At Christmas, we may have occasionally succumbed to consumerism, materialism and buying-copious-amounts-of-Transformerism. With our Source Blog Collector Interviews we often succumb to the allure of immensely large and attractive Transformers collections from well-known collectors, meticulously maintained and put together with the most painstaking dedication at great expense and sacrifice. That, however, does not represent the entire fandom just as those traits do not fully represent Christmas. With the greatest respect to our diverse and unforgettable interviewees, and Richard Brown’s modest collection, please prepare yourself for possibly the most engaging Source Interview thus far with someone who may seem aloof about collecting toys, but is very serious and gifted in accidentally bringing together UK community members for what will be known down the eons as “PubCon”, as well as being “one-third responsible” for the amazing upcoming “An American Way Of Death” TF Noir.
1) Who are you and what do you collect?
My name is Richy Brown and I’m a London-based journalist, but go by the internet name IronicHide (which means ‘smart arse’ in the language of my people). I collect Transformers. It may be a bland statement for the readership here, but it’s the truth. I have no focus or collecting aims whatsoever. Which is deliberate. I haven’t the money, time or space, and most importantly, the determination, to be a collector.
I don’t want to be a reductionist or dismissive of people who collect anything obsessively or with precision. In a way, just reading the interviews with, say, Bryce Rutledge or Brandon Yap makes me feel like a fraud on here. But I don’t have the patience to go after any specific area of Transformers, which would, as we all know, necessitate chasing valuable rarities down the line.
In short: Please forgive me for trundling out cliches such as ‘they’re just toys’ and ‘I just buy what I like’. I’m not being dismissive but I’m a massively unfocused human and, I guess, the toys reflect that.
Looking round my flat, I can’t see a single thing which is owned to the extent of completion or rarity (except some Radiohead CD singles). Random art on the walls, random books on the walls, single tracks downloaded on my hard-drive rather than albums; a memory box full of tickets for operas, crappy and arthouse movies, football matches, none of which were attended with consistency.
There’s pretty much one rule with my collection: I have to buy the toy in person. It’s all about cycling all over London on a clear, cool day to push children out of the way in toy aisles. But, just like a drug addict listing what they will never do for a fix, I broke that rule for the first time recently with an online order. (It was X-Transbots Glider. Because Powerglide was a favourite. Don’t judge me.)
Also, only one of any character. Collecting toys will always be a limited exercise for me, so the arbitrary rule in my mind goes as follows: the Bumblebee in the old cartoons is much the same transforming car robot as in the latest cartoons and the movie. All the Bumblebees are a variation on a theme. Therefore, I just own the Classics version. I liked the look of the 2007 movie toy based on the Camaro, so I waited for the Cliffjumper repaint. I feel shafted that we didn’t get a TFA Wasp, though, as I rather liked the look of that mould. That’s the only instance when I can think of losing out on owning a specific mould.
Hence, my crew of the 18 original Autobots would have TFP Wheeljack and PCC Huffer, a movie Ratchet and a Prowl who turns into a bike. Which may seem like sacrilege to some, the highly-literal end of the fans, but the fact my toy shelf might anger a pedant just amuses me.
2) How has the collecting scene changed in the last 10 years?
Again, it’s difficult for me as I only returned to Transformers seven years ago and have only ever been a voyeur to the collecting scene. I’m quite typical of many fans I’ve met online or in a pub: I watched the show as a kid and had a big tub of toys in the 1980s, then got on with being a teenager, a student (my ’84 Optimus Prime came with me to university), panel-beating a career into shape, and then got suckered back into the Transformers through a later iteration, aided by the internet.
For me it was the build-up to the first Michael Bay movie and particularly the official movie forums. My work specialism required me to research social media in all its blossoming ugliness in 2005/06. Here was a microcosm of specialist knowledge with a scattergun demographic and a hardened dichotomy of opinion (at the time, this boiled down to liking Prime’s flames or not). I lurked on those boards for 18 months, doing nothing but studying how humans interacted in a faceless, nameless virtual environment, precisely because their commonality – returning in different degrees to Transformers – was one I could understand.
