Monday, November 22, 2010

When Black Friday comes . . .

The Battle of Endor Ultimate Battle Pack
This time of year has always been my second-least favorite time of year to shop. (My very least favorite time is the two-to-three month period after Christmas when stores are slow to restock.) I'm sure I'm not alone in this, for I have never met anyone who enjoyed fighting the traffic, crowds, and other shoppers in order to secure the latest action figure, video game, pencil sharpener, or oven mitt that is essential to rounding out your collection (this week). Needless to say, "Black Friday" is usually my stay-at-home day.

Three years ago, however, I broke my ban and not only went shopping on Black Friday, but participated in one of those insane pre-dawn lines that extend for blocks beyond the doors of "big box" retailers. The year was 2007, and the item I was after was the Target exclusive Battle of Endor Ultimate Battle Pack from Hasbro's Star Wars line. This item had a confirmed street date of the Monday after Thanksgiving, but I had heard a rumor about a rumor that it might be available on Black Friday. Since I considered the Endor Battle Pack a "must-have", and since I just knew that they would be sold out before they could even be unpacked and placed on store shelves, I therefore just knew that I needed to be first in line at Target on the day after Thanksgiving.

We were traveling this particular year, but our hotel was right next to a Target-anchored shopping plaza, so it seemed like an easy trip. I set our room alarm for 4AM, and backed it up with a wake-up call. When I awoke, I made the last-ditch effort of asking if anyone would like to come with me (No), and set off.

The Target in question was next to a BJ's Wholsale Club, so when I saw a line wrapping around BJ's, I assumed they were having an early-opening sale as well. They weren't — the line was entirely for Target. If you know how wide Target and BJ's stores are, you know how far away I was from Target's front door when I finally took my place at the end of the line. I couldn't see the front door — I couldn't even see Target — because I was around the corner, on the side of BJ's, next to their automotive repair shop. It was cold and the wait was long, but the novelty of what I was doing kept me entertained, or at least I imagined that it did.

Eventually the line began to shuffle forward. 45 minutes later, I reached the front door, where I rationalized the sight of several police officers into assurance that I wouldn't be crushed by a stampeding crowd, all the while aware that it was for this contingency the officers were on hand, all the while aware that should a stampede occur, the officers would also be crushed. Lemming-like, I stepped through the doors.

It took longer than usual to walk through the crowd to get to the toy section. It wasn't really "walking" so much as "advancing". Imagine a row of soda cans in a convenience store refrigerator moving up to fill in the empty space of the can you just pulled out, or a huge viscous mass being poured into a rat's maze, oozing slowly into the various pathways until the entire maze was full. But I did gradually ooze into the toy section, whose aisles were tightly packed with shoppers intent on finding an unspeakable deal. What struck me most (aside from various boxes falling off shelves or being tossed between members of family shopping teams) was that there wasn't that much on sale. This could have been any given Friday, for all it mattered.

I realized after some time and patience what I had suspected all along — that the Endor pack was not yet available. I worked my way to the front of the store and glanced at the battery of cash registers. I was surprised to see that the lines were not too backed up, so I decided to pick up a few essentials we had forgotten when packing for our trip. In the time it took to round up these items, however, the lines had grown to intolerable lengths, and I was about to scrap everything and call it quits when one of the pharmacy registers opened, only four feet from where I was standing. I stepped up and set down my Black Friday haul — a six-pack of bottled water, a tube of triple antibiotic ointment, and nail clippers. I tried to look unfazed when the cashier asked, stupefied, "Is this all you came in here for?" "Yes" was such an easier answer.

Epilogue (In Color)

The following Monday, back on my home turf, I queued up outside my local Target for the regular 8AM opening. With me were just a handful of regulars, collectors who check in every day looking for new toy releases regardless of advertised sales. There was no crowd and no mad rush to the back of the store. I found the Endor Battle Pack — an entire display of them, in fact. As it turned out, I was the only early riser interested in Star Wars that day, so I took my time and selected the one that best met my criteria — the best possible combination of paint application, apparent joint and accessory condition, and condition of packaging. The packs were available for a couple weeks before selling out.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Star Wars Mini Muggs

Biggs Darklighter Mighty Mugg
with Mini friends
Biggs Darklighter Mighty Mugg
with Mini friends
I was stopped in my tracks at Target a couple weeks ago by Hasbro's new Mini Muggs, a half-scale follow-up to the company's iffy Mighty Muggs line. While it took me some time to warm up to their Mighty predecessors, the Minis grabbed me right away, thanks mostly to the line's MVP, Bossk. Only three sets are currently available (you can see them all here), but I imagine it's only a matter of time before we see more. (Here's hoping we finally get a Slave Leia!)

