It’s very interesting how certain people meet and become friends. In the case of my meeting author and mega toy collector, Mark Bellomo, it was an instance where the line between his toy writing work and my toy writing work became thinner and thinner until eventually, the worlds overlapped.
But funny enough, it wasn’t until I read an interview with Mark that I was dissatisfied with that I reached out and asked if I could take a crack at it myself. Happily, Mark agreed! Part interview, part conversation; call it what you will. But not only did I make an invaluable connection with a fascinating person, but I had the chance to really hear and listen to one of the most influential toy collectors and writers in our community, and do the deep-dive interview that I knew his work truly deserved.
You can also find my reviews of his books here:
- Totally Tubular 80s Toys
- The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Transformers Action Figures
- The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe 1982-1994
- The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures 1977-1985
Hi Mark! Thank you so much for giving Toy Wizards this interview. I really wanted the opportunity to really get into it with you because (I feel) like the interviews I’ve read about you really only graze the surface of your work. Is that statement incorrect?
No, it’s not. It’s true, and that’s honestly what I find so remarkable about your website and the work that you do. You’re taking a deep dive into a pocket of pop culture in your articles that really aren’t for the uninitiated. I was laughing out loud when I was reading the article about the World of Warcraft player who tried to play Fortnite. People like you and I, we’re a little more seasoned, we’re veterans, but sometimes when we’re going to try this new thing, we end up having to yell at a bunch of kids to relax. But that’s why I like what you guys are doing and I agreed to the interview; really, I like that it’s not surface level. Your readers aren’t the ones who haven’t seen something and you need to explain it to them from scratch. Like how they can’t read your articles about Sailor Moon unless they already know who the Sailor Starlights are. There’s a service that you’re providing that I don’t think is available in the pop culture world. You don’t pay lip service to the casual reader.
I really appreciate that! I think for me, I got my start in interviewing people from being constantly disappointed by the interviews I read. So many outlets are so focused on the *item* the interview subject creates or the toys that they collect, that quite often the reader doesn’t get the chance to see that there’s a PERSON, an individual behind the work. This isn’t Wikipedia—let’s go deeper.
Yeah, I agree, let’s pull back the curtain a little bit—to get some in-depth answers. But the problem is that a lot of these websites, especially ones that have been around for a while, are not owned by the original people who started them. There’s the drift that starts to happen that the new owners want to pick up the casual fan. But there are people who want hits on their website, but no one goes onto comic book sites to read the archived information any more.
Which is why I’m always saying that evergreen content is imperative on websites. You have to plant seeds and get people to learn from your article that you wrote two years ago.
And it’s the difference between people who get it and the people who mean well. When you have an article written by a city reporter who is a geek at heart who means well, but didn’t keep up with collecting…there’s a danger in that. Because, he’s going to think that everything I tell him is correct and true. The problem comes with the fact that he has no point of reference for the stuff I’m going to tell him. So, if I’m misquoted or he misunderstands in the delivery, it’s all going to be viewed as wrong. That happens all the time. If I’m doing something for Buzzfeed or Fatherly, it’s a little bit of an ugh. It’s all okay, it’s good, and it’s promotion, but there’s still that ‘Oh God, really? I didn’t say that…’
Let’s touch on something real quick that I know is repeated in other interviews, but I want to make sure I have the numbers right. Your action figure collection really spans about 85,000 pieces?
Yeah, I would say about 85,000 is correct. And that list of toys I sent you, including the ‘girly toys’ like Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake are all going to be up on my website soon. Plus Glamor Gals, which is one of the greatest toy lines of all time that nobody talks about.
Mark…do you own any Spectra dolls?
Yes, I believe I own the whole set.
OH MY GOD.
I was at some small, local toy show more than a decade ago, before the Masters of the Universe Classics came out and She-Ra got the bump from that. Other than Princess of Power, I don’t think people were really that knowledgeable about the larger stuff that was coming out. Even Golden Girl…I’ve been looking for the castle from Golden Girl for a decade. You can’t talk about Princess of Power at all without discussing Golden Girl. I actually think Golden Girl was a little more ubiquitous than Princess of Power simply in the amount of stuff that they put into stores nationally.
But yeah, I love Spectra. The problem with Spectra dolls is that you almost always find them in sealed packages and the vac-metalized pieces on the dolls, which, if tied to the box too tight, get smudges on them. It’s one of the few lines, and this is an aberration, but it happens–sometimes collecting a Mint-Loose-Complete specimen that was gently taken care of for thirty years is better than finding a Mint and Sealed package item. Because by the virtue of it being sealed and pressed against the box with a twist-tie, you will see plastic melting and damage to the figure that you won’t see in loose samples. Spectra is one of those lines, and they’re beautiful figures.
Loryn, I’ve always been more fascinated, way more fascinated by female superhero or sci-fi fantasy dolls from that era. Particularly, Princess of Power. Because there’s so much more to contend with. If you want to get a vintage He-Man action figure, you get his chest armor with the little cross pattée on it. You’ve got his shield, you’ve got his Power Sword, you’ve got his ax. And that’s it, you’re done! But when you collect a She-Ra action figure, not only do you get the action figure and accessories, but you’ve got rooted hair, a cape, and those two little white fabric things that come up. Plus, you’re dealing with the gem inside the sword, and the paint on She-Ra’s golden boots. Those oxidize over time, so it’s much more challenging to collect She-Ra toys.
