Saturday, June 11, 2011

ReLoad: A Collection of Short Fiction Pt. 1

Lisa and I elected to move to Columbus for any number of reasons. The biggest one, no reason not to.

Lisa had finished her degree at University of Cincinnati, a fine school with a wonderful campus, and a magazine called the Clifton I pretended to be a student to write for, publishing three pieces over the year I lived in Cincinnati while Lisa finished her degree. I believe the Clifton found me out when they tried to pay me and discovered I didn’t exist in the student registry. That would’ve been around the first quarter of the school year, after my first submission. Must speak somewhat to the strength of my prose or evident enthusiasm; the editorial staff let me continue to write for the student publication for two subsequent academic quarters, no questions asked. Emphasis on the word student; my pieces ran center fold for several pages with accompanying photos. At least those were taken by an actual student.

The crème de la crème piece I buffalo scribed for the intrepid Clifton described the workings of a sculpt for hire toy studio owned by Kenner alumni Rudy Vap. I conducted a series of interviews and hang outs with various talented sculptors and the proprietor, Rudy Vap over a couple weeks, learning the ins and outs of the craft of sculpting cast-ready models from automotive clay, from the rubber heads intended for Henry and the Henderson plush dolls to the ill fated Ertl bid to reenter the action figure market with the Super Mario Bros. film line. I got to hang around in the basement of the icebox climate place with the caster guy who made negative reliefs of the sculpts from the boys upstairs so that positive replications could be cast to produce test sculpts with metal pin articulation. Around the same time they were producing sculpts that would be scaled down through a process even they seemed reluctant to explain for small metal characterizations of animated Batman characters to accompany metal vehicles, perhaps another Ertl contract, I’m not sure. The caster guy let me have a bunch of test castings from the Mario line, as well as a full size Mr. Freeze. Prized possessions to this day, relics cherished by me as a bone from John the Baptist might be for Christians on a pilgrimage. He also gave me a couple prototypes for Dennis Hopper’s head, the likeness is uncanny, each cast with milky white industrial plastic, metal peg shoved into the neck stub. One head is just Dennis’s likeness, the other a dinosaur head with a mask that looks like a thumbnail sized death mask made from Dennis’s face. Though I only knew the man through his film and sneaker commercial roles, I need to believe Dennis would have loved the strange irony his countenance would become a toy for children, particularly as an entity that had a lizard face under his own like some acid trip peel away Fear & Loathing outreach program. 

I learned that automotive clay worked best when made malleable through warming it, both by proximity to a high intensity desk lamp and by kneading it with strong fingers and thumbs. I learned some sculptors favored traditional clay working tools, wood or ceramic, while others, usually younger, preferred metal implements, many of them second hand from dental practices, plaque scrapers and gum bleeders repurposed as carvers and creasers for playthings intended to distract and amuse children likely in need of a good teeth cleaning after bushels of sugary sweets and cereals.

Rudy’s office held items that I, a long standing apostle of the Kenner church of commercial product, would consider on par with anyone else’s holy arks or burning bushes. Rudy’s hand sculpted C-3PO from the vintage 12 inch line, the original wax sculpture from an era preceding the use of automotive clay. A clear domed prototype for the 12 inch Alien figure with jutting inner teeth action feature. And two others never produced for mass market because the initial toy bombed. Considering the complete set of Topps collector cards I have for the film, I believe the marketing department, merchandising department, and ratings board weren’t properly aligned. Toys and trading cards for kids derived from a film only adults could see. Seeing the ads on TV, I remember getting my first pack of cards, and trying to imagine the rest of the film from the fist full of still images and cryptic descriptions on their backsides. I have a complete set of those cards now, however until I found that complete set on my first visit to Nostalgia comics in Eugene, Oregon, a spot I’d later moonlight for, I’d only ever seen my 14 or so dog-eared cards. As quickly as the cards had appeared in 7/11 for 35 cents a pack, they were gone, perhaps sold out, perhaps pulled once the owner had taken his girlfriend or kids to the film and seen that it wasn’t kid friendly after all. So when I sat in Rudy’s office looking at all these precursors to vintage toys and moreover vintage toys that could have been, I nearly wept. I stuttered and stared with bug eyed appreciation.

