The Magic Of Wrestling Action Figures
I held Anakin Skywalker in my hands, and I felt nothing.
For the first time in my life, an action figure wasn’t anything more than a cheap piece of plastic. His poorly molded head stared up at me, devoid of magic. His unarticulated arm was stiff to make room for a lightsaber that would go in and out of the hilt that extended from his hand; the kind of lazy gimmick I always hated, even as a little kid. Toys with “Chop action!” buttons, bells, and whistles assumed I didn’t have an imagination. His fixed pose felt like an insult to my intelligence.
My mom sat next to me in the car, watching me open two more figures inspired by Attack of the Clones: a similarly stiff Obi-Wan Kenobi and a tiny Padmé Amidala. We were in the parking lot of Wal-Mart - our custom during these sacred action figure openings. I even got out of school early to make sure I could get the best ones before anyone else.
I wasn’t sure if I was just finally too old for this (at fifteen), or if the quality of standard action figures had depreciated drastically in the past few years. Either way, I knew it just wasn't working and that something very precious had come to an end.
My mom knew it too. We drove home in silence.
From then on, action figures and toys all meant something very different to me. They were relics from the lost civilization of my kiddom. They marked not just the passage of time, but the inevitable, unexpectedly rapid decline of a once thriving society. I saw in all the Batmen, wrestlers, Jedi, Sith, Ghostbusters, Army Men, Ninja Turtles, and GI Joes a joyful belief-system that had excommunicated me.
From ages three to ten I had been fluent in the language of action figures. They were a portal into pure imagination; a means of continuing the stories I had seen in films and cartoons or a way of inventing my own stories.
I hated sharing my toys with other kids not because they were “MINE!”, but because all the kids I ever met seemed to think “Playing” meant smashing plastic together. For me, playing meant inventing narratives that existed entirely in my mind. Very little smashing ever went on. It was about manufacturing resolution by mimicking conflict. It was a kind of meditation before I even knew what meditation was. Nothing could bother me in that place because it was a place of my own making.
It's easy to forget that kids don’t have much control over anything in their lives. I found my control in action figures.
When I lost the ability to speak that language in 2002 after opening that Anakin Skywalker, I wasn’t just growing out of a hobby. I wasn’t even simply “growing up”. I was losing one of my controls. It felt like a part of my body had fallen off, an appendage that allowed me to flex a very specific creative muscle. And it was a muscle that needed to be flexed. It couldn’t just go neglected, and be easily forgotten without repercussions.
As I continued into my teens, I started writing, making short films, and finding other ways to stimulate my mind. But such efforts felt (and still feel) like chipping away at the rocky caverns of my consciousness. There’s a lot of joy in that process, but it’s heavy, and riddled with unstable veins of pathos. Nothing else replicates the magic and ease of action figures.
I refused to let go completely, though, even if it meant being constantly reminded of what I’d lost. When I went off to college in 2005, I took a single Batman action figure with me; Christian Bale’s Batman from Batman Begins. He would sit on my shelf, staring down at me as I read books and wrote papers, containing within him the histories of all the action figures that had been left behind. And, occasionally, my brother or mother would surprise me with an action figure on a birthday or a Christmas, a kindhearted allusion to a simpler time. I would receive them with melancholic thanks.
This pattern persisted throughout my early and mid-twenties. I purchased The Dark Knight version of Batman and then The Dark Knight Rises version of Batman, all for “old time’s sake”. These figures were, at the very least, better constructed than that heartbreaking 2002 Anakin Skywalker. These Batmen were 6 inches tall, well articulated, had cloth capes and wore the spitting image of Bale’s crinkly mouth. I still didn’t feel magic radiating off of them, though. I only felt an obligation. In that obligation was the maintenance of a very old, dim fire that I never believed could be reignited.
Then, in 2014, I started watching professional wrestling with a newfound enthusiasm. The WWE had always been a fixture of my life, but in that particular year I leapt headfirst into the internet wrestling community. I started my own blog and expanded my weekly Raw Review (which was already two years old at that point). I wrote SmackDown reviews and NXT reviews and analytical columns that represented precursors to the kinds of articles I now publish here on Work of Wrestling.
