Category Archives: War Toys

In defense of little green army men…

An eight-year-old Rhode Island boy got in trouble at school for bringing in plastic toy soldiers to class -- because they were carrying guns, part of the school's "zero tolerance" weapons policy.

Before Star Wars figures hit the market, I used to deploy battalions of little green plastic army men in the backyard — many later becoming casualties to the lawnmower. I don’t think I knew any kids who didn’t play with toy soldiers.

I don’t recall recreating any moments from the Vietnam War, which had only ended when I entered elementary school. I don’t even remember imagining anyone killing anybody. My play scenarios were much closer to the kind of rescue missions acted out in the Toy Story movies.

So, it’s nice to see there are still some kids out there who play with toy soldiers outside of video games. Apparently, my sense of nostalgia isn’t universal. What kind of buffoons would feel threatened by an eight-year-old boy wearing toy soldiers on his hat?

Rhode Island’s David Morales brought the little green army men to school as a gesture to honor the troops. He didn’t construct any dioramas of My Lai or Abu Ghraib. He didn’t splatter any red paint on enemy soldiers. Just a plain “I’m proud of the American Army” display. The school told him toy soldiers were banned from school because they were holding weapons. Reportedly, David was told he could play with toy soldiers without weapons, presumably the one with the landmine detector or the guy assigned to the public affairs unit.

You know what happens when you have soldiers without guns?  They wind up getting beaten with crowbars and pipes.

This situation is INSANE. Will the Conventry, RI schools be banning Toy Story next?  Besides the little green army men, both Woody and Buzz Lightyear carry weapons. So does Jessie for that matter.

What about those historical toy sets you used to be able to buy at the back of the comic books?

Would the Coventry (R.I.) schools say that this Revolutionary War toy soldier set was being insensitive to the British?

Regardless of the military content, I am very much looking forward to seeing “Toy Story 3” this weekend with my eight-year-old boy. Some of his LEGO figures have guns and he included them in a diorama he made for school to honor fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. So far, he hasn’t been hauled into the school psychologist’s office for an evaluation.

Speaking of little green army men, a while back I had the privilege of meeting some adults who still love to play with them. Check out this short film, “Toying With War: Tank Commander” that I made with conspirators Al Ward and Peter Koziell:

If you share my fascination with the sociology of war toys, check out these other hot topics:

PINK AISLE REFUGEES — Meet some guys who train and dress up Barbie commandos.

G.I. JOE MEDIC — Kentucky toy surgeon rescues action figures on their deathbeds. Gives them hairplugs, too!

HOSTAGE HOAX — Action figure collectors thwart terrorist scam in Iraq. Seriously.

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Squeezing Saddam Hussein’s noose into lemonade

 Herobuilders.com CEO Emil Vicale serves up a platter of unfinished action figure heads including "Hero" Condoleezza Rice and "Villian" Osama bin Laden. Vicale doesn't release sales figures, but says the bad guys outsell the good guys by a huge margin.

Herobuilders.com CEO Emil Vicale serves up a platter of unfinished action figure heads including “hero” Condi Rice and “villain” Osama bin Laden. Vicale doesn’t release sales figures, but says the bad guys outsell the good guys by a huge margin. (Image courtesy of Emil Vicale)

THE WORKING STIFF – By Darren Garnick
“Politically incorrect toymaker thrives on gallows humor”

The Boston Herald — January 17, 2007
**
It’s been almost three weeks since Saddam’s noose debuted on YouTube –
and the global debate over execution etiquette is still reverberating
in the most unexpected places.

Like the toy box.

Herobuilders.com, the Connecticut-based manufacturer of terrorist and
dictator-themed action figures, typically times the release of its new
dolls to the latest international crisis. CEO Emil Vicale introduced
his $24.95 “Dope on a Rope” Hanging Saddam figure a few days after
Christmas and hours before the deposed Iraqi tyrant was killed. But
he likely never imagined the subsequent hoopla over souvenir snuff
videos that guards made with their cell phone cameras.

“We’ve run out of boxes. We’ve run out of everything,” says the
ecstatic Vicale. “Things have been absolutely insane around here!”

