Men who grew up on action figures still collect them

By Bill Powers (New York Times News Service)

At 33, Evan Bernard can't walk past a toy store without stopping in to assess its selection of action figures. Recently, Bernard, a New York-based director of music videos and commercials, was in Minneapolis shooting a video for Slayer, the heavy metal group, when he found his way to the Mall of America.

He emerged clutching a stuffed Yoda in one hand (he limits his "Star Wars" purchases to "all things Yoda," he said), and a pair of dolls based on Bob and Doug McKenzie, the 1980s Canadian comedy characters, in the other. He had temporarily satisfied his desire for toys. He felt bad.

"I can't help but feel like a freak when I'm in a toy store competing with 6-year-olds for the doll I want," Bernard said. "Honestly, I really wrestle with the collecting sometimes."

Well into adulthood now, Gen X boys have upgraded their toys. They have traded in boom boxes for Apple iPods, and Atari 2600 game consoles for Nintendo GameCubes. But what could ever sufficiently occupy the void where the one-sixth-scale action figures of Evel Knievel and Han Solo once stood at the ready? For most men, the answer seems to be nothing. For a few, willing to risk derision as adults grasping after childhood, the answer is to continue collecting.

In New York, the East Village apartment of Colby Parker Jr., a 32-year-old film editor, is home to hundreds of action figures: Princess Leia, a mint-condition "Six Million Dollar Man," a battered Vanilla Ice doll, the cast of "Beverly Hills 90210."

"I bought a Derek Jeter rookie doll made by Starting Lineup for $20, and it's probably worth between $200 and $300 today," Parker said proudly.

He keeps his more valuable toys -- called "chase pieces" by collectors because that's what they do to obtain them -- on shelves out of reach of his 2-year-old son. He does let him play with the "loosies," the more common dolls.

There is no breakdown on how much of the approximately $4.4 billion that Americans spent on dolls and action figures last year came out of the wallets of adults buying for themselves. But Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a market research firm in Stevens, Pa., who has studied the dolls and action figures, noted, "Men want to appear very rational when it comes to collecting and will cite the investment opportunities, but under the surface is the same emotional reaction and motivation that drives a 10-year-old boy."

Danziger, author of "Why People Buy Things They Don't Need," to be published by Paramount Books next year, notices a difference between men and women collectors. "Boys are more likely to continue collecting into adulthood," she said. "Women tend to re-establish their interest around 35 or after their prime child-rearing years."

For many grown men, collecting action figures (when is a doll an action figure? "If it's pretty, it's a doll," Danziger said) seems to require a rationalization. "I buy toys and pretend that I'm doing research," said Silvio Porretta, 32, who was the lead artist on Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 and 2. "Then again, my job is making video games, which are high-tech toys. I get inspiration from the toys for my profession."

The action figure aficionado needn't be all that apologetic, however. In New York, downtown interest in skateboarder fashion, Japanese manga (comic books for adults) and graffiti art has paved the way toward respectability for all kinds of stuff once thought adolescent. A number of contemporary artists -- Paul McCarthy, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tom Sachs and Cindy Sherman, to name a few -- have used dolls or mannequins in their work. And since the late 1990s, small runs of collectible action figures from graffiti artists like Kaws and Futura have helped blur the line between Hasbro and high art. In summer 2000, A Bathing Ape, a trendy Japanese clothing label, produced a set of Beastie Boys dolls that sold for $500 at Tokion magazine's store on New York's Lower East Side. The store soon ran out of them.

This month, Tokion plans to start releasing a line of five limited-edition dolls designed by artists including Barry McGee and his late wife, Margaret Kilgallen. The dolls will sell for $99 each. "Personally, I classify the Tokion dolls and their ilk as being art, but I'm pretty liberal in my definition," said Adam Glickman, the publisher of Tokion. "A lot more soul went into making these toys than anything you would find mass-produced."

He would probably get an argument on that from Parker, he of the Vanilla Ice and Princess Leia figures. A 100-square-foot locker at Manhattan Mini Storage houses the bulk of Parker's collection of more than 2,000 dolls. Each one is carefully stored in a Ziploc bag or in an airtight plastic case.

At home, with a toddler on the prowl, he must be ever vigilant. "It can be a drag with my son sometimes, because naturally he wants to open all the boxes," Parker said. "I really prefer to keep them in their original packaging." Handling the figures provides a fleeting moment of pleasure, he explained, but seeing them in their displays proves to be a more satisfying experience.


This article has been transcribed from The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 10, 2002. This information has been shared here for your information and reading pleasure, however this material remains copyrighted by The Star Tribune.