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Vintage Star Wars Figures: How I Rediscovered My Old Toys Pt 2: Toys or Totems?

Vintage Star Wars Figures: How I Rediscovered My Old Toys Pt 2: Toys or Totems?

pastedGraphic copyVintage Star Wars Figures: How I Rediscovered My Old Toys Pt 2: Toys or Totems?

In part one of my look at the original Kenner Star Wars action figures I came to a partial conclusion that I had made the realization that this vintage line of toys deserved my attention and a place of honour amongst my modern collectibles. But was this fueled only by my childhood memories? In my conclusion to this series I’ve come to another realization apart from nostalgia: that the Vintage Kenner Star Wars era toys reveal the essence of the characters of the Saga and I would argue do so even better than their modern counterparts.

To be honest I stopped playing with toys (Star Wars or otherwise) by 1980 or so, so I had only a short few years that were occupied with the Kenner line. In retrospect I didn’t actually ‘collect’ these toys, rather (like most kids) I played with them and at some point put them aside for other pursuits. So why did I jump at the chance to collect modern versions almost twenty years in 1995 after I stopped playing with toys?

I think I finally figured it out (heh, see what I did there?) after Christmas 2013 when I received Steve Sansweet’s book, “Star Wars-The Ultimate Action Figure Collection.” If you’re a fan of these toys this book is for you. At 352 pages this is a book to be savoured. A book to flip through casually while having a coffee in the morning. I find this book to be my go to source for when I want to know if and how a certain character was made. And because it’s emphasis is on photos it’s very easy to look up a character. As I began to skim through this book I began to notice just how much the look of certain characters have become so iconic. These toys aren’t about screen accuracy; surely when they were created in the 1970’s technology wouldn’t allow for multiple points of articulation or accurate representation of the actors’ faces who portrayed them: just look at the two versions of Han Solo for example. The original Han looks nothing like Harrison Ford while version two maybe looks like the actor as he looks (oddly enough) as a man in his seventies.

1 Two Hans.
But what comes through clearly in these fairly simple sculpts is what we as Star Wars fans have come to associate with our favourite characters. Han’s white shirt and black vest, Leia’s white dress and perhaps most important, “farmboy Luke” with his straw-coloured hair, ‘shorty robe’ and brown pants and boots. None of these figures really look like the actors they represent but they certainly convey the look of the characters as we first saw them in theatres in 1977. And as kids without on demand digital access to our favourite movies the Kenner toys were a quick fix for us to relive the adventures we saw on the big screen.

2 Leia Han Luke
I am beginning to understand that taking ownership of these vintage toys isn’t so much about nostalgia, rather it’s about having ‘totems’ that represent the essence of Star Wars. Merriam-Webster.com defines the word ‘totem’ as:

An object (as an animal or plant) serving as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder of its ancestry; also a usually carved or painted representation of such an object.

Maybe the best example of this is the original Kenner version of R2-D2. On the left side of the following photo is the modern, 6-inch “Black Series” version of Artoo while on the right is my Kenner action figure that my brother and I bought in March of 1978. There is no question which toy looks more like our favourite astromech; clearly the 6-inch figure looks like it has lept right from the screen. But the essence of Artoo is clearly seen in that first ever version from 1978: the domed head, the barrel-shaped body and his “claw-armed” legs (as described in the original script). It doesn’t matter that the Kenner toy doesn’t recreate Artoo’s ‘face’ accurately or that they resorted to a sticker (what’s left of it on mine anyway) to represent the details of his body—we know it’s him by his shape alone.

3. Artoo
So, about a month after reading the Sansweet book, this idea hit home even more clearly when my wife picked out a $6 Star Wars t-shirt at JCPenney’s for me. The graphic on the shirt shows the faces of the most popular characters of Star Wars in a very basic form and, while I think the whited out eyes of the human characters is kind of creepy, the images are instantly recognizable in this base form.

4. Green Shirt
These original toys carry the physical representation of their characters. And with that representation, I’ve begun to see just how ingrained Star Wars is in me.

Since then, little by little, I have been collecting the Kenner Star Wars figures I never had as a kid. Sure, on the surface it looks like another middle aged guy reliving his youth but to me I’m also collecting totems. Basic representations carved out of plastic of movie characters that have come to mean so much to me as an adult Star Wars fan. So maybe instead of calling myself a toy collector I should call myself a totem collector.

Of course it doesn’t explain why I need three different X-Wing fighters in my collection.

You can follow Mike on Twitter @MikeTarkin.
Visit his website at miketarkin.com.

Click here to purchase Star Wars-The Ultimate Action Figure Collection by Steve Sansweet.

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2 Comments

  1. Melinda
    March 12, 2015 at 09:58 Reply

    Absolutely wonderful, Mike! As a girl growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I was a tomboy — but my mother (in particular) was bound and determined to make me into “a girl”. Girls did not play with “action figures”. That might account for my fetish of collecting action figures as an adult. My two girls (both Star Wars fans) did not suffer the same pigeon-hole existence. They spent countless hours of their youth recreating — and creating — various scenarios with the plethora of actions figures we bought (sometimes I think our family alone kept George Lucas in business! 😉 ).

    While we certainly do not have every action figure under the sun, I have turned my attention to the classic action figures of yore — concentrating on my favorite character, Luke Skywalker. Yes, Mike, there most certainly is a charm about them. Maybe they don’t have the same detail as action figures of today do, but I enjoy them all the same (maybe more so!). 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this! MTFBWY 🙂

    1. Mike MacDonald (@MikeTarkin)
      March 13, 2015 at 06:39 Reply

      Thanks Melinda! Great to hear that your girls are into them too! My daughter is 20 and in the past five years or so has begun collecting astromechs. She covets my vintage Artoo that I picked up mint at a con!

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