One on one with the toy aficionado and author...
With his latest book, Totally Tubular '80s Toys (read our review HERE), Mark Bellomo continues to entertain and educate readers about the wondrous world of retro collectibles. We recently caught up with the established author to dig deeper into his hobby of action figure collecting, as well as his passion for movies. Read on...
FIGURES.COM: Of all of the toys you grew up with in the 1980s, which is your favorite and why?
FIGS: Why do you think toys were so influential to the shaping of the generation that grew up in the 1980s? What do you think is different now compared to then?
MARK BELLOMO: Four of my top five favorite toy lines were produced during the 1980's: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (Hasbro, 1982-1994), Transformers: Generation One (Hasbro, 1984-1990), [Official] World's Greatest Super-Heroes (Mego, 1972-1982/83 - Mego Super Heroes were INDEED produced in the early 1980’s according to Ben Holcomb, author of Mego 8" Super-Heroes: World’s Greatest Toys), and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (1977/78-1984/85).
Throughout my life, I've been most passionate about the 3 ¾" G.I. Joe line, mainly because of Larry Hama's brilliantly-written Marvel Comic. From that highly-regarded toy line, my favorite piece is the USS Flagg playset. I doubt we'll ever again see a mass-produced toy at retail where a company will impart such care and attention to detail. What's more, if I were to choose which type and size of action figure-based toy that I like the most, it would be action figure PLAYSETS. Kenner defined what a playset SHOULD be with its Star Wars and Indiana Jones lines: from the Death Star Space Station (both the U.S. and Palitoy’s U.K. exclusive versions) to the Ewok Village; from the Well of Souls to the Streets of Cairo. Hasbro then refined what Kenner created with the G.I. Joe Terror Drome, the Defiant: Space Vehicle Launch Complex, and the Flagg.
The U.S.S. Flagg, at 7 ½ feet long, with a three-tier superstructure, a working sound system , detachable lifeboat, and the ability to hold a Skystriker jet snugly onto its deck via arresting gear (arrestor cable, arrestor hook, two arrestor bases), the U.S.S. Flagg is often referred to by many pundits as the finest action figure playset of all time.
As a final note, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the "Flagg's" stunning electronic sound system is composed of a microphone attached via a cord to a loud speaker - a component of the toy that added another dimension toward extending a child's pursuit of imaginative play. Requiring one 9-volt battery, this electronic sound system "makes realistic battle sounds," and not only has a "talk" switch that can project a collector's voice across the toy’s flight deck, but possesses a secondary button that allows children to utilize three different alarm modes: "Air Raid," "All is Well," or "General Quarters" (an announcement made on a naval warship to tell the crew to prepare for battle).
FIGS: If someone were to write a book in 30 years about the toys of the new millennium, what are a few that would be included and why?
MB: Good question: I'll address this inquiry and then afford a criticism of modern toy lines as well.
Toy lines of the 1980's were influential in shaping the collective consciousness of Generation Xers because of the excellent fictional back story that was concocted by toy companies to support their products. For instance, after Ronald Reagan de-regulated children’s television in 1983 and opened the floodgates for what were essentially 24-minute long toy commercials (from G.I. Joe to Care Bears), toy companies could have simply "mailed in" these programs; they could have constructed shoddy, transparent, hackneyed stories with weak animation. But they didn't.
From Filmation's He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to Sunbow Productions' G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Jem and the Holograms to DiC's The Real Ghostbusters, these programs were ROCK SOLID. Kids responded well to the shows' expertly-crafted narrative structure, stellar characterization, and innovative plots, which ingratiated their accompanying toy lines within the hearts and minds of an entire generation of consumers. Due to these wonderful (some might say insidious) programs, we became devoted to these characters.
And we must remember that these animated programs were syndicated and shown EVERY WEEKDAY AFTERNOON. If you recall, the 1980's was the first time - to reiterate, due to the deregulation of children's television - that we received daily animated doses of our favorite characters from these respective toy lines; we didn't have to wait for Saturday mornings anymore! Hallelujah!
