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. 

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