Star Wars Figures: Addiction and Confession

Dead man walking
I still vividly remember waiting outside a KB Toys in Massachusetts in 1995 one weekday morning. I didn’t need to be at school until around 11am so I had time to purchase the first new Star Wars toys since 1983. Like most people my age I had some of the toys when I was a kid so why not, it would be fun to have some updated ones. The store only allowed each person to purchase two action figures that morning so to let more people buy some. Which was a new concept back then. I talked some other friends of mine to get in line and pick me up some extras. If this wasn’t foreshadowing I don’t know what is. This harmless small purchase would be the beginning of something that would spiral down into much darker territory. So I give you here my tale of the fun hobby that started that I started in the mid 90’s which before the end of the decade would leave me a broken man.
Going back to that day in 1995. I didn’t have enough extra cash in high school to get the full first series of the Power of the Force set. I was 17, had no job, a small allowance, and made most of my cash trading Magic: the Gathering cards 2-3 times a week. To get the full ‘red card’ set would have to wait until years later. No rare variants like the half circle Boba Fett for me either at this time. Those were a far of pip dream that I wasn’t even aware of yet. The POTF action figure line was a strange one in the history of Star Wars toys. Everyone had ripped biceps you could see by the under armor typed clothing they were wearing, and Leia looked like Luke in a dress. But again, first new Star Wars toys in over a decade so we forgave these transgressions quite quickly. I kept collecting a little here and a little there through the end of high school and into my freshman year of college. Didn’t really think much of it more than just something fun to do. Picked up some vintage stuff to but I knew that would be almost impossible, and very expensive, to get a complete set so I focused more on the new stuff.
Fast forward to my college sophomore year. I got a job at the largest comic shop chain in Dallas/Fort Worth. I was hired for my anime and action figure knowledge as well as being able to talk nerd to most people without scaring them off. Now I was getting paid to talk about my collecting, get others excited about buying figures, and connect with people who were even more into it than I was. Only in hindsight do I see now that this was the match that lit the fuze for what was about to proceed.
the first set
Within 6 months I’m going out on ‘runs’ with collector friends looking for action figures. This could be between classes, on days off, or late at night when we knew Wal-Mart restocked their figures. You would think that walking around the toy aisle around 3am on a Tuesday would be a red flag but hey, we weren’t the only ones there most of the time. We knew all the collectors in the area and they did the same things. It felt quite normal between our weird little community. Though we did have standards.  No Furbies, Beanie Babies, or Hot Wheels. Figures were 100% of what we went after always.  We never paid off the guy stocking the shelves to grab rare figures early or to give us a heads up when they were about to do an unscheduled restock  Hell, I had the power to give people discounted comics and I never misused it. We were above that, it was about ‘the hunt’ and taking shortcuts was cheating.  We would make trips to out of the way stores in nearby small towns that we knew were not as popular with DFW collectors scene.  I would say we plotted all these on a map and studied them like a scene from a WWII film but we didn’t. We didn’t have too, we had them all memorized!
I think about the time the POTF2 Collection 2 came out (green cards with hologram) was when I decided that the best way to get every figure for my collection was to get in on each new set when they first hit shelves.  Now to do this would take more money than I had regularly. So what was a crazed collector with no reason for slowing down to do? It wasn’t like a bank was going to loan me the money. Then the best/worst idea came to me. Get a credit card just for toys! There was always some company on my college campus giving away free credit cards with a $5,000+ credit line. Sometimes you even got a free t-shirt with you 30% interest rate. “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” right?  So I got one and sat down to plan my next big purchases. I mean, I would just buy them all at once at department store prices and then pay off the credit card with the money I would normally spend on action figures over the next few weeks right? Cleary this would work out perfectly. Not so clearly was the math I was using to make this assumption. But hey, I needed that second Momaw Dandon figure. One to open, one to save naturally.
This continued for a while. Like, ‘two fully maxed credit cards’ while. I had a room just for action figures in my apartment that was 90% Star Wars. But maxed credit cards didn’t stop me from picking up figures still. Like any good junkie a lack of funds wasn’t going to stop you from getting your fix. I just had to get more creative. Still keeping it all legal too, no cheating remember. One time a friend of mine and I found some newly released Princess Leia Collection 2-Packs at Wal-Mart. We didn’t know these were out yet even. We were totally broke so when no one was looking we grabbed a few of them, walked over to the home and gardens department, moved some vases, lifted the bottom shelving grates, and tossed them in. We came back later that weekend and purchased some of them. We weren’t able to pick them all up before the store closed down sadly. I’ve always imagined when the store owners were moving things out they came across these and were very confused why they were under the shelving unit 5 departments over . We have now reached the point of madness you say? That point when any sane man would step back and look at what his life has become and realize he needed help. Nope, not yet. But don’t worry, I’m about to get to that.