Like the editorial staff of the Clifton, my enthusiasm outpaced my utter lack of qualification, and I ended up doing some spec work storyboards and one pages for Rudy. He had in mind to create an original line of toys along the same vein as the Playmate’s run of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys, a line I knew all too well. I helped him create a slew of storyboards and one sheets to try to capture the heart and soul of his idea. I didn’t draw all that well, but I certainly gave Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird generous homage, particularly the one off issue with Donatello and Casey Jones versus the pencil with the jewel strung to it that made everything look like an homage to Jack Kirby. My favorite issue, I still have two copies in case one ever has a run in with some rogue Silly Putty.

The line never launched, I received a check and a letter of generous thanks, and we parted company amicably. I’d have thought my dealings with toy makers complete until a few years later standing in a small, cluttered toy shop in Hong Kong, just off the ferry across the harbor from TST. A story for another post.

During this strange lag time I Cincinnati I worked for a film theater as an assistant manager, and as would happen the theater received notice that Super Mario Brothers would be one of the big summer releases for that year. Something should be done, decorations perhaps, or window displays? The theater, largest I ever worked for, had twelve screens. I worked with two other managers, an older woman who taught me volumes about accounting and accountability versus concessions and confectionaries, and a somewhat older gentleman that smoked a pipe in the office, had a frozen slur to one side of his mouth that spoke to either a stroke or childhood accident I never felt comfortable enough to enquire about, and who treated me with stern yet respectful administration. They may have terrified a lot of the younger staff, I liked them and hope their lives went on to be happier, because the theater seemed to be closing in on them, and they were tired, certainly.

With the news we were to get this “Certified Summer Blockbuster” I mentioned I had some ideas and even a lead on some prospective goodies we could give away for prizes, since I knew Rudy Vap’s studio had the contract to sculpt the toys. I wondered if perhaps we could give away a couple prototypes, though in the back of my mind I did wonder if anyone else would get as excited about those relics as I did. I phoned Rudy and to my surprise he suggested I talk to Ertl with his referral, because why settle for a measly test casting when you could have a box of the real deal merchandise? Fair enough, and shortly thereafter I talked at length with Ertl about their toys and the film, and wrangled a box of fresh from China toys to put up as prizes for a contest I received free reign and full blessing to create.

Hindsight would suggest I speak to the console games the film had been derived from. Not just for the window paintings I and some of my artistically inclined concessionists painted up on the big glass windows, we had ample 1Up mushrooms, spiky turtle shells, sewer pipes, man eater Little Shop of Horror Levi Strauss voiced plants, coin bricks and coins to head bash from them. What we didn’t have was a strong sense of the games in the contest. Instead, I had the films cast in mind, a cast that seemed star studded to me. John Leguizamo fresh from his acclaimed and award winning one man show & HBO special, Dennis Hopper as in Blue Velvet and Apocalypse Now and Nike ads galore, Mojo “She’s Vibrator Dependant, She Don’t Want Me In It, Says I Don’t Make the Right Noise” Nixon, Lance Henriksen of Terminator, Pumpkenhead and Aliens, and Bob Hoskins of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Star. Studded.

So I composed a contest that asked people to draw their favorite Mario character or creature, and name the actor they’d most like to have play as said character or creature. I felt sure the ballots would billow over and Hollywood would rush to appoint me creative consultant on the inevitable sequel to the summertime smash they were about to spring upon us. We displayed the toys and other Ertl swag in a big Plexiglas case by the usher’s ticket taking post for movie goers to see and feel enticed by. Oh, what a grand prize had we, a thing of want, of need, or utter unbridled envy.

