Sunday, December 24, 2006


"Greetings, citizens! No, it's not really St. Nick, it's me, Captain Action. I've just returned from my charity work at the local orphanage, and just in time too! Lady Action and Action Boy are waiting for me inside so we can celebrate Christmas together. Oh yeah, and Dr. Evil said he'd stop by and help us with the decorations. I'll have to keep an eye on him!"

"From the entire Action Family... and, uh, Dr. Evil too... have a happy and safe holiday season!"

"Dog gone it, Evil! Did you blow a fuse again!"

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


My family has seen several members die right before the Christmas holidays. I suppose that’s not so unusual since the onset of winter is particularly hard on the immune systems of the elderly. Those already struggling with frail health simply cannot cope with the viruses that seek shelter from the cold in their warm bodies. I’ve had two family members buried on Christmas Eve, one on the day before Christmas Eve, and one two days after Christmas. I don’t bring this up to be a downer, but rather to share some observations I’ve made about the cycle of life during a time when we celebrate the birth of one of the Earth’s most famous former inhabitants.

I grew up in a blue collar town where most of the residents were employed at the steel mill, the auto plant, or one of the many other industrial plants that surrounded the community. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and his brother, my Uncle Jack, came from England in the 1920s to seek jobs in one of these industries and ended up working for several decades at the steel mill. Technically, my Uncle Jack had a white-collar job at the plant, but he still made his living from America’s booming industrial revolution. My grandfather, my Uncle, and their contemporaries built a community in the town. A savings and loan (which still exists today as a full-fledged bank) was started in my great-grandfather’s dining room with the help of community members. The town was loaded with clubs and organizations, many of which my great-grandfather, grandfather, and Uncle Jack were members. By the time I came along, the town was filled with gray-haired men and women, some retired, some about to retire, who made up the backbone of the community. They had made good livings, maintained their homes, supported the local businesses, and contributed to the community.

Back in the 70s, I was in awe of these people, especially when comparing them to the young people who were growing up in the same town. Long-haired, bedraggled, undereducated, and blissfully unaware of the industrial collapse that was about to grip the country, these young folks took for granted that the jobs their fathers and grandfathers had would still be available to them as a birthright. Perhaps you can forgive them for not seeing the economic shift in the country, but you couldn’t forgive them for drifting into lives of drinking, drug use, and criminal behavior. Even if the jobs had remained, many had not prepared themselves to accept the responsibilities of those jobs, or to assume the mantle of community activism the way the previous generations had.

My Uncle Jack’s funeral was the first I had ever attended, on Christmas Eve 1976. He was only 74. I was only 12 (here I am that Christmas with my Space:1999 stuff). In addition to my family, the funeral home was packed with gray-heads, blue-heads, and white-heads who were friends of my uncle. I sat through a series of ceremonies presented by various groups that my uncle had belonged to. Each time, a group of four or five elderly men, wearing ornately decorated aprons over their suits, would step up and recite some gobbledegook, then say some nice words about Uncle Jack. It seemed to go on forever, but my normally jumpy 12-year-old consciousness didn’t mind it. This was the first time I had witnessed such an outpouring of respect and affection for a deceased person, and I was fascinated by how many people my uncle had affected outside of my own family. It was a bitterly cold day, and the ceremony at the cemetery was brief. They couldn’t even dig the hole for the casket, the ground was so hard. Still, the sun shined brightly and the sky was clear, and I was filled with a sense that, although he died relatively young, my Uncle Jack had done okay.

Ten years later, on a rainy Christmas Eve, my Uncle Henry was buried. He was my grandmother’s sister’s husband. He smoked Camel unfiltered cigarettes all his life and, unsurprisingly, died of lung cancer. There were fewer old folks at this funeral, and the ones that were there seemed markedly less robust than those at my Uncle Jack’s ceremony. I was just about to graduate from college. A college degree was essential now as the job market shifted from an industrial to an information age. Those from my high school who had hoped for a factory job were finding little luck. Many were leaving town altogether. These senior citizens were holding the town together, but they “just couldn’t do what they used to anymore.” My Uncle Henry’s funeral was briefer, less elaborate, but a strong crowd of friends paid their respects.

Eight years later, my maternal grandmother died and was buried on the day before Christmas Eve. She was 89. I was 30. She and my grandfather had moved into a retirement community because taking care of their house had become a burden. I bought their house, not because I really wanted it, but because property values were down and buyers were scarce. By this time, many of the old folks, the spine of the once-thriving town, had died off. The few who were still alive, like those that showed up at my grandmother’s funeral, had also moved away. No one wanted their old houses since there were few jobs in the area anymore. Folks were selling to anyone who would buy. There was enough riff-raff in the neighborhood already, so I lived in the house and commuted 30 miles each way to work. My office was in a growing area on the other side of the county where large white collar firms were settling. That was the new thriving community.

