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John's Action Figure Column 9/5/96


     Well, that's how one song puts it.  Another says, "I love
LA."  Let's just say I lean more toward the first sentiment. 
Heck, I don't even *like* LA.  I've traveled a fair amount in my
life, and with all due respect to those who deliberately choose
to live in or around El Pueblo de Nuestro Senora la Reina de los
Angeles del Rio Porciuncula, I have never had a swifter or deeper
negative reaction to a geographical location (and I've been there
several times).  I won't bore you with the particulars (at least
not this soon); I just find Los Angeles to be a place that not
even actors and producers should have to endure (though if
     But disaffection for the locale aside, I had no choice in
shuttling down there for a wedding last weekend (family
obligation, no two ways about it), opted thus to try to make the
best of a thoroughly distasteful situation and, being in Oz, or
at least a cheap, smoggy, asphalt-sprawled, racially
hyperstressed, muggy, self-absorbed, irony-free facsimile
thereof, resolved to see the Wizard.
     That Wizard, effectively speaking, and in my admittedly
ignorant estimation, would be personified by a retail toy
establishment whose catchy two-page advertisements grace the
interiors of pretty much every action figure-related magazine out
there with lots of hyperbolic enticements and cool color photos
of rare and exclusive toys.  Yes, I had an appointment with fate
in the form of Puzzle Zoo, what I thought surely must be the
emporium's emporium as far as action figures go (putting aside
for now the burning question of just how far action figures
*will* go...).

     So, Saturday, leaving my cranky, self-devouring family
behind, Tracey and I took off in our three-wheeled rental car
(well, it had a fourth wheel, it just didn't seem disposed to
retain air therein) for downtown Santa Monica, braving the
profusion of highways, byways, and "going my ways, dude?" that is
the heart, soul and bowels of L.A. (with an emphasis on the
     After a brief stop for gustatory and cultural fortification
at Frohman's Deli, we parked our motorized tricycle in one of
several parking structures (perhaps fittingly, the largest and
tallest buildings in the area) and walked toward Puzzle Zoo (yes,
you are not only allowed, but actually *encouraged* to use those
flat, five-toed extrusions at the ends of your legs to propel
yourself under your own power along the smooth cement blocks of
Santa Monica's Promenade; apparently it is a singular variance in
the otherwise mandatory policy of requiring citizens to be be-
vehicled at all times while in the city and county of Los

     And before we enter the hollowed halls of the Store that
Would Be Mecca (but for the fact that, alas, it just *isn't*), I
should add a bit of meteorological detail sufficient to properly
set the stage upon which I was soon to strut and fret (and sweat,
and sweat) my hour or two.  Though LA is usually warm and dry,
apparently there is an annual seasonal variation where warm gets
bumped up to downright hot, and dry is cycled all the way through
the moisture spectrum up to muggy-unto-drippy.  Shades of the
East Coast!  (And they're awful shades, by the way; ugly,
unappealing, dust-caked, and covered in an unsightly brown
fungus....).  It was just plain uncomfortable -- perfect schvitz
weather, as my grandpa would have said.
     So a-n-y-w-a-y, we stroll blithely into Puzzle Zoo, and the
first thing I notice is the *heat* -- *and* the humidity.  (And
don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise -- particularly once
you get used to the heavenly cool of San Francisco, it *is* the
heat that gets you, *and* the humidity).  Puzzle Zoo may be many
things, but air-conditioned is not one of them.  Now, given that
this unusually torpid weather is a relative rarity in greater LA
(greater than what, I'd ask, but frankly I'm afraid of what the
answer might be), I guess it doesn't make sense for them to go
the whole costly ac installation route.  But it does make
shopping on those few beastly days less than entirely pleasant.
     So it's hot.  And it's muggy.  And there we are in Puzzle
Zoo, *Puzzle* *Zoo*, fer chrissake, I mean, I've been drooling
over these folks' advertisements for nearly a *year*, and I look
around me to see...
     ...not a heckuva lot.

