Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s December 1993. I’ve just returned a car-load of film equipment to the Film Building at my university, where I’m a student. I’m in a contemplative mood this day and with nothing else on tap for the afternoon, decide to take a little drive.

The car is mine. I was home for my mother’s birthday at the end of November and decided to drive back to school seeing as I’d be coming back after exams a few weeks hence. I’m renting a house in the city’s west end with five other film and theater students so I have free parking for the month.

I drive without any real destination, but when hunger pangs hit I decide to drive up to my old neighborhood – the one I lived in ten years before, which would become, in my memory anyway, the happiest time of my life. There’s a burger joint near there I used to frequent, one of those old-school 1960s establishments that hasn’t changed in the fifty years since it was started. I go and grab my favorite meal – steak on a Kaiser with pepper and a little bit of BBQ sauce, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

I park, I eat, then I keep driving, the car smelling of my lunch. I drive north. I cruise past my old house; I swing through crescents and side-streets where I used to play with the other neighborhood kids. I swing past the house of my best friend, who’s still living there, but is at work that day. The memory tank has been refilled, but I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

I pull over and park at the edge of the local park, get out, and climb a slow sloping grade of landfill that’s been turned into a hill. We used to just call it the “toboggan hill” because that’s what we did on it in the winter. There’s a bench and a couple lonely pine trees at the summit, and when you sit there you have a view of the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, and elementary school below.

This was my old school. The one I attended for only a few short years – April 1982- to June 1985 – but it still looms large and casts a long shadow over my life then. 1993 has been a rough year for me, and December of that year marks the one year anniversary of my parents announcing they were separating. I’m so devastated I nearly flunk my first year of university, but I manage to pull my grades out of a nose-dive and pass. Barely.

So that’s my frame of mind as I sit on that bench and stare out over my old school. It’s just before 2:00pm. I know this because the recess bell rings a minute or so later, and the kids come streaming out. To play four-square. To throw the ball around. To jump rope and play on the playground equipment – the same I played on ten years before.

What does all of this have to do with GI Joe? Everything.

It’s April, 1982. We’ve just moved to this new city. Moves have been a fact of life for me. By 1982 I’ve lived in six different cities. I just turned 9 years old. By this point I know the drill; my dad comes home to say “we’re moving again” because he got another job transfer and promotion to go a long with it. A move means excitement and sadness in equal measure. Excitement because it’s a new city, a new house (our new one will have a swimming pool), and new friends. But a move also means saying goodbye to old friends. In this pre-internet era, goodbyes really do mean goodbye. It means never seeing those familiar friendly faced again. You move away, they move on, and pretty soon you forget what they looked like.

We move just before Easter, which means I and my sister are starting at our new schools nearly through the end of the year. I have two months of Grade 3 and then summer. Will that be time enough to make friends? So the spring as I remember it is cold, dark, and lonely.

I can’t remember the actual date, but the specifics of it, I’ll never forget. It must be some afternoon after school I first see the commercial. It’s slick, animated, and trumpeting what looks like a new cartoon series. But it’s not a cartoon series, yet. It’s not a movie either. It’s this:

Now let me paint a picture for all of you here in the year 2018. In the 1980s, things were slower. The pace was different. Your average hour long TV show ran 52 minutes. There were only a handful of TV channels. Music was on the radio. There was no MTV outside of a few small outlets in the US. If you wanted to go shopping, you went to a mall. Movies? The theater.

And Star Wars movies were released 3 years apart. Three years to a 9 year-old may as well be a lifetime. But fortunately you have the toys – the action figures, the vehicles, the play sets. You have the comics and newspaper strips – al of which is designed to keep you interested in the property until the next installment.

But there was something else these little pieces of molded plastic were important for – something the designers didn’t anticipate. They were how you made new friends in new cities. Just the act of bringing a Star Wars toy to your new school was enough to get other kids to come over and talk to you. Several friendships (short lived ones, but friendships nonetheless) began that way. I’d bring a Bespin Han Solo or Hoth Luke to school; some kid would ask what other Star Wars toys I had. I’d tell them, they’d tell me theirs. They’d invite me over to play, and vice versa. Toys were how you got to know others. They were how you found your new tribe.

