Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Briefly Revisiting the Pow'r Pop Ray Gun

Not too long ago, I posted an article on the Atomic Pow'r Pop gun, made by a company called Glenn. It's an Australian toy, and I didn't know a whole lot about it -- including it's date of manufacture. Thankfully, a collector from Down Under named Steve Baker stepped up to shed just a bit more light on this wonderful space gun by emailing me photos of two old advertisements. One of them is from The Retailer, and is dated May, 1951. The other is some sort of toy catalog, with a few cowboy guns alongside the Pow'r Pop.

This is exactly the kind of information I'd hoped the Attic would produce through conversations with different collectors. Thanks so much, Steve.

Inside the box, the ad reads: "4 corks supplied with every gun, Shrill atomic whistle built into butt, Packed in bright 3-colour cartons."

This ad reads: "10840: Atomic power pop-gun of ultra modern design. Fires harmless cork ammunition with good loud pops. 8 ozs. 10/6." 

Steve began collecting space toys in the beginning of the century, and soon began focusing on those coming from Australia and New Zealand. He currently has about 45 different pieces, ranging from space ships to space jeeps to space guns. To see some of his space toys, check out Steve's flikr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37407523@N06/

Also, stay tuned to the Attic of Astounding Artifacts; Steve will be guest writing an article on Australian space toys in August! Action-packed stuff!

Mechanized Robot (Nomura / 1957 / Japan / 13 inches)

Some robots are born classic. It's in their gears or something, an unmistakable aura of greatness that overwhelms every spaceship they fly, every mad scientist they rebel against, and every maiden they carry off for morally questionable -- not to mention biologically unfathomable -- activities. They're walking, clicking, blinking superstars of steel, and next to them, all other bits of technology look like wooden clubs.

Well, guess what? Next to Robby the Robot, star of Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy, those other robots look like punks.

Which sort of explains why Mechanized Robot is such a popular piece of tin. He's the closest vintage toy manufacturers could come to appropriating the Hollywood icon's likeness without incurring the wrath of MGM's lawyers. Nonetheless, there's no mistaking the toy's inspiration.

Mechanized Robot features a nice walking mechanism that causes the toy to move in a long, sweeping circle. At the same time, the pistons under his dome bounce and light up, while the translucent plastic in his neck glows a rich green. 

This is one of the first vintage robots I ever wanted, but it was also one I never thought I'd have a chance to own. It's not that expensive, relatively speaking, and, because so many were manufactured, they make regular appearances on eBay. But when I started out in the hobby, I imposed strict limits on my spending -- and man-oh-man does that sound so naive! -- and this toy fell decidedly outside those limits. But then a girl I was seeing suddenly dumped me, and my life got a little chaotic. Like many people in similar situations, I turned to therapy. 

Okay, okay... Retail therapy. 

Within a week, I had my Mechanized Robot, and it was an epiphany. I'd crossed some invisible financial line and a whole new world of toys opened up to me. Toys I couldn't afford, sure, but when you're nursing a broken heart, rent and food and clothing become surprisingly inconsequential. My shelves began filling up at an alarming rate, but with a much higher caliber of toy. (Actually, this was literally the case; at about this time, I began collecting space guns in earnest.)  

Mechanized Robot is one of those toys that underwent a few tweaks and changes over its long production run. The very first retail version of the robot was available in silver or black and featured small, knurled knobs on its battery doors. For some unknown reason, the silver color was abandoned, making this variation extremely rare and valuable today. (Rumors abound as to why Nomura chose to stop producing the toy in silver; the most popular says that the company thought Robby the Robot was silver because they'd only seen black and white photos of the character when they began designing the toy. This seems doubtful for reasons that will be made clear in a moment.) About a year later, the final version of the toy, available only in black, replaced the knurled battery door knobs with "butterfly" knobs, which were much easier for children to turn. 

However, the toy's most significant evolutionary step happened before it was made available to the public. Nomura first created a salesman's sample of the toy, a kind of prototype, that had significantly shorter legs and used C-cell batteries. This toy had more accurate proportions and did a better job of capturing Robby's unique look. However, the C-cell battery was woefully underpowered, and the toy would run down too quickly. Nomura was forced to retool the robot's legs for the final production run, expanding them to accept D-cells. Needless to say, the earlier, shorter variations are some of the rarest toys in the hobby. 

The so-called C-cell Robby was available in both silver and black. This helps dispel the rumor that Nomura thought Robby was supposed to be silver; if this was the case, why produce a black version for salesmen? The most likely reason for producing both colors is that Nomura thought they'd both sell. However, when Forbidden Planet reached theaters, kids probably decided that if they were going to own a slightly abstracted version of their new favorite robot, they were damned sure it would be the right color. Sales on the silver might have struggled, resulting in the company discontinuing it. (This is all speculation, though, and I'm open to other possible reasons for Nomura's dropping the extremely cool silver paint job.) 