Not so. The only entry came from an usher and had to be disqualified because no one could announce the winning (and only) ballot suggest a porn star should play Bowzer, Ron “Hedgehog” Jeremy as I recall, who at that point I’d only seen once fleetingly as a buddy character in a soft X comedy romp trying to put a miniature scuba suit on his sizable scoundrel sausage to convince a prudish lady about his concerns for safe sex. What is the porno equivalent to a RomCom?

After the film bombed and pulled from the Cineplex two weeks early, replaced by another film also with Lance Henriksen, originally pitched as “Jaws with Paws,” called Man’s Best Friend. Unlike Super Mario Bros., way more inner city Moms brought their kids, and we had to put a “Please , no Rottweiler or other pets allowed in theater” sign in the lobby and box office windows. The Plexiglas case of toys went unclaimed, and while I gave one figure to the adult minded usher for trying, I took the rest home intent on doing something positive with them, someday. What does it say about a film adaptation that a lobby promotion for said film can not even give away the associated toys?

Years later in Oregon I would include the still MIB (Mint in Box or packaging) figures with several bags worth of toys for the Toys for Tots donation Dynamix intended to make the first holiday season I worked in video games. I suppose there is some strange symmetry in that, donating video game related toys away to kids in need while discovering a new career in the exciting world of making digital entertainment. The company that first agreed with my logic that someone should be sent on company dime to San Diego Comicon as much as sending them to game centric conventions like E3 or Siggraph, whereupon I met Chad Michael Ward, who also made a day job living working for digital entertainment, though he went the more lucrative route of making the front end interfaces for porn DVDs out of an office in the outskirts of LA. And once again we have a sideways collision of toys, video games, and disposable cinema.

I want to pause and say something very clear about programs like U.S. Marine Toys for Tots program. I didn’t grow up with a potato sack to play with, however I did grow up with a lot of things that were directly the result of the generosity of others. Their time, their hand me downs, the plush version of the Mego Batman I wanted so badly but my Mother couldn’t afford. While my Mom worked two to three part time jobs to make ends meet, my brother and I largely had toys that arrived missing packaging, parts, sometimes appendages.

The kung-fu grip GI Joe 12 inch doll that could only jerk like having a seizure when triggered, or the vinyl and cardboard Enterprise bridge with the twist to hide teleporter that had only one card remaining for the viewport, thus requiring my brother and I to draw new cards to slip in for newly crafted makeshift adventures in places no man had previously sojourned. The Uhura doll with missing boots and stockings that I recalled strangely when I first saw Jodi Foster in The Accused. The Mego Black Falcon I’ve mentioned in previous posts. The Mego Spock with his squeezable hollow head. The Klingon who appeared to have on the stockings Uhura had missing. An Evil Kenevil with duct tape wrapped appendages where his metal armature had broken and poked up through his rubber skin like booby traps for the unwary handler. 

On my 6th birthday, my Mom got me the Evil Kenevil funny car. The kid from a big red brick house across the street, a new place signifying gentrification had arrived in Jonesboro, had the motorcycle version of Evil. We raced on the warm asphalt between our houses, bike versus funny car, until one night I left the car on the porch and never saw it again. While I suspect the kid that taught me the expression “buillshit” though I misunderstood it as “bowl shit” until years later, I can’t prove anything. He’d been a bully, a redneck bad seed, and as a diminutive kid with frail frame and big jug ears, I made for an easy target.

His favorite trick, he’d keep packs of mayonnaise and ketchup in his pocket from the school cafeteria, back before Regan made ketchup count as a vegetable thereby require schools to carefully ration supplies out. He’d slip into a seat behind me, sometimes without a sound, other times talking sweet like he was sorry, hey let’s me friends, and oh god I so desperately wanted to be liked, to not be picked on anymore, to not hear the kids all laugh after he got me again. Like Charlie Brown staring at Lucy holding the football while trying to make her eyes look like a velvet portrait of a sad kitten, every time I’d fall for it, and end up hearing laughing while I felt something gross going down the back of my shirt or into my hair or into an ear canal.

