<%@ Language=VBScript %> Keepgoing.org - Winter 2001 - Who Dies with the Most Toys Part 1 of 3
The Farm

Who Dies with the Most Toys…
Part 1 of 3

By Steve Spaulding

Disclaimer: the following is a work of fiction inspired by real people, places, and events. Star Trek and Captain Jean-Luc Picard are trademarks of Paramount Pictures Corp. Playmates is a trademark of Hasbro, Inc. Winning and losing are relative.

The Farm This is a story about a guy I used to work with named Bob Ivy, the “Toy King of Chicago.” I’ve had to massage the truth here and there in an effort to get the real meaning of the story across – I’m afraid the actual facts are such that they would never be believed, and worse, might not make much sense. Reality is a slippery bitch that way sometimes, as almost anyone who sits down to write about something that really happened will tell you. Anyway, I don’t think Bob would mind. He was always an okay guy that way.

I first met Bob when I went to work for a magazine called Heroic Monthly back in 1993. Heroic was a standard-sized glossy-page 4-color publication that covered the comic book scene. What’s hot, what’s not, that sort of thing. It went out to comic book and gaming specialty stores. For a brief window there (before the comic book market imploded) we even made it onto the stands at some of the larger bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble.

Working at Heroic, at its worst, was spending long hours against impossible deadlines with very little resources for laughably low pay. At its best … at its best it was like The Guns of Navarone. You know, one of those war movies where a rag-tag team of commandos is sent on some impossible mission far behind enemy lines? And each one of the guys has a specialty, like, say, one is good with knives, one is good with explosives, one is a fantastic driver. You know the kind of movie I’m talking about.

Our publisher, an extremely shady character named Mike Blaine, was sort of like the British High Command, and to produce his magazine he had assembled a collection of geeks unparalleled in the tri-state area.

There was Phil Short, our E-in-C, sort of the Sergeant Rock of our Easy Company. A stocky, balding, bearded man who always had a steady hand at the wheel. I don’t think there was a cheesy monster movie made in the last 50 years you could name that he couldn’t rattle off the director and principal cast. One time I was over at his house and got turned around trying to find the bathroom. I opened a door to find a closet piled floor-to-ceiling with Mexican wrestler movies. A prince of a guy, and maybe the best boss I ever worked for.

There was Walt Hapsell, one of the most brilliant writers I’ve ever met. He was possessed of a keenly developed sense of humor, and ironically enough had an inability to laugh at himself that left him a social cripple. Tall, gangling, perceptive, quick-witted, I don’t think there was a comic book artist of any name recognition working in the country that he couldn’t call on the phone out of the blue and have an intelligent conversation with about their latest project. Knew every single Bob and Dave routine almost by heart (“I’ve got Dutch Elm Disease!”). The Mr. Spock to Phil’s Capt. Kirk.

There was Jacob Catcher, very thin, but in more of a sharp way than a frail way. Wore a little Satan beard and did his best to live up to it. He was the guy we called on whenever we needed someone to tell a big fat honkin’ lie with a straight face. He could actually will you to believe it. I don’t know if the one is related to the other, but he managed to defy the geek stereotype by dating one hottie after another. There was nothing the man didn’t know about obscure underground music, the ‘80s black-and-white comic explosion, or Godzilla, King of Monsters. The hardest working man in the outfit.

There was Al Bender, who I swear had the books slapped out of his hands every single day he was in high school. He was our eyes and ears among the lowest dregs of comic book fandom.

And of course there was me. I won’t elaborate too much on my contributions to the Heroic team, except to say that I always saw comic books not as individual stories, but as brightly colored chapters of ongoing novels that stretched back, way back into the past – a past that I could call up from memory with an almost frightening (even to me) photorealism.

And then there was Bob.

Bob wore coke-bottle-bottom glasses and plenty of oxford shirts. He had a big mouth and a big laugh, and found plenty of work for both. His specialty was toys, of course, which for Heroic meant primarily action figures, although his base of knowledge covered most every mass-produced toy from the last 50 years or so. If you’ve ever watched the Antiques Roadshow on PBS, Bob could do an exhaustive appraisal in just that style on pretty much any toy you could show him. One of those old Mego Superfriends? He could tell you exactly when in the company’s run this-and-such friend had been made, sometimes down to the months production began and ended. One of those old Action Man dolls from back in the ‘60s? He could give you the value of individual outfits not sold with the doll. One of the new MacFarlane line of toys? “Well, are we talkin’ on the card (in the original packaging) here or not?”