You know, I actually owned a black C-cell salesman sample Mechanized Robot for a very brief time. It's an extremely long story that due to intergalactic treaties, a top-secret rating, and at least a dozen pinky-swears must remain mostly undisclosed. I do have clearance to say that snagging the toy involved more than a week of stressful back-and-forth phone calls; two double crosses; a suitcase of unmarked bills; one idiot who shall remain nameless; a master tactician known to the world only as "Robot Hunter"; and a hero who will forever be remembered in legend and song as Donald "The Bag Man" Conner.

This was one of those epic deals that inevitably go awry. Like the plot to every Guy Ritchie movie, it ends badly, but not so badly that everyone doesn't walk away with a small piece of the action and most of their body parts intact. So even though I got the toy, I couldn't afford to actually keep it. But everyone came away with a little bit more money than they started with, and, frankly, we've all got a great story to tell. 

Not to you, of course. We can only talk about it amongst ourselves, and even then, we have to drink enough alcohol to make sure we forget the conversation ever happened. But trust me, it's a killer story.

Man, I love this robot. 

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Top-Shelf Titans: The Steve Jaspen Interview

Every Sunday, I'll sit down with other addicts collectors to take a look at their toys and discuss the hobby of toy collecting. This week: Steve Jaspen is our Top-Shelf Titan!

Steve Jaspen has collected space toys for more than a decade, and there are very few people who know more about them than he does. His collection of vintage wind-up robots and small-scale saucers, rockets and space cars is a wonder; not because it's huge, but, rather, because every piece in it is a bona fide treasure. Steve also happens to be one of the nicest guys in the hobby, and I consider him not only a good friend, but an honest-to-goodness mentor. So now that I've abandoned even a pretense of journalistic objectivity, let's get to the toys!

DOC ATOMIC What attracts you to these toys?  
STEVE JASPEN I like the feelings they evoke in me. It's very close to how I felt when watching the early space launches in the Sixties. The same feelings I have reading sci-fi novels. They represent something so much grander than we see, for the most part, in our everyday existence. A representation of the potential we have that we haven't quite reached yet.

Do you have a favorite piece in your collection? 
That's difficult. Certainly, my Television Robot (Sankei, 1960s) is high on the list. It's got a perfect look: fantastic lithography, and a face reminiscent of a little boy -- a robot almost becoming human. I love my early, blue, wind-up Planet Robots (Yoshiya, late 1950s). They are rare and beautiful, and their "grilled" faceplates look to me how a robot should look. Also my Mechanical Moon Robot (Yonezawa, 1960s) -- the multicolored ribbons within its domed, mirrored head are fantastic.

The Television Robot. One of the rarest toy robots. (All photos by Steve Jaspen)

Some of Jaspen's collection. The Mechanical Moon Robot (a.k.a. "Ribbon Robby) is on the right, in back. The ribbons in its dome spin as it walks.

When did you start collecting? How did you become involved with space toys?
I was heavily involved in sports memorabilia, but it reached a point where I had collected or seen just about everything in the field -- it was time to move on. The famous Sotheby's robot and space toy auction of Matt Wyse in 1996 showed me that this was an actual hobby. I had known about the famous Japanese collector Teruhisa Kitahara (whom I later had the pleasure of meeting), but until then I thought collecting these toys was only one man's obsession. With my sci-fi backround and love of robots this was a perfect hobby to move to from sports collecting. From that moment on it was off to the races.

One of Steve's rare blue Planet Robots is on the left. The grey skirted robot second from right is called Tremendous Mike -- it's another extremely rare toy. The robot to the far right is a modern piece hand-crafted by the late collector Henk Gosses.

Some of Jaspen's impressive saucer and rocket collection.

After looking at your collection, Steve, I was struck by your focus. Could you describe your approach to collecting?  
I purchase the pieces that really move me. When I'm looking at a book of robots and space toys, which are the ones I keep coming back to or most enjoy seeing? Not only do I focus on particular toys, but I quite often focus on a specific example of that piece -- literally one specific toy that I've seen somewhere. One collector I know calls it a "wanted dead or alive" style of collecting. In the world of sports memorabilia, many items were one of a kind, so I learned how to follow a specific piece from collection to collection until it became available. I use this skill in this hobby, too. 

