This summer I ♥ Comics returns to Blog@Newsarama. Each Wednesday comics bloggers and creators will discuss the things they love about the medium.
This week our guest contributor is Thom Zahler, creator of the comic Love & Capes. Issue #8 of the fun romance/ super hero series comes out this October, and a trade collecting issues #1-6 is due from IDW in November.
by Thom Zahler
I love comics toys.
I think it’s natural for people who create comics, or people who want to, to be drawn to the comics toys. When you’re a kid, they’re not just toys, they’re the things that you use to tell your own stories when the comics end.
There’s also something just so enrealing, to completely make up a word, about toys. Superman and Batman certainly exist in my mind and in my books, but they exist as a three dimensional form that you can touch and hold, they become even more real.
My personal love of toys is strengthened by living through one of the Dark Ages of Comics Toys. I put it around 1975-1985. Now I’m sure those older than me will tell me they had it harder. Maybe they did. But since it’s my love of toys I’m talking about, it’s my Dark Age.
You see, I was reading from an early age. Two and a half, to hear my grandmother tell it. And my parents encouraged my love of comics, probably because they knew it helped me learn to read and probably also because my Dad liked them. He didn’t collect, per se, but when he had to go into the hospital for an extended stay, Mom brought him comics.
Justice League #97 to be precise. Not that I remember reading it or anything.
The thing is, when you get into comics that early, you get invested in the entire comics universe by the time you’re old enough for action figures. (Don’t you dare call them dolls!) So not only did I know about Superman and Batman, but I knew about Green Lantern, and even his backup John Stewart. I knew about the Legion of Superheroes, the Justice Society, Captain Marvel Junior and the whole lot.
When I was a kid you could get Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Spider-Man, Hulk and Captain America. Oh, some rarities would sneak through. I had three different Green Arrow Mego figures for some reason, maybe realizing his inherent coolness and future collector value. I had Thor, too, whom I bought with my brother John, selecting him over Iron Man because he came with the most stuff: a helmet, a hammer, and he had real hair.
But for the most part, in whatever incarnation they took, you got the same heroes, over and over. Where was my Metamorpho figure? My Sub-Mariner? How about the Metal Men?
Plus, while my parents were loving and generous, they didn’t give me everything I wanted just because I wanted it. I’m sure this was a good life lesson, but it didn’t put the Wayne Foundation playset on the living room floor. So my brothers and I were often catch-as-catch-can at garage sales. I still remember that day I found a Hall of Justice in Darren Humphrey’s garage sale.
Denied the figures I wanted, I did what any aspiring cartoonist would do: I made paper dolls. Sorry, paper action figures. Where else could a kid get a set of X-Men figures? Or the complete Justice League?
I was elaborate with my paper people, too. I took a little white cardboard box, maybe 2”x3” and made four more paper boxes that fit inside of it. And then I drew a “4” on the box. It was my flying bathtub Fantasticar, capable of splitting up. I had a strip of paper that folded up only to expand to make an Iceman ice slide. I once built an Avengers quinjet out of cardboard.
Heck, when Who’s Who and Marvel Universe came out, I went to the trouble of working out a scale so that I could make all the characters the right heights. My Dad still has the Metal Men and Deadman paper figures I made him for Christmas one year. Those were his favorite characters.
I don’t want you to think that this meant my brothers (especially John, who was closest to my age) and I were denied every toy we wanted. We weren’t. Let me tell you the coolest story first.
My aunts bought us the entire set of Super Action Heroes one Christmas. That would have been cool enough, but they didn’t stop there. They designed and built two dollhouses… er, figurehouses… for the characters. Why two? One DC, one Marvel.
They went to the trouble of reading our comics to figure out what to do. Captain Marvel’s bedroom had SHAZAM spelled out, with each god and the gift they bestowed. Superman had the top floor with the skylight, so he could fly away. There was a Hall of Justice type room complete with Trouble Alert (showing northeast Ohio as a particular trouble spot). Wonder Woman had curtains made by my Grandmother. Aquaman had no bed, but a Styrofoam radio box painted to be a pool. And Batman and Robin had bunk beds in their room, along with a Batpole that led to the Batcave garage, with those foam packing peanuts coating the walls.
And the combination of cement and spray paint melted those things into the coolest cave texture you could imagine. Until John started picking them off, of course. Stupid brother.