To label his product as “gallows humour,” as the Sunday Times of
London did, doesn’t take into account the toymaker’s full body of
work. Since the beginning of the Iraq War, he has immortalized
President Bush’s archnemesis in various stages of his career.

“Crackhead Saddam” features the dictator in sunglasses, a beret and
full military regalia. “Captured Saddam” is a snapshot of the
disheveled leader when he was found hiding in the infamous “spider
hole.” And completing the set, “Trial Saddam” chronicles cockier
leisure suit days lecturing his Iraqi judge and prosecutor.

Vicale says his political satire attracts “hundreds and hundreds” of
hate e-mails each year, joking that it’s “cool” he’s already gotten
his first death threat of 2007. “Emil Vicale,” a Brazilian e-mailer
writes, “you are dead!”

Brief, no-nonsense threats are the ones that Vicale forwards to the
FBI. Not the “meaningless diatribes” about “American imperialism” and
the “Great Satan.”

“You can’t make everyone happy with a political product,” he says.
“These people are insane to think I even care what they think.”

The Bronx-raised Vicale talks in a street-tough New York accent and
seems giddy when he’s rattling off insults about America’s sworn
enemies. “Barbaric” and “pathetic” are warm-ups for “the most
demented people in history.”

But as much as he enjoys mocking terrorists (he no longer sells a pink
tutu to “humiliate” his Osama bin Laden doll), Vicale is an even
stronger believer in action figure diversification. Customized
hand-sculpted wedding figures – think cake toppers with 23 points of
articulation – go for $1,000 per couple and $39.95 for each additional
figure. Herobuilders also caters to gay weddings and bachelorette
parties with anatomically correct “Big Joe” figures with “flex-action
Little Joes.” And his “Hotbox” female vampires, “the sexiest female
action figures in the world,” were recently featured in the B-movie,
“Grandma’s Boy.”

A career industrial designer, Vicale launched “Herobuilders” a few
months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. He now employs 15
sculptors, designers and administrators and is looking to hire more
freelance help.

Sculptors earn $150 per head. His best artists carve up to 20 each week.

“Everybody is stressed. Our molding shop is three weeks behind,” he
says. “You can only push your workers so much.”

As for those death threats, well, let’s just call them another
business opportunity.

Inspired by his “first round” of hate mail, Vicale also sells his own
brand of anti-terrorist clothing for people – not action figures.
Black Star Ops” is a line of “reasonably priced covert tactical
clothing” meant for undercover agents as well as civilians working
high-risk assignments. The $39.95 shirts feature secret holster
pockets to conceal a gun or “comfortably carry a spare magazine or
canister of pepper spray.”

“I know I’m doing the right thing,” says Vicale, who cites fans in an
“unnamed five-sided building” in Washington, D.C. “That’s evident in
my bank account.”

**
Darren Garnick’s “Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the
Boston Herald. Stories or rants from the workplace are welcomed at
heraldstiff (at) gmail.com.

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Kentucky toy surgeon rescues G.I. Joes on their deathbeds

GI Joe Surgery

GI Joe Surgery

Culture Schlock — By Darren Garnick
“Kentucky toy surgeon rescues GI Joes on their deathbeds”

The Telegraph — February 15, 2002

**

LOUISVILLE — It may sound a little bizarre at first, but it makes perfect sense why Joe “The Medic” DeGrella wants all his G.I. Joes to be naked.

“The clothing and accessories are actually worth more than the figures themselves,” the 43-year-old toy surgeon says. “I don’t want the boxes. I don’t want the clothing. I just don’t want to be responsible.”

DeGrella runs a triage unit for military action figures in the basement of his suburban home just outside Louisville, Kentucky. The patients, who arrive by mail, are predominantly GI Joes from the 1960s and early 1970s – although the occasional Barbie or Chatty Cathy has never been refused treatment. Typical hospital bills range from $20 to $100, and customers who spend more than $30 receive a complimentary mini Purple Heart.

