Thursday, February 28, 2013


NOTE: It's been over a half a year since I posted an excerpt from this loooooooooong-delayed book. Real life has very much gotten in the way, but I'm happy to say that I'm currently working on the final chapter. Fingers crossed it will actually be published before books no longer exist in hard form. This excerpt is from the chapter on collecting action figures, and picks up with a discussion of what the adult collector action figure boom of the late 1990s wrought:

...Little plastic replicas of obscure superheroes your girlfriend never heard of became commonplace: Sandman (both the Golden Age version and the Vertigo Comics goth icon), Black Canary, Zatanna, Amazo, Starman… forget B-Listers, these were D and E-listers! Eventually, deals were finagled with external licensors that allowed DC Direct to create figures of their most popular characters (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) as well. And suddenly, I had a new reason to hit comic books stores on at least a semi-regular basis.

Even the toy store shelves began to carry more obscure figures, as Mattel’s JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED and DC Universe Classics series and Hasbro’s Marvel Universe line dipped deep into the respective superhero / villain rosters of the two major publishers.

But while it’s awesome to be able to own (as of this writing) eleven different Dr. Fate figures, the rush of finding that character’s improbable first Super Powers figure was much greater. Like everything else in our current culture, the ease with which cool action figures can be found has taken something away from the collecting experience. Aside from one maddening obstacle…

There is one aspect of modern toy store foraging that is beyond frustrating for the geeky collector, and that is the ransacking of the toy aisles by collectible dealers. Many eBay sellers of such geek-fare take advantage of the fact that lots of collectors don’t live near a Target or a Walmart (who sometimes sell figures exclusively manufactured for sale in their stores), and buy every single figure the second they’re placed on the pegs.

To get the pick of the shipment, these dealers will often cultivate an “in” at the big box, sometimes even buying new figures before they even make it to the toy aisle. So, if, for example, I was looking for that Marvel Universe Dr. Strange figure at Target for its normal $9.00 price, odds are it was already purchased by some reseller hoping to get at least $15.00 for the item.

Since most comic book stores cannot meet the minimum orders required to deal directly with distributors of the major toy manufacturers, if they want to carry Mattel or Hasbro’s lines of DC and Marvel superhero figures (and most of them do), they are forced to either go through a distributor (adding a middleman cost to the unit) or also buy them off the shelves at Target, Walmart or Toys-R-Us, then mark them up from the retail price.

It’s quite aggravating to see a designated section at a department or toy store for a new line of figures that is completely empty, then walk into a comic book store and see those figures for up to 50% more than the suggested retail price.

There’s also a certain amount of role-playing that goes on when buying superhero toys at the same place you buy your toilet paper and Doritos. Odds are any time I roll my cart into the action figure aisle at Target, there’s going to be some parent there, either with or without child, trying to pick some new plaything for Billy or Susie. I’m sure that most of the time, they—and no doubt the cashier as well—assume that I’m likewise flipping through the pegs shopping on behalf of some offspring, not to add to my own museum of arrested adolescence. No doubt a few exceptionally perceptive shoppers can spot a grown geek (particularly if I’m also wearing a Superman t-shirt), but not many.

I’m not ashamed of any of my passions. I never have been. But as much as I own my geekhood, I’m unlikely to turn to that attractive young mother and say, “Excuse me, have you seen the Power Man & Iron Fist Marvel Comics Battle Pack anywhere around here? I really need that for myself!”

If, however, I have to share the aisle with another fanboy—we can always and easily spot other members of our rarefied fraternity —things can get pretty competitive. You have to quickly scan the shelves for that rare figure, rather than take a leisurely perusal of the aisle. I have seen envious, nerdy eyes lasering the lone example of a rare item in my shopping cart. Sorry, Chester! I saw that glow-in-the-dark Spectre variant first! Nyah, nyah!

The standard collector’s mentality states that the most—and for some people, only—desirable condition for an action figure (or any toy) is what they call MIP, MOC or NRFP…. which are acronyms for Mint In Package, Mint On Card and Never Removed From Package.

It’s easy to understand why MIP would make a vintage toy more collectible. Few kids in the 1960s debated whether or not to remove their G.I. Joes from the Marx packaging because they had an inkling if they never played with it, it could help pay their mortgage forty years later. Somehow, though, unmolested toys from the past have survived (perhaps unsold warehouse finds, or the ignored toy surplus of a bored, spoiled rich kid?) and fetch ridiculously huge prices on the collector’s market. A 1973 Mego Batman figure in the box is worth upwards of $500 while the same figure in opened, played-with condition can be had for a tenth of that.

