All things geek - An interview with the 'ultimate' action figure guy

Matthew Lane • Nov 25, 2018 at 3:00 PM

I’m a child of the ’80s and, like millions of kids from that era, I collected and played with action figures.

I spent countless hours re-creating the Battle of Yavin, trying to destroy the Weather Dominator and save the war-torn planet of Cybertron. The fate of the universe was decided in my backyard on any given Saturday. And it was glorious.

In my opinion, the ’80s was the golden age for action figures. Star Wars, G.I. Joe, He-man, Transformers, Marvel superheroes, wrestlers from the WWF and WCW, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Thundercats all reigned supreme during the Age of Reagan.

And though action figures today may look better than they ever have, there’s still something about the toys from my youth that spark a strong sense of elation. Which is why the subject of my column this month is of particular interest to me and hopefully to you as well.

Mark Bellomo is considered one of the top toy experts in the country. He’s written for Toy Shop magazine, IDW Publishing and authored more than a dozen books, including “Ultimate Guides” to G.I. Joe, Transformers and Star Wars. In addition to his writings, Bellomo is also a consulting producer on the hit Netflix series “The Toys that Made Us,” now currently in production on its third season.

I reached out to him to talk about his latest book — the third edition of the “Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe” — his work on the Netflix series and just how many action figures he has in his collection. Here’s a hint — it’s a lot.

Tell me a little about yourself.

Bellomo: I’m from a very small town in upstate New York called Seneca Falls, the birthplace of women’s rights and known for hunting and fishing. Yet I wanted to read a book and play with action figures. My mom is from Belgium and I had a European upbringing, but I was the smallest kid in class.

Having braces on my legs until first grade and buckteeth, I was a little bit of a target and the pecking order haunted me for a long time. When I went to college, I realized I could reinvent myself. I worked on five or six textbooks by the time I graduated and in October 2003 I started writing for Toy Shop magazine.

How long have you collected toys?

Bellomo: I’ve always been a toy and comic book collector. At that time, I had a 50-page Word document of all my comics I owned and a 20- to 30-page one of all the action figures I owned. So I sent that and some samples (to Toy Shop magazine) and I was asked to review toys for a Christmas issue.

They must have liked it, because they brought me on as an action figure columnist, biweekly for about a year. Then the acquisitions editor gave me a call, and he knew I had a lot of G.I. Joes, about 85 to 90 percent of the collection, and he asked me if I would be willing to write a book. Yes, of course I would, so I tracked down the rest of the collection and wrote my first guide in 2004.

What happened next?

Bellomo: About 18 months later, my editor said, “I notice you have a lot of Transformers stuff. Why don’t you write a Transformers guide?” I had about 75 percent of the collection, so I finished the Generation 1 collection and wrote the guide.

When (Hasbro) was developing Transformers, they let Jim Shooter and Marvel create the fictional world of Cybertron. Shooter wrote the first two-page treatment of Transformers in 1983 and it’s the exact same storyline for all of the movies that followed. That’s how true the toy executives were and devoted and respectful to the creators. Nowadays, marketing dictates everything.

What do you mean by that?

Bellomo: In “My Little Pony,” there’s a character named Apple Jack, who wears a brown hat. When Hasbro first released the figure, the hat was lime green. If I’m a kid watching this wonderful cartoon and the hat is mint green, the first thing I’m going to ask my mom is, “Can you color this hat brown?” That’s not right.

From the Hasbro side of things, the mint shade tested well and that’s what they wanted to give Apple Jack. That’s the problem with toys today. They create this beautiful, brilliant cartoon and the marketing guys tweak it too much, where marketing controls everything and they won’t let the creative (guys) breathe. That’s true down the line.

What’s the reason for this thinking?

Bellomo: The rise of real-looking video games. When you can incorporate cinema scenes and get a minimum of 20 hours of game play for $60, that’s when parents started to use action figures as punishment toys.

Every study that’s coming out says kids shouldn’t be on devices more than 20 minutes a day. There’s a reason why Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use devices. There’s a little dopamine when you get a text or an email or a “Like.” It’s as addictive as any pill and you can’t put it down.

How large is your toy collection?

Bellomo: I have about 85,000 to 90,000 action figures and 130,000 comics. I have every figure, accessory, creature, play set, mail away, pack-in promotion, vehicle and weapon system for every primary, secondary and tertiary toy line as far back as 1964. From 12-inch G.I. Joes and Captain Action through MEGO superheroes, pocket superheroes, all the way up to modern Marvel Legends and DC Multiverse.

I’ve always worked three or four jobs. I’m not a trust fund kid. I’ve never won the lottery. I just work a lot and anything that I want, I can buy it. If that means I have to work 18 hours a day, I’ll do it.”

Tell me about your work on “The Toys that Made Us.”

Bellomo: The third season is going to be TMNT, Power Rangers, WWF wrestler and My Little Pony. It’s been a lot of work because when you’re covering something like the Power Rangers, you’ve got to get into the Japanese origins, like Super Sentai and Pokemon, so it’s a lot of work.

If these are going to be the definitive (story) of these lines, they have to be definitive. It’s a highly ranked and highly rated show on Netflix, with a lot of repeat views. It’s a powerful show when it comes to numbers.

Why do you still collect action figures?

Bellomo: It takes you back to a more innocent time, and I’m blessed and lucky to write about this stuff for a living.

Collecting action figures is sometimes an act of discovery, and that’s what a lot of non-geeks don’t understand. These characters meant something to us as kids. They were living, breathing human beings, and when we collect this stuff, it memorializes those heroes and villains and keeps us young because we remember when these people were our friends.

That’s how we exhibit our love and devotion to these things by collecting these lines that meant a lot to us as a kid.

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