Monday, December 12, 2011

I See Dead People

Dead Metal Toy Sudanese Mahdists from John Jenkins Co.

When I was growing up in Chicago in the mid-1960s my best friend was named Nancy Lee. I don't remember what her father actually did for a living, but I knew he dreamed of returning to his native Kentucky and settling into an academic career and writing about his life's fascination, the American Civil War; which at some point he actually did, ending my friendship with little Nancy Lee. Anyway in Nancy Lee's basement her father Jim had a huge collection of plastic civil war toy soldiers. They were made in pale blue and pale gray colors, thus despite the similarity of uniform and pose casting no doubt about which side they were meant to represent. He had everything spread out on a jumble of tables. There were plastic Southern mansions and plastic trees and plastic bridges and tiny cannons scattered about the clashing plastic armies. It was quite the scene, and I was quite jealous, never being invited to play with what seemed irrationally to my mind an adult man's toy. Nancy Lee, being very young and a girl to boot, was not allowed to do more than look at this awesome display. Her older brother was initiated into the mysteries of these toys, but he was much older than Nancy Lee or I, so I was never invited to watch her father at play either: I don't know if he rearranged the lines of battle by whim of mood, whether he made whooshing, booming, spitting sounds as he moved the figures about, or whether he was aiming merely for the perfect just-so arrangement of some historic moment in time.

Did I mention I was jealous? I developed quite a fascination of my own with little toy historical figures, some of which I have written about here before. In the end I eventually boxed up my own collection of little toy soldiers, giving most of them away. As I entered adulthood I occasionally and wistfully bought myself a little model soldier, evoking some childhood romance with history and adventure and lost innocence no doubt, but I never seriously contemplated becoming one of that rare and undoubtedly dying breed of gentlemen hobbyists, the adult toy soldier collector.

Metal Toy Dead Zulus from Conte Collectibles.

Which is not to say that I am not still fascinated by the idea of toy soldiers: capturing and miniaturizing historical violence without worry over the lives of real men, without the stain of blood or the curse of collateral damage. Over the years with the onset of the internet I was happy to discover that I could pursue that fascination voyeuristically, nostalgically (and economically) by window-shopping hobbyist websites; which I have done now for years.

Although I have not met such a person in my adulthood, there are apparently lots of people, presumably men, who do still engage in this time-honored hobby. Fueled in part by cheap manufacturing in China, toy soldiers aimed at adults seem to be quite a stable niche market. And unlike my youth when toy soldiers were mostly devoted to Cowboys and Indians, Civil War soldiers like my friend Nancy Lee's father had, knights in shining armor, and WWII GIs, today's toy soldiers seem to have reached all level of exotic historical subjects covering thousands of years of human history.

Plastic Toy Dead Sioux from Toy Soldiers of San Diego.

But I have noticed a trend, something that really creeps me out: toy dead people. Your plastic cowboys and plastic Custer and metal Redcoats can now be matched up with dead and dying little toy Indians in a variety of agonizing poses. Your tiny British imperialist highlanders defending your model of South Africa's Rorke's Drift can now be surrounded by "clumps" (not exaggerating, see above) and "piles" of toy dead Zulus. And your Four-Feathers-style British heroes heading off to rescue a tin version of General Charles "Chinese" Gordon in the Sudan can now avenge themselves against crumpling, dying black African Mahdist tribesmen. While as near as I can tell there is the occasional toy white corpse to be had, the overwhelming number of these toy dead people are black and brown. Indeed you can get dying toy white people being scalped by fiendish looking toy Indians, so you will need those piles of dead Indians for your act of proper revenge.

Metal Toy Dead Woodland Indians from Sierra Toy Soldier Co.

Sure, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men and all that. Gore is a stable part of fantasy: violent movies, violent video games, plastic guns, murder mystery novels. Why shouldn't toys based in the actual violence of history add a little realism? As far as I can tell it's not like these items are aimed at children, as if in today's world one could keep images of violence from kids anyway. I played with these things and I'm a pacifist. But I remain unsettled.

Why in this virtual body count is black and brown "life" so cheap? I suppose it could be argued that an abstract hobby is coming to terms with the real, genocidal costs of the history being reenacted in miniature. For sure to reflect anything like real history you'd need to match up your pile of tin cowboys and redcoats with a mountain of dead tin Indians. But it feels so.... disrespectful.

I mean, can you imagine the outrage at little toy concentration camps with little toy skeletal Jews and miniature gas chambers? "Oh here's my little dead Great Grandmother Esther...look at the fine detail! Doesn't she look real? And see the tiny armband with its precious little star?" It's bad enough that there are indeed little tin Nazis: there is a questionable leap of taste if I've ever seen one. But isn't it damning that there aren't model "clumps" of Holocaust victims to match the molded puddle of imaginary exterminated Africans?

I'm not seeing that same nostalgia here that used to conjure up excitement in what remains of my little boy heart and imagination. It's impossible given the tenor of the times to not wonder if the nostalgia being conjured up by these "toys" isn't nostalgia for a time when white people were happily conquering the world in the name of manifest destiny, Britannia ruling the waves, and that historical favorite of white people, the noble pursuit of civilizing the "savages."

I can't look at these miniatures as toys anymore. I see dead people. Maybe time to put away childish things, eh?


  1. this is quite fascinating. i never had any toy dead people in my cowboys and indians set. or my x-men figurines.

    interesting indeed.

  2. I may have 'selective' memory, but I don't recall any dead figurines in the various sets I had as a kid. Weapons yes, guns and bows and arrows, but I guess the ultimate outcome was left to our imagination.

    I had a set of Lincoln Logs, I loved building all sorts of scenarios and enjoyed having people to add to the mix.

    Gad, I'm 73...almost a century ago, but 'imagination' was a big part of play. On occasion when I see the kids video games today it doesn't leave a lot to the imagination.

    I once read that the military uses these games to desensitize young recruits to killing.

    I'm sure there is a percentage that go into the military as 'killers', small I would image or at least hope for. The reality that we can actually turn humans into killers makes me sick to my stomach.

    Funny as in odd, that we don't really want to know the reality of war. Just give us a death number occasionally but don't ever tell us what really goes on behind the number.

    I think if people knew the truth of war they would think differently about it...

  3. Perhaps there's a marketing opportunity freebones?

    Annie, nicely summed up. (I loved Lincoln logs too!)