By the time I moved  it had been two years since The Empire Strikes Back. Five since Star Wars. Time moves slow as a child but it moves really slow when you’re a Star Wars fan. You need toys to fill the gaps between films. Between Star Wars and Empire alone there was Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole. Between Empire and the third installment due next year – Revenge of the Jedi – there’s been Smurfs, and Indiana Jones, and a lot more I’ve forgotten. But they’ve all been peg-warmers and gap fillers. By 1982 nobody is playing Battlestar Galactica. They may still be playing Star Wars, but the wait between films is so long to a 9 or 10 year-old. You need something else.

Something different.

And so it was, one evening in April, when my mother was taking my sister to the local mall to do some clothes shopping one evening after school sometime in April. I begged off to browse the toy aisle, and when I get there the first thing I noticed were the colors of red, white, and blue on the floor display.

GI Joe: A Real American Hero.

The packaging was the first thing that lept off the shelf at me. Whereas the Star Wars figures featured the toy in a plastic bubble and a photo of that character (no matter how minor) from the movie, these featured a beautiful painted image of the character in action. The back of the card featured smaller paintings of the other figures in the line, and below those, a file-card with the character name, code-name, rank, specialty, and place of birth. With nothing else to go on but the packaging you had a psyche profile of what that character’s personality was like.

I begged my mom to buy me some. She ended up relenting and getting me three: Breaker, Grunt, and Snake-Eyes. I took them home, took them out of their packages, and plated with them until bed-time. But the real fun came the next day when I snuck Snake-Eyes into my book-bag and took him to school. Come morning recess, I brought him out and it was like moths to the flame. None of the other kids had seen a GI Joe up close before, though they had seen the commercials. So here was the new kid with the hottest new toy. And from that moment, friendships were born.

That was just the beginning though. See, I didn’t really get “in” to GI Joe beyond those first three figures. They were just three tots if many, and my heart still belonged to Star Wars.

In 1983, we were on vacation in Vermont, and on the first day I broke my leg skiing. That vacation became a three-month odyssey of traction and body casts and being stuck at home. And while some school friends did visit me (and I did have a tutor so I could keep up with school) it was a very lonely time.

Then my dad came home from work one night with a gift for me. Well, two gifts anyway. One was a new GI Joe called Snow-Job, the other was a snowmobile called the Polar Battle Bear.

Which I still have, by the way.

Maybe he picked those because he knew our ski vacation had been cut short and I blamed myself, maybe it was just because he wanted me to have some fun while I was bedridden, but it did the trick. By the time the cast came off I had acquired more GI Joe toys. I. Was. Hooked. By the time September rolled around Return of the Jedi had come and gone, but I was fully on the GI Joe train. Joe became the linkage to my friends, and their interests (including the aforementioned best friend who I met that September because he was talking about James Bond, another of my childhood touchstones).

And for a GI Joe fan the hits kept on coming. That September saw the release of the 5-part miniseries A Real American Hero, which aired on a local station after school Monday-Friday. That Christmas I added a whole slew of new GI Joe toys to my collection – the MOBAT Tank, VAMP Jeep, Dragonfly Copter, the Headquarters Command Center, and more figures. Joe became my life, but in no bigger way than the following summer when visiting some old friends out west who introduced me to the Marvel comic.

The first issue I ever bought. Still have it too.

That span of years, from 1983-1985 were some of the finest of my life, and it was largely due to those little plastic men and women.

Then, everything changed.

