Cool and Collected

Action figures go from the toy box to the treasure chest

To some people it might seem weird that a 27-year-old dude has collected 35 Han Solo frozen-in-carbonite action figures over time. But at least as far as superficial presentation goes, Ralph Vega is about as odd as a one-dollar bill. A husky chap with an encyclopedic knowledge of today's most popular comic book and anime characters, Vega is quite at ease with a mania for collecting toys. In addition to the Han Solos, Vega estimates he has accumulated about $10,000 worth of action figures in the past seven years.

"Sometimes my collection has gotten so out-of-hand I've had to give away some of my toys to friends," Vega says during a recent interview at his job — no surprise — selling toys and collectibles at the Outland Station Annex in the Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami. He also handles toy sales at Outland's sibling store in West Kendall.

Vega can spot a collector with the precision of Superman's x-ray vision. "He's the guy who will take every toy off the rack and check each one for any imperfections," Vega says. "He'll buy the one with the least blemishes."

Julian Santos, age sixteen, is the cofounder of the Miami Sandtroopers
Jacqueline Carini
Julian Santos, age sixteen, is the cofounder of the Miami Sandtroopers
“I totally ripped off my friend. I manipulated him with my Sith powers.”
Jacqueline Carini
“I totally ripped off my friend. I manipulated him with my Sith powers.”
Chad Denny is obsessed with X-rated anime figures
Chad Denny is obsessed with X-rated anime figures
“Who doesn’t love a woman who can kick ass?”
“Who doesn’t love a woman who can kick ass?”

Vega should know, because he is among the subculture of action figure collectors living in Miami-Dade. For Vega, collecting toys is a reflection of his personality and history. "Your toy collection tells people a little bit about yourself," Vega reckons. "A toy can tell a story about your life."

His first action figure was the toy version of Mazinger Z his parents bought him when he was three years old. As a toddler, Vega was fascinated with Mazinger Z, a Seventies-era anime about a gigantic robot who protects Japan from Doctor Hell's evil hordes. But Vega lost his Mazinger Z toy when his family moved to Miami from Colombia in 1984.

Twelve years later, when he graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S Air Force, Vega rekindled his interest in anime by watching videos of Evangelion, an anime series about biologically enhanced humanoids who protect the world from bloodthirsty alien invaders. A then-eighteen-year-old Vega would unabashedly ask fellow servicemen who traveled to Japan to bring him back Evangelion action figures. "One of my dreams is to go toy shopping in Japan," Vega confides.

In 2002 Vega finished his Air Force tour and moved back to Miami. He worked at a Target department store for about two years before landing his current gig selling action figures. His job is to make sure the Outland stores are stocked with action figures not on the shelves at Wal-Mart or Toys R Us. One wall is lined with various incarnations of Superman and Batman drawn by some of the coolest comic book artists alive today, guys like Kia Asamiya, Jim Lee, and Frank Miller. Another wall displays rows of Tony Montana action figures that are embedded with an electronic box that snarls off some of Scarface's most famous lines. More shelves in the center of the store are stocked with action figures depicting popular anime characters from Japan.

With the holiday shopping season creeping up on him, Vega says he already has filled up one spiral-bound notebook with special orders from pop culture geeks looking to stock up. "Our motto is we can get you anything you want," Vega says, "but are you willing to pay the price?"

Vega faced that question himself while surfing eBay. He found an auction for the same exact Mazinger Z toy he had as a child. He placed the winning bid: $125. "I was so happy," Vega recalls. "To only pay that amount of money for an unopened Eighties-era toy was pretty amazing."

According to Joe Donato, general manager of KillerToys.com, an Internet collectibles retailer based in North Miami Beach, the hard-core action figure collector is someone "who doesn't function well with the general population." Part of his job, Donato says, is to scour chat rooms and message boards frequented by collectors to get a drop on what his customers want.

The average collector can vary from a teenager just starting his collection to middle-age men who will spend $4000 to $5000 a month on toys, Donato says. One of his customers recently spent $9000 to buy not one, but two, life-size Terminator endoskeletons.

"You're not going to find these guys driving Ferraris on a Friday night out on South Beach," Donato explains. "You're going to find them online or at conventions where they can be geeks and no one will make fun of them."

Julian Santos, a sixteen-year-old student at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Hialeah, doesn't really care if his friends make fun of his hobby collecting Star Wars and Marvel Select action figures. "No one should be embarrassed about something they enjoy doing," Santos reasons.

On several occasions, Santos surfed forums on Star Wars fan Website TheForce.net to meet other local fans who share his passion for all things Jedi-and-Sith-related. Six months ago, he attended Orlando's Megacon, the largest gathering of action figure freaks in the nation, to go shopping and meet other collectors. He plans on attending the next Megacon slated for the end of February.

Santos concedes that most of the friends he's met on the Star Wars fan site don't live in Miami-Dade. However, he did meet another Miami teenager on TheForce.net shortly before Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was released in theaters this past May. Together they set out to recruit members for their own Star Wars fan club: the Miami Sandtroopers. "I made ads and posters on my computer and we passed them out at the local movie theater," Santos says. "It didn't work too well, though. Luckily we met six other people from Miami on TheForce.net and we were able to have our first meeting."

The Miami Sandtroopers meet on the first Saturday of every month at the Borders bookstore in the Dolphin Mall. It's not the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the galaxy, but at least Santos has a place where he and his crew of Star Wars geeks can wax incessantly about which toy version of Darth Vader is the baddest. "We basically hang out at the mall for about two hours," Santos says, "going through different stores, discussing anything Star Wars-related."

