Cool and Collected

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."

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.