     Oh, don't get me wrong: it's a pretty big place.  And it is
chock-full of, well, oddly enough, puzzles.  And toys.  And
knickknacks.  And, it being a Saturday, lots of shoppers ambling
around staring at the puzzles, toys and knickknacks.  And, given
fears of the knickknack-noters nicking the knickknacks (which
could in fact lead to a paddywhack, but that's definitely another
story), a whole gaggle of Puzzle Zoo employees idling near the
front doors playing watchdog -- at least theoretically.
     So it was pretty crowded, the somewhat narrow aisles clogged
with patrons and patrols.  And edging our way past the entryway
into the store proper, we immediately and separately noticed two
things.  I spotted a modest display dump of Spawn 5 figures
marked by a small sign that read "Labor Day Special, all Spawn 5
figures $7.99," while Tracey targeted several locked display
cases containing various metal figurines.  High road, low road,
we resolved to meet back in a bit.
     The Spawn 5 display was very encouraging, not only because
of the price, but also because they had a profusion of ALL SIX
figures from the set, all readily available.  Well, I didn't need
any Spawn 5 figures (though I did have an auxiliary mission to
snag a Vandalizer for Jeff), so I nodded at this manifest and
satisfying availability and moved further in to locate the
presumably massive action figure section.
     Unfortunately, presumptions be damned, there *is* no massive
action figure section at Puzzle Zoo.  In fact, once you get past
the models, model kits, cars, toys, et cetera, you come upon one
slim aisle only half-filled with the plastic apples of our
collective eyes.  Wow -- what a tremendous...disappointment.
     Sure, it was only my unfairly heightened expectations that
led me astray, and in fact the selection was not bad, but in
terms of numbers alone Puzzle Zoo in fact had far fewer action
figures than your (very) average TRU.  To at least some extent,
however, what they did have was of greater interest.

     For instance, and to their credit, they had the single
largest display of Star Trek figures I've ever seen.  Not to say
it was huge, by any measure, but the fact that the section had
something on the order of 30 pegs, each with a different ST
figure, put them wayyyy over the top in terms of the competition. 
Any competition.  Good ol' Playmates -- even when they aren't
strangling the supply, they sure aren't meting it out with any
savvy.  But that's a gripe for another column (or not).
     And moving around and then up the aisle from the back (due
to a significant collector-clog), I saw a satisfying array of Toy
Biz figures -- satisfying in its eclecticism, that is.  Because
there was a nice rack of Fantastic Four figures representing most
if not all of the line.  And next to that, an array of X-figures
that made up in breadth what it lacked in depth, which is to say
there just weren't that many figures, but there were several
older X-figs that I haven't seen anywhere, even on Kaybee deep
dish discount.  Not that there was anything truly striking or
even desirable, but it was encouraging to see the historical
variety (though less encouraging to see the asking price of
$7.99, but hey, as John Caldwell once wrote in a cartoon about a
fella test-marketing new cliches, "you gotta take the lemon with
the meringue.")
     Shouldering my way down the nearly-blocked aisle, I finally
came upon the Spawn section.  And prominently displayed at the
center of the section was a sign reading "Spawn 6 Tiffany ONE per
customer."  Hey, cool!  All I need is one...
     ...alas, that sign was a base tease, a nasty lure with no
meat in its refrigerator of promise (hey, my regular metaphor guy
is out of town).  For, looking high and low (in terms of
expectations and then mood), I saw every other figure from Spawn
6, but no Tiffany.