Action figure surgery may be bloodless, but the operating room is hardly pretty. To tighten loose vintage figures, DeGrella needs to crack open the torso and completely gut out the rubber intestines. The quality of elastics – as anyone who used to bundle baseball cards knows – was horrendous years ago, but new technology ensures that this procedure will likely only happen once.

DeGrella’s cellar has emerged into one of the nation’s leading centers for GI Joe health care. It was here where researchers (well, OK, it’s a one-man faculty) developed a new nylon joint that revolutionized shoulder replacements for future generations.

DeGrella, a former building contractor who turned full-time toy medic in the early 1990s, claims he can fix just about any ailment. Only twice in his career have figures arrived DOA — the worst casualty was a GI Joe with a burned head and torso along with missing limbs. In the cosmetic arena, the medic also retouches hair and beards with magnetized fibers.

The biggest health hazards to GI Joes are “children and dogs,” in that order, DeGrella says. Another huge problem is osteoporosis, which means “stress cracks” in the limbs and torso. In the dermatology department, vintage black GI Joes have experienced major longevity issues. The chemical used to color the figures’ skin inadvertently caused them to crumble with age.

Fortunately, there is no need to get Jesse Jackson involved — modern African-American Joes no longer use the same kind of plastic

DeGrella began his self-taught medical career at age 9, when he recovered a GI Joe that he lost in a creek. The missing soldier was found pinned under a rock and the prognosis wasn’t optimistic: “He had been underwater for three months. The elastic had just rotted away, so when I picked him up, he basically fell apart in my hand,” the medic recalls. “The body was faded. The hair was washed off.”

The boy improvised his first restrung torso and used model paint to restore various features. Throwing the doll away would’ve been heresy. “It was like finding a long lost friend. I probably had seven or eight GI Joes, but this one remained my favorite,” says DeGrella.

He later gave up collecting as a teenager, cashing in his entire collection for a paltry $20. Enjoying a much higher budget years later, DeGrella relaunched his interest as an adult. Oddly enough, though, his skill at fixing GI Joes led to his collection’s second demise.

Prospective clients “would ask me if I was a collector and I’d say yes. They’d say, ‘Well, how do I know you’re not going to keep my GI Joe parts and send me back some junk?'” remembers DeGrella. “In order to gain the trust of my customers, I needed to give up collecting. So I sold my GI Joes just to give others peace of mind.”

But the choice between collector and healer was not a difficult one. Reliving his childhood every day, DeGrella insists that he doesn’t miss his acquisition years: “I get to play with GI Joes every day. I basically see every piece of GI Joe that was ever made by Hasbro… “It’s almost like therapy to me.”

**
Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column appears in The Telegraph’s Encore magazine every Friday. His Six Million Dollar Man doll remains missing in action. Feedback and suggestions are welcomed via e-mail at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com.

The GI Joe Medic with some spare body parts

The GI Joe Medic with some spare body parts

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Pink Aisle Refugees – Guys who shop for (and train) Barbie commandos

Customized militarized Barbies at a recent G.I. Joe Convention

Customized militarized Barbies at a recent G.I. Joe Convention

CULTURE SCHLOCK – By Darren Garnick
“Pink Aisle Refugees: Guys not afraid to call a doll a doll’”

The Telegraph — August 8, 2002
**
They call themselves “Pink Aisle Refugees.”  At best, they are a courageous bunch of men shattering society’s prohibition against boys who play with dolls.  At worst, they are hack plastic surgeons, forcing countless Barbies to go under the knife against their will.

Welcome to the Internet’s “Men With Dolls Forum,” a place where female action figures are put on a special pedestal above all toys with a Y-chromosome.

“A grown man shopping in the ‘Pink Aisle’ for Barbie clothes for his female action figures can feel more than a little alienated,” explains MWD member Matt Black, a corporate communications consultant from Philadelphia. “When we come together and discuss this feeling, we are refugees — seeking refuge in each others company.”

“But usually, this feeling doesn’t last long,”  he adds. “Either people become confident and proud — they say to the high school girl at the register, ‘Yes, this is for me, this is for MY doll!’ — or they’ve created their own cover-story. ‘It’s my niece’s birthday tomorrow, I don’t think she has this yet, but her mom can always exchange it, right?’  I started with the latter, but have graduated to the former.”