About eleven years ago on some forum, a guy said that he had a bunch of She-Ra figures that were in really good condition that he wanted to sell for $20 each. And no one took him up, so I said ‘Yeah, I’d like them’. He sent me a list and it was probably about five from series one, six from series two, and the rest were a toss-up. So, I get them sent to me and I almost wept when I opened the box. They were still in their packages, and he had cut the bubbles three-quarters of the way around and popped the figures out. They still had that ring of plastic around their hair, the translucent loop they put around rooted hair to keep it in place. The comics weren’t even removed. Mermista’s item, the little conch weapon thing was still in its baggie. So, for $20 each just over a decade ago, I got fifteen vintage She-Ra figures that still looked Mint-on-Card, and the She-Ra was the She-Ra that came with the very hard to find promotional package item with a necklace made for little kids to actually wear. I was very lucky to get the one with that necklace.
But my favorite girls action figure line of all time is Glamor Gals, by Kenner, from 1980-1982. They made a four-foot ocean liner cruise ship much like the Love Boat, which I’m sure you know. I tracked one down a few years ago that cost about $250 and it comes with sticker sheets that rival the US flag. It comes with pennants and labels that you could make flow from the mast all the way down…it even had a dentist’s office and swimming pool! In my opinion, anything that Kenner did with Indiana Jones and Star Wars…those playsets pale in comparison to what you found in the Glamor Gals line. I can’t wait for you to see the Glamor Gals section of my website. Because they really are some of my favorite action figures of all time.
I’m grinning with my mouth open hearing this because I’m seriously just as excited as you are.
I like toys! I remember there was a kind of a separate peace I had to make back in the day when I was collecting stuff. It was a deal I made with myself and my wife, because I can’t spend our money on toys. Money from paychecks, let’s say. So, what I had to do is something I always did, which is work three or four different jobs. I’m not a trust fund kid, I didn’t win the lottery. But since I was ten years old, I’ve always worked three or four different jobs. Because I realized that if I mowed fifteen lawns a week at $5 each, I could buy any toys I desired. And I bought almost all of this stuff retail.
I remember there was this moment where I had to write a book back in 2009 called Totally Tubular 80s Toys but in that tome, I went from 1980-1989 and talked about every major toy line or fad per year. Rubix Cube to Jenga, from Strawberry Shortcake to Princess of Power…anything. Then I bookmarked it and every chapter ended with the top ten Nielson rated TV programs, the top ten box office grossing films, and the top ten Billboard hits, and we got a bunch of AP photos.
But when it comes to key photos…when you buy any of my books…every piece of any toy in those books is from my personal collection. I don’t beg or borrow or anything. From the Star Wars Early Bird kit to the Missile Command Headquarters with sealed samples of the figures, that’s all from my own collection. So, in 2008-2009 when I was talking to the publishing company about making this 80’s book, I knew I was really going to have to work hard. Really have to work hard over the next few years, because I’m going to need Dino Riders samples and Air Raid samples, and I’m going to have to find 1982 Trivial Pursuit that was absolutely complete but looks good with no wear…I’m that guy.
I have real problems with authenticity. I have a real problem with action figure collectors who dismiss girl’s toys as dolls and boy’s toys as action figures. That bothers me. It really does. Because when you’re looking at G1 My Little Pony figures with the flat feet, the ribbons and the combs and the rooted hair…that toy line is just as expansive and rare and in-depth as the boy toys. The sheer amount of accessories and pieces, and packaging variations, and mail-aways…it was just as important as He-Man, G.I. Joe, and Star Wars. For them to get dismissed as ‘They’re just dolls’, and talk about boy’s toys with reverence in some hallowed way…I never felt like that. It made it even more fortunate that I get to write this book because it made me go, ‘Okay, I need to get some Care Bear samples, because I don’t have them. I need to get some Strawberry Shortcake samples, because I don’t have them.’
And then a funny thing happened. We’ll use Care Bears as an example, but I had to do a deep dive. I went back to their American Greetings beginnings. I had to see which Care Bears came out first, versus what came out later. Then you start seeing characters like Baby Hugs and Baby Tugs, and Grams Bear, then you start thinking ‘Well…maybe I’ll include the Care Bear cousins’, which then leads into a character like Braveheart Lion, I thought ‘This is a really beautiful toy’. There’s something very iconic in the delivery of Care Bears. Yes, they’re teddy bears, but they’re improved upon because there’s a unifying system of symbols, there’s a unifying system of aesthetics, that is utilized from bear to bear to Care Bear Cousins, whether it’s an eight, twelve, or sixteen inch bear.
Even with Strawberry Shortcake, and I was just wowed. I remember buying a mint, loose, and complete sample of Sour Grapes. I took her home and I went ‘Oh, this is great!’ But then I took a closer look and said ‘Crap…this isn’t the right hair tie.’ Some child had owned it and they played with it a little, the hair was a little messed up, but then tied the hair back with a fabric hair tie that looked like Sour Grape’s hair tie, but it wasn’t. So, I said ‘Fine, I’ll do a saved item search for a cheap in-box one so I can guarantee the original hair tie used by Sour Grapes is the right one.’ But then I started getting into Purple Pie Man, and I wanted to get Plum Pudding…you see, these are the little conversations I have in my head. But I don’t have a lot of space to cover the Strawberry Shortcake line, because every entry in the book only gets two or three lines. I really wanted to include the Party Pleasers, but they were reissues of original characters from the first two series in different outfits. But Plum Pudding…do I include her?