“Kids today” may not consume music, TV or comics the same way I did, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that no child leaves his toys MIP. And even though I would dearly love to still have my old long-destroyed toys, if I never took them out of the boxes, would I have such nostalgia for them? Doubtful. That kind of emotional connection with an inanimate object happens only from using the darn thing.

There are some collectors who keep figures in the package because they prefer the full esthetic of the unopened toy. But usually, if someone doesn’t remove the toy, it’s because they plan to re-sell it at a later date. There’s a huge difference between someone who collects for profit and someone who does so for pleasure. If the reason you want a Major Matt Mason is because it’s a highly-sought after, impossible to find item whose value is only going to go up, you absolutely want to have it in pristine condition in the original packaging. But if you covet this ultra-cool artifact of the space age out of nostalgia and/or genuine affection, condition becomes less important.

Even as an adult collector with a cognizance of monetary value, I still reject the MIP philosophy. To me, action figures just look better standing free amidst their plastic crimefighting brethren on a shelf. You can’t get a full appreciation of a beautifully detailed little Superman when he’s encased in a plastic bubble, shackled with wire to a backing card. As such, every single one of my 500+ action figures is ARFP: Always Removed From Package.

Yeah, 500+. Not sure how that happened. I guess that as my new comics buying waned over the past decade, I needed something geeky to suck up the disposable income, and action figures (both new store-bought toys and old ones acquired via eBay and flea markets) fit the bill. But the irony is, I don’t really consider myself a major action figure collector. It’s just that the sheer volume of good stuff out there in the 21st century means that even a “discriminating” fanboy such as myself racks up a lotta plastic (in more ways than one).
from the forthcoming book, COLLECTOR'S EDITION: Confessions of a Pop Culture Obsessive-Compulsive by and ©Karl Heitmueller Jr.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Wailing / Wallowing Walls

When my father died in December, one of the first things my brother and I had to deal with was when and how to say something about it on Facebook.

These are odd times in which we live, that something so seemingly superficial as a social media would be given such weight during a time of extreme shock and grief, but if you’re a person who spends a significant amount of time on the ubiquitous site (as my brother and I both do), then it’s something that has to be considered. The decision was at least partly taken out of our hands when people started posting thinly veiled “sorry for your loss / let me know if there’s anything I can do” messages before we had said anything.

And so, ready or not, Kenny and I made our respective announcements on our pages late that same night, before Dad’s body was even cold (actually, that’s not true… like most octogenarians, he complained about being cold all the time).

The flood of condolences quickly filled the comments section, as well as the rest of our cluttered timelines. Naturally, we also received phone calls, text messages and some actual in-the-flesh visitations from human beings expressing sadness at our loss.

There are people who cannot help but qualify the meaningfulness of such gestures based on the delivery system. To some, a phone call is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction. For many, a simple text message is inadequate. And then there are those who find dealing with deep human tragedy in the confines of social media to be not merely superficial, but risible, even offensive.

I get where those people are coming from, honestly I do. Bowing to my philosophy of everything being subjective, I understand those who never share anything personal on Facebook, good or bad, and think that talking about the death of a loved one in the same forum where people are posting pictures of their lunch and complaining about Honey Boo-Boo is inconceivable.

But there are those of us who do find the virtual community to be something meaningful, and, in times of tragedy, of great comfort.

When my former boss and dear friend Steve was critically burned in the fire that destroyed Lancaster’s iconic Zap & Company two years ago, nothing helped me deal with that tragedy more than Facebook. The community that sprung up to show support for Steve wasn’t just virtual, it was real. Social media was just the tool that allowed everyone to get together, no matter how far away we lived.

Similarly, my friend Douglas died of cancer last year, and while I did not get to see him before he passed, I—and dozens of other friends—posted farewells on his Facebook page. Again, I can understand how this gesture could be perceived as superficial or morbid, but from what I understand, Doug appreciated hearing from people in his final days… even if was just a simple post on a timeline.