It was at that point the slew of old G1 toys got pulled out of people’s attics and thrown on eBay. I enjoyed a vicarious thrill as board members talked about now-grown children sticking up a factory-buggered variant Dinobot for auction for pennies. At this time it seemed the experts were still working out the relative value of such things. How many more blue-toed Grimlocks (or whatever) were going to be on eBay?
Since then, obviously, the dust has settled and now I read about the chase for established one-off toys, disrupted only when some poor collector has to liquidate their mancave or there’s a genuine case (haha, pun) of limited toys being discovered. Now, after two years in financial journalism, I can see the market forces tugging away – highly sentimental demand meeting a strictly limited supply pool.
3) How do you see, or hope to see the scene changing in 5 years’ time?
It’s not definite but it’s an interesting guess to see how the newer forms of the toys and their media – the movies and last two cartoon runs – will do. We know there are particular movie toys in high demand in the post-mass-retail market – I’m thinking of Buster Prime, mainly – as well as those Transformers Animated toys which didn’t see Western shop shelves. Over the next few years, the children which bought the majority of Transformers toys since 2007 will break or lose or throw away a lot of the after-retail supply to the market. At the same time, collectors will to have complete lines or those who are spurred by sentiment will ratchet up the demand.
Hence, I’ve kept the boxes for a lot of stuff. I presume the next steps in my life will involve tiny replications of me demanding food and comfort, plus hoisting my wife and I up the London property ladder may see me black market a less-essential organ. If I can sell a good condition toy to somebody with a greater capacity to love it, I will do so. Actually, I sold my voyager-class Starscream from Animated, mint in box, this year for more than I paid for it without even hitting the average price the toy goes for (from a cursory glance at eBay). So my mortgage guy and I are hoping the market will remain.
Actually, most of my stuff is unopened. Lots of toys going back to Revenge of the Fallen are still in sealed boxes. Which is definitely not because I’m collecting pristine toys for boxed displays and a high pay-off one day. I just don’t have time to play with them.
There appears to be two theories kept casually in the thinking parts of Transformers (or any) collectors: There’s always somebody prepared to pay more for this than me (allowing me to liquidate it or mark it up one day), and; I can hold onto something longer than the next guy (letting it appreciate in value, whether I value it or not). Obviously, not both can hold true in perpetuity. As I have only a bare bones collection to sell, I’m no more than a day-trader in their world. I’ll be sat on the side, eating my metaphorical popcorn, watching for who blinks first. (Does this make me a bad person?)
Plus, there is only one rule: everything in life is rented. You, me and our toys will decompose and, ultimately, be subsumed by the sun. I don’t think the scene will be applying this rule anytime soon, however.
4) What has been your single biggest success as a collector, or your greatest ever find ?
OK, this will sound provocative: I think there is something wrong with the completionist mindset. I think it’s one of unhealthy competition at its worst. At its best, it’s an exercise of withdrawal, obsession and frustration (Saying that, I’m always impressed by the detectives of the scene who, through their grit and intelligence, have hunted out uncharted toys and variations made in a world before the web. I tend to think of that more as curation and I’m jealous).
So my successes are on a much smaller scale. As I said, I get toys from shops. This is probably the dearest part of the hobby for me. I also have to hang on for sales. I can’t justify spending £13 on a single deluxe-scale toy (again, I’ve broken this rule recently, too). I have to be patient. I have to hope the toy I want is still on shelves when the price discounts start. Luckily, these tend to happen across whole toy aisles at supermarkets, or the entire Transformers section of a toy store. That’s when I get on my bike. I can reach dozens of stores within the capital within an hour’s ride. I love cycling around this city, I just need destinations to hit. Back in ’08/09 we had movie toys, Animated toys and a smattering of Classics out there. I’d take a day, a rucksack and a strict budget. A lot of my collection accrued in those days. I’ve been getting an average of 10 toys a year, and never spent more than £100 a year. Minus bike repairs.
Aside from that, I just bought my first script from the original series. It’s date-marked 1985 and printed in Courier New. It’s the episode The Girl Who Loved Powerglide, which is special for three reasons. First, in the UK back in the day, scheduling for the show was patchy. The only guarantee to watch an episode was to have it on tape. Which I did with this one. I think it came with Heavy Metal War, another favourite. (There’s a quasi-nostalgia in the UK, I think, for the old videos; there’s lots of talk about Arrival From Cybertron, which is what the first three episodes were called here).