I’m very considerate of any toy line, whether its for boys or girls because regardless of what I think about that line, or what the popular opinion of that toy is, there is always someone walking this earth who had that toy, and to them it was the most important, iconic symbol in their lives. I try to treat every single toy line with the same amount of reverence as the stuff that I loved as a kid.
But you’re not wrong to start thinking in that direction. One of the things I love the most about 80s toys was the consideration and development of the WORLD. All of them had these fleshed-out universes and settings. Maybe it’s because there were cartoons attached to them, but there were so many more layers happening than we have going on in a lot of toy lines today.
Testify! Preach! You’re right!
I want to go back to something we discussed a little bit ago regarding Nostalgia and where we are in this wave of it, whether it is cresting or growing or fizzling. What are your thoughts about companies like Super7 or Mondo who are obtaining these licenses to classic products like Masters of the Universe? Do you think it affects vintage collecting, and what are your thoughts about their sudden new visibility? Do you have any opinions on that?
I do, and I think it’s a complicated issue. But I’ll go back to your point about how awesome these worlds were in the 80s. In the 1970s and 1980s, particularly after Reagan deregulated the FCC in children’s television, it opened the door. Toy companies were more competitive, they had more liberties to shove toys down people’s throats. Back in the day people like Jim Shooter at Marvel were smart enough, and I’ll use Transformers and G.I. Joe as examples, to let ‘the creatives’ breathe. To let them do their jobs with very little interference. They respected creators. They respected them as the idea people, the ones that made the product go, so they didn’t interfere. Until the mid-90s when marketing got their foothold in the creation of these universes, things weren’t as cut and dry. There was a lot more ‘test market interference’ which effected what was injected into a toy line. I mean, they’d look through a glass and in two days were able to make a determination about what kids want?
The reason why a lot of these worlds, and I’m going to reference the Romantic Movement with Coleridge and Wordsworth and Blake and stuff. When Coleridge was writing his Biographia Literaria, he was talking about suspension of disbelief. I’m paraphrasing here, but he had said that in order to get people to buy into fictional worlds, the world has to be created and devised in such a way that people will buy into it. That’s what’s called ‘poetic faith’. For a kid growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, these worlds were created so well and so effectively, that an entire generation of fans had so much faith in these fictional worlds that they still exist today. And that’s a result of letting the creative people do their job, for the most part, unimpeded. When you live in a world where creative marketing calls the shots, it’s getting more and more difficult.
For an interview I did with a smaller paper, I was talking about Applejack from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I’d mentioned her cowboy hat, which is brown in the cartoon, but the first time Hasbro released the main six figures, Applejack comes with a mint green hat. My heart sinks thinking about that five-year-old child, gleefully watching the show with their family. Life imitates art, so they have the toy in their hand as they’re watching the show. They look at the TV and down at the hat…and throw it into the corner because the color is wrong. They then ask their dad if they can get out some felt and scrapbooking stuff out so they can make a brown hat.
But really…why couldn’t they just make the hat brown? What is the disconnect with these big companies that details like this are wrong? So, with smaller companies like Super7 and Mondo toys, they understand the communities better because those companies were founded by fans. They’re getting handed these hallowed reins, these reverential reins, and they can take care of the toys and more efficiently deliver imaginative toys because there are fewer steps.
When you’re working with a multinational or global corporation, you’ve got to consider different markets. You have to consider the Chinese market, who is just now in the last five years are getting internet. With that, you have to consider the toys for the global community. Even with the Transformers movie, you might think to yourself, ‘Hey, why did that scene take place in Beijing?’ Well, there’s a reason for it. That doesn’t happen with Mondo and Super7 because the link from the company to the fan is far more direct. How do I feel about it? I think it’s great! But the flip side of that is when the print run of a figure is gone from a smaller company, you’re not going to be able to walk into the Odd Lots and say ‘Yay, Masters of the Universe Classics! I’m going to get the ones I missed for $9.99!’ That’s not going to happen anymore.
Do you think that the accessibility of toys from the companies we just discussed makes toy collecting more visible or trendier than it’s been before? Is there a new breed of person identifying as toy collectors who may not have been into it before this burst of new smaller run toys?
I don’t think casual fans on the bubble have any idea about Masters of the Universe Classics. I don’t think they know what they are. When I put out a book, there are certain things I have to consider when thinking about content. And that means I’m going to kind of limit it to domestic product. Because if I’m writing a G1 Transformers guide, as much as I would like to include Star Saber and Victory Leo and the Dino Cassettes and stuff like that, I don’t think it would be fair or equitable to put in a G1 Transformers book because the general fan, the casual fan, the guy or gal that grew up with that property in the 80s have no idea who those characters are. So, casual fans aren’t as hyper-aware of the community as we are. A lot of them don’t even know that Mondo and Super7 exist.
But! The hope is that when you go to Super7’s website right now and you see that the wonderful Christmas edition of He-Man exists, and you buy it and you put it up next to your Christmas tree, then have a Christmas party and Eddie Lipchitz and Mauricio come up to you and say ‘Hey, where did you get that He-Man?’ and you, Loryn says ‘I got that He-Man from Super7 and here’s the weblink, let me text it to you’, now you’ve opened the door. And it’s the high-quality product that Mondo and Super7 are producing that can reach out to the fans. But it’s very difficult to inculcate casual fans to our tribe because they’re more passive about finding news than we are.
You’re completely right, Mark, and I forget that sometimes. I forget that there are regular people out there who aren’t toy obsessed and who don’t go to conventions all the time to hunt, and collect, and scour. I forget that’s not regular.