1999, the year Episode I: The Phantom Menace was releasing in theaters. The first new Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. The excitement for this film was so high that it being such a terrible film made the crushing fall of emotions after it’s release that much more cruel. The same went for the action figure release. Since 1995 all the Star Wars figures had a very predictable release strategy pattern for every updated production line:
  • They would overprint the most popular characters and not enough of the stranger ones
  • They would only print a certain number of each product line and almost never went back to reprint
  • These would release in small batches and trickle out more over a few months
This pattern was perfect for collectors and casual fans a like. Everyone can get a Luke Skywalker in X-Wing gear but if you want an Garindan (Long Snoot) you would have to hustle a bit to get one. So Kenner would do this again for the initial Episode I action figure release right? THEY CERTAINLY WOULD NOT OVERPRINT EVERY FIGURE AND FLOOD THE STORES ON DAY ONE RIGHT?!?! What happened next was easily my darkest moment in collecting. The white whale I didn’t even know I was chasing until it was too late.
I rushed into a Target the second it opened the morning the figures were released. I didn’t have $5 to spend on them but I had a plan. That morning I signed up for a Target credit card (that’s three credit cards just for figures now if you have been keeping score) which I could use immediately. I went to the toy aisle and grabbed 2+ of every figure they had. It felt like that dream when you are a kid at Toys ‘R’ Us and told you can have anything you can grab in the next five minutes.  I maxed out that credit card in one shot. This even made the store clerk nervous enough to call their manager over to see if I was running some sort of scam. I wasn’t, I was just an extremely crazed 20 year old bereft of all reason and sanity that NEEDED a Nute Gunray with a CommTech figure base! By this point even my main cohort through all this was giving me a worried look.
I've made a horrible mistake
I rushed home in friend’s car full of action figures, eyes still glazed over from my fasted set completion every. Once I got home I started to tear into the figures and set them all up on my coffee table. Most of this was a blur that I don’t remember. I do remember very clearly the feeling that came over me once they were all opened and set up. I remember it like it was yesterday. You would think this would be a feeling of absolute domination, the securing of one’s legacy, or the relief that comes of the completion of some grand task. A feeling greater than any word currently in the dictionary.  Sadly, it was the opposite. I felt empty. So, so empty. I looked at the figures and felt nothing. This was a first. This is when reality started to come back into view. With each realization the pit in my stomach got tighter. I just sat there and started at the figures thinking less “Alexander wept for there were no more worlds to conquer” and more “how the hell did this happen?” I’m not sure how long I sat there silently staring at these figures but it felt like all morning.  I eventually gathered the will power to stand up, put all the figures in a box, and take them up stairs to my action figure room. I looked around at everything in there and started to get the dry sweats. For the first time I was looking at this not as trophy room but as a major problem that I had no clue how to stop. Like when the lights come on at closing time of a bar and everyone and everything looks a whole lot more real and not as the piece of wonderland you thought it was 5 minutes ago. I was just unplugged from the Matrix and wanted to throw up.
Unfortunately I didn’t have time to throw up or stand there any longer pondering on this since I was due at work in 30 minutes. As fate may have it I was asked to work in the corporate office that day helping with a new large influx of action figures. Episode I action figures.  The store owner had all the high level collectors in the area (guys who made a living off of trading figures, comics, cards, etc.) buy up as many Phantom Menace figures as possible and bring them to us to purchase. We had eight stores to stock and as I mentioned before, these should dry up in the retail location quite quickly. Making us the main source for these figures in the DFW area. I’m sure you have figured out by now that this line was way, way, WAY overprinted to match the expected demand based on the hype the movie was currently getting. Hasbro printed at least 10 times more than they had ever for any past release and with in a week every single figures in the line were barely worth their sticker price.  I had about thousand of these SOBs to inventory, price, and sort before the day was out.  If there is a special place in hell for figure collectors, this was it.
As a reminder of my actions on this day I framed the Target receipt for all these toys with my Phantom Menace opening night ticket stub and film strip clipping I got from a girl I was seeing at the time who worked at a movie theater. This still sits in my office at work today.
frame of shame
By the time I got home that night I was all but curled into a ball thinking about the crushing debt I had put myself into here.  But, like any addict you don’t get to escape that easily. My hardcore action figure hunting days were over but I would still find myself picking up a figure here and there on a semi-regular basis. Which sometimes let the idea of ‘getting back in the game’ enter my head. Luckily for some reason I never acted on this.  One day I found my version of a nicotine patch for Star Wars collecting. The Star Wars Action Figure Archive. This is a fantastic book, it really is. It showed great photos of all the vintage and new figures from 1978 – 1999. All the card variations, info on each version, release dates, and much more. It was like my collection printed into a book. I had found a way to have my cake and eat it too. And for only $20.  I bought the book that day and a strange calm came over me. The day after that I packed up action figure room and started to sell off or give away most of it.  I discovered that it wasn’t owning the figures that I enjoyed, it was having access to them. This and the hunt to find and complete each set was what made it fun. I lost the drive for the hunt after the Episode I incident and now with this book I had the access to the figures and didn’t need to actually keep the real ones any more.  I still have this book on my shelf today.
the bible
It took me over five years to pay off all those credit cards and almost all of my original collection is now gone. I still pick up figures every now and again but it’s more like 1-2 a year than a week.  Now every figure I buy must pass three key criteria for me to purchase it:
  1. Can I afford it?
  2. Do I have a good place to put it?
  3. Do I REALLY need it?
I hope you all enjoyed this extremely nerdy tail of a man’s journey into the dark world of plastic and cardboard. If you take anything away from this story I hope it is this: Always be the master of your passions, not the other way around.

The big 3