Wednesday, March 17, 2010


This will be short because I forgot to blow on my morning pie and after losing it again I spent the past day sitting around feeling sorry for myself and playing with the GI Joe figures I bought for $2 each the other day.

Always blow on the pie. Safer communities together.

* * *

I like a good action figure.

I was always into them, thanks mainly to Star Wars. Those Kennar figures, while incredibly crude by the standards of today's toys, were absolutely brilliant. I flushed C-3PO down the toilet, broke the left arm off three different Walrus Man figures and loved them all, even the freaky pastel ones like the Could City pilot with the oddly placed arm.

Walrus Man is called something else now, but he’ll always be Walrus Man to me.

The fact is any male who was aged between five and ten sometime between 1977 and 1983 had some sort of Star Wars toy. They were everywhere, and after decades of action figures that were little more than repainted versions of Barbie's Ken, they found a ravenous audience.

I had a few other action figures as a kid, Star Trek: The Motion Picture figures which were even more basic than their Star Wars counterpart, although surprisingly sturdy, (I still own all three of them – Kirk, Spock and that bald chick.) And I also had great affection for Starbuck and Cylon figures from the original Battlestar Galactica, which weren't sturdy at all, forcing me to play with a one-armed Cylon and a no-armed Starbuck forever.

And that was about it for decent action figures in my universe 25 years ago. Until the GI Joe figures came to town and I discovered that the best action figure ever made was the Cobra Commander in Battle Armour, the third version of the master villain, released in 1987.

That one up there, on the right.

* * *

That Cobra Commander figure was the first proper GI Joe I saw, and it was fucking fantastic.

With some amazing articulation, it could move in ways I’d never seen toys move before, creating infinite posing opportunities. It was nice and spiky and had some sweet guns that he could point at things.

Over the next two years, I went completely apeshit for GI Joe. Ended up buying dozens of those figures and got a bit obsessed with the Marvel comic book at a worryingly influential age. Armoured figures were my favourite, and the various blank-faced Cobra troops were the best.

* * *

The best thing about the GI Joe figures, especially the ones that were all armoured up, is that they didn’t just have to be GI Joes. You could make up your own stories about them, and they could get insanely complicated.

I had all the detailed history and mythology of an alternate Earth where World War Two never ended sorted out by the time I was 11. You couldn’t do that with bloody Transformers. They were always Transformers, nothing else.

But Cobra Commander didn’t have to be Cobra Commander, he could be the hard-bitten warrior poet of a special strike force operating behind enemy lines in a place where decades of technological development had been dedicated to the Art of War. That saga incorporated every action figure I had (even no-arms Starbuck) and I can still remember the vast majority of it, even though none of it was ever written down or chronicled in any way.

This is what toys are supposed to do – encourage and enflame the imagination, and nobody did it better than GI Joe.

* * *

And then I got older and got interested in girls and booze and all that crap, and the toys went into a box in a cupboard and that was that.

But I would still get them out now and again and play around with them when nobody was looking. Most of them ended up getting lost over the years and those rubber bands in the middle that held the legs to the body got increasingly fragile, leading to lots of dismembered torsos, although I still held onto a few favourites. I still have that Cobra Commander and a Tech-Viper figure which has remarkably remained intact, despite the usual experiments with firecrackers.

I never really stopped buying toys, but moved on to figures from movies and comics. The explosion in the variety and styles of action figures, especially those with comic characters, over the past two decades has been remarkable.

I can still remember the excitement at seeing some rudimentary X-Men figures on the back cover of the Claremont/Lee X-Men #1, with little idea that there would be literally hundreds of different X-figures available by the end of the decade. In the end, I never bought any of them, although I would still love a good, classic Nightcrawler.

Instead, I bought the odd Aliens figure and have a fine selection of Boba Fetts and the other odd Star Wars toy that looked good on the shelf, but that was about it.

I’d given up on the GI Joe toys. They were for kids.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I had to buy some presents for my young nephews and a local toy chain was tossing its haul of GI Joe movie action figures out the door at ridiculously cheap prices.

After buying a small armful of the toys for the kids, I kept one for myself. Just to play around with and to see how the toys had evolved.

They’re certainly a lot more detailed and can move in ways those eighties Joes couldn’t, and while they’re not quite as charming or colourful as their earlier equivalents, I liked the Viper figure I got so much I went back and bought another half dozen for myself.

So here I am – a 35-year-old man still playing with his toys while he watches Michael Haneke films on DVD. I’ve always been a compulsive fidgeter, and they give me something to do with my hands, but mainly it’s because they look so damn cool and because they slotted in nicely to that vast war saga that’s been sitting in my head for more than two decades. Within minutes of ripping open the packages, the figures had new names and new purposes and I’m 12 all over again, drunk with storytelling possibilities that are too silly to share.

Toys don’t get any better than this.

* * *

Some people never take them out of their containers. That’s just wrong.

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