But Loryn, while you’re laughing about that, I’m getting flashbacks to elementary school. ‘You’re playing with Smurfs? Faggot’. Punch. Locker. Garbage Can. It is what it is. It’s natural selection. It’s ‘Merica’ with an M, it’s what happens, and I think I’m probably stronger for that and have a better sense of justice now. But what really warms my hard is that regardless of what the people reading this article think about The Big Bang Theory…for one of my coworkers to know what San Diego Comic Con is because it was mentioned on The Big Bang Theory repeatedly over its seven or eight seasons? That’s a triumph.
And when you think about pop culture today, which is all I do every day until I get nose bleeds…and remember, I was born in 19mumblemumble…me and my friends of Generation X regarded the 1950s as the most important and satisfactory decade in American history. We saw Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley and American Graffiti and thought the 50s was it. Everyone was happy, sock hops, spinning records, post-World War II, great economy, and thought that the 50s must have been just something to look back on. That’s happening now with the 1980s. My wife has had The Goldbergs on for the past couple weeks, and there’s Stranger Things and The Toys That Made Us.
What really opened my eyes was when I watched the new version of Stephen King’s IT, because I’m a huge horror movie fan. I’m watching IT…and I had just re-read the book, because whenever I see a movie based on a book I like, I re-read the book. I’m watching the movie and I’m like ‘Hold on, record skip. Wait a second. This took place during the 1950s. So…oh…it’s taking place in the 80s’. And it’s because the 80s are so powerful and resonant and popular now, it’s unavoidable for people to think of that era in American pop culture was wonderful in spite of the fact that we were hiding under our desks because of the Cold War mentality because of nuclear war. Everyone thinks that the 80s was just this amazing time and these are fans that are generations separated from that time period.
Let’s look at G.I. Joe. The original toy line came out from 1982-1994. Anyone who collected G.I. Joe action figures back then, I call them first generation fans. Then between 1994-2007, we have second generation fans. They were there for the Toys R Us exclusives, and they were there for the resuscitation of the brand beginning in 2001 up until the 25th Anniversary Collection, the 30th, till the end of the retail stuff. And now, you have this third generation of fans. Who never grew up in the 80s, they may have 90s birthdays—they have capital, they have a real feel for the 80s. They love it, they revere it, it’s everything to them. But they never experienced it. But to say these people ‘don’t get it’ or call them posers and noobs…these are the people who have to carry the torch when I’m dead.
Shouldn’t we be encouraging these folks? I don’t get it—I keep seeing ‘I don’t want them on my forum, I don’t want him in my Facebook group because he’s a noob’ like, way to put screeching brake halts on your brand, folks. There’s a reason why Western toys aren’t on fire right now. Because there’s nothing in the media and no one to carry the torch from Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy and The Lone Ranger because they haven’t correctly bred a new generation of fans. The same thing for the 12” G.I. Joe line. When those guys shuffle off this mortal coil, it doesn’t exist, it’s over! I’m very considerate about this third generation of fans that are occurring right now.
Listen, there are no G.I. Joe figures on shelves right now. There’s no movie, there’s no cartoon. I put out my third edition hardcover of The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe on October 30th, 2018. Same print run we’ve done with all of my books. It is completely and utterly sold out. Done. How?! Because that third generation fan has money and loves that time period.
That perfectly proves your point and circles back to what you were saying about the 1950s. If I think back to what was popular when I was in high school, it was zoot suits and swing dancing.
Oh God, remember that? The resurgence of swing…
Exactly! And remember, I was in high school in the late 90s. That’s when pin-up models were trendy again, too.
Yes! And not only was swing in, but dressing like people who were swing dancers too. The redder lipstick, the done-up hair, the skirts. It’s fascinating when stuff like that happens in pop culture.
To this day I have friends who walk around donning steam punk. And you know what? They weren’t there. But it’s beautiful artistry. And unfortunately, because the 1980s really are so far gone, I think we’re at the point where all we have left really is…well…the art. The toys. Like we were discussing before, we have these incredible worlds that were made for us, and all we have left are the tangible relics in the form of toys. It’s immersion, not just ‘Yay, my G.I. Joe, I’m a kid forever’. It’s immersion and the return to a world that’s better than all of the crap that’s going on out there in reality.
We also have to consider this. Whenever I talk about generational stuff and these collectibles over time, I always think about The Big Seven. The big seven toy lines, which are Marvel Superheroes, DC Superheroes, Star Wars, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. It’s always the big boy’s toys brands. I remember when I was writing my first G.I. Joe book in 2003 or 2004, and in 2001-2002 I was finishing collecting the G.I. Joe line. It was a little expensive, but I could get it relatively economically and in really good condition! Now what’s happening is these folks are considering elbow cracks and broken torsos and pelvises and paint wear and Gold Plastic Syndrome. The first and second generation of fans, we’re not selling our stuff right now. There’s far less product out there for this rabid third generation of fans to collect.
When I was writing the prices for my G.I. Joe book, the one that just dropped, I wrote my prices and finished the intro, I was given the forward, and I was just about to turn it in, when I did a completed item search on eBay and went…’Wait a second…why is this $150 more? That was a month ago! What the hell is going on?!’ Then I started doing a deep dive into all the prices again. I called up my acquisitions editor and told them we had to put a hold on the book, put a hold on the printing for a month because I had to re-do all the prices in this book. Because the fandom is so rabid right now, you can’t accurately track the prices from month to month because they’re going up so fast.
