastic hands. He spent a few mornings setting them up and knocking them down.

It’s wonderful. And don’t all parents want to do some version of this? We want to pass on the stuff we love to the little people we love.

The connection made there is deep and real and profoundly silly.

The collector mindset

There’s a dark side to action-figure nostalgia, though. If you want to learn more about the toys, if you want to figure out what was released when, you end up in the world of collectors.

The folks who collect action figures and toys are obsessed. It’s not that they buy a lot of toys. It’s that they buy a lot of toys and then post lengthy rants about them online. They collect “mint on card” figures – toys that have never been opened. For original Masters of the Universe toys, that means figures that have sat inside their packaging for up to three decades. Some fans spend fortunes collecting.

I have a lot of the collector in me. I enjoy finding and picking up odd things. But I can’t embrace the hands-off, high-protection attitude. If I bought a bunch of toys, I want to share them with my son. I want to show them to people. I want to play with them.

I can’t help but think there’s a broader point here. We can try to keep ourselves “mint on card.” We can try to protect all of the important things in our lives from any sort of outside danger. We believe this will keep us safe and unharmed. And yet, when we’re protected like that, when the things we love are protected like that, nothing changes or grows. What we’re made of begins to fade and warp. We get dusty, sitting in a perfect plastic blister pack for years on end.

When we step outside of protective enclosure, sure, we can get banged around. We get scratched and lose bits of paint. But we experience the world in all its beauty and terror. We’re able to play, and we’re able to live.

We’re truly action figures.

(Clay Wirestone can be reached at cwirestone@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ClayWires.)


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