And he wasn’t an armchair hobbyist like some of the geeks out there, he walked the walk. One time, early on in my time at Heroic, Jacob pulled me aside as I came into the office and said, “Bob is going to be moving next weekend. Have an excuse. Trust me.” I didn’t know Bob too well at the time so I didn’t feel that bad about “my sister’s wedding in Vermont.”

Later on, Al Bender, who had been roped into the seven-hour moving marathon, described the state of Bob’s apartment to us in shell-shocked detail. Bob lived alone but needed a two-bedroom. Every free square foot of space went to toys. Typically, he bought two of everything. One toy to actually play with, the other to keep pristine and untouched. Sometimes he would buy three or more so he would have extras to trade with his fellow toy freaks. He had been doing this for more than 15 years.

Oh, that move that Bob had made? It was to a three-bedroom apartment. So he would have more space. For more toys. The life of anyone with an overriding passion – whatever that passion may be – becomes one of sacrifice. The money, the time, the brainpower, the raw devotion Bob gave was staggering to me, and I’m a man who to this day spends anywhere from twenty to thirty bucks a week on comic books.

Now, before I go on to talk about the Jean-Luc Picard in Full Dress Uniform action figure and the immense amount of trouble it caused, I would like to take a moment and address any readers out there who might look on Bob – or any of the Heroic crew – and think (a) how sad, (b) how pathetic, or (c) how creepy.

Because things like toys and comic books and monster movies appeal mainly to the 6- to 14-year-old crowd, the people who hold on to their childhood enthusiasms get stigmatized as cases of arrested development; as these unwashed, overweight, dateless, 30-something men who live in their parents’ basements and have unhealthy skin. Unwilling and afraid of stepping out into the scary, adult world, they cling to their objects of security – objects which are really part of a larger fantasy of what they desperately wish adult life could be like. A life where they are powerful, knowledgeable, and brave.

Rare is the stereotype that doesn’t have some truth to it. Yes, almost everyone on the Heroic staff felt the pull of that darkside, but none of us ever succumbed to it (or at least, never for very long). We had our wives and girlfriends and careers and homes and ventured out into the light at least once in a while. The initial impulse that set our feet moving down their various geeky paths may have come from childhood, but for most of us our hobbies had managed to grow up with us. I no longer look at comic books the same way I did when I was 10. I’m sure that when Bob looked at the Chewbacca action figure he kept on his desk – the first action figure that he ever bought by himself with his own money – he appreciated it in ways and on levels that the younger Bob who had first bought it could never fathom. If Bob had collected baseball cards or golf clubs or, oh, say, hats, the mental processes involved would have been just the same without all the stigma.

And then there are those out there who will say (d) … what a waste. I really don’t have a snappy answer to that. I admit, there are more worthwhile things to do with your life. The devotion Bob gave to toys he could have given to neurosurgery or politics or philosophy. He might have devoted all that time and energy, money, and will toward something that would make the world a better place.

Still, it seems to me that the way a person gets a lifelong bug-up-the-ass for anything – be it the law, astrophysics, or toys – is a strange and mysterious process that, yes, an individual participates in, but without really having much control over the final outcome. Kind of like improvisational theater. I mean, if we all had that kind of control over our destinies, wouldn’t this be a nation of millionaire rock stars by now?

I might be going a little Zen here, but, on some level, devotion itself is a worthwhile thing, in that the act of devotion, quite separate from its object, frees the self and focuses the mind and makes interesting and good things happen in a person. When I was a kid, my mom used to go on retreats to a place called a Cenacle, this large, rambling, dark wood and gray stone house run by an order of nuns. I went with her a few times, and once as we were walking around we came to this room.

Inside were about seven or eight nuns. They were all walking very slowly in a large circle muttering to themselves in unison. We stood there watching them for a good long time trying to figure out what they were doing. It looked to me like the most pointless thing in the world.

And all at once, at no signal I could hear or see, they all stopped and looked up. As they did, I looked right into the face of this one nun – she must have been 70, 80 years old – and her face was shining. Absolutely shining. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen in my life up until that point.

Which brings us back to Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise (trust me, it does), warrior, statesman, and ray of hope to balding men throughout the galaxy.

to be continued in Part 2 in the next issue

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Copyright©2001 by Steve Spaulding.

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