In case you haven’t figured it out by now, nostalgia and I have a complicated relationship.
I’ve expended thousands upon thousands of words on the importance of distinguishing between “what was” and “what we want to remember.” I’ve made numerous attempts to puncture certain myths and have inveighed ferociously about the dangers of rose-tinted glasses. I approach the subject that way because of my academic background and a generally iconoclastic attitude, but beneath it all resides a deep vein of Proustian longing.
It most often manifests itself through material artifacts, because I grew up in a place and time where those were the prevailing cultural touchstones. Even music can be lumped into the category, by means of medium or by the inherently commercial nature of pop songs. It’s not a particularly unique set of circumstances, and testimonials along these lines are nigh ubiquitous. There is no object d’retro so obscure that one can’t find a book, article, or series of podcasts dissecting it in painstaking detail.
In my case, the driving impetus is a ongoing struggle between loss and restoration centering around specific events during my formative years. My mother’s death (twenty-nine years ago today, as it turns out) drew down a steel curtain between past and ever-shifting present. My family unit was dissolved, our physical possessions liquidated, and my world upended. The few token possessions I held onto were dwarfed by the amount of things that were discarded or went missing during the transition. My junior high yearbook has never resurfaced nor my lenticular Magnum PI poster or the most of my mom’s old Books of Knowledge.
I didn’t contemplate these losses much at the time. There were much weightier concerns that kept me preoccupied while I adjusted to the new status quo. As the years passed, however, and the pain and shock slowly subsided, memories of certain things began to haunt me at odd moments.
It started with a Super Powers Firestorm figure my little brother found at one of the comic shops he frequented. He knew I liked the character back in the day and had owned one of the figures in the Old Days. He asked if I wanted to him to pick it up for me and I handed over a twenty and told him to go for it. I was in my mid-twenties, had a steady job, and some cash to burn, so why not?
I wasn’t prepared for what I felt when I held that lump of plastic in my hand, hazy memories transformed into a psychic jolt of lucid recollections. It was if a puzzle piece fell into place, revealing a portion of a wider — yet still incomplete — image.
And I wanted more of it.
More pieces of that metaphoric puzzle have been placed in the two decades since then, though the initial contact rush has come up against diminishing returns – a minute (if even) of thrill followed by a deep sigh and another hunk of ephemera to toss into storage and never think about again. There were other ways of remembering, more constructive ones which involved reconciling the messiness of my past with a more mature understanding of what it meant to me and how it has shaped me, for good and ill. They didn’t require dropping cash and filling up valuable space, either, and so my purchases grew fewer, further between, and more selective.
I still kept a short list of significant and representative items to pursue when my finances and opportunity permitted, and I used it as a reference when a little windfall came my way recently. After agreeing not to go too wild, Maura and I decided to indulge a little and chase a few deferred retail therapy dreams. I hit up the eBay and scored some personally significant old Hot Wheels cars (including the military-themed ones from the mid-Seventies), a small model of Argo from Star Blazers, a couple of records, and twenty-piece lot of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures.
The M.U.S.C.L.E. guys hadn’t actually made it onto my list, but turned up during a search for some other desired artifact of my youth. That didn’t stop me from pulling the “buy it now” trigger as soon as I saw them.
M.U.S.C.L.E. — Mattel’s localization of the Japanese “Kinkeshi” line of manga-inspired toys — was a big thing among my circle of North Woburn pals. The little plastic wrestler figures were cheap, visually interesting, and were ideal collecting-trading material for kids who’d grown out of action figures but were too nerdy to get into sports cards.
I didn’t give a shit about rassling and knew nothing about the Kinnikuman source material, but I was fascinated by the line’s high concept insanity and affordability. After a good deal of wheeling and dealing, I accumulated a set of “essential” cool-to-me figures which I kept inside a metal Land O’ Lakes recipe box on my dresser. Instead of wrestlers, I envisioned them as superheroes and villains, broke them up into teams, and gave them their own badass codenames like “Armor X” and “Jakk Manic.”
This was during the height of my comics-creating hoop dreams and the characters served as the foundation for an entire shared-universe setting. It was my personal variant of the “adolescent fanfic phase,” and I adorned my wall with sketches and rosters of the various characters. I did have enough anxiety of influence to file the serial numbers off the source material by making the kind of minor cosmetic alterations media-damaged fanboys confuse for originality. A few of these creations would eventually get incorporated into my earliest Champions RPG adventures.
I managed to hold onto the tin of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures right up until my mother’s death, at which point it went missing during the move to my grandmother’s place. Memories of it would occasionally resurface, and I did spring for a later-series blister of the figures I found at a local job lots place in the mid-Nineties. Yet there wasn’t anything especially urgent or poignant about the recollections. It was just part of a long list of “yeah, I had some of those” that would come up during typical Gen X’er conversations.
I sprung for the bulk lot because it was cheap, included a half-dozen of my old favorites, and wouldn’t take up a ton of space. The restorative impulse was there, but weak compared to, say, the G1 dinobot brotosaurus figure or a SSP Smash Up Derby car.
When the package arrived the other night, I opened it up and dumped the contents onto the coffee table. As soon as I picked up one of the figures, it hit me in a rush — the codenames, the backstories, the way the rubbery plastic felt and smelled, and the one figure (the Leopard Tank dude in the photo) I used to cart around with me in the pocket of my army surplus jacket and draw sketches of in study hall. It all came back to me, clean and clear like 1986 was yesterday. It didn’t spur any collector-completist impulse, but I did spring for a couple of other favorite M.U.S.C.L.E. figures from back in the day.
I also asked Maura to keep an eye out for metal recipe boxes during her estate sale runs. The proper protocols must be observed, after all.