Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What it means to be human...

In a quest to find meaning in the action figures piled neatly in the closet, it's inevitable that you come across details you did not expect.  For example, here's a question that held little meaning until a few days ago:

What do Sue Richards (the Invisible Woman), Daredevil and the US Agent all have in common?

If you said all three are Marvel comic book heroes, you wouldn't be wrong.  I imagine you would be hard-pressed to link them together in some another way, however (aside from some obscure issue perhaps).  Sue is part of the Fantastic Four, wife to stretchy scientist Reed Richards and sister to the Human Torch (the Partridge family of the Marvel Universe). Daredevil, the man without fear, is more of a self-made hero (along the lines of Batman), who relies on his heightened senses and martial arts to fight crime.  US Agent is a veritable clone of Captain America, who spends his time moving from team to team trying to find his own identity.   Although all three characters have called New York City home at some point, what makes them truly special is how the US Customs Service views them: as human beings.

Although obviously not literal, that distinction was at the heart of a landmark trade case pitting former toy manufacturer Toy Biz (now Marvel Toys) against the United States for reparation of import taxes. Without boring you with too many details (click here to read them), here's a brief summary of both Toy Biz and the case itself:

The comic book explosion and speculative market of the early 90s made anything superhero-related a hot commodity.  Issues of X-men, Spiderman, Superman and Batman were being printed and collected by the millions, and publishers were quick to license their properties to other media. Toy Biz, a former subsidiary of Canadian licensor Charan Industries, managed to secure royalty-free license rights to Marvel's stable of characters in exchange for a large chunk of their equity. Investor Isaac Pearlmutter then restructured the company, bringing in spend-thrift CEO Joseph Ahern to outsource manufacturing to China and cut costs to improve margins.  Avid Arad (who was busy overseeing Marvel's animation division at the time) came onboard to form an unholy marketing juggernaut: the popular Saturday morning cartoons become vehicles to market new Marvel characters (and their action figure counterparts).  Profits skyrocket as a result, opening the door to additional properties (owned by former board chairmen Ron Perelman) including Hercules/Xena, NASCAR and even candy and learning aids.
Not surprisingly, the good times came to an end when the comic book bubble burst.  Oversaturation coupled with waning public interest forced Marvel to file for bankruptcy in 1996.  Various attempts at investor takeovers were thwarted as Toy Biz merged with Marvel Entertainment to force Marvel Enterprises.  Avi Arad took the reins of the newly minted Marvel Studios, and was given the go ahead to pursue film opportunities.  Their first licensed film, Blade, became a sleeper hit in 1998, and the rest is history.

Getting back to the court case, US customs officials classified the action figures that came over from China as dolls, possessing human qualities.  This effectively doubled the tariff rate (12%); robots and monster toys are generally classified as other, taxable at 6.9%.  If you consider the millions of toys that were imported between 1994-2003 (when the judgment was finally handed down), that's a considerable sum of money.  Toy Biz argued the Marvel characters possessed nonhuman qualities (e.g. tentacles, claws, wings, etc.).  Further, they stipulated these features effectively made them animals or non-human creatures  and were therefore not classifiable as dolls.  After studying 60+ figures, judge Judith Barzilay sided with Toy Biz.  Toy Biz was a division of Marvel, so this resulted in a public outcry from fans (who found humanity to be a central theme among Marvel superheroes).

