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Who Dies with the Most Toys...
Part 2 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. Playtime is a trademark of Hasbro Inc. Winning and losing are relative.
Click here if you missed Part 1 of this story.
Capt. Picard isn't a real person, but he is more than just a fictional person. He is more than a role an actor portrays, more than an icon to a group of fans. He is a property, a thing which is owned and used to make money in much the same way real estate is. He is unreal estate – mindshare.
Picard is a small part of a much larger property called Star Trek. The Star Trek property (and Picard with it) are owned by a large, publicly-held company called Paramount – or at least it was back when I worked for Heroic. I think Paramount has since been swallowed-up by some larger multinational conglomerate.
Every so often, Paramount will use its own money and resources to exploit its Star Trek property in some way, like a new TV series or a new movie. Sometimes, if it lacks the resources or expertise in a particular area, such as novels, computer games, lunch boxes, or (yup) action figures, it will sell the right to use the Star Trek property in such various ways to a company that does. This "right to use" is called, sensibly enough, the license, and it usually comes with a long, painfully exacting list of terms and conditions, and most always with an expiration date.
In 1994, Paramount was all set to release a new Trek movie, Generations. It was going to be the big passing-of-the-torch movie, with the casts of both the original Star Trek series and the Next Generation show. Capt. Kirk meets Capt. Picard with the fate of the universe hanging in the blah blah blah. Did you go see that movie? No? Kirk dies. There, now you don't have to spend your time on what was a nonsensical, overblown waste of film.
With a new movie coming out Paramount had gone on a licensing binge, and the highest bidder for the action-figure license was an outfit called Playtime Co. Because they had to prove to Paramount they could put out a quality product before ever bidding on the license, Playtime had spent a lot of money upgrading its factory. Then they had spend a lot more money to actually get the license. All of this left the company with very little cash on hand for things like marketing and sales.
To compensate, Playtime came up with a clever promotional idea. At least, it looked clever on paper. Typically, for a movie tie-in, an action-figure company will produce between 20 and 50 different styles of dolls with names like "Control Room Chekov" or "Spock in Ceremonial Vulcan Garb." Several thousands of each figure are made and then shipped to toy stores across the country.
For the promotion, Playtime decided to create a special "limited edition" figure – the "Jean-Luc Picard in Full-Dress Uniform" action figure, and produce only 500 of them. To get one you had to send in 10 proofs-of-purchase from other Playtime products.
The people in charge of fulfilling this promotion? Those same underpaid, overextended sorry-asses in the Playtime marketing department. To save themselves money on shipment and the hassle of having to actually talk to anyone so obsessed with Star Trek, they bundled the full-dress Picards in with regular figure shipments to their largest customer – whom I will leave nameless, but I'd need a backwards "R" on my keyboard to spell the company's name.
So, if you wanted your full-dress Picard, all you had to do was bring in your proofs to your local backwards-R toy store and they would set you up – except that many of the people who work stocking shelves at the backwards-R are toy freaks themselves. Many are, in fact, rather light-fingered toy freaks with as keen an eye for conspicuous profit as a Ferengi with a used-car dealership (sorry for the Trek metaphor). All but a handful of the full-dress Picards got four-finger-discounted right out of the marketplace, and those few that remained were immediately redeemed. At the same time thousands upon thousands of howling, frustrated Star Trek fanatics (never a pretty sight) who had gone out and bought 10 other action figures just to get this particular one made demand for the figure skyrocket. Within weeks it was selling on the underground toy market for $700, $800… even $1,000 if you believe some of the stories.
And how, you may wonder, do I know so much about the byzantine inner workings of the action-figure industry? Because during the late spring and early summer of '94, when the mania for this figure was at its height, I shared office space with Bob Ivy and he WOULD NOT STOP TALKING ABOUT IT. It preyed upon his mind like a stalking tiger. You could be having a normal conversation with him about the latest issue of the magazine or about things around the office or about the Bulls game the night before, and all of a sudden you would find yourself talking about Capt. Picard, the bastards at the backwards-R, or the idiots at Playtime. You could shut up and he would go on talking. You could try to change the subject and he would go on talking. You could leave the room and he would go on talking.
Everyone's sympathies were pretty quickly exhausted. We all began avoiding the man. The only reason no one actually tried to strangle him was because we all knew he was in genuine pain. We could get away from Bob, but Bob could never escape his burning, monomaniacal toy fever. He was Lancelot, forever locked outside of the chapel of the Holy Grail, allowed to see it, but never to partake of its glory. He was Ahab after Moby Dick. He was Kahn after the Enterprise in the Mutarian Nebula (sorry again).