For as much as they learned about our toy worlds, my relatives didn’t learn everything. (And here, indulge me as I shift from comics to Star Wars. It’ll tie together, I promise.) Even as a kid, I knew that they didn’t know all about the things that captured my imagination. So, for my birthday, when they got me Star Wars toys, I didn’t begrudge them the fact that they got me an X-Wing Fighter, C3P0, R2D2, and Darth Vader.
This is a particularly bad combination. You see, only Darth Vader could fit in the X-Wing, and that was Luke’s ship, so that made no sense. Moreover, even with the kind of kid-powered imagination that could effortlessly explain how characters from Earth-1, Earth-S, and the Marvel Universe could fight together, I was unable to think of a way in which Threepio and Artoo were capable of fighting the Dark Lord of the Sith. Ever.
If only I knew that Vader built Threepio. That would have… no, even my seven-year-old self would have known that was weak.
Anyway, I was happy with the toys I received, even though I really wanted a Luke Skywalker figure. I was that one weird kid who thought that Luke was cooler than Han Solo. (He had super powers, for cryin’ out loud!) I was a little less happy when my Grandparents bought John a Han and a Luke just because he was upset that he didn’t get presents on my birthday.
And so began a pattern of Star Wars toys that would plague me all my life. Our aunts would get us each a toy. John would get Chewbacca. I would get Power Droid. John would get Han Solo in Hoth Gear. I would get Snaggletooth. John would get Boba Fett. I would get Sir Cut From This Film.
I tell you this to explain how my whole world changed with the release of the Super Powers line. Finally, there were the characters I’d never thought I’d see in toy form. Firestorm, of whom I’m still a huge fan. Martian Manhunter. Red Tornado. Doctor Fate? Okay, he was from Earth Two, but that was still freakin’ cool.
The difference was that now I had my own money. The toys I wanted now existed and I had the resources to buy them on my own. No more hoping that my Aunts knew I wanted Cyborg more than Tyr. So I got them all. I still have them, and they’re proudly displayed along with other toys on the glass IKEA shelving that rings my studio.
Oh, and that Robin in the middle? My cousin Jamie did that. He found a way of using a soldering iron and his driveway gravel to “customize” figures. Along the same time that Jason Todd met the Clown Prince of Crime’s tire iron, his Super Powers figure (which said Jason Todd and not Dick Grayson, which was also cool) took on a similar distressed state. Sick? Maybe? But I’ve still got him.
And that’s why my toy obsession has been so, well, obsessive. I now live in a world where not only can I get a Green Lantern figure, but I can get a Tomar-Re action figure. Tomar-Re, the Green Lantern honor guard who was on duty when Krypton exploded. Growing up in the time of the Main Five DC heroes, denied so many secondary characters, how can I not get a Tomar-Re figure?
Now these dimensional representations of the characters that have been so big a part of my life surround me as I work. There’s a Captain Kirk, in green girdle shirt that stares up at me, arms outstretched, as if to say “I’m not going to kill today.” Next to him is the latest Firestorm figure. Why? Because he’s Firestorm! My favorite character next to Superman, and God as my witness, anytime they make a Firestorm toy, I shall have it.
The figures (all of which are out of their boxes, except for the New Frontier figures, because that packaging is so cool) are kind of a creative touchstone for me. There’s something about being surrounded by these modern incarnations of the toys… no, let’s call them what they were. They’re the tools that I used to make my own stories and continue my heroes’ adventures. As dopey as it may sound, they’re empowering.
I don’t buy every toy that comes down the pike. I couldn’t afford them, first of all, and I couldn’t fit them all in my house. Besides, it’s way too much to dust. I buy the cool ones… cool to me at least, and that’s what’s important. And I buy the characters that the ten-year old me longed for but was born years too early for.
There are a lot of people who put their toys away when they get older. At least they say they do. Personally, I think a power saw or a sewing machine, let alone a car or a computer, are just grown-up toys. They’re the tools of creation and imagination.
Toys can keep you young. At heart, if not in body. And really, the first is more important than the second. Because it’s important to make sure that you can still experience that sense of wonderment, of joy… of cool. If you can find joy in the simple things, you can find it in everything. And what kind of life would it be without joy?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go lobby DC to make the Dial H For Hero set. Because Eleven Year Old Thom created Any-Body (back in Superboy #35) and if DC can make a Composite Superman Figure, then maybe, just maybe, they can make my shape-shifting Chris King into six inches of glorious plastic.
With toys, anything can happen.