But the forum is far more than a messageboard for the Doll Pride Movement.  MWD brings together hobbyists who like to “customize” their figures, creating their own characters by altering hair color, facial expressions, body parts, clothing and accessories. Some changes are done by switching clothes and body parts from existing dolls. Other additions are designed from scratch.

Black, who goes by the screen name “TheRenCapt,” recently came to the aid of a colleague who accidentally smeared permanent marker on a Posh Spice doll while trying to touch up her eyebrows. Needless to say, cosmetology isn’t for amateurs.

LAM001: “… I’ve been left with a large purple stain over her left eye, that the goof off WON’T remove… Must I repaint her whole face?  Or has anyone any ideas for getting this stain off? Right now, she looks like she’s been beaten up.”

TheRenCapt: “I know that doll head well… Rule #1 of repaints — NO MARKERS! Put your Sharpies and felt-tips away! … It will bleed over time. Markers sink die INTO the vinyl. You want to paint on the surface. Acrylics are your friend. I use the tip of a needle (no joke) to paint eyebrows. As for the head, if you are deadset on using it, yes, it is a total repaint. Best advice: trash it and find a new one.”

The once non-existent (or closeted) world of men who collect dolls is now a booming market. Mattel has licensed a new line of Lingerie Barbies and it’s likely that women collectors aren’t the ones getting excited over teeny-weeny pink bras. Playboy figured they may as well move in on the silk turf, too. You can turn any G.I. Joe into Hugh Hefner with just two of their scantily-clad Playmate dolls.

“I wish I could give you some socially enlightened response,” says Rob Caswell, a Massachusetts-based artist who grew up in Nashua. “But alas, the main draw for me is quality 1/6th scale cheesecake… I can’t find any attraction in collecting a figure of, say, a frumpy meter maid.”

Thus, it may come as no shock that many of the doll alterations on the MWD forum are breast enhancement operations. Blue Box International has a popular line of well-endowed figures called Cy Girls Perfect Body, which are selling faster than the company can make them. The doll comes with a separate snap-on breast plate for enthusiasts who wish to make her chest even larger.

Merging Barbie with a Cy Girl Perfect Body is one of the more common procedures. “She’s generally accepted as an organ donor,” jokes Mark Volk Jr., a Washington D.C. systems analyst who founded Men With Dolls last June.  “Heads are used most often, usually with surgery to remove the awful smile or a face repaint,” he adds. “Though some members do use the super-articulated Gymnast Barbie body for some of their custom figures.”

Be forewarned: MWD members say it is often tough to fit standard-issue Barbie tube tops or halter tops over the new Perfect Body torso.

Men With Dolls welcomes members of all ages and genders, but the risque content might not be suitable for the collector who prefers Cinderella ballgowns over Madonna leather. Fashion tastes aside, the forum does attract its share of women participants.

“Their passion and craft abilities are easily on par with the male membership,” concedes Caswell, the ex-Nashuan. “They’re just like ‘one of the guys’ … or us guys are all ‘just one of the girls.’  I guess either fits, depending on your perspective about collecting female dolls.”

Craig Wren, a graphic designer based in Ohio, maintains that the MWD Forum is the ultimate compliment to women

“You can name just about any of our five senses and women have some way of delighting that sense,” he explains. “They look nice, they smell good, they feel soft and warm, they appeal to our need for nurturing and comfort, and of course, they provide us with love in many ways – from mothers to wives to daughters.”

“We would all be in a terribly miserable world if there were no females in it,” adds Wren, “and this is reflected in our collections.”

If behind every bust-enhanced Barbie are sentiments like these, maybe the “Men With Dolls”  should issue their own line of Mother’s Day and wedding anniversary cards.

**
Darren Garnick currently owns no Cy Girls or Barbies, but does boast dolls of Jerry Springer and Jesse Ventura.  Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column appears every Thursday in The Telegraph’s “Encore” magazine.  Feedback and ideas are welcome via e-mail at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com.

