Archive for the ‘Toys’ Category

Let’s Play!

Posted: August 18, 2011 by Bill Gauthier in Childhood, Toys
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Summer is winding down. In some parts of the country, kids are already back in school, I’ll be returning to my teaching day job in less than two weeks, and other local kids go back to school the week after that. Though those dark days are a-coming, I’m still in summer-mode enjoying my vacation (or as much of a vacation as a writer gets, anyway) but I can’t help but get a little nostalgic. Maybe it’s that my birthday is next week, and I always get a little soft around that time. While I know that turning 34 is a joke to anyone over the age of 34, it is still making me remember childhood with rose-colored glasses. What can I say? The sunshine outside and my birthday does that. Now, I’m not thinking about summer in terms of Stephen King’s great novella The Body, which most of you know as Rob Reiner’s greatest film, Stand By Me, me and a group of friends going on an adventure (though there is a summer I may write about like that at some point) but of the thing I spent the majority of my childhood doing: playing.

What better way to spend the summer is there than looking for a dead body?

I loved to play. Big whoop, right? All kids love to play. Maybe. But in my experience, I’ve never seen a kid play quite like I did, except for my daughter, but even she was different in many ways (at least in front of me). Not only did I love to play, but I loved to play alone. My favorite thing to play–mostly indoors–was with my action figures. Being born in 1977, I was at the exact right time for the Birth of the Action Figure. Well, maybe not the birth, since G.I. Joe existed as early as the mid-1960s, and the company Mego was making action figures of superheroes before I was born, but I was basically on time for the birth of the 3 ¾” action figure. Up until the late 1970s, you see, most action figures were larger. G.I. Joe was the boy response to Barbie. By the mid-70s, the action figures that were coming out were smaller than Barbie, but bigger than the 3 ¾” that were beginning to come out. I may be wrong, but the event that tipped the scales of where the action figure would go was Star Wars.

Because of Star Wars, my Mego figures ended up in a yard sale.

The story goes that George Lucas, who had maintained not only sequel rights to the original Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope) but also maintained the merchandising rights. He figured that 20th Century Fox would not give Star Wars the promotion he wanted so he could license out imagery for posters, tee shirts, mugs, comic books, and toys. Of all the toy companies that pitched to Lucasfilm, the license went to Kenner, who had already wanted to put out a line of science fiction 3 ¾” action figures. Well, the unforeseen success of Star Wars made the action figures a huge hit. Other toy companies responded.

Star Wars came out on May 25th, 1977. I was born on August 24th, 1977. Is there any surprise action figures were my favorite toy?

Well, growing up, it sure as hell felt that way. On the block I grew up on, there were handful of kids and less than that who were my age. But there were the brothers Scott and Eric, the former a year older and the latter a year younger. In terms of playing, I’d play with Scott and Eric a lot, but there were some major differences between them and me. Well, one major difference: imagination. I had one. That’s not entirely fair, they had imaginations, too, but as their mother once told my mother, “You know, Billy has an overactive imagination and that might be bad for him as he gets older.”

Mego's Pocket Heroes. I had all these, including the cars, except for the Green Goblin. I even had this Batcave. Somewhere, I still have Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and the Batmobile. Robin is buried in my parents' backyard.

While Eric proved to be a great playmate when I was around eight, nine, and ten, and Scott and I played the world’s most boring games of teacher (we were both teachers for the same school, and the day went…well, like we imagined teachers’ days were) and detective (lots of desk work because Real Life wasn’t like the movies) when I was around 10 and 11, neither one figured much in my “real” play. First, they didn’t have many action figures. They had very few Star Wars figures, and while they had a decent amount of G.I. Joe figures (by now, the G.I. Joe: Real American Hero 3 ¾” line), I always preferred to play with my action figures alone because I was better able to manipulate the story.

That’s right. Manipulate the story. See, even as a child, I was telling stories to entertain myself. Those action figures were my creative outlet, even more so than drawing, something I was pretty good at back then (and if I’d studied art or had worked harder to refine my abilities, I think I’d be a decent illustrator even now; when I get the chance to write a comic book, I won’t have any problem giving the real artist sketches if I think it’ll help bring the story to life). I was able to make up stories and often had subplots, though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I was just copying Star Wars and TV shows I watched.

Two TV shows I watched as a kid and whose action figures I owned.

Even when I role-played, actual physical play outside, I would tell a story. It often meant playing alone, because other kids broke character or hurt the story. I remember a parent calling me bossy once. Maybe I was, but I tried to explain to her that her son was breaking character, that a farmer wouldn’t all of a sudden do whatever it was her son (who wasn’t the brightest person I’d ever known, even at that time–I was eight or nine) insisted on doing. I was directing.

Not mine, but one I found on the 'net. Mine is in a closet and hard to get to.

I began to fall in love with movies around the age of nine, and my action figure play began to change. I stopped using Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures for just those kinds of stories, but rather began casting the action figures for my “movies.” I’d then time the stories. I knew that after an hour had passed, I’d better start moving toward the climax of the story. My favorite Star Wars figure became Han Solo in Bespin Outfit. I could use him as Indiana Jones (I didn’t own my first Indiana Jones figure until sometime in the last 10 years; one I got from eBay that was a Disney World exclusive, the other Indy Jones figure I have is from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Those figures disappeared before I could get the Raiders one). I could use him as a detective in a suit or undercover a lá Axel Foley. Hell, I could use Lando Calrissian as Axel Foley! Sometimes I used my action figures to play other media-related stories. That Han Solo figure was sometimes Bruce Wayne, sometimes Clark Kent, but most of the time, he and my other action figures were characters of my own creation. I remember telling Eric about this and he was shocked. The next day he came over excited and told me that he used his Darth Vader figure as Batman, which was a stretch even for me.

I spent hours playing with my action figures or role-playing, running around the neighborhood with toy guns or swords or capes, lost in my imagination, lost in my stories.

So when I was twelve, and some kids I’d buddied around with in junior high came over and saw my action figures set up in mid-story, and then went to school the next day and made fun of me (in front of my crush, no less), things had to change. The action figures moved from their Tupperware containers and into shoeboxes and went under the bed. I felt lost, though, having to secretly do my playing, tell my stories. Until I bought The Shining on my 13th birthday (1990), and I decided I would start writing.

An action figure I bought just this past weekend.

Twenty-one years later (next week), and I still buy action figures. You see, something has happened. All those other mutants out there, the kids like me who loved their action figures, grew up and got jobs at toy companies or created their own companies and some of the best action figures ever known to humankind have begun being produces. I buy some of them and I keep them out as reminders. Also, they’re really good for letting off steam. If I’m in the middle of a scene that seems to be going nowhere, I can reach over and grab Batman, Superman, or one of the Freddy Kruegers I have (I just got one this past weekend), or I can go grab Indy Jones or Luke Skywalker, and pose them, fool around with them, study the sculpts, and then I put them back and find I have the answer I need for my scene. Because while I was being nerdy and goofing around with my toys, the subconscious was conversing with the muse, and goddamn if it didn’t do the work that needed doing.

Harlan Ellison has said, “Success is achieving, in adult terms, that which you longed for as a child.” All I wanted to do when I was a kid was play. Between writing and teaching, I get to play and people pay me for it. Not bad, eh?

You'd better agree, or the superheroes will get you.


What were your favorite toys as a child? How did you play? Are you like me, an adult who still loves those windows that look back on childhood? Leave a comment below and hip your friends to MediaBio!