Can you give us an example?
Sure. The silver-mouthed Hook Robot (Waco, 1950s) was high on my list from the moment I first saw him. A perfect example was offered by [long-time toy dealer] Mark Bergin in his 1998 catalog. By the time I called him, he'd already sold it. By chance I was able to find out who the buyer was, but he was a very high-end collector and no amount of money or trades could be offered to get the Hook out of his collection. But eventually, as so often happens, he decided to sell off his collection. I was able to figure out who ended up with the Hook. I had a very high-end piece in my collection that the new owner wanted. Applying my trading philosophy of giving up something great to obtain something that would give me even more happiness, a trade was born. I now own the one and very same example of the Hook Robot that I first saw in  Mark Bergin's catalog. It only took me 10 years to get the one I wanted! 

Any other instances of this happening?
Of course! There's a wonderful book called Roboter by Botho Wagner. Pictured on the cover is an amazing Planet Robot -- a blue, wind-up, rubber-handed version. Just beautiful. Well, I found out the hard way that this toy was so rare that not even well-known dealers had ever seen one -- or even heard of it. It turned out that this toy was probably not exported to this side of the ocean. 

I would just stare at this picture every day and wonder, "How am I going to get one of these for myself?" Wouldn't you know it: By sheer coincidence I had become close friends with a European collector... the very same collector who owned the exact robot used on the cover of the book! He knew of my deep love for this robot and one day, out of the blue (no pun intended), he offered it to me. So not only did I get my dream robot, but I got the exact example of the one I had been looking at all these many years. A dream come true!

Ladies and Gentlemen: The famous blue Planet Robot and silver-mouthed Hook Robot.

The Hook Robot next to an uncommon pin-walking robot called Robbie The Roving Robot. The blue robot on the right is the extremely rare X-27 Explorer. Note the VX-1000 space ship, another highly desirable toy.

You mentioned before that you traded a high-end piece to get the Hook Robot. Can you talk a bit more about this technique?
There are pieces [that I want] that are very hard to come by and are in the hands of deep pocketed collectors; one can't simply offer money to this class of collector. However, if I can get the piece I want by offering something special that they want, then a trade is possible. It's really about putting these toys on a scale of happiness; if what I am getting gives me more satisfaction than what I am giving up, it's an exchange I can seriously consider. I may not be able to keep every toy I've owned, but at least I've had the opportunity to have a sweet taste of many different great toys. 

A strong word of caution: It's too easy to get so excited about being able to obtain a sought-after new item that you don't carefully consider what you're giving up. You might discover that you liked what you traded more than what you received: I learned this the very hard way in my sports collecting days! My advice is to carefully consider each trade or sale. Sometimes the best deals are the ones that aren't made.
Sound advice! So, do you have any other interesting collecting stories?
There is one piece [from my collection] that is the center of a very good story. The Robot 5 (S.N.K./Sankei, 1950s) is a very high-end piece I never really expected to own. A dealer offered me a Robot 5 in his original box for quite a bit more than I could afford. Without even looking at a picture, I had to turn him down. A friend of mine was offered the robot, and he called to ask me what I thought of it. I told him I hadn't seen a picture, so he sent me one. Oh, my God! First off, it was a version I didn't at the time know existed -- a black and grey version as opposed to the better known champagne-pink one. It was really a perfect robot, and my friend decided to buy it. I was quite sad about that. 

By sheer coincidence, just as my friend closed the deal on the boxed grey-black version, he was offered the pink version, which he preferred. But it was unboxed. He asked for my advice -- he wanted the pink version but he also wanted the box. I had the perfect solution: We would split the boxed black-grey version. I would get the robot and he would get the box. Then he could buy the pink version to pair with it. So I ended up with the robot, he ended up with a boxed robot. All's well that ends well. 

Three fantastic robots: The extremely rare Robot 5, flanked by the red-mouthed Hook Robot and the Television Robot.

I'll say! So, do you have any advice for new collectors? Any parting words of wisdom?  
Here is my advice to new collectors: First off, knowledge is power. Find out as much about the hobby as you can. There are any number of excellent websites, books and catalogs to review. See which pieces "sing" to you and save money for the ones that you can reasonably afford. No impulse or quick-fix buying; save for those pieces that are most important to you. In the long run they will give you the most satisfaction. And use your own judgement as to what you like and do not like. After all it is your own collection that you are building!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Atomic Ray Gun (Tudor Rose / 1950s / U.K. / 6.5 x 7.5 inches)

While the United States produced a majority of toy ray guns, some of the most beautiful, like the Atomic Ray Gun, came out of Great Britain.

I'm not exactly sure what the designers were thinking when they came up with the Atomic Ray, but the sculpted handle is scaled to fit comfortably in an adult-sized hand -- slightly odd at the time, but perfect for today's collector! The gun features an abundance of rings and molded gadgetry, as well as two non-functional, free-spinning knobs on either side. 

The toy fired a strange suction cup dart with a forked back. A rubber band stretched vertically through the middle of the barrel; the dart would push back on the rubber band and clip on either end. Imagine a tiny bow and arrow an you've got the general picture. The firing mechanism is unique to this gun, which isn't surprising considering how overly complicated it is. But the darts look suitably impressive... 