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Terrorist Geek Exposed: Action figure hostage hoax fizzles in Iraq

Action Figure Hostage Hoax

Action Figure Hostage Hoax

Culture Schlock – By Darren Garnick
“Toy collector exposes action figure hostage hoax in Iraq”

The Telegraph — February 10, 2005
**
Newspaper journalists loftily think of themselves as “writing the first draft of history.”  When the definitive stories of the Iraq war are written decades from now, they hopefully will include at least one paragraph on the persistence of toy collector Brady Miller, a military analyst the mainstream media has largely ignored.

Miller’s expertise is in action figures, perhaps the reason why the Associated Press didn’t immediately take him seriously when he called their national desk last week with vital information on a breaking news story from the Middle East. The name of his business, “Monkey Depot,” likely didn’t enhance his credibility as a source.

Based in Mesa, Ariz., the Depot sells the highly evolved descendants of G.I. Joe – meticulously detailed 12-inch plastic soldiers who come with dozens of variations of uniforms, weaponry and other equipment. Miller, who jokingly refers to himself as a “worldwide arms peddler,” specializes in loose parts: offering helmets, boots, berets, gas masks, night vision goggles, belts, binoculars, MREs, propaganda leaflets, grenade launchers and every firearm imaginable in miniature.  His business model was inspired by frustrating experiences as a collector, not wishing to pay $45 for a high-end figure if all he needed was an extra machine gun or flak jacket.

Last Wednesday, while looking up a price on his computer for a customer, Miller stumbled across a breaking AP story on the Yahoo! News site. Iraqi terrorists claimed they had kidnapped a U.S. soldier and posted a grainy photo of the bound American with a gun pointed at his head.

“Even from the thumbnail image, I knew something was wrong,” recalls Miller, finding it odd that the hostage was still wearing his military-issued knee pads. “I clicked on the photo for a close-up right away and after I saw the gun, my gut feeling was absolute. I stare at these things 12-14 hours a day.”

hoax-2

Miller was the first to discover the hoax that the kidnapped soldier was actually a special edition action figure named Cody, which was sold only on U.S. bases in Kuwait. He frantically tried calling several different bureaus of the Associated Press, each time getting referred to their automated reader comment line. “If someone would just take two seconds to look at this, they’d realize this is an action figure and not a real guy,” he told the gatekeepers. Finally, a skeptical photo editor in New York listened and agreed to look at photos of the action figure for comparison.

“Thanks for the great info and images,” the editor fired back in an email. “You have the largest newsgathering organization on the planet at a standstill!”

After confirming the photographs with the manufacturer, Dragon Models USA, the AP ran with the action figure hoax story that instantly became incredulous conversation fodder at water coolers around the world. On his popular news satire Web site, comedian Andy Borowitz later reported that the most recent Osama bin Laden tape was actually the voice of Hokey Pokey Elmo.

“Of course America should be outraged at the atrocities of kidnappings, both real and staged,” says toy publicist Lauri Aibel, a longtime observer of the military action figure industry. “But it seems the terrorists tangled with the wrong market. Hobbyists combed their memories and then their ample collections to quickly unveil the identity of the un-named GI and to them it was as obvious as if they had just seen a scale-size gun pointed at Malibu Barbie.”

Liam Cusak, a spokesman for Dragon Models USA, says he’s “stunned” by last week’s bizarre intersection between the military action figure world and the real world. He notes that the fact someone would confuse a Dragon figure with a real soldier for even a moment is “a great compliment,” but quickly adds: “Of course, we don’t condone anybody pulling these sort of hoaxes just to get attention.”

Speaking of attention, Miller is getting very little of it. Internet journalist Matt Drudge is now widely credited for exposing this hoax first, even though his photographs were the same ones from MonkeyDepot.com. On top of that, outside of Miller’s hometown paper, all of the major news coverage neglects to even mention him. He also has no plans to brag about his journalistic coup on his Web site, explaining, “I don’t want to try to sensationalize this or even give the appearance of sensationalizing it.”

“I hate to say this,” adds Miller, “but I have to begrudgingly – very begrudgingly – give them (the hoaxsters) credit for the idea. For $44.95 and a little Internet bandwith, they were able to make the troops a little nervous. In this conflict, propaganda and using the media is a key part of the battle.”

