AS A 37 year old person living in the year 2014, I think it’s fair to say that my generation is taken with the idea of “retro,” in particular the appropriation of symbols and objects from a bygone era and their reintegration into our current one. Whether it’s the adoption of fashions and styles from a time period we didn’t even live through, or the elevation and revivification of images from our youth, retro plays a part in our communal imagination.
In my case, my relationship with retro tends toward the images-from-youth example. While writing this I’m wearing a t-shirt of a mixed martial arts star who was popular during my 20’s. My kids are watching a cartoon where characters play video games, not represented as contemporary, photo-realistic Blu-Ray affairs, but rather as 16-bit cartridges played with wired controllers. I have action figures of 1980’s and 1990’s WWF stars standing on the mantle in my living room. There are plastic pink flamingos nestled among the basil plants in my garden.
As I’ve gotten older and retreated to life with my nuclear family, I find that I’ve become more attached to these retro objects and images. An average “off” day for me consists of playing with or alongside my kids, them manipulating objects and images from their own, current childhood, and me manipulating objects and images from mine. Sometimes I wonder if I’m now that aging guy who refuses to accept anything new and insists upon the fictional purity of the “good old days.” Other times I wonder if I’m a horribly arrested adolescent, living forever in a “my mom’s basement” of the mind.
If I really stop to think about it though, I realize that for geeks like myself who grew up in the monotone, latchkey suburbs of 1980’s North America, there wasn’t a whole lot to grab onto. There was no art or religion, at least not in any significant sense, in fact there was very little of significance at all. There was the walk or bus ride to school, the school day, the walk or bus ride home, some TV after school, rinse and repeat.
It’s no wonder then that in the absence of the elevated or the sacred, we had to do our own elevation. Science fiction, action films, and pro wrestling became our mythology. Video games and comic books became our sacraments. And when I think about it this way, it makes sense. Having withdrawn in many ways from the larger, outside world of macro-socialization to the inward, micro-quietude of family life, I start to see that the junk I surround myself with works to bring focus and rhythm to a life that is repetitive without being boring.
So, like icons or mandalas to a monk then, physical and virtual retro junk are the objects and ideas that frame and anchor my own hermetic reality. They help me filter out the noise and nonsense of the “real world” with the noise and nonsense of a fantasy world, ultimately allowing my own personal/familial world to become more real than anything presented as “real” on a macro level.
In an interesting plot twist though, the ever-forward lurching movement of our “real world”–the very movement that makes today’s prograde tomorrow’s retrograde–has, in the last 15+ years, afforded those of us who see the world through a retro junk lens with unprecedented ways to share and weave together our own junk art tapestries.
The “internet community” (for lack of a better term) is now a hotbed of retro musings and sharings, chock-full of content providers doing their best to help us fantasist geeks live out our inner-lives of Atari logos and pixelated graphics.
Among these like-minded folks, one of my favorites is none other than “IseeRobots,” the curator of iseerobots.com, the I See Robots Facebook page, and now contributor to the Retroist. IseeRobots and I worked together at a United Artists movie theater back in the mid 1990s. I lost track of him after my employment at the theater ended, but once the era of Google and its attendant stalking capabilities came to be, I found his iseerobots.com website and became a fan of his web presence.
In his thoughts on mundane affairs, presented against a backdrop of 80’s and 90’s nostalgia, I found a comforting commonality: knowing, for instance, that there was someone else in the world who saw, remembered, and cherished the memory of Scott Steiner’s “broken toys” promo on the 4/19/99 episode of Monday Nitro brings a certain amount of sensibility to an otherwise senseless world.
As mentioned above, IseeRobots is now contributing to the Retroist website. I don’t know much about the site, or how IseeRobot’s relationship with it came to be, but I’m glad he’s found a platform for his work. One of the things I really admire about IseeRobots is that, while my own retro existence is mostly confined to memories or virtual representations of old things, he actually has the drive and knack for finding the legit goods. He’s constantly unearthing cool old junk and then sharing images and thoughts on it for geeks like me who get to benefit from an armchair position.
And so it was both an honor and somewhat intimidating when IseeRobots asked me if I wanted in on his Retroist Junk Box project. The Retroist Junk Box is literally a box of retro junk started, I think, by some folks associated with the Retroist website. The box has been making its way across the United States, where its caretakers have both taken from and added to its contents before sending it on its way. I was a bit nervous about having the RJB pass through Sensational Manor, because I don’t have a lot of cool retro junk compared to a dedicated scavenger like IseeRobots and I didn’t think I’d be able to bring much to the party. But then I figured, hey, chill out, enjoy the experience and have fun with it. And that’s exactly what I did.
When the box arrived on a Saturday, I’d been expecting a sticker-festooned rectangle of battered cardboard, but instead I found a crisp, clean USPS box with a Spiderman logo waiting on my doorstep. Turns out the original box met its demise during a previous stop, but its caretakers soldiered on by including the deconstructed box inside the USPS vessel.
After having to set it aside for a bit while finishing some chores, I finally opened it up and got my first glimpse at its contents in all their glory. Sitting on my living room floor, passed along the country by a chain of fellow fantasy-world aficionados, was a tangled nest of plastic, cardboard, newsprint, and wax paper that would be at home on display in any modern art museum in the country.
Thankfully, however, rather than wasting away in the staid confines of an institution, the Junk Box has been displayed in the only way fit for its brand of underground performance art: passed hand by hand among the very people whose shared memories give this junk its meaning.