     Well, to make a long story short, I went through two
uncooperative and basically outright lying employees who gave me
the classic TRU shuffle ("whatchaseeiswhatchagetIknownothingwegot
Cats..."), complete with bovine eye-glaze and slightly
contemptuous sneer, before I lucked upon a *very* nice and
knowledgeable employee, one Dave by name, who railed a moment at
the ineptitude (and possibly outright laziness) of several of his
co-workers before noting that he knew for a fact that they had
"100 cases of Spawn 6 in the warehouse a block away" and that he
would see that I got a Tiffany.
     Dave directed an employee behind the front counter to hie to
the warehouse and fetch a Tiffany for me, as well as several
others for the racks.  Well, the subject of his direction, who
was not a cashier but rather was ostensibly being paid to
entertain the cashiers who *were* working with his droll wit and
general contempt for authority in all forms, begged to differ. 
(Actually, it was more like he half-snarled, half-grunted, but he
definitely differed).  Dave was not pleased by this display of
childish petulance and general uncooperativeness, and hardened
his tone to make it clear that checking the warehouse for these
figures (from which the store stood to make a nice fat profit,
getting $11.99 for the other Spawn VI figures but $14.99 for the
Tiffanys, when they have them, that is) was not an elective
     Scowling, grudging, literally dragging his heels, the
slothful clerk moved away to comply, presumably preparing new
diatribes for dissemination to his cashier audience upon his

     Well, I only said I would *try* to make the story short. 
Twenty minutes later, I see the "checker" (ironic title, that) at
the back of the store, where he has resettled his little
impromptu soapbox/talk show enterprise.  Now I'm the one
scowling.  I walk back there, and remember, it's beastly hot and
uncomfortably humid, and Tracey is waiting patiently, her arms
full of pewter knights and ladies and painted metal soldiers,
glad to have scored some new items for her sand tray but starting
to get a wee bit impatient with my antics.
     So, a fine sweat misting my limbs, I find myself again at
the back of the store, where the humidity gathers and lurks in
ever-greater sumps of warmth and density, and I buttonhole the
clerk and ask him if he found the Tiffany.  He is a bit miffed
that I interrupt him in his smalltalk with a trio of just-post-
pubescent girls just as he nears a snide double-entendre punch
line; I outmiff him without even working up a, well, even more of
a sweat.
     "Uh, no, uh, I checked, yeah, and there aren't any.  I don't
know who's misleading you, but we got no Tiffany."
     Right.  I thanked him through clenched teeth and pushed my
way through the soggy wet clouds and up to the front.  Where I
informed Dave that he'd been "misleading" me.  As you might
expect, he did not react kindly to this report, went through a
major progression of frowns and imprecations, grabbed another
employee to stand post over the Spawn 5 figures, and told me
*he'd* get me a Tiffany from the warehouse.

     Another 20 minutes of lounging in the Puzzle Zoo sauna (at
least they don't charge extra for it) and Dave returned, dusty
and sweaty, and -- you guessed it -- empty-handed.  Well, amid a
flurry of very earnest apologies, he explained that he had
apparently miscalculated and that indeed, all the Tiffanys were
gone.  "But if you come back in two, maybe three days..."  Sorry,
I explained, I'm leaving town tomorrow.  Dave was conciliatory,
but made the mistake of suggesting I just go through their
"terrific" mail order division.  I explained that I did not wish
to buy all six figures just to get the Tiffany, nor did I relish
the prospect of paying large delivery charges when I could make
the delivery _myself_ at the moment.
     (For those who may not know, Puzzle Zoo charges
approximately four-to-five *times* USPS Priority Mail rates to
have a guy named "Lou" with an old Schwinn 3-speed banana-seat
bike pedal your figures to you via rural roads only; it takes
anywhere from eight to ten weeks, but your package gets extra-
loving treatment the whole time, and Lou does need to *eat*....)
     Nixing the mail order option, we paid for Tracey's figures
and left.  Frankly, I was depressed, and disappointed.  It wasn't
that I'd even wanted or needed to buy that much, but it really
let me down that the much-famed (or is that in-famed?) Puzzle Zoo
was little more than a conventional toy store when it came to
action figures.  Well, that's not entirely fair, but I didn't
need Spawn 5 figures, and don't collect Star Trek stuff, so in
effect it was true.  Plus, their "Shortpacks 'R' More" pricing
scheme was a letdown, particularly since we'd learned that the
Tiffanys were not shortpacked in the PZ cases (it must be a
"virtual shortpack" or something).  We consoled ourselves with a
soda in another heat-sink enterprise and then returned to the car
to make our way back to Malibu.