The gun was also available in a copper-colored version, which is a touch rarer. It was also originally sold with three darts. I bought this from a wonderful dealer in the U.K. named Antoni Emchowicz. He runs a web site called Zoomer Toys, and is also the author of one of my favorite space toy books, Future Toys

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program: The Return

Once again, it's time to give a shout out to some blogs that keep me entertained. 

Toys, gaming, movies, art, comics -- it's all part of an ongoing conversation about geek culture from a guy who isn't afraid to trim his beard with a lightsaber, play craps with a 20-sided die, and dress up like a Mexican wrestler for a Belgian boxing match. This is why the Internet doesn't suck.

Robot Loves Monster (robotxmonster.blogspot.com)

Robots and monsters in one blog? What could possibly go wrong? Since our cities are still standing, I'll assume the answer is a resounding "Nothing!" Good thing, too, because this blog dedicated to toy robots and monsters is full of great writing and photographs. Go ahead, check it out... if you dare!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Atomic Pow'r Pop Gun (Glenn / 1951 / Australia / 4 x 7.5 inches)

Bright colors, fanciful shapes, and lots and lots of rings pretty much defined space gun design during the 1950s. It was all thanks to plastic, a miracle material that could be mixed into any number of colors and then molded into any conceivable form. Toy makers took full advantage of this creative freedom, producing some of the most wonderful, futuristic toys imaginable. Take, for instance, the Atomic Pow'r Pop Gun.

Made in Australia, this early space gun used a brass plunger system to fire a cork. (The metal mechanism makes the Pow'r Pop much heavier than it looks.) Like many such toys, it included a whistle built into the base of the handle. Not a particularly complicated toy, I know, but it's definitely one of the nicest looking ones. The Pow'r Pop has always been high on my want-list, but it's an extremely rare toy; I finally landed one after nearly five years of searching.

The Pow'r Pop was available in three different color variations: This yellow one, a red one with blue grips and yellow tip, and a black one with turquoise grips and tip. The black is the most difficult to find.

I don't really know much else about the toy. I've heard a 1951 date bandied around, but I've never seen proof. Thanks to Steve Baker for confirming this!

Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol (Daisy / 1934 / U.S. / 6.5 x 9.5 inches)

As promised, today I wrench open the hundred-foot thick doors of the Atomic Armory so I can bring you the finest space weaponry of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. And what better place to begin than in the beginning.

Presenting the Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol. 

This, friends, is the very first toy ray gun ever produced. Made by Daisy (whose BB rifles are probably most responsible for creating a mainstream market for child-sized eye patches), the XZ-31 is constructed out of sturdy, blued steel. You cock it by pulling back the handle, and firing it creates a loud Pop! It's not a very complicated toy, and its design avoids the multiple rings, embossed stars, and wild curves that would define later space guns, but maybe it's this subtlety that's helped keep it near the top of most collectors' want-lists for 75 years.

It was available in bare metal and a blued finish -- but the latter is almost always worn away. Mine has a mottled coating of finish, which I think makes the toy look like it was rendered in water colors or something. Rather striking, yes?

On its side, the XZ-31 is stamped with the words:

Buck Rogers
25th Century
DAISY MFG Co., Plymouth, Mich. U.S.A.
1,466,131  1,633,031
1,666,771  1,779,892

On the handle is an engraving of Buck Rogers himself.

The XZ-31 has an interesting history. Buck Rogers first leapt from the pages of Amazing Stories magazine in 1928. Soon after, he was given a comic strip, drawn by the legendary Dick Calkins. This lead to licensing deals, and it wasn't long before a whole store's worth of toys bearing the likenesses of Buck and his partner Wilma were vying for parents' money. None of them could compare with the XZ-31, though. 

Daisy produced the toy for the 1934 Christmas season. Macy's was granted exclusive sales of the gun for a whole week if they agreed to promote the living hell out of it. They certainly did agree, and set up an entire "World of Tomorrow" section of their store on 34th Street and Broadway, complete with rockets, moonscapes, and people dressed like spacemen. No one was sure whether a space gun would sell, and in fact, when parents first heard about this Buck Rogers fella, they thought he was a cowboy.

But on the day the toy went on sale, lines stretched around the block. The department store kept selling out, and Daisy went into overtime to manufacture and deliver the ray gun to New York. Everyone was making money hand-over-fist, and life was easy for the Macy's executives.

But then their week ran out, and Daisy started shipping Rocket Pistols to Macy's fiercest rival, Gimbel's department store. This kicked off an apocalyptic price war. Macy's would lower the cost of their XZ-31s to attract customers, so Gimbels would lower the cost of theirs. Back and forth, back and forth, until one store would run out of stock. Then the other would immediately jack its price back up! Often, the stores would cut the price so much that they'd be selling it for less than they paid to buy the toys from Daisy. At which point Daisy would come in and buy back their guns -- only to turn around and sell them once again to the retail giants!

