In honor of the O.G. Force Friday—which didn’t really happen in any significant way this year, thanks to the weird rollout for Solo merchandising—The A.V. Club decided to ask the following question in honor of all that memorabilia we’ve collected through the years:
What was the first pop culture you collected as a kid?
As a kid in the early ’90s, I spent a ton of time parked on a beanbag in front of the TV, watching cartoons and kids’ shows, yes, but more often, hours upon hours of music videos on CMT. Somewhere along the line, I decided my favorite of those videos starred Reba McEntire. Outside of the many CDs of hers I owned, I don’t remember the first Reba item I acquired, but it amounted to a bedroom decorated with the singer’s big red coiffure: a completed puzzle of an It’s Your Call-era portrait framed on my wall, issues of McCall’s and Country Weekly that featured her on the cover, and even a small promotional stand-up from her goddamn Fritos gig. Around this time, I also hand-wrote a letter to her, and months later, she responded with an autographed head shot addressed personally to me. My musical obsessions are worlds away from Reba by now, but that signed 8-by-10-inch is still a prized possession.
Like everyone else, I liked Star Wars toys. But what I really liked were Spawn toys. Todd McFarlane’s comic book was more violent, glibly evil, and “adult” in the way a 10-year-old thinks of the word, and when McFarlane started making toys based on the series, they were bigger, grosser, and better-designed than anything else out there. (Also, more expensive.) They were released in sets of six or so, and I’d anticipate their reveal in Wizard magazine with the sort of fervency that only strikes 10-year-olds looking forward to new toys. While finding endless variations of characters is a time-honored, surefire way to keep people buying the same toys over and over, there was a level of polish to, say, Ninja Spawn and Future Spawn that your recycled Han Solo toys didn’t quite have. They bridged the gap between a toy and the sort of sculptures that hardcore fans buy as adults, which is part of why they all broke pretty quickly. The collection was in pieces in a shoebox within a few years.
I went all in on Pokémon cards when they first hit the scene. I was the perfect age to have my life completely ruined by Nintendo’s little monsters, and I was in deep: playing and trading my way to all 150 monsters and the shitty digital certificate you got for catching them all; watching the cartoon religiously; and of course, collecting those damn bits of cardboard and not even bothering to learn the rules of the actual game you could play with them. All that mattered was filling out the set, a feat that was way easier said than done back when they first came out. Those packs were grade-school gold, selling out everywhere as soon as they came in stock and selling for way above the intended price. In the end, I actually managed a nearly complete set. The only thing I was missing was the fabled holographic Charizard, a rare bastard of a card that haunts me to this day.
I don’t know why or how I started, but my first and most lasting collection was antique beverage bottles. The bulk of my collection are colorful samples from the 1940, ’50s and ’60s, with painted labels showing an era when fizzy drinks brands were both more numerous and more local, regionally specific and produced in small towns as well as cities all across America. Most of my collection comes from antique stores in Wisconsin, so most of my bottles are from the upper Midwest. ’70s Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew bottles, with their wavy typefaces, are everywhere: What’s better is finding the specimens from Wausau, Wisconsin that were produced for a few years before disappearing, leaving only a dusty bottle behind. My favorites are these ones, which are often faded in rings where they were washed and reused, and have names like “Springtime Any Time” and “Cheer Up!” A few bottles could be nearing a century old, with more subdued branding, and the really elderly ones have no paint or paper labels at all, but embossed glass, so worn down you can feel the letters better than you can see them.
Hot Wheels cars were the first things I had a lot of as a kid. Back in the ’80s, they were huge, with Hot Wheels and Matchbox serving as the Coke and Pepsi of the tiny-toy-car world. Like my loyalty to Coke, I was a staunch Hot Wheels guy, though I had all kinds of cars in my carrying cases: Hot Wheels, Matchbox, non-branded Dukes Of Hazard model cars, even this van/ViewMaster-esque combo with a lens on the back that showed a picture of the Incredible Hulk when you held it to the light. I was a kid, not a “collector,” so the cars took a lot of abuse, and I was prone to painting them, either with Liquid Paper or the occasional bottle of model paint. After grade school, they sat in my closet until my parents moved out of my childhood home, but found new life with my nephews. They’re both too old for Hot Wheels now, but I’m always down to get the cars out when I see them.
Growing up, I didn’t have the means or the space to amass much of anything that I alone found interesting. Generally, if my parents were going to spend the money on entertainment—be it a movie outing, or a board game—there had to be some kind of consensus. We owned certain children’s book series, like Lord Of The Rings and All-Of-A-Kind Family, but I don’t think those count because, while I did love them, they were basically hand-me-downs. They weren’t titles I’d sought out and procured myself. Now, I didn’t have any money of my own to spend until I got to college, but once I had regular access to a used bookstore, I started compiling Christopher Pike books. I read his Chain Letter books in high school, which are basically what would happen if the characters from a John Hughes movie were transplanted to a slasher movie (and later, supernatural) setting. I felt so empowered and extravagant when I scooped up all three Final Friends books, which I had borrowed from my library as a kid, but now had in my permanent possession for a mere $5. That trilogy was soon followed by Slumber Party, Road To Nowhere, and the Cheerleaders series. All told, I had 15 dog-eared paperbacks cluttering my side of the dorm room freshman year (really only a fraction of Pike’s output). Sadly, when I went home that summer, my collection was destroyed when the basement of my parents’ home flooded. It’s just as well, since they were becoming a bit of an embarrassment for me whenever other English majors, ones who bragged about their more discriminating tastes, were around.