Do you ever go to any specialized shows or conventions?
I do, I go to G.I. Joe shows and do book signings. The International G.I. Joe Convention, Retro Con, New York Comic Con. Yeah, I go to them. I haven’t so much in the past year because I’ve had so much work to do, but now my convention schedule is getting quite full. That’s another thing that’s occurring now, Loryn, that didn’t happen in the past. You had these big Wizard shows and that was it. But now you have these small, intimate regional shows of 500-1,500 people where you can really find some good stuff and it saves on the price of shipping. It costs more to ship a $13 action figure than it costs for the figure itself.
Five years ago, I was at one of those small, regional conventions and I was digging through a long box where everything was like four for a dollar. And I found something that I thought might have been the first appearance of Moon Knight, which I already have, but it was like a quarter. I remember saying to the guy selling them ‘You know what this is, right?!’ and he said ‘I just want to get rid of these comics’, so I’m like, “All right! Thanks!’ You can find those at those little shows. I’ll go to those G.I. Joe shows and inevitably one of the Joe dealers has two Sterlite totes full of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures. Something like fifty figures and a bunch of parts, ‘What do you want for it? Fifty bucks? Done! Thanks!’
Then I go home, spend a few days pairing it up, and it’s like $1,000 worth of figures. You can get these at the little shows. Plus, there’s validation too that I never had as a kid. No internet, no comic book shows, getting my stuff off a spinner at the local drug store, so if’s a regional show and you’re on this forum or subscribe to this group and there’s like 1,000 members of this group, and fifty of them decide to go to that regional show, you’re going to meet the people you’ve been talking to for the last year, meet like-minded people, and maybe (if you live in a small enough town) for the first time all year! So why not go to these?
Exactly! You have to take advantage of small shows. I’m in Los Angeles—the bones have been picked. That’s why it’s so important to find these tiny shows. Instead of going to big shows where you see the same faces over and over again and a toy booth is just a wall of Funko Pops. No thanks.
I have nothing to say about Funk Pops except that I don’t own one. I will never own one. We’ll use Spider-Man as an example. The first Spider-Man action figure came out in 1967-1968. I have the Mego series too, and everything that came out after that. I have so many Spider-Man action figures. Do I really need another one that I can’t really play with? Not to say that I play with action figures, but do I need one that I can’t play with? With Funko Pops, there’s never been a button go off in my head where I said ‘I’ve gotta have it!’ So yeah, to each their own.
But knowing that to each their own, posting nice things, being humble and gracious, and not a ranting, raving edge-lord is important in the line of work that we do, right?
Absolutely! Otherwise, we’re no better than the jocks that used to beat us up back when we were kids. I’m grateful for everyone who makes an effort to read what I write or buy my books. I’ll share a story with you. After one of the last interviews I did, someone sent me a private message and said that there was really no point for me to publish price points in my books because the prices change every four months. And again, I had to explain to him that diehard action figure aficionados who are AWARE of toy prices only make up 15-20% of the market share. So, for the casual collector or fan who picks up my book and sees the price of a Transformer or She-Ra action figure they had as a kid and sees that it now has value, that makes them feel good.
I think that angry posters are so protective of the things that they love that they forget there’s a larger world out there. Just because nerd culture is popular, it doesn’t make the world go round. Just because you’re the top dog at your local comic book shop doesn’t mean your opinion is the only one that’s valid. It’s fascinating to watch someone who thinks that her opinion is the only one that matters get taken down at a convention, or even over the course of an online thread.
Unfortunately, much of nerd culture is made up of people who at one point may have been bullied. Therefore, perhaps as a way of protecting themselves, they’re arbitrarily convinced that they are smarter and better than everyone else based on nothing. However, those real-life interactions eventually take place, and said ‘nerd’ is kicked in the face with a slice of humility because suddenly, you don’t get to be the smartest one in the room. I always tell people that they don’t know anything and knowing nothing is the only way you’ll ever learn anything.
Isn’t that interesting…and that turn of phrase, kick in the face. There’s validity to that! That’s western civilization, from Plato to Socrates. The only way to know anything is by admitting you know nothing! I’m never going to pretend I know everything during interviews. There are people who just won’t do that. They’ll nod and say ‘okay’ and whip out their iPhones at the end.
I want to go back to G.I. Joe with you, because as we’ve discussed earlier, there’s no new product on the shelf. If there was current G.I. Joe, it might not be as desirable or collectible as it currently is. With that, Mark, in your opinion, if G.I. Joe came back today, how would he need to be in order to make a successful return? Including the wars we’ve been through since 1994 when he went off the shelf in a post-2001 9/11 world, how would G.I. Joe need to come back?
I think the real problem with G.I. Joe is that you’re marketing a 35-year-old brand that oozing and dripping with Cold War politics and military nomenclature to a bunch of kids who have never hidden under desks. So, what needs to happen in order for G.I. Joe to be a viable brand in 2019 and beyond is what happened in 1980 when the Hassenfeld Brothers sat with a team of specials and said ‘Listen, we just beat the Russians, Reagan is President, patriotism is at an all-time high, we can get into the Delta Team stuff.’ The same as what happened after Vietnam with G.I. Joe and the Adventure Team stuff.
G.I. Joe now as a reinvented brand needs to be more of a Mission Impossible, John Wick, squad-based Tom Clancy kind of thing. Because a team of very military based specialists will not work in the modern American zeitgeist. All I’m hearing now is about how Trump is president and patriotism is at an all-time high…but patriotism is at an all-time high for half of Americans. And a brand today cannot survive if only half of the people in the country support it. Therefore, it’s got to be a concept that can be embraced by liberal helicopter parents as well.