One other quick note: Daisy decided that it would be just wonderful if Calkins redesigned the comic strip's gun to reflect the toy. He gladly did so. Nice.

I've always loved the XZ-31, but it was a long time before I bought one. They're super common, and you can almost always find them floating around on eBay, even in excellent condition -- these toys were built to last. Consequently, they're not particularly expensive, despite how popular and desirable they are. Given all that, I decided to save my money so that I'd be able to grab rarer toys whenever they popped up. The XZ-31 could wait -- it wasn't going anywhere.

But eventually I became tired of people asking how I could have such an extensive ray gun collection and not have the world's first ray gun. I decided that it's just such an amazing toy with such a fantastic history, I really had no excuse for not adding it to my shelves. Once a nice one appeared, I pounced.

Finally, I leave you with a photo of a brick. 

This isn't any brick -- it's a brick from the original Daisy Manufacturing Plant in Michigan! A few years ago, condo developers were tearing down the old building. A collector I know named Darryl snuck into the construction site late one evening and snagged me a brick for posterity. 

What a nice gesture. I make sure to send a card to his prison cell every Christmas.

Daisy would go on to produce a number of Buck Rogers weapons, all of which will eventually appear in these pages.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ray Gun Teaser Shot

To tide you over until I get my camera back, here's a teaser shot of a toy from an upcoming post. 

And for now, that's all you're gonna get. 

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program: The Revenge!

I know, I know. I promised more pictures today. I apologize, my camera's still out of the house and my backup just doesn't take good enough photos. So instead, I'll tell you about two more excellent things on the web.

This clever little Twitter feed is run by science-fiction and pop-culture aficionado Jeff Berkwits. Using only 140 characters -- or less! including spaces! -- he reviews books, web sites, movies, and whatever else happens to catch his eye. Despite the character limit, Jeff manages to make his reviews insightful and fun. If you're on Twitter, I definitely suggest you "follow" his feed and get a brand spankin' new review every day. (See, I'd make a horrible Twitter-er... I'm lucky if I keep things under 140 words...)

Frankensteinia (frankensteinia.blogspot.com)
Monster Crazy (monstercrazy.tumblr.com)
If your classified ad reads something like: "You: Tall, green, flat-headed, with large bolts coming out of your neck. Me: Young, blond, don't know how to swim, but let's get together and pick flowers by the pond anyway!" then you really need to check out Frankensteinia. It's by far the most complete resource for all Frank-related ephemera, pictures, info, and trivia. Lots of fun and guaranteed to suck up all your time.

Monster Crazy is picture blog run by the guy who runs Frankensteinia. Nothing but images and links back to the original owners. Look closely and you might recognize one or two from a certain excellent space toy blog. Nice

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Super Secret Origin of Doc Atomic

I lent my camera to a friend, so let's take a moment to tell a story. More pictures of cool toys tomorrow.

So how did it all start? How did I find myself chasing tin, lusting over lithography, and otherwise indulging my baser instincts with toys old enough to be my parents'? Blame it on science fiction, and a train trip from NYC to Harrison, New York. 

It was about 10 years ago, I hadn't yet moved into New York but was working full-time at a magazine here. I was on my way home when I decided to kill some time at a small toy shop in one of the station's retail areas. It was the kind of boutique that focused on educational and hand-made toys, and weird, pop-culture artifacts that probably interested parents more than kids. In one corner, wedged in among the stuffed animals, old fashioned board games, and puppets was a stack of tin robots. Their boxes said Atomic Robot Man. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was a reproduction of a toy from 1949. Not that I really cared; I was smitten.

At the time, I didn't know anything about vintage toys. I just couldn't get over the robot's primitive construction, the old-school vibe, the feeling that it had fallen through a time warp for me to find and take home.

I'd been reading classic science fiction stories for a while, books by authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon, and anyone else who's copyright page had a date prior to 1962. I'd also started collecting vintage, first edition science fiction paperbacks from the Forties and Fifties, and the cigar-shaped rockets, bubble-helmeted space men, and especially the mighty robots that adorned their covers became obsessions. The little robot I'd picked up at the train station felt like an extension of these interests, classic science fiction rendered in glorious 3-D. (And without the need for red-and-blue glasses!)

A couple months later, I ended up in Los Angeles on a magazine assignment. I had an extra day to myself, so I decided to check out Universal Studios. That's where I found the store dedicated to tin toys. I can't remember what it was called, but when I close my eyes, I clearly see the cases filled with metal animals, cars, and... whoa!... robots. One in particularly demanded my attention: It was maybe nine inches high, shaped like a bullet tipped up on it's end. It had a pointy dome, dangling arms, and small, flapping feet that stuck straight out from its base. The lithographed text, spelled out in lightning bolts (!) said "Mr. Atomic."