The Facebook pages of the deceased are certainly a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they can serve as a living monument to the person’s memory, a way to revisit them and maybe even say something. It can be cathartic. On the other hand, for the user with hundreds of peripheral friends on the site, something even as major as dying can slip past notice. I knew a woman—a sad victim of suicide—who has received “Happy Birthday, girl! Have a great day!” posthumous posts from people who obviously had no idea she was no longer with us.

In the wake of my father’s death, I was, frankly, not really in a place to talk with everyone who called, and most of the texts I received were met with quick simple notes of thanks. I just didn’t have the energy to do more than that. But the flood of Facebook messages made me feel better (I was just glad there was a paucity of simple sad-faced emoticons… that I find a little too superficial).

And here’s the irony: While I have no problem with the (over)sharing of personal tragedy, I find it discomfiting when people become too emotional about events that haven’t affected them directly.

Right around the time the wave of sympathy for the loss of my father had ebbed, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre took place. Suddenly, all media (not just social) was filled, wall-to-wall, 24-7 with people expressing shock, grief, and outrage.

Initially, I didn’t grasp the scope of the event. I had just returned to my apartment in Newark, NJ, after spending a week at home with my mother. My mind was still consumed with trying to come to grips with my new, fatherless reality. So, when I saw the breaking news of a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on MSNBC that morning, my initial thought was, “Oh, is it time for another one of those?” And then I turned off the TV.

It wasn’t until I tuned back in later that afternoon that I began to realize this was going to be another one of those all-consuming media frenzies, with every television news outlet scrambling to assemble its trademarked designation (“Shattered Innocence in Connecticut” or somesuch tag), replete with hastily scored mournful soundtrack and somber cadre of correspondents dispatched to the small town for the foreseeable future, milking every last drop out of this tragedy.

I’m not downplaying the event. I use the word “tragedy” without snark. Obviously, the mass murder of 26 people is a devastatingly horrible thing. But here’s where I seem to diverge from the majority of Americans in my reaction to said tragedy: It did not move me emotionally.

Part of the reason for my lack of feeling was my own admitted self-centeredness. I wasn’t ready to relinquish my narcissistic, subjective suffering to a communal grief that the entire country was sharing (although I have to admit that, in a weird pop-obsessive contrast, I actually thought it was kinda cool that my father died on the same day as jazz legend Dave Brubeck).

But the more cynical reason I shed no tears for Newtown is that—setting aside the specific circumstance—this shit happens every single day. According to recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about as many people are killed with guns in America on a daily basis as were killed in Newtown. And that’s not taking into account the 150+ people wounded and the 50+ suicides by firearm that the US tallies every 24 hours. And it certainly doesn’t factor in the people who are killed with guns due to wars—ours and others—in the rest of the world.

Was Newtown more tragic because those deaths happened all at once? 9/11 certainly felt like a bigger deal than if 3,000 random people had been killed all across the globe that day. But why do we only weep for the deaths of innocents when they all happen to be gathered in the same place at the same time? Why don’t we cry with despair over the exact same number of people who were killed yesterday, or today, or tomorrow? Why is it only when it’s a spectacle? Maybe it’s not more tragic, maybe it’s just different tragic.

Of course, there’s also the one key ingredient that made Newtown resonate so strongly: The fact that most of the victims were children. And, as society repeatedly reminds us, the loss of a child is far and away the most tragic loss of all.

I hesitate to open this most controversial can of worms, but I have a real issue with the elevation of children to the position of the most important members of society. It started in the wake of 9/11, when, a few days after the attacks, I saw a local news anchor say, “The events of September 11th have been devastating to everyone, but they were especially hard on the children.”

I called bullshit (literally, I yelled it at the TV). Unless, of course, that child specifically lost a parent or family member, or was somehow directly affected by the attacks, there’s no way 9/11 hit them harder than it did adults whose American security blanket was, for the first time in 60 years, ripped away, smoldering. To someone not old enough to possess the intellectual capacity to process what the political and social ramifications of 9/11 were, it was simply a scary, bad day when planes crashed and buildings fell down. And then they played with Legos and asked if they could have macaroni and cheese for dinner. A kid who lacks a worldview cannot have it shaken, unlike his totally freaked out parents.

Yes, of course, the murder of a child is unimaginably horrible. I get that they are vulnerable, and innocent, and full of promise and all those things. But I think that the deification of children in our culture, particularly in the context of something like the Sandy Hook massacre, can’t help but lessen the weight we grant the loss of an adult. I wonder if the friends and families of the grown victims of Sandy Hook don’t perhaps feel like people in Washington DC did after 9/11, as the media treated them like kind of second-class victims.