That’s a perfectly stated point, and that’s the distinction! We don’t want to offend anyone, but that’s where we are. We’re truly in this divided nation. Helicopter Liberals versus Trump Supporters and we have two separate versions of what it means to be “American”. I think if G.I. Joe came back, it would have to be handled to delicately, so intelligently, and with so much more consideration than a lot of people realize.
Right! And we’re in such a binary society; American society is so binary it’s red/blue. In Reagan’s America, you didn’t have liberals and conservatives spitting on each other. It was more tolerant. Look at an episode of Family Ties. You have the parents who are liberal protester hold outs of the ‘Flower Power’ generation and they have a son, Alex P. Keaton, a young republican. But what brought them together is that regardless of their politics, there were certain things where your moral compass has to point true north.
And because many of my potential customers feel so deeply about their political affiliation, I endeavor to be apolitical to the nth degree. Because liberals feel conservatives or right-wingers are evil, and right-wingers feel liberals are evil. Never the twain shall meet. And both of them, I think, hey, middle of the road politics. You’ve got to put out or promote a brand that is either fantasy based, which is why so much fantasy-based stuff works so well right now because there are no politics attached to it. G.I. Joe, general issue Joe, is a political brand because it’s affiliated with the US government.
A lot of people say that after Vietnam, a lot of people started to distrust the government. But I say that, as a Generation X’er, that I wasn’t young enough to witness that. But when you get to the early and mid-90s, when Fox Mulder was railing against the iniquities of the federal government in The X-Files, distrust turned into conspiracy theories against the government. It’s very difficult. I think if you had a classroom full of elementary schoolers and you asked them a very simple question, ‘Do you trust your government?’ I think you’d be hard-pressed to hear a lot of students say that yes, they trust their government. And I think it’s very challenging to not only sell a military brand to their parents, but to those kids.
But kids today are hyper-aware. I don’t think I knew the difference between democrats and republicans at that age. I was too busy playing with toys. I think kids are forced to grow up so quickly today that they don’t have enough time to throw rocks in a pool, or sit on a curb and just talk with their friends. Their lives are scheduled and regimented. There’s no time to explore and develop those critical thinking skills and problem solve on your own.
Going back to kids and toys, I’ll share a statistic I recently heard. It’s said that fewer children are playing with physical toys because they’re overly connected to youth electronics, such as phones and tablets. In your research, have you found any evidence that discusses how children today play with toys?
Yes, I have, and I’ve done a lot of research on that. And there’s one thing that really bothers me, which I don’t think I can do anything about. You said you were born in 1985, so you grew up in the late 80s and early 90s. You didn’t grow up with any smart phones or iPads and you were not born to an Internet. So, you and I had the liberties of playing with toys. I’m a little older than you, so video games were something that we did when we couldn’t go out and do other stuff. What’s happening now…well, first I’ll ask you a question. When you were being punished and you were given a time out by your parent or guardian, you went in your room and you weren’t allowed to play with your toys or video games, correct?
I would usually read a book or play with my Barbies. My parents just wanted me out of their face.
Now, what’s happening is…and I’ve watching this with friends and relative’s kids…when kids are punished today, kids who are getting devices as early as four or five years old, they’re immediately told No electronics. No iPads, no video games, and no Smart phones. All you can do is play with these toys. So, kids equate action figures and board games as ‘punishment toys’. Those are the things that you’re allowed to play with when you’re grounded or being scolded. And that’s happening more and more often. When you do that, subconsciously, those kids are equating those as the boring toys.
My mom was a seamstress, and she always had remnants. When I wanted to build Ice Planet Hoth, I’d take an old brown garbage bag, rip it up, crumple it up, and then go downstairs to the dining room table. I would take those crumpled up garbage bags, throw one of her white remnant sheets over it, get my Star Wars action figures, and play Ice Planet Hoth on that table for hours. Ultimately, over the course of hours of play, I would get a good feeling. A mild feeling of euphoria. I built this world. I had the good guys versus the bad guys. And I would play out this story, a true imaginative story. I created my own world. It was satisfying and gave me satisfaction. But the problem today is that when kids are given devices at five, or allowed to make a Facebook page at eight or nine, every time someone comments…every time you get a Like…every time you get a text…scientifically, you get a tiny hit of dopamine that is just as powerful as any opiate.
I have seen friend’s kids, under twelve, wake up at night, go over to their cellphone, check their messages and Facebook comments. I watch their faces, you can see it in their smile. They got their Like or their comment and they get that little euphoric hit. But they get that fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty times per day. So, when you’re punished from those devices…I think you’re going to go through a physical withdrawal. You will see withdrawal symptoms. There was a reason that Steve Jobs didn’t give those devices to his own kids. He knew the danger.
That’s a great point! I’ve heard that drug usage rates are down, but you know what? Maybe it’s been replaced.
Can I ask you a question?
Of course, ask me whatever you want.
Where do you live?
Santa Clarita, California.
Great show, by the way. When was the last time you experienced a power outage?
Oh wow…none recently.
But you’ve experienced them. So, let me ask you. What do you do when there’s a blackout?
I celebrate that my phone still works.
Why did you say that?
Because it’s connectivity.
