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John's Action Figure Column 7/25/96


     People frequently remind us that toys are not sold
exclusively at toy stores.  (Well, they remind *me*, anyway, now
that I've gotten a reputation among my friends as a wild,
unrepentant, toy-loving eccentric.)  In addition to various toy
and "super" stores, toys are often also found at drugstores,
convenience stores, knickknack huts, even shopping clubs (when
the contract eagles at TRU screw up and forget to rhumba with
hobnail boots across the provisions of the antitrust laws).  But
how many of you have found action figures at a *Denny's*
restaurant (and I use the term "restaurant" loosely).  Well, the
list starts here -- I have.
     No, it wasn't some kind of weird "McDonald's with table
service" movie tie-in giveaway; as I was waiting for breakfast at
a nearby Denny's last weekend, I found myself staring at the
"Crane-Grab" game-of-skill toy machine in the lobby.  Now, I
don't know about you, but when it comes to these carnival-type
games, I personally have all the skill of a demented platypus
(which, though I checked, was *not* represented among the prize
animals).  So I tend to look at these machines with a great
degree of skepticism as a quiet scam targeted toward little kids.
     In any event, after scanning half-heartedly with pre-coffee
grogginess through the various plush goodies (what else is there
to stare at in the lobby of a Denny's?), I saw something towards
the front of the case that caught my eye.  Leaning closer, I
narrowed my gaze and focused in.  Was that a POTF2 card?
     My word, it *was*!  I got up to improve the view, and found
myself staring at a carded Darth Vader, snuggled in amongst the
bunnies, bears, hippos and piggies (no, not the other customers 
-- the stuffed toys in the case).  How odd, I thought.  Was this
a mistake?  A little joke played by the folks who run the
Denny's?  I couldn't tell.  But as I thought about the figure,
ignominiously crammed in with a sardine-packed bunch of cute
widdle stuffins, I realized how close they'd come to a disaster.
     I mean, it was only a *Vader*.  Could you imagine if they'd
had the poor judgment (or cruel willfulness) to put a *Leia* in
there?  Especially two months ago, before the .11 cases started
showing up with additional Princesses in tow.  Or what if Denny
his-own-bad-self had gone completely mad and somehow put a
Tapestry Picard in the box?  A nightmarish vision filled my
still-fogged head...

     ...three men in Wolverine masks run into the air-conditioned
cool of the Denny's lobby and brandish what look like guns (but
in actuality are black-repainted super-soakers and phasers). 
They slam the door shut with great force to get an attentive
silence, and then begin shouting.  "Alright, everyone, this is a
stick-up!"  Terrified, patrons and staff cower under tables and
in the aisles.  The manager, trembling, steps forward with
surprising courage.  "Here are the k-k-keys to the r-r-r-
     "The hell with the register, lady, we want the keys to the
CRANE GAME machine!"
     "B-b-b-but we don't have those; the machine is administered
by our suppliers...."
     "Then everyone better stand back, 'cause we're gonna have to
blow her up!"  And the leader steps back a few paces toward the
counter.  "And while we're waiting, how about a coupla French
Slams to go?"
     "I'd rather have an American Slam, boss," says the younger
of the two accomplices.
     "Burger and fries for me, Dennis."
     "Dammit, Russell, I told you not to use real names!  I'm
'Tarchannen Geordi,' remember?"
     "Oh yeah, sorry....  Uh, Tarpaulin Geordi, can I get a
burger instead of a slam?"
     At that moment, the gelignite applied by the third barger
goes off, and an explosion rips the lobby door right off its
hinges, filling most of the restaurant with thick black smoke. 
Pushing through its acrid depths, the bargers rush in for the
plucking of their desired jewel, their cheap breakfasts (and
lunch) forgotten in anticipation of their frenzied gain...

     No, it was just too awful to contemplate.  I thanked the
stars that it was just a lonely Vader imprisoned in that
plexiglass case and averted my glance from a game that was just
one switched figure away from causing a mini-armageddon, just in
time to hear our name called for a table.
     And incidentally, shortly after we sat down, two gleeful
little children came running past our table -- with a green and
white stuffed pelican in their hands and ridiculously wide grins
on their faces.  So I guess those machines *aren't* just a scam.
     Which means I've got a few new stops on my toy run.  Sigh.
     Now if I only had the dexterity of a six-year-old....