Licensing agreements for publicly held companies are public documents. These agreements list all the toys a manufacturer is allowed to produce. Collect all the licenses a company has ever agreed to, and it is possible to create a master list of every single toy that company has ever authorized.
Bob had such a list. A list of every single Star Trek toy ever made. He had been ticking items off that list with quiet glee for the past 15 years, updating and expanding with each new license as new toys were manufactured. That's every single plastic tricorder, every single Enterprise B Christmas ornament, every single Klingon Bird-of-Prey key chain. Tic, tic, tic.
Most people if you ask them, "How many Star Trek toys do you own?" answer, "None." Some answer, "A few." Some answer, "A lot." There are perhaps nine or 10 people in the entire world who are able to smile a broad, knowing smile and say, "ALL of them."
Up until the full-dress Picard, Bob had been one of those people. He had snapped up all the new Generations toys as fast as they had been put on the shelf, but the Picard had gotten away from him. Its absence, to his thinking, invalidated the rest of his collection, and by extension the past 15 years of his life as a collector – the gap between all and almost all was that absolute, that devastating to him. The rest of his Trek collection, instead of being a source of geeky pride, seemed instead to mock him from its cellophane and cardboard packaging.
Remember, this was 1994, just before the Internet explosion. There was no searchable database on eBay, no e-toys, no message board at alt.toys.startrek. Bob had done all he could. He had called in every favor, pulled out all the stops. There was no Jean-Luc Picard in full-dress uniform to be had.
This was the tortured state of Bob's brain as we boarded the plane at O'Hare airport for the 1994 San Diego Comic Book Convention.
If you have never heard of the SDCBC, it's obvious you've wasted too much time enjoying the outdoors, dating members of the opposite sex, or working a real job. San Diego during the convention is Geek Mecca. It is Jerusalem and El Dorado, the Oscars, Emmys, and MTV Music Video Awards all rolled into one.
And this was the convention in the days of its greatest glory. The comic-book speculator boom (a lot like what Playtime had done with the Picard figure, only with comic books and on a massive scale) was in full swing. Everybody was getting fat off funnybooks. Disney had a booth there for the first time. Warner Brothers had scouts walking the aisles for potential movie properties. Every direction you looked there was some scantily-dressed young woman trying to hand you a flier, or some guy in chain mail wanting to give you a T-shirt. It was as if the glories of Imperial Rome had returned.
Except, you know, with comic books.
And we in the Heroic crew – Bob, Phil, Jacob and myself – were the press. Not fans, bumbling and grubbing around awestruck; not industry types trying to pimp the latest and greatest chromium pop-up cover issue #1 of Captain Craptastic. We were the people who got to go behind the scenes. We didn't have to stand in line for half an hour to get an autograph from our favorite artist or writer, our favorite people came to us, wanting to be interviewed, wanting to spend an hour or so talking about their latest project, about the state of the market as they saw it, letting us buy them drinks and put it on the company account.
I can still remember my first day walking the floor at the Con. Going from booth to booth, meeting in person all the people I'd only known as voices on the phone up until then. Before landing my job with Heroic I had spent a long period unemployed and living with my parents. Before that I had been working the night shift at a Denny's in southern Illinois. Being there – with my press credentials pinned to my shirt, with my interview tape recorder in my pocket – to have being there be my job, was just the best feeling in the world. There, surrounded by comics and people in ridiculous costumes, I really felt like an adult. The irony was completely lost on me at the time.
There was only one dark spot in convention experience, a pitch-black inky stain in the form of our most hated competition, Mage magazine. As we walked past their booth on the way to the Heroic booth (and man, did it piss us off you had to walk past theirs to get to ours), Jacob turned to me and said "I have this overwhelming urge to spit." We all did.
Looking back, I think part of our hatred was jealousy. Their magazine had a wider circulation, had more ad pages, made tons more money. Their booth was larger and fancier and better staffed. They even had booth babes – those attractive young women in the skimpy outfits I mentioned – to pull in the fanboys.
And so, if you were an up-and-coming hotshot comic-book artist and you had only time enough to get interviewed by one magazine AND you didn't know any better, you'd probably be hanging out at the Mage booth. Which rankled. Not eat-your-heart-out rankled, but rankled just the same.