Theories abound as to who is behind the hoax – one analyst speculated that this stunt was designed to undermine the credibility of terrorist Web sites – but there is a glimmer of positive news if this was from the usual gang of headchopping thugs. Trying to fake a soldier kidnapping means that it is extremely tough to abduct real ones.

If an action figure fanatic recognized problems with the kidnapping photo, chances are the U.S. military wouldn’t have been fooled either. Nonetheless, it was the toy collector and not the Army who embarrassed the 24/7 press for its report-first, run-a-correction-later mentality.  Every minute longer that the hoax remained unexposed was another minute of needless worrying for U.S. military families.

“This whole experience has been a freakish thing,” says Miller. “But I’m glad this story got squashed when it did.”

**
Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column runs every Thursday in Encore. Reader feedback is welcome via email at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com

___________________

OTHER WAR TOY STORIES WORTH PERUSING…

Squeezing Saddam Hussein’s Noose Into Lemonade: A gallows humor action figure.

Kentucky Toy Surgeon Rescues G.I. Joes on Their Deathbeds: Meet the guy who knows what to do about action figure balding and joint deterioration!

Pink Aisle Refugees: Guys who shop for (and train) Barbie commandos — Do her accessories include rocket-propelled grenades?

Coming to a Gumball Machine Near You: Classism! Trailer park figurines come with kegs and unemployment checks.

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Most Demented Toy of the Year ——— The Indiana Jones Electronic Whip (or why I miss toy guns)

Nothing like watching the kiddies smack each other in the face with a 3-foot-long “soft” rope and then listen to the classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark” theme as a reward. Would be even more fantastic if the whip handle also played other John Williams-composed hits.

The whip itself is soft — silky smooth like a feather. But if swung around like a lasso, with the handle as a weight, you recreate the subway vigilante scene in Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish.”

A couple of rolls of quarters hunkered down in a sock does wonders for thug deterrence.

But kids would never misuse a whip, would they? Especially with Hasbro’s cigarette-style product warning (guaranteed to be ignored). I’m betting this warning just gives the more rowdy kids ideas — broadens their sadistic role-playing horizons.

But the danger factor really isn’t the reason why the Indiana Jones Electronic Sound FX Whip earns my vote for Most Demented Toy of 2008 — with even seven months to go to the holidays. The reason is that a whip is one of the sickest weapons available. In real life, its purpose is to inflict as much suffering as possible. And the user has to enjoy — or least tolerate the torture.

With a nuclear weapon, you press a button and hit a target far away. Ditto for pulling the trigger on a gun. A whip only has three possible violent contexts:

1. To abuse animals.
2. To torture slaves or prisoners.
3. To enhance sado-masochistic sex.

Do yourself a favor: If your kid wants to pretend to be Indiana Jones, go out and buy him some old fashioned toy guns. At the risk of sounding like a Republican, six year olds and S & M just don’t mix.

Read more exclusive insights on the Most Demented Toy of the Year in my latest “Culture Schlock” column.

UPDATE: BURGER KING ALSO HAS A KIDS’ WHIP!

Oh, it’s true. My son Ari and I walked in to grab a Frozen Coke, quite frankly the only thing worth ordering there, and there it was — a poster advertising the “Indiana Jones Hip Whip” with the purchase of a BK Kids Meal

“The whole idea of a toy whip is crazy,” I told Ari, who fortunately shows no desire to own one (although he does gravitate toward all sorts of gumball machine crap).

“It’s even crazier when the toy doesn’t even do anything!” my son chimed in.

Exactly.

What is the point of this hard plastic mini-whip, besides wasting petroleum?

If I were to buy him a Burger King Kids Meal, and that will happen only if we are stranded at a highway rest stop and haven’t had food in 48 hours, I would much prefer that he play with the Indiana Jones Invisible Ink Journal.

Realizing I likely am in the minority when it comes to appreciating Indiana Jones merchandise, if you are a fan of this stuff, I highly recommend you read the musings of Eve and Dave, curators of the entertaining “Geeks of Doom” Web site.

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