Still, acknowledging the horror of the mass murder of children, I confess I didn’t understand the hysterics some of my virtual friends were displaying on social media. A few of them commented repeatedly that they couldn’t stop crying, day after day. Really? Without knowing anyone who died? Maybe I’m callous, but that seemed extreme.

I know what you’re thinking: I don’t get it because I don’t have kids. Maybe. But even if I were one of those who’s added to humanity’s choked coffers, I can’t imagine I would’ve been crying for days on end. Sure, I may have walked my kid to school, and fretted over how to try to explain an unexplainable event to a malleable young mind, but the ongoing histrionics I was reading just felt…off. Self-serving, even.

But that’s the other thing about Sandy Hook (and the Aurora Shooting and the Manson Murders and any other example of man’s inhumanity to man). There’s a part of us as a society that secretly loves when this stuff happens, if for no other reason than it gives us the opportunity to show our moral certitude, our superior sense of empathy and our bottomless capacity for love… whether it’s true or not.

In the aftermath of the shooting at the Century Theater in Colorado last year, I set off a minor shit storm on Facebook by commenting that “any parent who brings a small child to a midnight showing of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES kinda deserves to get shot.”

Bringing a child way too young for that movie is bad enough at any time of day, but a midnight showing? Where a cranky, tired toddler is undoubtedly going to bother other patrons? I’m sorry, but James Holmes wasn’t the only sociopath in that theater (on different levels, to be sure, but there is a shared lack of concern for others).

I was lambasted by many of my FB friends, called “awful” and “an asshole,” among other epithets. I was a little surprised by the extreme reaction. One parent was so blinded with rage that he extrapolated my comment to presume that I indicated the kids who got shot deserved it. I wasn’t about to delete the comment, but I did express an apology “if someone was offended.”

It really pissed me off that we were unable to even suggest that there was some irresponsible parenting going on that night. I realize this skittered close to blaming a rape victim for wearing a short skirt, but I presumed that anyone who knew me understood that I was making a joke. A bad one, in poor taste, sure, but obviously, I wasn’t being serious. But in our culture, you are forbidden to be flippant about our most precious members of society. I lobbed a nice fat softball at those who feel obligated to display outrage at such effrontery.

But I didn’t know anyone connected with Aurora or Newtown. There was almost zero chance my comments were going to be hurtful to someone who had to attend a funeral for one of the victims.

What I find far more disturbing than emotional detachment from tragedy is the social media glomming that can occur. Any time someone dies in one of these events, they instantly accrue a vast Twitter or Facebook or following. While some bloggers and pundits have claimed that delving into the tweets of the victim can “help them understand,” what is the point? It strikes me more like a virtual version of grief addicts who attend the funerals of people they’ve never met. Only without refreshments afterwards.

It’s also undeniable that—horrible though it may be—there is a part of us that gets a vicarious thrill from seeing the spectacle that so often accompanies human tragedy. How else can you explain traffic slowing in both directions when there’s a car accident on only one side of the highway? Why do so many whip out the cell phone to shoot pictures and video of disasters rather than race to help? Would FACES OF DEATH or a sizable chunk of The History Channel’s programming exist if people didn’t want to see death and destruction? And would ZERO DARK THIRTY be such an acclaimed hit?

My gyrlfriend and I went to see Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated film about the search for and killing of Osama Bin Laden, and neither of us was crazy about the film. Ironically, it wasn’t until after we left the theater that we discovered neither of us had really wanted to see the movie (“I thought you wanted to see it!” “I thought you wanted to see it!”), but I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than to be a part of the conversation.

But no, I didn’t really like ZERO DARK THIRTY. Part of my problem is a larger issue I have with historical drama… no matter how good the movie is, no matter how well researched, I still sit there and wonder, how much is history and how much is drama? Most of the time, facts take a back seat to the demands of conventional moviemaking (check out the difference between ARGO and the real-life “Canadian Caper” that inspired it… the barest bones of the story were loaded with fat and muscle to make that film a gripping thriller, especially at the climax. And apparently, Abraham Lincoln did not really kill vampires).