     You have to wonder if the toy manufacturers are ever going
to wise up about thugs.  You know, henchmen, drones, "spear-
carriers" as they're known on the bardic boards, those lackluster
nameless warrior ants of the crime- and empire-building-worlds,
faithfully (if dim-wittedly) carrying out the schemes and orders
of their criminal masterminds while the guy with the colored
costume or Significant Disfigurement (TM) gets all the glory. 
Let's face it, many of the current toy lines include characters
with flunkies, you know, enforcer-type assistants, gang members,
military hit squads whose muscle and mindless adherence to a
villain's code support the would-be robber, or dominator, through
sick and sin.
     I'm talking of course about Stormtroopers, Werewolves,
penguin robots, etc.  All the "supporting characters" whose
background presence makes the whole foreground struggle
possible -- and believable.  Now, some action figure lines do
include these typically faceless heavies, but others (most
notably Batman) do not -- and their absence is sorely missed. 
And even the lines that *do* include the generic co-baddies tend
to limit their numbers considerably.  The manufacturers _just_
_don't_ _get_ _it_ -- *these* are the figures that ought to
appear in profusion!
     I know, the manufacturer's own in-house drones (typically
sporting titles like "Marketing Executive" and "Account Manager")
are perversely rooted to the idea that "kids like heroes."  You
only have to look at the shortpacking of the villains in most
lines to see the reflection of this.  I say, check your source
material, ad-drones:  what would the Joker be without his thugs? 
Or the Riddler?  Catwoman?  Or Darth Vader, for that matter -- do
you think this fallen Jedi could seek to rule the universe
*without* a couple million lackey Stormtroopers?  Could the Blood
Queen turn the tide without her army of Vampires?  Could the
Werewolf Nation meet that same army without hordes of its own
lycanthropic kind?

     And if the mousey market-eers were paying attention, they'd
realize that there's a *vast* untapped market of kids and
collectors who'd just *love* to stage large-scale battles with
their figures, if only they could get multiples of the damned
myrmidons!  No one needs multiple Darth Vaders!  No one really
needs seventeen Robins!  But a towering group of five or six
Werewolves going tooth-to-tooth with an equally imposing
collective of Vampires -- homina homina homina!  Just read the
comics, ye thugs-of-marketing.
     Or read, for heaven's sake -- there
is *definitely* a large group of people who'd *love* to be able
to buy a six-pack of "generic DC gunsels," suitable for use with
Two-Face, the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, etc., etc.  And you
don't have to delve too deeply into Star Wars fan pages to see
that multiple Stormtroopers (and multiples of multiples, and
their fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers) would sell like blast
shields come revolution time.
     If manufacturers still insist on missing the point, or
clinging to the wrong one (that kids just won't buy henchfigs),
then they should start to wake up and check out the 90s --
there's money to be made from micro-audiences:  make the darned
things available in multi-packs from a web site, *don't* charge
more (since generic thug figures can, and indeed *should* have
less paint and detail than your average hero figs), add on a
reasonable shipping or be honest and include whatever mark-up
honestly *as* a mark-up (like Puzzle Zoo is *really* paying UPS
$20 for a five dollar shipment, _right_) and watch the figures
fly.  Great item for collectors, terrific _gift_ item for kids,
     Except the way marketing departments at big companies are
structured, it'll never happen -- until some suited rump-lickin'
layabout has the wit to claim it for her own idea and realizes
she can ride her way up the slimy path to vice-presidency with
boffo sales on the things.  Once again, despite their own
problems, McFarlane Toys stands to blindside the market once
again with an aggressive, listening-to-fans approach to sales
(did you get that, Kenner?  It's called LISTENING TO YOUR FANS --
you don't see McToys whining that they can't make Sam & Twitch
because some rabid fan with a rented law degree will sue them
'cause it was his idea first -- ridiculous).