Nine years on, and my grandfather died at the ripe old age of 102. His funeral was two days after Christmas. There were quite a few gray heads at the funeral, but they now belonged to my grandfather’s children and grandchildren (me included). All his contemporaries were gone. Members from one of his clubs showed up and performed their ceremony in their ornately decorated aprons. These members were kids or at least young men when my grandfather was active with the group. They barely knew him, but did their club duties with respect. I had long since sold my old house - my grandparents’ old house - and moved away.

The town still exists, and efforts are being made to gentrify the area with plans for new shops, night spots, improved housing. It’s a long way off, though, and what remains is something of a shell of its former self. I’m now old enough to have watched a strong community wither and die. And the residents who made it strong, who struggled through the Depression, who built the armaments of war during WW II, who helped the community grow even more during the post-war boom years, I watched them wither and die too. The loss haunts me.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Hasbro resurrected the 1/6th scale G.I. Joe in the late 80s with mixed results. During the 90s, Hasbro improved the quality and design of the figures and even started producing replicas of the original G.I. Joe figures and costumes. I watched all this with passing interest, but never felt compelled to buy any of these toys. After all, I was a grown man, working for a major financial firm, with a house and a car and responsibilities. I felt silly buying toys.

My feelings changed in the late 90s when the upstart, retro-toy company Playing Mantis put out a new version of Captain Action. They also put out a new Dr. Evil and reproductions of the Lone Ranger, Tonto, Flash Gordon, and Green Hornet costumes originally offered by Ideal in the 60s. Playing Mantis was so committed to the project, they supplemented the line with new costumes in the form of Flash Gordon’s nemesis Ming the Merciless and Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato. Although not 100% like the originals, close enough to stir happy memories. My then fiancée (now wife) Kathy gave me a repro Captain Action and Dr. Evil for my birthday in 1999. I quickly went out and purchased the other costumed figures. I felt like I had discovered a long lost friend.

At the same time, I discovered a small army of devoted Captain Action fans on the Internet. After 30 years, it was satisfying to find so many people who shared my fascination with this super hero from the past. Also exciting was finding out that some of these fans were actually creating original costumes for Captain Action based on super heroes Ideal never touched. Characters like The Flash and The Green Lantern were just as popular in the 60s as Spiderman or Aquaman, but Ideal never got around to making costumes of these heroes. As I Googled for Captain Action Websites, I was astonished at the quality of these homemade custom action figure outfits. The frustrated artist in me wanted to try my hand at this unusual hobby.

The biggest obstacle for me was the fact that I could neither sew nor fabricate rubber masks, gloves, or boots. Eventually, I would discover craftsmen who sold costumes and accessories for the Captain, but at this point I was trying to work with what I had available. I needed to pick a project that suited my limited resources and abilities. I thought about the various costumes that I would’ve liked to have had for Captain Action when I was a kid, and one character leaped to the front of my brain: Flash Gordon.

Now, I know, Ideal made a Flash Gordon costume and Playing Mantis put out a reproduction version 30 years later. However, this Flash Gordon was based on how Flash Gordon appeared in the comic strips in the 1960s; that is, in an astronaut suit similar to those worn by the Gemini astronauts of the day. I think Ideal probably saw this version as a two-for-one: it would attract the Flash Gordon fans and also provide an alternative to G.I. Joe’s Astronaut suit. That’s fine, but the Flash Gordon I knew and loved was seen in the old movie serials starring Buster Crabbe. The look of those serials was based on the Alex Raymond artwork of the 30s, which was more Prince Valiant than Buzz Aldrin. When Playing Mantis put out their Ming the Merciless figure alongside the repro Flash, the difference was glaring. All this is to say that I wanted a Flash Gordon costume that looked like the old Flash Gordon.

The major hurtle, the mask, was already taken care of since Playing Mantis Flash Gordon figures were plentiful. I decided to model the costume after Buster Crabbe’s outfit in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and the version in the Flash Gordon cartoon from 1979. This meant a red shirt with a wide black collar studded with gold rivets. He also wore blue pants with a yellow stripe up the side, and knee high black boots. The belt would be the most complicated part as it was a white cummerbund with a thinner black band around the middle. Not too bad for a beginning project.

For the shirt, I found a white turtleneck and dyed it red. The black collar was made from black felt, cut into a circle with an inner circle cut out of the center for the figure’s neck. I also slit it down the back and attached Velcro strips so the collar could be taken on and off easily. Originally, I was going to sew gold beads onto the collar to simulate rivets, but I couldn’t find any beads that I liked. As an alternative, I found a thick, metallic gold paint at the crafts store that you could dab on fabric and create neat little round blobs of gold. You had to be careful, but it was a quick and effective solution to my problem. I also made some black cuffs with the black felt to complete the authenticity of the shirt.