My Mom got me this yellow rubber rain coat, the sort you see in commercials where there are children with galoshes jumping in rain puddles, that sort of coat. It had a hood. I wore it onto the bus on grey, overcast morning, and before I’d arrived at school, a packet or two of mayo had been squeezed carefully into the hood, and as Mike walked past me up the aisle from the back of the bus, he pulled the hood up and over my head. Surely people saw the mayo being deployed, yet no said a thing. Perhaps they were afraid of strapping mad Mike, or perhaps they were enjoying some German style suffering of others. Any case, I had to enter school and head straight to the principal’s office to get help, as I wanted to go home. Or die. Or something other that confront a classroom of kids waiting to see me fail to handle being bullied with grace, outrage, or comedic quip. Crying had to suffice, maybe they’d feel guilty? Not a chance, children are capable of some considerable cruelty when confronted with someone they perceive as unfit, alien, or otherwise undesirable.

I didn’t wear jackets with hoods again willingly until I’d reached my thirties. That’s a pretty good example of just how much impact childhood bullies have. 

So other than kids like Mike the Bowl Shit Bully, underprivileged children deserve some joy, some triggers and inspirations for them to use their imaginations and develop their creative spirits. Having nothing isn’t enough, I believe that creates a sense of entitlement, of deserving what has been denied, because when you have nothing you have nothing to regret taking for granted. You have to at least have a little something to appreciate what you have, and more than that to stop worrying about how much or little you have and start worrying about what you can really do with what you’ve got.

There are a lot of great toy charities for kids, and a lot of other great charities besides. More than that, though, I like the notion of the toy swaps I’m seeing spring up in suburban neighborhoods now that we have a child to fend for. Perhaps these swap meets and mommy networks have been around since the dawn of time, and I’m just new to all of it because of our boy. What I do know is that I really get a warm felling passing on things Otis has outgrown of played with to someone else that will see the stuff as welcome and new. 

A few years ago during a toy show in Vancouver,  I sold off a heap of toys and miscellaneous other collectable bits. I had a table on the perimeter and with much help from Lindz we sorted and priced the items with what seemed fair, recoup some lost for cost of investment, sure, by no means a profiteering venture. Lindz and I had gotten engaged, and could see a future of living together in a place simply not big enough for our cumulative belongings. She’d thinned her stuff her way, I needed a good toy show to vent mine.

Early in the day, just before the doors opened to the general public, a dealer came around and got excited about a toy on my table. He paid cash and left smiling. I didn’t think much about it until later in the day when I took a break and wandered the other tables. At that dealer’s table I spot the toy I had sold him marked up to twice the price I’d sold it for. Somehow, this tactic hadn’t occurred to me. I suppose I’m naive. I’d presumed a sort of honor among thieves; that a dealer buying from another dealer was self serving, not to resell as though flipping a house in a volatile housing economy. I didn’t confront the dealer, he didn’t look at me. I shrugged, supposing a lesson nest in the situation somewhere that I could puzzle out some other day. Too many other tables to look at, moving on.

Late in the day a father came to the table with his son, and he’d clearly gotten excited about a couple things on the table. I asked if he’d share the toys with his seven year old, genuinely curious. He earnestly said yes, that he hoped to show his son the toys, or toys similar to, those he’d played with as a kid, Star Wars stuff and Fisher-Price and all that. I’d been passing on reduced offers on those two toys all day from people I got the dealer vibe from, gun shy now to see my toys reappear marked up on other vender’s tables, and equally unwilling to inflate my prices to what I felt a lot of theirs unreasonably were. I sold both toys to the man for the price of one, and gave some more free loose stuff to his son, let his son pick the items. Man looked suspicious, then shocked, then like he might cry. I felt sure of my choice, inwardly giddy for doing good, and yet unsettled because I honestly didn’t know how to respond to the range of the father’s emotions. His son seemed delighted, and that was enough. As I kept telling people, I wanted to see my books, toys, and DVDs end up in good homes where they’d be appreciated. Not resold on some dealer’s table like common chattel.

More soon.

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