But even taking the facts of such a recent, highly-classified event with grains of salt (grains that most viewers eschew), I came away wondering why so many people were heaping such praise upon a movie that, despite the lofty claims of its director, seems to exist primarily to give the audience the vicarious experience of being in the Abbottabad compound alongside the Navy SEALs when Osama bin Laden gets a bullet in the eye. Everything else in the movie—the scenes of torture, the intelligence gathering, the other explosions and gunshots—are mere prologue. The whole thing just made me uncomfortable (but so did America’s real-life reaction to the killing of bin Laden; The college students whooping it up in the streets like we had just won some kind of world championship made me sick to my stomach).

If there’s any question as to how much we love to see people killed with guns, let the previews before ZERO DARK THIRTY assure you. Practically every trailer was for a film that seems to be about nothing but killing people and blowing shit up. Among them was a triumvirate of aged Republican action icons trotting out their trusty hardware: Bruce Willis in A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s THE LAST STAND and of course, the risibly-titled new Sly Stallone vehicle, BULLET TO THE HEAD. Much as I loved the first DIE HARD movie, I really don’t need to see any of these films (and apparently I’m not alone; both BULLET TO THE HEAD and THE LAST STAND tanked at the box office; as of this writing, A GOOD DAY hasn’t come out yet).

I’m not saying that I’m above or don’t enjoy a fistful of violence in my entertainment. It just has to be in service to the story, not the entire raison d’etre. THE GODFATHER wouldn’t have been quite as good if the five families had been able to settle things peacefully. I’m glad that when Beatrix / the Bride awakens from her coma in KILL BILL, she doesn’t decide to just let bygones be bygones. And nobody would give a crap about James Bond if he worked in MI6’s human resources department.

But I have always preferred stories where the guns are the tools of the bad guys, especially when they have no effect, bullets bouncing off of invulnerable flesh or being deflected by superior technology. I like it when the villain, frustrated that his empty clip hasn’t left a dent in Superman, throws the weapon at the Man of Steel, who grabs it and crushes it like a gray banana. I prefer a Batman who means it when he says, “No guns, no killing” over one who thinks nothing of mounting machine guns on all of his vehicles. I’d rather see Wonder Woman deflecting bullets with her bracelets or Spider-Man plugging a gun barrel with his webbing than any Stallone vigilante or Dirty Harry or the Punisher returning fire. The appeal of the indestructible superhero carries through to adulthood precisely because as we get older, we understand all too well how vulnerable we fragile humans actually are.

But I don’t blame real life violence on the media; I grew up playing with toy guns and must have shot my little brother and various friends and family a thousand times with weapons made of plastic, metal, wood, or the flesh of my pointed index finger. As an adult, however, I have never owned a real gun, nor had any real desire to shoot one (despite my frequent anger at this oft-shitty world). Oh, I’ve popped off a BB gun or two in my 40s, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. And yes, I wish more people shared my antipathy.

The tenor of the current gun control debate would be laughable if it weren’t so depressing. So few people are able to look beyond their own subjective needs towards the bigger picture (as is so often the case with political hot buttons such as taxes or civil rights). Here are a few things that you would think would be incontrovertible:

1. The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution is anachronistic and needs to be further amended to reflect modern technology and the fact that we’re not going to need to rise up against our own government.
2. No, we’re not. Go hide in your bunker, you clueless, paranoid, survivalist morons.
3. There is absolutely no justifiable reason for anyone to own military grade automatic weapons (and “Because it’s our constitutional right” is an absurd rationale).
4. The NRA has become primarily a lobby for the gun manufacturers, not a representative of gun owners. Therefore, its agenda has way more to do with profit than liberty.

The prevailing comeback from gun advocates is that any legislation probably won’t work, so we just shouldn’t do anything (“Since when do criminals follow laws?”). Such short-sighted deflection is not only depressingly cynical (and I’m a cynic!), it’s lazy. What’s the alternative? Do nothing? Hey, how about we just teach the kids to use guns and give them carry permits for schools?

What’s that? Oh, some people think that’s a good idea. Okay.

Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen with gun control legislation, it’s highly unlikely that our obsession with violence and guns and death is going to wane. Sadly, it’s too deeply ingrained. And now, thanks to modern technology, not only do we have the capacity to create more of it and the ability to witness all its gory glory, we also possess, perhaps most importantly (he said, with a winky face emoticon), the civic responsibility to wallow in it.