Do you see the point I’m making? I’m not throwing rocks or stones! I experienced a power outage recently and that was my first thought too; to quote: ‘Thank God my phone is still working.’ Thankfully, I have an Otter case on my phone because I have the attention span of a ferret on amphetamines, and after that realization that I was dependent upon my iPhone, I tossed it across the room and said ‘This is very dangerous’.
So, my wife went around and lit candles and we played a board game. You know what else we did? We sat around and we talked. And I realized I couldn’t think of the last time we had an evening where electronic devices weren’t involved in any way. Whether it’s streaming Netflix, whether it’s playing Red Dead Redemption II, whether it’s me writing on my computer with documents open, a show on, and Facebook ready so I can respond to posts. But this is good, right? If there’s an electromagnetic pulse emanating from New York City and wipes out the eastern seaboard’s power, we’re going to be fine, right?
Do you want to go take our toys into the woods and build a new world? I’m ready!
My friend Jason and I were talking about old films the other day and films that date well. One of my favorite films of all time is Red Dawn, the original Red Dawn. I do not believe or accept that there was a remake. I love John Milius, so I put the movie on two days ago. But your comment of ‘Do you want to take our toys into the woods’…your comment triggered that movie, because that’s what happens in the opening. And as a kid in the summertime, I’d go through my dad’s old army stuff. I’d grab his canteen, his web belt, and his really scratchy wool blanket, take a sleeve of saltine crackers and fill the canteen with water.
My local friends, four or five of us, would go into the woods at 7am and play until dinner time, which was five o’clock. My parents had a rule that we could be out until the street lights came on, so at summer time, I’d be home at 8:30pm. And we would do this over and over and over again. And I think that because I spent so much time in the woods, I still have enough wherewithal to survive in the wilderness for a week or two. I could do that. I could do that, right?
Then you watch something or read Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and I don’t think those World War II vets were the greatest generation because of what they survived from Normandy to the Eagle’s nest. But they were the greatest generation because they were prepared. They all knew how to shoot a gun. They all knew how to rough it if they had to rough it. We are so far removed, from the 1940s to the current day, from our natural selves that were we to face a sort of Thundarr the Barbarian type of ‘all technology is gone, make way for super science and sorcery!’ I think we’d all be in big damn trouble. Myself included!
I feel like I can identify with some of that, too. I spent three years in Israel in the 90s. Back then, they were about twenty years behind us. So at a very young age, I learned about getting fitted for a gas mask.
I think that’s part of why I like you and like talking to you! My mom’s family is from Belgium and there were no American shows on TV. It was just bookshelves of World War II books, and the Battle of Normandy. But you lived in Israel for three years? Tell me about that.
My dad was born there and I actually have dual citizenship.
And I have dual citizenship in Belgium—this is super weird! What was it like going from America to Israel? What was the biggest difference in culture?
It was a big culture shock in the way that they didn’t have cable, and not everyone had a VCR or a Nintendo, or a Super Nintendo. Kids were out all the time and they had absolute freedom. To this day, I click more with people who are now in their forties because I had that same sense of freedom as they did. I came back when the lights turned on, be back for dinner, and even though it was only three years of living there, I was completely left to my own devices. I could have gone anywhere or done anything. I learned how to take the buses and knew which cafes not to go into because they might blow up.
But wasn’t it empowering for you? To that by yourself?
Absolutely! To this day I have a very strong independent streak and really enjoy just doing things by myself. Conventions, movies, anything. Of course I love company, but I don’t need it. And circling it back to toys, I come from a big family. I have a lot of sisters. But I still always enjoyed playing by myself. I would read books and act the whole thing out with my dolls. The immersion was so intense, but like you said about Planet Hoth, it was so satisfying. That’s what book writing is for me, with that one novel I wrote. It’s the return to imagination play, and the surrender to being inside your own head…and I love it.
But going back to Israel…I was there when the Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated. What was so interesting about that was that in Israel, there’s an air-raid siren that sounds across the whole country. And they use it on certain holidays or events when a moment of silence needs to fall across the entire country. We’re Jewish, but not religious.
The same with me on my mother’s side of the family were Baegin for many years but after Belgium was occupied and they killed a couple of my great nephews and starved a couple more of them, they changed their last name from Baegin to Begine to make it seem more French. But that didn’t work. So, I have Jewish in me on my mother’s side, and Roman-Catholic in me on my father’s side and I don’t practice, but I’m hyper-aware of it. And I’m always impressed by people who go to Israel, as challenging as it is to be in that country. Interesting…very interesting.
Would you believe me if I said I knew you had Jewish in you?
One knows the next. Your last name isn’t Jewish, but you are.
My last name, Bellomo, is Italian. But yeah…I’m just…there’s a kinship. Please, go on! Ask some more questions!
Before we wrap up this incredible conversation and interview, I want to touch on something that some of your other interviews don’t discuss…and that’s YOU. Let’s talk about you, Mark. What are some of your other interests and hobbies or fandoms or things that you do that are outside of toy collecting and writing about toys?
If I’m not good at something, I try to go back and revisit it. It bothers me when I can’t obtain mastery of something. I feel like if you only have one shot of living on this little blue marble hurdling through space, then why not live it all the way up every second? When I was a kid, I was the smallest in my class and I had braces on my legs till I think first grade, bucked teeth, introverted, and I went to a Catholic elementary school that went through eighth grade, and we only had eighteen people in our graduating class. So, when you’re branded as a certain stereotype from jump street…that just follows you. But what I realized was that whenever we’d go out into the church parking lot and played football…I really liked it! But because I didn’t have confidence and the jocks kind of boxed me out, I never really pursued it. But I always had this secret love for football.