I recall coming home from school on a weekday, kicking off my sneakers, slinging my backpack onto a chair in the kitchen, running into my living room, turning the dial on the T.V. (in YES—a time before television remotes!), sitting on the couch, and then I'd watch the continuing adventures of G.I. Joe followed by the Transformers. Finish off the afternoon with a little bit of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Mix in some Robotech [The Macross Saga], some M.A.S.K., some Inspector Gadget, etc., and I was a happy kid. Think about it: for good or bad, we Generation Xers often spent more time with these fictional characters than we did with the living, breathing members of our own [nuclear] families. Nonetheless, Snake Eyes, Man-At-Arms, Dr. Peter Venkman, Jerrica Benson and Matt Trakker became inspired, dynamic characters because the talented writers of these programs (Buzz Dixon, J. Michael Straczynski, etc.) were—in many cases—handed a minimum 65-episode order (per season) with which to develop personality traits, foibles, and eccentricities. These writers were given the go-ahead to devote all their faculties and considerable gifts to develop the fiction that supported a "mere" toy line. THAT'S why these toys have endured: the back story that these writers developed.
So then, other than the now-defunct (and terribly brilliant) Transformers: Animated, what program in syndication has the same quality as what we witnessed in the 1980's... ?
FIGS: We love how you included the top 10 films of each year in the book as well. Why do you think the 1980s films are so iconic now? What are some of the most iconic films of the last 10 years (2000 - 2010)?
MB: Hmmm... I think Toy Biz's 6" Marvel Legends line (2002-2007) introduced a new era of quality to the hobby of action figure collecting. Although originally a spin-off of Toy Biz's Spider-Man Classics line, Marvel Legends action figures blew collectors' minds. They'd never seen toys of this quality before, particularly considering Toy Biz's track record with their poor-quality X-Men, X-Force, animated Spider-Man, and Marvel Super-Heroes figures from the 1990's. With their exceptional sculpting, wonderful paint applications, [almost ludicrous] multiple points-of-articulation, included comic book reprints or mini-posters, and clamshell packaging that revealed the character in all its splendorous glory, every new series released in the Marvel Legends line was a celebrated event. I recall attending Toy Biz's showroom at the International Toy Fair every year and attendees could hardly contain their excitement at anticipation of the next year's releases.
Let's reflect upon this: If it weren't for Toy Biz/Hasbro's Marvel Legends line, would Jakks Pacific have designed their WWE Classics? Would Mattel have realized the untapped potential marketplace for their DC Universe Classics? For Masters of the Universe Classics? Maybe not...
Most importantly, I recall the very first "Build-a-Figure" series for Marvel Legends: Series Nine. I remember bringing those figures home, cutting open their packages, and relishing the quality of production - back in 2005, not only could we purchase seven action figures (Bullseye [regular release and "gritting teeth" variant], Deathlok, Doctor Strange, the Hulk [regular and "green skinned" variant], Nightcrawler, Professor X, and War Machine) for $9.99 each, with these figures, we also received six comic books, one poster book (included with Nightcrawler), AND a "Build-A-Figure" piece (7 in total) included in every package to assemble the super-deluxe Galactus. Seventy bucks. Seven 6" figures. Six comics. One poster book. And as the cherry on the sundae, one GORGEOUS 16" tall Galactus figure with amazing articulation! Seventy bucks. Wow. I was even excited about Deathlok. DEATHLOK, folks. This line was most certainly revolutionary.
And currently, DC Classics follows this mode of production, as have a few other lines that have been released since 2002. Without a doubt, Toy Biz's Marvel Legends line revolutionized the action figure industry. Although Hasbro has officially halted production of Marvel Legends until 2012 (with the exception of the company's Marvel Universe 6" Fan’s Favorite line), Hasbro plans on re-releasing Marvel Legends with a vengeance - hopefully continuing the "Build-A-Figure" concept.
FIGS: What are some of the most iconic films of the last 10 years (2000 - 2010)?
MB: You're throwing some tough questions my way. Let's deal with the first one: 'Why do you think the 1980's films are so iconic now?' Here, I can only speak on my own opinion mind you, but when I was growing up as an adolescent in the 1980's, there were quite a few more SHARED EXPERIENCES in regard to films (and television shows as well). Every member of Generation X that I personally am acquainted with has watched the following films: The Breakfast Club, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Rain Man, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Batman, Pretty in Pink, The Empire Strikes Back, Beverly Hills Cop, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Top Gun, The Goonies, and The Terminator. More importantly, I guarantee that ANY one of my friends has seen one of these aforementioned fifteen movies at least ten times - and has viewed a few of those films MANY times over. What has ingratiated these films so profoundly into the psyche of Generation X?