I was a trading-card kid, though I never swapped one piece of garishly decorated cardboard for another, preferring instead to hoard them away in plastic sleeves and various carrying cases. What began as an indiscriminate grocery-store treat—a pack from Topps’ Ghostbusters II collection here, some questionably age-inappropriate Batman cards there—mutated into a capital-H hobby by elementary school, when a then-booming collector’s market for sports memorabilia made me think that if I held on to the right player for the right number of years, I’d be able to sell it for big bucks. It was an era when Wayne Gretzky’s six-figure purchase of an American Tobacco Company Honus Wagner was headline news, when Full House would base an entire B-plot around a $2,000 Nolan Ryan rookie card; I obsessively tabulated the number of cards in my collection and occasionally picked up trade publications like Beckett to track their worth. Suffice it to say, I am currently making my living by writing these words, rather than enjoying the spoils yielded by a complete 1992-93 Upper Deck NHL set (with the Gordie Howe Hockey Heroes inserts!), and not just because a small chunk of that set was stolen by a fifth-grade classmate. The collection moved from my parents’ house to Chicago a few years back, the leisure hours and fixations of a childhood confined to a dozen or so three-ring binders. The only value the cards ever accrued was sentimental; the fact that I still have them indicates that I was never really planning to part with them in the first place.
It’s a tossup, as I started accruing Star Wars stuff before I even knew how to beg and cajole for it. But for the sake of public embarrassment, I’m going to out myself as a young Garfield buff. The top shelf of my childhood bookcase was devoted to proudly displaying the collected works of one Mr. Jim Davis, our generation’s most esteemed balladist working exclusively in the medium of fat, sarcastic cats. I had all of Davis’ celebrated oeuvre—Garfield At Large, Garfield Gains Weight, Garfield Bigger Than Life, Garfield Takes The Cake, Garfield Is Unhealthily Obese And Isn’t That Fucking Hilarious? etc.—and every birthday and Christmas brought me more, along with assorted Garfield posters, stickers, and even a Garfield phone, so I could talk to all my childhood friends who certainly didn’t want to talk about Garfield. My obsession ended in about 1984 (with the publication of, I believe, Holy Shit Garfield Just Ate Too Much Lasagna And He Died, He’s Dead Now, Is This What You Wanted?). That was when I turned a worldly 6 years old and moved on to Bloom County. All those Garfield books were cleared out soon after and taken to the used bookstore where, I assume, they enjoyed a secondhand life mildly amusing some other kid. Still, to this day, whenever I see a cat that looks like it’s sad and lethargic from negligent overfeeding, I can’t help but laugh.
I never really stopped collecting the first thing I collected: Optimus Prime toys. I have vague memories of getting my first Optimus when I was 5 or 6—the Generation 2 one with an annoying speaker gimmick—and he was always my favorite character in the ’80s cartoon. I know that’s like saying Luke Skywalker is my favorite character, but Optimus Prime is a strong proponent of intergalactic freedom and his toys always struck the perfect balance between looking cool and not being overly complex. How could I not show my appreciation for his noble fight against the Decepticons by buying a bunch of toys? I’ve lost plenty of my old Optimuses over the years, and last summer I replaced most of the collection with a 12-inch “Masterpiece” figure that was more expensive than I’ll admit here, but I still have that original toy sitting on my desk.
Like a lot of kids in post-Soviet Russia, I was obsessed with both knock-off action figures and the movie and cartoon stickers that came in wrappers of the cheap Turkish, German, and Spanish bubblegum that was then being sold everywhere. (Terminator 2 stickers were probably the most sought-after, and remain fetishes of ’90s kid-dom in the former Eastern Bloc.) But unlike my classmates, who plastered theirs all over notebooks and desks, I could never peel my stickers from their glassine backing, worried that I’d waste them. Considering there’s a nostalgia market for them now, the collection has to be worth something. But it was just one part of a Proustian trove of ephemera whose anxious symbolism becomes depressingly clear within the context of an unstable, uncertain childhood. As a kid, I tried to save every movie ticket stub and the packaging to every toy. And after I got a small cassette recorder around the age of 8 or 9, I began obsessively recording and narrating my life, which led to my geekiest and saddest collection: cassette after cassette of home-taped movie scores and TV themes (the latter required split-second timing), which I’d listen to in my room for hours. What became of the tapes, I don’t know.