Santos estimates he has spent about $1100 buying Star Wars and Marvel action figures during the past three years. This year he is on a mission to collect every action figure in the Episode III story line. He is already about three-quarters of the way from completing his galactic goal.

The teen owns three versions of Emperor Palpatine: a purple translucent "holographic" figure that was exclusively sold at Toys R Us; one holding a red light saber; and a rare figure of the Sith lord wielding a blue light saber, currently selling for $90. At Megacon, he found a rare Yoda action figure from Cartoon Network's miniseries Star Wars: Clone Wars. An honors class pupil, Santos describes his Stars Wars hobby as a manifestation of his ambitiousness. "I can be very competitive," he says. "Collecting has inspired me to finish what I start."

Santos has also learned how to wheel and deal his friends out of an action figure he covets. He obtained a Luke Skywalker Unleashed action figure worth $90 by trading a figure of Major League Baseball player Ichiro Suzuki and five bucks. The Suzuki figure was worth only ten dollars. "I totally ripped off my friend," Santos says. "I manipulated him with my Sith powers."

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away from today's club scene, Chad Denny used to hang out on South Beach. Back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Denny used to promote Industry Nights at the Cameo Theatre (now crobar), a tribunal gathering of Miami's defunct industrial music scene.

Today the 34-year-old electrician primarily hangs out at home, adding and meticulously maintaining his vast collection of DVDs, LPs, VHS tapes, laser discs, videogame consoles, Japanese artifacts, pop culture memorabilia, and of course action figures. During an interview at his Kendall townhouse, Denny somewhat confirms Donato's description of the average antisocial action figure collector: "I don't have many friends."

A third-generation Miamian with Irish blood, Denny grew up watching the Speed Racer animated television series and Bruce Lee movies. In addition to tattoos of Japanese characters and symbols on his back and upper left arm, Denny sports a tribal sea turtle etched into his right calf and the kids from South Park inked across his front left thigh.

When Denny was a teenager, his affinity for Bruce Lee led him to appreciate other aspects of Asian culture, such as the samurai, the ninja, and the geisha. In his living room, Denny displays his collection of traditional Japanese ceramic ornaments with his PVC statues of X-rated anime characters. "The anime and the Japanese stuff really flows together," Denny relays. "I particularly like this line of anime figures because it depicts women who can kick ass. And who doesn't love a woman who can kick ass? Heck, it's why I married a Latin woman."

He may not have a lot of pals, but Denny does have an understanding wife. Renee, a 31-year-old Hello Kitty collector, lovingly accepts her husband's idiosyncrasies, even if she is worried there might not be enough room in their home to accommodate her husband's whimsical displays. "I guess we can always build more vertical shelves," she says, gesturing to the vaulted ceilings.

Most of the toys are prominently displayed on shelves inside Denny's home office, which he calls his "oasis." His office/toy showroom also functions as his game room. He has every version of the Nintendo game system, from the eight-bit original to GameCube, as well as a Sega Genesis and a Sega Dreamcast. He even owns an Atari 2600!

On one of the walls, Denny has erected shrines to Speed Racer, Spawn, and bobblehead dolls. On the top shelf sit three Speed Racer cookie jars, a Speed Racer DVD, and a rare Hot Wheels version of Speed Racer's car, the Mach 5, in its original package. The second shelf is lined with various bobbleheads of Hermey the Elf from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Shrek, and several athletes. On the third shelf are his favorite Spawn action figures carefully arranged in menacing poses.

Denny's oldest toy, a Fred Flintstone bank from the early Seventies, stands tall among several other interesting characters, including a sixteen-inch Chewbacca doll circa 1978. Fred Flintstone and Chewbacca are displayed on a shelf underneath Denny's shrine of South Park memorabilia consisting of various plush dolls of Kyle, Kenny, Stan, and Cartman; a South Park mousepad and mouse; a Kenny watch; and other South Park trinkets. "I like to keep everything neat and clean," Denny says. "All the action figures I had when I was a kid are still in good quality."

A regular customer of Ralph Vega's, Denny is the guy who will lay out every action figure on the floor at Outland Station and investigate every single detail in the toy before selecting one. When he can't find what he is looking for, he'll ask Vega to hunt down his desired toy online. Take Denny's Galhound PVC statue. Galhound was the first in a series of exclusive figures based on the artwork of manga artist Masamune Shirow. Outland carried Galhound only in the white color scheme; Denny wanted her in the purple color scheme. "It took about a month for him to get it," Denny recalls. "I was there to pick it up the same day Ralph finally got it in."

These days Denny is trying to decide where he is going to display his new set of action figures sculpted by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane. The Canadian comic book artist, who parlayed his skills into a lucrative toy franchise, is producing Clive Barker's Infernal Parade and Twisted Fairy Tales.

Infernal Parade is based on a gruesome bunch of carnival characters from the man who brought us Lord of Illusions. The other action figures are McFarlane's macabre and sadistic interpretations of children's favorites, such as Peter Pumpkin Eater, who carries a bloodied ax and a pumpkin stuffed with an unfortunate victim's body parts. "I've always loved Clive Barker," Denny says. "I see the Infernal Parade and Twisted Fairy Tales as pieces of art. They are pretty bizarre, but I'm a bizarre person myself."

Denny may end up relocating his vast DVD and VHS collection, which he catalogues by genre and alphabetical order, to his living room so he can accommodate his toys.

Renee finds her husband's latest collection a bit disturbing. "That stuff is a little morbid for me," she admits. "I prefer his anime statues. Those are cool."

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