When I was in middle school, there was a girl. To my 12-year-old eyes, she was the most beautiful girl in the world. Mostly because she started wearing a bra before all the other girls. When I first saw her, I had a weird sensation in the pit of my stomach. A fluttery, jittery, gurgling feeling that coursed through my veins and lit up my heart and had me floating through the rest of the day. 

Compared to how I felt when I saw Mr. Atomic, that was nothing.

I ran over to the store's owner, yanking out my wallet and grabbing two twenties. "How much for the Mr. Atomic?"

"$400," he replied. I stared at him. "It's a reproduction of a Japanese toy," he said, seeing the confusion on my face. I carefully slid the bills back into my wallet, put the wallet back into my pocket, thanked the man for his time, and sulked my way out of the store. $400? I felt like the hot chick from middle school was laughing at me. While making out with the quarterback.

Clearly, I was missing something.

Mr. Atomic was cool, but he was made of tin. $400? And what did the guy mean by "reproduction of a Japanese robot?" I couldn't let it go. When I got back from L.A., I jumped online and began hunting for tin robots. I discovered a number of stores, all selling these so-called reproductions. But reproductions of what? I kept digging. I found some websites devoted to tin robots, and this time, they were originals. I began reading. I stared at the photos until my eyes crusted up. A small thought was taking shape in my churning brain, a thought that demanded more and more attention with every click of the mouse: These toys were freakin' awesome.

I began buying reproductions, along with whatever new robots were being produced. I was aimless, grabbing whatever crossed my path. I didn't know any better, I didn't have anyone to talk to for advice, all I wanted to do was fill my shelves with tin. And then, one day, I discovered a refuge for blundering addicts like myself. An online forum, a discussion group full of space toy collectors whose collective wisdom was greater than anything I could hope to find on a singular website.


I felt like I'd come home. I began talking with collectors, bugging them with questions, begging them for advice. I found myself paying more attention to the toys I was seeing on eBay. I took note of prices. Scarcity. Condition. Suddenly, without realizing it, was looking at these toys in a whole new light. I was looking at them like a potential buyer...

These toys appealed to me on two levels. The first was purely aesthetic. Robots are cool, old robots are even cooler. Old, new, repro -- it didn't matter as long as they had that classic look. This is the attitude that dominated my early days as a collector.

But soon, the second level kicked in and age began to matter. The vintage toys were a direct, physical connection to previous science-fiction and robot fans. They were owned and played with by some kid who might have been me if I'd been born a few decades earlier. I began to see the reproductions as merely models of how people today thought of the past. The original toys, though, felt like the actual memories. 

That's what I wanted to collect: memories I never had for myself. The relics from the past, not the imitations. There was a problem, though: I couldn't afford them. Vintage tin robots generally start in the very low hundreds of dollars, and then climb -- fast -- into the depths of space. I was young, I was employed, I had minimal commitments, but I still didn't have that kind of money.

Here's the funny thing, though. As I sat one day looking at all my reproduction robots, I began thinking about how much they'd cost me. Each one was relatively inexpensive, but taken together, it added up to a whole pile of cash. More than enough for a decent vintage toy.

I also started to consider the idea of quantity versus quality. At the time, I owned a couple dozen reproduction and new toys. If I'd used that money on vintage robots, I'd own maybe one or two. But those vintage pieces, I realized, would mean much more to me than a whole shelf of reproductions. 

After a few weeks of thinking about it, I decided to take the plunge. The moons had aligned: Three toys appeared on eBay, any one of which I'd be happy to own. A freelance check was burning a hole in my pocket. A willful disregard for my own need to pay for food, rent, and utilities had successfully overtaken common sense. The time was right: Three toys, three bids. Bam, bam, bam! I was committed.

I know, it sounds crazy. But I didn't expect to spend all my money. After all, what were the chances that I'd win all three toys?

Apparently, better than I'd realized. I was a science fiction convention the day the auctions ended. I owned a first generation T-Mobile Sidekick at the time, and using its painfully slow internet connection to check the auctions was a pretty nerve-wracking experience. People kept asking me if needed to lie down. When I asked them why, they said that copious sweating, a deathly pallor, and nervous twitching were all signs of imminent expiration. I hissed at them and they left me alone. 

And then it was over. Shocked, I discovered that I'd won all three robots. Then my shock turned to elation. I'd won all three robots. I was the owner of three vintage robots! It was like a new, geek-tastic world opening up to me. Who cared if little miss Rocket Launcher in 7th grade was dating the quarterback? I had me some robots!

