Earlier this year I did an interview with Professor Henry Jenkins, a professor of communication and media studies who also had a lot to say about toys and their relationship to transmedia. In that interview he mentioned Jonathan Gray, another media studies professor who is even more interested in toys and the points at which they connect with media. Therefore I considered it my sworn duty to bug the very busy Professor Gray for an interview, which he gracefully agreed to. Enjoy! –PG
Real Name: Jonathan Gray
Base of Operations: The Extratextuals
History: Jonathan Gray is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. A Canadian-Brit, he grew up around the world, with Star Wars toys as the constant thing in common between all others and myself. He then fell in love with media studies and wrote a dissertation on parody, intertextuality, and The Simpsons, which later became his first book, Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality. His second single-authored book is Television Entertainment, and his third is the newly released Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Paratexts, though he’s also edited several books — Fandom: Communities and Identities in a Mediated World; Battleground: The Media; and Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era. He’s an avid media consumer, and as avid a media analyst.
1.) First off, street cred time: what were the toys you enjoyed playing with while growing up, and why?
There were a lot, but the answer must begin and end with Star Wars. My father got these plans from a friend for a massive space station, about 4 foot by 8 foot, standing off the ground, and it took him several months to build. The plan was for it to be our Christmas present, and then two weeks before Christmas, we weren’t allowed to see it, until Christmas Day itself, when we came downstairs and there it was in all its awesome glory, covered in Star Wars toys. It seemed wrong for any other toy to hold as key a place in my heart thereafter, and I still remember the sad moment when as a pre-teen I realized I was meant to stop playing with them. I just loved the Star Wars world, and it helped that everyone my age knew it world-wide, especially since I grew up moving. My father (who, as you can see, was my dealer too) also took frequent trips to Hong Kong, where they were made, and would come back with SW toys before they’d been released elsewhere, so they allowed me special status when I was otherwise doomed to be the awkward, odd foreign kid.
That said, I also had a fair serving of Playmobil when I was really young, then Transformers and GI Joe, but also Marvel and DC action figures, especially when I was a comic book fan. Mask toys were the best thing ever for a few months of my life. And Lego. Lots more that if you put in front of me I’d remember lovingly, but I’m blanking right now.