Not only are these things cuter than the full-size toys, but the three-packs, priced around $12.99, allow you to bulk up on characters a lot faster.

A truly devastating follow-up would be Mini versions of the Marvel Muggs, which in Mighty scale were on the whole much more appealing than their Star Wars counterparts. My collecting budget braces in anticipation...

Saturday, August 28, 2010



Wind-up toy by Rocket USA. More pictures here.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Compulsive Hoarding Behavior

I was driving to my therapist's the other day (for some reason she insists on seeing me in person before refilling my Zoloft), and I started thinking about what I should do with all of my action figure cardbacks — you know, the cardboard backing behind the plastic bubble that action figures are packaged in. This is a debate I've had with myself many times. I'm one of those collectors who keeps the cardbacks. I figure it's for reference, or as the "next best thing" to having an unopened figure. In the past it hasn't been much of a problem, but as I pulled into the medical center I started thinking that the cards are really not serving any purpose if they're just packed away in a box.

As I sat in the waiting room, I considered scanning the cards, keeping the images, and throwing the actual backs into the recycle bin. But I'm not a pixel collector — I collect tangible stuff, and the cardbacks are part of that stuff. Plus, scanning is very time-consuming. I mean, I already spend lots of time taking pictures of all of my figures, taking pictures of all of their accessories, taking pictures of all the figures with all their accessories in various poses, editing those pictures in Photoshop to remove the background so they look like something from a DK book, labeling each part of the picture to identify the different joints used in the action figure, the "in-universe" names of their accessories, and vital statistics about the characters. This takes a ton of time. And then I have to scan all of my store receipts and put them into albums so that I can refer to them when I enter the data into my collecting database. So with all that, who wants more scanning?

I had to put all of this out of my head for a while when I was called in to the therapist because I needed to ask her if the Zoloft was working or if I needed a bigger dose or something new or whatever. This led to a few new prescriptions, some lab work, and a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

When I finally left the shock lab, I started thinking about an idea I had heard of putting cardbacks in page protectors and keeping them in binders. This would allow me to pull them off the shelves to flip through every now and then and relive some happy memories. Unfortunately, I think the page protectors would be too big for the cards and I wouldn't be able to center the cards in the protectors without tape, which could trap fingerprints and damage the cardboard. But it does seem a little easier than what I do now, which is to laminate each card with peel-off laminating sheets. Not the kind you get from Staples or wherever, but a kind I special order from Germany. They're really expensive, but I find they repel fingerprints a lot better, protect from unexpected spills, and in only a few tries I can cut them into an exact size and symmetry. The problem is, they take a lot of extra preparation to use. You've got to use a special heat gun so they set just right, and because they're super-sticky, you only get one shot at sticking them to the card — if you mess up, the card is ruined. You don't know the hassle I went through after I messed up the card to my Ultimate Galactic Hunt Chewbacca. I ended up spending way too much money on eBay to replace the Chewbacca figure just so I could get another shot at laminating the card. Luckily it worked out on the third or maybe the fourth try.

Anyway, this whole process takes about 30 minutes per card, so I was thinking maybe the binder idea would save some time. But I was interrupted again when I got to the pharmacy because I had to ask the pharmacist if the Prozac my therapist had just prescribed would make me queasy like the Celexa used to. He told me no, as long as Prozac was the only such medication I was taking. So I guess I'm out of luck, but I'll deal.

So I finally got back home and all the thinking about cardbacks made me want to get out all of my cards and reevaluate the whole situation. So I opened up all six of my fireproof safes and took out every laminated card and, after putting down a few sterile tarps, laid them all on the floor. This took a little longer than I wanted because the last time I put them away I neglected to alphabetize them, so I had to alphabetize all the cards and group them by series. I can never decide if I want to order them by figure name first, regardless of series, or by series first, then figure name. I did each way in turn, then re-sorted by manufacturer first, then series, then character name.

Eventually the cards were all in place and that's when it dawned on me — my current solution is OK, but it's only half-way there. Combining it with a variation on the binder idea is the key to taking it to the next level. I figure if I leave just enough excess laminate on the left side of each card, I can then three-hole punch them and put them into a custom-made binder so they won't flop around like they would do if they were in sheet protectors. The problem with this, I guess, is that I didn't leave any excess laminate on all of the cards I've laminated so far, so I'm not sure what I'm going to do about that. Maybe I'll try something with duct tape, or I could re-laminate, but that usually doesn't work. So I may need to buy new cards. I'm not sure. The point is that I was just really excited to finally have some resolution on this. And I think it was that excitement, combined with the queasiness the pharmacist said I might feel, that made me throw up all over my cards. But luckily, they were laminated.