The best part? The first auction to end was for an original Atomic Robot Man -- the reproduction I'd picked up at Grand Central Terminal so many months earlier.

And that's how it all began. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Electro Art Works: hand-made robot figures

Andy Hill, working under the name Electro Art Works (www.electroartworks.com), is an artist and collector who has turned his considerable talents towards making vintage-style robots, ray guns, and flying saucers (the latter often being driven by robots, and armed with ray guns, natch). While so many people think "1950s" when they're designing vintage robots, Andy seems to have captures a much earlier, 1930s science-fiction aesthetic. These robots really look like they stepped out of a Frank R. Paul Amazing Stories cover painting. It's only one of the things that makes the Andy Bots stand out from the crowd. 

My two Andy Bots: Blasto (left) and Cosmo. Photos: Andy Hill

Andy's figures -- sculptures, toys, whatever you want to call them -- are full of personality, but without being hokey. (If they were animated movies, they'd be Wall-E, not Robots.) He uses found parts, but combines them so skillfully, and is such a wiz with fabrication, that you can't really tell where the bits and pieces come from. Andy once told me that he likes using found parts as a means of recycling. So on top of being completely cool, his figures are environmentally sound. Guilt-free fun! 

You can see all of the robots (and other sculptures, including dinosaurs) produced by Electro Art Works over the years by visiting the web site. Don't be put off by the "sold" signs on so many of the figures. Andy seems to work in waves, and there's never a long pause before new robots start popping up on his site. 

On a personal note, I've known Andy for a couple years. I own two of his robots, and will probably own more. He's a great gun, fun and friendly, and I consider him a real asset to the vintage robot community.

Golden Robot (Linemar / 1956 / Japan / 6 inches)

Most of the robots in my collection have faces with fairly blank expressions -- if they have faces at all. Not Golden Robot. He's grinning exactly the way a robot grins when he's either best friends a little boy from the future, or he's about to throw off the shackles of human domination and run free through the woods like a hulking, clanking, grinding, lumbering tree sprite. Regardless, he's one happy robot.

Golden Robot stands out on a crowded shelf. Besides the crazy grin and the golden color for which he's named, the toy has some wonderful, vintage-looking lithographed thing-a-ma-bobs on his chest, back, and head. He's also got the classic, boxy design that makes the lady robots swoon. 

Golden Robot uses a two-button remote control to walk forward or back with light up eyes and swinging arms. He uses yet another modified pin-walking system, this time with wheels that have been shaved down on one side to give him a bobbling motion when he moves. 

There are two versions of the Golden Robot. One, like mine, has indented feet and a slightly wider shoulder width. The other version has a single rectangular slab for feet. I dunno, I like mine more. 

This is a pretty rare toy, and I never honestly expected to own one. This Golden Robot didn't seem any more likely to end up in my collection, especially since it popped up on eBay right after I'd spent an extra-large freelance check on my Alps Door Robot (see earlier post). But the seller listed him as non-working, so I added him to my overloaded watching page just in case. 

See, some robots are non-working because they're broken, but in some cases, the toy is only "broken." Non-working robots often sell for much less money than mint examples, and if it turns out to only be "broken," it's usually not that tough to repair. Then, voila, you've got a nice example of a rare, and otherwise expensive, toy. 

So what's going on with these not-really-broken broken toys? Often, there's a layer of gunk on their gears or motors that causes the parts to stiffen up. Sometimes it's a loose wire in a battery box. Maybe a connection isn't being made between a battery and a terminal. All of these require very little effort to repair, but you'd be surprised how many sellers don't even bother. Granted, it's sometimes something much worse -- a broken gear, a snapped shaft, a loose internal wire, bad rust in the battery compartment. But even these aren't impossible to repair, and a savvy collector can score some amazing deals by taking on a fixer-upper. 

A nice trick: If you put batteries in the toy and the lights work but the legs don't, you know the circuit's complete and it's probably just some stuck gears. A light tap is sometimes all you need to get things working. Or, perhaps, move the legs manually to help free things up. Poking a chopstick up into the body can sometimes nudge gears forward. Whenever you see a listing like, "Eyes light up, but the legs don't move," you know you might be able to bring that toy back to life without too much trouble. 

Anyway, I noticed after a few days that the price on the Golden Robot was still sitting just south of reasonable. At the same time, yet another freelance check arrived in the mail. I can't say I believe in fate, but I'll certainly pretend to when looking for an excuse to buy a robot. So with fate on my side, I decided to place a bid. And wouldn't ya know it, I won.

When I got the toy, I immediately discovered that the battery box had, at some point, been wired incorrectly. An easy fix, since the connections are exposed inside the remote control. No need to open the toy, clip the wires, or do anything that might end in the tragic death of a vintage toy. So I made the repairs and the toy ran perfectly.