[To Be Continued in Part II]

The Dog-end of a Day Gone By

To call 2016 challenging is to undersell it. It was certainly the most difficult year I’ve endured, and that’s just on a personal level. Caring for a 1 year-old while managing a career as a writer is no easy task. There have been frayed nerves, sleepless nights, and the ever-present worry that this is pretty much it for me and my career; that I can’t do both those things without failing at one of them. And yet, I’m still here, you’re still here, and we need to be because 2017 will probably be worse. It’ll take away people and things we love, the bad guys will keep winning. This is the beginning of the winter George RR Martin’s Stark family keeps telling us is coming.

But it’s important not to give into that despair. You have to fight, you have to strive, you have to marshal resources and press on. Because capitulation is not victory. It will feel like it for a while, but those things you’re trying to hide from will find you eventually.

Think of it this way; we all have some sort of comfort food. Some meal that you love, less because of what it is than what it represents. For me, it’s the traditional roast beef diner my grandmother used to make. The roast was always a little dry, the gravy a little starchy, but I’ve spent the last twenty-three years trying to re-create. But that really isn’t the point; the point is when I do make it, I get a minor taste of what that meal represented; the closeness of family, the smiles, the laughter of people now long gone. There’s warmth to it, and sadness. It’s nostalgic, the comfort meal.

As Michel Houllebecq wrote;

Nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics — it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we’ve lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful.

That’s comfort food; and art can be comfort food for the soul. Books, movies, TV, music … those perennial works you return to over and over again, not because they remind you of happier times, but because they remind you of a time in your life that you survived. So in the spirit of the season, here are some of my artistic comfort foods.

  1. Bond. James Bond.

bond

I grew up with James Bond; the Roger Moore ones specifically, because they were the first ones I saw. I remember how a Bond movie would often be the ABC Saturday night movie; the World Premiere of Moonraker or something Over the last month and a bit my wife and I watched (in reverse order for some reason) the Moore Bond series, and the Dalton ones. We’re now into the Brosnan era. There’s just something about them that gives me a warm feeling, and that, I think, has been their success; by offering us what we want while tweaking the formulas ever so much. From Octopussy on I saw every Bond in the theater, including Never Say Never Again, though I shamefully confess I missed Spectre, being a newly minted parent my movie watching was pretty much impossible. To this day remains difficult – last I saw in the theater was … actually, I legit can’t remember. It was summer, I know that. Maybe X-Men Apocalypse (which was terrible by the way). Did I mention the year that was has been rough? Well, yeah. No time for movies.

2. High. Degrassi Jr. High.

degrassi

Not much time for TV either, though one seminal series turns 30(!) next year. Yes, on January 18, 1987 a little Canadian TV series called Degrassi Jr. High made its debut on CBC. My friends and I all mocked it, for its cheesiness, for its obviously plotted by adults for kids aesthetic, for the Canadian-ness of it (growing up in Canada in the 1980s it was anything but cool). But we still watched it – I know I did, mostly because it was filmed in, and set in Toronto, which I loved, and I would just groove on the scenery. When the final TV movie “School’s Out” aired five years later, I think everyone in school must have watched it because the next day all people could say was “You fucked Tessa Campinelli?” Over the following years it aired in reruns, was relaunched as an enormously successful show called Degrassi that’s still going strong. But now, 30 years on, it’s become comfort TV, for me anyway, because of the cheesiness, because of the plots, because of the amateurish nature of using non-actors. It even makes a brief cameo appearance in my next novel. Those kids are all in their 40s now – and I’m sure the ones who grew up not watching it but actually watching in secret still remember the theme song.