The first thing I checked out were the action figures. Action figures have always been the linchpin of my interest in retro junk, starting with the first one I ever received: a Kenner Obi Wan Kenobi figure. On hand in the RJB were the following:
From left to right, we started with an obviously pro wrestling oriented figure that FOR THE LIFE OF ME I COULDN’T IDENTIFY. This really put me in a twist. If there’s anything I should be able to identify right off the bat, it’s a pro wrestling action figure. I puzzled over who he was for a few minutes until I turned him around and saw that he had “Haas” written on his trunks. I’m guessing he must be Charlie Haas then. To be honest, I tuned out of wrestling around the time that Charlie Haas entered the scene, and though he was still doing his thing in Ring of Honor when I started watching again, he certainly wasn’t a bearded, full-maned Damien Sandow looking mother like this doll. He was more of a balding, goateed fellow. Oh well, the trunks don’t lie.
To the right of Mr. Haas, we have an action figure of Michael Knight, handler of the infamous talking Trans Am KITT in the television show Knight Rider. As a young child I was OBSESSED with Knight Rider, but interestingly I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of the show. Regardless, I logged plenty of hours pretending to drive KITT around my backyard in 1982. Additionally, a few years later a school chum informed me that there was a 1-900 telephone number you could call where a revamped KITT would tell you about his new features and abilities, and I proceeded to call this number about fifty times just to hear KITT’s voice. It wasn’t a great scene when the phone bill arrived.
Next to Michael Knight we have a Robin Hood action figure, or, more specifically, an action figure of Kevin Costner portraying Robin Hood. This is kind of a weird one. I vaguely remember the Kevin Costner Robin Hood flick. I don’t think I ever saw it, but I saw the Bryan Adams music video from the soundtrack about a million times. Were there really kids in the early 1990’s who wanted to play as Kevin Costner-Robin Hood? Seems iffy, but then again I was all about playing as Billy Dee Williams-Lando Calrissian a decade earlier, so to each their own.
Then we have a red Power Ranger (not much to say about this one, as Power Rangers reached their zenith in the US after my time), a few little Alf characters (never really got into Alf, myself), a kind of dweebish Penguin in a baroque vehicle (just wait for the wind-up action to wear off, Batman!), and then an awesome little E.T. figurine that was part of a set I had as child. This is E.T. wearing woman’s clothing, I think from when he was kicking it home alone at the humans’ house in the film of the same name.
Moving on, those who read the “Mr. Sensational” Gino Vega blog might remember a piece I wrote on collecting comic books when I was a kid. This next item is a relic directly from that era and one that speaks to my previous entry. In 1986, Marvel comics decided they were going to launch a “New Universe.” It was basically an excuse to release a bunch of “first issues” for marks like me to swallow up thinking they would be worth MILLIONS OF DOLLARS some day in the future. It was kind of like being around for the launch of the original Marvel Universe! Except this time it was the New Universe! And this time we were alive to experience it!
And yeah, this time it also totally blew. The New Universe was one of the lamer comic book happenings I’ve ever experienced. I still remember sitting at my desk in 4th grade, flipping through this very issue of Star Brand and having to admit the truth to myself. I don’t remember a thing about the title other than the cover and the fact that it sucked. I think the New Universe was supposed to be all about “realistic” characters. Like, not superheroes, but like normal people given superheroic powers, but come on guys, we read this stuff for the spandex and the grandiosity! Get a grip! Still, fun to relive some memories with this cover.
Probably the coolest trip down memory lane that came out of the RJB for me though was this clutch of old Atari 2600 game cartridges and, more importantly, a 2600 game catalog.
Video games are a big part of my life. They’ve all but replaced films/motion pictures as my primary form of multimedia entertainment and edification. And, being my entry point into the genre, the Atari 2600 will always hold a special place in my personal history, despite seeming pretty archaic/jank even when it was brand new.
I still remember the hope and promise I felt thumbing through those little red catalogs, looking at all the titles I might someday get to play if only the stars aligned correctly. While the games pictured above were pretty standard in most fools’ 2600 collections, it was the likes of the games below I always wondered after:
One of the things that really defined the 2600 experience though was the art used on the game covers and in these catalogs. The strange, dreamy, realistic paintings were a far cry from the crappy sticks-and-blips graphics of the era, but they perfectly illustrated the contrast between the graphics on the screen and what went on in the player’s imagination. Take Pele’s soccer for instance:
As far as I remember, the graphics in this game were the standard 2600 hideousness, but in my mind, when playing the game, I was manning an army of 1970’s looking dudes, feathered hair and handlebar mustaches blowing in the wind as we kicked the ball with Pele down a sweltering Brazilian soccer field. JUST LIKE IN THIS PAINTING. In any case, thanks to the Retroist Junk Box project for bringing it all back.
In the end, I neither took anything out of the Retroist Junk Box nor added anything in. My house was the last stop for this box (I think a new one is going to be starting up soon), so I figured I’d just let it rest in peace. I’d like to thank IseeRobots and everyone from the Retroist for bringing this project to life and letting me in on it. Hopefully I’ll be able to worm my way into the next one. Either way it was a fun experience, sparking memories of the past from a point in the present, while making me look toward the future. And that, in my opinion, is the whole magic of retro junk. May the rest of you out there enjoy expanding your own personal horizons with whatever talismans you hold near and dear. Till next time!