So what makes the aforementioned heroes so special?  During the proceedings, both sides effectively gave each other 'gimmes': Beast and Robot Wolverine were obviously nonhuman, while characters like Sue Richards, Daredevil, Punisher and US Agent were unquestionably human (and therefore subject to the higher tax rate).  Looking at the toys now, it's weird to think they cost Toy Biz more to distribute. The figures themselves are diminutive: not quite as small as a GI Joe or Star Wars figure, but certainly not large, either.  They are painted simply in muted primary colors, and their accessories are limited.  The US Agent is even a repaint of Captain America (the star is clearly visible on his chest). To think these figures were a staple in many a millennials' toy collection is impressive.  I admit my first toy was the brown and yellow suit Wolverine (with slashing claws that were spring-loaded).   My inner child smiles a little now that I know the US government considers him an animal. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fun with Laserdisc

For those of you that don't take part in the weekly Saturday morning ritual known as yard saling, you may not know the staples that seem to be on everyone's lawn.  Without fail, there's always old books, usually old bestsellers and self-help guides, but sometimes a few hidden gems (I found Harlan Ellison's The Book of Ellison* under some children's books at a church rummage sale a few weeks back).  Glass vases and other faded knick-knacks are also present, plastered with bright orange and pink stickers that say 25 cents or 1 dollar.  Used toys and baby clothes are regularly on display, with young mothers sometimes having whole tables covered in miniature one-piece sundresses, tiny winter jackets and blue corduroy overalls.  Sometimes even used tools or dusty electronics equipment (think old tube TVs) make it out there, if the man (or woman) of the house is feeling ambitious. 
The one item that's almost always there is the milk crate full of old, worn record albums.  Rarely is there a time when I don't flip through the stacks, although it's usually mostly junk (everyone likes Neil Diamond and Fleetwood Mac, it seems).  Sometimes, however, the stack surprises you.  That was my experience last weekend when I wandered over to that familiar bin and noticed it was full of something I didn't expect...laserdiscs. 

For those that are unfamiliar, the laserdisc was the first optical disc video format commercially available in the US (1978)**. Competing with other home video formats of the time (Betamax and VHS), it offered almost double the resolution of tape (420 vs. 250 lines) with unique features like random access, slow motion and freeze frame.  Unfortunately, the disc's unwieldy size (nearly 12" in diameter, 3x that of a CD), expensive media, limited retail support and lack of recording ability doomed the format.  Perhaps the initial name, DiscoVision, didn't help matters, either.  Whatever the case, laserdisc was not a commercial success (at least here in the states), but it proved to be an effective catalyst for the burgeoning niche market of home theater enthusiasts (there was no such thing before laserdisc). Further, movie extras now common place on DVD and Blu-Ray (e.g. trailers, deleted scenes, production artwork and director's commentaries) first appeared on laserdiscs.

As a fan of old, defunct technologies, I happen to have a laserdisc player.  That box of laserdiscs was full of treasures (Criterion collector versions of Snow White, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dracula and Ghostbusters), so it's little surprise that I bought everything they had ($15 for the lot).  After a quick trip up the attic steps to retrieve the player, and another five minutes hooking it up to the 42" plasma, I've been watching the movies ever since.  I'll cover the Criterion discs in a later post, but I wanted to mention my experience with the first movie I watched, Fantasia.  A stereo extended play release, it doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the later deluxe CAV version, but it does have Dolby digital surround sound.  I mention this because the audio mix was superb, much better than I expected.  If you haven't seen Fantasia, it's chock full of classical masterpieces (Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Schubert all make appearances) that provide dramatic background for the stunning animation which can only be described as ahead of its time.  The letterbox picture was warm and muted (hallmarks of an analog transfer), so detail was not razor sharp as it is in high definition playback. There was also a fair amount of crosstalk (laserdiscs tracks were layered in such a way that artifacts from one would be visible in another).  That said, it was still a treat to watch and listen to the movie in this format.  I didn't even mind flipping/changing the discs every forty minutes or so (a necessity with my player).   I look forward to checking out the other discs.
*If you're not an avid reader of science fiction, the name Harlan Ellison may not mean a whole lot.  If you are acquainted with any of his over 1000 works of fiction and non-fiction, however (from short stories to teleplays), you'll know he is a prominent figure in the genre.  Ironic to this post, he was once hired as a writer for Walt Disney Studios but was let go after just one day (he was caught aimlessly wandering the halls, tightening loose screws with a screwdriver).