3. God Save the Queen
queen_band_members

If you know me this will come as a shock, but I grew up listening to Queen. First instance was when we moved to Scarborough Ontario in 1982, and at my new school, had to participate daily in a thing called the Health Hustle. Let me back up; by Age nine I was used to starting over in a new school. I’d lived in Mississauga, in Vancouver, in Edmonton, and now Scarborough. First days in a new school were always weird. Being the new kid, for one, being the kid who had no idea in hell what he was in for was another. So on my first day at North Bridlewood public School, around 11am an announcement came over the PA telling the children it was time for today’s Health Hustle. This was an initiative from the Ontario Public School board dating back to the early 70s, to include mandatory physical activity for school children (recess twice a day was not enough apparently). So when the announcement came we were marched to the gym, where a teacher led us through the health hustle routine of jumping jacks and running in place. I had no idea what or why it was, but there was music on the PA, and that year the music was Queen. We Are the Champions, and We Will Rock you in particular (along with some other songs and bands I’ve forgotten, though I think bad Leroy Brown was one of them). That was my intro to Queen, though they would pop up periodically through my life in the next decade, especially as Much Music arrived on the airwaves. I even remember the day Freddie Mercury passed away. They were always bigger in Canada than they were in the US, which is why when Mike Meyers paid tribute to them in Wayne’s World the next year, Bohemian Rhapsody climbed the charts once again. Incidentally Meyers grew up in that same Scarborough neighborhood, and was a friend of one of my friends’ sisters. To this day a Queen song takes me back to those years and memories.

Just don’t ask me to do the Health Hustle.

4. Stand By Me
sk

People ask me who my favorite author is, I typically say Joe R. Lansdale because he’s awesome and everyone should read his books. But for various reasons Stephen King holds a special place in my heart and it was seeing Stand by Me in the theater that summer that prompted me to seek out Stephen King’s books – specifically the novella The Body, which the film was based on. I remember the surprised gasp that tremored through the theater when “Based on a novella by Stephen king” appeared on screen as the end credits rolled. That Stephen King? It bore some investigating, and I did, scoring a used paperback of Different Seasons the novella collection containing The Body (and Apt Pupil, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and the lesser-known The Breathing Method). I read The Body first, and was shocked by how dark it was. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was mournful in a way the movie wasn’t. The sadness at lost friends, and lost years, suffuses every page of The Body, and in the years since I think I may have read it every year or two. I get older with each read, but Gordie LaChance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio remain the same age I was when I saw Stand by Me. As a father to a young boy, it resonates even deeper now. Revisiting The Body is like revisiting old friends; ones you’ll never forget.

5. The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of …

sandman-covers

Of course I can’t leave 2016 without mentioning comic books. My career as a comic book creator has been on hold ever since our child was born, and I descended into the world of Magicians Impossible, but I hope to get back into making comics in 2017. To prepare for that I’ve been rereading several seminal titles, the greatest of which, to me, remains Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Everything’s been written about Sandman, its influence, its importance, over the last twenty-five, almost thirty years so what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Nothing. But for me it’s as unique as it was when it first appeared; both cosmic in its scope and intimate in its reach. I’d read periodic issues of it when they first came out, but it wasn’t until 1999, when I became a screenwriter by trade, that I had the money and the time to collect the trade paperbacks, and read them from start to finish. Maybe it’s the fact that it told a complete story. Maybe because every turn of the page felt strangely familiar. Reading it now it’s like an artifact from an earlier age, where my career as a writer was just beginning. But mostly because this story, like all stories, mattered to me, and had the power to change myworld, starting from the smallest speck of dust.

So, as we close up shop on 2016, I encourage each and every one of you to indulge in a little comfort food over the holidays. Listen to that album. Watch that movie. Re-read that book. Get some rest, see some family and friends. And when 2017 arrives, be prepared to fight your hardest for those people and things that mean the most to you.

UPDATE:

January 12, 2017 (Addendum)

There’s one more bit of comfort food I have to add, and it’s this …

Netflix has every Star Trek series available to stream, and I’ve begun what looks to be an epic re-watch of the Original Series. It’s been years since I watched any of these episodes, and i’m reasonably certain that, despite it being my favorite of the Trek series, I actually haven’t run the entire series. There’s episodes I’ve seen, ones I remember vividly (working a summer at a Star Trek exhibit in the mid 90s will do that to you), but many I have never seen or have no recollection of – mostly season 3 episodes, natch. So It’s going to be a fun little ride the next while. Lord knows I’m going to need the distraction.