     As an aside, does it strike anyone else as odd that for all
their multifarious characters, Marvel Comics generally *don't*
have as many villains with generic cronies as DC does?  Oh, sure,
you can find a handful here or there, but for the most part (and
one must wonder whether this was intentional, a part of the
"Marvel style," or merely coincidental) Marvel Comics just don't
have villains with nameless, faceless human henchpersons.
     Oh, sure, Spider-Man and Daredevil fought the Kingpin's
hordes, the X-Men had to contend with the Hellfire club's masked
foot soldiers, and of *course* Cap'n America and Nick Fury went
toe to toe on a regular basis with Hydra and A.I.M. (either of
which would be the absolute ULTIMATE in generic figures by the
way, are you getting this Toy Biz?) but for every one of those
rent-a-thugs Marvel had "colorful," individualized villain
gangs -- I think of the Zodiac, various and sundry Siblinghoods
of Evil, Sinister Sixes, Inhumans, etc.  Oh, DC had a few
descript gangs, too; and, to be sure, Marvel had plenty of non-
human drones -- the Leader's rubbermen, the Mole Man's hordes
(one of which Toy Biz actually did make, yay, Toy Biz!), the
Sentinels (another point for Toy Biz), the High Evolutionary's
New Men, etc.
     Hmmm, so, all in all, I guess Marvel *does* have their own
brand of supporting cast figures -- so let's see 'em all!  And
not just the Marvels from Toy Biz -- when I say all, I mean from
*all* the manufacturers.  I want flunkies in droves!  Gangs! 
Crowds!  Hordes!  Squadrons!  Hives!  Swarms!  Battalions! 
Armies!  Multitudes!  Inundate me with a population of plastic
hit men, drown me with drones by the dozens, bury me under a bald
mountain of evil, white-armored imperial marines!  More, more,
more, bring 'em on, bring 'em *all* ON!

     Those of us wise or lucky enough to live in Northern
California's Bay Area write frequently about the prevalence of
scalpers in the often-less-than-bountiful local toy fields. 
Well, to be fair, I think it's safe to say that there are also
one heckuva lot of *collectors* in them thar hills, too.  But
that's not entirely a bad thing -- because it meant that when a
certain doughty Hosteler of Berkeleyshire sent out the call for a
festive toy lover's gathering, no less than five other good sirs
knight answered.  And even if one succumbed to the diverting
temptations of an enchantress on the way, four blustered through
hydra-headed adversities of work, traffic, heat, frost and fog to
make the scene.  (And if you think it's odd to find heat, frost
and fog all in the same locality, you've never spent a summer in
and around San Francisco -- where the forecast this morning ended
with the line, "...with temperatures ranging from the high 50s to
the low 90s across the region.")
     Thus, last Monday marked the first gathering of Northern
California's "Bay Area Action Figure Roundtable and Toy Trading
Circle" (don't blame any of the others -- the working title is
all my fault, and yes, I'm wracking my brain for improvements. 
Of the _title_, wise guy!).  Yes, Virginia, there are *lots* of
friendly toy collectors out there -- and I met four of them a few
days past at a wonderful evening barbecue just outside of San
Francisco, great guys all.  We schmoozed, did a little eating,
did a little trading, and spent a heckuva lot of time laughing
ourselves silly at the vicissitudes of our collective hobby.
     You know, you get that many figure collectors together and
some amazing things start to happen.  Aside from occasional
cracks about our resembling a tupperware party (so we each
brought a figure or two for trades, so what?  You wanna make
something of it?), we not only regaled one another with tales of
triumph -- and woe -- but also came up with a few foolproof anti-
scalper schemes that were so promising and satisfying as to,
well, I don't want to tip our group hand with any premature
revelations, but I will divulge the one plan we abandoned for the
present out of sympathy (for bystanders):  the booby-trapped
1,701 UPC bar code.  Explosives hidden under the stickers are
triggered when scanned; if the bubbles are not opened within 24
hours, KABOOM!  "One tin scalper blown away...."
     Just the tip of the iceberg, my friends, just the tip of the

     Hey, I know:  we all gather on a given day, all of us, mini-
gatherings in cities across the world, then we all log on to the
IRC and conduct a monster global 1:1 trade-a-thon!  Vrrrrooooom! 
"Nitro-burning funny modems, see them shake hands with the Devil
as they trade through the Gates of Hell...."
     That'd put a crimp in the scalpers' day, you betcha!
     Anyway, the moral of the story is, if any of you have fellow
collectors within a reasonable distance and have hesitated to
consummate budding friendships in-person, I cannot recommend it
enough.  Not only was the experience enormously fun (and even
more enormously validating), I got to see our host's estimable
figure collection, meet fellow rtaf-ers I'd only known by repute,
had a truly terrific time, and ended up making a totally cool
impromptu trade for a snazzy bootleg Wolverine figure (who looks
much better out of the bubble than in, by the way).
     Action figure collectors of the world, unite!  You have
nothing to lose but your solitude!
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

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