I started listening to The Art of Wrestling and The Steve Austin Show, and I discovered a vibrant and exciting community where I could channel my creativity in a new and mutually beneficial way. I caught the eye of some of my favorite wrestlers and was encouraged to keep working from one goal to the next. I started my podcast, learned the ropes of social media, and carved out a nice little niche for myself within the niche that is the pro-wrestling community.
In those two years of developing Work of Wrestling, no event had made as strong an impression on me as Sami Zayn winning the NXT Championship.
That moment, and his subsequent victory promo "The Music", epitomized everything I love about pro-wrestling and everything I love about that character. He was a good person in a world of wrong, sabotaged time and again by his own goodness. In the end, by remaining true to himself despite everyone telling him to change, he proved the world wrong and overcame all the obstacles. He proved that you can, in fact, do things "Your way!"
It was the kind of cathartic moment in fiction that teaches us to keep fighting in reality (even though we may doubt whether or not we're strong enough to do so).
I wanted to find a way to make that experience less fleeting. I needed to find a way to remind myself not just to “keep going”, but that magic, of any kind, can be found again, even in the wake of disillusionment.
I thought, “What if I bought Sami’s action figure?”
I was hesitant to do so, because I didn’t want to unwittingly recreate that day in the Wal-Mart parking lot. I didn’t want to force a feeling that I desperately wanted back upon this poor piece of plastic. But still, I figured, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like it’s going to change anything if I still feel nothing. I'll just be right back where I started.
So I bought Sami’s figure from Ringside Collectibles, and in a few days he arrived. The package made me smile (it’s always exciting to get a package no matter how old you are). I ran upstairs to my apartment, sat down at my podcasting desk, and gingerly removed him from the plastic wrapping.
I held Sami in my hands and I smiled. I clipped the to-scale NXT Championship around his waste, and marveled at the attention to detail. The effort of the artists who made this action figure was immediately apparent. Everything from the flecks of chest hair painted on the torso to the “Let’s go!” expression on his face to his left hand being closed in a fist demonstrated the kind of care and consideration I’d always wanted to see in an action figure.
Rather than do the work for me, the designer correctly anticipated the sort of poses I would naturally put him in.
Something that had been missing for fourteen years suddenly returned.
While I didn’t feel the exact same magic as I had when I was a child, I felt something similar; an evolution of that magic. No longer did an action figure represent a world of play and imagination that I could not access.
This Sami Zayn action figure memorialized a feeling hope.
The artistry and beauty of the figure itself was born out of that joyous Championship victory. The Moment of Pop I experienced when he finally won that title is forever contained within this figure. He stands at the edge of my desk, even as I write this, always in that moment of victory.
Everything Sami's NXT run meant to me, at a time when I really needed some hope, is visible in the expression and articulation of this figure.
Realizing this meant that I could find new joy in something I had always loved, but lost. This meant that action figures didn’t need to be “childish things” that time had forced me to put away. This meant that I hadn't forgotten the language of magic, after all.
Rather than reminders of the beauty that was lost, actions figures became reminders of the beauty that persists. I quickly discovered that I was not alone in this perspective, that collectors are everywhere and that there are artists and craftspeople whose sole purpose is to bring beloved characters to life. These artists are people who understand what it is you’re looking for in these figures.
You don’t want plastic to smash together. You want memories, thoughts, and emotions made manifest.
Naturally, Sami's figure was just the beginning.
Over the course of the past year and a half, my collection has grown. They stand as a group, each figure representing a particular emotion or specific moment of significance. It's impossible not to smile when I look at them, because it appears as though they're having a massive, never-ending party.
They are my very own little wrestling museum.
THE COLLECTION FROM JANUARY, 2016 - PRESENT
I imagine that they are all posing together for a photograph that is always being taken by the past, present, and future versions of myself. The collection will expand, I’m sure (Jericho with his list and scarf is already on the way), and I will have to create new spaces to accommodate them. And the magic they represent may continue to evolve into something beyond my ability to predict. But they are here to stay.
They are pleasant passengers accompanying me through life, their permanent smiles and grimaces solidifying their accomplishments and the joy those moments inspired in me. For that, I am grateful to the artists who make it their business to create this magic, from the real-life Sami Zayn to the toy-makers who breathe life into plastic.
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