Just goes to show, you don't need a bottomless wallet to build an impressive collection. Stay smart, know your toys, keep an eye out for deals, and you'll definitely score some major robots. 

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gear Robot (Horikawa / Early 1960s / Japan / 8 inches)

With his jaunty, red cap, the Gear Robot wins the prize for best-dressed robot in my collection. Admittedly, it's not much of a contest -- robots, as a rule, go through life naked. Or maybe with a coat of paint, which, let's be honest, doesn't leave a hell of a lot to the imagination. Toy porn, indeed.

With its boxy shape and industrial grey finish, the Gear Robot is a classic example of a mid-century robot. His techno-tastic chest panel and brightly colored gears give him a playful pop, and the round, red eyes lend him some pleasing personality. Wind him up, and he walks forward while his gears spin and sparks shoot from his chest and burst against the clear front panel. This is a toy any kid (and, ahem, certain adults) would be proud to own.

The Gear Robot is an early release by perhaps the longest-running toy company, Horikawa. For something like 50 years, their robots have appeared in many shapes, sizes, and materials, with all sorts of different actions. Most collectors have at least a few of the toys, and because there are so many different ones, many people actually create mini Horikawa collections within their main collections.

I'm particularly fond of what are known as the "small scale" Horikawas, like the Gear Robot. These toys generally top out at about nine and a half inches tall, though they maintain the dizzying variety of features found throughout the Horikawa line. Some are extremely rare, but most are common and inexpensive enough that they provide an easy entry into the hobby for new collectors. 

I'll be honest, it was a while before I began to appreciate Horikawa robots. Many of them, especially the later toys (which featured a larger proportion of plastic parts), left me kind of cold. See, a big reason I love vintage toy robots is that they provide a window into an era I never got to experience. But I grew up with some of the Horikawas, and that familiarity made them boring. 

Now, ask any collector who's been around for a while, and they'll talk to you about how their tastes have changed and developed over time. Toys they loved in the beginning sometimes lose their allure; toys they hated eventually become obsessions. In my case, I never lost interest in the toys that initially attracted me to the hobby, but I began to pay more attention to some of the toys I'd previously ignored -- particularly the Horikawas. Their lines, their actions, the little details that made them unique.  

The Gear Robot was the first one I added to my collection. It's as old-school as you're likely to find and easy for me to wrap my head around. Frankly, it was only my strange resistance to Horikawas in general that kept me from noticing it in the first place. Since then, the Gear Robot has become one of my favorites.

Which just goes to show that every robot deserves a second chance. Even if they've just gotten out of prison.

Wait, what?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sparky Robot (Yoshiya / 1957 / Japan / 7 inches)

Many Japanese tin robot were like canvases for some astonishingly creative lithography. Diminutive Sparky was by far one of the most ornate. Somehow, artists found a way to cram a ridiculous amount of detail in this great, six-and-a-half-inch robot.

The mechanical graphics are striking, like something Wally Wood might have concocted for Weird Science. But what really grabs my attention is the subtle shading on the lithoed "panels"; very few toys display this level of detail, and one of the few that does costs just about $10,000. Considering that Sparky costs a mere fraction of a fraction of that, you definitely get a lot of artistic bang for you buck. 

I particularly like Sparky's face, which looks like a mask. It has a dehumanizing effect on the toy, which I think might have been the exact opposite of what his designers were hoping to achieve. But the haunting, blank expression gives the toy a lot of impact.

While Sparky Robot looked like a million bucks, he relies on a basic, wind-up walking mechanism that causes his legs to move back and forth while sparks fire off behind red gels in his eyes. His antenna acts as an on/off switch -- a nice touch, actually. 

Sparky was available in a number of different color and litho variations: Blue with two types of graphics; silver with two types of graphics; two different khaki-greenish-goldish versions; and an unlithoed silver version. The plain silver toy is the most common; mine is rarer than the other lithographed silver version, and perhaps one of the khaki-greenish-goldish toys. But the rest are really rare, and often sell for a lot of money. I know it's a bit confusing, but if you quickly sketch yourself a little chart, it'll all make sense.

It's funny, I never liked Sparky. I was only familiar with the two more common versions of the toy, and for whatever reason, they didn't get the oil pumping through my tubes. But when mine appeared on eBay and I saw the incredible details, I just fell for it.

Coincidentally, on the day the auction ended, I was editing a very short documentary about toy robots for a grad school class. My partners suggested filming me as I put in my bid and (hopefully) won the toy. But no, I couldn't do it. I've a hard and fast rule in journalism that I never appear in my own stories as anything other than a reporter. Sadly, my friends never got the shot they wanted.

I, on the other hand, did get the toy. So it worked out just fine for me.