Quite apart from professional envy we had a deep and abiding contempt for their entire editorial philosophy. Their review section was a joke; every new comic book was the greatest thing that had ever happened in the history of the English language. Month after month they would declare some new character or storyline was "destined to change the history of comics forever!!!" They were an unapologetic hype machine that appealed to the very lowest elements of the readership – and among comic-book fans, that's pretty damn low.
For example, they had a running feature section called, "Who's the most bodacious babe?" They only called it that because some parent somewhere would have pitched a fit and written their congressman if they had used the more accurate title, "Who's got the biggest tits?" I can remember Phil (never exactly what you would call a feminist) getting really angry over that section the one time they had Lady Death (you don't want to know) vs. Wonder Woman – "Who's the most bodacious babe?" Phil started fuming about the ideals that Wonder Woman had stood for ever since the 1940s – female empowerment, truth as a weapon of justice, strength on the side of peace instead of war – and how those bastards at Mage had reduced her to a pair of tits.
That was another thing that pissed us off, myself in particular: those bastards at Mage had no sense of history. With them it was always the next thing, the new thing, never trying to put anything in a larger context, never showing how the work being done today built on the work that had gone before. When Jack Kirby, the artist who had first drawn the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Mighty Thor, and a whole slew of other revolutionary books back in the 1960s passed away, Mage gave him a full-page obituary in the back of their latest issue. Heroic devoted their entire issue to the man, his work, and the industry reaction to his passing. That issue of Heroic came out before I ever joined the crew, and it is still the issue I point to when I want to explain to people why I was so proud to work for that magazine.
But what, you might ask, is the big deal? So the people at Mage had a more forward-looking approach. Where's the harm? The harm was in a speculator frenzy that Mage was doing its darndest to capitalize on.
Ever since "The Death of Superman," zillions of people who had never set foot in a comic-book store in their lives were now buying comics expecting to turn around and sell them in a few years at enough profit to put their kids through college. Everyone was trying to scoop up the hot books with a big "#1" or "First Issue!" on the cover. So, the comic-book publishers started up hundreds of new books.
With all those competing first issues out there, everyone was looking for a gimmick to make their book stand out. So the publishers put out glow-in-the-dark covers and die-cut covers and chromium covers and covers with half-naked women whose breasts had a slightly larger circumference than their heads. They sold their comics to the swarming hordes of speculators who didn't even bother to read them, just slipped them into an acid-free baggie and waited for them to appreciate in value.
And Mage was there to hype the crap. They even published a price guide to help the burgeoning entrepreneurs calculate how much money their collections were worth – not that the prices they published had much relation to reality.
We at Heroic could see the writing on the wall. We could see all the long-term fans becoming more and more alienated by a comic-book scene that was moving further and further away from telling good stories and moving more towards… well, it didn't seem to be moving in any viable direction at all. We at Heroic felt like the guys on the Titanic desperately trying to cut the lifeboats free. The Mage people seemed to us like the band that kept playing as the water climbed higher.
And to top it all off, every single person working for Mage was a complete asshole. No, really. Asshole. It was as if they went out of their way to find them. And the King Asshole was their editor-in-chief, a guy named Mitch Murphy. He combined all the worst qualities of game-show host and sewer rat.
I can still remember the first time I saw him in person. Bob, Jacob, and I had gone to scout the competition after getting ourselves settled in the Heroic booth and paying our respects to various notables. We took the scenic route, working our way past the autograph lines, around the people in homemade Borg costumes, winding our way through the independent artist stalls, until we came upon the Mage booth, squatting like some enormous, brightly-colored tumor at the center of the hall.
And there was Mitch, holding forth like a mediaeval lord to a gaggle of rabid fans four deep. To the left and the right of him artists were doing sketches and signing books. Behind him was a shelf crammed with promotional merchandise. And on that shelf was a small, bald, five-inch tall plastic action figure, still in its original packaging.
Mitch had never seen me before, but he'd met Bob a couple of times. In fact, he had been looking forward to seeing him again. He had heard the word, you see, down through the toy-freak grapevine. He broke away from whatever he was hyping to give Bob a fake friendly wave. He pulled Capt. Picard off the shelf, and holding him ever-so-carefully by the edges of his package, he turned to Bob and said, in an uncanny imitation of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi:
"You want this… don't you?"
To be concluded in Part 3.
Copyright©2001 by Steve Spaulding.
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