Secondly, it is one of the better episodes. We all seemed to return to the cartoon as the DVDs came out and realised some of those 20-minute toy commercials were ropey, colourful and dull. Here’s an episode where a chauvinist character is confronted by his idiocy, where a character dismissed as small and ditzy turns that to an advantage, where there’s sexual jealousy, corporate failure, the clash of strong wills offset by a fairground setting, etc.
Thirdly, because it revolves around a girl, her empowerment and her confused love, the episode isn’t well thought of by that section of the fans who just like robots and lasers and haven’t moved on from the jazzy shit we were fed as kids. I kinda lump those guys in with the more competitive and pedantic fans. Or those who dismissed the wonderfully subversive Transformers Animated. It’s their loss. You know how not everybody got the joke about Professor Princess? Same thing, not everybody sees there was an alright dramatic clock ticking away in this episode. Having the script just boosts that for me. Not much was changed for the screen, this was a tight package of writing. There’s just more fairground jokes and a good one about Dirge, presumably cut for time.
5) What is the most surprising or outrageous collecting story you have heard?
Haha, that’d be one you told me about going head-to-head over the motorbike cassette. That had a time limit, international setting, zero-sum stakes and a mysterious ending. It was like early Spielberg.
To be fair, anybody spending more than £30 on a toy sounds pretty outrageous to me. Then again, I was pleasantly surprised by what I’ve come to learn, mostly from you, about the true rarities out there and how the ‘detectives’ out there aren’t buying toys or investing in a commodity with what they do, these guys work like archaeologists and curators. The expense of these toys is more like the relative value of any scarce relic from a time that no longer exists.
6) If you could pick one item from your collection to keep, what would it be?
I guess my original ’84 Prime. It’s been missing an arm since ’85, thanks, sis, and anything detachable got lost long ago. But it’s still in my loft. And witnessed a lot of stuff at university. So that’s a sentimental answer, but I’m not a Prime fan. There’s nothing interesting in an infallible leader, I thought as a kid. I was a happy six-year-old when (spoiler) he got brained in the movie. Give that Matrix of Leadership to Huffer or Tracks, then things will start happening. Wonderful, terrifying things.
I don’t own anything rare or precious to the collector crowd. However… Somewhere, in the wildest part of Cornwall, is a chest with all my first generation toys. I haven’t seen them for half my lifetime. There should be a lot of the ’87-89 toys among them, those technicolour monstrosities. I’d keep Doubledealer, Snapdragon or Apeface for certain. Hopefully, Mirage is in there. That was my first Transformer. My Megatron also had an arm snapped off (thanks, me), but my stepfather fixed it with a soldered plate and 3mm screw. It still transformed. That was a bond for him and me. Megatron became his favourite because of that. He even liked RoboCop 2 because the Cain-bot reminded him of Megatron. If I recovered it, I would make sure he got it as a desk trophy.
7) If you could have one item out of someone else’s collection, what would that be?
I’m not sure I would. That’s their collection, their trip. That’s what they have valued, either out of sentiment, a sense of curation of the rare, or just cynical supply-and-demand. At some level, we all have to admit: We’re adults still fixated by something from our childhoods. It was ‘better’ than other things of the time - Thundercats, Subbuteo, race riots, really bad hair, Saved By The Bell, Milli Vanilli – measured by its endurance today, but it’s hilarious, the amount we care.
Actually, I particularly owe some big thanks to some lovely humans I’ve met through Transformers websites – Morgan, Kit, Simon and Steve – I’d have something expensive and amazing from somebody’s collection and give it to any of them.
On a similar note, a good friend gave me one of his old transforming toys from his loft the other day, otherwise it was destined for landfill. Turned out, thanks to Mark, another online buddy, it was a Bandai Dan Cougar. Just the central part: this mammoth-man-tank robot. It’s 1984 vintage and in better condition than a lot of two-year-old toys on my shelves. I don’t care if it’s worth thousands, it’s my present from Fred.
8 ) What advice would you give a new collector starting out today?
That thing about the sun.
Many kind and gracious thanks to Richard Brown for words and images. You’d do well to check out @TFNoir.
All the best