Originally performed on Episode 118 of Star Wars Action News.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review: Mattel's Avatar Line

NeytiriWhen Avatar action figures started appearing on shelves weeks before the movie premiered, I hardly gave them a look. Though I was really looking forward to seeing the movie, and assumed that after doing so I would want to pick up one or two figures, the $8.99 per-figure price tag, along with my then-current focus on Hasbro's Star Wars line, and a gnawing feeling that I should be scaling back in favor of more "practical" spending like home improvement, retirement savings, college tuition accounts for the kids, weekly grocery shopping, heating bills (it was still winter, after all), etc., allowed me to easily look the other way.

I eventually saw Avatar, liked it a lot, and knew that my resistance to the blue guys on the pegs was to be short-lived. Further chipping away at my original resolve was the fact that by the time I had finally seen the movie, many stores had moved their Avatar toys to the clearance section. Several weeks later (it felt like several weeks, anyway -- it was probably much less), I had an almost-complete set of basic figures, at least enough to comfortably offer this review.

The Good

Avatar Norm SpellmanThe line gives good coverage to the main characters, even the ones that don't make such great "action" figures -- like Parker Selfridge and Norm Spellman. Many of the likenesses, particularly of the Na'vi and avatars, are really good. Notable among them are Tsu'tey and Avatar Norm.

The figures are very well articulated and very detailed. Paint applications are consistent. Also, each figure is well-proportioned, even if not in scale with other figures in the line.

Parker SelfridgeAn important point (for me, anyway) is that the i-TAG (a sort-of ID badge for each figure, which, when used in conjunction with a webcam and some downloadable software, allows you to control digital representations of the toys on your computer) packed with each figure also serves as a figure stand, which helps keep the figures standing despite some small feet.

The Bad

The figures are incredibly over-packaged. I found opening these a truly unpleasant chore, one which I put off, at times for several days. The wrap-around bubble is not as easy to separate from the card as a traditional bubble, and there are a couple of those annoyingly tight rubber bands to contend with on each figure, along with a paper backing that is tightly taped at several points.

Tsu'teyThe figures are kind of scrawny and flimsy. The arms, particularly on the Na'vi and avatar figures, are a bit rubbery, and I don't trust the figures to stand without their included i-TAG stand. Unfortunately, the foot pegs don't fit very snugly, so they still teeter easily when bumped, and the stands are so big that the figures can't be displayed very close together.

The articulation, while plentiful, is achieved with some odd-looking joints which are at times unsightly and give the figures an amateurish feel in some poses -- especially when the legs are pulled sideways.

Pvt. Sean Fike (orange gun)Some accessories, like Jake's wheelchair or Pvt. Fike's big orange gun, just aren't on par with what the packaging calls "detailed movie replica[s]", while others are noticeably absent. While the re-deco'd Fike comes with a permanently attached face mask, none of the other figures do. I expected this mask to be removable and standard with all RDA personnel figures, or at least the soldiers. Quaritch, whose figure is noticeably shorter than the others, I assume so he can fit into the AMP Suit vehicle, comes with only a handgun. That may be movie-accurate (I don't recall him using any other weapon except the gun and the AMP Suit), but I feel the toughest "bad guy" in the film should have come with a heavier weapon -- or at least a face mask and his signature cup of coffee. And while Selfridge's golf club is a nice touch, a chunk of floating unobtanium would perhaps have been a more relevant choice, as would have been a clipboard -- or anything scientific -- instead of Grace Augustine's machete.

Col. Miles QuaritchThe scaling is noticeably off, not only on the afore-mentioned Quaritch, but on the Na'vi, which stand only a head taller than the humans, when they should be almost twice their size. I'm guessing this was an economical decision required to make the line affordable -- or at least no more than $8.99 per figure -- though this, along with the accessory issue, points to what I feel is the line's biggest shortcoming.

It seems apparent that someone, either from Mattel or the film production, felt it necessary, given the buzz about technical innovation and novelty surrounding the film, that the toy line attempt to match that novelty and innovation. To that end, potentially great action figures were downgraded to good action figures in order to finance the complex packaging and the i-TAG software. I do not have a webcam, so I have not downloaded or experimented with this i-TAG software. Still, I would rather have had the money from i-TAG development spent on the overall quality of the figures.

Final Say

I like these figures enough to have collected almost the entire line. That said, I don't think I would have amassed this collection if I had to do it at retail price. I wish I could display the figures reliably in tighter clusters; I will probably need third-party stands to do that. Most of all, though, is the nagging feeling that these figures could have been pushed to a really great level -- with better quality joints, bulkier construction, more accurate scale, better accessories -- if they hadn't been burdened by over-packaging and i-TAG gimmickry.

You can see more pictures of the figures mentioned in this review here.