     It was only when we hit the street that I realized, in my
dejection, that I'd spaced on Jeff's Vandalizer.  Tracey was not
thrilled at my wanting to return, but we worked out a deal
whereby she'd circle the promenade *once* in the cool of the air-
conditioned car, giving me five minutes for a blitzkrieg strike
for the Vandalizer.
     Ironically, as we turned the corner for her to let me
debark, I looked up and saw...
     ...a gorgeous, brand-spanking new, flagship TRU.  Voices of
angels soaring on the soundtrack.  Oops, no, that's just me....
     I looked back inside and saw Tracey's eyes rolling to new
heights of suffering patience.  "Alright, *ten* minutes John,
then I'll be in front of the TRU...."  Bless her.  "Thanks, my
love, I'll see you in a sec --"  And with that I dashed off down
the street.
     Now, I gather that "el-a-liens" are not used to people
running.  As I flew by they kept looking down at my feet, as if
to say, "gee, wonder how he moves that quickly without roller
blades or a skateboard...."  A few looked like they considered
calling the authorities, but it being so damnably hot and humid
they must have decided it wasn't worth the effort.
     I dashed into PZ, grabbed a Vandalizer, paid, and dashed
out.  Then I shifted into sprint mode, rounded the corner, idled
at a light, then continued my dash across the street into the
lovely cool of the TRU (at least *somebody* decided it was worth
conditioning some air).
     I trembled in a slight panic when I realized it was a two-
floor TRU and I needed to *find* the action figure floor before I
could find the action figure aisle, then started moving again
when I applied Occam's Razor and remembered that chances were
good that whatever would take me furthest from the checkout lanes
and exit would lead me right to the figures.  Worked perfectly,
and a quick escalator ride later I found myself flailing about in
the action figure section.  Lots of Batman, X-figs, Beetleborgs,
Power Rangers, but no Spawn.

     Then I turned a corner on a small obscured section and saw a
rack of Spawn 5 figures.
     With a lone, lovely, unassuming Tiffany just hanging there
on the center peg.
     Sometimes, just sometimes, there is a toy god.
     The sweat cooling in icy pools on my back, I grabbed the
Tiffany (which, aside from a Super-Patriot, was bafflingly the
only Spawn 6 figure there) and raced down to the registers and
then outside.  As Tracey pulled up I started leaping up and down
like a maniac (no, to be fair, let's jettison the simile and be
honest:  I *was* a maniac), brandishing the TRU bag and grinning
from ear to ear.  Tracey's eyes resumed their full rolling
motion, but she unlocked the door and let me and Tiffany (and
Jeff's Vandalizer) inside.  Circuitously, laboriously, amidst
equal proportions of sweat and frustration, mission accomplished.
     And *that* was my steamy, tedious, disappointing Puzzle Zoo
experience.  Oh, if I were Puzzle Zoo I'd be pretty embarrassed
-- the utter ignominy of being shown up by, of all things in the
action figure universe, TRU.  Weep with shame, o Puzzle Zoo, thy
promise is unfulfilled....
     I did say somewhere above (far, far above) that if LA was
Oz, Puzzle Zoo would be its Wizard.  Well, that comparison was
all-too appropriate, because like the Wizard of Oz, what I
thought was a larger-than-life personification of magic and
wonder and power turned out to be a shabby little man behind a
cheap fluttering curtain.  Pay attention to those signs and
symbols, folks; they'll rarely steer you wrong.  Let you down,
sure, but only by way of the truth.
     But call it luck, call it toy karma, call it a fluke...I got
my Tiffany.
     And survived LA after all.

     Coming attractions:  "Superman, The Animated Series"
premieres Friday night September 6th!  For the occasion, next
week we'll take a long overdue look at the state of DC Comics
figures.  Be there, or be a Bizarro!  ("Me am not going to
entertain you; me make you hurt and cry and have good time....")
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

Comments? Drop me a line....
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