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.
While shopping at Target the other day, I came across this little Playmobil set as part of what seemed to be a general stocking-stuffer section. There were a few other toys too, ranging from Transformers figurines to the usual Hot Wheels cars and so forth. Since I remember back when pretty much any toy you found in such a section was cheap crap, I was pleasantly surprised by the selection. This set cost $3.
Today we have an interview with a good friend of mine, Rustin Parr of OAFE. Rustin and I first met through OAFE in the early 1990s, and despite living on separate coasts, we’ve met in person many times since then. An passionate if idiosyncratic movie buff, Haunted Mansion enthusiast, and King Leonidas look-alike (well, maybe not the abs, but the face, anyway), Rustin has agreed to bare just a bit of his soul to us here at PGPoA.
Code name: Scott McEachen, alias Rustin Parr, alias Gunstas von Artlefuasdensein, D.D.S.
Specialty: Dreaming Big and Accomplishing Small
Base of Operations: Monterey, CA
History: Began the adventure in gorgeous Hermosa Beach, California, whence an egregious lust for action figuring took hold. A lack of sculpting ability and painting prowess propelled him into the world of Motion Picture production whose frivolities spat the man into the cutting edge of Neuro Marketing during which a healthy imbibing of toys and movies keeps the life juices flowing. It was a hot and sunny day when a close personal friend, the self-titled Lord of the Nazgul, brought together Rustin with Yo Go Re and Poe Ghostal, all posters at the formerly awesome and important/relevant spawn.com message boards, the latter two being founding members of oafe.net. After one particularly long and laugh-riddled evening in which Rustin performed his then-constant desperate rage upon the unprepared Yo’n’Poe towards falsely accused inept waitresses and rightfully, if not righteously accused George Lucas and his modern films, Poe’n’Yo dragged the Froce’o’da’nature into the fold at OAFE where on Rustin continues to this day to be less entertaining than that first eve and less consistent in producing reviews than his editor would prefer. Rustin is survived by his collection projected to consist of over 2,000 individual action figures, 500 hundred vehicle and location replicas 9in varying scales) and hundreds of plus-sized and resin collectibles, not to mention a DVD collection of some 1200 discs.
If you’ve got a few hours to spare, you might enjoy reading the Amazon customer reviews of the Playmobil Security Checkpoint. The amount of time spent on these is staggering. There’s a ton of them, but here’s one of my favorites:
My family was planning a vacation to Europe, so I purchased this item to teach my twins about what to expect at the airport and hopefully, alleviate some of their anxiety. We also downloaded the actual TSA security checklist from the American Airlines website and then proceeded with our demonstration. Well, first we had to round up a Barbie and a few Bratz dolls to play the other family members, so that cost us a few extra bucks at the Dollar General and it is aggravating that the manufacturer did not make this product “family-friendly.”
Of course, since the Playmobil Dad could not remove his shoes or other clothing items, unlike the Barbie, the playmobil security agent became suspicious and after waving her wand wildly a few dozen times, called her supervisor to wisk the Dad into a special body-cavity search room, (which incidentally led to quite an embarasing and interesting discussion with my twin daughters about personal hygiene and a slight adjustment to the rules we had them memorize about touching by strangers). But worst of all, since the suitcase did not actually open, the baggage inspector made a call to the FBI and ATF bomb squads which then segregated the family’s suitcase (which btw was the only suitcase they provided for our educational family experience) and according to the advanced TSA regulations, had to blow it up, (since they could not otherwise mutilate the luggage, break off the locks and put one of those nice little advisory stickers on it), which we had to simulate out in the backyard with a few M-80s and other fireworks. The girls started crying. They became so hysterical by the whole experience that we could not even get them in the car when the time came to actually take our trip, and so we had to cancel the whole thing at the last minute, losing over $7,000 in airfare and hotel charges that we could not recoup do to the last minute cancellations.
We’ve now spent an additional $3,000 to pay for the girl’s therapy and medication over the past year since this incident occurred, and the psychologists have told us that this will affect them for life–so much for their college fund and our retirement. Then, to top it all off, when we tried to use to Playmobil phone to call the company to ask for reimbursement, as you might expect, of course the damn thing didn’t even work; neither did our efforts to e-mail them using the computer screen on the baggage checkpoint; and our real-life efforts to contact them to obtain reimbursement have also likewise been ignored. Worse yet, we had the product tested and found out that it was positive for both lead paint and toxic chemicals, having been manufactured in China by workers holding formerly American jobs, so now we all have cancer and have been given only another year or so to live. My advice – educating your kids about airport security with this toy may actually be more harmful to them than just packing them in the damn luggage with some bottled water & hoping they survive. 🙂