I remember this one day in first or second grade, these two jocks, these two bullies, were talking about football. And I sort of tuned out and I was like ‘Yeah, Star Wars, Smurfs…’ But then they took out these little gumball football helmets. The two guys were Cowboys fans and they loved those football helmets. I had some 8” Mego figures at the time, a Spider-Man and a Captain America. Back then in the late 70s, there was a live-action Captain America movie where Captain America rode a motorcycle and wore a helmet. I saw those helmets and thought to myself ‘I bet those football helmets will fit on the head of my 8” Mego Captain America figure!’ But I can’t tell these jocks that I want the helmet for my Captain America figure because, you know, punch, hit, garbage can, locker.
So, I mowed a lawn and got a few bucks, got quarters, went to the gumball machine and I heard those two guys talking. One was a Cowboys fan and the other was a Steelers fan, which were both super popular teams at the time so those helmets were in every gumball machine. But I wanted a helmet that matched my Captain America action figure! So, I put in a few quarters and I got the Cowboy’s helmet, a Steelers’ helmet, and I saw one that had red, white, and blue on it, which was perfect for my Captain America! So, I traded all my helmets with the guys, which was like seven or eight in total, for this one helmet and I had no idea that it was for like, the worst team in the NFL. They laughed at me because it was a New England Patriot’s helmet, but the way it was back then, it looked great on my Captain America figure. So…I kind of became a secret football fan in 1983.
Back then, my dad and I didn’t really get along. We do now, but he was more of a go fishing, go hunting, shoot the pheasant, skin the pheasant kind of guy. And I was a ‘read a Dragonlance Chronicles book, play with Star Wars, play video games.’ You see what’s happening. But when football was on, and I grew up in Upstate New York, twice a year the Buffalo Bills would play the Patriots and I slowly became a fan of the worst team in the league. But over the last three or four decades, the team I liked because of my Mego Captain America figure is now revered as one of the best teams in history. I go to the games every year, and I have a New England Patriots logo tattoo over my heart for my dad. The other one is the Belgian flag because of my mom. Both of those tattoos represent trials or moments that were deeply connected to both of my parents.
When I went away to college, I worked at a youth center. Like a drop in shelter for first generation low income kids. I never performed organized sports, but there was this one day where they were playing basketball and needed one more player, so they called me over. But after about three weeks of playing, I realized that I’m not a bad point guard. I played basketball three hours a day for four years after that. I played football with the varsity team behind the youth center, and I’m very fortunate that I got the opportunity to make up for the time I lost when I would have liked to play in middle school and high school decades earlier. For me, life is about never living with a regret. If I have a regret, I want to go back and rectify it.
I’m exactly the same way—this could all implode tomorrow and I don’t want to feel that I ever missed an opportunity or a connection with anyone.
I think that’s also magnified because we’ve traveled to other countries. I know just how lucky we are living in this country. I’ve seen destitution and suffering. There’re bad blocks in The Bronx, sure, but when you’re in a small country in Eastern Europe and they tell you it’s impoverished? Folks- it’s impoverished. Things can be bad for you here and you can still afford a McDouble. You can grab sustenance off a dollar menu. But when there’s no money, no sustenance, no wherewithal…we’re very, very lucky living where we live right now. Next time you think America sucks and it’s a crappy country, take pause and realize the benefits you have here.
When I taught college and they students would complain that they couldn’t get a job, I’d tell them to walk down the entirety of Main Street and collect job application. Take a day and fill them all out—you’ll get offered three jobs. If you’re reading this right now, it means you have a computer and we’re connected. You can email anyone in the world. So, take every opportunity and realize, and I never say this—and don’t mean it in a religious way—but realize how blessed we are.
But you know Loryn, both of us are writers, so this happens to both of us. I get about twenty messages per month from people who want to know how to be a writer. And I tell them that by virtue of them asking me this, they could be writing. I ask what they’ve been doing, and they say they’ve been thinking about this idea, or thinking about that idea. And I say to them to open their three favorite magazines, find the contact information for the Editor in Chief, and ask them for their submission guidelines. Then, spend time writing and submitting articles. And if you keep doing that, you’re going to get a bite. But it’s never going to happen for you if you spend time just thinking about it.
I never want to be paralyzed by indecision when I could be doing. I’ve never read any of the books I’ve written unless I need to use them for reference. But that moment I submit that final proofread manuscript…I don’t want to see it again for a while! My metaphor for life is just like driving in New York.
Go forward. Go forward. Go forward. Don’t look back. Go forward. Life is so full. I want to live it all the way up. And that’s not to say I’m not reflective. Because some mornings, I’ll go out to my back porch with a cup of coffee…I’ll light up a cigarette…and I will recognize just how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing. I reflect for a few minutes, and I’m back to the manuscript. Because, and I’ll tell your readers this…once you get that first thing published, you have all the confidence in the world. And you never want it to stop.
You have that sample. You will get out there. There are websites on collectibles and video games that are desperate for content. You’ll get paid for it or they’ll give you a case of action figures! So why are you still reading this?! The second you’re done reading Loryn’s article, put pen to paper and get those keys clacking. What are you waiting for?
You only get one shot at this.
You can purchase Mark Bellomo’s toy collecting tomes directly from Krause Publishing or through Amazon. His web series, Collectible Spectacle, is hosted on YouTube. He will also be featured in the upcoming season three of Netflix’s ‘The Toys That Made Us’.