Fear and Loathing at the American International Toy Fair
I'm not quite sure what I was expecting when I accepted an invitation to attend Hasbro's portion of the 108th American International Toy Fair last weekend in New York. I think I subconsciously expected Mark Hamill and the guy who voiced "Flint" on the old G.I. Joe cartoon series to be greeters at the door. "Hi, I'm Flint," I imagined him saying, "Would you like to ride around in the V.A.M.P. with me?" Instead, upon arriving, I attempted to get into the spirit of things by tweeting a photo of a life-size Optimus Prime set up outside the convention center. A response came back: "Wait a minute. That's a truck." It was going to be a long day.
Don't get me wrong: the people at Hasbro put on what I can only imagine is a great Toy Fair. I just had no idea what a "Toy Fair" actually consisted of: A lot of talking about -- and cheering for -- sculptures of fictional characters that I've never heard of before. As a result, I was in way over my head and almost totally out of place -- right down to my media badge, one of the few in the venue that didn't include the word "toy."
"Really, you're here for Vanity Fair?" one attendee asked, followed by another... and another... and maybe five more. Indeed, I have been known to contribute to Vanity Fair's Web site (which explains the mix up), but it's not as if Vanity Fair is renowned for its legendary toy coverage. Movieline isn't either, for that matter, but being the VF.com reporter at a toy fair is roughly on par with covering a papal visit while wearing credentials from the Rhode Island Slut.
At first, an outsider assumes an air of superiority: "Only a nerd would know who or what that is. F*ck all you people." Then, well into the second hour of the lecture (the presentation ran two and a half hours), one resorts to a more conforming, "OK, just clap along when everyone else does, nod approvingly and pretend like you're taking notes." Finally one settles into numb astonishment: Was I really so wrong to think that a working knowledge of the six Star Wars films and a childhood collection of G.I. Joe and Transformers toys would be enough to make me feel comfortable -- maybe even an expert! -- at such an event? In fact, of the four presentations -- Star Wars, Marvel, G.I. Joe and Transformers -- I can easily hold my own in most bar conversations. (I'm not a very popular person to speak with at most bars). But this was another level altogether.
Let me put it this way: Do you have any idea who the hell this guy is?
His name is Nom Anor. According to Wookiepedia, he is a "male Yuuzhan Vong who played a crucial role in the Yuuzhan Vong War and was marked by his ambition, sense of self-preservation, doubt in the Yuuzhan Vong's gods, and skill in many fields." I have no idea what any of that means (is he friends with Lando?). But this very photo resulted in a round of applause that's usually reserved for game-winning home runs and/or Esperanza Spalding.
Soon afterward came Han Solo with the medal that he was given at the end of Star Wars. I giddily started clapping because, well, I know who that is. But apparently Han Solo is not niche enough to warrant the kind of mass Toy Fair adulation reserved for Nom Anor. He only helped blow up two Death Stars! It's no Yuuzhan Vong War, but still.
In addition to cheering products that no reasonable human being should be aware of, the group in attendance also demonstrated a lust for free stuff: During the Captain America presentation, grown men literally dove out of their seats in an effort to catch a Frisbee that resembled Captain America's shield. Their responses seemed ridiculous -- ridiculous, that is, until the next Frisbee was thrown from the stage in my general direction. It looked cool and I decided, at that moment, I just had to have one. It was not to be, but my experience with Captain America's shield was hardly over.
The G.I. Joe presentation followed and was even more frustrating. First of all, who the hell is "Junglebat?" What happened to Grunt and Rock 'n' Roll? Later, the presenter casually mentioned that Blowtorch (right) -- the Joe with a flamethrower -- is a "polarizing" character from the G.I. Joe canon. Polarizing? I mean, Glenn Beck is polarizing. This is a toy. Did Blowtorch's thinly veiled racism spill out when I wasn't paying attention? Or is he polarizing because I had actually heard of him?
After the presentation, I asked the speaker why he'd spread such inflammatory propaganda about Blowtorch. As it turns out, the presenter doesn't like Blowtorch's colorful suit. Ah. Wars have started over less.
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