Technically, I first began collecting Star Wars cards, but that was more of a hand-me-down hobby when my brother decided he could no longer be bothered and handed me his novelty wooden pirate chest packed with Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back cards. I gamely carried onward with Return Of The Jedi cards, but that was for the naïve, child-like pleasure of having them and not the sophisticated anxiety of trying to curate a whole set. The first thing I began collecting completely all my own was Garbage Pail Kids cards—those literal and figurative snotty rebuttals to the popularity of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. Created for Topps by Pulitzer-prize winning Maus cartoonist Art Spiegelman, Garbage Pail Kids featured the cherub-faced dolls distorted by gore, pimples, vomit, or some other absurd deformity and paired with a pun name such as “GuilloTina.” I loved those ridiculous things, and the fact that they were forbidden at my and many other schools at the time only cemented that affection.
Like most kids who grew up in the ’80s, my collection started with Star Wars. More specifically, my collection started with Darth Vader. I was obsessed with Darth Vader and thought he was the coolest robot in the galaxy. My mom tried to tell me over and over again that he was a man in a suit, not a robot, but I wasn’t buying it. The only versions of the movies we had were two recorded VHS tapes from an ABC screening of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. It wasn’t until 1989, at my friend John’s birthday party, that I saw Luke remove Darth Vader’s helmet to reveal an old man that looked disturbingly like my grandpa, only bald and tired. But who cares? In toy form, he looked like a robot. I got my first Vader from a comic book store on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak, Michigan, handed to me by my dad. That led to stormtroopers, then the heroes, and then I got obsessed with how cool Boba Fett was. Eventually they started making figures where you could take Vader’s helmet off, and I accepted the reality of his humanity. I still have an original Vader figure. I’m not sure if it’s the exact one that started it all, because a lot of my original collection was sold at a goddamn yard sale, but I like to think it is. And after all these years, that collecting bug never left. Just ask my bank account.
This wasn’t so much a conscious collection as it was being a fat kid who loved french fries, but I was an aggressive pursuer of McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys when I was a kid. By the time I was 12 or so (and had thus graduated to wolfing down a Happy Meal-unsustainable 9,000 calories per meal), I had a whole massive storage tub of these cheap plastic toys, cluttering my floor and driving my parents insane. Almost all of the individual items have faded fully into the unrecyclable landfill pile of my memory, but I do remember having a complete set of the pretty awesome Batman vehicles that the fast food chain shilled out in 1991, ahead of Batman Returns. The Penguin and Catwoman cars were fine, I guess, but the ultimate collectible was the Batmobile, which had a little button you could press that would spring-fire the front half off, ostensibly to race across a table, but really so you could shoot it at your parent’s head while they were trying to drive you home from another much-demanded McDonald’s run. Thanks, Ronald! (Sorry, mom and dad.)
My appetite for books was voracious from the time I first learned to read, but the first time I remember actually seeking out an author’s work in a completist way was when I started reading Roald Dahl books. I identified deeply with the character of Matilda as a child—minus the terrible parents and telekinetic abilities, of course—and read Dahl’s novel a half-dozen times before it occurred to me that hey, this guy must have written lots of books, and the rest of them are probably pretty good, too. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was next, followed by James And The Giant Peach, which I persuaded my third-grade teacher to assign to the entire class. Over the next couple of years, I amassed a paperback collection that included all of Dahl’s children’s books and the first volume of his autobiography Boy—Tales Of Childhood; whether I liked Roald Dahl books for their dark comedy, or my sense of humor was shaped by Roald Dahl books, I’m not sure. I do know that Danny, The Champion Of The World is one of his more underrated works, though.
Man, I love Danny, The Champion Of The World. My main reading material when I was a kid was a bit thinner, though: I collected comic books. My allowance was a dollar, and most comics were 25 cents (at least when I first started reading them) so I could buy four a week, or three and some gum. My tastes were all over the place: the Archie group, of course; the whole Harvey lineup, from Casper to Richie Rich; and female superheroes in the DC camp (namely Supergirl and Wonder Woman). On any given week, you could probably find Pals ‘N’ Gals, Little Audrey, and Superman Family strewn across my canopy bed; I never could have imagined that decades later as a grownup I would see Wonder Woman on the big screen and a dark and twisted version of Riverdale on TV. But I kept them all, in a battered old trunk; of course, if I had actually kept them in plastic, they might be worth something now. The habit stuck with me at least through college, and now the highlights of my old collection include my single issues of the original run of Watchmen, and Daniel Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn, which was hilarious.
God, I wish I could pretend that X-Men comics were the first thing I got really obsessed with collecting as a kid. But no, similar to William’s Happy Meal predilections, that honor goes to the California Raisins figurines made by Hardees as part of some cross-brand synergy nonsense in the late ’80s. It’s weird to think about now, but those characters became famous thanks to Claymation commercials featuring their likenesses, which then led to a holiday special, books, and more—all for some shitty musical mascots cooked up by an ad agency to sell raisins. I became obsessed, forcing my parents to return over and over until I had collected all of the wrinkly little bastards, year in and year out, for the first three rounds of promotions, totaling 10 figurines and four soft, bendable toys. It appears they trotted out those purply nightmares for another promotional stint in the ’90s; happily, by then I was busily spending far, far more money on the adventures of Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, and the rest of the Marvel mutants.