**When laserdisc first went on sale in a few Atlanta test stores on December 15th, 1978 (known back then as MCA DiscoVision), the first title available (and the one used to demo the system) was Jaws.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Every Closet Has a Door...

There's a sense of irony knowing the impulse to start up a blog about the various pop culture treasures I keep hidden away in my closet is somehow connected to my latest yard sale haul.  The office floor is now littered with carded action figures, old children's books, DVDs, laserdiscs, etc., and it's painfully obvious how impossible it will be to fit it all without some serious reorganization.   It's not often that I try to deconstruct why I spend so much time trying to reclaim these lost items from my childhood, or why I find it so therapeutic to slide open the door and spend time with them. Now that my closet is overflowing physically, however, I suddenly feel the urge to express my feelings about it emotionally. 

The underlying motivations have always felt innocent and pure.  This hobby, if you could call it that, has proven to be a form of escapism not entirely socially accepted but one relatively free of guilt or risk.  An obsessive person in the most general sense, I do not spend the time others do digging deep into any one area; in fact, people who read comics religiously, unpack and play with their toys or invest hours of time into the latest video game scare me a little.  This is not passing judgment; there's a dedication there I find admirable.  I simply cannot find in me the dedication to invest that much time and energy into any one area, opting instead for a broader focus.

It is this broader focus that keeps me coming back to Ebay, flea markets, and yard sales every week.  I never have one specific thing in mind, and it can appear at first glance that my interest is fast and fleeting.  It has proven over time to be cyclical, however, as the desire for these objects never truly wane.  If anything, there are external factors that happen to be seasonal (e.g. the start and end of various sports seasons, the summertime movie schedule, various monthly/annual comic and card shows, etc.). Dedication at any level requires some level of investment, and these events provide the impetus to become excited again.

Of all the times in the year,  it is perhaps these first few weeks of May that are the most exciting.  There's a new potential blockbuster in theaters each week, similar to the high concept films of my youth.  The bright, sunny weather prompts people to throw open their garages, dust off their wares and pile them onto their front lawns for sale.  Baseball season is in full swing, and fans are excited to bust the latest wax.  It is this air of renewed spirit that motivates me now.

Although the excitement is primal, my interest in the toys, comic books, sports cards, movies and music of my youth is deconstructive (hence the blog's title).  For those that don't know, deconstruction is a school of philosophic thought centered around the principle that words and ideas only have meaning in context, and that meaning is often personal to the reader.  Simply put, a word cannot be truly understood until it means something to you, and it can hold different meanings for different people (particularly the author who wrote it or the person who said it aloud).  Therefore, consider this to be a blog about three key areas when it comes to collectables:

The Factual- The specifics of a particular item that can be referenced (e.g. the stars in a movie or the value of a comic book).  Sometimes reading facts can be interesting because we share an emotion connection with the item itself without further analysis or insight.  For example, I don't need to know anything about the box office success or cultural significance of the movie E.T. to know I saw it at an early age with my aunt.  Simply reading about it is enough to trigger a memory and re-forge that positive connection.

The Trivial- The technical, economic and sociocultural factors that make something enjoyable by a large audience and our appreciation timeless.  The story of how E.T.'s production team decided on Hershey's Reese's Pieces in lieu of Mars M&Ms to is an interesting anecdote that somehow makes you want to do two things: watch the movie again and eat chocolate and peanut butter candies.   I love researching and reading these stories, as they provide the context I need to understand why a film (or book, card, toy or song) is as important to others as it is to me.

The Psychological- Identifying the root causes of why we like what we like, investigating the underpinnings that motivate us to seek something out after years away from it.  Why do memories of past action motivate us to future action?

To start things off, I'm going to blog about the items I landed in this latest haul, listing what they are, how they came to be, and why they remain significant.  My hope is this journey will be a fruitful one of self-discovery, and I welcome you along.