Why am I addicted to action figures? I have been in thrall to other addictions and either come to the end of them or lost interest in them. I once spent money like water on books. I always thought I would eventually obtain all of them that were to be had in the fields of my interest--and then be done with it. For a long time, this did not seem to pan out. There were always more, and I still bought them like crazy. But recently I have realized that I do have about all that exist by my favorite authors. I still buy new Lovecraft-related books, but I usually get complementary copies anyway. I no longer approach book stores in the hopes I will find something, anything to buy, to collect.
In the case of books, an alternative instinct has taken over: rather than the compulsion to get more and more, I take satisfaction in the "provisions" I have stockpiled--"What a collection!" It seems one is another version of the other. Both bespeak the archivist, the completist. There is an expansion/contraction dynamic going on here. For instance I once spent the effort to collect all books by Robert Bloch and Frank Belknap Long. No sooner had I succeeded on this dubious enterprise than I realized I had amassed a bunch of books that did not even particularly appeal to me! So I sold most of them, keeping only the short story collections. Same with Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley. Narrowing down the collection to the minimum of books I really liked was as satisfying as collecting the whole bunch. The collection process is expansive, engulfing, while the selection process is more a matter of cherishing, hugging to your breast the shorter list you would take with you to a desert island, or into the fallout shelter. They are all the more valuable for their smaller number. So, again, it is two expressions of the same hoarding instinct.
Completism is a great example of the pendulum swing between frustration/anticipation and anticlimax that Schopenhauer talks about. Once you do tape every single episode of a show, you can forget you have them and move onto something else.
The completist bug manifests itself also in my unwillingness to lend anyone tapes or books. It is not so much the fear of them ruining the item, or even of my losing it, but rather the anxiety of missing the thing, being without it, having a hole in the collection, however temporarily.
Partly, I think, the compulsion to have, to collect, is an attempt to secure the past, to take the things you liked with you through life like a tortoise shell, to have all the movies, music, comics, books with me at my fingertips. Thus perhaps it is a Buddhist-like false self. A collection of "aggregates" which do not add up to an atman.
I believe that your environment is a macrocosm of the microcosm inside you. You decorate your space with what decorates your thoughts, your values, etc. But it works the other way, too. I internalize all these valued things precisely by externalizing them. It is not enough to have them preserved in memory: I must have them available in hard copy as well.
How is this different from pack rat syndrome? In that the pack rat insists on keeping everything, every piece of their past, no matter how inherently meaningless, because it has all come to take on the same value as the past itself. Everything from the past becomes a token, a souvenir of the past. The collector is simply more discriminating. He brings with him things that lit up his past and made it enjoyable. Perhaps this marks a difference in the type of security sought. The pack rat may be more afraid of the future, preferring to barricade himself in with the past, whether the past was good or bad. Better the devil we know than the devil we don't know. The collector wants to ensure that the preferred aspects of the past will remain a part of every present and that the future will continue to be like the good old past. He intends to move into the future along certain defined pathways. He wants more of the same. He desires the quantitatively new, but not necessarily the qualitatively new. Neither does he shun it, though, because new enjoyments will mean new things to collect! (I had no interest in collecting videos or CDs till Carol bought me a VCR and a CD player.)
Ever since I was a little kid I marveled at the possibility of having my own, private incarnations, instantiations, of favorite cartoon characters or TV cowboys, making them if necessary. I played with them at first, at least posed them. Later (like today) just having and looking at them is enough. That it wasn't a case of being able to creatively make up my own adventures for the superheroes is evident from the fact that, with comic characteristics, I could simply have drawn the new adventures (and did that, too). That wasn't enough. Everything hinged on the three-dimensional tangibility factor. Once I had a painted army man or a wire man or an action figure of Spider-Man, he was truly real to me. A longing was satisfied. As long as it was only on the pages of the comic books, it was elusive. Even now, for example, if I do not like the current line-up of the Justice League, I can do more than say, "I wish it still had these members." I can set up the three-dimensional realities and say: "There's the Justice League as far as I am concerned."
It is something like the fantasy of waking up from a dream and finding that you have somehow managed to carry away with you a token of the dream world. In fact, I would say that is just what it is to collect action figures, a miracle whereby the things of imagination become materialized. This is also why the books must be on the shelf, and the videos, too. Not as reminders but as anchors. Trapping the genie in the bottle.
The issue of whether to collect every action figure that comes out is a different one. I fight the temptation to collect figures that don't already mean anything to me, against the temptation to buy figures I don't value in themselves as a poor substitute for buying figures I wish were made but aren't (when are they going to make a Living Laser figure!?). I think I can control that. There are loads of figures I won't buy, not even when they go on sale. But when ToyBiz kindly manufactures the Red Skull or the Scarecrow, how can I not get it? Another member of my imaginary pantheon has emerged from Paper Limbo. And, again, being selective is more satisfying than being "collective." It scribes a higher value to the ones you have. You take greater pride when they are not lost in the shuffle.
I guess the attraction of action figures, including having customized ones made to order, is akin to the larger process whereby we fill our world with meaning and value by imposing fictive order onto it. We order our behavior in certain ways, decorate out environment in certain ways, make certain stories the map for our lives, etc., in order to make profane time/space sacred to us, to render cosmos from chaos, to give meaning to the otherwise mundane. Accordingly, for me to be able to rejoice at the sight of my superhero action figures is to live in a shrine of fictive meaning festooned with idols and icons of the gods of imagination. They are the tokens, the clutchable talismans of my fictive faith. I imagine that the same is true of John Skillin's movie posters and of Bob Jackson's video collection.
My wife Carol, on the other hand, does not feel the need to collect/stockpile anything. Another area where we differ is that she is remains pretty much impervious to all the crap in the environment that so infuriates me: commercials, stupid TV shows, idiotic fashions. It just goes like water off a duck's back for her, whereas I feel tortured to have these things impinge on me. I fight back with my cynicism. All this means that she is more adaptable, rolls with the punches, takes what comes. I, on the other hand, feel the need to control my environment more. To create my island world. By collecting, I am stocking my fallout shelter with provisions. She does not feel she is in a fall out shelter. She does not feel the need to hoard. There is plenty out there. There is enough available. If she likes a movie, she will be able to see it sometime or other. And if she doesn't, so what? There will be other movies. But I must own a copy of Psycho, The Dead Zone, Excalibur. For me, neither is the memory enough. I must be able to relive the past by reading that comic book again, and that means I must own it, control it. It is part of me. I don't want to be like Ronald Reagan's character: "Where's the rest of me?"
Robert M. Price
November 28, 1998