Maybe I can explain. If a major network premiered one of these fifteen films for the very first time on network television (ABC, CB, or NBC), every member of Generation X growing up in the early 80's watched it. I mean EVERYONE. Remember: this is a time where there weren't any DVD boxed sets. No DVD's with bonus disks and special features. There weren't any DVRs, TiVo was a figment of our imagination, and VHS tapes were very expensive in 1980. We were without Redbox and Blockbuster - so you had to rent films from your neighborhood Video Store.
Furthermore, other than the big screen, our T.V. viewing options were limited by the availability of only FOUR networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. Heck, FOX didn’t even make its way onto the small screen until October of '86. If a major motion picture was broadcast on television for the first time - or the second time - or the third time, you watched it because in the very early eighties, only "rich folks" owned VCRs (!). You simply watched "what was on."
For instance, there was a period from 1975-1985 that Generation X saw EVERY James Bond film that was aired on television many times over because the networks played them repeatedly - every year without fail - from Sean Connery's Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Never Say Never Again to Roger Moore's The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, and Live and Let Die. In the early 80's, since beggars couldn't be choosers, if a Bond film was on you watched it (even though I didn't particularly care for Roger Moore). Again, with only four television networks available (well... essentially THREE since PBS was educational programming), WE ALL WATCHED EVERY BOND FILM ON TELEVISION. Remember though, it wasn't just Generation X (my peers and me) viewing these films: it was everyone who owned a TV. Probably because without VCRs or DVD players or DVDs or movies on demand, we watched what was offered.
This made television and movie going more of a "shared experience" back in the early eighties. To wit: if a cool action/adventure film or a children’s television special aired on a Wednesday night, you can bet that every kid in your class would be talking about it the next day in school. Perhaps every single child in your entire school.
Sadly, I'm not sure that happens anymore. With the proliferation of the Internet and websites such as Hulu.com and Megavideo.com, most folks can instantly access all of the episodes they've missed for nearly any television show in broadcast history. For instance, I just recently was told about a friend who discovered that there are nearly thirty episodes of Quantum Leap on Hulu. And he spent the better part of an entire weekend catching up on an old favorite. This is disheartening to me because it makes television and movie watching even MORE passive and less of a shared experience. The ability to access every episode of every television show, or download every frame of every film (illegally, of course), at any time satisfies our impulses toward gratification almost too quickly. It rewards impatience and impulsivity. There's just something profoundly special about waiting for a program to air once a week... it adds a reverence to watching the show and an air of anticipation. Similarly, screening a film in a theater on the night of its premiere is a similar undertaking. These two acts seem to be falling off in our culture - particularly in respect to television viewing. The act of anticipation, I mean: The deferred impulse toward gratification. For instance, I know that NONE of my friends (and I'll include myself in this demographic) watch any of their favorite shows at the time these programs actually air on television, and rarely - if ever - do we watch films in the theater (and we may be in the minority... but I think not): thanks to the Internet and TiVo and DVRs, we watch what we want, when we want, and - thanks to laptop computers - wherever we want.
I think the fact that nearly every member of Generation X watched Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back allows them to have access to and draw upon a similar shared experience, a cultural touchstone that adds a component to our personalities. Everyone from my generation knows what it means to be "like Han Solo" or "like Luke Sykwalker" or "like Ben Kenobi" - and the inherent differences between these three comparisons.
MB: Since the answer to my last question was so lengthy, I'll abbreviate this one and simply provide you with a list. Here it is, and debate as you will. Keep in mind that I take re-watch-ability into consideration. I know they're odd picks, but these are the films that I've watched AT LEAST three times a year since I’ve bought them - if not more (I put movies on when I'm writing... Fargo is on in the background right now). In terms of characterization, plot, cinematography, score, etc., these ten are my ABSOLUTE favorites from the past ten years. Iconic? Perhaps not in the truest sense of the word; these movies entertain me to no end:
The Aviator (2004)
The Hangover (2009)
The Incredibles (2004)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
Old School (2003)
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Special thanks to Mark Bellomo for taking the time for this interview.
Interview: Jess Horsely, Jeff Salyor