Navy blue pants were easy enough since I took them off a G.I. Joe figure that was on the market at the time. I attempted to attach strips of yellow felt on the sides of the pants, but I thought that they would not create the proper effect, so I abandoned the stripes and left the pants as they were. The knee high boots were taken from a 12” Stars Wars action figure.

The belt required me to purchase some scrap fabric from the local Jo-Ann’s Fabric Store. I cut some off-white fabric to size, allowing extra at the top and bottom so I could fold the edges over and glue them down on the back with fabric glue. I then cut a thinner strip of black felt and glued it across the center of my off-white fabric. For the buckle, I stuck a brass thumb tack in the center and secured it by bending the pin part to one side on the back of the belt. Velcro fasteners on either end allowed the belt to be secured on the figure from the back.

To create the finishing touch, I outfitted him with a sword I swiped from my Marx Toys Silver Knight action figure. I have a picture of the finished custom next to the Playing Mantis Ming the Merciless. I dare say they look more appropriate together than the original Ideal design.

I admit this was a fairly simple project, but it proved to me that I could make custom costumes for action figures. This project started a hobby that has stuck with me for years since.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


I’m thinking it must’ve been Christmas 1968. It’s one of my earliest memories. I can recall that, for some reason, my parents set all the toys in the dining room rather than the living room that year. We had a rather sad, shapeless fake green tree in the living room, but in the dining room, we had a shimmering three-feet-high creation that looked like a stack of silver pipe cleaners. Fully decorated with mirror finished balls of blue and pink, it was the physical manifestation of commercialized, 60s-kitsch Christmas. I loved it! My mom set it up on the credenza, covering the bottom of the tree and the table top with cotton wool studded with metallic confetti. I remember the room glowing with shades of pink and silver.

Rather than wrapping the presents, my parents made an artful arrangement of a western scene underneath the metallic tree. The western part came courtesy of the Marx Toys Best of the West line. I especially remember Johnny West’s son, Jay West, perched atop his colt or pony or whatever the small horse was supposed to be. The whole vision was like Bonanza meets the Jetsons. I wish I had pictures from that Christmas, but then again, it’s probably just as well. Nothing can match the images in the viewmaster of my cranium.

The Best of the West toys, a huge line of western figures, was likely the most successful of the Marx Toys action figures. Their run was about as long as G.I. Joe’s and covered a wide assortment of characters. In addition to the Johnny and Jay West that I received that Christmas, I also received a Captain Tom Maddox figure and a Sam Cobra figure from my Aunt Pat for Christmas 1972. Captain Maddox was a cavalryman, but I didn’t quite understand that. Military figures prior to WW II were alien to me. I just treated him like a cowboy. Sam Cobra, on the other hand, was clearly a Western style bad guy through and through. You could tell right off because of his devil-like van dyke beard and all-black ensemble. This one was a favorite, although I felt bad about liking the bad guy more than any of the good guys. The main reason I liked him so much was because he came with this wonderful line of accessories. He had a cane with a knife hidden in the handle, two rifles (a short one and a Winchester), pistols, skeleton key, time bomb, pool cues, and a doctor’s bag. He even had his own safe to crack and a special hole in his right palm to hold the tiny derringer he hid away. This was a bad mother – shut yo’ mouth! I’m talkin’ ‘bout Cobra!!

Flash forward 30 years. I was reading Tom Heaton’s terrific book titled The Encyclopedia of Marx Action Figures, and I discovered that Captain Tom Maddox and Sam Cobra had an interesting connection. The head of Maddox was originally designed to go with Sam Cobra’s body as a Wild, Wild West action figure. Sure enough, the head did look a lot like Robert Conrad, and the Sam Cobra body looked exactly like Jim West’s suit, right down to the “W” notches in the lapels. I was determined to make my own Jim West custom out of spare parts. As luck would have it, I was trolling eBay for Marx toys when I came across a figure that someone had already customized with the Maddox head on the Sam Cobra body. With only a little painting to the body, I had a ready made Jim West action figure!

Although G.I. Joe was the gold standard of action figures back then, Marx figures offered some tremendous thrills. They were sturdy, hard plastic toys that could take a great deal of punishment. They also offered a wide assortment of accessories complete in the box with the figure, so you could hit the ground running with imaginative adventures from the minute you received it. I didn’t realize how much I loved those figures until long after they were lost or sold in my mom’s various yard sales.