OPINION: Why Collectors Are Moving Toward LEGO
(Or At Least Why I Did)...
By C.J. Stunkard
The shift happened so gradually I didn't notice it. As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close, I left my online collectibles reporting to focus on video production projects, and my figure purchasing essentially stopped. Many of the lines that had gripped my attention were either finished or fading. Diamond Select Toys’ Buffy and Angel lines had run their course, as had Hasbro’s 25th Anniversary and Pursuit of Cobra G.I. Joe offerings. Further, disappointing films like Iron Man 2, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Transformers: Revenge of Fallen kept me relatively disinterested in the new product hitting the figure aisle two summers in a row.
Toys were still on my radar, however. My brother-in-law and sister had moved near us in Southern California, and he was (and continues to be) a LEGO enthusiast. His adoration for the brick-based, modular play pattern was infectious, and before I knew it, I was coming out of my personal “dark ages”, defined by LEGO fans as the period of time from childhood to adulthood when their LEGO hobby was dormant.
The process of my joining the AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO) ranks had all the hallmarks of true fandom. Initial curiosity led to investigation, then investment and embrace. It is how most brands and properties rope us into their communities. Of course, this process was furthered every step of the way through nostalgia, a linchpin in LEGO’s return to pop culture prominence. As I look back, I can see what LEGO offered and why it pulled me from 6” and 3 ¾” figure collecting.
The best hook that LEGO has on the grounds of nostalgia is that the play experience as an adult is very similar to the one as a child. Opening the box, following the instructions, and admiring the finished model are just as fulfilling now as they were then. Building MOCs (My Own Creations) is even more so. Whereas it feels somewhat silly to make 3 ¾” Cobra Commander and Destro action figures argue over the next stage in “Operation: McGuffin”, LEGO building - both directed and independent - recreates the experience of childhood with such vivid echoes that it seems unfair to compare it to other lines trying to cater my nostalgic sensibilities.
Beyond the fun-factor, however, LEGO boasts the collectible mini-figures, and these are the brand’s bread and butter for many of us. For me their appeal comes from three key areas that have enabled them to supplant my prior figure interests: customization, collectability, and collaboration.
This first one is a bit obvious, but for the subset of collecting customizers, it’s a major factor. As someone who did his fair amount of kitbashing G.I. Joes in the 90’s before using the “boil and pop” method on countless 6” figures, I had developed a taste for tailoring my collection to fit my needs. If I wanted “night force” Joes, I made them. If I wanted an episode specific Firefly character, then I grabbed the paints and razor blades. Frankly, I had a blast doing it, but I also left a veritable bone yard of parts in my wake (a fact I sometimes I regret). Fortunately, LEGO minifigures are inherently customizable. Like the bricks themselves, “mini-fig” elements are modular, designed to take apart and reconfigure. Thus, rather than destroying any number of Marvel Universe Figures to make that “dream team” of perfect versions, one can usually just substitute parts from other LEGO figures that do the trick. If the custom isn't working, you just change the parts without destroying them in the process (I say this wholly acknowledging that a subset of collectors in the LEGO community create more “permanent” customs, and that’s cool if that’s there gig). The customizing is relatively simple, cost effective, and downright fun. Plus, third party accessories compatible with Lego give a special flavor that separates these kit-bashes from standard Lego releases.
In addition, the LEGO minifigures provide the fun of collecting. Every year the company releases an onslaught of unique figures - from the annual deluge of various army builders to uniquely designed DC Villains or licensed characters from films. They even have a successful theme of blind-bagged collectible minifigures. Frankly, LEGO gives fans the greatest range of characters per license that they produce. Don’t believe me? Compare LEGO’s offerings from Guardians of the Galaxy, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Avengers: Age of Ultron to those offered by major figure brand teams. In many cases (though not all), LEGO offers as many, if not a wider assortment of, characters from which to choose. While the cost for acquiring all the Lego sets is more expensive than buying the entire figure line, the end result from Lego usually offers greater playability and display options complete with multiple functional vehicles and playsets. The brand also provides the near endless back catalogs of figures to chase from properties such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and even forgotten films like Prince of Persia or Lone Ranger.
Then there’s collaboration. This one is personal, but it was the clincher that locked me into LEGO fandom. During my most intense collecting period, from 2003ish-2008, I longed for a “universal scale”. I wanted my Joes, Jedi’s, Street Fighters, and Transformers to live in a singular display with my various figures from film and television. I wanted an Optimus Prime that was in scale with Eomer of Rohan, so they could be placed side by side with Chewbecca and Apollo Creed (that’s a real dream team, I know). But at the time, all of these characters were in different scales with varying aesthetics. At present, LEGO provides me a universal, “one size fits all option”, with figures not only in scale but somewhat part of the same ‘verse’. Any character I do not have I can kit-bash into existence or use additional lines that blend with LEGO in both scale and feel---Kre-O Transformers and G.I. Joes come to mind, as do Super Hero Squad figures for larger scale Marvel characters. All of these options, in addition to an endless assortment of vehicles, creatures, and locations, from not only Lego but these ancillary lines have provided me with a universal scale that is near endless in its possibilities yet manageable in its size. And I love it.
So, why are some figures collectors shifting their focus to LEGO? The toy rekindles the nostalgic joy that so many of us love to chase. The minifigures can be easily, naturally, and reversibly customized. LEGO offers product for a wide array of interests, and their catalog is not only universally collaborative unto itself but also easily combined with other companies’ brands in order to create an extensive, diverse but in-scale collection. Anything that isn’t offered on the market can be built or MOC’d to one’s content. If that’s not a recipe for a happy collector, I’m not sure what is.
By C.J. Stunkard
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